This terrific article was first published almost a year ago in Eternity magazine, a publication of the Bible Society in Australia. Michael Jensen, the author, ‘gets it’ on many levels and notes, “a Christian point of view has more in common with feminism than not.”
Michael Jensen @mpjensen is a Sydney Anglican minister (the rector at St Marks, Darling Point), an author, and he lectures on Christian doctrine and church history at Moore Theological College. He is also passionate about preserving and improving Special Religious Education in Australian schools, a cause close to my heart.
This article is posted here with Michael’s permission.
Perhaps Feminism is not the Enemy
If you are a Christian, is feminism the enemy?
At a recent marriage seminar I was leading, I asked a group of women (in front of their fiancés) what the hardest thing about being a woman in 21st century Australia was. They had plenty to say, starting at workplace inequality – not structural inequality as such, but the fact that as a woman they noticed that their opinions were overlooked. One woman had hidden the fact of her engagement from her employer, because of the expectation that she would be rushing off to have a baby and thus leave the company.
Others spoke of the pressure to conform to a social expectation of success in work, family and in appearance. Even more disturbingly, they spoke of their vulnerability to harassment and violence.
These were educated, successful and relatively wealthy women, and yet even so they felt that there was a bias against them in the world.
I asked the men what was hard about being a 21st century man. They couldn’t come up with anything.
Yet despite all this, many Christians think that feminism is fundamentally anti-Christian. Professor Mary Kassian of Southern Baptist Seminary and the author of The Feminist Mistake argues Judeo-Christian ideas about gender, marriage and the family have all but disappeared. She writes that “during the feminist era, all of these ideas were challenged and deconstructed” – which means that now “women grow up thinking that the essence of womanhood is the exercise of personal power (including sexual power).”
Kassian is in no doubt as to the consequences of this cultural shift. Under feminism, women, she says, have “been taught to be loud, brash, sexual, aggressive, independent, and demanding. They have been trained to value education, high-powered careers, and earning potential—and to devalue the home, marriage, and children”.
This has led to the higher prevalence of marital breakdown, she claims, with more women initiating divorce than men.
For Kassian, feminism is a specific ideology which directly challenges a ‘traditional’ reading of womanhood in which women take particular roles in the family and in society. In her view, “we are all feminists now”: feminism has so deeply permeated Western culture that we unthinkingly ascribe to its unchristian assumptions.
But I think there’s a couple of flaws in this thinking. I should emphasise that I write as a social conservative with a belief that men and women are made differently, and most happily realise their created natures in different ways in the context of family and society.
But what they all have in common is quite clear. As feminist Gloria Steinem once said: “A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.” The differences arise from how that goal might be achieved.
And on this basic premise, a Christian point of view has more in common with feminism than not. The profundity of the affirmation that male and female are created in the image of God is extended by the deep equality that male and female can share together in Christ Jesus. We can see how the consequences of the fall have worked themselves out in gender relations, as prophesied in Genesis 3 – and we can share with many feminists the concern than male power allowed to run unchecked has all too rarely resulted in the freedom and the flourishing of women in human history.
It is no surprise to learn that many of the early feminists were evangelical Christians. Of course they were!
That is to say: feminism is a response to a deeper problem in human relations – not the problem itself. Attacking feminism as the problem while saying little about the (for example) prominence of hate speech against women or the growing acceptance of rape culture is a failure to attend carefully to what is really there in front of us. It is a failure to analyze the depths of evil in a culture in a way that Christians should. It is killing the canary in the coalmine, while still breathing the noxious air.
One woman in Christian ministry told me: “I guess I’m feminist because the things I want for my daughters are: to not have to fight for equal pay, I don’t want them to feel unsafe walking down the street, I don’t want them to be blamed for their rape, I don’t want their opinions to be considered less important than her male co-workers . . . . It’s just fighting to be treated as equals.”
That being said, there are forms of feminist thinking, or common feminist opinions on certain issues, that a Christian would be troubled in affirming. There are forms of feminism that (in my view) sell women very short – to name one example, by claiming that pornography is not degrading of women. But there is enough internal debate between feminists that it would be wrong to generalise. There are plenty of feminists who would share with many Christians a pretty strongly negative view of the 1960s sexual liberation and its impact on women, for example.
In fact, if you make a sweeping generalisation about feminism – targeted at those feminisms which are openly hostile to Christianity – it may be heard instead as a trivialising the real suffering and vulnerability of women.
The sad thing is, I think, that we’ve spent more time in church worrying about the cultural aspects of feminism and the debates about women’s ministry in the church, but said far too little about the grave evils that so many women face, even in a supposedly enlightened country such as our own.
This is not to say that debates about ordination and ministry are unimportant. It is important to say that churches who ordain women have not thereby ended their culture of sexism; and neither have churches who don’t ordain women not done so because they are necessarily sexist. That’s a furphy, it seems to me. But can we have a discussion about how as churches we can be truly counter-cultural – by standing against the vile and violent misogyny that is so prevalent in our culture? And that means: can we see that our real captivity to culture lies as much with misogyny and patriarchy as it does with the feminism that opposes these things?
This poverty of cultural analysis has partly occurred because of lack of proper attention to the urgent task of reading Scripture in, against, and with a nuanced understanding of human cultures. Dismissing this activity as ‘trendy’ is a terrible dereliction of duty. It is the calling of preachers and theologians to read culture as the prophets did, not least so we can call it to repent; but to do so in such a way as we realise our own cultural embeddedness too.
We need to do this because Scripture tells us how dark and twisted our hearts are, and that we shouldn’t trust ourselves. We need to check and balance ourselves as we read the Bible, because we are very good at seeing what we want to see.
Here’s a 7-minute video of Mary Kassian being interviewed by Jennie Allen who seems to have some reservations (“fears” and “stresses”) about Kassian’s views, which she calls “complementarianism”. Jennie admits that complementarianism “rarely functions well” and that women are being hurt by it.
Why I am a feminist and an egalitarian (and why they aren’t the same thing) by Kate Wallace
How Christian egalitarians understand equality by Marg Mowczko
12 thoughts on “Perhaps Feminism is not the Enemy”
Perhaps Michael should explain why Sydney Anglicans do not support womens’ ordination. This seems to be out of line with the tone of this article and the affirmations of the New Testament ministry of women as beautifully explained by you Marg. Smells a bit of hypocricy to me!
I think Michael is being sincere, and I think he makes some astute remarks in his article.
I’m not sure what Michael’s views are on the ordination of women as priests and/or bishops in the Anglican church, but I do know that there are women ministers in St Marks. Disagreeing with the ordination of gifted women is out of line with the tone of this article.
I’m looking forward to the day when we look back on sexism in the church with the same incredulity that most of us have when we look back and see how the church condoned, with the use of scripture, racism and slavery. That day is coming.
Thank you for this article, Marg. I have spent a lot of time reading church history trying to find the moment or the decade when the role of women in the church changed and the church reverted to patriarchy and hierarchy. I often hear comments about “God judging” a nation because of this or that sin and I have often wondered if God is not really confronting and convicting the Church for her sin of the lack of love.
It is not easy to really love people. It is much easier to set up structures and rules and traditions. In the case of the modern church this involves business more than Body Life. I believe all these things including the division of clergy and laity keep us from really loving others and functioning as a gifted, living, moving, breathing Body of Christ.
If the Church is not listening I think that God will use the culture to get our attention. The culture should see loving truth within the life of the Church not institutionalized sin. I speak to so many young men and women who have walked away from church and it is because they do not see the churches they know in line with the word of God, Jesus or love! I think we need a reboot and not more discussion of ordination (don’t agree with it for anyone), feminism (agree with some ideas), racism (deplore it) or whatever.
Thank you for the opportunity to reply.
Hi Stephanie, I read quite a bit of church history too. 🙂
It seems to me that some Christians were quite quick at excluding women from ministry position as these ministries became more formalised and hierarchical. Ignatius the bishop of Antioch mentions several bishops and deacons by name in his letters (c. 110), and they are all men’s names. Yet he does mention a few women who were involved in ministry. (I hope to write about Alke, Gavia and Crescens’ sister, female members of the church at Smyrna, very soon.)
But not all churches followed Ignatius three-tiered pattern (one bishop, two or more elders, and at least one deacon) for church leadership. Other churches had less formal structures, and permitted spontaneous and shared ministry.
You may be interested in this article on the ministry of women in the first century, and at endnote 17.
Former slave and evangelist from the 19th century, Amanda Berry Smith preached around the world to thousands without ordination FROM A CHURCH…she knew enough scripture to know that Jesus had ordained her, as only He can do: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain : that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.” John 15:16…
As far as she was concerned Jesus had ordained her and so she evangelized thousands in His name. A black woman flying in the face of racism and patriarchy, hierarchy and institutional religion to get the Word out…what a rebuke to us all!
I have little patience with Mary Kassian’s view as well…how on earth is she teaching in a Southern Baptist Seminary anyway when women were banned from teaching there 16 years ago? Is she only allowed to teach women? In order to survive in such an oppressive organization it takes a compromising woman…and yes I believe she has compromised her principles to retain her status and become one who is willing to let principles slide to please the men in leadership. Frankly, I have just recently left all institutional meeting places and when I hear about women like this who have sold out to compromise and complementarianism I just shake my head and pray God will show them how two-faced they appear to be to some of us. She is like the women who walk around in niqabs telling others they love to wear the face covering…right…how wonderful to ‘let’ men lead! So where does Jesus fit in then? I thought Christian followed Christ…but women don’t? How many “heads” does she want.
I’ve found a lot of what Mary says to be without a real biblical basis or simply lacking logic. I’ve written a few posts in response to unfounded and faulty statements of hers.
I think Mary is only allowed to teach women. I find it interesting that she has the title of distinguished professor at Southern Baptist Seminary yet she doesn’t have a PhD in biblical studies or a related field, as far as I can make out. I don’t recognise her master’s degree, but I think it has something to do with physiotherapy. Maybe Southern won’t let her do a masters or PhD on biblical studies or theology because she’s a woman.
Awesome article. Feminism has gained a very negative reputation due to its aggressive tone against men, teaching women that sexualizing themselves is powerful, and the promotion of abortions. Feminism itself was started by Quaker women and promoted women’s equality in voting. It was a good thing. Feminism is not bad at all – it is about equality for everyone – but it has become distorted by non-Christians. This distortion has caused the church (particularly men) to fear gender equality because they think it is all about women trying to overtake them and steal their power. This has caused much fear and damage in the relationship between men and women. People often talk about healing the damage of racial wars and tensions. I believe there is just as much if not more brokenness and healing needed between the genders.
Feminism is not the enemy…patriarchy is.
Feminism is simply an exhausted reaction to many millennia of oppression and bondage. It is a desire to undo the great sin we have enabled in men, of pride and arrogance and wickedness, and that we have allowed this by permitting men absolute authority over women for too long without responding en masse. Only when women were enabled to gather in large groups was a cure for patriarchy even possible. The mass media is even a greater way of enacting the cure…May God bring it to pass!
Thanks for the comment, AofDCG.
I agree that, apart from a few forms, feminism (or egalitarianism) is a very good thing! 🙂
I personally don’t feel a need for healing between the genders, as any hurts I have received were not a result of a person’s gender. But I imagine others may need to find healing.
Both men and women are egalitarians, and some of the most vocal opponents of egalitarianism are women.
“Feminism has gained a very negative reputation due to its aggressive tone against men” AofDCG
Understandably, especially when men demand respect from women above all and have always felt they were superior, as historically recorded. Everyone needs to receive a comeuppance once in a while…we all have a tendency to push the envelope too far and men outshine us in this by a landslide, especially because of their brute power and naturally sinful natures.
Because of patriarchal, historical, EXPECTATIONS men are overly sensitive to any criticism and frankly they NEED feminist comeuppance because too many are simply out of control otherwise.
Can you imagine the plight of women through the ages when COLLECTIVIZATION was impossible and they were left out on the family farm, or locked in a house, with an out of control imperious and dictatorial man and no help to be found? Feminism would have been the norm from the beginning if women had been able to organize themselves into groups. I suspect it is only since the Industrial Revolution that this has been possible, hence the founding of the movement from that time.
It has been the isolation of women that has kept the brute strength and temper of men as the deciding factor in how women were treated and it is high time that this comes to an end and that women finally have a say in how they are treated. Surely God in His wisdom never intended men to be so unfettered in their power and control and depending on a moral conscience apparently wasn’t successful or feminism wouldn’t exist. Feminism is simply the female ‘EXODUS’ from patriarchy and the time has come, men, to face the fact that too many of you are out of control fools who need to be brought up short and clearly GOD IS SENDING US MANY FEMALE ‘MOSES’ TO LEAD US OUT.
AofDCG said of feminist: “This distortion has caused the church (particularly men) to fear gender equality because they think it is all about women trying to overtake them and steal their power.”
What does this say about Christianity?..about men? Is Christianity a religion that is all about power? To hear the men and women “of power” in the church speak, that is ALL IT IS ABOUT. Taking in the collections and keeping the funds for themselves…a business that needs to limit those who have access to and use of the monies collected. A business franchise for the “holy”?
Surely the fear of women ‘stealing’ power is a demonic reading of Jesus’ command that it shall NOT be so among you…you shall not lord it over one anther..you shall not seek power over another…you shall submit one to another…for “ye have ONE MASTER even Christ and all ye are brethren.” The hunger for power is demonic. Period. And it began with Patriarchy. Feminism is no more than an antidote from God, as long as it seeks equality, no more.
“Ye have ONE master, even Christ, and ALL ye are brethren.”..Jesus