I suggested recently that engaging with (secular) feminism may well enrich Christians, but what do you do if you’re Average Pastor (or Average Christian)? You can’t be up on everything! Here I want to give five basic tips for interacting with feminism.
1. Treat feminism as an evolving movement
The stereotype of the man-hating, bra-burning, hairy-legged feminist is just that, a stereotype, but it’s also completely outdated. The activism of the 60s and 70s may have implications for today, but feminism has been through a third and a fourth wave since then. Feminism has moved on, so if your picture of feminism comes from the second wave, it’s at least 40 years old. Think about where the church was 40 years ago. As recently as the 80s and early 90s, low-church traditions of evangelicals required ministers to wear robes and use the prayer book exclusively (I’m looking at you Sydney Anglicans!). Today it is absurd to think of your average evangelical pastor in a collar and it’s an unfair stereotype. It simply doesn’t reflect what they’re on about! Of course, there are some who love those traditional elements, just as there are angry feminists today, but just as the robed minister doesn’t necessarily represent all Christians, neither is the stereotype of a second-waver a realistic depiction of feminism.
2. Recognise that feminism is not an attempt to get rid of men…
While there are some radical feminists who believe any interaction with men to be inherently oppressive to women, this attitude does not by and large typify feminism as a movement (and hey, Christianity has its extremists too!). The humanity the Bible speaks of, with both men and women, is the same humanity envisioned by feminism. Even in its second wave manifestation, feminism was a call for equal rights with men, not a call for domination over men. Further thought has been given to this in the fourth wave, with space for men and women to be allies in the feminist cause. Of course feminism has goals which are explicitly about the flourishing of women; inherent in feminism is a recognition that the world is a different place for women and men. (That’s why feminism is not humanism.) But this is even more reason for men to participate, because we share this world, caring for one another.
3. … or merely about selfishness or freedom
The assumption that feminism is about selfishness comes from the idea that feminists fight for equal rights because it benefits them. They are clambering for their own freedoms, that they might throw off the constraints of caring for or being committed to others. Again, this is an unfair stereotype of feminism (hello feminist motherhood!) but it’s a misnomer to suggest that because you benefit from something, it is inherently selfish. Imagine if someone reduced Christianity to selfishness, suggesting that it’s self-serving because you get salvation out of it! Or that Christians shouldn’t fight for the rights of other Christians, but leave it up to others. Many feminists are motivated by compassion for the vulnerable and the oppressed; many fight for what they perceive to be justice. Oftentimes their own experiences fuel this fight, but the fight may be inherently worthy in its own right. It’s a false equivalency to suggest that fighting for something you may benefit from automatically comes out of a sinful impulse.
4. The ‘women’s ordination’ discussion is a red herring
There are significant parallels between second-wave feminism and the egalitarian cause, though Muriel Porter argues that the two movements are independent. I think we can at least admit that there is some relationship between the two, if only because they rose to prominence in one historical period. (Mind you, as Wendy Alsup has shown, modern complementarianism is also a product of this period.) However, my concern is that what little discussion of feminism there has been by Christians has been viewed through the lens of this issue. When I mention my interest in Christianity and feminism, the first thing people ask me about is women’s ordination. It’s as if feminism is solely concerned with glass ceilings, and women’s ordination is the glass ceiling of the church. However, feminism shines a light on significant other questions that have relevance to Christianity.
Women’s ordination is not irrelevant to a Christian interaction with feminism, but even if all Christians could agree on ‘the women passages’, there would still be much work for Christians to do on ‘what the Bible says about women’. Focusing solely on the women’s ordination issue silences discussions about value and attitude, privilege and silence. While feminism seeks to hear women’s voices, how do we handle the predominance of male perspectives in the Bible? As feminists fight to stop the abuse of women, what have Christians got to say about Ezekiel 16 which uses the image of a battered woman to describe God’s relationship with his people? Where feminism seeks the flourishing rather than the tearing down of women, how do we tell the story of Sarah and Hagar, their jealousy and abandonment? These questions are not threats to Christianity or the Bible; they are opportunities to look again at the Bible and hear God’s voice again. But they are also opportunities to address pastoral issues: the woman of low self-esteem, the survivor of domestic violence, the warring family. Feminism can be an ally in reading the Bible, regardless of your view on the ordination of women, and I hope that such readings would better inform the discussion of women’s ordination on both sides. When we spend our time discussing Christianity and feminism in terms of ‘women’s ordination’ we miss the richness that feminism has to offer.
5. Pay attention to when women appear in the Bible
Feminism helps us to be aware that, whether we are male or female, living in western society means our cultural lens will naturally lead us to see and favor male perspectives when we read the Bible (or any text for that matter.) Now, perhaps this is simply because the Bible has its own patriarchal point of view, then again, perhaps not! Our interest in male characters may prevent us from seeing God’s story worked out in the women of the Bible. It is not by accident that women’s stories are included in the Bible; they are included for a reason if only we will read them. A woman like Esther is not merely the servant or the tool for the salvation of God’s people; she is also one of those saved people. What is her story of redemption? As the big picture of the Bible’s narrative alternatively despairs and rejoices in the kingship of David, why are the stories of two of his wives, Michal and Abigail included; what do they add? How is the freedom of the woman bent double in Luke 9 a culmination of Old Testament themes about women; how is she representative of Israel as a whole? These are not just questions for a women’s conference; the story of God’s people is the story of both the men and the women and it is for both men and women. When the Bible speaks, we must be prepared to listen.
So there they are, five ‘first steps’ at what I hope is a popular level. These are the things I’d say to a Christian about feminism. So what would you say back to me?
Image credit: ‘Face Value 7’ by Annette Bezor, 2011
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.