This is the second in a series of three articles, looking at feminism from a Christian perspective. Find the first one here.
Many early feminists were Christians, and grounded their fight for equal suffrage in their Christian convictions, but since the second wave of feminism, the relationship between Christianity and feminism has been uneasy. The second wave happened 50 years or so ago, though, so it’s worth asking whether Christian objections to feminism continue to ring true, upon closer scrutiny.
Here I will address three common objections that Christians have to feminism: that feminism is fundamentally selfish, that feminists hate Christians, and that Christians don’t need feminism because all we need is the gospel.
Taking Jesus as our example, Christians believe in laying down our rights rather than grabbing for them. Thus, the argument goes, because feminism is women grabbing for rights, it’s inconsistent with Christianity. The problem with this argument is that it’s selective about Jesus, and indeed the Bible. Do you remember Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow? In that story we have a woman asking for what is rightfully hers, and far from condemning her for doing so, Jesus says that God will bring justice for her. Justice is important to God, and in this parable failing to bring justice calls God’s honour into question. It is therefore a very Christian thing to call for society to be more just. It’s this societal level that fourth wave feminism is really pushing at. It’s less about each individual woman’s rights, and more about asking what sort of society we want to be, and whether it will be one that brings justice for all.
A second objection to feminism is that there is no place for Christians in it. From the feminist perspective, the church is often perceived to be pretty anti-woman. Sometimes that comes from misconceptions of the church, and sometimes it’s kind of justified, but many feminists assume you can’t be a Christian and a feminist. You might expect saying that you are a Christian would draw animosity or ridicule but that’s not been my experience. My claim to be both a Christian and a feminist has been met by curiosity, intrigue and hospitality.
Many Christians assume there is no hospitality for Christians in the feminist movement, because Christians are pro-family and anti-abortion, while feminists are anti-family and pro-abortion, so the two contradict one another. The problem with this thinking is that it fails to account for the breadth of feminism. Feminists disagree with each other on a stack of things, including abortion. Liberal feminists consider ‘a woman’s right to choose’ to be basic to women’s flourishing; radical feminists consider that abortion is bad for women, and comes about because society is so inhospitable to women and mothers. The perception that feminism is anti-family fails to account for the feminists calling for dads to be more involved in family life and domestic work, and the many feminists who are mothers and see their feminism and motherhood as informing each other. I think there is space for Christians in feminism, if we are willing to be participants, and to join a two-way conversation.
Finally, some Christians argue that feminism is simply unnecessary. In this line of thinking you don’t need the feminist movement to work out how to honour or care for women, all you need is the Bible. The track record of the church may speak against this argument, but it also assumes that God can not use secular movements to bring hope, peace and healing in society. Let me give an analogy. Very few Christians today would say, "The Bible is all you need for good health", and therefore eschew modern medicine. We recognise medicine as a good gift from God to help us have healthy bodies and minds. Medicine’s not perfect, and it’s not a one-step solution for everything in life or even for health, but it’s a wonderful tool that God has given.
I want us to think of feminism in the same way. God has been gracious enough to give us a social movement that might help us to pursue the flourishing of women. We ought to use it!
In particular, a strength of feminism is being able to identify how societies and structures disadvantage women. If I were to put Christian language on this, I’d call it identifying how sin manifests in communities, not just individuals.
Far from being unnecessary, feminism can help Christians to live out the Bible’s call for the flourishing of all people by showing us the areas where that needs work.
Tamie comes from Adelaide and lives in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania with her husband and two sons. In partnership with CMS Australia, they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES). She and her husband blog here