I always laugh a little to myself when I receive a Google Alert informing me that someone on the internet has criticized me as a “bitter, angry woman” intent on destroying the Church with my “radical feminist agenda.” I laugh because if these bloggers actually knew me, they would know that I’m more goofy than angry, more hopeful than bitter, and far too disorganized to lead a movement. If they knew me, they would know that I don’t fit into their distorted stereotype of what a feminist looks like, that I don’t hate men or burn bras or crave power, that I—like most feminist—simply believe that women are human and should be treated as such.
Most of all, if these critics knew me, they would know that it isn’t feminism that inspires me to advocate gender equality in the Church and in the world; it is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Truth be told, I feel a bit out of my depth when I speak with “real feminists,” the kind who have actually studied feminist theory, who have read deeply and broadly about issues related to gender equality. I come to those conversations with an abundance questions, eager to learn more from men and women who have done their homework, who provide the vocabulary and the history to describe my own experiences. I am eager to learn because feminism is not my background. Instead I studied English literature, writing, and Bible at a conservative evangelical college that taught me from Day 1 that feminism is an anti-Christian worldview to be distrusted and categorically rejected.
And so it is ironic that many Christian complementarians/patriarchalists—(who advocate hierarchal gender relationships in the home and church)—seem to assume that egalitarians like me—(who support mutuality in the home and church)—must have gone off to a secular universities, majored in women’s studies, and come back to impose these “cultural values” onto Scripture and the Church. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this story, it is not my own. I didn't learn to be a feminist from Margaret Atwood or Simone de Beavoir. I learned to be a feminist from Jesus.
It wasn’t a formal feminist education that taught me that ontological equality cannot be separated from functional equality. It was the boy in my youth group who, after I delivered a testimony in front of my classmates, complimented me on my speaking skills and said, “You would be a great preacher, Rachel; too bad you’re a girl.”
Too bad you’re a girl.
It wasn’t a formal feminist education that taught me to be frustrated with gender stereotypes. It was all the women’s Bible studies that focused on domesticity, motherhood, sweetness, and submission, and that thrust upon me flower-speckled books that turned Proverbs 31 into a job description befitting June Cleaver rather than a poem of celebration befitting an ancient Near Eastern royal wife.
It wasn’t a formal feminist education that taught me about rape culture. It was the preachers and evangelists who insinuated that girls who dressed immodestly were “asking for it.” And it wasn’t a formal feminist education that taught me about victim-shaming. It was the response of evangelical leaders who, when confronted by abuse survivors about troubling language regarding submission and sex, dismissed their concerns as silly, chastising them as “bedwetting feminists,” stirring up division.
It wasn’t a formal feminist education that introduced me to the whole virgin/whore dichotomy. It was Sunday school teachers who said that girls who had sex before marriage were “broken,” that no self-respecting Christian man would ever want them after that, and it was the Christian books and conferences that consistently portrayed good Christian girls as helpless princesses in need of rescue.
It wasn’t a formal feminist education that taught me the value of a man who can recognize his own privilege. It was my husband who, frustrated by the hurdles he watched me face again and again, finally threw up his hands last week and said, “It seems to me that the only thing you have to do to be controversial in the Church is to say something true and be a woman at the same time.”
It wasn’t a formal feminist education that introduced me to the corrosive effects of patriarchy. It was crying with HIV-infected widows in India and listening to the stories of abandoned wives and mothers in Bolivia. It was knowing that my friend Jackie had to get a body guard for the first Sunday in which she preached at her church. It was receiving desperate emails from women whose husbands and pastors told them that submitting to abuse was part of their God-ordained role and who had nowhere else to turn because their church would shame them if they stepped forward and reported the abuse. It was marriages that struggled to function as hierarchies, when both husband and wife longed for a partnership. It was being told that “vagina” was the same as a swear word, so I best not use it in my book. It was being told by people in the Christian publishing industry that I shouldn’t be writing a book about womanhood anyway because I’m not a mother. It was mega-church pastors who said that what the world really needs now is a more “masculine Christianity.”
I didn’t learn about patriarchy from the feminists. I learned about patriarchy from the Church.
But here’s the good news: Just as it was the Church that introduced me to patriarchy; it was the Church that introduced me to equality.
I will forever be grateful to brothers and sisters in the faith—Scot McKnight, John Stackhouse, Mimi Haddad, Sara Barton, Gordon Fee, Ben Witherington, Kathy Escobar, Carolyn Custis James, Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger—whose love for Scripture reintroduced me to the themes of equality that had been there all along. As I began to delve deeper into these passages, into this gospel story of which I am a part, I saw with fresh eyes and heard with fresh ears that the good news of Jesus is good for all. Indeed, it is good news for women.
I learned this not from a class in feminist studies, but from Jesus—who was brought into the world by a woman whose obedience changed everything; who revealed his identity to a scorned woman at a well; who defended Mary of Bethany as his true disciple, even though women were prohibited from studying under rabbis at the time; who obeyed his mother; who refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery to death; who looked to women for financial and moral support, even after the male disciples abandoned him; who said of the woman who anointed his feet with perfume that “wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her”; who bantered with a Syrophoenician woman, talked theology with a Samaritan woman, and healed a bleeding woman; who appeared first before women after his resurrection, despite the fact that their culture deemed them unreliable witnesses; who charged Mary Magdalene with the great responsibility of announcing the start of a new creation, of becoming the Apostle to the Apostles.
I learned about equality, not from Virginia Woolf, but from Junia, described in the New Testament as “outstanding among the apostles.” I learned it from Priscilla, who partnered with her husband to plant churches and teach famous apostles like Apollos. I learned it from Phoebe, a deacon, who may have been the first to read and explain the book of Romans.
I learned about equality even from Paul, who taught that with the resurrection, something radical had changed—not merely ontologically, but functionally—in the relationships between slaves and masters, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rendering those whose identity was once rooted in hierarchy and division brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ instead; who put a radical gospel-spin on the Greco-Roman household codes, breaking down the hierarchies so that slaves and masters, wives and husbands were charged with submitting “one to another” with the humility of Jesus as their model; who taught that power was overrated and that service will be rewarded; who surrounded himself with women he called “co-workers.” “teachers,” and “apostles”; who managed the staggering influx of widows and women into the Christian community by providing guidelines to ensure that Ephesian churches remained distinct from the pagan cults of the day, but who still expected trained women to prophesy, to teach, and to lead.
I learned about equality from Peter, who drew from the words of the prophet Joel to describe the post-Pentecost world:
"Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
Your young men will see visions,
Your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
And they will prophesy (Acts 2:17-18)."
I suspect that advocates of religious patriarchy perpetuate the narrative of a “radical feminist agenda” because it is easier to dismiss calls for equality when they appear to come from the “outside” than when they come from a response to gospel itself.
But this is my story, and I’m sticking to it. I am a follower of Jesus first and a feminist second.
While I have been learning more about feminism and the influence of amazing women like Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth, feminism is not where I started. I am an accidental feminist, for my liberation did not come from Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan, but from Mary and Martha, Junia and Priscilla, Phoebe and Tabitha. It came from the marvelous and radical recognition that if the gospel is good news for them, then maybe it is good news for me too...
...and that maybe that boy in my youth group was wrong.
Maybe it’s good that God made me a girl.
To learn more about the biblical support for gender equality, see:
Submission in Context: Christ and the Greco-Roman Household Codes
For the Sake of the Gospel, Let Women Speak
Women of Valor: It's About Character, Not Roles
Is Patriarchy Really God's Dream for the World?
and the rest of the Mutuality 2012 series