‘Once people join a political team, they get ensnared in its moral matrix. They see confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere, and it’s difficult perhaps impossible to convince them that they are wrong if you argue with them outside of their matrix.’The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt
Sitting watching a student production of a feminist play, I was distressed. I saw the combination of anger, vulgarity and self-assertion not as empowering women but quite the reverse. Their reclaiming of physical autonomy ironically reduced them to sexualised bodies. Added to this was the challenge that post-performance I was meeting a member of the cast with whom I had recently begun reading the Bible. She really wanted me to love this play because she was so passionate about its message. What was I going to say to her?
Women who embrace the label ‘feminist’ have often had a kind of conversion experience and see everything through its lens. Researcher and writer Emer O Toole described it like this:
‘It burns! It burns! There follows a searingly painful period during which all you can see is gender inequality and sexism, where once there was meritocracy and cheeky banter. You feel powerless. You can’t shut up about it. No one invites you to dinner parties.’‘10 things feminism has ruined for me’, The Guardian, Feb 2015
We live in a feminist world. Its values permeate our culture. The core tenet of equality between the sexes is fundamental and established in law. The twenty-first century has seen increased feminist activism, most recently with establishing the #MeToo movement. Unwanted sexual behaviour once tolerated as unpleasant is now rightly condemned and exposed.
Feminism embraces radical ideas but also a passionate concern for justice, access to education and healthcare, a commitment to the value of womanhood, and a fight against sexual abuse. Many are involved in feminism because of personal pain. Others see the brokenness of the world and campaign against inequality and injustice.
But there is mutual suspicion between Christians and feminists. The feminist argument for abortion reveals the enormous gulf. The church regularly denounces feminists as haters of men and blames them for many of the social ills of society. Feminists fear that the church advocates the oppression of women and that the Bible is a misogynistic book. Many people view feminism as bringing great good and cannot understand the church’s hostility.
When Paul visited Athens, he was deeply perturbed by what he saw. He could have railed against the horror of idolatry. Yet, despite having absolute clarity on the ugly foolishness of worshipping images, he resisted and did not condemn the Athenians for their idol worship. Instead, he found common ground and started where the Athenians were. He then filled in the gaps before he called them to repentance.
Like Paul, we need to listen and then fill in the gaps. When the church views feminists as archetypal representatives of an ‘ism’, we fall into the same trap as the disciples who viewed the Samaritan woman with stereotyped suspicion.
Begin with the common ground
Every individual story matters. People are not an ‘ism’, and it takes time to get to know them. Understanding their concerns can enable us to understand what the gap is that we can then address. We need to ask ourselves if we can identify with these issues. Have we experienced some of their pain? If not, can we empathise? Or do they hear us saying that their concerns do not matter?
Avoid getting embroiled in a political discussion. Recognise that it is easy to be side-tracked. Discussions at this level are rarely productive. Instead, we need to listen with a compassionate ear and see the world from other viewpoints.
How to fill the Gap: Agree, Apologise, Adorn and Address
There is so much with which we can agree. Feminism recognises the value of women; so does the gospel. Feminism sees the horror of abuse; God hates injustice, and the Bible explains its origins. Feminism seeks better lives for women; Jesus brings life and reconciliation with God.
We need to emphasise both the creation and the fall and then point to Jesus, who fills the gap that feminism cannot. Of course, politics and activism have their place, but only Jesus will bring complete reconciliation.
Feminists frequently view Christianity through the lens of oppression rather than life-giving liberation. From Augustine to Luther and even to the modern-day, parts of the church have taught that: women are lesser than men; women are not made in the image of God; women are to bear children as their principal role, and their role in marriage is to provide sexual fulfilment for their husbands. Single women have been sidelined and caricatures of femininity promoted. In recent years #MeToo led to #ChurchToo as women came forward with their experiences of sexual abuse in churches.
Christians have got things badly wrong at times. It is heartbreaking. We must grieve at the sin which has degraded and failed women. We need to be honest about this. Some women have been damaged by teaching which has promoted sexist attitudes under the guise of biblical instruction. Others have been hurt by abusive behaviour. We have not always shown grace or taught the truth. We need to listen compassionately to these women.
We fail, but Christ does not. We can confidently and gently point others to Him. We can read the Scriptures with hurting women and show them that God is good. Help them hear His voice. Our churches have not always been safe, but Jesus is our refuge. He is the refuge we all need.
It matters how we relate to each other in our church families because it displays the goodness of God’s redemption to a hurting world. Do we love and respect one another as brothers and sisters? How is this seen? Whatever our church practice, are we serving alongside one another, showing the value of the whole body of Christ? Do our churches value women? Are women visible or only working behind the scenes? Are women actively evangelised and discipled? Are single people honoured and included in church life?
Be sensitive to how our gatherings/websites look to visitors. The language we use, the jokes and the illustrations matter; casual banter can hurt. When someone is suspicious that Christians are sexist, it is essential to be gentle and not cause unnecessary offence. We must avoid lazy stereotyping.
When I read the Bible with people who hold feminist views, I rarely start with Paul’s teaching, even though they often start by expressing their concerns about him. I encourage them to look at Jesus first. Reading a Gospel shows how much women matter to Jesus and provides the call to follow Him as Lord. Genesis is fundamental. Women need to know that God is their Creator and that He is good, before addressing issues of church practice. Later on in our discussions, Paul’s teaching on marriage fits beautifully into the big story of the Bible as it points to Christ’s relationship with the church.
If we are going to reach out with the gospel in our feminist age, we need more Christian women actively engaged in both personal evangelism and in public proclamation. So let’s identify, train and encourage more women to take the gospel to colleagues, neighbours, friends, family, campuses and beyond.
Over a post-show drink, I sat down with the young woman who was buzzing with excitement following her performance. We talked about the play. There were things I could affirm. There was a gap I could identify: the play did not honour women. It needed something more. We left it hanging in the air. Over the next two years, we read the Bible together most weeks. It took a long time, but finally, she saw the goodness of God, and a new story began for her.