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Can a Christian call themselves a feminist? Is the Bible anti-women? What about the violence against women in the Bible? And how should the gospel shape our views of womanhood?
These are some of the questions I’m hoping to address in this article. And before you read on, I want you to know that I am still trying to unravel them myself. I am by no means a biblical or feminist expert, but I hope these thoughts might have some bearing on how you view women from a biblical perspective. Whether that’s an idea you’ve never really thought about, or one that you have pondered over for a while!
The history of feminism
Before labelling yourself as a feminist or an anti-feminist, it’s first important to understand what these terms mean. So I’m going to begin with a whistle-stop overview of the feminist movement. Feminism at its core is the idea of equality between genders; however, this has played out differently throughout history. Many historians like to break feminism into waves.
The first wave of feminism came in the late 19th and early 20th century with women campaigning for equal voting rights and suffrage. Hence the name suffragettes. Feminism then transformed into the second wave during the 60s and 70s, focussing on a wider view of women’s rights to education, to equal pay and control over their own body. This was partially built around and influenced by the 60s ideas of sexual freedom and liberty.
Second wave feminism widened to encompass class, ethnicity and race much more than the first wave. Although it was not until the third wave that feminism reached full diversity. But this made it more difficult to create a coherent ideology.
As Britannica asserts ‘any attempt to create a coherent, all-encompassing feminist ideology was doomed. While most could agree on the questions that needed to be asked… the answers to those questions were bogged down by ideological hair-splitting, name-calling and mutual recrimination. Even the term liberation could mean different things to different people.’ From what was an initially united second wave, feminism began to split into different categories.
Liberal feminists focussed on concrete governmental and institutional change. Radical feminists would later begin the third wave of feminism to restructure society and patriarchal institutions. But it is another category of feminists that I want to particularly focus on. These are cultural feminists or difference feminists.
A biblical lens
Where radical feminists tried to persuade the world that there was no inherent difference between male and female (differences being seen as norms built by society), cultural feminists commended and celebrated the differences between men and women – an arguably more biblical view of gender. But what does the Bible really have to say about all of this? Well, let’s go back to the beginning. To creation, in the garden of Eden.
Genesis 1:27 is a seemingly simple but hugely profound statement: ‘so God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ Every single person, every single man and every single woman has been created with the very image of the creator. Isn’t that incredible? And every single person, every single man and every single woman needs to be treated as an image bearer of God. But did you notice what else Genesis tells us: ‘male and female he created them.’ God made males and females different and distinct but both in his image.
Many people will try to tell you that the Bible is misogynistic and backward, but that is simply not true. If feminism truly is gender equality, then I believe that the Bible is the very first feminist document. The earliest writings of the Bible were set down nearly 3,500 years ago. Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of Women’s Rights, which many label as the first feminist document, was written 229 years ago.
If the Bible is the first document to set out the rights of women, it was actually Wollstonecraft who was behind the times – over 3,000 years behind. I’m not saying that Christians throughout the ages haven’t persecuted women, and certainly some societies claiming to be Christian have marginalised and oppressed females. But this is not biblical.
Heroines of the faith
We need only look at the stories of courageous women recounted in both the Old and New Testament to see that God values women. Think of Ruth, who gave up everything for God and became the great grandmother of King David, or Esther, the queen who risked her life to save her people. Abigail, David’s fearless wife or Deborah and Jael, two strong judges.
In the new testament, Lydia, a woman, is recorded as being the first convert in Asia and throughout the book of Acts many prominent women are mentioned and held in high esteem. Priscilla who gave Paul hospitality, Phoebe who allegedly delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans, and is described as a patron of many including Paul himself. One does not need to look far to see that God loves, values and respects women. As equals? Yes, as equals.
In Galatians 3:28 Paul makes one of the most earth shattering and culturally bending statements of all time. It might not look like much to us: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Time and repetition have perhaps numbed the full impact of these words.
But rewind 2000 years. Imagine you are part of the early church, living under Roman rule. To Romans, women and slaves were of a subhuman category, not worthy of anything really except to be used to meet men’s desires. Paul takes the three greatest dichotomies of humanity Jews vs Greeks; slaves vs freemen and men vs women and says that all are one in Christ Jesus. All are equal. All can be saved. Wow!
Contradictory or misinterpreted?
Perhaps you’re thinking, but there’s so many other places in the Bible. Places that blatantly don’t respect women. And it’s true. 2 Samuel 13 recounts the horrific rape of Tamar by her half-brother and there are other accounts of gender-based violence against women. A couple of years ago, I went to a lecture on violence against women in the Bible and was exposed to these passages. But the takeaway point from the lecture for me was that these passages are descriptive and in no way prescriptive. Let me explain a bit more what I mean.
In these passages, God in no way condones what is going on, and in each the perpetrators receive judgement for their deeds. In the rape of Tamar, Absalom her brother goes out and kills Amnon who raped her (2 Samuel 13:28). These horrible stories are in the Bible to show the depth of depravity of the human heart caused by sin. These stories describe what was going on in that age and culture driven by sin, and in no way condone gender-based violence. In fact, they point to our need for a saviour in Jesus Christ to restore our broken world.
Well what about the regularly quoted verse ‘wives submit to your husbands’ (Ephesians 5:22). Surely submission is a sign of subordination and lack of equality? I think our misunderstanding lies not in the Bible, but in society’s misunderstanding of biblical submission. Submission does not mean allowing your husband to do anything he wants. This verse has been misapplied even by Christians throughout centuries to excuse acts of domestic abuse and gender-based violence. This is wrong. No, submission is not losing equality and being subordinate.
The Bible makes it very clear that the Holy Spirit submits to Jesus and Jesus submits to his Father, and yet there is equality within the Trinity. Submission means a taking on of different roles. Men and women are equal but different. It is also important to take Ephesians 5:22 in the light of Ephesians 5:25 ‘husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.’ Gave himself up for her. Christ went to the cross for us, submitted his very life for his church. Husbands also are called to submit.
A biblical feminist future
I hope I have managed to persuade you that the Bible values women as much as men, and calls us as Christians to love, respect and value women as equals because men and women are both equal in the eyes of God. But where does that leave us in regard to modern day feminism? Does that mean that technically all Christians are feminists?
Yes! But no! Depends on the angle you take. We currently live in a messy and confused world, especially when it comes to gender and feminism. ‘Feminist’ is a widespread label. There is not one single type of feminist, as aforementioned, and lots of people would use the same word but for very different purposes. This is where Christians should tread with caution.
Much of modern-day feminism deviates from scripture. Many Christians believe that feminism is too far gone to be redeemed. I have not fully lost hope in the label, which is why I have entitled my article 7th wave feminism in an attempt to re-centre a biblical view of womanhood and feminism (7 often being the number attributed to God’s perfection).
However, the question of whether or not a Christian can call themselves a feminist is, I think, both personal and trivial. Feminist can mean so many things and it is the ideology at the centre that matters. It doesn’t matter whether you call yourself a feminist or not, what matters is that our view of women is Christ centred and biblical.
Eve in exile, a book exhorting women to rethink society’s views regarding feminism, likens our situation to the situation in Nehemiah. The walls surrounding the treatment of women have been totally torn down by society and only rubble is left. But that is a brilliant opportunity. An opportunity to build the walls from a biblically sound, loving and Christ-centred way. We can go back to the blueprints, lay the foundations on Christ the cornerstone.
It won’t be easy. It wasn’t easy for Nehemiah returning from Israel and rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls to the taunts and threats of the surrounding nations (Nehemiah 4). It won’t be easy for us as culture and society taunts and threatens us. But if Nehemiah wasn’t thrown, neither should we be. We live in a time of opportunity for women like no other. Let’s take those opportunities and rebuild feminism and gender with God at the centre. It won’t be easy, but God uses all of us, even in our weaknesses.