A Letter to Young Christian Feminists

Cheryl Bridges Johns

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Letter to Young Christian Feminists

 

My Dear Sisters,

Welcome! You have no idea how grateful we are to have you join us in the struggle for women’s full equality.  As young Christian feminists you join a company of women and men dedicated to the cause of moving beyond the Curse and its dark shadow cast upon Eve’s daughters.  We are very glad you are here. I feel compelled to share with you a few things I have had on my heart for a long while.

First, I want to let you know how deeply I admire your strength and determination to fulfill your calling in spite of closed doors and restrictions placed on women by the church. Some of you I know personally. Others I have come to know by reading your books, and/or blogs, and following you on Twitter. To be honest, I am not sure my younger self would have had the fortitude you have shown in the midst of bullies on social media and Internet trolls. In spite of these obstacles you keep moving forward.  And, it is not just your fortitude I admire. In the face of public shaming, and even threats of bodily harm, you have shown remarkable grace.

Speaking of public shaming and threats of bodily harm, I am sorry things are not better by now.  Sometime back in the 1970’s, when my generation began our own journey toward liberation, we naively believed that by now things would be settled. As children of the modern era, we were schooled in the myth of progress. We became convinced, that just as the Berlin Wall had fallen, the barriers against full inclusion of women in society and the church would one day crumble. Women would soon take their birthright as priests and joint heirs with Christ. In the words of Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty, we would become All We Are Meant to Be. 

all we were meant to be

We were wrong. We know now that while the arc of history bends toward justice, the pull of patriarchy, that darkest and most ancient form of human oppression, is strong.  On the journey toward justice, there are times of retreat, backsliding and backlash.  It seems you have entered the Fray during such a time.  Before I go any further I must offer another confession.

Because we believed things would only get better for women, we were not as diligent as we should have been.  I think Bill Hybels speaks for all of us when he said, “Somewhere in the middle 90’s, I think, I said, ‘I don’t have to carry that flag anymore. Because the whole church gets it, we are done with that. We’ve crossed over.’ But in the last ten years, I am embarrassed to say, it’s gone the other way.”

It isn’t just Hybels who is shocked at the turn of events. All of us, women and men alike, never imagined how much “the other way” would be so cleverly nuanced.  My generation could not imagine there would be organizations such as The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. We failed to anticipate The Gospel Coalition, John Piper, and the genteel Tim Keller.

In the old days people who believed in the subordination of women were inclined to talk about women as inferior to men, referring to us as “the weaker sex.” There was a lot of talk about “women knowing their place.” There was no effort to hide overt prejudice. Now, a newer generation has taken patriarchy and wrapped it in more palatable language like “complementarian. The subordination of women is given an aesthetic quality at conferences such the upcoming “The Beauty of God-Made Complementarity.”

Just as my generation did not foresee the Gospel Coalition, so we did not foresee the feminism of Helen Gurley Brown, which joined women’s liberation to sexual power. It is difficult for us to imagine how it is OK for women to use their body and their sexuality as a means of gaining power. It is hard to make sense of a society saturated with sexual images, the hook-up culture of Tinder and “mommy porn.” For most of us there are no “Shades of Grey.”

You are right to point out that while your elders read culture with a critical lens, we failed to deconstruct the church’s purity culture.  The church has bought into the long standing belief that men, being hormonally driven, get a pass in regards to objectifying and abusing women. This false assumption places an undue burden on women to dress and behave in a manner that does not entice men.

www.slideshare.net/warriorsrefuge/purity-magazine

The unfair double standard, seen in “purity balls” and “purity rings”, makes it clear to young women they are first and foremost sexual objects. They are objects under their father’s protection until they marry and come under the protection of their husbands. Many of you grew up in this ethos and, as a result, carry a heavy burden of shame. Your mothers’ silence in this matter meant we were complicit in the abuse. I ask your forgiveness, and I commit to join you in addressing this blight upon our churches.

I would ask you apply the same hermeneutic of suspicion you use toward the purity culture toward the secular culture that seems bent on commodifying everyone and everyone’s body.  How is this culture trapping women and men in an iron cage, all the while promoting their freedom and control over their bodies? I hope that in our future together as co-laborers in this cause for justice, we can move help heal the existing rift between spirit and flesh. I would ask you, my dear sisters, to help us find ways to re-enchant the human body, making it both beautiful and sacred.

Speaking of healing, I love how you have found ways to reconcile motherhood and feminism.  I am proud of you for rejecting the either/or language of my generation that led to the “mommy wars.” You don’t feel the need to prove you can do it all. Neither do you feel compelled to join a “side.” You are free to work outside the home, work part-time, work from home or focus on the work of making a home for your family.

I love how one day you can blog about a systemic evil such as racism, and the next week write about your baby’s nursing as a form of prayer. This grace you have given to yourself and to each other is indeed amazing! Not only have you given yourselves grace, you have given your mothers grace. You have helped heal our wounds from being forced to keep separate our professional and private lives and soothed the guilt we have carried for decades. Thank you.

I am glad you are learning to reject the oppressive “helpmeet” language and to be an ezer warrior. In the words of Carolyn Custis James, “ezer represents the strength and valor of a warrior. God created women to be warriors.”

In this journey toward full equality of all God’s daughters, I join with you in submission.  In Ephesians 5:21 Paul frames the concept of mutual submission around the Greek word hypotassō, a military term meaning to arrange (troop division) in a fashion in which each soldier is in submission to each other. Paul further notes this struggle is not against flesh and blood but against “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” (Ephesians 6: 12).   In this great cosmic battle believers are to “take up the whole armor of God” (6:13).

300 warner bros pictures

I believe Paul had in mind the Greek phalanx, a formation used in the story of the 300 Spartans who withstood thousands in the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.  The phalanx was a rectangular formation in which each soldier carried his shield on his left arm, protecting not only himself, but also the soldier to his left.

The soldier on the left had to submit (hypotassō) to the soldier on the right, tucking under the neighbor’s shield. With each soldier in submission to the other, individual rights were given up for the sake the whole.  By having interlocking shields, the unit became one seamless fighting force. The phalanx had a weak spot, namely the extreme end of the rectangle. For that reason, the strongest and most experienced warriors were placed there.

Wearing the whole armor of God, we warriors are able to face patriarchy’s dark power.  In mutual submission to each other, we become one unified force in promoting the gospel of peace. As we move forward, I would ask that you place me on the extreme right end of our formation. Being older and more experienced, I can take the arrows of criticism and the darts of open hostility.

When I am old you can put me in the center. There under the cover of my sisters and brothers,  I will be your prayer ezer, waving my Pentecostal hanky in the air while cheering you onward.

One day I will leave this formation to join the Great Cloud of Witnesses. From this vantage point, I and a host of many others, will be cheering you on. So, do not grow weary my fellow ezer warriors. The old order will give way and heaven and earth will embrace.

Cheryl Bridges Johns

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40 Comments

  • I have been reading Katherine Bushnell’s groundbreaking ‘Gods Word to Women’ and in this she talks about Junia as a female apostle. It is impossible not to be impressed with the comprehensive and diligent research Bushnell carried out in this work. Apparently she died not thinking it had made a difference. I hope that even though she is now with the Lord she knows how much that work is needed in modern society.

    My husband and I spent 15 years in a religious cult claiming to be a christian church. The cult was formed originally by Presbyterian, Pentecostal and Brethren men, but its malice towards women was and still is breathtaking. Marriages were broken up at the whims of the elders, women were blamed for everything that went wrong in the church and in families and the children were taught to disrespect their parents and turn to the elders for everything. As you can imagine when we left, 12 years ago, I read everything I could get my hands on regarding women in the church, both historically and scripturally. I have only just had a kind of epiphany regarding the fact that I was in a ba’al marriage (as Bushnell puts it) where I was going to my husband as Lord, rather than giving my devotion to God himself. It took 12 years to come to that realisation!! That is how damaging these churches/cults can be and how totally oppressive this teaching is. It clouds your mind to the extent that even God doesn’t just zap you and make it all better. He needs to unravel the ball of spiders web which is that false theology.

    I believe I am called to ministry, but our local churches are not interested in supporting women, they are set, as are their congregations in the mold of pew sitting and pastor controlling. Not every church is like this I suppose, I just haven’t come across any yet. I am concerned that the pentecostal churches as a whole have a much greater embrace of women, yet can still relegate women to a ‘barbie’ gender set and minister to them alone but not in the meat of the word. It is not often you get women ministering serious bible study in a church meeting of both genders.

    I don’t identify as a feminist because of the connotations, but I am all for equality of the sexes in everything God is calling us all to.

    Thankyou for this blog, I will be reading more of this later.

    Anita

    • Anita,
      Thank you for your comment and telling us a bit of your story. Your courage and dedication is inspiring. I know it can feel lonely finding a church & a community, but you are always welcome here in the Junia community. We’re glad you’re here!

      Kate

    • My dear Anita…I think we attended the same denomination! I stayed for 30 years. Everything you say is so true. Female, one way submission is sin and leads to gross sin. May God bring His justice to bear and open the eyes of so many victims of this teaching.

    • steveandanita…”It clouds your mind to the extent that even God doesn’t just zap you and make it all better. He needs to unravel the ball of spiders web which is that false theology.” That explains why, after 7 years I am still trying to sort out the teachings…I have even written a book that is approaching 400 pages and still…trying to get it all into perspective…that is not to say I haven’t come down firmly in the Egalitarian side, however, as that is where I am certain God is ‘Is not my way equal…is not your way equal…Ezekiel chapters18 and chapter 33..God says variations of this 4 times…for emphasis, I think…the even balance…the just way…the righteous judge…not equal in the sense of sameness but equal as of equal value, equal responsibility, equal ministry, equal requirement….to whom much is given much is required…hence “there is neither male nor female in Christ”…for all the labels are removed, Jew, Gentile, bond, free, Barbarian, Scythian…male and female…we are all just siblings, equal ” in terms of substance and value, privilege and responsibility, function and authority” to quote Susan Hyatt.

  • There is a generalization here “your mothers’ silence in this matter was complicit.”
    I grew up in the 70’s and considered myself a feminist, not male bashing, but a confidence I had opportunities and freedom to be what I wanted to be. But, as I grew in my faith I did believe that my husband, brought into my life by God’s grace is in authority in our home. A respectful, loving authority. I’m still very independent, but I’m grateful to my ties to my husband, my friend. I cringe when I hear my Christian sisters speak of their husbands, or generalize men as the “weaker” sex. “Poor men, what would they do without us, they would starve, put a diaper on wrong”, etc. I realize this is not said in this article, but want to be careful a renewed interest doesn’t take us back to the thought that men are responsible for keeping us down! There’s so much more than that.
    I’m thankful my daughter’s father is her protector! His love, devotion and protection for her helped her become her the wonderful, strong, compassionate, wise woman she is! She is the one that posted this article!
    And.. I have to add, I’ve changed to in my thought about “mommy wars”. I think we have all seen a shift in letting families, parents do what’s right for them, not looking down on either parent staying home to raise their children. It’s a role that will never be regretted, having time with their children! I do regret not making the sacrifices to stay home. But, I recognize financially it is not always possible. The feminist in me recognizes that it’s as important for the dad or the mom to have that option, the dad just as viable!

    I just want this to tempered with the thought women are strong and equal with more opportunities than ever before but not with the thought of a reserve prejudice toward men.

    We have “come a long way, baby!”

  • There is a generalization here “your mothers’ silence in this matter was complicit.”
    I grew up in the 70’s and considered myself a feminist, not male bashing, but a confidence I had opportunities and freedom to be what I wanted to be. But, as I grew in my faith I did believe that my husband, brought into my life by God’s grace is in authority in our home. A respectful, loving authority. I’m still very independent, but I’m grateful to my ties to my husband, my friend. I cringe when I hear my Christian sisters speak of their husbands, or generalize men as the “weaker” sex. “Poor men, what would they do without us, they would starve, put a diaper on wrong”, etc. I realize this is not said in this article, but want to be careful a renewed interest doesn’t take us back to the thought that men are responsible for keeping us down! There’s so much more than that.
    I’m thankful my daughter’s father is her protector! His love, devotion and protection for her helped her become her the wonderful, strong, compassionate, wise woman she is! She is the one that posted this article!
    And.. I have to add, I’ve changed to in my thought about “mommy wars”. I think we have all seen a shift in letting families, parents do what’s right for them, not looking down on either parent staying home to raise their children. It’s a role that will never be regretted, having time with their children! I do regret not making the sacrifices to stay home. But, I recognize financially it is not always possible. The feminist in me recognizes that it’s as important for the dad or the mom to have that option, the dad just as viable!

    I just want this to tempered with the thought women are strong and equal with more opportunities than ever before but not with the thought of a reserve prejudice toward men.

    We have “come a long way, baby!”

    • Thank you for making this point Brenda. I also grew up in the 70’s and had great hope for the future and for women to be recognized in the church. What you may have interpreted as silent or complicit had a lot more to do with celebrating the significant progress the women’s movement did make, and also distancing myself from male-bashing. I was very sad to see feminism turn to putting men down as a way to elevate themselves. So with huge progress being made, and between the trumpeting of sexual power as something of value (rather than an abusive use of the gift of sex) and male-bashing, I got ‘out’ of feminism as a movement. I was not silent about women’s rights, or complicit either. But I have been dismayed for our men and very disappointed that women – who actually should know how being stereo-typed and put down by the media, for example, feels, and have experienced its very negative effect – have taken to doing it themselves. So much of feminism became associated with (some) women ranting about men using sex as power, but encouraging women to discover and use their sexual power, and portraying men in very derogatory stereotypes. So for those reasons, I have distanced myself from the label of feminist.

  • I grew up in a church in which women were always accepted in leadership roles from pulpit ministry to all other positions. I was an adult before I even realized there were Protestant denominations that did not accept women in pastoral leadership. I think that based on some other life experiences I react negatively to the words feminist and feminism. I am not being critical…I love your article. I just wish there was another way of referring to women being accepted into full time ministry at any level. I can’t help but cringe using the word “feminist” within a ministerial perspective.

  • Yes. And thank you. I’m a female Lead Pastor, one of not-very-many in our denomination, and I’m in denominational leadership as well.

    I’m grateful for this article. It reminded me of a conversation with my mom a number of years ago about some of these very personal struggles; she gasped in shock and said, “How on earth is it possible that you are having to have these conversations at all?? We dealt with this 30 years ago!” Her outrage helped me find firm footing again.

  • Thank you for writing this. I have listened to you speak up for the women in our tribe who are trying to walk in their calling and I’m thankful for you and those who stand with you. I have a ton of respect for you.

  • Reading these comments I am grateful for those of you who took time to express gratitude, give clarification and bear witness of your own experience.

  • I have been a preacher for 35 years and I also am taken aback by such as Piper and Driscoll and others. God is at work, however, and I feel a stronger resolution now than ever before. It is only in the last few years that I have realised I am a feminist… I wouldn’t have said so before, and there are so many others like me who, in their older years, have come to realise that we’ve been sold a desperately broken theology. Thanks for the great post.

  • I have been a preacher since 1974, and first became an ordained minister in 1983. Back then it was tough. Sure, there are still those who oppose female leadership today, but it has improved greatly. Of course, some people would not be convinced if the Lord Himself appeared before them. I find the easiest way is simply to ignore them and get on with doing what the Lord has called me to do. When someone genuinely wants to understand my position, I usually point them to an article I wrote a while back: http://wordandfireministries.com/women-in-ministry/
    All I can say is, if you are a woman called to ministry, keep your eyes on the God who called you, not on the people who would tear you down.

    • I am grateful for all who took the time to comment on this blog post. Your words are encouraging and filled with wisdom and grace.

  • Peace to my spirit… I have been plummeted by so much passion spilling over for this subject for so many years. I know I have been called to speak up and be a part of this freedom call for the full image of our Creator to be embodied within the church…and when I discover projects such as this, my heart soars!! Praise Jesus! All the time I praise Jesus as I see so many amazing leaders both men and women saying, “enough is enough”… I am blessed to be in a church that says YES to the new song, which is at the same time an old song that our Christ came to break free…yet humanity shut up again… there is growth to be had. Together WE can through Christ who strengthens us with the leading of Holy Spirit… THIS IS HOLY WORK.

  • Thank you so much, Cheryl, for this beautiful, life-giving letter!! I am profoundly grateful for the leadership, wisdom, and perspective of the warriors who have gone before.

  • Cheryl, I can’t thank you enough for this post. This is a phenomenon that’s not only toilsome to discuss, but it’s difficult to even describe the weight of silencing that happens within the hierarchy of our churches.

    As a child I often sat through sermons, envisioning myself speaking from the pulpit and joining the ministry ranks. Somewhere along the lines, I inferred that women were second class to male leadership – that I would be disobedient to God to share in a public forum.

    I became a marriage and family therapist instead, and now I write to encourage other women who question their worth and authority given by Jesus Christ. I’m praying for you and your ministry. Thank you for your inspiring words today!

  • Good words of encouragement, Cheryl. And thanks for the insights on hypotassō too.

  • Yes. .. Yes. .. Yes! I stand with you in every word. As a woman who has fought the fight for over 40 years to live a “do-over to the garden” because of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, I am so thankful for your alertness to the present deception and backwards slide. May God open the eyes of the Church to see the reality of a Kingdom view; thank you for pointing the way once again!

  • Great post. I especially appreciate your comment about sexual power. This alone has caused me to distance myself from many of today’s feminists.

    On a side note: I thought the words ‘helpmeet’ and ‘ezer’ are translations of the same word? I thought they meant, in essence, essential partner. Not sure where I read that, maybe from Stacy Elderedge?

    Anyway great post….

  • Tears! Thank you for seeing the big picture of generations fighting the same battle. I know we haven’t got everything right but I know we’re all in it together. I pray that the generation who follows us will be able to go further than we ever could and will be bolder and stronger.

  • This is so beautifully and kindly written (and I see myself in it). Thank you.
    There is so much ground covered here, and such a lot that I want to return to when I get discouraged.

  • Oh how wonderful! The fight goes on, and for some of us it has been 50 or so years of learning, from strong women in our church, to mothers and aunts of a previous generation who wanted us to be free, to writings from independent women, Christian or secular.
    My uncle gave me a copy of The Female Eunuch when it was first published. Mum insisted I have a full education and work well before relationships became permanent.
    Dad said that if I ever fell pregnant, I was to come and tell them and I would be fully supported, not that they thought it likely….but……some girls were still being disowned by their ‘families’ as though it only takes one to tango.
    Satan has a fertile field in this area, and I believe the spiritual battle will fought to the end of our earthly days. So sad that our current church leadership is marching head-long into the jaws of inequality after generations of successful bible based functioning under the care of excellent, worthy men and women.
    We must keep teaching our young women and men the truth of physical and spiritual equality.

  • I love this. Thank you. As an older feminist, I, too, thought we would be much further along than we are. And I’m thankful for young feminists who are fighting a more insidious and difficult enemy: patriarchy and sexism wrapped in sweet sounding, “biblical” labels. One point that I do want to bring out: in your intro you mention the “curse” and Eve. But a key tool in fighting against patriarchy and so-called complementarianism is the truth: Eve was not cursed. Neither was Adam. In Genesis 3, God curses the ground, and the serpent. We as his image bearers are not cursed. There’s a great post by Dr. Carrie Miles on the Empower International Ministries website about this topic: http://empowerinternational.org/curses-or-not/ ‎Thanks so much for this inspiring piece.

  • raa97648 said “So often I feel like I am on trial by older feminists who grow more and more suspicious of the way young people understand the secular and the scared.”

    I think you meant “sacred” not scared?

    It is sometimes a lonely position to take for us all. We don’t expect rewards for seeking to repair the imbalance in our societies. We know we will often be misunderstood. Just find some soul mates who are Biblical feminists and walk with them and keep reading all the wonderful blogs online that encourage us all every day but most of all just walk with the real Jesus and He will guide and comfort you every day. If you can find a way to use your voice or your talents for the Glory of God.

  • Thank-you! I know so many fellow women in the church who are still struggling to accept that there is a need for femenism or egalitarianism. I’m still in my 20s, but where I come from, I’m older than many in “feminism” years. It’s really meaningful to hear encouraging words from someone who really is a seasoned warrior. (I cried a little too!)

  • I am moved and deeply touched! In tears because you so eloquently embody and explain the struggle, THANK YOU.

  • Thank you for this beautiful post. I am 19 years old and brand new to feminism. This post has blessed me and encouraged me to stand boldly, knowing I am surrounded by ezers on every side. Keep writing and helping us all move forward.

  • Thank for writing this. Something so simple as you validating this experience that myself and so many of my sisters have experienced has brought so much healing.

  • “Somewhere in the middle 90’s, I think, I said, ‘I don’t have to carry that flag anymore. Because the whole church gets it, we are done with that. We’ve crossed over.’”

    …we have never won and will never win…until Christ comes.The price of Liberty is ETERNAL VIGILANCE…we must all pledge to fight until our final breath. The attitude that “we’ve crossed over” is an evil lie.

  • Wow. Just wow. This was incredible. Encouraging, inspiring, and empowering. I am saving this to read to myself again and again. Thank you, dear sister!

  • Thanks Dr. Johns!
    I’m not sure where I fit in the phalanx, but I willingly submit to my peers young and old who preach the truth and liberating gospel of Christ.

  • This is excellent. I am one of those on the extreme front with very very few warriors to deflect the arrows. In fact I’m praying on some new strategies in my town. Since unfortunately, I am well known amongst the patriarchal enemies of equality here, they are constantly trying to destroy my ministry and effectiveness as a teacher/preacher of God’s Word. Amazingly, God has shown me how to find peace with it. Often that is fasting and prayer which brings forth my next subject to teach on.

    I am thinking that we do need to go on the offensive, but not that of those who seek to destroy. In the past I have just gone on preaching the truths of the Scriptures while pretty much avoiding the big questions of why I am comfortable doing so when there are men around who would gladly take my place. This has been the tactics of the pastor and myself, allowing obvious gifting to answer the questions. But now it may be time to just step up where God leads and answer the questions raised by patriarchal beliefs.

  • I’m one of those young feminists. Thank you for this. So often I feel like I am on trial by older feminists who grow more and more suspicious of the way young people understand the secular and the scared. Instead, here there is room for multiple perspectives, for learning, and joy in both new bread and a properly-aged glass of wine. I’m so thankful for the women on the right flank, older and more experienced, wise in years and young in heart. Thank you for not rejecting the concerns of young feminists as selfish or too “of this world.” It is nice to feel welcome, to come ready to be molded by the women who know much more than me.

  • What a beautiful and eloquent epistle to the ezer warriors of our futures! I will be saving a copy of this for my own daughter who entered this world with a fiery spirit. This letter, along with other keepsakes, will help to reignite her flame when the world attempts to put it out. Thank you for speaking freedom into the hearts of so many of us today!

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