Christianity and Feminism, part 1: Feminism and the Word of God
Part 1 of a series on feminism and Christianity.
Oil and water. Fire and ice. Feminism and Christianity.
One doesn’t have to search long to find people who think that feminism and Christianity are incompatible. In certain Christian circles, feminism ranks alongside humanism and communism as a force that undermines all that is good and holy in American culture. On the other side of the coin, some feminists can’t see how an often patriarchal and even misogynistic religion could ever mesh with their ideologies of equality and empowerment for women.
Those of us who are feminists and Christians can often feel caught in a double bind, having to justify both positions to those skeptical that they can, or should, ever combine.
Over the next two weeks, I will explore how Christians can learn and benefit from feminism. But before I can get to that, we have to begin with the question: can Christians be feminists?
My answer to that question is an unequivocal yes. I base that on two lines of reasoning: first, I believe that the word of God — embodied in both Jesus and scripture — supports the equality of women and men in worth and dignity. Second, although Christians can dismiss feminism as cultural or worldly, feminism is doing the kingdom work of bringing freedom to the oppressed. The church ignores this work at its own peril.1
Today, I’ll be looking at support for feminism in scripture and the actions of Jesus; on Thursday, I will look at feminism as a liberating movement that works to restore the freedom and dignity to women that is so often denied by the sin of patriarchy.
Starting with scripture, the first thing to be clear about is that Jesus was not a feminist, nor was Paul or any other figure in the Old or New Testament. Feminism is a relatively recent movement that began by arguing, against the received wisdom of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, that women are not inferior to men by nature and advocating for women’s education and, gradually, other rights. While various western thinkers and writers since the ancient world have viewed women in proto-feminist ways, feminism did not exist in the era of Jesus.
However — and this is a big however — throughout scripture women are treated with dignity and respect, often very counter-culturally. Think of Ruth, not only a woman but a foreigner, whose loyalty to her mother-in-law earns her a place in the genealogy of David and Jesus. Or Deborah, who served Israel as a judge; or Hannah, a barren second wife granted special favor by God; or Esther, who saves her people; or Rahab, or Abigail, or Hannah, or Miriam.
It can be easy to read the Old Testament as oppressive to women, and certainly very few in the ancient world actively challenged patriarchy. But the frequency with which women play key roles in the Old Testament, from the midwives in Egypt to the prophet Huldah, suggests that God values women and uses them to do God’s work. Additionally, we frequently see vulnerable women being given special protection: the five daughters of Zelophehad, who are allowed to inherit their father’s estate, or Hagar, miraculously protected by God after Abraham sends her away.
And when we move to the New Testament, we see Jesus including women, like Mary and Martha; treating women with dignity, like the Samaritan woman at the well or the woman who poured perfume on his feet; healing women on the margins of society, like the woman with the discharge of blood. Women were the last at the cross and the first at the empty tomb. Jesus sends Mary Magdalene to announce the resurrection as the apostle to the apostles — especially striking given that society saw women’s testimony as unreliable.
Even Paul writes that in Christ, the divisions between male and female collapse, just as the divisions between Jew and gentile, slave and free — Christ levels all social hierarchies.
So Jesus may not have been a feminist in the modern sense of the term. But if we read the bible with an eye to God’s heart for the socially marginalized and disenfranchised, we find that God values women and honors them, and does not see women as inferior to men. And when the curtain in the Temple rips from top to bottom at the crucifixion, Christ throws the temple open to all, with no more divisions of any kind between worshipers.
Neither scripture nor Jesus require us to be feminists. But we can see that God values women and undercuts the patriarchy that oppresses them, which means that when we work to liberate women we are engaged in the subversive work of God’s kingdom that overturns worldly hierarchies. On Thursday, we will turn to the question of whether, and how, modern-day feminism does this liberating work.
I should note here that some Christians advocate passionately for the full inclusion of women in the church but choose not to identify as feminists. Feminism carries a lot of baggage, so I understand this decision. However, the work of these Christians on the behalf of women is inevitably connected to and shaped by modern feminism, so even those who refuse this label can benefit from understanding how the tools of feminist thought can support egalitarian theology.↩