Christian Feminism: Friend or Foe? Part I

Gail Wallace

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Christian-Feminism--Friend-or-Foe-

A recent article warned Christian women (and men, in parentheses) that “Feminism Is Not Your Friend” and addressed a twofold question: Do Christians need to identify as feminist, and should they, given feminists’ supposedly anti-Christian baggage?

This is a question many Christians on both sides of the aisle are asking. (For those who don’t know, “the aisle” means the divide between Christians who believe the Bible teaches a spiritual hierarchy with men in leadership and women in supportive roles, and Christians who believe the Bible teaches that men and women are equally called to lead in society, church, and home.)

I wasn’t thrilled with the tone of the article. It came off as belligerent and flame-ish, possibly to get page views or, says the more charitable part of me, maybe because the author really is passionate about the subject. Either way, the article echoed some basic questions being asked by many: what is the proper relationship between Christianity and feminism? Should Christians call themselves feminists? Are those two terms antithetical? Even Christian egalitarians are divided over these questions. I should know; I identify as both, and spend time hashing it out with fellow believers.

I want to address these questions separately, starting with the first and most important. At the most basic level, I think the author, Matt Walsh, is asking what many people want to know: Is feminism necessary for one who is a Christian? Here’s a quote that seems to sum up his thoughts:

“But why argue over this? If you believe that women should have equal protection under the law — good. I agree with you. Almost everybody agrees with you. That belief just makes you a constitutionalist. If you believe that women possess an equal inherent worth and dignity — great. I agree with you. That belief either makes you Christian, or brings you closer to becoming one. All of the ground is covered, there is no need for feminism.”

In other words he’s saying isn’t Christianity enough? If Christianity teaches the basic dignity of all human beings, then isn’t feminism just a redundant title that comes with some baggage?

After all, he says, feminism wasn’t the first to reveal the worth and dignity of women:

“No, feminism did not reveal this. Christianity revealed it. Christ revealed it.”

I totally agree! Jesus treated women, even outcast women, like equals (John 4:7-27). He instructed Mary and Martha to learn theology alongside men instead of doing housework (Luke 10:38-42). He made sure the first evangelists were women (John 20:11-18). And he never breathed a word against women leading or ministering. So yes, I have to agree that Christ beat feminism to the punch by almost 2,000 years.

But it’s shaky logic to assume that we should therefore see feminism as a redundant thing.

I mean, the Bible reveals a lot about the human heart, but I don’t therefore see modern-day psychology as a redundant thing. The Bible talks about marriage, but I don’t therefore see marital counseling as a redundant thing. The Bible talks about living in an orderly way, but I don’t therefore see our country’s law as a redundant thing. Human ideas, concepts, and institutions can explore timeless truths in new ways—albeit imperfectly.

Even though feminism isn’t perfect, it fulfills a couple of important roles.

First, it helps reveal the aspects of sexism that we have become desensitized to. It brings attention to the subtle ways in which women are conditioned to step back, to shrink down, to obsess over body image, to acquiesce to men, to take blame, to accept second-rate treatment. The Bible is a great tool for observing that we are all “one in Christ” without gender hierarchy (Galatians 3:28), but patriarchy runs deep in our psyche, and the Bible doesn’t give us a blueprint of exactly how to root it out in every situation.

Second, feminism is an access point to the timeless truth of women’s dignity for those who aren’t religious. That alone should give pause to someone who believes that gender harmony is God’s plan for the world; feminism is taking that message to people who can’t get it directly through belief in Christ.

Third, Christian feminists and Christian egalitarians believe that large swaths of the church have got it wrong about gender roles. Many believe that the church doesn’t recognize or address sexism as it should. They believe the message still needs to be discussed, and since they are a subset and not the whole of the population, they will adopt that extra label and try to draw attention to what they believe—much the same way that a Calvinist will identify as such to show her beliefs about predestination and God’s sovereignty, or the way a Christian environmentalist would adopt the “environmentalist” label to show that he thinks Christians should consider the environment more.

I hope these examples show that all the ground is most certainly not covered just by the existence of Christianity as a dominant religion, and that feminists might legitimately see a niche for the movement to fill. If anything, you must have your head in the sand to not realize that women are still unequal in today’s world. In many countries they have virtually no rights and can be sold like chattel. Even in developed countries, it’s common for women to be underpaid, undervalued, stressed out, and told by their churches and their spouses and TV commercials that they’re not enough.

I find the claim that feminism has already reached its goal to be spectacularly unaware. And I’m not just picking on Walsh here; I’ve heard this from people inside and outside the church, all over the place.

And I want to pause on that word “aware”, because it sums up what I’m really trying to say. The reason feminism is not redundant is because it is an awareness movement. As Kate Wallace wrote previously in this beautiful piece, while gender equality is God’s timeless truth, feminism is one vessel that’s being used to get that truth out.

In other words, feminism is to God’s truth what a Breast Cancer Awareness rally is to the scientists who are working to find a cure. They are two different things. One is truth. The other is the messenger that allows you to see the truth. But they certainly aren’t in competition.

The feminist movement, like any other human endeavor, is not perfect. And yes, it is capable of being at odds with Christianity in certain facets. But it can still hold a great deal of truth, and many things about it can still be in harmony with my faith. That’s all I’m trying to say, really. Maybe a day will come where I feel like the movement has become all about things I disagree with, but, as Aragorn says, “It is not this day.” If someone else feels that it is “this day” for them, then they absolutely don’t have to take the feminist label. But they do need to understand the point of view of those of us who do, and be respectful of that.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Should Christians feel okay identifying as “feminist,” or are there too many moral compromises?

Bio_Rachel-Heston-Davis

Rachel blogs at observationalginger.blogspot.com.

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25 Comments

  • Excellent post, Rachel. I’ll be looking forward to Part 2. As for whether we label ourselves “feminists,” “egalitarians,” “biblical feminists”–well, I can only speak for myself. Unfortunate as it may be, in the circles in which I move “feminism” has very negative connotations for a number of people, and so when I try to explain my own position to them, I refer to myself as an “egalitarian,” or as a “non-hierarchical complementarian,” or as a “biblical feminist.” So I think you have to know your audience, be aware of their preconceived ideas and misunderstandings, and find effective and meaningful ways to overcome barriers that have been raised in people’s minds against the NT’s teaching on our true unity and equality in Christ.

  • Wow. As someone who is still currently struggling to come to terms with conflicting (and some negative) connotations of what feminism looks like (and I’m more than happy to talk about and hash out those troubles!), I have to say, you articulated and argued your points VERY well and very graciously. Props to you! I enjoyed this post thoroughly and have a better understanding of the Christian feminist viewpoint as a result of it 🙂

  • Great post Rachel! I think sometimes we as Christians get so afraid to take on any labels that aren’t “Christian” (or evangelical, or Christ follower) because someone, somewhere that also identifies with that label do something we don’t agree with. That’s why modern Christianity is so labeled and segregated between denominations. We’re scared to be associated with any group we may have some small disagreement with.

    And so it is I think with the label of feminism. Sadly, it holds such a sad connotation in many peoples minds of what it looks like and what the stereotype of a feminist is.

    I don’t have much insight to add, just that observation. Also, really liked the contrast between cause and movement (awareness vs. truth) Looking forward to the next post!

  • Maybe your next post could address the difference between the flesh and the Spirit. Feminism, expressed outside the truths of the Word (Who, by the way, was “made flesh and dwelt among us”) is simply another fleshly response to injustice, inequality and the like. This is equally true for many other social causes and human conditions. Your second point above is only possible for those still hanging from the branches of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil. God never wanted us dependent on or eating from THAT tree. He offered us the Tree of Life instead. I guess I’m simply concerned that the battle for equality fought in the flesh will only produce more flesh, which ultimately brings death. “The Spirit brings forth life.” “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

    I’m wrestling..comfortably :o) I’m willing to be influenced. I’m open to the dialogue. Can you include a conversation about flesh vs. Spirit in part 2?

  • Well said, Rachel.

    I do think there are times when blogger adopt a belligerent or flamed tone to get more lookers, which is counterproductive really, because all that does is inflame other people –

    Truth is, the writer isn’t a woman, so really… how would he know? It’s part of the inherent white male privilege issue which is so much part of the problem.

  • I became a feminist back in the ’70’s *because* I was a Christian, not in spite of it. I’m startled by those in my daughter’s generation who seem unaware of where we’ve been and how much further the Lord can take us.

  • Well said. It’s not over. If Christianity was enough, then we might as well just all throw up our hands and do nothing. Poverty? “Blessed are the poor in spirit” see they have been taken care of! That could go for almost anything! Just because we have a rough guideline doesn’t mean it’s either practiced or that there isn’t something else out there to be challenged. Matt Walsh complains enough about societal problems to know that Christianity hasn’t “fixed” everything. This seems rather myopic.

    As for what should we do – the word has been drug through the dirt, but the spirit is still alive and well. Feminism doesn’t equal “abortion & anti-men” as some seem to think it does. It means treating everyone as equals. Male and female.

    • Thanks for adding this, Joy Felix. Yes, I was stunned to see someone argue that the existence of Christianity makes feminism somehow null and void. Usually one hears feminism attacked for being supposedly anti-Christian, not from being irrelevant because of Christianity. This is, of course, the real point that Walsh was truly getting at, so I find it a little disingenuous that he threw in “feminism as redundant to Christianity” (which implies they’re in agreement) in order to strengthen his argument. Apparently, whether feminism is at odds with or in agreement with Christianity is a subject that he can argue from both sides, depending on whichever side happens to appeal best to his argument at a given moment.

  • These issues were being discussed at least as far back as the Middle Ages. I just want to point that out lest we think that women in the past were somehow different from us. I guess what is demoralizing is we still have to talk about this. Great article though.

  • Beautifully, clearly and concisely expressed. Thank you for sharing exactly what I believe!

  • I think this article is spot-on. The prophets of the Old Testament were in a similar position as Christian feminists today. God’s people had been given the Law by which they were supposed to live, but they had strayed far from it in various ways. Enter the prophets. They were God’s mouthpieces, sent to bring people back to their Creator.

    One might argue that prophets were unnecessary since God’s Law had already been given. And yet the pages of our Scriptures are filled with prophets. I see Christian feminists (of which I would label myself one) in the same light. Yes, we have the truth proclaimed and lived by Jesus that sets women and men on equal footing. But the way so many of our churches function has so clearly missed the mark. We need prophets. We need Christian feminists to point the way back to our Creator.

    • Thanks Matt! And as Joy Felix pointed out, this is true of many issues in the church. We have to work and communicate and fellowship to stay on the right path, not sit on our rears in a chair saying “Well, Jesus came, so I don’t have to do anything active about the world’s problems.” Thank you!

  • I was talking about feminism with a friend over the weekend. Feminism says, “We demand our rights.” While I’m all for equality–women’s right to vote, to equal pay etc.
    including in the church, in one sense, as followers of Jesus, whether men or women, we have no rights–they are all surrendered to Him. What we as women are asking for is the right to obey Jesus without being told that we cannot do certain things because of our gender. What do you think?

    • Felicity, I understand the hesitation to “demand” our rights and agree that as believers we surrender our rights to the Lord. But it seems to me that in order to surrender one’s rights you need to have them in the first place. Historically, men have not been willing to grant women equal rights voluntarily, and I think this is why the feminist movement is important.

    • Felicity, thanks for entering the conversation! You’ve brought up an important point that I hear a lot, actually, and I’m glad you gave us all the chance to think about it here.

      First, I agree with Gail’s statement that giving up one’s rights implies having them in the first place. I think that brings us to another related point….having rights unfairly withheld by another human is not the same thing as giving up one’s rights to God (I know you’re not arguing that it is the same thing, I’m just pointing out that the distinction can help shed light on why asking for rights isn’t an anti-Christian thing to do). There are times where it’s appropriate to fight against domination and oppression, yes, even for our rights. Think of the Civil Rights movement (something I actually reference in Part II, to come). Today, Christians don’t say that black individuals in the 60s were over-infatuated with their “rights,” we recognize that they were fighting a societal wrong that unfairly kept them socially crippled. I see the feminist movement as being very similar.

      Look at it another way. Generally, if you fight for the rights of another person, it’s called heroism. We’re really uncomfortable, though, when people start fighting for their own rights. But should we be? So long as someone is attempting to fix a legit social injustice that is truly harming real people, should we call their activities suspect just because they happen to have a personal dog in the fight?

      Thanks again for bringing this nuance into the conversation.

    • Even Paul demanded his rights as a Roman citizen. Women have needed to demand their rights to not be beaten and raped, to be able to go in and out of the house without explicit permission, and many other rights. If women think they should surrender their rights, some women will live with abuse. This chills me.

      • Wyn, What you write here goes without saying. Of course, these are basic human rights that everyone has. And I’m all for fighting for those.

        However, I think an approach within the church context that basically says “I’ve been marginalized and now I’m going to get even. I demand my rights” will raise people’s hackles and make them defensive. Maybe some people will feel led that way, and it could produce results, but I think there might be a better way.

        I guess I’ve had the incredible privilege of being part of various moves of God. I believe what is going on with women in the church is another of those movements. What I’ve seen happen over the years is that God starts leading many ordinary people everywhere to believe and understand the same things (hence the popularity of this website) and they then start finding each other. Once that begins to happen, there’s no stopping it.

        I’m excited about what God is going to do.

  • Thank you for this article; and I am looking forward to part II.

    Keep up the deep thinking!

    🙂

  • If we follow his logic then anti-trafficking movement is redundant as is anti-slavery movement, because “Christ had set us free. ” But wait…someone actually has to do the work that Christ began 2K years ago and actually set the enslaved free. It is one thing to read something in the bible, and another to make it a reality in our lives. While secular feminism might come with some baggage, without it women still would not be able to vote or hold well paying jobs.

    While I don’t walk around calling myself a feminist, I am one at heart.

    The work of feminism is far from being done. Not until women are paid the same wages as men for the same work they do; not until women are not viewed as objects to meet men’s need, not until sex trafficking is over, not until men and women stand shoulder to shoulder, equal in word and deed.

    • Well said, Elena. To add to your list, without feminism women would not be able to own property, have custody of their own children, attend college, or have their own line of credit. We shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water, so to speak!

    • I find that a lot of people take a very “hands off” approach to their faith, as if God does not include us in his redemptive purposes for creation. That’s a little off-topic, but I think it applies here and to a variety of other situations.

      And as I said in an earlier comment, Walsh’s REAL motivation is to argue against feminism from a moral standpoint, not from a standpoint of redundancy; he just threw that in to make his position appear stronger, although it actually became the weakest part of his article, ironically.

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