2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the first women in the UK obtaining the right to vote. None can deny that the movement of feminism has changed the world like no other movement in history.
The word “feminism” usually encompasses a broad range of political, ideological and social movements that unite under the goals of political, social, economic and personal equality and liberty for women. Throughout its history however, feminist campaigns have come up against opposition from all sides- from political and legal obstacles, to opposing social movements, to culturally-engrained sexism and discrimination. However, in the eyes of many, one of the greatest historical enemies of feminism in the West, and especially in the UK, has been the archaic, patriarchal, socially-deaf, and often down-right sexist, Evangelical Christian Church.
I can certainly see why the Evangelical Church is often viewed as a beastly enemy of feminism. The Western church has a long and unpleasant history of supressing and discriminating against women. And many view the bible as full of sexist teachings that curb women’s rights, depict women as the inferior sex, vindicate discrimination and abuse, and portray a God who punishes women for simply being women. But is this the real Christianity? Is Christian faith at complete odds with feminism? Or can one be both a faithful Christian and a passionate feminist?
This article has three sections. Firstly I am going to put feminism in its historical context with a “brief history of feminism”. And then I’m going to unpack the bible’s teaching on two key pillars of feminism: equality and liberty.
And this point I want to give some words of warning. Firstly, feminism is a huge topic and in trying to give a comprehensive sweep of the subject, I will inevitably miss a lot of the details and nuances. In addition there is a lot I still have to learn about feminism and the societal struggles women face. And so no doubt whatever I write on the topic, some will take issue with it being an over-simplified, abridged or maybe unrepresentative summary of the issues at hand. I apologies for this, and give you my commitment that I have tried my best to be historically and sociologically accurate given the need for brevity.
Secondly I am aware that this is a powerfully emotive subject for many. And I guess some will feel suspicious or even angry at the idea of a male Christian writing a blog about feminism at all. My aim with all my articles is never to cause offence or pick a fight. I always try to lay down objective facts and draw logical conclusions- in this case I simply want to go through the historical and sociological facts about feminism and then simply unpack what the bible says on the topic. If I do inadvertently cause offence, I apologise and seek forgiveness unreservedly.
1. A Brief History of Feminism
The word “feminism” first appeared in the UK in the 1890s and in the USA in 1910s. Historians usually divide the modern history of feminism into three “Waves” (although there is plenty of debate surrounding this categorisation).
First Wave Feminism spanned the 19th and early 20th Centuries. During the 19th Century, the main focus of feminist campaigners was on women’s rights to child custody and property ownership. Then at the turn of the century, focus shifted to equal rights to vote (“suffrage”). This is was the era of inspiring figures such as the political leader Emmeline Pankhurst who was named in Time Magazine’s “100 Most Important People of the 20th Century”, and campaigner Emily Davison who died after being hit by King George V’s horse the 1913 Derby while purportedly clutching a suffragette flag. Interestingly, Emily Davison was also a passionate Christian. First wave feminism was thus propelled largely by the principle of equality of men and women in the sight of the law, with the end goals often being new or amended acts of parliament.
Second Wave Feminism started in 1960s and broadened the focus, from overturning legal obstacles to equality, to a range social issues including: sexuality, family, workplace culture, co-education, popular culture, and domestic abuse including marital rape. Rather than tackling political legislation (although that still continued around the world), the broad aim of Second Wave Feminism was to fight cultural and structural inequality. This period saw the creation of the National Organisation for Women (USA) whose purpose was to champion equality in the workplace, co-education becoming increasing established across the West, and the song “I Am A Women” by Helen Reddy1 becoming somewhat of a feminist anthem.
Third Wave Feminism began in the early 1990s, and was driven by the principles of individualism, diversity and sexual liberalisation. There were a number of key campaigns that made this Wave distinctive from the prior two. Firstly, there was big social movement to establish a post-structuralist view of gender, departing from binary male-female categorisation. Secondly, there was a drive to demonstrate that accesses to contraception and abortion provision are basic human reproductive rights. And thirdly, there was the championing of women’s right of sexual expression in physical attire, leading to so-called “slutwalk” rallies around the world.
Of course these campaigns are far from over, both in the UK and around the world. There is still a vast gender pay gap in many areas of employment, gender-based discrimination can be found in nearly every area of society, and the news has been saturated these past few years with report after report of sexual abuse of women in Hollywood, television, business and politics.
So what does Christianity say to all these issues, and to the movement of feminism in general? I want to spend the remainder of this article looking at two of the major pillars that underpin the feminist movements and causes: equality and liberty.
2. Equality: Men and Women are of Equal Worth
The principle that men and women are of equal worth, in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of society, drove much of First and Second Wave Feminism respectively.
And from my understanding of the bible, I believe that Christianity stands fully and proudly behind the principle that men and women are of equal worth. There are two places in the bible to which I want to turn: creation and the ministry of Jesus.
According to the bible, human life has intrinsic, objective, immense value, which comes from our being God’s beloved creations, made in His image, and with propensity to live in familial relationship with Him. The first mention of this intrinsic value comes in the biblical creation account, and notably men and women are both included as equals:
“So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
(Genesis 1:27, NIV)
Not only that, but when sin enters the world, with it comes marital inequality- not as a command but as a by-product of evil. When Adam and Eve rebel against God and eat the forbidden fruit, God proclaims multiple curses on the man and woman, including:
To the woman he [God] said,
“…Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”
Inequality between the sexes in not a command here; it is a curse! God never wanted there to be inequality between the sexes, but is spawned out of mankind’s evil, sinful rebellion against God’s perfect created order.
Ministry of Jesus
So we have seen that the intrinsic equality of value stems from creation. However, when we get to the gospels, we see that the ministry of Jesus was radically pro-equality.
Jesus ministered and lived in 1st Century Israel, where the culture was very patriarchal and oppressive towards women. Women generally did not work paid jobs, had very few legal rights, and their testimonies were not even valid as evidence in court. And into this scene, Jesus came and proclaimed a society-shaking, radical, shockingly counter-cultural message of equality between the sexes. Let me give you a few examples.
Firstly, Jesus had multiple female disciples. Here is an excerpt from the gospel of Luke:
“After this, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.” (Luke 8:1-3)
The fact that Jesus had female disciples may seem trivial to us. However, in that cultural, the idea of women travelling around with a group of men would have been highly questionable and bizzare, never mind women having the title of a “disciple”.
Secondly, Jesus somewhat surprisingly refers to a feminine God. As the Christian writer and historian Amy Orr-Ewing writes:
“[Jesus] portrays God in feminine form. In Luke 15 Jesus follows a parable about a shepherd searching for a lost sheep with a parable about a woman searching for a lost coin. God is depicted as a woman down on her hands and knees, searching through her house for a coin. This passage follows on from Jesus’ statement likening himself to a mother hen: ‘O Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those send to you, how often I have longed to gather you children together; as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings’ (Luke 13:34). Not only does Jesus teach women theology, he also uses feminine imagery in his parables; but he goes further even than this when he speaks of God using feminine language and imagery”2
This would have caused many theological heads to turn. Granted, Jesus still referred to God as “Him” and used lots of male images of God as well. However, this feminine portrayal of God by Jesus shows that his teaching upheld and revered the status of women, which would have been radically novel to the religious scene at the time.
But most powerfully of all, Jesus affirmed the value he saw in woman through His resurrection. The historical claim that Jesus died and rose again is the central fact on which the whole of Christianity hangs. As the apostle Paul writes: “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith”3. So the resurrection had the job of vindicating all of Jesus’ life and ministry. And when Jesus rose, the people to whom he chose to first reveal Himself and entrust with the task of spreading the news of the resurrection were not the twelve male disciples, but his female friends Mary Magdalene and another Mary4. As the philosopher Dr Ravi Zacharias summarised:
“When He [Jesus] revealed Himself in the resurrection, he went completely against the climate and the culture of the time. He revealed Himself first to the women who had come to the tomb, whose testimony was not even valuable in court at that time. So… see the special place He gives to womanhood and the glory he has crowned [on them]”.5
So the bible tells of a Jesus whose ministry championed equality in value between the sexes, which was radically counter cultural at the time. Thus on the principle of equality, I believe that feminism and Christianity share a lot.
3. Liberty: Women Have the Right to Do What They Want
I now move onto the principle of liberty, which drove a lot of the campaigns in Second and Third Wave feminism surrounding sexual, gender, reproductive freedoms as well as societal and vocational equality in opportunities. This is historically where feminists and the Church have met at loggerheads.
The Collins English Dictionary defines “liberty” as: “the freedom to live your life in the way that you want, without interference from other people or the authorities”. Many people see the church and bible as the exact opposite of this- they view the church as a patriarchal, authoritarian organisation whose mission in life is to interfere in people’s lives and stop them living the way they want to.
From my observations: there are five main specific issues of liberty on which Christianity and feminism often appear totally opposed: abortion, sexuality, gender self-identification, gender roles in marriage, and gender roles in church.
These issues of liberty and Christianity need to be unpacked further, but within the framework of two key biblical doctrines:
- Salvation by faith, not works
- The authority of God
Salvation by Faith, Not Works
As we have already seen in Genesis 3, that the bible teaches that all humanity has rebelled against God and chosen to live life our own way, not God’s way; the bible calls this “sin”. And because God is a God of justice, He has to judge and punish sin in what the bible calls “hell”. However, because He loves us, God provided a way for us to be free from sin and escape judgement. C.2000 years ago, God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to walk the Earth and to die on a cross. On the cross, Jesus took upon Himself all the sins of the world, and with them, the judgement and punishment that we deserve. In dying on the cross, Jesus offers us the gift of forgiveness from sin and eternal life in paradise with God. And in order to accept this gift, we simply need to have faith: that means repenting from sin and trusting God as our Saviour and King.
The relevant point to feminism here is that the commands in the bible are not given so that we can earn our way into God’s good books or climb our way up the moral ladder to Heaven. As Romans 3:20 says: “…no one with be declared righteous in God’s sight by works of the law”. Rather the bible’s commands are given so that people who have chosen to trust God as their King and Saviour know how to subsequently live as willing followers of God. Christians obey God’s commands not to get saved, but as a result of being saved and wanting to follow Him.
Therefore, it is never a Christian’s right or responsibility to impose or enforce the bible’s commands on those who do not follow Jesus. If one cannot earn one’s way into Heaven, it is illogical to try to make anyone behave according to God’s commands without them first having chosen to have faith. In theological terms, this is the principle of “separating church and state”.
So when feminists campaign for the right to sexual freedom, sexual expression, gender self-identification or abolition of gender roles, it seems doctrinally absurd (to me at least) for the church to get in their way. The church should proudly proclaim the message of Jesus- that forgiveness and eternal life is available to those who have faith in Him. However, the gospel allows everyone the liberty to ignore that gospel message and live life as they please, and the church should not try to change that.
I do have to add one caveat however. There is a kind of exception to this when it comes to Christ’s command to “love thy neighbour”6. This is part of the “greatest commandment” given by Jesus. And therefore, Christians with legislative or political power have the God-given duty to use their power to love their neighbours. So, for an example, I would support the illegality of murder, rape or theft, for in imposing these laws (which find their root in the bible), I am doing a loving act to potential victims in the country.
It is for this reason that the church and feminism lock horns over the topic of abortion. The bible says that human life has value (as we saw in Genesis 1), and that that value begins at conception7. Therefore, Christians historically have opposed the liberalisation of abortion on the grounds that preventing abortions is an act of love towards their unborn neighbours.
So Christians should not impose God’s law on those who do not follow Him, for we are saved by faith, not works. However, Christians also need to balance this with their command to use their resources, including legislative power, to love their neighbours. That is often complex!
The Authority of God
However, there is a flip-side to this. The bible does teach several things that appear to be inconsistent or opposed to some of the campaigns of feminism. For example, the bible teaches that:
- Abortion is morally equivalent to taking the life of a child or adult7
- Marriage is between one man and one woman8
- Sex is be kept for within a marriage9
- Homosexual sex is prohibited10
- People should not act (or dress) in ways that will tempt others to sin (e.g. to lust)11
- There are distinct and different gender roles within marriage12
I do not have the time here to unpack what all of these passages say and how they apply to life today. But the point to be made is that God does given commands that curb our perceived liberties and directly oppose the principles behind some of the feminist campaigns. But nonetheless, Christians ought to obey these commands as they, by definition, believe that the commands come from a higher authority than feminist movements or indeed anything else in the world.
But how do these non-libertarian commands square with a God who apparently upholds the equality of the sexes? How can a pro-equalities God be so anti-liberty?
Let me answer with an analogy. If a 40 year old white male comes to see me in my doctor’s clinic with sustained high blood pressure, I would most likely prescribe him a drug called ramipril (obviously providing no other contributing factors such as allergies or contraindications). However, if a 40 year old black male comes to see me with sustained high blood pressure, I would most likely prescribe him a drug called amlodipine. Ramipril and amlodipine are two totally different drugs, with very different mechanisms. So why the difference? Am I being racially discriminatory?
Of course, this is not racial discrimination; I would simply be following the guidelines set by the official guideline-setting body NICE (National Institute of Clinical Excellence), who state that the first line anti-hypertensive medication changes depending on race. NICE writes their guidelines based upon reviewing and assessing the scientific and clinical evidence from drug studies. I, like all doctors, have not read every scientific study on every drug I prescribe. However, I know that NICE has a good track-record of producing evidence-based and effective guidelines, and so I trust and obey their guidelines.
In some sense, my relationship with God is similar. God gives commands and sometimes I can see the reasoning behind them, and understand the good that comes from obeying certain instructions. However, there are also several commands that I honestly have little clue as to why they are in there. Some commands I see the reasoning behind, others I do not.
However, in the essence of being a Christian is the humility to admit that God knows far more than I do, for He is God and I am not. And therefore, because of His track record for what He has done in the world, I trust that His commands are what is best, even if I cannot see why. Some of the commands listed above I can see the reasoning behind, but others I do not. But regardless, as a Christian, I desire to follow God and trust Him for I believe He knows best and means best.
Therefore I defend Christians’ right to hold back their endorsement of or involvement in feminist liberty- not because Christianity is sexist, or anti-women, or anti-equality, or even anti-liberty; rather it is because Christians believe that God gives good commands from a place of knowing what is best, and so wish to follow Him, even if it is against the flow of society.
So what would God think about feminism? The bible tells us that God gives equal and immense value to both sexes, and thus legal and societal equality is a very godly pursuit. However God also gives commands in the bible. These are not there so we can earn our way to Heaven. Rather they are given because God knows what is best for us, and so those who have chosen to follow and trust God, can do so with His help. At times, these commands can seem in opposition to feminist principles. However, I for one, trust God with my life, and so will endeavour to obey His commands, even if they go against the powerful flow of society.
- Amy Orr-Ewing, Why Trust the Bible?, Intervarsity Press (2005), p89-90
- 1 Corinthians 15:14 (NIV)
- Matthew 28:1-10
- Ravi Zacharias, Q&A on Atheism, Feminism and the Bible at Penn State University. Link can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fpmu42g6mDs&feature=youtu.be
- Matthew 22:38
- E.g. Psalm 139:13-18, Jeremiah 1:5, Psalm 51:5
- E.g. Genesis 2:24-25
- E.g. Ephesians 5:3, Hebrews 13:4
- E.g. Romans 1:26, see also Is God Anti-Gay?
- E.g. Romans 15:1-2
- E.g. Ephesians 5:21-33