Sunday, April 28, 2013

Feminism and the Bible by Mardi Keyes Expanded and Updated April 2013

Are Christianity and feminism compatible?

That depends on what you think is essential to Christianity, and what is essential to feminism. Feminists differ among themselves. They distinguish between liberal, Marxist, radical, socialist, psychoanalytic, existentialist, neopagan, postmodernist and black feminism (or womanism). And many younger Third Wave Feminists eschew politics and revel in narcissistic “anything goes” sex, while accusing their 1960’s Second Wave foremothers of “stodgy” old fashioned moralism.

There are also biblical feminists. In his article Jesus Was a Feminist, Leonard Swidler defines a feminist as “a person who is in favor of, and who promotes, the equality of women with men, a person who advocates and practices treating women primarily as human persons (as men are so treated) and willingly contravenes social customs in so acting.1 He argues that by this definition Jesus was a feminist.

In contrast, Annie Laurie Gaylor, an editor of Freethought Today, scorns the possibility of any compatibility between Christianity and feminism. She asks, "How can you be a feminist if you refuse to defer to men on Earth, but submit to a divine authority? . . . Feminism cannot be argued by authority - much less by male, supernatural authority."2

We must admit from the start that Christians and feminists have been guilty of stereotyping one another, without reading each other's literature or even talking to each other. Many Christians unfairly equate all feminism with self-centered careerism, the breakdown of the family, and the wholesale rejection of men. Many non-Christian feminists equate Christianity and the church with the worst of patriarchy and male chauvinism. They seem unaware of the alliance between Christian and non-Christian women in the nineteenth century feminist, abolitionist and temperance movements. They are ignorant of the role of Christians in unbinding the feet of Chinese women and rescuing girl babies from infanticide and temple prostitution in India. It was a Christian, William Carey, who fought against sati    (widow burning, upon the funeral pyre of the husband) in Calcutta, a center for goddess worship, where woman was called devi or goddess. The Indian writer and political activist, Vishal Mangalwadi points out the irony of the fact that "the entire religious establishment of the goddess cult" resisted Carey as "he fought for women's rights because he believed that they were made in the image of our heavenly Father - who is neither male nor female."3

Those of us who are Christians must admit the church's misdeeds and inconsistencies. It is true that women have been denied education and the vote, barred from using their gifts in the church and the culture, even told to submit to wife-battering – all in the name of the Christian God. But those failings do not negate the fact that, the more Christians have lived out what the Bible actually teaches, the more they have been a force for liberation from all kinds of oppression.

Gendered God Language

Before considering gender in the broad biblical drama, a few words about God language are in order. This is a big issue in Feminist Theology. Radical feminist Mary Daly attacks the fatherhood of God saying, “If God is male, then the male is god.” But the biblical writers do not equate God’s Fatherhood with maleness.          

The intention of gendered God-language in the Bible - metaphors, images and pronouns, whether male or female - is not to communicate that God is a sexual being. God is Spirit. He created and transcends sexuality.  Therefore Moses prohibited making either male or female images of God as equally idolatrous (see Deuteronomy 4:15-16).

The Bible also teaches that men and women are equally the image of God.  Neither sex is a more accurate likeness of God than the other.

Gendered God language in the Bible communicates the personal nature of God, who relates to His people as a personal being and not as an impersonal object or force. While the New Testament in particular addresses God as Father, and the majority of God language is “masculine,” the Biblical writers included feminine/maternal God imagery as well. For example, the prophet Isaiah describes God "like a woman in childbirth" (Isa. 42.7) and he writes "as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you" (Isa. 66.13).  Deuteronomy 32:18 reads “You forgot the God who conceived you and gave you birth" (or “writhed in labor”.) Male sex organs are never associated with God, but the womb and breasts are. This kind of metaphorical language warns against identifying God as a male.

The absence of a female consort, and antipathy to the goddess in the Bible, did not come from sexism, but from the monotheistic nature of the Biblical God. The belief in one sovereign, ethical, creator God, who created by his word, not by sex, stood in stark contrast to the polytheistic fertility religions of the surrounding peoples.  In fact, embracing polytheism, nature religion and goddess worship, has never guaranteed a more just or egalitarian life for girls or women.

The city of Athens was named after Athena, the great goddess of wisdom, yet the women of Athens were some of the most oppressed and denigrated in known history. In Corinth during the New Testament period, over 1000 slave girls and boys served as sacred prostitutes in the temple of Aphrodite alone.  Most of them had been abandoned as infants and sold into temple service.  There was nothing "liberating" about the lives of sacred prostitutes, even though they served a female deity.  

The rich diversity of language about God, and names for God in the Bible indicate the limitations of human language to fully and adequately describe an infinite divine being. Gendered language is unavoidable, as the biblical God also personal, and persons are either male or female. But gendered God language in the bible is neither sexist nor sexual in intent.

Created Equal in God's Image

The Bible teaches clearly that men and women were created equally in the image of God, and God said that was very good (Gen 1:31). This central biblical teaching contrasted radically with the ideas of the culture of that time. It gives a powerful basis for the equal value and dignity of every human being - including male and female, young and old, every racial, class and ethnic group, the physically and mentally well and the sick and disabled.

Genesis also mandates work, the building of families and culture, care for the environment – all as shared male and female responsibilities (Gen 1:28; 2:15, 18). The traditionalist adages “A woman's place is in the home" and "The man is the breadwinner" are neither traditional nor biblical. Until the Industrial Revolution wrenched work out of the home, men and women raised bread and children together from the home.

The origin of male and female from the same substance is the physical basis for marriage and its goodness. During the ascendancy of Greece and later Rome, this teaching became particularly significant in contrast to the Greek belief that women were made of inferior material from men. They were considered to be more like animals and soulless. There was no way an upper-class educated Greek man could have an equal relationship with a woman. So men had wives to produce male heirs and keep house, but they preferred other men for sexual and intellectual intimacy. In the ancient Graeco-Roman world, male homosexuality was a clear putdown to women as inferior beings.

In the biblical creation account, Eve is described as Adam's “equal and adequate helper” (ezer kenegdo). Although the English word helper can imply subordination, the Hebrew word ezer never does. In the twenty-one times it appears in the Old Testament, it almost always refers to God, the mighty helper of his people (see Deut 33:26, 29; Ps 121:1).

According to Genesis, no sexual hierarchy existed at creation. In Francis Schaeffer's words, man and woman lived in an "unstructured democracy"4 before the fall. There was a "golden age" before patriarchy, a question feminists debate.

Rebellion Begets Patriarchy

The problems began in the third chapter of Genesis. Here, human rebellion (sin) against the Creator resulted in much tragic alienation, including sexual hierarchy, rivalry and exploitation. In feminist terminology, patriarchy was born. It is crucial to understand that the curse in Genesis 3:16 is not a command from God, but a tragic description of what life would be like in a broken world. As with the other results of the fall - sickness and death, pain in childbirth, alienation from nature and work - the appropriate human response is not  resignation, but resistance.

Life between the Fall and the coming of redemption through Christ included good and bad in the male-female relationship. The Old Testament portrays three strands. First, there is a dark strand, an honest record of human sin, including stories of men raping and exploiting women, and women (like Rachel) deceiving and manipulating men. God did not condone any of this.

A brighter strand appears in the Old Testament law, which curbed or regulated patriarchal practices (such as polygamy) in the direction of greater justice and protection of the vulnerable. God did not establish or condone these practices but allowed them temporarily because, as Jesus said in reference to divorce, people’s (in this case husbands’) “hearts were hard” (Mt 19:8). A “good” law does not legislate God’s ideal, but leads a very imperfect group of people toward it.

The extended family-clan-tribal system of ancient Israel, though undeniably patriarchal, provided an effective social welfare system for the vulnerable. Widows, single mothers, fatherless children and aliens were cared for within local communities. Modern individualism, with its reliance on the state to care for the needy, is neither as personal nor as efficient.

 Finally, the brightest strand shows through in powerful women like Deborah, Huldah and Miriam, who were called by God to the highest positions of religious and political leadership. Proverbs 31 praises a strong, competent wife who juggles a multitude of economic and nurturing responsibilities. She is paid for her work and praised in the private and public sphere.  We also see a beautiful celebration of monogamous sexual intimacy and mutuality in the Song of Solomon.

Jesus Challenged Cultural Norms

A new era began with the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. Jesus came into a world, where in law and life, women were treated as inferior in every way. By his teaching and behavior, he constantly challenged the patriarchal norms of his culture. Rejecting the practice of keeping women separate and silent, Jesus included them in his traveling band of disciples (theological students). He surprised everyone by rebuking Martha for her preoccupation with "women's work" (cooking and serving men) and praising her sister Mary for studying theology with the men (Lk 10:41-42).

In a culture that blamed women for male lust, Jesus put the blame where it belonged--on the men who looked lustfully at women. Jesus and later the apostle Paul abolished the double standard regarding divorce and adultery, whereby a man could send his wife away at a whim, and she had no equivalent power. Husbands and wives have the same responsibility to avoid adultery, and the same rights to divorce when the marriage covenant has been radically broken.  And both Jesus and Paul affirmed singleness as a valuable choice for men and women (Mt 19:12; I Cor 7).

In a culture that so devalued a woman's word that it prohibited women from testifying in court, Jesus chose women to be the first witnesses of his resurrection. That distinction conferred a unique authority on women in the early church.  This fact was not lost on the Romans, many of whom scorned the Christian faith for the authority it recognized and invested in women.

Dorothy Sayers wrote this about Jesus of Nazareth:

Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the cradle and last at the cross.  They had never known a man like this Man - there never has been another.  A prophet and teacher who never  nagged at them, never  flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”;  who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious.  There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman's nature.5

Jesus the Messiah reconciled God and humanity by his death and resurrection. Soon after these momentous events, the Christian church was born with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The apostle Peter quoted the prophet Joel (Acts 2:17-18), announcing to a multi-racial crowd that the Spirit of God was removing sex, class and age barriers to ministry (Joel 2:28-29).

Full Recognition of Women

Before Pentecost, circumcision was the sign of membership in the community of God's people. Obviously, full membership could apply only to Jewish males. After Pentecost, baptism became the sign of entering into the community of believers. The inclusiveness of this sign is underscored in a very early baptismal formula found in Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." The things that used to divide and rank people lost their relevance in a truly multicultural Christian community.

The inclusiveness and love evident in the early Christian church, though not perfect, were so real and dramatic that some in the Roman world called the Christians "the third race." Women went from silence to teaching and leadership. Slaves became deacons and bishops. Wealthy Christians willingly sold their property and shared it with the poor.

The marriage relationship changed radically. One-sided male rule converted to mutual submission, the wife submitting to a husband who was commanded to model Christ by loving her sacrificially, even to the point of death (Eph 5:21-33), and mutual authority, husbands and wives having exactly the same authority over their own and each other's bodies (1 Cor 7:3-5).

The all-male priesthood gave way to the priesthood of all believers (male and female) with Christ as the one High Priest. Evidence throughout the New Testament shows that women were teachers and leaders in the early church. Biased English  translations obscure some of this evidence. For example, Junia, commonly recognized as a female apostle, was turned into a male by a fourteenth century commentator with no textual warrant.6

Paul commended numerous women as faithful coworkers, including Phoebe, described in the Greek as a gospel minister and leader. Using the same Greek root, Paul told leaders to govern diligently (Rom 12:8); yet one Bible paraphrase calls Phoebe a dear Christian woman instead of a leader or governor!  Paul called apostles and prophets the “foundation of the church” (Eph 2:20). Ephesians 3:5 makes it clear that these are New Testament prophets.  They taught with foundational authority, and both groups included women. The apostle John sent one of his letters to a woman in authority over a church that met in her home (2 Jn).

Two controversial texts appear to prohibit women's teaching and authority in the church (1 Cor 14:33-35 and 1 Tim 2:12). These texts have unfairly given Paul the reputation of being a misogynist (woman hater). Problems riddle both texts. The meanings of several critical Greek words are uncertain. Both texts are in letters to churches struggling with specific problems concerning women. Both churches included respected women teachers. Although Christians differ in their understanding of these verses7 it is a serious mistake to use them to exclude women from leadership, when so much clear New Testament evidence points to the opposite conclusion.

You may be surprised that what I am saying does not match the practice of much of the church throughout history or even today. Too often Christians have fallen captive to human traditions that conflict with the radical New Testament message. We must constantly hold our traditions up to the light of the Bible and allow it to reform our theology and lives.

Common Ground Between the Bible and Feminism

The common ground between the Bible and feminism is that both recognize there is a problem and believe we have a responsibility to do something about it. Elaine Storkey, a Christian philosopher and sociologist, describes it by saying,     

Men constitute a problem for women, not as individuals necessarily, but as those who combine to impose certain attitudes and values, to uphold certain interests in society. Pay differentials, educational priorities, rape, domestic violence, pornography, workloads in the home, leisure patterns, all produce their own evidence to indicate the extent of the problem. For it is woven into the very structure of contemporary society. 8

The culprit behind all these injustices is what feminists call the patriarchal system. It includes the powerful assumption that men are entitled to define women and their place. Christian and non-Christian feminists share a sense of responsibility to challenge these assumptions and injustices. Christians recognize that ever since the Fall, sex-gender reality has included a complicated mixture of good (creational) and bad (fallen) patterns. We strive to restore relationships and institutions to God's good creation/redemption plan of male-female equality, complementarity, interdependence and mutual respect and enjoyment.

Politically, Christians and feminists may find themselves working together in some surprising alliances. Prolife Christians and members of Feminists for Life of America9 both oppose prochoice feminists on the abortion issue. Christians ally with radical feminists against the free-speech liberal feminist position on pornography. Some Christians and feminists lobby together for working conditions sympathetic to the needs of parents and children. Similar partnerships are forming to fight rape, incest and domestic violence, inside and outside the church.10

Incompatibilities Between Secular Feminism and Christianity

No overarching feminist worldview encompasses the diversity of feminist views of human nature, the causes of women's oppression or the solutions to it. But there are a number of basic non-negotiable biblical teachings essential to Christianity. Three of them are particularly important to compare and contrast with any strand of feminist thought: (1) human nature, (2) ultimate moral authority and (3) the measure of human greatness or excellence.

1. Human Nature - The Shared Image of God

The Bible affirms a universal human nature that unites both sexes and all other diversities (class, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability, and so on). Because all people are made in the image of God, no group can be considered intrinsically superior to any other. The shared image of God makes communication and love possible between people who may have little else in common. While human differences are real and must be respected, our most basic identity is grounded in the things that unite us.

Without a grasp on the essential unity of the race, our differences tend to spawn hostility, because all people are also fallen or sinful.  No group can claim total innocence, nor can any be blamed for all the evil in the world. But because God's grace extends to all people, no group or individual is unredeemable. Within the basic unity of the human race, the Bible affirms a good sexual diversity. Procreative differences, for example, are good. True women's liberation does not mean overcoming pregnancy and lactation, as some feminists have argued. And it is counterproductive to deny (in the name of equality) the unique vulnerabilities that come with childbearing.

Sex differences are real and rooted in creation, but the Bible is surprisingly silent about defining those differences. It never defines masculinity or femininity and never exhorts men to be “manly” or women to be “womanly”. That silence gives freedom for individuals and cultures to express the sex-gender difference in many ways. In fact, the main emphasis in the Bible is on the unity of the human race, and our call to the same character goals - the imitation of Christ (love, humility, service, forgiveness, willingness to suffer unjustly and courage) and the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control).

Some of the most troubling trends in feminism today come from  radical feminists who make too much of the sex-gender difference, rather than from feminists who make too little of it. Some radical feminists insist that males and females are morally and ontologically two different kinds of beings. Men are evil oppressors; women are innocent victims; all men are essentially rapists; and all men hate all women. These things are simply not true. They express radical feminist ideology and rhetoric. Reality is much more complex.

Black feminists and other women of color have been some of the most powerful critics of the radical feminist tendency to oversimplify moral reality. For example, bell hooks (sic) describes many privileged white feminists as “so determined to create awareness of the ways they were victimized within patriarchy that they could not accept any analysis of their experience that was more complex, that showed the forms of power they maintain even in the face of sexist exploitation - class and race privilege.”11

The belief in female goodness stands behind feminist separatism and the utopian hope often placed in all-female communities and woman-centered culture. While we must never minimize the horror of experiences like rape and domestic violence, that often drive women to reject male society, the sad fact is that all-female societies are plagued with the same attitudes of pride, dominance, greed and self-centeredness that wreck any relationship or community. It is also a sad fact that women who ascend to positions of power in society do not necessarily advocate for or sacrifice for their less powerful sisters. No sex, race or class is free from the sin that ruins relationships, exploits power or starts wars.

The Bible's teaching on sin, often rejected as overly pessimistic, actually leads to hope. Where sin is our shared human problem, possibility for change exists. People can repent, apologize, and be forgiven and reconciled to God and to each other.

God's forgiveness extends to the entire human race, male and female. Admitting guilt and receiving forgiveness powerfully equalizes and humbles us. Once I admit my need for forgiveness, it is much harder to justify the self-righteousness that divides me from others, and interpersonal reconciliation becomes possible. Even painful relationships between men and women can know real and substantial healing.

2. Ultimate Moral Authority

Next we must ask: Who has the highest moral authority? If feminism requires autonomous woman with no higher authority over her, able to determine true and false, right and wrong, then there is a basic incompatibility with the Christian faith.

It is arrogant for any finite, mortal creature to claim the Creator's prerogatives. But giving up God for the sake of moral freedom is also ultimate folly. Without God we lose the moral authority needed to support the most fundamental values of feminism - the belief in the equal value and dignity of all persons, male and female.

Elaine Pagels reflects on the radical nature of the Bible's teaching that all human beings are equal image-bearers of God: The Genesis accounts of creation introduced into Graeco-Roman culture many (new) values...for example, the intrinsic worth of every human being, made in God's image...Aristotle, among others, would have considered [these ideas] absurd...The idea of human moral equality flourished among converts to Christianity, many of whom, especially slaves and women, were anything but equal under Roman law.12

These ideas inspired The Declaration of Independence, the feminist crusade for the inclusion of women with all the men who had been "created equal," and the abolitionist movement for the inclusion of African-Americans. Most of us in the West still take for granted the belief in human equality.

But as Pagels has pointed out, it is important to understand that there is nothing self-evident about this idea. It is dependent on belief in the Judeo-Christian Creator. Therefore, when people stop believing in the God who created all human beings in his image, they lose the necessary basis for the unique and equal value of all persons.

Before feminists reject God and his standards in favor of autonomous freedom for an individual or a group, they should consider the possible implications of doing that. For, if I have the right to be my own highest moral authority, how can I deny that right to anyone else, including men? Yet men have repeatedly victimized women in the practice of their autonomous freedom. And, if there is no higher moral law that both men and women stand under, then women will always be the most victimized.

Furthermore, in a world without God, where impersonal nature is the final reality, why shouldn't the one whom nature has endowed with greater strength use the weaker to his advantage? This applies directly to men's abuse of women.

Without belief in God, how do we argue with Honore de Balzac's view of the sexes? “Pay no attention to [woman's] murmurs, her cries, her pains; nature has made her for our use and for bearing everything: children, sorrows, blows and pains inflicted by man. Do not accuse yourself of hardness. In all the codes of so-called civilized nations, man has written the laws that ranged woman's destiny under this bloody epigraph: 'Vae victus! Woe to the weak!”13

But if the Bible's message is true, then men and women are not mere products of nature, but children of God, and subject to God's laws - which, in fact, turn Balzac upside down. According to biblical ethics, the person with more power has a special responsibility to serve, care for and empower the less powerful.

As Western culture has discarded belief in the Judeo-Christian God, we have lost the most powerful philosophical-religious base for the feminist belief in the equal value, dignity and rights of all persons, including women. Secularism cannot produce an equivalent foundation. The biblical worldview provides a powerful moral authority for denouncing sexism, racism and all injustice as wrong. Rape, incest and violence against women are always wrong -not because feminists say so, nor because a majority or the state says so, but because these things violate God's character and laws.

More than that, human outrage at injustice is not a freakish quirk in an impersonal and amoral universe. Our sense of justice points to a God of justice, and at its best reflects his justice, because we are made in his image. And there is the promise that one day all will be made right by a just and merciful Creator. Without such a hope, injustice is bound to have the final word.

3. The Measure of Human Greatness

The rise of First Wave Feminism in the second half of the nineteenth century represented the revolt of women against a system that defined service and self-sacrifice as uniquely feminine responsibilities. In an understandable reaction to the injustice of that idea, some feminists have rejected the idea of service as a worthy ideal for anyone. Instead, one's highest moral obligation is described in individualistic, narcissistic language. My empowerment and self-fulfillment matters most, no matter what the cost to anyone else.

If a self-centered, individualistic definition of greatness or success is essential to feminism, then it is incompatible with the Christian faith. For Christians, Jesus is not only the Savior but also our Lord and the model of human excellence for men and women. He redefined power and greatness in terms of service (Mk 10:42-45).

The human capacity and responsibility to love and empathize with others - as Jesus taught, to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Mt 22:39) - is rooted in our common humanity. No matter how diverse we are in terms of gender, race, class, or anything else, we are still one as human beings. Therefore, we are capable of the imaginative work of putting ourselves in each other's shoes.

So we are to love our neighbors; we are to care for the vulnerable; we are to be hospitable, a word that means “loving the stranger”. Why? Because God loved us in our need.  And because, no matter how different the stranger is, we are still the same flesh and blood, and we both stand ultimately in the same place. We are equally recipients of the undeserved gift of life and equally vulnerable to death.

If I have power, health and wealth today, I may lose them tomorrow. There is neither condescension nor codependency in the Bible's ethic of power and service. It is based on the reality that, ultimately, we are all in the same boat.

Loving and serving others does not mean being weak or passive, or always deferring to those in power. Jesus was no doormat! He confronted injustice and the abuse of power wherever he saw it, which was mostly in the patriarchal religious/political establishment. It takes courage and strength to live a life of service, particularly where corrupt institutions need reform in order for human caring and justice to take place.

Florence Nightingale is a model for many feminist reformers in the nursing profession today. Born in the nineteenth century into the British upper class, she did not explicitly identify with the woman's rights movement, but her life and work embodied a powerful feminist revolt against the Victorian definition of passive womanhood, expressed in her famous words, "Why have women passion, intellect, moral activity - these three - and a place in society where no one of the three can be exercised?"14

She found ways to exercise all three. Her sharp mind for facts, statistics, documentation, and persuasion was bonded to her deep compassion for suffering people and a dogged determination to bring reform. The only way for a woman in her culture to make large-scale reforms was through influencing men with political power. And she was remarkable at it! People in her day spoke with awe of the Nightingale power. During her ninety years, she wrote over two hundred books, reports and pamphlets and accomplished an amazing amount of reform in nursing, public health, the army and poor houses - in England, India, the United States and elsewhere.

In an article called “Feminism and Nursing”, Peggy Chinn and Charlene Wheeler write:

“In her closing note in (Notes on Nursing) Nightingale cautions her sisters against doing what men do merely because men do it, and against doing what women do merely because it is prescribed for them by society.  She states, "surely woman should bring the best she has, whatever that is, to the work of God's world, without attending to either of these cries." 15

Sojourner Truth is another model of human excellence.  Born into slavery, she came from a background radically different from Florence Nightingale's.  Yet, in their common determination to serve God and humanity with all their strength, both model powerful lives of Christian feminist heroism. The Victorian definition of passive, leisured womanhood that Nightingale found unbearably constricting actually disqualified Sojourner Truth from being a woman at all! In a public address, Truth confronted the white cultural stereotype:

"That man over there, [who had said women were the weaker sex], he says women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches and to have the best everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, over mud puddles, or gets me any best places.” And raising herself to her full height, she asked, "And ain't I a woman?"...

"Look at me!"  She bared her right arm and raised it in the air. The audience gasped as one voice. Her dark arm was muscular, made strong by hard work. "I have ploughed. And I have planted. And I have gathered into barns..." She paused again and asked this time in a whisper,

"And ain't I a woman?”

"I have borne children and seen them sold into slavery, and when I cried out in a mother's grief, none heard me but Jesus. And ain't I a woman?"16

Sojourner Truth could not read, but she knew much of the Bible by heart. She was a powerful preacher, public speaker and activist for the rights of blacks and women. Over six feet tall, she bore herself in a way that commanded respect. She was one of the first African-American women to win a court case. In fact she won three, all against whites.

Both Nightingale and Truth were well known in their lifetimes.  But fame is not intrinsic to heroism.  Many anonymous heroes risked their lives to save Jews during the holocaust, for example. I believe we are drawn to and inspired by these kind of people, because we intuitively recognize human excellence - the excellence of God's image-bearers, reflecting the character of their Maker.

Are Christianity and Feminism Compatible?

However you decide to answer, I hope you are persuaded that there is a place for fruitful dialogue. Modern feminism has challenged the church to reevaluate its life and theology of sex and gender. Christians should be deeply thankful for all the responsible biblical scholarship that has resulted, reaffirming that the gospel Jesus brought to the poor, the prisoners, the blind and all who are oppressed is indeed, good news for women.

Many have experienced the church as bad news for women.  I would invite them to look beyond the failures of Jesus' followers and examine his life and teachings for themselves.  If Jesus is who he claimed to be, then in him there are solutions, not only to the legitimate problems raised by feminists, but to the even deeper human dilemma - our alienation from our Creator.


 1Leonard Swidler, “Jesus Was a Feminist,” quoted in reprint by Christians for Biblical Equality (112 West Franklin Ave, Suite 218, Minneapolis, MN 55404-2451), p.1.

2Annie Gaylor, "Feminist Salvation," The Humanist July/Aug. 1988, pp. 33-34.

3Vishal Mangalwadi, When the New Age Gets Old, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992), p. 133

4Francis A. Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, (Westchester, Ill.:  Crossway, 1982), 2:65.

5Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human?  (Grand Rapids, Mich.:  Eerdmans, 1989), p. 47

6Eldon Jay Epp, Junia:  The First Woman Apostle (Minneapolis MN.: Augsburg Fortress, 2005). Epp’s book is a meticulously documented examination of the evidence for Junia (Romans 16:7) being both a woman and an apostle. See also Aida Besancon Spencer, Beyond the Curse (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1985) pp.100-102

7The leadership of L'Abri Fellowship, the organization with which the author is associated, allows differences of interpretation and application of these controversial verses among themselves.  The author has expressed her views, which do not represent any official L'Abri position.

8Elaine Storkey, What's Right with Feminism? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986), p. 162.

9For information about Feminists for Life of America (FFLA), see their web site:  <>

10see <> to learn about Peace and Safety in the Christian Home (PASCH)

11bell hooks, Yearnings: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics (Boston: South End Press, 1990), pp. 75-76.

12Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1989), pp. xix-xx.

13Honore de Balzac, as quoted by Rosemarie Tong in Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1989), p. 206.

14Quoted by Peggy L. Chinn and Charlene Eldridge Wheeler in “Feminism and Nursing: Can Nursing Afford to Remain Aloof from the Women's Movement?” Nursing Outlook 33, (March/April 1985): 77


16Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick Mckissack, Sojourner Truth:  Ain’t I a Woman?   (New York: Scholastic, 1992), quoted from the back cover


Mardi Keyes holds a B.A. in biblical history from Wellesley College. In 1979 she and her husband Dick helped start the Southborough (Massachusetts) branch of L'Abri Fellowship where they continue to work. She has published numerous articles and contributed to the book Women and the Future of the Family with Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Stanley J. Grenz, and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen. She also lectures widely on gender issues. A number of her lectures are available at and from Sound Word Associates at  The Keyes have three married sons and six grandchildren.


Feminism and the Bible 2013 Update © 2013 Mardi Keyes

Text originally published as Feminism & the Bible by Mardi Keyes. Copyright © 1995 Mardi Keyes.  Used by permission of the author.

First Edition (1995) published by Intervarsity Press.

All rights reserved. No part of this essay may be reproduced in any form (other than short quotations for the sake of reviews or academic work) without written permission from the author.

This edition is part of a special pre-release run of ten issues in anticipation of a more wide release by a new publishing collective to be formed and operating in Summer of 2013. This non-exclusive one time permission for ten copies, and permission to post the text online as a blog and PDF was given in writing by the author to Shawn Birss.

All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright©1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.

For information on the upcoming wide release of this book, the new publishing collective, or to see other available titles go to To contact the publisher for a catalogue or other inquiries write to Shawn Birss P.O. Box 52188 Edmonton, AB, Canada T6G 2T5, or email


Feminism and the Bible is available as a booklet for $3.50 Canadian plus shipping.
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1 comment:

  1. I love this booklet! I have read it and re-read it since 1990s!! Amazingly true and balanced.....

    The church should spearhead these debates and I am glad Keyes is doing it.

    Thank you Mardi Keyes.

    I feel called to do what you are doing in Uganda and in Africa at large. I am currently carrying out research on THE PERSPECTIVE OF EVANGELICAL LEADERS IN UGANDA ON FEMINISM....