Where does feminism fit in Christian discipleship in 2018?
Here in Tanzania, when you become a Christian, you give up drinking alcohol. There’s little cultural distinction between drunkenness and social drinking or drinking in moderation, so becoming a Christian requires a wholesale rejection of alcohol. Meanwhile, many Australian Christians see no issue with drinking alcohol where it does not lead to drunkenness and even point out that the Bible makes the distinction: surely when Paul tells Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach, he is not directing him to get drunk! To an Australian, the Tanzanian approach seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But here in Tanzania, Christian commitment has become conflated with rejecting alcohol because of the understanding of what drinking alcohol entails.
Now, this is an article about feminism, not temperance, but I begin here to illustrate that Christian discipleship can look very different depending on your time and place. This ought to give us pause when we hear those whose reference point for feminism, and especially rejecting feminism, is the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, commonly called the women’s liberation movement. Not only are we 50 years or so down the track from the 1970s, but feminism has been through 2 evolutionary waves since then. Feminism as it was known in the 1970s is not what it is today. Because of this, it is possible that a Christian response to feminism in 2018 will look very different to a Christian response to feminism in the 1970s.
I was born in 1983, so the 1970s were well before my time, but at least historically it was a time of great social upheaval. Susan Foh opens her 1975 article ‘What is the woman’s desire’ with the acknowledgement that feminism has prompted a re-examination of the Bible’s teaching about gender. She argues that historical understandings of Genesis 3:16 are inadequate and puts forward her own novel interpretation, namely that “her desire is to contend with him for leadership in their relationship.” Since this is “a result of and just punishment for sin,” not God’s will for the woman, “a man must actively seek to rule his wife.” It is not hard to hear her reacting here against the popular level perception that feminism was about women dominating men with that familiar catch cry ‘anything a man can do a woman can do better.’ In other words, she puts forward a particular interpretation of scripture and application to it because of the social and cultural situation of the day as she saw it.
In the confusion and upheaval of those times, it is understandable that Christians felt somewhat at sea, and in scrambling to respond to feminism, saw it as antithetical to Christianity. Even the most ardent of egalitarians, Muriel Porter, in her 1995 essay ‘The Origins of Christian Feminism’ resisted the identification of advocacy for women’s ordination and the like with second-wave feminism. She preferred to see the roots of Christian egalitarianism in the first wave of feminism which centred around advocacy for women’s suffrage. In the wake of the 1970s, it was deeply unpopular for Christians to identify as feminist, and indeed for many, Christian discipleship was tied up with rejecting that label. For them, to throw off the old life and put on the new was to associate with Christian gender roles (be they egalitarian or complementarian.)
However, 50 years down the track, feminism is different and so is our world. If feminism was once about women dominating men (and many second-wave feminists would dispute this), it is no longer. A unique dimension of the fourth wave of feminism has been the focus on hearing women speak. The recent #metoo movement illustrates this: while the effect was that thousands of predatory men have been exposed, the mechanism was simply women telling their stories. That this brought to the public’s attention the horrific and widespread abuse that women have been experiencing is not part of a worldwide campaign to destroy men but an honest roar of pain. How can a Christian not be moved by seeing the suffering of so many of God’s image-bearers?
Many are indeed moved, but reject the idea that feminism can help this problem. If God has given us everything that we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3), then all we need to do is to continue preaching the gospel. Abuse of women such as has come to light in the recent #churchtoo spinoff is then read as a failure of obedience to the gospel. While abuse of women is undoubtedly opposed to the implications of the gospel, the problem with this view is that it assumes that if we just try harder in the power of the Spirit, we’ll be able to eradicate the abuse of women.
Yet, all of us can attest to the necessity of using tools developed elsewhere in society to help us obey God. We use recipes written by non-Christians in order to extend hospitality to others. We do personality tests to help us better understand ourselves and others that we might better bear with them. We have date nights to build our marriages though this is nowhere mandated in Scripture. We recognise the goodness in these things as gifts from God the Creator, to help us better follow him. [SL(1]
I suggest that feminism can help us in a similar way. Hearing women’s stories brought to light by the feminist movement can enhance our empathy. Learning about privilege and how it manifests can help us to identify how we have been impervious to the suffering of the vulnerable. Understanding the vast and insidious structures that pressure women into abortion can help us to repent for our part in it and pursue greater freedom for women. Identifying the ways women are shut out of spheres of influence can be a first step to including them as partners in the creation mandate. Here are tools from the Creator to help the church to bring healing and justice in the service of the One who is making all things new.
Notice that I am not suggesting that Christians displace the gospel with the tenets of feminism. Feminism on its own is an insufficient mechanism for caring for women in God’s world. But feminism in 2018 makes no claims to be a movement requiring your exclusive fealty. Quite the opposite actually! The fourth wave of feminism seeks to also be intersectional, that is, to recognise the interconnected nature of our world, that all of us are more than one thing. We belong to nations, ethnic groups, classes, families, religions and other social groups which all sit in tension in our lives.
Jesus the King does require our exclusive fealty of course, and I give my life to none but Him. Yet for me, living for Him in 2018 has meant identifying as a feminist. As the Spirit of Jesus animates me, I embrace feminism as a useful tool for my pursuit His kingdom.
 Susan T Foh, Westminster Theological Journal, 37 no 3 Spr 1975, p 376-383.
 Muriel Porter ‘The Christian Origins of Feminism’ in Maryann Confoy, Dorothy Lee & Joan Nowotny Freedom and Entrapment: Women Thinking Theology North Blackburn: Dove 1995
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