Do women have rights? A reply to Sarah Bubar

Today on facebook some of my internet friends and acquaintances were discussing an old blog post by Sarah Bubar. I’ve written and posted a response to Sarah’s article here because it was too long for a facebook comment.

Sarah Bubar’s article entitled “Do I have the right to have rights?” was posted quite a while ago on Mary Kassian’s website “Girls’ Gone Wise” and on a website with the name of “Unlocking Femininity“. (Two of the people who left comments on the second website seem as confused as I am over the article.)

In her article, Sarah claims that human beings do not have the right to govern ourselves, because we are not our own.

I completely agree that we have been bought with a price and therefore are we not our own but belong to God who is our Lord and Master (1 Cor 6:19–20). But I disagree that as God’s children and servants we do not have the right to govern ourselves in some respects, or that we do not have any other rights.

Autonomy, Authority, and Humility

Unquestionably, we have an obligation to govern ourselves in line with God’s will. There are several Bible verses where Christians are instructed, even commanded, to control themselves. Yet, while we do belong to God and are being led by him, God wants us to use our own judgement to make good decisions. God has given us autonomy; he has given each of us a free-will which we are to use. God does not want us to become mindless robots with no thoughts or feelings of our own.

Furthermore, while God is our ultimate authority, he has delegated some of that authority to us. We are his agents in the world, in partnership with his Holy Spirit who lives inside us. As his authorised agents we have been entrusted with the mission to bring God’s mercy, grace, healing and justice wherever he has placed us. God trusts us to make decisions and act upon them — decisions and actions that will be in line with his leading and his will.

Sarah Bubar seems to think that all women are “autonomy-crazed”, and that we believe we have “the right to do as we please”. I don’t know of any real woman who fits the description of being “autonomy-crazed”. I suspect this woman is a straw woman. Or maybe it’s an American thing (although the few American women I know don’t fit Sarah’s mold either.)

The vast majority of women I know are caring and kind, and we are well aware that if we are to live in harmony with our families and fellow believers, and with others in the world, there needs to be humility and deference. Contrary to Sarah’s observation of women, humility, deference and self-giving seems to come easily.

Feminism or Humanity?

Sarah’s article suffers because she has not defined some of the terms she uses. One of these terms is “feminism”. Sarah states at the beginning of her article that feminism is not the problem with influencing “the opinion of our rights as women”. She states that the problem “is us. Humanity.” But at the end of her article she asks her readers, “Do you take in all that feminism has fed us over the years and demand the right to dictate your life or do you submit to the authority that God has placed over your life?” So does Sarah think feminism is a problem or not? And how does she define feminism?

The Merriam Webster online dictionary gives a definition for feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” (My underline.)

Mary Kassian describes herself as a complementarian, and my guess is that Sarah does also. Complementarianism is a form of feminism because one of its basic tenets is that men and women are equal. The idea that Christian men and women are equal was quickly lost after the deaths of the first apostles and has only recently been rediscovered by many Christians. (I am amazed at how slow the church has been in realising that all human beings are equal and made in the image of God. Some Christians still haven’t woken up to these basic truths.)

In fact, while complementarians claim to believe in the equality of the sexes, their brand of equality is qualified. Complementarians insist that men and women are equal, but they also believe in a gender hierarchy where men have authority and women are to be submissive to male authority.  The complementarian concept of  equality is Orwellian: some are more equal than others.

I believe that advocating for genuine gender equality is a very good thing. I believe that women and girls who aspire to have similar opportunities, privileges and rights as men are women and girls aspiring to be who God has truly created them to be.

Rights and Responsibilities

Sarah Bubar’s article also suffers because she has not defined what she means by “rights”, or if there are parameters to these rights. Paul recognised that he had rights (1 Cor 9:4-6): he had the right (exousia) for nourishment; the right (exousia) to take along a Christian woman on his missionary journeys; the right (exousia) to be financially supported for his ministry work. Occasionally he decided to forgo the right of financial support (1 Thess 2:9). Paul was able to forfeit this right because he had the right in the first place. A person without rights does not have the ability to voluntarily relinquish them if he or she chooses.

Sarah brings up the woman with the alabaster jar to make a point:

Remember the woman with the alabaster jar who poured out her earnings as service to the Lord (Mark 14:3-9)? Her possessions were His, and she realized this. And in a picture of reckless abandonment, she sacrificed what was “rightfully hers” to minister to Christ.  (My underlines.)

So are our possessions rightfully ours, or do they belong to Jesus? The answer is “both”: our possessions are ours and God’s. The woman with the alabaster jar was able to make her extravagant gesture and give this expensive gift because, as Sarah pointed out, it was “rightfully hers” to give if she chose. (I wouldn’t say this woman was necessarily being reckless though.) I can’t go next door and take one of their belongings and then give it to someone else. I do not have this right. But I have both a right and a responsibility to handle my material wealth with good stewardship and not be reckless with it. This stewardship includes the responsibility to share my wealth with others who have less than me (Luke 3:11 cf. 2 Cor 8:12b–14).

Jennifer Anniston, Hannah and Jochabed

I simply cannot see the logic behind the point Sarah was trying to make by comparing the actor Jennifer Anniston with Hannah (Samuel’s mother) and Jochabed (Miriam, Moses, and Aaron’s mother). Sarah states that Jennifer Anniston has claimed that she has the right to have a child without a husband. What has that got to do with Hannah and Jochabed who both had husbands? And what on earth is “an attitude of maternal resignation”? Scripture portrays Hannah and Jochabed as proactive maternal women, not as passive, resigned mothers.

Do men have rights?

There is little doubt that the underlying point of Sarah Bubar’s article is to dissuade women from hoping for genuine gender equality.  If I’m wrong, Sarah, please let me know.

Complementarians, such as Sarah, believe that men have been designed by God to lead women. I doubt very much that Sarah would write an article which says that men do not have the right to govern themselves, let alone the right to govern their wives.

Sarah finishes her article by saying that, “Only God has the right to our rights.” While this is true in a sense, it is simplistic and misleading. 1 Corinthians 7:4 shows just one of numerous instances where we have rights that we should use wisely, graciously and responsibly. 1 Corinthians 7:4 states that a husband has the right (exousia) of his wife’s body; however it also states that the wife has the right (exousia) of her husband’s body. I take this verse to mean that husbands and wives do not have the right (exousia) to make a vow of celibacy without the consent of their spouse, or to give their bodies to people other than their spouse. (N.B. 1 Corinthians 7:4 is the only New Testament Scripture that says that a husband has exousia — the authority or right — of  his wife in the Greek. It also says that a wife the exact same authority or right. More on this here.)

In fact many people can claim rights from us. Our children, for example have the right for food, shelter, protection, an education and love, etc. Our parents have the right to be honoured, and they have the right to be cared for when they can no longer care for themselves (cf. 1 Tim 5:16).

Christian men and women do have rights, and we have responsibilities. It is how, and why, we exercise our rights and responsibilities that is important.

And let’s not forget our greatest right:

“But as many as received him, to them gave he the right (exousia) to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name . . . ” John 1:12 ASV


Postscript

Sarah wrote her article a few years ago but more than ever girls, women, and also men, are asserting themselves and asking for the right for girls to be educated in Pakistan, for women to be safer from rape in India, for women to be free to go out without being harassed in Egypt, for women to be allowed to drive a car in Saudi Arabia, for child marriages to be outlawed in Bangladesh, Yemen and elsewhere, for women to be spared the horrors of honour killings, genital mutilation, and domestic violence, as well as the crimes associated with unjust dowry customs, etc. I do not think there is anything wrong with women asking and even agitating for these important rights, in fact I think it is long overdue. Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, has written a series of articles entitled Girl Rising about the growing global empowerment of young women here, here and here.  The empowerment of women and girls, and the equality of the sexes, can’t come fast enough in my opinion. Ideally, Christians should be leading the way here.


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Complementarianism: A Traditional Belief of the Church?
“Equality” in Paul’s Letters
What did Paul mean by “A woman has no authority of her own body”?
The Women who Protected Moses
The (im)Propriety of Bible Women with Authority
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