Christianity and feminism: oil and water?
Can feminism and Christianity co-exist? If you read this article, Feminism is evil!, the answer is an resounding and emphatic NO! Christian and feminist ideologies seem to be in conflict with each other and at face value, they do not seem compatible.
Let us look at Christianity first. God is ‘He’; and the first human being, Adam, was a man. The reason why God created woman was because he saw that Adam needed a ‘helper’. Authority was bestowed upon man and patriarchy became firmly entrenched into Christianity. Read the rest of Bible; there is a plethora of verses that emphasizes and reiterates the fact that women should keep silent in church, and submit themselves unto their husbands.
Feminism, on the other hand, has spurred a revolution that seeks to combat the oppression women have been subjected to under patriarchy. It is an ideology rooted in the desire to empower women, give them autonomy over their bodies, sexuality and destinies. Feminism seeks to conscientiese women about their free will and free expression.
A place of contradictions
As a result of these conflicts, I personally find myself in a place of contradictions.
I was raised in a Christian home, and went to Catholic school where religion was our daily bread. Qualities such as humility, meekness, submission and subservience are values which were instilled to become part of my very being. If ever I intended to have a good marriage, these are values I was advised to stick to. Anything contrary to this would be against God’s will.
As I have grown, however, I have become more and more consumed by the desire to be heard, to make an impact and to fight oppression and gender inequality. ‘Silent’ and ‘submissive’ are two words that do not quite describe me.
And yet, I still love the Lord.
It sounds discordant to identify myself as a Christian feminist. But that is what I am.
And yet, a lot of ways in which women are portrayed in the Bible upset me. Women never quite seem to have any autonomy and they appear to be more of ‘supporting acts’ in a man’s world. For one, no woman wrote any of the 66 books in the Bible. Did God speak to men alone?
Women in the Bible
In the book of Proverbs, Solomon only addresses his son. Throughout his book of wisdom, Solomon only speaks of women in two contexts. In the first, he urges his son to flee from the sexual wiles of a temptress. In the second context, he is advising his son to find himself a trophy in the form of the Proverbs 31 woman.
Looking further into the Bible, one sees that women are given no control over their sexuality. A man would choose the woman he desires, and with the approval of her father, she would pliantly ‘accept’. The one scenario that horrifies me is in Genesis, where Lot, with a disturbing disregard for their welfare, offers his daughters to be gang-raped by the Sodomites.
Women who failed to abide by the strict moral code of sexual conduct by Mosaic Law, were severely punished, and sexually active women were severely derided and slandered. If a woman slept with a married man, she was to be stoned. Men, to some extent, were absolved of any misdeed; they were simply victim to the trickery of ‘harlots’.
So while women’s sexual misdeeds were heavily attacked, men on the other hand seemed free to have numerous concubines. Jacob, the Father of Israel, had children with four women. Two of these women were not his wives. Abraham, the father of faith, also had a child with his wife’s maiden. I am deeply aggrieved by seeing such double standards in the Bible.
Did women have any value in Biblical times, I ask myself.
Reconciling Feminism and Christianity
But even as I ponder all these issues, I still accept Christianity as part of my being, taking my feminist boots off at the door of the church and putting on my Christian hat, ready to praise the Lord.
That is not right, though. Surely feminism and Christianity can reconcile somewhere? I don’t want to believe that this religion is oppressive.
So I look at the Bible once more, with a renewed set of eyes and search for the intersection between feminism and Christianity.
I start from Genesis. The first woman, Eve, was made from man. However every other man after Adam was to be made from woman. When looked at from this perspective, it is evident that immense value and responsibility was bestowed upon womankind. From the womb of a woman, life emerges! Is there any greater empowerment? Woman’s role was not to be inferior, but rather to be complementary to the man.
I looked for bold women who served as inspiration and voices of reason in the Bible.
Esther was a courageous woman who rescued an entire nation by standing up to the king even though it was against the law. I look at Deborah: the judge of all of Israel. She was in a position of great authority, and she led and won a great battle.
A woman who had been dismissed as a “harlot”, Rahab, brilliantly planned the protection and escape of the two spies who were sent by Joshua into Jericho. Her brave act of treason guaranteed her deliverance, and that of her family, and this event was a key milestone that led to the defeat of the Canaanites.
Furthermore, the Proverbs 31 was more than a trophy wife. Her worth as a woman was not limited to childbearing and housework but she was also applauded for being an entrepreneur, a manufacturer and property owner. She planted vineyards and manufactured her own clothes. She was truly industrious and worth “more than rubies”.
These are just a few of the women in the Bible who were not docile and passive, but assertive and empowered. Clearly there was, and is, room for pro-active women in Christianity.
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord,” reads Ephesians 5:22. This is the most frequently quoted verse that is used to ‘encourage’ women not to challenge men and, in some extremes instances, to submit to abusive husbands.
Read more closely, I realise that that was far from the intent of Paul.
What has often been overlooked is also the instruction that follows in verse 25 for the husband to love his wife as Christ loved the church; to give himself up for her, and love her as his own body.
What example of love did Christ set? Christ was the leader of his disciples yet he washed their feet. Christ also loved the church that he gave himself for it.
Aren’t love and submission more or less the same? Can one truly love another without submitting to them? Submission and love go hand in hand. Looking at God’s example in John 3:16, He so loved the world, that He gave, or rather submitted His only son.
The instruction for submission was made to the women. Never did he imply that the husband had authority to forcefully bring on submission from his wife. A wife’s submission to her husband is in response to his sacrificial love for her. Biblical submission is, rather, a voluntary proclamation of love that comes from the heart.
Therefore Ephesians 5 no longer seems to me to be a relevant basis for marginalising women, oppressing them or forcing them into obedience but rather a teaching from Paul on how relationships should be loving, sacrificial and nourishing.
When I read the New Testament, I see how Jesus accepted and empowered Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha and other women. Mary Magdalene had been judged and slandered by the Pharisees, yet in the end, Jesus appeared to her first before anyone else after his resurrection. I see how he intervened before the Pharisees stoned a woman who had been caught in adultery. In the same way that feminism fights against misogyny, Jesus challenged this sexist law that had unfairly placed the blame of sexual infidelity only on the woman.
Also in the same manner that feminism endeavours towards equal recognition of women’s rights, Jesus never discriminated against women. Rather, he uplifted and empowered them. In his ministry, women were active pioneers of faith and he performed miracles as eagerly on them as he did with men.
There are aspects to this argument that I might not be able to fully defend, like why Paul expressly forbade women from speaking in church. However, it makes me a little more comfortable knowing that in the Biblical context, strong women existed in those times. In the same way that feminists strive to break gender barriers and stereotypes, the Bible has strong accounts of women who were stern and vocal agents of change as part of their God-given purpose.
And this is where the intersection between my politics and faith lies.
Chamunorwa Mufaro is an audit clerk by day and writer by night. She is a patriotic feminist who aims to make a difference in her society.
This article was initially published on HerZimbabwe.