Feminism: Babies and Bathwater image

Feminism: Babies and Bathwater

Few words have the potential to divide people more than "feminism". For some, it is a liberating, beautiful word, which evokes a hundred years or so of dramatically improved conditions and rights for women, as the culmination of a centuries-long journey from chattels to equal citizens. For others, it is a grating, even dark, word that connotes angry, rebellious, femininity-denying, shaven-headed loonies shouting about how much they hate men, hate marriage and hate God. Elaine Storkey's question from a generation ago, "what's right with feminism?", still produces answers ranging from "everything" to "nothing" amongst professing evangelicals. Like "humanism", it is a word that divides people into for and against factions that genuinely cannot understand the other side's position.

It won’t be a surprise to regular readers of this blog that there are several varieties of feminism with which I have no sympathy at all. Any feminism that regards a woman’s “right” to have sex without having a baby as more important than a baby’s right not to have its limbs vacuumed up in utero is appalling (though no more appalling than affirming a man’s “right” to do the same, of course). Essentialist feminism, which denies any essential differences between men and women other than the reproductive organs they have, does enormous although subtle damage to men, women and children. Marital feminism, which opposes any distinction in the parts played by a husband and a wife in marriage, is counterintuitive, ethnocentric and (more importantly) unbiblical, and often emasculates men and exasperates women. Anti-biblical feminism, whereby the scriptures are seen as chauvinistic and consequently stripped of their moral authority over our lives when it comes to sex and gender, simply expresses the age-old problem of rebellion against God’s rule, which goes right back to the garden, in a modern costume. And then there’s the increasingly common and somewhat odious too-cool-for-school feminism, which works hard to present itself as hip and ironic in contrast to the prissy habitus of classical (let alone biblical) femininity, and then directs pointed snark at various scriptural passages, labels those who still live by them as sexist, and actively seeks to marginalise, scandalise and patronise both the men and the women who attempt to live out what we might call biblical sex roles (as, we might remember, well over 90% of Christians in history have). From all such feminisms, O Lord, deliver us.

But as ever, there is the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are, after all, varieties of evangelicalism, and of Christianity, and of Reformed theology, and of Charismatic practice, that I find embarrassing and/or nauseating, but that doesn’t mean that all the others are damned by association. Similarly, with feminism, there is an important central tenet (the equality of men and women, including in their dignity, their carrying of the divine image, their redemption, their giftedness, their employment possibilities, their inherent value, right through to their opportunity to vote) that must not be overlooked or disregarded on the grounds that people have applied it unhelpfully. Not only that, but there are various sorts of feminism that I am increasingly being challenged by, and learning from significantly. Let me mention three.

The first is the sort of feminism that seeks to expose, confront and ultimately destroy the oppression of women by men. This is vital, bold, heroic feminism, that takes the full equality of women with men and applies it to marriages, workplaces, churches and societies where men abuse women. Where women are not believed to be as valuable as men in some way, all sorts of evils follow: sexual violence, physical abuse, emotional and verbal domination, human trafficking, chauvinistic mockery, social exclusion, selective abortion and infanticide, and who knows what else. When my wife was reading International Relations and Development Studies, she came home one day and told me that 84% of women in one African country said privately that they had been physically beaten by their husbands. A few weeks ago, I heard two stories of horrendous domestic violence in the space of a few hours: one in which a woman was physically assaulted by her husband on a weekly basis for over twenty years, accompanied by quotations from Scripture about how she should submit to him, and the other in which the woman, after years of violence, was eventually stabbed multiple times by her husband and died. The anti-trafficking organisation that my wife and I have supported for years repeatedly rescues girls (and it is nearly always girls) from situations in which they are being imprisoned, beaten and raped by men (and it is nearly always men). Women in war zones experience truly shocking levels of abuse at the hands of men; the statistics are immensely disturbing. It still amazes and horrifies me how many women have been told that they ought to stay with (and “submit to”) their husbands even when they are experiencing physical violence. And so on. Many complementarian men are aware of these things, and rightly recoil at them personally, but are not always very good at speaking out against them, raising awareness and money to fight them, or creating a church culture in which the dignity of women is so clear that such behaviour becomes unthinkable. But that’s what I want. In that sense, I’m a proud supporter of the feminist cause, and I’m eager to recruit you, too.

Secondly, I’m beginning to learn how to read biblical narratives from the point of view of the women in the stories, and it is doing me a huge amount of good. The Bible, as far as we know, is written entirely by men (a grammatical subtlety in chapter 9 indicates that the book is almost certainly Hebrews and not Shebrews), and if we’re honest, most of it is about men as well. So it is all too easy for me, as a man, to read the whole of Scripture as if God is male, Israel is male, the main characters are all male, and the women are just supplementary characters who occasionally appear and then disappear without advancing the plot - without registering that God is pictured as mother (as well as father), that Israel is often female, that the church is usually female, that wisdom is female, that the women in the gospels did rather better than the men, that the first witnesses of the resurrection were women, and that the whole story ends with a wedding in which God’s people play the part of the bride.

Within the big story, we as the church play the female rather than the male role, and the delight in being the rescued rather than the rescuer becomes more acute when you read stories as if you are Gomer rather than Hosea, or Ahinoam or Abigail rather than David. Most powerful, at least in my experience, is the way that women have a similar sort of outsider identity to Gentiles in the Old Testament - so I can read the story of Ruth, or of Zelophehad’s daughters, as if it is about me, since we are both people who would not expect to inherit God’s promises by birth, but are included by grace. When I come to the New Testament, I find women, Gentiles, slaves and the poor being given privileges that would only have existed beforehand for Jewish men, and that helps me read the gospels through female eyes, as the unexpectedly included ones. Especially Luke.

Thirdly, there is what we might call Pauline feminism, whereby we seek to develop women in ministry as per Paul’s apostolic team. For many modern readers, of course, Paul is anything but a feminist; he says wives should submit to their husbands as to the Lord, he restricts at least two types of public speech in the assembly to men, and gives a very male list of eldership qualifications. On the other hand, he wrote the most egalitarian verse in the Bible, namely Galatians 3:28, and if Romans 16 is anything to go by, he was far better than many complementarians at releasing women into ministry. How many complementarian churches have formally recognised women deacons who are trusted to present teaching, like Phoebe? How many would have a Priscilla, a Junia or a Mary, let alone all three? How many complementarian leaders would be able to write a letter greeting twenty-six fellow-workers, and have nearly half of them be women? It may be that the answer is: lots. If so, then that’s great; but if not, then I think the case for what we could call Pauline feminism is pretty strong.

So yes, there are various sorts of feminism that are unhelpful, odious, irritating or destructive. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. If feminism means (a) opposing the oppression, abuse and marginalisation of women, (b) reading the scriptures through women’s eyes, both in the big story and in the individual narratives, and (c) pursuing a culture in which women are released into ministry as they were in Pauline churches, then we need more of it, not less.

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