A few years ago at the start of a worship session I was leading I posed the question; “What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word ‘feminism’?”
Responses were varied. I annoyingly can’t remember most of them. (I should have written them down. Why didn’t I write them down?) What I do remember is that no one said the word “biblical”. But they should have, and I am going to explain to you why.
To clear some things up, let’s have a look at the dictionary definition of feminism. Feminism: the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social and economic equality to men.
So are women politically, socially and economically equal to men? Some people would argue that they are. After all, women in the UK have rights, don’t they? Sure they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re equal. In UK parliament, 29% of MPs are women. And that’s a record high! Economically women in the UK earn 83 pence for every £1 that men earn. In the USA women earn 78 cents for every $1 that men earn. That’s just white women. It’s much lower for women of colour. Not looking so equal are we?
Misogyny manifests itself in many different ways, from the pay gap to the victim blaming rape culture we live in. Our culture is male dominated. One only needs to look at popular media to see it. Take “New Girl” for example, a comedy show about a girl named Jess. And yet there are 4 male leads, and only 2 women. The Bechdel Test asks if a piece of media has two named female characters talk about something other than a man. Think about your favourite film, does it pass? It’s likely that it doesn’t, and if it does, it’s probable that it only does due to a conversation about babies or marriage.
Just because (Western women in particular) have it pretty good doesn’t mean we’re equal yet, nor does it mean we should forget about those women who are in much worse positions than we are.
So why did I say feminism is Biblical? Well, quite simply put, Jesus was a feminist.
Women in Jesus’s time were treated as serious inferiors. They weren’t allowed to touch the Torah, they were in many respects treated as objects and were not given an intellectual education. Once married they were expected to keep house and give birth.
God however has different plans for women. We were created as companions, not possessions, and Jesus smashed every cultural expectation of women during his ministry.
He had female disciples. “Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, and from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them from their own means.” Luke 8:1-3. Or what about “The Lord gives the word; the women who announce the news are a great host” Psalm 68:11
Women didn’t just witness Jesus’s ministry. They were a part of it.
Jesus constantly spoke to women who were “unclean”. “And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone. She came up behind him and routed the fringe of his farmer, and immediately her discharge of blood ceased. and Jesus said “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you!” But Jesus said “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me.” And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, an dhow she had been immediately healed. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
While he was still speaking, someone from the ruler’s house came and said, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more.” But Jesus on hearing this answered him, “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.” And when he came to the house, he allowed no one to enter with him, except Peter and John and James, and the father and mother of the child. And all were weeping and mourning for her, but he said “Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But taking her by the hand he called, saying “Child, arise.” And her spirit returned, and she got up at once. And he directed that something should be given her to eat. And her parents were amazed, but he charged them to tell no one what had happened.” Luke 8: 43-56
In this passage we not only see Jesus allow a woman who was considered unclean for bleeding to touch him, but heals her too. He then goes on to touch the body of a young girl (corpses were considered unclean too) and resurrect her. Interestingly enough this is also the only recorded time that Jesus actually touched a body to resurrect it. There are plenty of other times Jesus publicly forgave or interacted with lesser women too. What about the time he spoke to the woman at the well who not only was a Samaritan, but was living with a man she wasn’t married to? (John 4: 1-26) Or the time he saved a woman from certain death because she had been accused of adultery? (John 8: 1-11)
These are only a few of the incidents in which Jesus was seen to protect women who were considered inferior by society, for whatever reason.
He raised women up within marriage. Previous to Jesus’s teaching, men were allowed to divorce for pretty much any reason, but women were not allowed to divorce their husbands. In Matthew 19: 9 Jesus forbids this, except in the case of sexual immorality. “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and married another, commits adultery.”
Jesus gave women a right to education. Luke 10: 38-41 tells the instance of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha. “Now as they went not their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen to the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” ”
In this we see Jesus refusing to force Mary into a stereotype, allowing her to learn from his teaching. Remember how women were not allowed to study Scripture? What clearer message could Jesus have sent than allowing Mary to sit at his feet, the traditional position of students to their teachers? Nor does he disparage Martha for serving in her way, both are equally valuable.
He even told a parable in which God is depicted as a woman. “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Luke 15: 8-10
I could go on, but this would end up being a very long essay. Hopefully I’ve shown you enough for you to be convinced that Jesus was indeed a feminist. How then can we apply this example and teaching in our every day life? I like to think everyone reading this believes in a woman’s right to education, nor would try to argue with me that women belong to men.
But we are all victims of the culture we live in. We all have internalised misogyny and the first step to fixing it is to recognise it.
We need to recognise that there is no such thing as a typical woman or man. Men are allowed to be sensitive, women are allow to be tough. Feminism is not about making women men, but allowing both genders to be completely un-judged for their personal traits.
We should watch our language and stop gender based insults. By calling someone a “girl” as an insult we are implying that women at their best can only be as good as men at their worst. Personally I’m very fond of calling people “babies” as an insult. Much better, no one wants to be compared to someone who can’t use the toilet and doesn’t know what a spoon is.
White Christians have to recognise that their experiences of gender discrimination will differ to those of people of colour and learn how to build up all races in their quest for gender equality.
We need to support abuse victims and recognise when we may be perpetuating a culture which blames them instead of supporting them. We are called by Christ to love everyone. We should actively show that love, particularly to those who may be isolated from the world, through no fault of their own.
As a church we need to be more welcoming of single ladies. Not everyone will marry in their life (Paul even said “To the unmarried and the widows I say that if is good for them to remain single as I am.” 1 Corinthians 7:8), and we need to stop making people feel like failures in their singleness, whether we are doing it intentionally or not.
Quite simply: Stop judging people based on outdated gender roles! Women can run companies, men can stay at home and look after the children. Women can drive fast cars, men can do ballet. Our femininity and masculinity is not defined by what we do. Our identity is found in Christ.
Through my studying of the Bible I have come to the conclusion that we shouldn’t limit women to certain ministry, or “female” ministry. Yes, leading other women is important, but if God is calling a women to go out and build houses for people we should support that, if God is calling a woman to a role in the church we should support that too. No matter what, we should support each others calling in Christ.
I believe we all have roles in the church, but ones that are not limited by our gender. We all part of the same body and we need to work together in the way that God intended.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28