A recent article warned Christian women (and men, in parentheses) that Feminism Is Not Your Friend. It asked whether feminism and Christianity are incompatible.
This is a question many Christians on both sides of the aisle are asking. (For those who don’t know, “the aisle” means the divide between Christian complementarians and egalitarians. Complementarians believe the Bible teaches a spiritual hierarchy with men in leadership in society, church, and home, and women in supportive roles. Egalitarians believe this is a misreading of Scripture, and that men and women are equally gifted to lead in society, church, and home.) In any case, I’ve heard many discussions about this within Christendom over the last few years, so I was interested to see it come up again.
I wasn’t thrilled with the tone of the article. It came off as belligerent and flame-ish, possibly to get page views—or, says the more charitable part of me, maybe because the author really is passionate about the subject. Either way, I decided to talk about it because the article echoed some basic questions being asked by many: what is the proper relationship between Christianity and feminism? Should Christians call themselves feminists? Are those two terms antithetical? Even Christian egalitarians are divided over these questions. I should know; I identify as one, and spend time hashing it out with fellow believers.
This article addresses a twofold question: Do Christians need to identify as feminist, and should they, given feminists supposedly anti-Christian baggage? I want to address these two questions separately, starting with the first and most important.
At the most basic level, I think the author, Matt Walsh, is asking what many people want to know. Is feminism is necessary for one who is a Christian? Here’s a quote that seems to sum up a lot of his thoughts:
But why argue over this? If you believe that women should have equal protection under the law — good. I agree with you. Almost everybody agrees with you. That belief just makes you a constitutionalist. If you believe that women possess an equal inherent worth and dignity — great. I agree with you. That belief either makes you Christian, or brings you closer to becoming one. All of the ground is covered, there is no need for feminism.
In other words, he’s saying, isn’t Christianity enough? If Christianity teaches the basic dignity of all human beings, then is feminism just a redundant title that comes with some baggage?
After all, he says, feminism wasn’t the first to reveal the worth and dignity of women:
No, feminism did not reveal this. Christianity revealed it. Christ revealed it.
I totally agree! Jesus treated women, even outcast women, like equals (John 4:7-27). He instructed Mary and Martha to learn theology alongside men instead of doing housework (Luke 10:38-42). He made sure the first evangelists were women (John 20:11-18). And he never breathed a word against women leading or ministering. So yes, I have to agree that Christ beat feminism to the punch by almost 2,000 years.
But it’s a shaky logical to leap to assume that we should therefore see feminism as a redundant thing.
I mean, the Bible reveals a lot about the human heart, but I don’t therefore see modern-day psychology as a redundant thing. The Bible talks about marriage, but I don’t therefore see marital counseling as a redundant thing. The Bible talks about living in an orderly way, but I don’t therefore see our country’s law as a redundant thing. Human ideas, concepts, and institutions can explore timeless truths in new ways—albeit imperfectly.
Even though feminism isn’t perfect, it fulfills a couple of important roles that I think are needed. First, it helps reveal the aspects of sexism that we have become desensitized to.It brings attention to the subtle ways in which women are conditioned to step back, to shrink down, to obsess over body image, to acquiesce to men, to take blame, to accept second-rate treatment. The Bible is a great tool for observing that we are all “one in Christ” without gender hierarchy (Galatians 3:28), but patriarchy runs deep in our psyche, and the Bible doesn’t give us a blueprint of exactly how to root it out in every situation.
Second, feminism is an access point to the timeless truth of women’s dignity for those who aren’t religious. That alone should give pause to someone who believes that gender harmony is God’s plan for the world; feminism is taking that message even to people who can’t get it directly through belief in Christ.
Third, Christian feminists and Christian egalitarians believe that large swaths of the church have got it wrong about gender roles. Many believe that the church doesn’trecognize or address sexism as it should. They believe the message still needs to be discussed, and since they are a subset and not the whole of the population, they will adopt that extra label and try to draw attention to what they believe—much the same way that a Calvinist will identify as such to show her beliefs about predestination and God’s sovereignty, or the way a Christian environmentalist would adopt the “environmentalist” label to show that he thinks Christians should consider the environment more.
I hope the above examples show that all the ground is most certainly not covered just by the existence of Christianity as a dominant religion, and that feminists might legitimately see a niche for the movement still to fill. If anything, you must have your head in the sand to not realize that women are still unequal in today’s world. In many countries they have virtually no rights and can be sold like chattel. Even in developed countries, it’s common for women to be underpaid, undervalued, stressed out, and told by their churches and their spouses and TV commercials that they’re not enough (and then bloggers get after them for finding a movement that makes them feel halfway decent sometimes).
I find the claim that feminism has already reached its goal to be spectacularly unaware. And I’m not just picking on Walsh here; I’ve heard this from people inside and outside the church, all over the place.
And I want to pause on that word “aware” for a moment, because it sums up what I’m really trying to say. The reason feminism is not redundant is because it is an awareness movement.
Kate Wallace over at The Junia Project wrote a beautiful piece on this, and I definitely must give her credit for expressing it so well. She explains that, while gender equality is God’s timeless truth, feminism is the vessel that’s being used as a messenger to get that truth out.
In other words, feminism is to God’s truth what a Breast Cancer Awareness rally is to the scientists who are working to find a cure. They are two different things. One is truth. The other is the messenger that allows you to see the truth. But they certainly aren’t in competition.
Therefore, feminism is important—even though the truth is coming from Christ, and even though, as Walsh points out, feminism is not the first time that any woman anywhere has been treated nicely. If the world still has this many problems, and feminism is helping to call them out, I think it’s reasonable to see it as useful.
The feminist movement, like any other human endeavor, is not perfect. And yes, it is capable of being at odds with Christianity in certain facets. But it can still hold a great deal of truth, and many things about it can still be in harmony with my faith. That’s all I’m trying to say, really. Maybe a day will come where I feel like the movement has become all about things I disagree with, but, as Aragorn says, “It is not this day.” If someone else feels that it is “this day” for them, then they absolutely don’t have to take the feminist label. But they do need to understand the point of view of those of us who do, and be respectful of that.
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2: should Christians feel okay identifying as “feminist,” or are there too many moral compromises?