What should I know about feminism?
Many evangelicals think of feminism only as a movement in which women are elevated over men. But such is the case in only in a handful of cases. More broadly, a feminist is someone who opposes sexism of any kind, especially under the law.
Often evangelicals understand the general culture’s reference to “equality” as suggesting a unisex interchangeability of men and women—but, feminists usually do acknowledge (many even celebrate) the differences between men and women. They just say those differences don’t translate to a hierarchy in which men have more innate power.
At one time in the US, men got custody of kids in divorce battles. Husbands had control over their wives’ earnings, too. If a man wanted to take his wife’s paycheck and use it all on booze, that was his legal prerogative. And men and women doing the same job got different pay. So men and women, many of them believers, have pushed for equality under the law. Initially (and sadly), that equality under law focused only on whites—for white women to vote, to have equal custody, to sit on juries. Hence, womanism emerged, focusing on equality for Blacks.
"Feminism" today usually refers to the fight against any form of sexism—so sexism against both women and men. It’s kind of an unfortunate term, because “racist” = someone with racial prejudice, whereas a “feminist” is someone who’s against sex prejudice. But we don't make up the language rules….
People use the term in many different ways (kind of like how they use the term “evangelical,”) so when talking with someone about feminism, make sure you ask what they mean. Most evangelicals think of feminism as anti-male advocacy; but in the wider culture, the term usually refers to those seeking equality between men and women, especially equality under the law. (We often differ greatly on what we think that equality and justice looks like, but the desire for justice is still the common ground.)
What does the Bible say about equality?
- Male and female are both made in the image of God (Gen 1:26–27). Both are given dominion (rule) together over the earth. Women and men are made to rule. At the end of time male and female will reign over a restored New Earth (Rev 22:5).
- God intended for Israel to be an entire kingdom of priests (Exo. 19:6). The theme of all believers as priests appears throughout the Bible (1 Peter 2:9; Rev. 1:6, 5:10). That is part of why a battle cry of the Reformation was “the priesthood of all believers.” Not just clergy and not just males. King Herod built a temple in Jerusalem with segregated men/women’s courts (with the women’s court being further from the holy place than the men’s), but God never described His temple that way. Besides, access to the holy of holies that was blocked for both ended with a ripped veil (Matt. 27:51).
- Micah 6:8 calls God’s people to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Justice means fairness without partiality. Justice is one of the social ramifications of the gospel. (Some describe justice as “love in public.”) There are lots of verses about partiality being evil, and they apply to ethnicity, sex, economic status, geography….God does not show favorites, and neither should his followers. Even his choosing Israel was so they might be a light to all nations, not so that Israel could smugly revel in “favorite” status and exclude Gentiles—as the Gospel demonstrates. A sign of maturity is giving away power.
- First Corinthians 7:4 says that a wife has authority over her husband’s body and a husband has authority over the wife’s body. That is, they both have authority over each other’s bodies. That sounds like equality. Paul does not say husbands have authority over their wives’ bodies, end of story. That would be inequality.
Is inequality still a problem?
The term “feminism” originated in the 1890s. But sexism is as old as Genesis 3. The Lord predicted that men and women would engage in a power struggle after the Fall (3:16). We see the same combination of the words rule/desire used to describe a power struggle one chapter later, in Genesis 4:7. Because women are more vulnerable physically, resulting in less financial power, that disadvantage has been especially exploited. Today such exploitation is less of an issue in the developed world. But sexism still injures women across the world—think rape, female genital mutilation, sex trafficking, child brides, educating only boys, preferring sons to daughters, honor killings…. (This book documents the international injustices against females with chilling accuracy.)
But even in the west so much sexism has infiltrated the evangelical church that we have been soft on abuses of power, especially abuses by celebrities, and especially those committing sexual assault or harassment against or stalking women and molesting children. Many are more concerned that Beth Moore spoke behind a pulpit about motherhood on Mother’s Day (she was invited by the leaders) than they are about pedophiles destroying the lives of children. Mary DeMuth’s excellent new book, WeToo, (her best yet) helps churches have more healthy practices relating to these issues.
Another place where sexism has crept into the church—even if unintentionally—is via Bible translation. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11:10, Paul says a woman (or wife—same word) ought to have authority on her head. In every other NT use of the phrase "have authority," the meaning is to possess authority. But translations have added words like “have a sign of authority on her head” suggesting she actually has a sign of submission (the opposite of authority) to someone else’s authority on her head. Such translations make Paul say the opposite of what he actually says. The very next word is “nevertheless” (contrast, v. 11), and he goes on to say she’s not to use that authority in an independent way, nor is the man/husband. They are interdependent (vv. 11–12), the most beautiful part of the passage—and, ironically, often the most neglected.
Another example is in translating the word “deacon.” Many translate it as “deacon” till we get to Phoebe (Rom. 16:1–2). Then they translate the same word as “servant.” Why? Because Phoebe is a female. But translating it differently when used of a woman is inconsistent translation practice, and it leads people to think the early church had no women deacons—which it did.
Justice is not the gospel. But it is a ramification of the gospel. And it is often the seedbed in which the gospel can flourish.
Sexism is an evil we must fight if we are to fulfill God’s desire, as laid out in Micah 6:8. And it is possible in Christ to do so! As many have noted, we must ground our view of men and women in Genesis 1, not Genesis 3. Many men and women who follow Christ have partnered in bringing justice where sexism is concerned. It is entirely possible in Christ to love one another deeply from the heart, male and female, without abusing each other or wrongly sexualizing what should be holy relationships. We must model this loving, power-yielding interdependence for a messed up, power-grabbing world and in so doing show the way and love of Christ.