Christianity and Feminism, part 3: Using the Tools of Feminism
In the first two parts of this series, I looked at the ways in which God’s view of women aligns with modern-day feminism and also at the reasons why Christians are hesitant to embrace feminism. Today, I want to lay out a few of the ways in which Christians can benefit from the tools of feminism — what does feminism have to offer Christians, especially in an era of #MeToo and #ChurchToo?
Terminology: Feminist scholarship has developed a vocabulary for many of the issues facing women today, and understanding this vocabulary can help Christians name the obstacles that women face in churches. Naming a problem is the necessary first step in addressing it.
Terms like representation and tokenism give us a vocabulary for talking about whether, and where, women are involved in ministries and leadership — and whether those women actually have a voice, or are simply present to check a diversity box. Churches can certainly address issues of representation without using this vocabulary, but being able to categorize and define a problem can be useful.
For another example, understanding what feminists mean by “rape culture” (an environment that curtails a woman’s ability to consent to sex while also encouraging men to not take no for an answer) is fundamental to fostering a healthy sexual ethic. We need to identify how unhealthy cultural ideas about women and sexuality creep into our own sexual ethics as Christians, and feminism has the vocabulary to help us think through the implications of how we talk about sex and sexuality.
Defining patriarchy: Related to terminology, feminist thinkers have spent decades studying the ways in which patriarchy permeates society. This work is essential to locating patriarchy in the church and identifying the often overlooked, but insidious, ways in which it operates.
Christians, especially evangelical Christians, typically view themselves as separated from culture. This attitude, however, blinds us to the ways in which the separation is smaller than we think and the ways in which we accept certain cultural ideas without question or examination. Because patriarchy is so deeply rooted in society broadly and the church specifically, we need all the tools we can use to root this sin out of the church.
Additionally, understanding how patriarchy works will help us to better understand both the bible and other theological texts. Thinking carefully about how patriarchal societies view women will make the counter-cultural elevation of women by Jesus, for example, especially clear — and can also help us better understand Paul’s writings about women in the church.
Understanding gender: One of the sticking points in arguments within Christianity about gender roles is the creation narrative, and specifically the separate creations of Adam and Eve. Some Christians argue that this supports specifically created gender roles; other Christians stress the earlier account that mentions the creation of human beings broadly, arguing that God did not create men and women to be wholly different.
Some Christians may be surprised to learn that feminists have similar debates. These debates may not draw on the creation narrative in Genesis, but they boil down to the question of whether women and men are actually different in their essence, or if those differences arise from our society. The one side, the gender essentialists, understand gender as fixed, with feminine and masculine traits that are universal. The other side sees gender as socially conditioned, “performative” in the language of Judith Butler.
I personally fall firmly on the side of gender as conditioned by society. But Christians who want to argue that men and women have God-imbued differences can benefit from understanding the secular version of the argument, especially since most gender-essentialist feminists want to balance these differences between the genders with a strong affirmation of equality.
Recovering women’s narratives: Alongside all of the theoretical framework, feminist scholars have done us an invaluable service by recovering the contributions of women in myriad areas — literature, science, politics, philosophy, and many others — throughout history. For Christians, writers like Lynn Cohick have reminded us of the many crucial women in the church in its earliest days; others write about more contemporary women who are often overlooked in the church’s stories of giants of the faith.
Feminist scholars have also recovered for the church the apostle Junia, praised by Paul as great among the apostles — but whose name was changed to Junias by later copyists and translators who refused to accept a woman apostle.
Highlighting important women in the bible and in Christian history isn’t enough to reverse the effects of patriarchy. But if we expect the girls and women in the church to learn from the examples of a David or a Paul, why not also expect the boys and men to learn from Deborah and Priscilla? Highlighting women allows other women to see a place for themselves in the story of Christianity, but men also need to hear these stories so they can make space for, learn from, and be inspired by women.
Feminism and Christianity may seem opposed, but feminist thought has much to offer Christians who are committed to treating women as human beings fully created in the image of God whose gifts and callings are not limited by their gender. Let us use these analytical tools to dismantle the patriarchal sins that harm both the members of the church and its witness to the wider world.