Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Women in Combat: A Christian Perspective?

Julia K. Stronks


April 5, 2013

By Julia K. Stronks

In January of this year, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta cancelled the military ban on women in combat. Response to this move has been varied, and for Christians it has revived a gender debate. Are all men created differently from all women such that they complement each other, or has God created men and women in such a wide variety of ways that gender assumptions should be abandoned in public policy?

From one perspective the administration’s new approach is not controversial because it simply formalizes what has been happening for decades. Historically, women could not be assigned to fight on the ground.  This meant that they were barred from most infantry, armor and artillery units. But, for almost a century American women have served the military overseas in organizations like the Army Nurse Corps and the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). They did medical and clerical work, but they also were mechanics, pilots and radio operators, and they were often in danger.

Today, women make up 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel. At least 290,000 females have served in the combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq since 2003. And, war has changed—being in a combat zone means you face the dangers of combat no matter what your assignment. The fact that female soldiers did the work and faced the dangers of combat but could not be assigned to certain units kept them from advancing through military ranks.  This was one of the arguments that persuaded both Panetta and Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to support a gender neutral policy.

Christians’ reflections on this issue have been varied. Some emphasize that a Christian approach to public policy should not discriminate on the basis of gender, suggesting that if women want to participate in combat and have the ability to do so, they should be allowed the same opportunities as men. In a recent Christianity Today discussion, Old Testament biblical support for this equality proposition was identified in praise for Judith who beheaded a general, Deborah who led men in a victory over Canaanite forces and Jael who killed to help Israelite troops.

Others, however, say that created differences between men and women need to be reflected in public policy. Because King David’s protection of Israel models Christ’s protection of his Bride, some Christianity Today contributors argued that “the Bible consistently shows men protecting women, whether in home, church, or broader society.”  The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood emphasizes that God created males and females with different abilities and that this “complementarity” must be recognized by governmental authorities lest we harm creation in the way that Adam did when he failed to protect Eve in the Garden of Eden. 

As a political scientist and a lawyer I think this debate is significant as we talk about not only the military, but also health care, family policy and discrimination law.  But, as a faculty member at a Christian university, I also see that simply the presence of this discussion helps create a culture in which Christian women second guess their ambition.

In her compelling new book Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has noted that more than 30 years after female students made up 50 percent of college graduates in our country, men still hold an overwhelming majority of leadership positions in business and government. She argues that the reason women have not advanced in ways many of us expected is partially due to public policy challenges and family responsibilities that are not yet shared equitably between the genders as well as cultural barriers that discourage women from pursuing leadership. After Lean In was released, evangelical women critiqued it, but also praised it for documenting the ways in which “gender myths” keep women from being all that God has intended them to be.

Most men and women do not want to be in the military, and, of those that do, fewer still want to be in combat. But, for those women who have the ambition, ability and commitment to advance through military ranks, the establishment of a gender neutral policy is a great start. And, as the rest of us watch these brave women, I hope they will model for us the many different ways that God calls both men and women to work in the world.

—Julia K. Stronks has practiced law and is the Edward B. Lindaman Chair and Professor of Political Science at Whitworth University.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”