Dear 100 Hour Board,
Is God sexist?
I don't think so. I believe he believes in perfect equality between genders.
-Sunday Night Banter
This is a question I've thought about a lot within the past year. And I'm still waiting to draw a really satisfying conclusion. There is one conclusion, however, that I feel pretty solid about: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints institutionally treats men as better than women. As Sheebs goes into in her answer below, there is a very stark power difference between men and women in the Church. Just one example of this difference in power and influence is the fact only men hold positions of authority over men and women. The dominant voice proclaiming doctrine on a general level is overwhelmingly male. Women tend to be taken less seriously than men within the Church, and Church culture pushes for women to ultimately defer to men. Women are supposed to be there to support men in their roles; their own roles are considered secondary, excepting motherhood. And while motherhood is incredibly important, I don't believe it is more divine/important than fatherhood in the eternal sense. Yet for some reason, fatherhood is not the sole acknowledged source of life fulfillment for men while motherhood is for women. I could go on, but I think you get the point.
Now that I'm going to shift my focus to a couple of things I've considered while mulling over this question, again and again.
A bit terrifying is how women are portrayed in all our books of scripture. Largely, they're not mentioned at all (this holds especially true for the Book of Mormon). And when women are mentioned, it's not uncommon for them to be referred to a man's possession, instead of people in their own right. Just this past Sunday, as part of the lesson, we read Zechariah 14:2. This scripture lists different awful things to happen to Jerusalem, and one of the items of that list is that the women of Jerusalem will be ravished. The fact that the women's fate is mentioned in connection with houses, and the physical city as opposed to the captivity of the people implies women are akin to possessions. Even going back to the account of Adam and Eve, Eve was given to Adam.
But the most concerning thing for me is the lack of anything solid concerning God the Mother. All our prayers are directed towards God the Father, and it's overwhelmingly clear that our Father is the one who is chiefly over us in this life, whereas, our Mother is... somewhere else. Presumably. Or She is a part of this life, but it wasn't important for Her to be openly acknowledged like God the Father.
The best answer I've come up with as to why there's this huge discrepancy in scripture and doctrine between men and women all the way up to the divine level is that for whatever reason, men are supposed to have dominance in mortality. I want to believe that women held dominance in some other stage that we can no longer remember. Even more, I have to believe that this dominance will NOT continue in the eternities. I have to believe that there's something not included in mortality that forms the bulk of women's divine roles. Perhaps mortality is intrinsically tied up men's eternal roles whereas women's roles mainly concern something else of equal import.
My comfort for believing thus is that when it comes to intellect and character, women are as intelligent and strong as men. In all the attributes outside the physical that make up a person, women and men are most certainly equal. Furthermore, all the times I've felt my Heavenly Parents, I've felt of their overwhelming goodness. And since sexism doesn't feel good in the least to me, I can trust that God is not sexist. At least, I can on good days.
So I guess my answer comes down to, I don't know for sure, and sometimes I'm downright terrified that God is indeed sexist, but for the most part, I'm going to trust that God the Father and God the Mother are not.
No. The God I love and believe in is not.
This got fairly involved for me, as it's an issue I care about (as I'd imagine many Latter-day Saints and other Christians do).
First, how are we defining "sexism"? Excuse me while I get a little bit textual, but I think this is somewhere that definitions, connotation/denotation/etc. really matter so that we can come to understand whether a God who does not always treat men and women identically is sexist because of that.
Merriam-Webster lists two "senses" (different meanings/definitions) of "sexism." (Note: they order senses based on first historical usage, not which is "correct" or "popular," for reference.) Here they are:
1: prejudice or discrimination based on sex
especially : discrimination against women
2: behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex
To break it down a little further, let's look at the key points in these definitions:
Prejudice tends to be pretty value-loaded: MW defines it as "injury or damage resulting from some judgment or action of another in disregard of one's rights" and has a few other senses (definitions) of the word that also focus on judging someone in advance or being irrational or unfair towards them.
So we can be pretty confident that we don't want God to be prejudiced because that's completely against having a nature that is perfectly just, which we know He has. We can also be pretty confident that God is not prejudiced because we know that "he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile."
To believe that God is sexist because He is prejudiced, we would have to have a concept of God that permitted him to be a) perfectly loving and b) perfectly just while also c) disregarding the rights of others or making preconceived or unjustified judgments. How do we know that this is not possible? Because, per Alma:
[T]here is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; otherwise, justice claimeth the creature and executeth the law, and the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God. But God ceaseth not to be God, and mercy claimeth the penitent, and mercy cometh because of the atonement; and the atonement bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead; and the resurrection of the dead bringeth back men into the presence of God; and thus they are restored into his presence, to be judged according to their works, according to the law and justice. For behold, justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved. What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God.
So, if God even permits a plan in which justice is not absolute, He literally stops being God. Since, to me, prejudice is inherently unjust, we can be pretty confident that God isn't unjust because of His nature. I'll note that this is an important distinction to LDS theology: God is God because he is good; it is not that good is good because God says so. Absolute truth of what is good exists independent of God. (See also).
What about discrimination, though? That's pretty similar. There are 3 senses of the noun "discrimination" in MW, and two of "discriminate." In considering what it means to discriminate in the definition of sexism, the different senses of the word split along a fairly clear distinction to me. Several of the senses refer to the ability to tell the difference between things, or the process of doing so. That's pretty value-neutral, and we know that it doesn't make someone sexist just because they can tell the difference between a man and a woman; using that sense would destroy the meaning of the term "sexism" by making basically everyone in the world (and God) sexist.
The relevant sense (of both discrimination and discriminate) is the one that involves judgment: discriminating by "mak[ing] a difference in treatment or favor on a basis other than individual merit" or "discriminating categorically rather than individually" or having "prejudiced....outlook, action, or treatment." That's what we're pretty sure we don't want God to do, and I think the same logic as above applies, mostly. God cannot be unjust, and it is my opinion that if God fails to treat us as individuals or treats us in a way that doesn't reflect our merits (when combined with relevant covenants we've made giving us access by proxy to the merits of the Savior), He becomes unjust.
Stereotypes of Social Roles Based on Sex:
This is, I think, a place where we really get into it. Does God behave in a way that fosters stereotypes of sex-based social roles? Does He encourage such conditions or attitudes? I think that there is a pretty solid answer to be made that He does encourage some of the roles themselves, though it's clear to me that God doesn't want us to stereotype people since that goes back to making unjust judgments about them. So, while I think it's worth distinguishing between divinely-supported roles and stereotypes of those roles, it does seem true to me that God encourages some gender specific social roles. The Family Proclamation, for example, is pretty clear about reinforcing certain sex-linked roles as the ideal in most scenarios (while recognizing that exceptions occur); accepting LDS doctrine leaves it pretty clear to me that there are roles which God approves of which are distinguished by sex.
So, you can make an argue that in a strictly semantic sense, God may be a "sexist" by one sense of the word, if you think that encouraging the continuation of certain gender roles as the general ideal necessarily contributes to the stereotyping of those roles. However, I think the deeper question here isn't about the nuances of the word "sexism," it's about the nuances of God's relationship with His daughters and whether/how it varies from His relationship with His sons.
It seems clear to me that God does view women as being different from men in important ways. While negative, damaging sexism has been rampant throughout history and has sometimes used religion as justification, this does not mean that all recognition of the difference between the sexes is bad.
Living in a time when we are blessed to have eliminated much (though not all) of the unfair treatment women have faced, I think it makes sense that it can be confusing to look at what remains distinct and ask "What about this? Should this also be changed?" Doing so allows us to increase our wisdom as we seek to consciously make choices about the way we treat others and the way we act, rather than simply relying on habit or custom without considering whether they reflect the divine qualities we seek to emulate. For example, if we look at our ward and notice that young women are not being proactively taught about how to deal with pornography the way the young men are even though Snapchat and other apps make it common in their lives, we should consider whether we are holding to inappropriate, old thoughts about women lacking their own sex drive, or about porn not being a "women's problem." If we are considering a new hobby and decide maybe we shouldn't because people will think it's weird that a girl does that thing, we can consider whether we're reinforcing stereotypes at the expense of our own enjoyment. It's good for us to look at things and be thoughtful. However, I believe that there are times where honest reflection can lead us to understand the validity of certain distinctions between men and women and their lives.
It's not my place to attempt to create an exhaustive list of differences between men and women which I think are "essential" and divinely-appointed, and I'm sure that if I made such a list many people would sincerely disagree with it. What I am grateful for, then, is the understanding that while God may distinguish between men and women, He is bound by nature to do so only in ways that will be eternally perfect in both justice and mercy. That does not mean that I can always understand everything or that everything always feels currently perfectly just and merciful, but it does mean that in this, as in other areas where I lack understanding of the Gospel, I can trust in eternal answers.
A long, possibly off-topic thought:
I'm a bit wary to make this analogy, because I am worried it will come across wrong. Accordingly, I'll try to explain myself clearly, but please forgive me if I fail.
Matthew 20 contains the following parable:
1 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.
2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
3 And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
4 And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
6 And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?
7 They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.
8 So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.
9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.
10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.
11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,
12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.
13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?
14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.
15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?
16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
My reluctance to bring up this parable may be fairly obvious: the typical interpretation of this parable is to relate to sinners who repent later in life to the late-arriving servants, while the early-risers are those who sacrifice for the Gospel throughout their lives, and in the context of this answer I don't want people to think I'm saying that women are a class of "lesser" servants.
However, I think there are other ways to be instructed by this parable, particularly if we can adjust the parable to permit for reasons other than laziness/idleness for late arrival.
- Perhaps the people who arrive early are those who are asked to make particularly large or difficult sacrifices for the Gospel - early-modern Saints who died or lost family members crossing the plains, or Abraham being willing to sacrifice Isaac. By contrast, the people arriving at the 11th hour are people like Anne, Certainly who have to reaaaaally sacrifice to make it through one or two more Sundays of 3-hour church with a 1-year-old. (I jest slightly).
- Maybe the people who arrive early are those who are able to give what looks like "more." Maybe Mitt Romney, paying comparatively huge amounts of money in tithing compared to the Certainly family is arriving at daybreak while we meander in after dinner. Maybe the gifted musicians of TabCaTS are there early while the special musical number I practiced for but that isn't that good is my 11th-hour contribution.
- Maybe the people who arrive early are those who are blessed with circumstances that make it easier to participate in the Gospel, as compared to the late-arrivers. Perhaps the daybreakers could get there early because they had a supportive family in the Gospel carpooling to the vineyard together, sharing snacks when the day got hot, and providing babysitting to take care of the kids left at home while the people arriving late didn't get the ward email and don't have a spouse that wants them to go to the vineyard and have really bad social anxiety about working in groups with people they don't know, and also have pretty bad chronic pain right now that will limit what they can do when they get there so is it really worth going anyways.
What I'm getting at here is that regardless of why the the laborers' contributions varied, God considered each one worthy of the agreement He made with their group. While the group who got there at the beginning of the day seem to think that their contributions were more valuable or more significant than the contributions of those arriving late in the day, the Lord considered the appropriate reward for all of His workers to be equal.
Sometimes there are gender distinctions (whether divine or cultural) that may feel like one gender has started working in the Vineyard ahead of the other, with late-comers getting the same reward. How you see this may differ: perhaps you struggle with understanding the "why" of certain male/female divisions supported by or not yet eliminated within the Church. Maybe dealing with this trial feels like your position in the Church is equal to someone drudging (emotionally, physically, spiritually, or socially) for an extra 11 hours a day. Then you only to get the same penny as the person who arrived after all the hard work was done and just did some tidying up. On the other hand: perhaps you struggle with the things men are asked to do that you aren't asked to do. Maybe it seems like you were waiting when the Lord chose the first set of workers, but you weren't chosen until the 11th hour and you don't know why.
I think there are those of us on both sides. I don't have all the answers to this, because sometimes I don't know why God acts in the ways He does and why His plan is the way that it is. I am comforted, though, by the instruction in love I receive from being a parent, a daughter, a spouse and a friend: all of these relationships bring me so much joy in my life, and my ability to love these people is so far from perfect. By contrast, God's ability to love me is perfect, and so is His requirement to, according to His nature. Because of that, I can trust that God will be just, merciful, and loving not only in setting up a plan for millions of men and women, but also in applying it to women generally and to one specific woman named Anne, C. God wants His daughters to inherit from Him as well as His sons, because (again) "all are alike unto God." I don't think that means He has to see us as identical, but I do think it means that He considers us all deserving of His perfect love and potential heirs of the Divine inheritance He wants for us.
Sum: While I do think that God has chosen to treat His daughters different in certain ways than He treats His sons, and while this can semantically be referred to as being "sexist," I think what is more relevant is knowing that God's nature requires Him (our Father) to be perfectly just and perfectly merciful, and that He loves us perfectly as a Father. Because of this we can trust that His eternal plan for His daughters will not unjustly give us less or require less of us because we are not men.
No, though sometimes we create God in our own (sexist) image.
-guppy of doom
I have struggled for close to 10 years about God and the hostility toward women I perceived coming from Him. As a teenager, I tried to force it out of my mind. In the first half of my twenties, I continued to try to keep it out of my mind but periodically had episodes of profound terror and sadness. Now I'm in the second half of my twenties and have tried to face these fears directly. To my surprise, following my dark thoughts to their logical conclusions has helped me. Here are some of them:
Dark Thought 1. Why is it that God created humans in such a way that men can easily dominate women physically? If He had a good reason for doing so, why did He not issue commandments to men that they not abuse this physical power differential? How could a truly good God set this whole mortality thing up knowing that so many women would be abused? If there is a good reason for women to be physically smaller, why hasn't God constantly been telling men to respect and not abuse women over the past few millennia?
Dark Thought 2. Why would God set up His church authority structure in such a way that women lack any real decision-making power? Some may argue that women are allowed to make decisions, but I think we can all agree that priesthood holders always hold veto power. Thus, ecclesiastically speaking, there is a power differential and women are still vulnerable to oppression and abuse within the church structure. The rest of the world is one thing, but to have this going on in God's church suggests that God really does condone it.
Dark Thought 3. Some people say God allows sexism because He is only meeting his people where they are at because the need to "further the work" (or whatever) takes precedence over establishing true equity between men and women. So what other horrible means to ends is God willing to put up with to achieve an end? Also, since when has God ever avoided stirring the pot by giving commandments? That would be out of character and I don't buy it.
A few possibilities that don't require any intellectual gymnastics come to mind as I contemplate my Dark Thoughts:
Possibility 1. God is not good. He is a cruel and sexist respecter of persons. He eats and drinks misogyny for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He hates women and wants them to suffer. Or, at the very least, He is ambivalent and capricious. All of those options are pretty bad.
Possibility 2. God doesn't exist. (Or maybe is indifferent.)
Possibility 3. God is good and He has been telling bad men to stop their despicable behavior. However, they have ignored Him and remade Him into a sexist idol in their own image using the physical and economic power that they abuse and the spiritual power they have usurped. One day, God will hold the silencers, oppressors, and abusers accountable for their selfishness and cruelty.
After I've gone through this train of thought, Possibility 1 seems unlikely. I don't believe in Zeus or that the Old Testament's portrayal of Jehovah is accurate. Possibilities 2 and 3 seem much more probable to me, and that is very comforting. We also have a precedent for Possibility 3 - New Testament Jesus. That's what I'm hoping for.
I defer to my answer to Question #91322. My feelings on this subject have developed a little, but I haven't abandoned the thinking I shared. I don't know how relevant gender will be in the eternities, but I believe we are learning something from it. I have appreciated that there are lines. They have helped me understand love in different ways. Motherly love sounds different than fatherly love, and I'm grateful to understand the qualities of each. However, I have also appreciated that they are fluid. When my dad died, and my mom had to act as our family patriarch, I was grateful that I could feel fatherly love from her and from men who were not my father. I can't help but feel like gender is to help us understand different functions of love.
To ostentatiously quote myself:
"Maybe the organization of the family and the church is just light being directed through a prism. I imagine someday being able to see individual colors without separating the light."
Relating all this back to the original question:
I think God differentiates sexes. Some might call that sexism. I think inequality is the fault of men, and the sorrow of God. I believe God loves men and women equally. I believe that because of the way God speaks to me. It is empowering and good. I think God controls less than people think. That's because I believe agency makes up a much larger portion of reality than we give it credit for. I think Satan is real, applies his influence through agency, and very possibly hates women in a very special way. Whether you take her literally or figuratively, remember that Eve is responsible for much of Satan's embarrassment and misery. He swore to make this life hell for us and God swore to protect us from that. I have felt both promises operate in my life.
The other writers have expressed so many of my thoughts and feelings so beautifully. I just wanted to direct you to this article, which talks about Eve and her true nature, because I personally found it incredibly empowering and enlightening. It really helped me feel validated in the struggles I sometimes have in a pretty patriarchal church, while giving me hope that things aren't actually supposed to be that way. I'm not saying that you have to have the same reaction to it that I did, but personally I found it helpful, so I wanted to pass it on.