Revisiting Feminism and the Bible’s View of Women

About a year ago, I got into a discussion with a Christian blogger about the term feminist. I told him that I didn’t think any Christian should call themselves a feminist. I told him that another word was needed if any real impact in the area of equality was to be achieved in American evangelical circles. The word feminism, I said, has been sullied and was associated strongly, in most American evangelical minds, with angry, bra-burning women that hated men and were pro-abortion.

To the Christian blogger’s credit, he outright disagreed with me. And, he was nice about it. This challenged me. I like challenges. And wouldn’t you know, just after our online discussion, everywhere I turned, I saw articles and books on feminism. I even had two pro-life Christian friends tell me that they considered themselves feminists. I just couldn’t ignore or dismiss feminism or feminists, as no thinking person should—Christian or not.

And so, I began to ask myself is it possible to be a feminist and a Christian? Of course. It depends on how you define feminist…and Christian.

What is a feminist?

A basic definition of a feminist is someone who believes that men and women should be treated equally in all spheres. In politics, women should be able to vote, run for political office, and even occupy the most powerful seat in government. In cultural and social spheres, women should be able to get the same level of education as men, marry and divorce of their own free will, live independently, and be protected from the threat of domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment. Feminism advocates a woman’s right to work, to earn equal pay for equal work, to own property, and to conduct business independent of male control.

If I were to ask 100 American evangelicals if they thought that women should be denied any of the rights above, I doubt that any would say no. But, I doubt that more than 10% would be okay if I called them a feminist. While the movement for women’s rights actually has a biblical basis, and its early leadership  had an evangelical background, feminism is rejected by most evangelicals as political movement meant to advance women’s rights beyond that of men. And for women that love their sons, their husbands, their fathers, their brothers, their nephews, and their male friends, modern feminism is perceived to be too anti-man.

I will resist the temptation to get into the social-psychology that might be involved in the feminist movement today and its leaders. But, let it be said that movements arise for a reason. Movements are established in order to oppose a real or perceived injustice.

Was Jesus a feminist?

In 2013, Sarah Bessey published Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of WomenThe book is a popular appeal to evangelical women to reconsider traditional teachings on women’s roles in the church. It contains a lot of stories from Bessey’s own experiences as a woman in ministry and church leadership. Her use of the term “feminist” in the title was more provocative than indicative of a substantive study of Jesus’ view of women. Frankly, it left me wanting, and a bit irritated by the fireside chat tone. I don’t like and don’t need difficult questions of theology served up with a cup of tea and cookies. I like my theology direct, plain, and “like a man,” thank you.

But, I’m not a man. I’m a woman. But, how should that difference or differences between the sexes affect our lives and our involvement in Christian circles, if indeed, we are believers in the inerrancy of the Bible? I’m not totally sure, yet. But, I know that in my eight years of formal ministry that I have more questions now about traditional views of women in ministry than I did when I started. Biblical passages such as Acts 2:17 have taken on new depths of meaning for me. I have seen that God has, indeed, poured out His Spirit on all people. I have not only been in the presence of “sons of God” when they have prophesied, but I have also heard “daughters of God” utter words prompted by the Holy Spirit that have been prophetic. Spiritual gifts are not gender specific.

I have discovered that women matter profoundly to the advancement of the kingdom of God, and not just in the sphere of the home. I have discovered that God has gifted all of us to minister. Our lives are to be measured by more than a standard of femininity established by our culture. We might be a Martha, but we all have a right to be a Mary without limitations or shame.

Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross.  They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another.  A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about hem, never retreated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious.  There is not act, no sermon, no parable in that whole Gospel that borrows it pungency from female perversity; nobody could possible guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.

— Dorothy Sayers, Are Women Human?

Complementarian or Egalitarian

Last year, when I first determined to better understand my calling, my faith tradition, my culture, and whether or not Jesus was a feminist, I amassed a short reading list from different sides of the Biblical feminism debate.

Here is what I started with:

I’ve worked through most of my list, and have read a few more along the way, namely, Daughters of the Church by Ruth Tucker and Walter Liefeld. My list is probably a bit unbalanced. It is a bit weighted on the pro “Christian feminist” (egalitarian) side, rather than the traditional complementarian side of the debate. I did this because I come from a faith tradition that has generally emphasized complementarianism.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with that terminology, complementarianism interprets the Bible’s view of women to be complementary to that of men. Women are equal in value but they have different roles in the church. In simple terms, women are not permitted to be preachers or pastors or have authority over men.

Complementarian circles hold to patriarchal views of the church and society. In my experience with complementarianism, women are not necessary dismissed as unimportant, but they are limited in the exercise of certain spiritual gifts. Moreover, the emphasis is that men, in their psychological and physical makeup, are superior to women as leaders, and in some extreme circles, as humans.

Key Bible passages in the debate:

  • 1 Timothy 2:9-15
  • 1 Corinthians 14
  • 1 Timothy 3:1-13
  • Titus 1:6-9

I have not written out the English translation of the above passages on purpose. What little I know of the two sides, the correct translation of the original Greek is key to right interpretation and to determining whether or not traditional roles are indeed biblical or just cultural restrictions taught passed on as divine truth.

What do you think?

  • Did Jesus push the cultural limits of his time in the way he interacted with women?
  • If yes, why? And what implications might this have for the role of women in church and society?
  • If women are to be completely silent in all churches in all time periods, as some believe the Apostle Paul taught, then why does the apostle also instruct the women to pray during the worship service with their heads covered?