Feminism. It’s a dirty word in the evangelical Church, and recent events in our country have only muddied it more. Claiming to be a Christian and a feminist is like dropping the f-bomb in a prayer meeting. Talk about gender equality, and you’ll probably be well received, but mention the word feminism, and you're likely to be mistaken for a man-bashing, angry woman who devalues family and pushes for abortion on demand.
Few words carry as much baggage in the Church as feminist, but it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, first wave feminism was birthed by a handful of Christian women in a small Wesleyan Church in New York. At its core, the movement began with the radical notion that women, like men, are created in the image of God and therefore should be granted equal dignity, rights, and responsibilities under the law.
Still, many believe you can be a Christian or a feminist, but you can’t be both. I used to think the same thing, until I began studying the Bible for myself, taking into account its historical context and original languages. It may sound crazy, but Jesus made me a feminist.
Webster’s dictionary defines feminism as “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.”[i] By this definition, Jesus was a feminist. In a culture where women were believed to be inferior to men, treated as property, and rarely taught the Torah, Jesus defied cultural norms, elevating and advocating for women. In an era when women were invisible, Jesus includes them in his band of followers, teaching and engaging them in serious theological discussions.[ii] More and more Christians, are recognizing that although the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture; patriarchy was never God’s design for humanity.[iii] Dominance and male privilege are the result of sin and the curse from which Jesus has set us free. [iv]
It’s unfortunate that secular feminists have exploited the claim for equal rights as a cloak for divisive rhetoric towards men and extreme agendas, but they do not represent us all. There are diverse ideologies within the feminist movement, including those who like me, qualify our feminism as distinctly Christian. We are usually among the first to stand up for immigrants and people of color because we know what it’s like to feel the sting of prejudice. We value the voices of all women, but Hollywood is probably the last place we’d go looking for a woman to speak on our behalf. The methods we use to achieve equality matter just as much as the justice we seek so we refuse to fight misogyny and vulgarity with hate and profanity. Most of us believe in the sanctity of life and are working to create a world where no woman would be driven by desperation to abortion.
Christian feminists don’t view men as a problem to overcome or an enemy to defeat. Our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the spiritual forces of evil that aim to destroy the blessed alliance[v] and stifle God’s sons and daughters from fulfilling His Kingdom mission.
Instead of being frightened or offended by the word feminist, Christians everywhere should reclaim the word for what it means, "championing the dignity, rights, responsibilities and glories of women as equal in importance to those of men and thus refusing discrimination against women."[vi] Now more than ever, Christians should be the loudest voices speaking a positive, affirming gospel message for women who are searching for hope. As followers of Jesus, let’s embrace Christian feminism and show the world that our gospel is good news, for both men and women, because following Jesus produces a climate of honor, respect, and mutuality in our relationships.
[i] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/feminism (accessed 1/1/17)
[ii] Luke 8:1-3, Luke 10:38, John 4:1-26, In his book, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes (2008), Kenneth Bailey explains, “to sit at the feet” of a rabbi meant that one was a disciple of the rabbi. Traditionally, only males could be disciples, but Jesus defended Mary's right to be his disciple and a student of theology. It was socially unacceptable for men to speak to women in public but Jesus ignores this separation and not only speaks to the Samaritan woman but engages her in theological dialogue and reveals his identity as the Messiah.
[iii] Christian Egalitarianism, also known as biblical equality is a growing orthodox Christian theology that asserts the Bible, properly interpreted, teaches the fundamental equality of men and women of all ethnic groups, all economic classes, and all ages. www.cbeinternational.org
[iv] In his book, Beyond Sex Roles (1985), Gilbert Bilezikian asserts “there is nothing in Genesis 1 and 2 that provides even a hint of a disparity of nature or rank between men and women…and that “the ruler/subject relationship between Adam and Eve began after the fall.” (p. 58) Christians are not to reinforce the fall but rather overturn it to bring about God’s will for humanity.
[v] The blessed alliance—men and women working together for good, is a major theme of Carolyn Custis James’ book, Half the Church (2010)
[vi] Stackhouse, John. G., (2005). Finally Feminist, p. 17