Faith and Feminism

Faith and Feminism

Man ruling over woman is not God’s intention but a result of the fall and an indication of what is broken in the male-female relationship.

#MeToo. At the end of 2017, this hashtag went viral as woman after woman disclosed that she too had experienced sexual harassment or assault. The sheer number of women who shared stories of being shamed, demeaned, and mistreated serves as a powerful reminder of why we still need feminism today.

For many, the term “feminist” may call to mind images of angry, bra-burning, men-hating, abortion-loving women. But a feminist is simply a person who believes in the inherent equality of men and women and is committed to advocating for a world that reflects that equality. Feminism questions why, since men and women share a common humanity, one sex has more privileges, opportunities, influence, resources, freedoms, and protections than the other. Feminists also aim to correct this disparity by securing legal and political rights for women.

While Christian feminists may disagree with particular commitments of some modern feminists, including support for abortion, they share with them a fundamental conviction that men and women are created equal and that this equality should be manifest in homes, churches, and society.

But how do Christian feminists reconcile this position with the teachings of Scripture? Doesn’t the Bible assert that men are the head of the home and that women are to be silent in church? While some Christians certainly read the Bible this way, it is not clear that this is what it intends to teach.

Indeed, Scripture’s first word about woman is that she is created in the image of God. Along with man, woman is commissioned to have dominion over the earth: to rule over, invest in, contribute to, and care for God’s created order (Gen. 1:26-28). No indication is given of hierarchy, nor is a distinction made between male and female roles. As Lee Anna Starr, an early 20th-century commentator, noted, “Women’s God-given sphere is as wide as the earth’s circumference, as high as the firmament, and as deep as the sea” (The Bible Status of Woman, 21). In other words, women would have to step off the earth to transgress the limits of her divinely ordained sphere!

Similarly, Genesis 2 depicts the male-female relationship in ways that accentuate mutuality and companionship. Woman was created, the text tells us, because the man needed her. In the patriarchal culture of the ancient Near East, the idea that the man needed the woman would have been startling. Yet this is precisely what Genesis 2 says. Man was alone, and it was not good, so God created the woman to be man’s partner and friend.

Absent from these chapters is any indication that the woman is created to assume a supportive role to her husband or that women should not be leaders. In fact, only with the entrance of sin into the world does the man assume dominance over the woman. In Genesis 3:8-19 we sense God’s horror and grief as he describes for Adam and Eve the consequences of their sin. Man ruling over woman, it turns out, is not God’s intention but a result of the fall and an indication of what is broken in the male-female relationship.

While some might assume that this state of affairs is the “new normal” for men and women, the Bible teaches that there is more to the story. In steadfast love, God resolved to set the world right again, redeeming and restoring all that was lost in the fall—including the relationship of equality between men and women. Thus, in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, through which all things are made new, Paul can say, “There is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). And as we await the time when the fullness of God’s redemptive work will be realized in Christ, we are invited even now to lean into this new reality.

But what of that handful of texts (Eph. 5:21-33; Col. 3:18; 1 Cor. 11:2-16; 14:34-36; 1 Tim. 2:8-15; 1 Pet. 3:1-7) that seem to reinforce limitations on women, particularly in marriage and in the church? Don’t they clearly articulate God’s design for humanity? The short answer is: not exactly. In many cases, translation issues and convoluted arguments obscure the plain sense of these texts. Even more problematic, however, is that these texts seem to contradict other parts of Scripture. Paul’s prohibitions against women speaking in worship (1 Cor. 14:34-36), for instance, conflict with his words a couple of chapters earlier where he affirms women prophesying (1 Cor. 11:5-6). Verses that suggest that a woman not teach or assume authority over a man (1 Tim. 2:11-12) stand in tension with Paul’s commendation of the work of Priscilla in teaching and correcting Apollos (Acts 18:26), Junia in her work as an apostle (Rom. 16:7), Nympha and Apphia as leaders of house churches, and Euodia and Syntyche as evangelists or coworkers with Paul (Phil. 4:2-3).

Moreover, Jesus himself seems either unaware of or indifferent to notions of divinely ordained roles for women. Take, for instance, his approval of Mary for choosing to learn theology over attending to domestic duties (Luke 10:38-42) or his commissioning of the women at the tomb to go and proclaim the good news to the male disciples that he is alive (Luke 24:1-12). Throughout the gospels, Jesus shuns the patriarchal expectations of Roman culture and instead treats women in ways that reflect God’s original intentions as laid out in Genesis 1.

Given Jesus’ attitude toward women and Paul’s own commendations of women’s activity in the work of the gospel, it seems doubtful that in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:34-36; and 1 Timothy 2:8-15, Paul intended to impose a universal prohibition on women’s preaching and leadership. It is more likely that in these texts, Paul is addressing some disruptive behaviors by a specific group of women in the Corinthian church and that his comments are particular to this situation.

Furthermore, a close reading of Paul’s comments about men and women in marriage suggests that while he was not explicitly challenging the patriarchy of the Roman culture, he doesn’t exactly accommodate it either. Instead, Paul redefines submission in marriage as an act of Christian discipleship and mission. He calls both men and women to practice mutual submission as a sign of their identity in Christ (Eph. 5:21-33; Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:1-7). In other words, Paul was calling these early Christians to a radical discipleship that was countercultural in all kinds of ways, not least in male-female relationships.

Christian feminists believe that God still calls his people to a radical, countercultural discipleship in the area of gender relations. We live in a culture that continues to objectify and devalue women while at the same time perpetuating toxic notions of masculinity that leave both sexes alienated from what God intended for them. In this context, Christians are called to champion healthier understandings of what it means to be male and female, recognizing in each other the image of God and relating to each other in mutual love, submission, and respect. Let us, then, as followers of Jesus Christ, reach for a world where both men and women can flourish and where no woman ever has to say “me too” again.

For the CRCNA’s official position on women in ecclesiastical office, visit tinyurl.com/crcna-position.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What comes to mind when you hear the word feminism? What may have created that image for you?
  2. After reading this article, do you consider yourself to be a Christian feminist? Why or why not?
  3. This article explains one of two perspectives that the CRC officially recognizes on the issue of women in church leadership roles. What may be some of the rationale for the perspective of excluding women from church leadership?
  4. What are some ways you and your church community can champion healthy understandings of what it means to be male and female?

About the Author

Amanda Benckhuysen is professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary. She attends Kelloggsville Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (5)

Comments

I would like to encourage those who are reading this article that this is a solid reflection of Scripture given in a succinct manner.  Benchhuysen has a gift for taking intricate ideas and being able to present them clearly without watering them down!  Many pages could and have been written on the ideas presented.

The challenge with this issue for me in the CRC has always been the same - how can I as a woman teach about this other viewpoint?  If there are assumptions in place before I speak how can I start a conversation that allows for dialogue?  I have had the same problems with the word "feminist".  The term has come with expectations depending on the culture and context.   To use the term "feminist" requires me to explain more about what I don't mean than what I do mean.  "Christian feminist" also brings baggage for those I hold close who are not Christian.  

Unfortunately the context of words like "gender", "feminism", "Christian" and "God" in the secular world has moved to places that most of our local churches, at least in Toronto, have not kept up with.   Learning how to ask questions and listen before we use them to express our ideas may be needed to redeem them.

Amen!

There are several problems with this misinterpretation of scripture and of plain reality. First let me start with the misinterpretation of reality. The reality of life is all organisms that live in related groupings have a hierachy. Bees, wasps, herd animals, apes, chimpanzees, whales, elephants etc.

The Book of Genesis begins by giving an account of how this world and the universe came to be and this account is obviously deliberately given in a sequential fashion where the days are numbered and an account is giving of what was done on each day. It is like giving the steps to be followed in a recipe. The numbering of the days of creation is because there are 2 big events coming at the end. The last to be created is man, God says let US make man in our image 1:26  and God created man, male and female 1:27. However God did not create man and woman at the same time as he did with the other living things of creation. In Gen. 2:7 we read that God fromed the man first. In Gen. 2:15-23 we read that the God deals with the man, alone. It is the man who names the animals and in the process also comes to realize that not a single one of them is his counterpart or his helper. Now when it comes to the creation of the woman she is not created from the man's rib as a means of showing the sameness of substance that exist between man and woman. These days of creation culminate in not only the creation of man/female but also in God giving man an eternal gift, the Sabbath rest as the means by which days are numbered.

Now for those who are intent on seeing male/female as an undifferentiated whole I will point out that the woman is brought into a completely finished world as far as the preliminaries of order having been established by both God and man. God creates and man cultivates and names the animals. It has to be pointed out that man even names the woman. The woman does not get to even name herself. She is named by the man's interpretation of her and her function relative to him. And to add insult to injury the man names the woman a second time after their Fall 3:20. Certainly by now the woman should have been allowed to name herself but she wasn't. The woman is not her own person and she was never meant to be her own person anymore than the man was ever meant to be alone. The first recorded instance that we read of the woman naming anything is when she has her son Cain 4:1. In this way Eve asserted woman's authority over childbearing and rearing.

Now of course a natural question is why would God go to such great care to make sure that we knew that the man was cr eated first and that the woman came from the man after the man had performed the task of naming the living creatures? The reason why the woman came after the man is really quite simple, God was exploiting the built in natural tendency of higher order group organisms to defer to those who came before them because they know more. The woman was meant to be the man's helpmate and not his equal in the area of authority. You can't run an organization with 2 bosses. Even a behive as a rule has only one queen.

Therefore 1Timothy 2:13 is a prohibition on women occupying any church office that places them in authority over a man. In Acts 18:26 Priscilla is not holding any teaching office in the church but is just plain evangelism.

Male headship is taught throughout the Bible in circumcision, the sacrificing of male animals under the O.T. economy etc. In other words it is spoken of much more numerously than the author would have us believe. And the first place it is spoken of is in Genesis. 

I forgot to mention that in the Bible when God names something, such as man and renaming Abram to Abraham, it is an exercise of authority over then thing/person being named. Adam exercised his authority as God's vice regent over the earth, when he named the animals according whatever characteristic he perceived them as exhibiting. Likewise when Adam names the helper that God froms from his rib in the first instance he describes her nature according to her origin being from man and whe she gives birth to children he names her according to her biological function as mother. 

And as I already stated Eve exercises her authority over her children by naming them.

The effort to remove all gender distinctions in exchange for some kind of amorphorous common humanity has been a disaster for women. Now biological women no longer even own the right to their own gender but must share it with those who "think" they are a woman and are willing to physically and chemically mutilate their own bodies in order to be accomplish the fiction that they are some other gender. The war on women was begun when women decided to support abortion and engage in a war on the fruit of their own wombs. Not only have women suffered immensely under feminism but so have their children. Millions of their children are killed every year while they are in the place that is supposed to be the safest place for them, the nursery of their mother's wombs. Men no longer expect to have to stay around and raise the children which result from their sexual escapdes. Women must be both wife and husband now. And young girls suffer a profound identity crisis because they have no fathers to love them. And this results in them finding solace in the arms for the first man who pays them the slightest attention.

Men in America and Canada do not enjoy any Constituitonal rights that women do not also have. America is not Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or North Korea. Women have the same freedoms and responsibilities. There are more women enrolled at the post graduate level in many disciplines than there are men. Male college enrollment has actually fallen when compared to that of women. 

If a young girl in our society wants to succeed then she has to accomplish 3 basic things: graduate high school, don't have children out of wedlock, don't have sex at a young age and the last thing which isn't under her control is to hope that she grows up with a father at home. Any girl who lacks these things isn't being discriminated against by society but is suffering harm because of her parents' bad reproductive choices.

Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, theirds of the air and all the beasts of the field. Genesis 2:19-20

The the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, " This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man. Genesis 2:22-23

It is interesting that the name Adam gave to Eve is the only name that is recorded for us out of all the names that Adam handed out. Of course you could say that is because Adam is really a mythical figure and is only a teaching tool but if that is true then Christ also is a mythical figure and a teaching tool but then what do you do with 1 Cor. 15:45 where Adam and Christ are both referred to as historical figures who coordinate with 2 epochs in God's historical dealings with man?

In these verses we see Adam in his capacity as the vice regent of God's creation.

X