International Journal of Sociology and Anthropology Vol. 2(6), pp. 126-139, June 2010
Available online http://www.academicjournals.org/ijsa
ISSN 2006- 988x ©2010 Academic Journals
Full Length Research Paper
The role of women in the Church in Africa
Department of Philosophy Religion and Theology, Maseno University, Kenya. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tel: +254 722-77020, +254 733-703603.
Accepted 3 February, 2010
This paper gives a general view of the role played by women in African instituted churches. It touches
several roles of women in different instituted churches keeping in mind that there are so many African
instituted churches some will be used to represent the general role played by women. The paper also
will explain how women were viewed in the Old Testament, New Testament and Letters of St. Paul. This
will give a background as to how women have been prominent in the churches throughout history.
Interviews have also been conducted on the churches that could not be available this was to find out
the general role played by women. The paper will centre its emphasis on the role of women in the
African instituted churches, it will also touch some impediments that are facing women in some
independent churches such as the Nomiya Luo Church in Kenya. This church that tries to bar off
women from participation. This is caused by men's attitude towards women who are looked at as
inferior, incapable and are in perpetual pollution due to their nature of being biologically females.
Key words: Women, Church in Africa.
The theme of the woman is a particularly disputed topic in
contemporary political, theological and social debate.
Three relevant and universal documents declare the
fundamental equality of the human beings. The Bible,
The Vatican II and The Universal declaration of the
human rights. Let us see:
"All baptized in Christ, you have all clothed yourselves in
Christ and there are no more distinctions between Jew
and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of
you are in Christ Jesus" Gal. 3:28. "And you are all
brothers and sisters" Matt. 23:8.
The Vatican II
"Men are plainly not equal in physical, intellectual and
moral powers. But we should overcome and remove
every kind of discrimination which affects fundamental
rights, whether it be social and cultural discrimination or
based in sex, race, colour, class, language or religion. All
such discrimination is opposed to God's purposes. It is
really deplorable that the fundamental rights are still not
everywhere securely guaranteed as when women are not
allowed freely to choose a husband or adopt some other
state of life, or are denied educational or cultural equity
with men" Vat II. G. et Spes No. 29. The Universal
declaration of the human rights (1948).
"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and
rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience
and should act towards one another in a spirit of
brotherhood and sisterhood". Yes, but the reality is very
far from the theory. In all times, cultures, places,
religions, churches, among others the woman has been
considered as "a bun fruit". Why is it? Any woman will say
that is "irrational fear of the blood". Maybe Myths, beliefs,
and rocentrism, chauvinism, economy, traditions, religion,
psychology, philosophy and even biological factors have
contributed to this situation. The particular conditions of
the African woman, due to the singular traditions and
especial situation of this continent makes the gender
issue very attractive and defiant. Questions like
polygamy, cliteridectomy, levirate, dowry, barrenness,
super-valuation of the women's role of production -
reproduction, are very disputed not only among feminist
circles but among all society.
The objective of this study was to find out the role of
women in the church in Africa.
The information contained here comes from two sources: first,
library research and second, field research conducted between
January, 2003 and 2004. Primary data was derived from first hand
information through personal
questionnaire and document analysis methods. Primary data was
the core of our data, which was supplemented with secondary data
from relevant library data gathered from published books,
unpublished books, articles, government records, archival materials
and local dailies.
In this paper, there is only space to stimulate further reading and
investigation. Particularly I wish to draw the attention about the
interesting role that many women are playing today in Africa in the
realm of the literature, Theology and new religious movements and
taking advantage of this to help in the conscientization of many
people in Africa, both women and men.
African woman, who are you? Who do tradition and religion to
which you are ostentatiously the chief client say you are? Who does
society say you are? And you African woman, who are you, what
are you and who do you think you are? Before we enter into the
manner of Woman in African church we are going to see briefly the
situation of woman in other times and places.
Anti-feminism, an old problem
Eastern religions denied to the woman the human nature and
attributed to them an animal nature, Mythra's cult excluded radically
the women. In Greece, the things were no better. Aristotle stated:
"The female is a male which for some accidental reason did not
attain its full development". Euripides said: "The woman is the worst
of all evils". And Aulo Gellio affirmed: "The women are a necessary
The Jewish environment
The Judaism was openly discriminatory regarding women. Women
were regarded as incapable of bearing witness, they remained
excluded from essential religious tasks of men (as well) they were
unworthy of participating in most of the religious feasts, neither
could they study the torah nor participate in the sanctuary service.
The woman was obliged to a permanent purification-ritual,
especially in dates regarding with the sexual (Menstruation and
birth). For the Jews, the birth of a female was a misfortune, the
Rabbi Simeon said: "All are happy when a male birth but all are
unhappy when female birth". And the Rabbi Jicaq: "When a male
births, he brings peace to the word, he brings the bread in his
hands, but when a female births, nothing is coming with her".
According to Rabbi Jehuda (second century A.D.) Jews should
recite the following prayer every day:
interviews, observation and
"Praised be God, that he did not create me as a goy (gentile)!
Praised, that he did not create me as a woman! Praised, that
he did not create me as an ignorant person!" Hauke (1988:
78) in his book Women in priesthood.
Instructing the female sex in the torah was not considered
obligatory and was even seen in part as improper. Rabbi Eliezer
wrote (Around 90 A. D.):
"He who teaches his daughter the torah is like one who
teaches her dissoluteness … may the words of the torah be
burnt before anyone delivers them up to women".
(Billerbeck, Kommentar III, C. F. Leidopoldt, Frau). Women are
often placed on a level with slaves and children in respect of
fulfilment of certain command-ments. This, more than anything else,
attests to the inferior position occupied by women, as compared
with men, concerning the law.
"Each time that I beat my wife, she has to thank me because
she is closer to the Salvation".
The book of Ecclesiasticus 42, 9 – 14 says
"Unknown to her, a daughter keeps her father awake, the
worry she gives him drives away his sleep: in her youth, in
case she never marries, married, in case she should be
disliked, as a virgin, in case she should be defiled and found
with child in her father's house, having a husband, in case she
goes astray, married, in case she should be barren. Your
daughter is headstrong? Keep a sharp lookout that she does
not make you the laughing stuck of your enemies, the talk of
the town, the object of common gossip and put you to public
shame. Do not stare at any man for his good looks, do not sit
down with the women, for moth comes out of clothes and
woman's spite out of woman. A man's spite is preferable to a
woman's kindness: women give rise to shame and reproach".
Saint Thomas Aquinas Summa Theological I. Q. 92 affirms:
"Woman is an occasional and incomplete being, a
misbegotten male. It is unchangeable that woman is destined
to live under man's influence and has no authority from her
And in more recently times, a philosopher said: "woman has long
hair, but short ideas" (Arthur Shopenhauer, 1999:89).
CHURCH THEOLOGIANS AND WOMEN
1) You are the devil's gateway. It is you who plucked the
fruit of the forbidden tree. You are the first who deserted
the divine law. You are the one who persuaded him
whom even the devil was not strong enough to attack. All
too easily you destroyed the image of God, man.
Because of your desert, that is death, even the son of
God had to die. Therefore cover your head and your
figure with sackcloth and ashes (Tertulian on the 'dress of
2) Why must a woman cover her head? Because the
women does not posses the image of God in herself but
only when taken together with the male who is her head,
so that the whole substance is one image. But when she
128 Int. J. Sociol. Anthropol.
is assigned the role as a helpmate, a function that
pertains to her alone, then she is not the image of God.
But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself
alone the image of God, just as fully and completely as
when he and the woman are joined together into one (S.
Augustine on trinity).
3) As the philosophers says 'woman is a misbegotten
male'. Yet it is necessary that woman was made in the
first production of things as a helpmate. Not indeed as a
helpmate in any other works than procreation, for in all
other works, man can be more efficiently helped by an
other man than by a woman, but a helper in the work of
generation. The woman is in state of subjugation in the
original order of things. For this reason, she cannot
represent head-ship in society or in the church. Only the
male can represent Christ. For this reason it was
necessary that Christ be incarnated as a male. It follows,
therefore, that she can not receive the sign of Holy orders
(Thomas Aquinas. S. T.).
4) When a woman thinks alone she thinks evil, for the
woman was made from the crooked rib which is bent in
the contrary direction from the man. Woman conspired
constantly against spiritual good. Her very name, femina
means 'absence of faith'. She is insatiable lust by nature.
Because of this lust, she consorts even with devils. It is
for this reason that women are especially prone to the
crime of witchcraft, from which men have being
preserved by the maleness
maleficarum 5th century; Manual against witchcraft).
5) Eve originally was more equally a partner with Adam,
but because of sin the present woman is far inferior
creature. Because she is responsible for the fall, woman
is in state of subjugation. The man rules the home and
the world, wages war and tills the soil. The woman is like
a nail driven into the wall, she sits at home (Marthin
Lutero, 'on marriage').
The covenant of creation dictates a certain order, a
relation of priority and posteriority of A and B. He must be
A, he must be first. She is B, she must be second. He
must stay in his place. She must stay in hers. She must
accept this order as the right nature of things through
which she is save, even if she is abused and wronged by
the man (Karl Barth Church dogmatics).
It is the unbroken tradition of the Catholic Church that
women have never been admitted to the holy orders, with
which the orthodox tradition also concurs. Jesus Christ
did not call any woman to be part of the twelve, even his
own mother. The apostolic church faithfully carried out
this exclusion of women from priesthood that was
instituted by Christ. Moreover, it should also be said that
the maleness of the priest reflects the sacramental
mystery of Christ and the church. As a representative of
the head of the church the bridegroom, the priest must be
male. There must be 'natural resemblance' between the
priest and Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a
male (Vatican declaration, 1976).
of Christ (Malleus
WOMEN IN AFRICAN TRADITIONAL CHURCH
Africa's traditional society was not as fair to women as we
would like to think. Often they were used and handled like
personal property of men, exploited, oppressed and
degraded. In Africa often women have been treated as
"second -class" as portrayed in many African proverbs
and sayings. In most of these proverbs, women are
referred to as stoves, old cooking pots, large wooden
stirring spoons, hoes, cows, merino sheep, fields and
fires and even dogs usually with a derogatory meaning.
“Does woman speak in public?" "Is the woman
considered person?" "When are you going to make me a
babe?" "Woman is the devil's tail".
Therese Sounga. "The Christ event from the viewpoint
of African Women” states that. Women themselves seem
to accept this situation. When there is an unidentified
noise and someone asks, who is there? A woman
answers: "It is nobody, just me!"
In some cultures people think that it is not worth
educating a girl because later she will get married and no
longer belong to the family. In other groups after
husband's death, the woman is forced to marry one of his
brothers to get children in the name of the former
husband (Luo community in Kenya for example). Again
some women are forced to get married with men against
their will only because they can pay a big dowry. Inmost
parts of Africa women are still the property of the men
who father them or marry them. In some societies, it is
the uncle who holds sway over a woman's life. It makes
little difference any talk of women's liberation is met with
cynicism, hostility or ridicule.
In many African societies, the traditional role of woman
seems to be largely passive. African Theologian M.
Oduyoye exposes this problem as she writes:
"I did study of Okan proverbs (attempting) to
demonstrate that women fall victim of linguistic
imagery that socializes them to accept "their place"
in society and to view with caution any call for more
space Oduyoye (1990) in her book” Women
Tradition and the Church in Africa".
She observes that in the traditional communities of
Yoruba, (Nigeria) and Akan (Ghana), where gender
socialization is the norm, the strategy has distorted the
quality of human relations and it continues to deny the
parity between women and men or to accept female and
male as equivalent expressions of human being.
Odudoye study has led her to conclude that making
chauvinism is a problem in Africa, "and not created ... by
the arrival of Islam and Christianity, but, one that is an
integral part of our Africa world-view"
"Women in general are educated to believe that being
born female means to be born innately inferior damaged
that there is some thing with us. We are told that we are
needed as mothers, caretakers, cheap labour in the field
and factories. Due to women's low self esteem they
under rate themselves and leave leadership role to men.
The traditional way is that women do most of the work in
the church and in the society and men hold most of the
Talking about the female initiation rites a Mozambican
"They (Initiation rites) have a common purpose of
instilling an attitude of submission to man into
women's heart by making them accustomed to the
notion that they were born to take second place in
society. During the ceremony, the girls are told that
from now onwards their task is to procreate and
attend to their husbands and their homes and any
other task is forbidden for them. These initiatory,
surrounded as they are, by an aura of mystery and
religious solemnity have such a devastating
psychological impact on the girls that they are
mesmerized into a blind acceptance of the
indoctrination through a traumatic experience bound
to affect them for the rest of their lives".
There are also some cultural hardships that African
women experience. In African ethnic groups, there are
taboos which restrict women. For example, a woman
should not talk when men are having conversation. The
idea of female inferiority can be conveyed through
taboos. Certain foods, usually those high in protein are
reserved for men to eat. For example, Mbum women in
Chad did not eat chicken, eggs or game meat, Luo
women in Kenya were forbidden to eat chicken, eggs,
milk, sheep, rabbit and other game. In addition to
seriously affecting women's health, such taboos express
a male/female hierarchy. Other taboos surround sexuality
and purity. Menstrual blood is thought to be polluting.
Often female obedience is a lesson learned in female
Motherhood is a "traditional" way of defining the woman
status since a woman is woman only if she is a mother.
Women experience of being persons primarily in relation
to others - as a mother or as a wife predominates in
Africa. A woman's social status depends of these
relationships and not any qualities or achievements of her
Matriliny may give the impression of the structural
dominance of women in certain parts of Africa, but not
real power resides in the hands of woman. "African
depopulation on the one side has accentuated the
reproductive function of woman, on the other hand it has
made their participation in production necessary. Rarely
will a woman with all her individual and social exigencies,
be an item in official programs: she is always a tool,
never a person" Maria Rosa Catrufulli (1986) "Women of
Africa, Roots of Oppression".
Certainly, one can respond that African society
recognizes the woman's role as a mother, wife, educator
and nurturer. But it is clear that all these roles are
utilitarian, so much so a childless woman is generally not
highly regarded by those around her and indeed may be
regarded as having failed in her calling. How can one be
fully a woman without being a mother? Therese Souga in
her book. The Christ-event from the view point of African
Role of women in African church and society
A lot of twaddle, out of ignorance presumed, has been
written about the role of women in African church and
society. Their role has been reduced to children bearers
and little else and at worst to domestic workers!
Here is the truth
Ancient Africans believed that one of the reasons God
made a woman after making man, was that he wanted to
improve on his art. He wanted that art to reflect among
other attributes, physical beauty, intelligence, tenderness,
compassion, patience and tolerance. That God had tried
but miserably failed this combination in man. All he had
got were muscles, a bit of a brain and very little else.
Forget about beauty! Africans also believe that God knew
that man would be lost without a woman. That he would
be incomplete hence would only be a half human. In
modern times, the woman in Africa remains a powerful
figure. She is the essence of being and existence. A man
is not considered a man in Africa unless he has a woman
behind him. A home without a woman is looked down
upon and often the object of ridicule by society.
The home is also shunned by people because it is
considered unblessed hence cursed. Who in his right
mind would want to visit a home not graced by presence
of a woman? African would ask. Not all women in Africa
are regarded as mothers. Not in the limited sense of
bearing children, but in the larger sense of beings the
one's God blessed with the gift of continuity of the life line
and the linking of man with fellow man. A woman, who
even though may have not borne children of her own, is
often referred to as a mother in most African societies. A
man who beats up his wife is considered by society to be
weak in mind and utterly lacking in moral character. So
that crap that you have read about the woman in Africa
being a second class citizen is more than just that -
CRAP Chief Musamaali Nangoli (1990) in his book “No
more lies about Africa".
In traditionally African
undertakings are done conjointly by man and women.
The traditional priesthood for instance, embraces both
women and men each in his/her own right as a person
Teresa Okure (1985). "In some cultures, like the Ewe
culture of Ghana, women enjoy a much higher status and
respect than they do in the church which is supposed
contexts, fully human
130 Int. J. Sociol. Anthropol.
send to proclaim and be God's agent of liberation in and
through Christ of all oppressed and marginalised
persons". "In our African religious tradition women were
priests and ministered well to the community, why not
In many opinions such words of comparison as inferior
and superior are out of place in the African context, they
represent the importation of western attitudes into a
context to which they do belong. It may be confidently
asserted that it is more correct to speak of
complementary roles which African societies expect of
sexes in order to serve the greater purpose of enhancing
society's effectiveness. Account must be taken of the fact
that women in African societies do play diverse roles.
They may be queen-mothers, wielding considerable
influence in the state. They may be priestesses, being as
prominent as men in the conduct of religious affairs or
practitioners of medicine or mediums then there are
female deities whose role in society is recognized by both
sexes. The most significant of this is the earth goddess.
The fon of the republic of Benin have a dual significant of
this is the earth goddess. The fon of the republic of Benin
have a dual deity, Mawu-lisa. Being Mawu female and
lisa male". (A. Dickson. Theology in Africa, Pg. 64.).
Rosemary Edet states: traditionally women play vital
roles in religion and contribute their quota to the
community worship life. It is a bit confusing to talk about
the progress or regression of women's role in religion, be
it traditional or Christian, without some knowledge of what
women did in the traditional society. Suffice is to say that
in African traditional religion, the salvific ministry
associated with acts of healing, driving away evils spirits,
promoting fertility and encouraging success in life's
ventures was performed by priestesses and priests alike.
These persons who officiate at communal worship do get
professional training under tutelage of a chief-priestess or
priest of the particular deity. They like those in the
Christian ministry have been called by the deity. They
have to obey or face dire consequences. In African
traditional religion therefore, women professional occur
who can be equated to ministers, pastors and priests in
the Christian churches and they undergo a period of
training for their offices.
We would like to continue supporting this positive side
of the role of the woman in Africa but unfortunately it is
impossible because most of the observers and even
African themselves realize that a discriminative role of the
woman is a common reality. The above quotations do not
exonerate the African continent from the charge of
sexism. Let us conclude this section with Oduyoye's
“As to the religious role of women: much as I would
like to joining the chorus of voices that points out
women's prominence in traditional cults, experience
prevents me from doing so. Traditional African has
many cults from which women, some times even
girls are excluded and some whose practices
women may not even see. Granted there are
exclusive cults and rituals for women (widowhood
rites, for ex.) but I have yet to come across one ritual
that takes place in the daytime and that decrees that
no males should see it. In addition the supposed
ritual impurity of the menstruating woman places her
outside full involvement in religious ritual for almost
half her life" Oduyoye (1986) in her book "Hearing
and Knowing" Theological reflections on Christianity
THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN THE CHURCH
The role of women in the churches is a very crucial
section because of the roles of men and women in the
church are more clearly stipulated than in the Secular
World (Maina, 1995:11). This is because the church
seems to have dictatorial ideas than in the ordinary life
where women are taken for granted. David Crabtree on
the same notes states that women do comprise the large
majority of active church members and are the sustaining
force in the almost every congregation (Crab, 1970:19).
In that note, women cannot be ignored in their church
participation. Maina in her book states that church has
continuously been accused of supporting and per-
petuating the unjust social institution customs and myths
which the church itself should evaluate. One finds that
she (the Church) is more rigid than the secular society in
her approach to gender issues. For instance, the society
has opened up avenues for women to participate in any
sphere of the society which the church has still kept some
roles as men's roles. It is on that note that Crabtree
The church has given rise and supported the myths of
dependency and emotionality the nuclear family system
the all male Trinity. Crabtree, 1970:19.
In the early church the role of women was highly
recognized and appreciated. Women participated as
deacons, companions of Paul and other Apostles and as
apostles themselves (Rom. 16:7). Church leaders (Rom.
16:3-5) Church rulers (Rom. 16:1). Mary McKenna notes
that women's pastoral functions included teaching,
catechizing to other women and caring for the sick
(MacKenna, 1967:153). These pastoral works that
women perform are done even today by lay and religious
women; the world is emphasizing on equal rights and
some dignity of sexes should respond accordingly to the
situation where women play their role.
Mackenna continues to assert that women's role in the
structure of the church difficult though it may be to define
at times it's a real case based on the fact that she too
from the start received charism from the spirit of God
(MacKenna, 1969:154). Thus, they are all called to serve
the church irrespective of the sexes. All through the ages
the church has not been fair to women in its assigning of