How the Gospel Speaks to Gender Roles in Uganda

Photo on Unsplash by William Stitt

Listen to an audio version of this article read by Eleanor Kwizera from Uganda

I was born as a Ugandan male, but born again as a Christian. Our national motto is: “For God and My Country,” but in practice the ethical foundations of our society and institutions in Uganda are not rooted in God’s ethics but in cultural traditions. 

This is especially evident in how we understand the relationship between women and men, or gender roles. These vary from place to place and according to culture, so to assess them we need to turn to God’s Word. We need to allow the Bible to shape our ethics, no longer being conformed to our world (Romans 12:1-2).

The Bible challenges us to radically transform our attitude to gender roles, even if this contradicts our cultural roots.

The Bible challenges us to radically transform our attitude to gender roles, even if this contradicts our cultural roots. We must approach the Bible willing to be corrected by God and therefore no longer being controlled by those around us but rather by the one who made us.

At Home

In the Buganda culture in which I was raised, women are traditionally expected to care for, raise and discipline children, run the household, do laundry, cook meals and clean the house with little or no input from men. Feminine responsibilities extend to fetching water from the well and sourcing food for their families.

Women are typically strong and tough from the manual labour tasks like carrying water, farming livestock and walking for miles for food and water, often with more than one child on their back. Any assistance is counted as a privilege as the almost unbearable load is carried while she raises the children.

The man is assumed to be head of the family in Uganda. Even though men happily acknowledge their headship and the privileges it confers, in practice they neglect their financial and fathering responsibilities. Fathers often waste valuable money on drinking while mothers struggle to feed and clothe their children with the little income they themselves earn.

Headship is translated as dominance and supremacy. Women are expected to be docile and subservient, while men use their headship role as an excuse to cheat on their wives without shame. Unfaithful husbands consider it their right to have sex with their wives as well as their mistresses. Refusal to use condoms exposes their wives to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Simultaneously women are treated with cruel suspicion. All the power and authority in relationships lies in the hands of men. 

These social norms have resulted in men not having nearly as much influence on children and forthcoming generations as women do, and mothers perpetuate the oppression by their own example.  Gender roles are assumed and accepted unquestioningly from one generation to the next. Young girls learn from watching their mothers and assume that women are subservient to men. Likewise boys learn from their fathers’ actions that men deserve absolute preference.

When we open the Bible, we find a theology for gender roles that is a blueprint for our homes, at work and in leadership, in our communities and relationships, regardless of our traditional or cultural norms. 

The Headship-Love Connection

After all that has been recounted above, you may be surprised to hear that I agree with the Bible’s clear affirmation that a husband is the head of his wife and a wife must submit to her husband. Though note that this headship is likened to Christ’s relationship to the church (Ephesians 5:23). Furthermore, Paul makes it equally clear that “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3).

This means Christian husbands are not given free rein to expect sex and service from their wives without any responsibilities of their own. They must clearly submit and are accountable to Christ for the way in which they lead their wives and families, just as Christ submits and is accountable to God the Father as he loves and leads the church. Abuse of headship and passive fatherhood is opposed to God’s directions for family relationships.

Abuse of headship and passive fatherhood is opposed to God’s directions for family relationships.

In Ephesians 5, Paul gives no license to oppressive behaviour but frames headship within the gospel of grace. Because of Christ’s sacrificial love it follows that Christians should “be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2). All Christians should submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).

Paul says that husbands should love their wives in the same way that Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, presenting her without stain or blemish, holy and blameless (Ephesians 5:25-27). He goes on to stress that a husband should love his wife as his own body, feeding and caring for her as though she were as precious to him as his own body. To hurt his wife is as absurd as wounding himself.

Living the Gospel

Christian’s on every continent, in every age, should live their lives on the foundation of God’s Word. We ought always to love one another as Jesus loves us (John 13:34). And part of loving one another is remembering that we are all created in the image of God, both male and female (Genesis 1:27). If this is true, it also holds true that men should learn to treat women as they treat themselves and other men.

Christian’s on every continent, in every age, should live their lives on the foundation of God’s Word

Husbands should do everything to build their wives up and enable them to be godly. Men should be willing to help women and take responsibility for leading their households, providing financially for their families, sharing the burden of childrearing and domestic chores, even if society deems it inappropriate for them to do so.

This is a life transformed by God not moulded by its culture.  Men and women should courageously live out what God has clearly laid out in his Word: “Each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Ephesians 5:33).

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