Feminism, Theology

why I am a Christian feminist

woman at the well

So, I got an interesting question on twitter this morning. “John” asked me “how does modern day feminism and Christianity complement each other?” and it occurred to me that while I’ve talked a lot about how I became a feminist, and why I’m a feminist, and why I think Christianity desperately needs feminism . . . I don’t think I’ve talked about why I specifically identify as an egalitarian and Christian feminist, even though I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about why I disagree with complementarianism.

Even if I left Christianity and abandoned my faith entirely I would still be a feminist– in fact, if I do eventually leave my faith it will probably be because I am a feminist. To me, feminism isn’t about making sure that men and women are indistinguishable (and I would posit that feminism has never argued for that, even though it was painted as doing so): feminism is entirely about fighting for the marginalized, for the oppressed, for the abused, for the silenced. Flavia Dzodan said it better than I ever could: my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. Intersectional, meaning that as a feminist I will fight for equality for all people– for LGBTQ people, for people of color, for men damaged by the messages of patriarchy and domination. If I abandon Christianity, it will be because I’ve concluded that there is no hope for equality based on a thorough and deep investigation of Scripture.

However, even though I have deep struggles with the Bible and what almost feel like unanswerable questions about infanticide, genocide, rape, and the slaughter of innocents, when I read about Jesus, when I read the Gospels and then the following letters that circulated in the early church, I see hope for the oppressed. When I sang “O Holy Night” during my in-laws Candlelight Service, the words “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother– and in his name all oppression shall cease” shook me to my core, and I had to stop singing so that I could weep.

All oppression shall cease.

Christian feminism and its sister egalitarianism is about fighting against the oppression of women in the Church. We have inherited a long history of open misogyny practiced by many (if not most) of our Church fathers. Martin Luther called marriage a “necessary evil” and said that it’s better for women to bear as many children as possible and die in childbirth than it is for a woman to live a long life. Tertullian described us as “the gateway to hell.” Even biblical writers blame Eve’s weakness almost entirely for the Fall, taking the same approach that Adam did when God questioned him.

We seek to honestly struggle with these passages, to understand them in light of what we see as Jesus’ message. When I read the Gospels, what I see is a story about how Jesus lifted up the oppressed, how he exalted second-class citizens to equality. I see Jesus being born of a woman and Mary exclaiming:

He has done mighty deeds with His arm;
He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
And sent away the rich empty-handed.

I watch as his parents take him to the Temple, and it is a woman, Anna, who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and who speaks of him to all those “searching for redemption in Jerusalem.” I follow him through his ministry, when he speaks to uneducated women the exact same way he speaks to Pharisees and biblical scholars. I delight when he declares a woman has bested him when she says “even dogs eat crumbs from the master’s table.” I rejoice when he recognizes the full rights of women when he calls one of us a “Daughter of Abraham.” I glow with the pride Mary must have when he says that she’s chosen her rightful place to learn at his feet. I cry when it is only women who remain, following him to the tomb– and then dance when the Resurrection is announced by a woman, who is revered as “The Apostle to the Apostles.”

And it doesn’t end there– the stories keep pouring in. Prisca, who teaches Apollos a better way. Junia, an outstanding apostle. Phoebe, the deacon from Cenchrea. Philip’s daughters, who prophesy. Mary, Trephena, Truphose, Persis, Eudoia, Synteche, Damaris, Nympha, Apphia … and many others who go unnamed but labor side-by-side with the Twelve in spreading the Gospel.

I see all of these stories, and then I see a few scant passages with murky histories and difficulties in their interpretations, and I can’t accept that a few words we don’t clearly understand can completely undo the honor and praise heaped upon women– women who Paul says had been a “leader of many and of myself as well” (Rom. 16:2).

I understand why this is an ongoing conversation in the evangelical community in America. There is a tension here, between these ideas. There is a reason why many intelligent, perceptive people are complementarians. I disagree with them– sometimes, I disagree with them violently— but I get it.

However, I believe that all oppressions shall cease, and patriarchy– even patriarchy christened by earnest Bible-believing men and women as “complementarianism”– is oppression. I believe that this is one of the core ideas in the Gospel– that everyone, every person no matter their gender, sex, color, or status is equal. That under the Gospel, there is no bond or free or man or woman or Greek or Gentile. We are all one in Christ, the heirs and children of God.

To me, there is basically no difference between my feminism and my faith. The two are so integrally connected; all my reasons and feelings are tied up together. I am a Christian because I am a feminist– I believe that Christianity’s core message is one of freedom and hope. I am a feminist because I am a Christian– I fight for equality because I believe it is both the only moral, right, just thing to do and because I seek to follow where Jesus led.

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  • Terri

    My complementarian friends as well as my hierarchalist friends would reply that there’s no argument about men and women being equals–they just have different roles. Sigh.

    • This, I think, is exactly where the conversation needs to happen. Egalitarians and feminists assert that we disagree with complementarians about what “equality” means, and complementarians almost universally seem to say “nope. no we don’t. Totally think the same thing!” It is very frustrating.

    • Ugh, I hear you. Let’s go ask some black people how well that “separate but equal” thing worked out for them last time people tried it.

  • Well said. This is why I have come to consider myself a feminist as well.

  • Please, please! Don’t even joke about not being a Christian feminist! We need people like you to breathe life into the gospel.

  • I’m a feminist because to be anything else would suggest that the value of blog posts like this one is inherently less simply because of who it was written by. I have heard too many intelligent words by too many intelligent women who speak with too much grace and too much love and too much truth to believe that women are somehow inferior or incapable or less than men. The humanity of women (and thus the injustice of the patriarchy) is self evident. Any other position requires denying the humanity of women (either making them sub- or super-human), thus any other position is incorrect at even a basic inspection.

    I do so deeply love that line about intersectionality. I may steal it.

  • I am a feminist (meaning that men and women are equal and should not have roles determined solely on gender) and it is this very issue that caused me to dig deeper into church history, history of the Bible (New Tetstament), and eventually led to my leaving of the Christian faith.

    I do not see a way to reconcile the male dominainated worldview of the Bible with a feminist point of view, in my opinion.

    I certainly welcome yours and other Christians feminism, but it begs the quesion of why God has been so unclear as to allow over half of the human race to be discriminated against,abusively, in most peeople’s plain reading og the New Testament?

    Why not state clearly that men and women are equals-not just in worth-but in function or roles within society and the family?

    • I think the “question of why God has been so unclear as to allow ______” is a question related to the inspiration and recording of the Bible. I grew up believing in mechanical dictation (ie: St. Paul was essentially a stenographer), so the question of “how could God not make this clearer?” would have been a death-blow to any sort of faith I had, absolutely.

      But . . . “why did God not make this clearer?” is sort of a non-issue for me. I definitely understand where you’re coming from, and I think it’s a valid question that deserves thought. It does cause significant pangs for me occasionally. Most of the time, though, I treat the Bible no differently than I would treat any other book written during its time and sort of removed from any sort of divine authorship. “God being the author of the Bible” in whatever nebulous sense has little impact on my religion anymore.

      Coming to see the Bible this way is actually starting to enrich my religious experience, although it makes me a heretic to anyone who thinks “having a high view of Scripture” and believing in its “inerrancy” is necessary to be a “Bible-believing Christian.”

  • B

    If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend “The Chalice and the Blade”.

    • It is on my wish list!

      • B

        It revolutionized my view on several things. Especially women’s roles determined by the “current” god worshipped.

  • I think the “Incarnational” model of scripture, in which God accommodates inspiration to the humanity of the writers, makes a lot of sense for those who still want to understand the Bible as in some way inspired.

  • Watch out! You’re getting dangerously close to a model of spirituality that cares more about how someone treats others than about the correctness of that person’s doctrine. That said, I think the best expression of Christianity is in how it (sometimes, but unfortunately only sometimes) brings people to a greater understanding of the human tapestry that is life and of the value of each individual person’s strands in that tapestry. I don’t think that Christianity itself is required to get to that destination, but if someone feels their experience resonates best with that particular road, then that’s fine by me. Religion should be a bridge or a road, not a bludgeon or a destination in and of itself.

    And I love seeing posts like this. Feminism isn’t about bringing one group ahead of other groups. It’s about getting all groups to fairness. The arguments minorities make are arguments feminists could make and vice versa; the abuses non-Christians suffer at the hands of Christian zealots are to a small extent the same sorts of abuses gay people suffer. There’s not some persecution Olympics going on–many of us belong to one or more groups that are more dominant than others. I’m female and non-Christian, which are not dominant groups by any stretch, but I’m also straight, non-disabled, cis-gendered, and white–which means that I have to be careful to listen and not to act out of privilege blindness. Intersectionality is where it’s at and the more awareness is raised about it, the better. So thank you for this post.

    Whatever you end up at spiritually, you’re going to land on soft ground. (PS: If you need an ear, I’m just a “contact me” link away.)

  • This is exactly how I have felt about Christian feminism! (Side note: have you read Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey? I’m reading it now, and it is wonderful!) At a small Christian university, feminism is sometimes considered the f-word. There’s been a lot of misconceptions about feminism, but I think this beautifully outlines why being a Christian feminist is so wonderful and necessary.

    Furthermore, God’s heart is near to the oppressed. All of the oppressed. (Hooray for intersectionality!) These are the two things I love the most: God and social justice. It saddens me when other Christians don’t take it seriously. Thanks for your post!

  • Sarah

    Great thoughts, Samantha! I’d suggest reading about the abolitionist/women’s rights movement of 1800s/early 1900s. Many key women were involved in BOTH groups, not just the one. And many of them were Christians.

    I’d also suggest reading about the movement to end child labor in the 1900s. That was also led by Christian women.

  • I’m not religious at all, and If I was anything I’d be Jewish, but I read this and I thought it was wonderful. I wish I came across more discussion like this.

  • Cheryel Lemley-McRoy

    Raised in a conservative Christian fundamentalist background, I tried to embrace the submission principles taught to women. But seeing my own and other marriages crumble under those principles, I intuitively embraced feminism, while remaining a confused Christian. It wasn’t until I was called to become a Methodist Lay Speaker, that I began to study the Bible in anything other than English, i.e, Greek and Hebrew. In Biblical Hebrew I learned that, like French and Spanish, it has masculine and feminine articles, and the very rare word that is neither gender neutral nor exclusively masculine, is the word for God, Elohim. It is both masculine and feminine. The names and attributes of God are given in the masculine or the feminine. One Biblical fact not taught in the patriarchal Christian Church, is that the names and attributes of the Holy Spirit are in the feminine. My Hebrew professor believes that women are more intuitive to the Holy Spirit because of this. Also lost is the practice of the first century Church in Jerusalem of referring to the Holy Spirit as Mother God or God the Mother. While the feminine of the Holy Spirit was recognized in Hebrew and Aramaic, when translated into Latin and Greek, She became masculine. Most people believe that femininity was created with Eve, but She first appears in Genesis 1: 2, when She hovers over the waters. I strongly believe that if Christian women and men today were taught that they have a part in the Godhead, that they were created in the image of God (male and female created S/He them), and not taken from man to be a secondary creature, but that God when S/He created Woman removed the feminine attributes of God from the man, and created a new creature, then the status of women would be elevated to a place of respect. And that men’s and women’s attitudes toward women would change, and many abuses would lessen.

    • B

      I once got into a debate with a former youth leader (NOT a pastor. He was untrained and merely was paid to lead the youth.) at our former church about the book “The Shack”. I had found the book profoundly moving. Although not a theological book, the book represented God as a mother figure and the Spirit as a female as well. Having read lots of feminist spirituality books about the nature of God being both male and female, this book didn’t bother me in the slightest. I’d had spiritual experiences where I’d cried out to God and felt a motherly presence surround me and give me comfort.

      However, this ignorant fool was trying to not only ban the book from our church, but was on a crusade to show the “false doctrine” within the book. He didn’t even read it. He relied on his wife to read it, then relay the “false” parts to him, then used the Bible to back up his objection to the parts he found offensive. I attempted to debate with him based on the fact that, like you said, many of the words for God in the Bible are genderless or both male and female and that God can reach us in any way that S/He deems fit. In this book, God was a warm, loving, nurturing black woman. This was how the character in the book needed God to be.

      This youth pastor became belligerent with me. He exclaimed that in no way was God ever female. And the very fact that I, as a female, was arguing with him, a man, in the church was obstinate and I needed to go speak with my husband about my views so he could “help me understand the Truth”. He even spoke with my husband and asked him to “keep me under control”. It floored both of us because we have an egalitarian marriage and my husband had no problem with what I’d said. In fact, my husband even believes, as I do, that God is both. (Why we were at that church is another story for another day, but it was quite fundamentalist. As you can probably surmise.)

  • Cheryel Lemley-McRoy

    I wanted to add that when God created a “help mete” for Adam, that phrase has never been fully translated. “Mete” in Hebrew means equal, fitting, and appropriate. “Help” is the Hebrew word ezar. Ezar is a Hebrew military term used for a soldier who, seeing a fellow soldier surrounded by the enemy in battle, comes to his aid and rescues him. Rank is not a part of the term. The first soldier is neither higher in rank nor lower than the soldier being rescued. He is one who helps another fight his battles. God identifies Himself as our ezar in the name Eleazer. He is not in a subservient role to us. Interesting that our society sees women as damsels in distress, in need of a white knight, but God created us to be the rescuer.

  • I’m so glad to have discovered your blog! Your recent posts on Fascinating Womanhood have taken me on a trip down Memory Lane. I had no idea that book was still going around, but according to the reviews I read on Amazon, it sure is. I’m 56, and in the formative years of my childhood and youth, that book was promoted at our church. I don’t think my mother ever regarded herself as a “fascinating woman”, but the concepts therein were certainly right up there with all the other womanly Christian virtues she sought to instill in me. I don’t think she was successful, in part because I both pitied how constricted her own life was and deeply resented any hint that I would want mine to be similar. I worked hard to make different choices. But I was still my mother’s daughter, and I loved her and knew she deeply loved God – and those things were all tangled up together. Fast forward to today, and I am personally grappling with how deeply rooted those early teachings were.

    I “get” what you are saying about feminism and LGBTQ and and people of color and anyone who is oppressed. Yes, there is a definite connection! To imply or to teach that God himself wants it that way – oh, but nothing can be more damaging to a person! My own pathway back to a more spacious kind of freedom began first with the slow awareness that I MUST began saying “yes” to myself or risk completely shriveling up. For me, that involved giving myself permission to explore and ask even the off-limit questions. Rachel Held Evans’ blog and Peter Enns’ blogs have been so helpful. From there – Richard Rohr and David Benner’s books – leading to a more contemplative way of doing life and regarding questions and what I know and how I know it. Hint: it’s not primarily in my head.

    I want to share another resource for you, and perhaps for your readers: Abbey of the Arts.
    http://abbeyofthearts.com/ I’ve just begun an online class there for women called “Coming Home to the Body: A Woman’s Journey Toward Contemplative Embodiment” And here I thought a woman’s body, and a particularly a Christian woman’s body, was meant to be pretty, cared for by oneself but appreciated by others. My body as a pathway for knowing God? That is beautifully simple and profound and life-changing.

    Thank you for your honesty and boldness to Tell Your Story and connect those dots that you do. I have many similar dots in my background. Your story resonates with me, and I deeply appreciate that you have shared it with your readers.

  • Plenty of Christians and denominations agree with you wholeheartedly. I understand if you end up leaving Christian faith for personal reasons, but for theological ones, there are plenty of places that would welcome you. Sometimes I just let me friends in fundamentalist churches go on being what they are, and don’t spend my time fighting battles with them I can’t win. A friend of mine says “they are so not my tribe”. Personally, I think following Jesus is wonderful enough that, at the end of the process, I hope that you are able to find a church that values female leadership, rather than give up simply because some other churches don’t. Islam too has some pretty sick versions, but that doesn’t mean every version of it is.

  • I am thankful to see that my question inspired this blog post. I would like to add a little bit more of my own thoughts to this scene. I took a women’s studies class in college a few years ago which brought to light this entire movement , for me, in our society and with it brought a myriad of thoughts and opinions which I had to bridle in my mind and voice because I was very pro and very con to certain things along the way. Yet, I learned far more in that class than my other classes combined(because of the professor). Below is a partial, and small, end result of my opinion on Feminism in general.

    I think it is a tragedy for men to push or force women into certain roles because of gender but that doesn’t mean men and women do not have certain roles in society or even in their own families.

    I also find it irritating for women to become so forceful with their opinions that they become bullies in the process but there is a fine balance in this as well. To push and how much and how far should a feminist push before the agenda becomes overbearing for society and even the men who want to support and change their own attitudes? Christian feminists should beware of these actions because in doing so you can become that which you fight against and not be aware of these actions. Just as our hearts are sinful and deceitful, before God, so can our actions be that much more deceitful to ourselves and others if we are not discerning of our wills an agendas.

    It is a great thing to promote certain areas of feminism but watch out when that feminism oversteps its bounds. Because Feminism has become very political, political agendas abound and at times feminism sometimes seems to want to be dominate rather than seek equality. Don’t allow the skewed emotions to drive the agenda otherwise feminism will be no better than the politics we tend to curse as a nation because of the corruption so imbedded in the fabric of government.

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