Adoley and her husband Mike (not their real names) attend one of Ghana’s mega churches. Both are university graduates. She is a seamstress and owns a small retail shop. He is an accountant.
The couple live with Mike’s family, where Adoley sometimes feels she’s blamed for the couple’s childlessness after having three miscarriages.
When they visited our home in Accra one Sunday in December 2015, Adoley complained about a few things, such as Mike refusing to carry her handbag in church while she went to the bathroom, because – as he explained – “a man doesn’t carry a woman’s bag”.
This anecdote points to a bigger story about the church in Africa today, and the messages that some of its influential male leaders promote about masculinity, marriage and gender roles in society more broadly.
‘Men of God’ are powerful
Churches also carry out important social functions the state has neglected. They are involved in addressing HIV/Aids, building hospitals and establishing universities. This kind of work – sometimes called the “social gospel” – makes the church much more than simply a religious space. The modern African church promises a life that is abundant and prosperous – both spiritually and materially.
African church leaders – the bishops and archbishops, prophets and overseers, pastors and deacons, benignly referred to as “men of God” – are powerful. Their teachings have a wide reach that is not limited to Sunday mornings and mid-week services. There are TV and radio programmes, audiotapes and books, international branches and YouTube videos that reach a wide audience beyond their own congregations.
They are also influential voices on gender issues. Jesus’ social gospel subverted gender cultures – and actively sought to challenge injustice in general. There are several examples of Christ’s counterculture behaviour when it comes to his relationship with women. Women were generally viewed as the cause of men’s sexual sins.
To prevent Jewish men from yielding to temptation, they were instructed not to speak to women in public, including their own wives. Not only did Jesus speak to a woman in public; he dared to touch them in public.
These perspectives are not sufficiently evident in the messages preached from mega church platforms across the continent today. When it comes to the question of gender, injustice seems to have intensified in the church
Problematic messages about marriage
Archbishop Duncan Williams, founder of Ghana’s Action Faith Chapel International, caused a stir in 2014 when he told women: “It’s a privilege to be married … Sister, when you get married, be thankful and stop misbehaving … It doesn’t matter how pretty and beautiful and intelligent you are; until a man proposes to you, you are going to stay beautiful, pretty, intelligent, nice and whatever, and rotten.”
Not long afterwards, Bishop Dag Heward Mills, founder of Ghana’s Lighthouse chapel, mocked Ghanaian girls for their inability to cook, saying that they were “less than 10% of what we want”.
In his book Till Death Do Us Part, Bishop Charles Agyin-Asare, founder of one of Ghana’s mega churches, responded to the issue of abuse in marriage, writing: “You are not the first woman to be beaten by your husband, and you will not be the last… Rise up with the Word of God and use your spiritual weapons… Keep going to church, listen to tapes, pray, notice the blessings around you, keep your vows.”
Women, in this discourse, have no value outside of marriage. And they have no value within it beyond providing domestic services. Women carry the responsibility for keeping the marriage intact, even at the cost of their personal well-being and safety.
These pronouncements can have a profound impact on women’s position in marriage and, given the importance of marriage in African cultures, on gender relations more broadly.
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