I am both a feminist and a biblical egalitarian. These two are not the same. In fact, I believe that they are very different. I also believe that they are both needed.
Feminism is "the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men." Considering the gender imbalance in governance, the stats on gender-based violence, the gender wage gap, and the fact that before the rise of feminism around the world women were not considered full human beings by their governments, the need for feminism in the world is not hard to recognize.
Egalitarianism is a theological standpoint that the Bible, when translated and interpreted correctly, teaches the full equality of men and women. Egalitarians believe that in Genesis, man and woman were both created in the image of God. We also believe that patriarchy and gender roles were not a part of God's original design for humanity but were a direct result of sin, as they are not mentioned in the creation account until after sin is introduced (Genesis 3). Because Jesus' death and resurrection freed us from the results of sin and restored our relationship to God and to one another (Romans 6 and 8:1-2), egalitarians believe that there is no hierarchy between humans in God's Kingdom. As a result, egalitarians conclude that women and men are meant to serve together equally in the church and to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).
Both feminism and egalitarianism resist patriarchy as a corrupt and abusive system, but they do so in different ways and for different purposes. In the words of Gilbert Bilezikian, where feminism fights for equal rights, egalitarianism advocates for "equal access to servanthood."
We need feminism outside the church to fight for women's rights.
We need egalitarianism inside the church to advocate for mutual servanthood.
The "Feminist Muscle"
A couple summers ago I spent a week housesitting for some friends in Dana Point, CA. One day, as I was leaving the local Trader Joe's, I walked to my car and an older man pulled up in the spot next to me. As he stepped out of his sleek new BMW, he winked at me and started to make small talk. I simply smiled at him as I put my groceries in my car. He proceeded to tell me that he was a very wealthy man and that there was nothing he couldn't buy. I closed my trunk and began walking to the driver side door, putting my car in between us.
Then he said it. "I could give you a good time tonight. Have you ever been with an older man?"
My blood boiled. My first instinct was to ignore him. I mean, if I ignored him I could pretend it didn't happen and could try to continue my day without feeling violated. Then my "feminist muscle" kicked in, and I said, "I pity you because real men don't have to buy women." Then I got in my car, locked the doors, and drove away.
Every woman goes through this. You walk down the street and someone yells at you from a car. You go into a store, or wait in line at a coffee shop, or order a drink at a bar, and a man stares unashamedly at your body. It is just one manifestation of patriarchy in our culture that women have to deal with every day. It is called "street harassment," and it is a big problem (see the Everyday Sexism Project).
I have talked to some of my male friends about my experiences with street harassment. Most of them are great about it. They try to envision how it must feel to be in those situations, and they express sympathy for me and frustration with their fellow men. But some of my guy friends tell me that this behavior is a compliment. They say I should be thankful for it because it means I am attractive.
As if that was my goal in life. As if my value was tied to some arbitrary standard of female beauty.
The world needs feminism because patriarchy—a social system that implies the institutions of male rule and privilege and is dependent on female subordination—has taught us that the subjugation, objectification, and abuse of women are socially acceptable.
The sad truth is that sexism is not left at the church door; it gets dragged in with all of our other baggage.
Obviously this mindset is problematic, but it is not only my non-Christian friends who have said this to me. Some of my male Christian friends have expressed it as well. The sad truth is that sexism is not left at the church door; it gets dragged in with all of our other baggage.
The results of patriarchy are seen outside the church, and they are seen inside of it. It looks different in both places, of course, but it is still there. Some Christians have wrapped patriarchy up in a pretty little package and labeled it "complementarianism," but that doesn't mean that the effects are any less devastating. Nice patriarchy is still patriarchy; both advocate for male-only leadership and both rely on female subordination. Prominent Christian voices are frequently quoted making claims like:
"God has made Christianity to have a masculine feel. He has ordained for the church a masculine ministry."(1)
"…there are women who are discontent with their God-given role and they seek to reach a place of prominence of teaching and to take authority over the men…Nowhere in the New Testament is any woman ever presented in any such office or role as teacher in the church."(2)
"If you are a wife, you were created…a helper suited to the needs of a man… it is your purpose for existing…You were created to make him complete, not to seek personal fulfillment parallel to him."(3)
"We are called as women to affirm and encourage men as they seek to express godly masculinity, and to honor and support God-ordained male leadership in the home and church."(4)
Some people do not believe that this patriarchal gospel is harmful. They do not see any sexist behavior in their churches or in any Christian communities they are involved in. (For rebuttals of these teachings see posts by Rachel Stone, The Junia Project, God's Word to Women, Rachel Held Evans one & two, and NewLife.)
But women see it. Women experience it. I call it "sanctuary harassment." It happens when a church or Christian community (a sanctuary) turns into a hostile environment due to sexism. Need an example? I met a woman last week who told me that, because of her church's complementarian understanding of scripture, the women in her church have to sit at the back.
Let me make this clearer: in her church people are segregated based on their gender.
These messages preach a system that is antithetical to Christ's own teaching that there will be no hierarchy among God's people (Matt. 20:20-28). We need egalitarianism because the church was never meant to be patriarchal.
The "Egalitarian Muscle"
I recently volunteered at the American Association of Christian Counselors conference in Nashville. It was impressive to see so many Christian counselors in one place. I am not a counselor, but I went to help an author sell his most recent book. As I was standing at the table selling these books, a man came up to me. He handed me his money and I handed him his book. He didn't leave right away, so I looked up at him and thanked him for buying it.
Then he said it. "You know, my daughter keeps telling me I need to find a new Christian wife. Are you selling anything else tonight?"
I thought about ignoring the question. If I laughed it off it would all go away without a scene, right?
Then my "egalitarian muscle" kicked in. "I know you are not trying to be disrespectful," I said, "but that is incredibly inappropriate." He laughed like it was no big deal and said it was a joke. I told him it wasn't funny. When he continued to ask me what I was doing after the conference, I asked him to leave.
Living Out the Kingdom of Heaven
We must challenge patriarchal messages, like those pointed out above. They are a result of misunderstood theology and not a reflection of God's design for God's people. They are dangerous because they support a mindset that men are dominant and women are passive; that men are leaders and women are followers; that men are substantive and women are decorative; that men are consumers and women are commodities.
I am both a feminist and an egalitarian, but I am a temporary feminist and an eternal egalitarian.
I am a feminist today because I believe we need to fight for the rights of Saudi Women, speak out against the killing of baby girls, advocate for the safety of women in the DRC, and continue to strive for equality of women around the world. But as a Christian I know that when Christ comes back, there will be no need for feminism, because in his Kingdom all are equal at the foot of the cross (Gal. 3:28).
I am enduringly egalitarian because I strive to live out the Kingdom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven, and as it will be in eternity. Let us all strive to restore God's original design for humanity.
Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.