Blessed, Is She? [Re-imagining Christian Feminism]

Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished! Luke 1:45 NIV

Mary learned that she was to be mother of Jesus when she was only a child herself. And all of the social implications had the potential to ruin her life.  I am sure, as she was being told by the angel that this was her destiny — doubt, disbelief, and dismay all ran through her. And yet what did she say in response?  Not, “Yes, but…”  Not, “Oh no!”  Not, “Do you have any idea what this will do to my life, for that matter my reputation?!”

She did not question it or seek clarification.  She said only, “Yes.  Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said will be accomplished.”  She believed.

Two thousand years later the Church is made uneasy by conversations about the role of women.  Today, if they could change it, I wonder who “the Church” would choose to be the first to know of the Savior’s coming?  Who would the Church choose to be caretaker of the babe?  

When Rachel Held Evans said recently on her blog, that she doesn’t really know what a feminist is, I was mildly surprised though I think she was kidding, kind of.  The truth is that in the Church we don’t talk about being a Christian feminist.  The words are laden with ancient history and pain, not blessing.  With the climate surrounding even the idea of feminism in the Church, it begs the question:  What do you mean when you say you are a Christian feminist?

I did not think of myself as a feminist for a very long time. Slowly I have gained confidence in my understanding of what I mean when I call myself a feminist, but my path of discovery has been bumpy. For years I did not really know what to call myself.  But it became clear that I needed some way to make it unequivocal what I believed.  If I was going to stay in my evangelical church, I had to figure out how live with myself and learn to defend my view that God meant women to fully use our gifts and talents in the Church. I needed language that was clear.

For years I asked everyone else to tell me what they believed. I wrote many letters to my pastor asking for his thoughts, ideas, book recommendations, and for suggestions of people to talk to.  My thoughts developed in a fractured way and I had a fearful and insecure tone.  Always being put off, I became concerned that I needed to adjust my attitude.  I “worked on my attitude” because I was being sent the clear message that I was wrong. I continued to study, but I just could not let go of the fact that there were no female teachers at my church and that eldership was restricted to men.  Coming out of a Presbyterian background this was a step backward in my mind.  I had been an elder at my last church.  Every time the elder nomination process started the pain — the wound was scratched open.

When I asked why there were no women teachers I was told that teachers will rise organically.  To me this was short sided and underestimated how important it is for anyone, but especially women, to be celebrated, mentored, cheered, invested and believed in with whatever gifts they have.  Women and girls are less likely to put themselves forward and rarely self-promote. And, when the church doesn’t have models of women teaching and there is thousands of years of church history one is going up “against” it is a rare person who is able to stand up say “I have a gift!”

When I wrote my elders (all men) and received a lengthy letter in reply, they said they really do agree with me.  But I needed to know how difficult it is to change things and it hasn’t been looked at in more than two decades.  I was told that the likely controversy that would arise out of changing this was more than they were prepared to address at this time.  Clearly they are afraid to talk about the issue of women, fearing it is too divisive. Did you catch that, they actually agreed that it was time that women were teachers and elders but it’s “too hard to change.”  What kind of a message is that sending?  That women and girls are not important.   

This apathy and fear will produce a whole new generation of ignorance and is another reason why we must talk and write about it.   It is gravely sad for me, as I raise my children in the church that so many men and women have no idea that there is any theological debate about the role of women in the church.  The these things are up for debate.  That there is more than one biblical perspective.  My own daughter looks at the status quo and listens to me and shrugs saying “Mom, why are you always on about women’s rights?”  Even with her own mother trying to teach her differently she thinks what she sees and experiences is the way it is supposed to be.

Leaving is not the answer.  My friends outside the evangelical church tradition just shake their heads at me asking: “Why are you still there? Come over here where you will be valued and appreciated.”   While it is true that most people at my church just don’t want to think about it and it would be easier to just leave, I don’t for two reasons.  Firstly, yes I am a feminist, but I am a Christ follower first and when my feminism rises above that in my life then I believe it is an idol for me.  Secondly, I continue to be spiritually challenged. This issue does not totally hamper my ability to learn and receive from my church. So I remain, believing that perhaps I am supposed to be there.

But there is no getting around people’s strange ideas about feminists.

Here are some of the generalizations I run in to:

  • Feminists all hate men and are angry!

That is just not true.  Let me give you an example of how hard it is.

We are studying attributes of God at church.  Commenting in a small group made up of ten to fifteen men and women that we meet with weekly, about my perceptions of God as Father, I tried to talk about the fact that my perceptions are skewed and harmed by my relationship to an angry and abusive human father.  As I stumbled over my words, trying to be as clear as possible (I really hate thinking out loud and find it challenging) and trying not offend anyone, the men in the room seemed to physically recoil, as if I was saying that I hate men.  “Do I want the men to all leave?” one of them joked.   I found myself saying “No, of course not. I don’t hate men.  I don’t, obviously, hate my husband for being a man.  I just don’t find it helpful that God is characterized as father/male when my experience with my father was so difficult.” 

I think it is absurd the pretzels we have to twist ourselves into trying to explain ourselves sometimes, because people think of all the negative generalizations about feminists.   But that is because of the lack of women willing to speak out about their experiences. And the current climate surrounding the role of women in the Church makes it hard for women who label themselves as feminists in the Church.

  •  Feminists are offended by any song or creed with male pronouns.  

I have been there. When I was first on this journey everything hurt, male pronouns especially.   Gratefully I have come to a place where male pronouns in ancient hymns no longer offend me but I do notice them, every time.  I find it unfortunate that we have to be distracted by this while worshiping God.  I don’t choose to be offended, I just notice it.

And scripture readings still give me a twinge – though I know (because I also read the inclusive translations) which of the verses are strictly and only written to men and which (most) are referring to people.

I do that extra work because it is meaningful, and crucial to me. 

  • Feminists are just out for power.

Questioning the Church’s ancient rules isn’t about power.  These are things that need to be questioned.

Based on a recent e-book written by Scot McKnight, I have concluded even more strongly that my desire to know scripture for myself is important.   “Sometimes it takes extra energy to get a silenced voice back.” Scot McKnight wrote in is riveting essay Junia is Not Alone.  “There is no evidence … in ancient manuscripts or translations” that Junia was a man.  “The church got into a rut and rode it out.”  A rut is kind way put it — more like a stinky hell-hole in my opinion, if a woman was completely cut out of the story in scripture and most people in the church don’t know. 

What else are they interpreting or changing?  We have an obligation to study if for ourselves.  The reality is that the Church needs women’s  voices.   It is wrong that our children growing up in the church not learning of the many incredible women in the Bible.  They are growing up to watch, and listen, and see all that isn’t there.  And yet it is there and no one told us.

Together we can re-imagine Christian Feminism.

  • Men and women, use your platform and speak!

Things are changing.  There are many and varied platforms for people to educate themselves if they choose to.  The internet has opened up the world for us.  Gratefully, one can jump on FB or twitter and instantly feel connected to others.  Blogs are another incredible resource for connecting with intelligent and inspiring women and men willing to engage in these important topics.

As society has changed and women’s opportunities have expanded, as women have gained responsibility and influence (and dare I say power) in the marketplace, sadly the Church remains static and seems to have a narrow view of women’s potential.  For a thousand years, the belief was held that women were not included with men as image bearers of God.  Though the church has mostly abandoned that idea, they have not abandoned the authority structures that perpetuate the subjugation of women.

An important part of my development as a feminist, and my spiritual maturation, was forgiving the ancient church fathers and the current ones (though this is harder for me) for this divisive and ugly interpretations of scripture that damage and harm women.  I had to take my pain to God for “allowing” these practices to exist, ones that limit, stifle and repress women in the church.

Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished! – Luke 1:45

Rachel Held Evans, who I mentioned above, is a firecracker commentator on the current climate for women in the church.  She recently posted 13 Things that Make Me a Lousy Feminist.  What I like about Rachel is that she is courageous and willing to use her platform.  She stirs the pot, but her blog has respectful conversations.  Her tone is winsome and she laces her thoughts with humor, forcing us to think about our own inconsistencies.  And she receives some crap from people, but she is learning to put her opinions out there humbly and then listen to others.  That is a quality of a Godly leader.  I read with her list and reflected on what it means to me to be a Christian feminist.

These are (some of) the things I wish others understood about being a Christian Feminist.

Being a feminist is complex and is as different for every person just as is being male or female.  It cannot be summed up easily.

For me at least it means that women should have equal opportunities at home, at church, and in their professional lives.

Christian feminism is to me is the crazy belief that women and men are both created in God’s image and that each deserves a life of freedom and opportunity inside or outside the Church.  When the church’s systems keep that from happening we should speak up and challenge them with grace and aplomb knowing this may take years, even decades, to bring change.  It will certainly take patience, prayer, and perseverance.  It will take a loving yet persistent voice.  It will require us to build relationships with and trust and respect from the leadership structures. That too takes time.  I have not achieved this yet in my church and I have been there for ten years.  But I remain hopeful.

  • We all have a role to play.  We are all necessary.  We all have a voice. We must take every opportunity that we can to share a positive, healthy perspective of feminism.  Women and men have a job ahead of us to change the opinions of others who do not understand what it means to be feminists, who are Christians.
  • Being a feminist is a mindset and worldview.  Anyone can be a feminist – men and women.
  • There are feminists who are decidedly feminine and those people actually might have more access and a voice in the Church than the stereotypical hard-core militant feminists.  (While I am no princess, I sometimes wear makeup and I shave my legs, these things are not the antitheses to being a feminist.)
  • While one can be a feminist and personally opposed to abortion, taking away a woman’s right to choose is an inherently anti-feminist position.  I know that is controversial, but I would push back and say that human rights and dignity should be heralded at the beginning and end of life, each are a life and the position of many in the Church on death row executions is equally murder in my estimation.
  • Making sexist comments against men, in favor of women, is un-feminist and only enforces gender stereotypes.
  • We must respect others choices. There is nothing wrong with the choice of being a stay-at-home mom and the male in a relationship be the breadwinner.  That is what we have chosen right now and it came with a high price for me.  But those that choose this admittedly very traditional lifestyle must also respect those with both spouses working outside the home or those that choose to have the man staying at-home and a woman being the breadwinner.  These are all options that are good and different for each family.
  • Work in any area of life should be based on talent, skill and passions as well as spiritual gifting.  This goes for everything from cleaning the house and mowing the lawn at home, to leading and managing teams, to teaching or ministering to others.    That said; don’t give any woman a job or a role, because you need a token woman. Do it because she is good at it.  Always work hard to find the best person for the job but know that in order to reconcile the injustice of institutional sexism and racism, work even harder to be sure that women and minorities are represented.   Like someone said “we’re all trying to be successful within a hierarchy of privilege.”
  • I took my husband’s name, but only because I was tired of having my father’s name.  Women should be able to choose their name without feeling slammed from both ends by their choice.  I want my own name but there isn’t a way to achieve that currently and I don’t have a solution for it other than make up or choose a new name.

These are just a few of the ways that I have felt misunderstood as a Christian feminist.  What have you run into?

It’s hard to talk about injustice anywhere, but especially in the Church, without others developing a posture of fear and defensiveness and even condemnation.  I would simply ask that the next time a woman raises an issue or talks about their experiences as a woman in the church, try to remember a few things.

  1. They may be in pain.
  2. They may not have worked out exactly where they stand.
  3. They may not have a full biblical worldview developed.
  4. They may not be able to defend their position.
  5. They may just want to be heard, understood, and loved.

Let’s respect one another’s differences, ask questions, and be open to change.

Our Lord came into the world in the womb of a young girl.  This teenage child was entrusted with the care and development of God himself, in the form of a babe.  She was told “You are blessed” and she believed she was!  Her faith was huge.  Her role was incredibly important.  The church today seems so caught up in what women and girls can’t do.  Let’s enlarge our faith and ask what can we do?  What are we being called to?

Another blogger that I love to read recently said this:

“It’s always befuddled me that people could think of women’s standing in the church as some sort of unimportant secondary issue, something to be held loosely and regarded coolly. Do we not realize that this has a significant personal impact on more than half the church?  Do we not acknowledge that the limits we do or do not place on women impact ministry efforts, evangelism and world missions? Do we not consider the implications this has for women’s understanding of their standing before God?   (Not to mention men’s understanding of a woman’s standing before God–and before them.  Ideas have consequences, and the consequences of subjugation tend to be ugly, like the thistles growing up in the field, hindering the work God has for us to do in the world.)”  — Jenny Rae Armstrong

I believe it is imperative that all believers in Christ (individually and corporately with whatever power and influence each has been given) learn to speak about the injustices that plague humanity — war, poverty and hunger, and sexism and other forms of prejudice, bigotry and racism.  And the next time someone wants to talk about women in the Church how refreshing it would be if we were open, embracing and full of love.  

Ask yourself, “Blessed, is she?”

“Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”  Luke 1:45 NIV

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10 Comments Add yours

  1. pamhogeweide says:

    Great article and great writing, Melody. I wish we lived closer so you could come to one of my listening parties. These are exactly the kind of things we talk about and process together. Women need to define these inequities so that we can internally resist them and externally determine what we’re going to do to resist. Many of my friends have opted to leave their beloved denominations and faith tribes for it was costing them too much to remain. Every woman has to make this determination for herself, how to respond to the covert and overt discrimination against her gender in her own faith community.

    Keep writing! What part of the country are you in? if I’m ever in your area, let me take you out for coffee/tea and we’ll have our own listening party!

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    1. Melody says:

      Pam – thanks for stopping. I live in Madison, Wisconsin a progressive haven in the middle of the conservative farmland. And we have many amazing coffeeshops and tea houses. I really can’t wait for your book. Mel

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  2. pamhogeweide says:

    And, btw, I love the title of this post and that you reference the Creator as She. It is only in recent years that I have become able to relate to God as Mother and not just as Father. God is not a boy. Nor a girl. But to relate to the God of my understanding in the image of which I am made (female) is very empowering.

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  3. Maggie Rowe says:

    Melody, thank you for this very thoughtful, well-informed post. As a woman who has been in ministry for over 35 years both independently and with my husband, I resonate with your words. And I also have a question for you on behalf of my friend, author JIm Henderson, whose book The Resignation of Eve releases in February from Tyndale House. Jim’s book reflects recent Barna church about women leaving the American church for reasons precisely such as you have articulated in your posts. (His subtitle is “What if Adam’s Rib is no longer wlling to be the church’s backbone?”) Jim admires your writing and has asked me to send you a finished copy of his book, but I lack your mailing address.

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    1. Melody says:

      Hi Maggie. I will send you an email.

      Like

  4. Thank you Melody. Hmm, seems that we have much in common. Thank you for your very thoughtful writing.

    It took me a long time to overcome my own personal pain from my own father…it was a sweet revelation from God when I realized that my Heavenly Father is not my earthly father.

    I am adding your blog to my blogroll.

    May God continue to use and bless you.

    Lisa

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    1. Thanks Lisa. I find many people who relate to this idea. You might also be interested in something I wrote late week on Seeing God as Male. It has a lot of do with transforming my ideas about God. https://logicandimagination.com/2012/06/07/when-did-you-first-believe-that-god-is-male-mutuality2012/

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