Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Thing About Feminism and Women's Roles in the Church

 Five minutes until we boarded the plane, just enough time for me to run/waddle to the bathroom one more time.  I was rounding the corner into the bathroom doorway, when I stopped, took two steps backwards and stood still.  There on the wall, behind spotless glass, two eyes blazed into me.  She was a striking middle aged African woman swathed in a vibrant yellow.  Her eyes were neither smiling or grieving.  They just...blazed.  Her message:  "Women.  The world's greatest untapped natural resource."  

There in O'Hare, as travelers whizzed about me, I felt a connection to this far away sister.  Although our lives are drastically different, I have felt it too, this sense of being untapped, this feeling bound by my gender.  I surely have no room to complain in light of what her story must be, but nevertheless, I know what she means.

 Then I read the words scrawled beneath her: "I am powerful."  I sighed inside.  "Yes, dear, you are, but...."  I couldn't quite articulate why I didn't like her second message.  Her image and her words have played themselves in my mind over and over, and I realize why.  That poster perfectly encapsulates my feelings on the great debate of women's roles, especially our role in the church.  I have a deep connection and at the same time a discomfort.

There are times I sit content with the role that tradition has painted for me as a woman.  But then there are moments when I catch a glimpse of a different way.  I see women grasping their own brushes and painting outside the lines in big beautiful, free strokes.  It makes me long for that.  I see church leaders fumble to explain exactly why a woman can do this but can't do that.  It makes me more than a bit riled.  We are, after all, half the human race.  Defining who we are and who we can be is kind of a big deal.
Above all, I want to find God's intent in all of this.  But this isn't easy because of all the baggage that comes with the topic of women's roles in the church. So here's my attempt to help myself (and anyone who cares) to wade through it and land closer to His heart.

First, it's difficult (if not impossible) to avoid associating the gender debate with feminism.  The very word "feminist" leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many because of women who have raged into this cultural battle with a war cry on their lips, swinging swords and demanding rights. Many men lay bloodied and bruised in the wake of their path.  In trying to climb to a level of equal standing with men, some women have grabbed a hold of men's coat tails and yanked them down, crushing masculine identity with the soles of their power hungry heels.  It's no wonder, then, that many men in leadership don't want to give this issue the time of day.  Like the parents of a screaming toddler, they hope that ignoring the tantrum will cause it to eventually stop.

Some would argue, on the other hand, that these tactics are justified. Some believe action this extreme is required for true change to occur. We do have to acknowledge and celebrate the positive change that women's suffrage has brought, from the right to vote to the right to equal wages to the general elevation of the view of females. But at the same time we must grieve the casualties that this same movement has caused through hurtful and misguided attacks.
                                Pinned Image

The other battle scar of the feminist movement has been the unfortunate assumption that to be strong and in leadership, a woman has to be ... a man.  Women drop their metaphorical skirts of femininity and pull on the power pants suit in order to compete, losing their grace and dignity along the way.  For generations womanhood was associated with weakness, and so to prove this wrong, women tried to flex their strength by losing their womanliness. And the men trembled, fearing a world without a woman's touch.

It's important, then, to be honest about how the feminists have gotten it wrong, hurting their own cause with the tactics they've used. But the discussion cannot stop there.

What is the Christian's response to the feminist movement to be?  It is not to be bitter for its wrong doing. It is not to ignore it. We have to realize that at the heart of this movement is the desire to free women from injustice and oppression, something that matters a great deal to God.  As Christians we should be at the forefront of transforming a culture so that "in Christ we are all one, no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female."

Those of us Christian women who have the qualities, giftings, and desire for roles not traditionally female can easily jump aboard the feminist movement and fall into its faults.  Here's my check to them and to myself. We are to follow the example of Christ Jesus, who let go of his own equality with God and “... made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant" (Phil 2:7 NIV).

Let's be clear. What I'm not saying that women are to continue to be doormats, never seeking or stepping into leadership roles traditionally designated to men. I'm saying we are not to demand these roles. Biblical heroes and Christ himself did not fight for position or authority. Rather it was granted after exemplifying character, humility, and service.

The fear, of course, in laying down our arms is that nothing will change.  The fear is that women will forever feel like their voices don't matter as much as a man's.  But going around telling people that we matter is just so ... self-serving (and Jesus was kind of against self-service).

That is why I'm suggesting something radical. This change should come and must come. But this change can't come from us.

Men, this is where you come in.  We women are asking you to be the better...um, man, and forgive us.  Forgive us for yanking you down, for demeaning your masculinity, for belittling you.  Please find it in your graciousness to forgive our bitterness. 

Now is the part where we admit that we need you, men, desperately.  We need you to rescue us.  We need you to free us from the voices that tell us we don't matter, that we're not good enough, that we have nothing to offer or teach you men.  We need you to help us find who we are meant to be.

I'm calling out to you especially, my dear educated male.  Do you know the reigns in your hands?  The issue of women's roles is yours to change.  Let's call it like it is and acknowledge that you have the world's ear, that the stage you stand on is an effective platform for making a difference. We need you to reconcile for the church the passages of "women be silent" and "I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over man" with the numerous examples of women in leadership seen throughout Scripture.  We need you to call out the double standard where we somehow believe it's right for a woman to have any position of power in business, politics, and education, but that she's not meant for leading in the church.

We're asking for your help.  I, for one, don't have all this settled in my heart and brain.  I do know the pain and frustration this lack of understanding brings, and I know I am one of many.  Thank you, brother, for loving us and our daughters enough to step out and bring truth and change.

And sisters, as we grapple with how we are to live, let us not forsake being what we are - women.  Let's embrace our womanliness,  realizing that feminine qualities are not what disqualify us from leadership, but rather they are what make us needed at the leader's table.  We are made to be beauty (in it's truest form), to love fiercely, and to nurture gently.  We are different than men, and this is good. 

Let's live free, ladies.  Let's stop trying to prove ourselves and realize that we are enoughLet's find the strength knit in our bones, the passion bound up in our hearts, and let it loose for all the world to see.  And may we do so with all the beauty and grace that makes us, us.


Discuss, shall we? 


  1. A great post, Danielle - lots to think about. Your voice is STRONG, sister.

    1. Thanks, Sarah. That means a lot coming from you!

  2. I agree- there is a lot to think about. I have thinking about this more and more lately, as my husband and I consider children and how that would influence my work. I feel the gendered oppression of many in the church most fiercely in this area, at least as it applies to my own life. I think you are right to appeal to men; this is not simply a women's issue, this is a humanity issue.

  3. One of the most beautiful posts on feminism that I have ever read...truly!