A Christian Feminism

When I first started looking at the issue of women in the bible, I wasn’t attached to any particular set of ideas about women and men. As a child of our times a more egalitarian ideal made a lot of sense to me. But I also knew that we get a lot further by conforming ourselves to God’s ways than to our own ideas. I wasn’t closed off to the idea that a subordinate role for women was something I would need to make peace with.

In fact, it was trying to make peace with a subordinate role was what motivated me to study women in scriptures. I figured that if I could learn more about what God had to say and why, the idea of being under men would not be a source of pain, but would be a source of life, as all things which come from God are. Like many, many women I’ve heard from over the years, I wanted to have peace about this subject, but something deep in me kept rebelling at the idea that God had given me the role of less-than all my life.

If you read what I have written previously, you’ll see that the more I studied the matter, the more it became clear to me that using scriptures to demand that women take their place under men was an abuse of God’s word. At a bare minimum, it was blazingly clear that there is nothing in scriptures which would bar full equality between men and women. So, you can make an argument for a subordinate position for women from scripture. And you can make many, many arguments for the equality of men and women which rely not just on a few verses, but stories and themes found all through scripture. Both arguments can be made, so the real issue isn’t which on is biblical – they both are, if you just look at it a certain way. Either way is faithful to scriptures. As always, all that is left now is our own choices.

All of which still begs an important question. Why did God allow scriptures to be written in such a way that they were so easily manipulated to put women at a disadvantage? Surely God knew that this would happen and could have made things clearer – not left half His creation so vulnerable to abuse by those claiming to act in His name. Over the years I have heard from more than one young woman – usually a teen – who has just read some verse about how a woman was ritually unclean for longer with a girl child than if she had a boy child or some such. “Why does God hate me?” was the theme of those girl’s questions. Why would God allow verses that made young women think that God hates them?

Over time, I learned a couple of things. One was a broader view of history and a better understanding of the interplay between Christian egalitarianism and the place of women in the Christian world. In the first couple of centuries of the church, women did enjoy a more equal status than we have found in most other cultures. They held leadership positions at every level, chose who to marry and owned and inherited property. Unfortunately, like many of best teachings of Christianity from the early days, this equality between men and women did not persist intact. However, the fact of the matter is that women in the west continued to enjoy a higher place in Christian cultures than we find in many other parts of the world right up to today.

Although women were deprived of many legal rights and seen as subordinate to the men in their families, there is no record of a regular practice of abandoning baby girls or ritual disfigurement of women and girls. There persisted a general expectation that men would protect the women around them rather than exploit them. Of course, seeing women as needing protection can become disrespectful paternalism. But it’s still a good sight better than the still common practices of selling girls into sexual slavery and viewing a new daughter-in-law as slave labor. The bottom line is that while women in the Christian world did not enjoy full equality, they also were not routinely subjected to the sort of barbarity which remains commonplace on much of the planet to this day. This is directly related to Christian teachings and the yeast of equality left behind by those early Christians.

As I took a broader view of the world, it became clear that trying to blame the oppression of women on what some bible verses say was absurd anyways. People in India and China aren’t aborting unborn girls because Paul said that women should be quiet in church. The poor treatment of women is a human problem, not a religious one. To the extent that Christians have been aware of the poor treatment of women as a problem, it has been attributed to Eve’s supposed culpability in eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They would point as iron-clad proof to the curse on Eve after the fall: “in pain will you bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Genesis 3:16.

However, a closer reading of scriptures finds that Adam was standing right there as Eve took the fruit and did nothing to stop her. And the curse of God after the fall doesn’t represent his desire for us. It’s a descriptions – not a prescription. IOW, God is not saying, “here will be my revenge on you.” Instead, God is laying out the consequences of their innocence lost. Again, there are those who would argue otherwise, but I think that an honest reading of scriptures at least leaves ample room for us to reject the idea that God intends for women to be subject to abuse and inequality as a punishment for Eve’s role in the fall.

If we focus too much on a few verses in scriptures and the denial of equality for women which has been supported by these verses, we miss a bigger picture. The idea that women ought to be less-than doesn’t come from God – it comes from the work of the enemy. While women have fared better under Christianity than under most other religions and cultures, the abuse of women in Christian cultures has the same evil source. The fact that scripture has been used to underguird this abuse means little – Satan has shown himself capable of using and abusing scriptures (Matthew 4:1-11).

I think that Staci and John Eldredge are probably close to the truth when they talk about the special hatred the enemy has for women in their book Captivating:

“But most especially, he hates Eve. . .

“More than anything else in all creation, she embodies the glory of God. She allures the world to God. He hates it with a jealousy we can only imagine.

“And there is more. The Evil One also hates Eve because she gives life. Women give birth, not men. Women nourish life. And they also bring life into the world soulfully, relationally, spiritually – in everything they touch. Satan was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). He brings death. His is the kingdom of death. Ritual sacrifices, genocide, the Holocaust, abortion – these are his ideas. And this Eve is his greatest human threat, for she brings life. . .

“Put these two things together – that Eve incarnates the Beauty of God and she gives life to the world. Satan’s bitter heart cannot bear it. He assaults her with a special hatred. History removes any doubt about this.”
– Captivating, pg 84-85

Which brings us back to my original question of why God has allowed scriptures to be written and translated in such a way that it can create the appearance of allowing for the subordination and inequality of women. I now see these verses as a test for us.

For women, they are a test of faith. Do we know God’s love enough to refuse to accept it when people shove verses in our faces which seem to clearly indicate disdain or hatred of women? Will we turn to Him and wait on His answers, trusting that His love for us is pure and true? If so we will be rewarded.

For men, it is a challenge of character. Will you eagerly reach for something which seems to legitimize a corrupted heart’s desire to be above another? Will you listen compassionately when a woman shares the hurt these verses cause her or will you condemn her for not accepting “God’s ways” and her place in creation? These sort of verses make the substance of a man’s heart known.

In a post from the other day, I said that it is my opinion that our current culture which seems so egalitarian, is actually quite misogynistic in that it requires women to be like men in order to be viewed as equals with men. OTOH, it can be dismaying to find that there are still a fair number of Christians who believe that inequality between men and women is ordained by God. However, it is becoming less and less so. At this point, the secular world is largely enthralled with their own misogynistic vision of women while Christians are fairly quickly shedding theirs. I think it is probably up to us to take on the role of “Creative Minority” to show the world a superior form of feminism that requires women to be neither uniquely subordinate nor just like men. It is, IMO, a matter of faith and character on our part.

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11 thoughts on “A Christian Feminism

  1. Wow, great post, Rebecca

    You’ve said all this so well I have nothing to add, but thanks for posting it. I hope lots of people will read it.

    Grace and Peace,

    Cindy

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  2. Interesting post. This is such a touchy subject, especially for me. I’m sixteen, and a month or two ago this whole new world opened up to me. I was laying in a friend’s bed at a sleepover, thumbing through 1 corinthians, reading chapter 13, you know, the one about love? Well, I kept reading past that and I came across the ‘women not allowed to speak in the church, etc. etc.’ verses.

    I have to tell you, that hurt me. My God, the one who loves me more than I can imagine, the one who is my greatest and only hope for purpose? I felt so betrayed that I cried. It was all I could think about and I was very bitter around my father and brothers. I was angry at the youth pastor at my church for letting me share in front of people.

    What I recognized about myself in your post is that you, just like me, were willing to look for the good in God’s word, even if it meant doing exactly what was so against our natures. The idea of being the silent baby maker was everything I wanted to rebel against, but I was willing to find God’s plan in it if that was what He commanded.

    Just reading this post made me consider that God really was testing me, wasn’t He? So does that mean I actually passed one?

    Gosh, just talking about this like it is proven fact makes me feel like I’m leading you away from the truth. I’m still very uncertain about a lot of this.

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  3. Have you read Scott Hahn’s “A Father Who Keeps His Promises”? It’s premise is his covenant theory, but what I found particularly interesting was his take on Adam’s role in the whole forbidden fruit-serpent thing and how he failed.

    And we must remember that in the same breath as Paul exhorts us to submit to our husbands, he exhorts our husbands to love and take care of us. Maybe he is saying that our willingness to let our husbands lead inspires in them an instinct to protect us and our children?

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  4. I would really recommend that you go back and read the post I link to at the beginning of the article. You can also find it in the “Top Posts” sidebar titled “Women’s Roles in the Bible”. I show that scriptures commands us ALL, to submit to one another. It is as erroneous to claim that this is the special role of women as it is to claim that love is the special role of the husband.

    I also talk about the fact that the “headship” language would not have been understood to mean a leadership position in the ancient world. The role of the brain/head as the seat of rational thought and decision making was not understood until about 100 years after the scriptures were written. At the time that Paul wrote, it was thought that the seat of rational thought and direction came from somewhere in the torso.

    As for the 2 Corinthians verses, there are serious problems with the translation. The words translated as man and woman actually mean husband and wife, so these should be seen as specific to the interaction between husband and wife while in church, not generalized to all men and women while at church. The words translated as teaching and have authority are also a grammatical tense we do not have which means to be doing something continuously. therefore, we see Paul warning against an imbalance in the relationship between husband and wife in regards to their spiritual/church life.

    I’m afraid I don’t have time to get into all of it right now, but like I said at the beginning of this post – pretty much all of the NT verses which speak to an inferior role for women have the same sort of issues with translation and cultural misunderstandings.

    One last quick point, we often miss it because we’re reading through modern, western eyes, but the way that Jesus interacts with women is completely out of line with what was normal and acceptable for a Jewish man. Over and over again, he demonstrates a respect and care for women which was shocking and scandalizing to the people around him.

    Like I said, I have been studying this issue for a very long time and I feel quite comfortable saying that God does not desire an inferior role for women.

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  5. Friends, a month or so ago, a fire sprinkler inspector came to inspect our sprinklers at the printing plant that I work at. What was so peculiar was that the inspector was so equaly preportioned in male and female characteristics that you could move from one side to another very, very easily in trying to determin gender.

    My usual smile, at a glance, was challenged and to my comfort, it showed up in time make the meeting worthwhile. As some bewildered jokes came from some of the employees in trying to credit the form with foundation, i saw that i was going to be surprised by my answere since i didn’t know what to say when asked what gender I thought was being represented by our visitor. I found myself saying, ” I believe that’s a person.” This is my understanding of the God of Creation that is called Father by His children. God is a person, a child of His, an expression of personhood.

    I would watch a documenatry at times and see some poor soul in a third world and think to myself “that could have been me (male or female)” at least I believe God as being soveriegn to even in that selection as the chief potterer.

    What I am trying to imply is that the shape of a vessel has little to do with the quality of the fluid in it,other than in participating of being embraced by the fluid it contains. Both the bride of Christ or son of God can be understood by both healthy male or female as in submission, in freedom, to Love.

    That submission would be recognized as a great respect for the ” other ” by the outflowing life of Christ towards that “other.”

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  6. I’ve been enjoying your blog a lot, and this is yet another fascinating post. What struck me most was this:

    “For women, they are a test of faith. Do we know God’s love enough to refuse to accept it when people shove verses in our faces which seem to clearly indicate disdain or hatred of women?”

    I think you’re absolutely right that if we believe in a loving god, we have to say ‘no’ to parts of the bible. But how do we know that those parts of the bible that contradict the image of a loving god are the false ones?

    Pat

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  7. Pat, I personally don’t think we need to say no to parts of the bible. I think we need to look more deeply at how we understand them. For example, I don’t reject the idea that wives ought submit to their husbands. What I reject is the human idea placed on that teaching that it is only wives who are to submit and not husbands. I further reject the human idea that submission is based on hierarchy and power. Submission as presented in the bible is for all believers, including wives and husbands, with its basis in loving care for others before ourselves. So, accept the verse, just not how it has been taught.

    I have a rule of thumb in scripture study that when what I’m reading doesn’t seem to make sense, contradicts itself or what I know about life and God, that is like a little red flag saying “look here”. My experience has been that there are almost always problems with our understanding, issues with translation or culture or that it is a point of misunderstanding on our parts. But I have not found scriptures which I feel I need to reject in order to maintain faith in a good and loving God.

    I hope that makes sense! 🙂

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  8. Maybe I didn’t phrase my question clearly enough. You wrote “when what I’m reading doesn’t seem to make sense, contradicts itself or what I know about life and God, that is like a little red flag saying “look here”. ”

    I’m asking how you know about God so as to make that judgment.

    The question has been nagging at me since a debate about atheism I followed last year. The Christian in the debate argued that his ethics had a firmer grounding because of being based on God’s will, and the atheist asked how the Christian knew God’s will was good. The atheist argued that the Christian’s way of deciding that God’s will is good is identical to the atheist’s way of deciding that a particular action is good — cultural indoctrination, personal preference, and personal values.

    I tend more and more towards thinking the atheist was right. What do you think?

    Pat

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  9. Pingback: My Cool Tattoo « The Upside Down World

  10. I know this is an old post but it really inspired me to write to you. You really hit upon some key issues that are often ignored by those claiming to be lovers of God. In particular, the unique evil faced by women throughout the world and at the hands of men. I also like how you pointed out that the notion that the natural position of woman is to be “under man” as inferior in some way is something read into the Bible.

    Genesis 3:16 where God tells Eve that one of the consequences of her disobedience is “your craving will be for your husband, and he will dominate you.” I agree with you that this is a prediction, a consequence, not a proscription. This shows that rather than being the natural state of things, men dominating women is a consequence of sin. As Christians we are supposed to be ever striving against those inherited sinful tendencies, and for men that must include the tendency to dominate women and see themselves as superior.

    I see the tendency to dominate others as one of the root causes of human suffering. Not only is it the foundation of sexism, but also racism, class warfare, and other forms of hatred both against groups and individuals. Ecclesiastes, one of my favorite books of the Bible, describes it this way: “All this I have seen, and there was an applying of my heart to every work that has been done under the sun, [during] the time that man has dominated man to his injury.” (Eccl. 8:9) On the other hand, to God “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor freeman, there is neither male nor female; for YOU are all one [person] in union with Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) These divisions we use to justify dominance and superiority are what is not real.

    You’ve said that if there is a conflict between the Bible and modern understanding, modern understanding is what needs to be revised. One such modern understanding is the notion that it’s natural and even good for people to look out for their own interests, and the idea that someone has to be on top. This tendency to dominate others for the good of oneself or one’s group goes directly back to what happened in Eden, when our forebears decided they wanted to rule themselves and determine right from wrong. We see how humans do that: might makes right and man’s physical strength justifies his dominance. I think that’s what God was telling Eve would happen while at the same time promising a way out of this through the promised seed, Christ Jesus.

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