A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Feminism

In the words of Carolyn Custis James, is God good for women? How would you answer that question?

In your personal experience and study of scripture or history, has the church been a reflection of God’s loving kindness and faithfulness to women? Where would you like to see the church improve? Is there a difference between equality and power?

(If you’d like a brief summary of feminism and it’s history you might be interested in this post.)

Addressing the Fear of Feminism

For many evangelical Christians there is fear associated with the concept of feminism. It can be perceived to be a threat to masculinity or an attempt to overturn the “biblical” design. Many people do not speak kindly about it or those who support it and there are plenty of polarizing, misinformed nicknames and phrases as evidence of this.

There is such a broad, beautiful spectrum of feminists. Feminism supports the idea women can freely make their own choices and raise their voices on issues that matter to them. The goal isn’t to be a monolithic movement, but to give women the same opportunity to think and choose for themselves as men have had. Women have a right to choose what to believe and how to worship, how to love those around them, care for their bodies, and how to shape their career.

For example, as a Christian feminist, I support women working hard to advance their career, whether in the marketplace or at home with her children. I support a woman’s right to choose where and how she works, even if I choose differently.

You might think women have these freedoms already. And yes, many women have these privileges. Feminist movements in the Western world have given us the right to vote, the ability to work outside the home (if you want!) and be paid (theoretically) equal for the same job, and equal access to education and healthcare. The results aren’t perfect but they have made significant progress we can celebrate. Yet, on a global level, many countries still have not adopted these practices and girls and women are not able to access education, financial independence, or bodily autonomy (female genital mutilation, child marriage, legal marital rape, etc.), among other things.

Let’s say you’re still unsure but you’re open. My purpose in this post isn’t to get down to the Greek and convince you of anything, nor is this the most elaborate explanation of how to be feminist Christian. I’m still learning, too. I offer my perspective as an invitation to discover how the Christian faith and feminism can actually work together for the mutual flourishing of women and men.

photo: Hannah Busing

Is God male or female?

A quick skim of the scripture reveals a text full of male imagery and pronouns for God. Names or metaphors like Lord, King, or Father are used in both Old and New Testaments. Without a background in languages it may seem silly to ask if God is male or female, when the text is so “clear.”

But is the Bible clear? We use male pronouns in sermons, songs, and in our prayers. The Hebrew Bible also uses the third person singular pronoun in reference to God, which we’ve translated as male. And of course, the person of Jesus Christ is male but does this mean the Holy Spirit and God “the Father” are also male? Taking a closer look we find:

  • God is not a created, gendered being like humans are and cannot be accurately reflected in an image or seen outside Jesus Christ. Language about God always requires an analogy since God is beyond being.
  • God “the Father” is a metaphor used by Jesus Christ in Matthew 6 and 28 is not a literal relationship. God did not contribute any biological matter to create the Son. The Son is a person of the Trinity, which has no beginning. Father-language is used to reflect a personal relationship and can be appropriate to use, although not exclusively.
  • Deuteronomy 4:15-19 prohibits images of God and idols, both male and female. Creating either a male image or female image for God is idolatrous.

It might be grammatically awkward to withhold gendered pronouns while talking about God but it offers a more precise foundation from which to worship, communicate, and cultivate healing. What we believe about God impacts our understanding of gender, personhood, and power. Other gender-neutral names for God include I Am, Creator, Divine, Light, Vine, Redeemer, Potter, Sustainer, and Word.

(This explanation was taken from this post.)

This is just one example of why a feminist lens in theology can be helpful. Feminist theology, in general, wants to read sacred texts from the experience of women, which is notably different than men. Mind you, there’s many different theories and beliefs surrounding feminist theology, some more orthodox than others.

“The uniqueness of feminist theology lies not in its use of the criterion of experience but rather in its use for women’s experience which has been almost entirely shut out of theological reflection in the past. The use of women’s experience in feminist theology, therefore, explodes as a critical force, exposing classical theology…as based on male experience rather than on universal human experience.”

— Rosemary Radford Ruether

Is patriarchy or masculinity bad?

Yes and no.

In the scriptures God reached out to a people shaped by patriarchy, and certainly as Christians we have relied on the faith of patriarchs like Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, and David, to shape our own faith. Yet, just because patriarchy was the longest running social norm does not mean it will continue to be the superior means to a thriving society or the only channel through which God communicates. Just ask the women at the empty tomb.

Similar to patriarchy, masculinity is not inherently bad. However, because we live in a fallen world, our understanding of masculinity and how society enforces its expectations can be misguided. Research has helped us understand that many rigid expectations (Men should be this; Men should be like that; Men should not do this) we have placed on boys and men are not healthy for the larger community as they contribute to increased rates of mental illness and violence.

  • This study in Australia evaluated the impact of beliefs that men are “to be tough; not to show any emotions; to be the breadwinner, to always be in control, use violence to solve problems; and to have many sexual partners.” The report details the differences between men who hold these beliefs and those who do not. Men who believe this about themselves are more likely to consider suicide, initiate verbal bullying in person or online, or make sexual/sexist comments towards women, among other responses. Read the rest here.
  • This study in the UK found “61% of 18-24 year olds feel UK society expects a man to “man up” when faced with a challenge and over half (55%) said that crying in front of others would make a man feel less masculine.”

As people of hope, can we observe a healthy spectrum of masculinity in the scriptures? The Bible is full of wisdom on what Christian life and practice can look like for all people, regardless of gender. The following people are a few specific examples of what masculinity can look like, as an alternative to the toxic/rigid expectations we commonly see today:

  • Jesus
    • Expressed a full range of emotions including joy, sadness, anger, tiredness, and playfulness.
    • Demonstrated compassion, forgiveness, and self-control.
    • Honored, trusted, listened to, and travelled with women.
    • Shared space, time, and meals with those considered social outcasts and untouchable.
    • Washed the feet of his disciples.
  • Job admits vulnerability and suffering but does not curse God.
  • David
    • Held close friendship with Jonathan.
    • Repented from his sin.
    • Expressed emotions through artistic poems and psalms, and dancing in the streets.
    • Demonstrated courage during his time as a young shepherd or as a leader in battle.
  • Boaz acted generously and compassionately towards the poor and marginalized, namely Ruth, an immigrant widow.
  • Barnabas
    • Known as the “son of encouragement.”
    • Believed Saul’s controversial conversion and discipled him and John Mark.
  • Joseph and Daniel lived with integrity even as they were tested physically, spiritually, and relationally.

The authors of scripture also praise and emphasize non-gendered attributes like gentleness, peace, patience, responsibility, and self-control. Where else can you find examples of healthy masculinity in the scriptures?

Who should submit?

Language and verses related to submission have been used to oppress various populations, both in secular and religious liturgy. The instructions in scripture surrounding submission are not justification for abuse. If you are a survivor of abuse or sexual violence, it is okay to be uncomfortable with scripture or liturgy that includes this topic. Please, take your time to heal and come back gently as you feel ready. With this in mind, I would rather use different terminology to describe the appropriate course of action for friendships, marriages, and communities.

“He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Luke 10:27

As a church we are called to walk in humility, to love others deeply, respecting who they are and their experience, to relinquish any pride, and as the ESV says in Romans 12:10, “outdo one another in showing honor.”

Self-discipline, service, and submission are all highly praised characteristics in the scriptures. These qualities are not limited to or better suited for one gender over another. But if someone believes in the stereotypes built by benevolent sexism, it can be easy to assume men should be superior to women. After all, they are the “natural leaders,” right?

To submit assumes a hierarchy is in place. Is the hierarchy between genders? Or between Creator and the creation?

There’s enough evidence in the scripture and history to make a strong case for women’s leadership. But I don’t believe Jesus’ radical inclusion of women was meant to flip the patriarchy into matriarchy. The life and ministry of Jesus itself was backwards. The Son of God, second person of the Trinity, the Incarnation of the divine enters the world through a humble birth, denies the offer of power, and goes on to touch those who are contagious and outcast, heals chronic illness, shares meals with social outsiders, and washes the muck from his disciples’ ungroomed feet.

The parables of the Good Samaritan, the Lost Sheep, and the Workers in the Vineyard (Mt 20:1-16) among other lessons and stories from the life of Jesus reveal there is no seniority or hierarchy in the Kingdom of God. No one is above another. The hierarchy appears to only exist between God and humans.

This is a very simple summary of a vast collection of thoughts and centuries of academic study. I’ve included some more resources below if this topic is your bread and butter.

What if my church has a different view?

Your church may have a formal position on this issue. It may not. If your tradition does not allow women to teach or deliver sermons, this can be especially difficult for women who feel drawn to this type of ministry. Historically many churches have denied women a place at the pulpit but have sent female missionaries to teach and preach doctrine to others. This becomes a challenging situation and calls into question how church leaders view the abilities of women (How are women good enough for global missions but not for local church ministry?) and the personhood of those in “mission fields” (What do you think of the unreached if you send them your “second best”?)

Christianity, and more specifically evangelical Christianity, has not always been resistant towards gender equality. (Read a brief article on the history of Christian feminism here.) I believe this is really hopeful. It’s worth asking your church if they have a formal stance, and if not, asking more about how the church can make space for the voices of women. You could start with reading materials authored by female pastors or theologians, supporting women in seminary, or inviting a guest preacher if there are no immediate possibilities already in the congregation.

If your church has a formal stance opposed to women in leadership, there is still hope. You’ll have to discern for yourself where the Holy Spirit is leading you. If you chose to stay in your church, I suggest finding some type of online or in-person community that supports your exploration. There are still women pioneering the way for others in these traditions who may offer insight and wisdom for your context.

photo: Allie Smith

Do I need to call myself a feminist? Isn’t female empowerment enough?

“There’s too much baggage associated with feminism.”

I hear this more than anything else. And guess what. The people who say this are right. But they forget the term “Christian” is another loaded word that many people associate with racism, colonization, sexism, greed, and horrific physical and sexual violence. As far as I know those fearful of labeling themselves as feminists, still self-identify as Christians.

More importantly, what should I call someone who seeks the equal respect of all genders? In this moment in history we call them feminists, just like we call those who serve the church ministers. Not all ministers agree on all issues and some certainly give others a bad name. Does this diminish the role or purpose of the minister? Or feminist? If you have ideas for a new term, by all means, let’s hear it!

At its core, feminism seeks to remove all boundaries that do not allow women the same rights and privileges as men. Women, like men, deserve to make their own choices and have their voices heard.

There are different theories, perspectives, and methodologies within feminism — just like diversity of denominations or traditions of Christianity. Christian feminism reminds us of the mystery of a sovereign God, the fallenness and beauty in our interpretations of gender, and the practical instruction to honor each member of our community as we love ourselves. Using the strengths of our unique contexts we can embrace the core goal of feminism to nourish communities and glorify God.

Additional Resources

Our First Year in the Episcopal Church

For someone like me who grew up in a non-denominational, charismatic church, the Episcopal church*, along with other denominations, were synonymous with secular culture. I wasn’t totally sure what they believed. Do they believe in grace? Are they spirit-filled? What do they really think of Jesus?

In 2015 I moved from a moderately sized, non-denominational community to a Sunday morning gathering with meditative music, scripture readings, prayers from a book, and a guy who wore a white collar. Drawn to this style of worship, I began appreciating the value of ancient liturgy, the church calendar, and the Book of Common Prayer. Although not an official Episcopal community, it offered a gentle introduction. 

Even though I loved the liturgy and studied some social justice in college, it took some time before I was ready to consider the Episcopal tradition home. At times it felt “too out there.”

In 2018, I came home one evening from a seminary class. The entire course discussed intersectionality and theology, and this particular session had presented a fork in the road, so to say. After plopping my backpack on the floor and taking a seat across from Aaron at the dining table I said something like “we need to make a few changes.” Luckily he was interested and we started talking. 

The very next Sunday we walked right through the front doors of our current parish, unsure of what we would find. We were completely surprised by how many faces we recognized as we sat down. It was a bit of a (calculated) risk but one we’d take again. We’ve settled in this past year, taking it all in, and getting to know new friends and old hymns. 

Flowers we brought home from our Easter service.

If you’re curious what we like about it, here’s a few things that have stood out to me this past year, in no specific order. (Obviously these elements are not exclusive to the Episcopal tradition, many other communities share similar practices or thoughts.)

Embracing Ancient Mystery & Modern Questions

This was what initially drew us to the Episcopal tradition. The more I studied theology and considered all the “answers” I had stored away, the more I realized I had harder and bigger questions. I craved a space that appreciated the ambiguity of scripture and allowed room for discussion and contemplation. My questions are welcomed and given no easy answers. Neither my intellectual instincts or my past mystical experiences are shamed. The Episcopal church is often called a “big tent” which means a variety of theological beliefs and convictions (progressive and conservative, republican and democrat, army and navy, etc.) are hosted in one tradition. 

We begin each service with a prayer to love God and love others. We hear scripture read aloud and taught by both women and men. Corporately, we confess sin and pray for others. We say the Nicene creed. We “pass the peace” to those around us and take communion. Simple, meaningful, holy.

“Anglicanism has long been known as the via media, the “middle way” between two traditions. The Episcopal Church has also helped me navigate the middle way between unbelief and dogmatism. Ours is a faith handed down from the apostles, but not one so fragile that it cannot cope with science, with new findings about the origins of the universe, ourselves, or whatever else we might discover.” 

— Ben Irwin, 11 Things I Love About the Episcopal Church

Worship as a Lifestyle

There is so much to say on this topic. I’ll keep it brief.

I had wrongly assumed the worship and community would be stale and outdated, not realizing how much I craved the depth and reverence of the liturgy. And how much I needed the weekly wisdom of those who have lived a little longer and differently than me! We sing songs or scripture throughout the entire service, sometimes standing up and other times sitting down. I really love this approach, even though I can appreciate the contemporary concert-style every once in a grand while, too. The hymns are rich and beautiful. (Aaron sings them way better than me.) There is a whole art form to sacred music that I’m beginning to learn about.

Yet, we know worship isn’t just singing. The Episcopal tradition especially, believes worship happens each day through acts of faith and love. The Gospel isn’t limited to evangelism or a sermon, it’s a lifestyle of generosity and hospitality. Often this results in efforts to pursue justice for those with their “backs against the wall” as Howard Thurman wrote. The “prophetic” is approached from a different angle. I appreciate how our community, locally and globally, advocate for social initiatives such as food pantries, homelessness, climate change, interfaith issues, racial justice, art and music, LGBTQ+ equality, international partnerships, academia, military chaplaincy (a ministry close to our hearts!) and so much more.

Eucharist Every Week

Communion is a double edged sword for me. I think it’s one of the most mysterious and generous practices given to universal church. We devote almost half of our weekly service to the eucharist. It’s a beautiful sacrament we share together. (This video is a good one.)

Whether or not the bread and wine are a symbol or whether you believe that they are the literal body and the blood are up to you. I believe they have enormous power to change hearts, attitudes, lives, tear down prejudices, bridge gaps, and bring peace. I believe that in most cases, the elements speak louder than any sermon or hymn or prayer. Something mysterious and unfathomably beautiful happens at the table. It’s a place where any person, no matter what belief system or background they come from can come and receive the God of peace.

— Lindsey Hart (Link to original post no longer exists, sorry!)

On the other hand, it can stir up a few hard feelings for me. At one point in my life I could not kneel at the altar to take the bread and wine. My body would not let my knees touch the altar; I preferred communion served standing up. The power dynamic between the male clergy and myself, in a position of vulnerability, was too much for me. I felt anger and fear bubble up inside me. (Read some research on this.) These feelings have faded (healed?) for me as women have served at the altar and as I’ve grown in self-understanding, among other things. Still, I cannot take communion from Aaron when he assists in serving the eucharist. I’m not sure if I can fully articulate why. I make sure to place myself on the opposite end of the altar or simply attend an adult formation hour instead.

At this point in our lives we love our church community. By no means is it perfect but it does offer us ample space to be nourished and challenged to grow. We’re about to step into a hefty discernment process in 2020 as Aaron discerns the priesthood. It’s about a year’s worth of meetings and prayer to confirm his desire to be ordained in the Episcopal tradition. And so the adventure continues.

These are just a few brief thoughts as we continue to explore the body of Christ via the Episcopal church. I’d love to hear what you love about your place of worship!

Curious? Confused? Here’s a few other experiences: 

*Christianity is very diverse and includes hundreds, if not thousands, of denominations (or flavors) of the Christian faith all over the world. The Episcopal tradition is one flavor in the larger Anglican Communion, which is another tradition.