Joy Ann McDougall’s article ‘Women’s Work: Feminist Theology for a New Generation” describes the work of Serene Jones, author of Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace:
Jones puts secular feminist theory to “church work” using it to remap the core Reformed doctrines of justification and sanctification, sin and ecclesiology. She uses feminist theory not to deconstruct Reformed faith, but to create a new road map “to help one travel the terrain in new ways.” For Jones, doctrines are not a set of rules or propositions that mark the boundaries of orthodoxy. Rather, doctrines are “imaginative scripts” and “life-shaping dramas” that person of faith “inhabit” and “perform in unique ways. This does not mean that doctrines are not normative or do not make truth claims, for surely they do. But doctrines also possess a certain fluidity that allows them to stretch across diverse lives and historical contexts and be embodied in culturally specific ways. Throughout her book, Jones tests how well the central Reformed doctrines work when performed in women’s lives.
One of the most fascinating things Jones does is to take Luther’s well known and well worn drama of justification and ask what it means for women. You know the story:
The prideful sinner bent on earning his own salvation meets his undoing – the crucifying wrath of God which reveals both the sinner’s impotence and his guilt before God. Instead of receiving his due punishment, the helpless sinner receives the unexpected and undeserved verdict of divine forgiveness. Through the proclamation of the gospel, the sinner is released from the bondage of his sin and comes to faith – saved by grace and not by his own righteousness.
But Jones asks, what difference does it make if a woman performs this dramatic script?
She demonstrates how this drama of justification all too often “misses the mark” of women’s lives – lives that are very often marked not by boastful arrogance but rather by an inadequate sense of personal agency. Women who already suffer from a lack of self-definition and whose existence has already been undone by unjust relations of power, find themselves undone once again by the crucifying wrath of God. Rather than releasing a woman from her bondage to sin, Luther’s courtroom drama recapitulates the very dynamics of her oppression – the “shattering she knows all to well.”
What’s Jones’ solution?
Why not reverse the plotline of the Reformed narrative, offering women the story of sanctification first, followed by that of justification? In this way, women would first be given an empowering script about divine grace that secures their personal identity, affirms the goodness of their embodiment and sends them forth into the world with renewed agency and purpose. Clothed in sanctifying grace, a woman is no longer “a dispersed and fragmented identity”…. She is held together within “the envelope of God’s grace” and therein gains the freedom to “write new scripts of faithful living.”
Jones does see a re-introduction of justification by faith after this, but more as a release from oppressive gender roles than from self-righteousness. At that point, I depart from her: justification is heaps bigger than gender roles, and more focused on where we stand with God. However, I’m intrigued by the notion of how the courtroom drama plays out for women. My experience is that women are far more sensitive to messages about sin than men. They hear grace as an afterthought and sanctification as another sign of how far they fall short. And they are much more likely to miss the empowerment and freedom of the gospel.
When I speak evangelistically to women, I rarely talk about what the Bible says about sin. I don’t have to. Scratch the surface even a little and you’ll find that most women have a very deep sense of being not good enough. I don’t need to tell women they’re sinful – they know it. So I just affirm that – yes, the Bible tells us that God sees all that, even if we hide it. But we’re given the chance to change our story. To go from being condemned to being loved; from being not good enough for anyone to being God’s treasured ambassadors.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.