People have called me a feminist, and I’ve often wondered if I actually am. Many of those who accuse me of such don’t mean to compliment me, by the way. Probably, by a general societal definition, I am. But this I know – after thinking carefully about it, I am not a Christian Feminist.
Feminism as a movement came about when women, via critical and political mass, empowered themselves to begin to systemically overturn legal, cultural, political and systemic inequalities in society and culture.
Tired of being a marginalised minority, women set about changing that for themselves, their daughters and granddaughters. But it isn’t just women benefiting from feminism. Civil and social equity movements concerning race and sexual identity have paralleled feminism in helping bring greater equality and empowerment for and to the vulnerable and marginalised across society, across the world.
Recreating social fabric isn’t just a matter of anarchy and revolution. If you depose a despot, but merely instate yourself as the new despot, the problem isn’t and never was that one person; it’s your broken system, which allows despotic rule to ever take place.
Feminists, civil rights activists, environmental and LGBTI advocates, social changers of all kinds; all know you cannot simply remove the people who do things you don’t like from the systems and structures and occupy the offices yourself. To do so is to place yourself in danger of merely creating other people and people groups into new marginalised minorities to take your place.
And this is why I am not tempted to call myself a “Christian Feminist”.
I see Christian women rising up to assume their God-given voice and authority to be not just self-directed in life, faith and ministry, but to lead, teach and facilitate healthy church-life, where ever and in whatever form it can be found. And this is a good thing; not according to all, but to most.
However, what troubles me is the fact many women who come to recognise their power, voice and authority, simply instate themselves safely within a system which is still geared to marginalise, discriminate, create power-strongholds, and perpetuate abuse, also shielding the perpetrators with immunity and impunity. And let’s face it; as many women as men are capable of stupidity, abuse and power-mongering.
Many women, and indeed men, may have felt a “softening” female presence – a kind of patronization or sharing of power-laden positions with women – is the “Godly” answer to “re-balancing” the church. This “softening” female presence is perhaps what many men in contemporary church congregations and denominations decry as anti-male and feminisation of the church. But lets not kid ourselves. Those women who have managed to behave themselves properly enough, or negotiate shrewdly enough, to be “allowed” to minister in such positions, are complicit with all the systems and the structures which keep less complicit, clever and well-behaved women out.
While I am loathe to simply ignore the implicit misogyny of lumping everything we hate about the “new way we do church now, with all the singing and crying and swaying with our arms in the air and public displays of emotion” and calling that “feminisation” (it’s simply annoying ways to do church, which an awful lot of women don’t like either) I can appreciate men’s frustration with the way simply knocking the hard edges off the old church, or, conversely, bringing in a few female pastors with crew cuts and tattoos, apparently equates to gender equality in the church.
It doesn’t. Not in any real way. I have tattoos by the way. Not knocking women with tattoos.
I don’t think it’s gender equality as such we want in the church. More women in exciting roles or top ministry or church executive jobs isn’t going to fix what’s broken about contemporary Christianity. It’s a reinvention of the Christian church into a new way of operating that’s needed; a way which does not heap power up into piles accessible by only a few. A new way which supports and empowers the marginalized, instead of simply creating new and re-branding old ways to marginalize. A way which facilitates more freedom and perpetuates less legalism. A way which empowers people in their unique and individual walk and faith expression, whilst bringing them into healthful, vibrant and diverse gathering together, creating life-filled and dynamic community. A way which trusts people with their lives and beliefs, instead of teaching them to distrust their hearts and yield control of their minds and hearts to safely well-positioned others higher up some hierarchical ladder. A way which disseminates personal power and control of thought and practice back to each free believer. A way which makes us truly brothers and sisters in Christ, instead of competitors for top jobs, parking spaces, social media platforms, places on the board.
I don’t want more women in church positions. I don’t want more women pastors, or more women on the Christian best-seller list. I want less church positions, and more people waking up to the fact they are the Church, and living their lives from that place. I want all Christians, men and women, to remember – or if they never knew, to simply empathise with – what it feels like to be marginalised and rejected, to be pushed down and out and away because of something about you that you’re powerless to change, and do something to ensure that never happens on our watch, to ANYONE.
If being a Christian Feminist is only about having more women speakers at huge Christian conferences, I’m not for that. I’m about less need for big Christians conferences in the first place, because people are being empowered at grass-roots level to take care of each other better, and lead themselves and other people in healthy ways. I’m about learning how to hold safe spaces for the vulnerable many, rather than preserve power tenets for the powerful few.
If being a Christian feminist means I simply depose a man who has a powerful job in a church I really want and really think I deserve because I am a woman, well, then I am not a Christian feminist.
Christian feminism is about what I think and do, as human being and a woman, who has often felt through the circumstances of life marginalised and disempowered in and out of the Church, even by the Church. It’s about me stepping into my God-given authority and voice as a woman, human being and believer to stand in the gap for those who are marginalised and disempowered, in and out of the Church, even by the Church, and supporting them to realise their own voice, power and authority in Jesus Christ.
It’s also about questioning and criticizing systems that marginalize and disempower, knowing full well it’s very often established institutional Church systems which need addressing, as well as established institutional Church people. I feel it’s my duty as a Christian feminist, if I can be shown to be one, to help undo those harmful, oppressive systems – and those harmful, oppressive people, if need be – if they can be shown to be perpetrators of disempowerment and marginalization – not by virtue of their gender, or mine, but of their actions, and mine. My Christianity demands no less of me than this, and I intend to deliver it to the fullest extent of my energy, and intellect, however limited they may be.
Christian feminism is not feminism if it merely seeks to replace men in positions of power with women. This, to my thinking, isn’t the re-imagining of life, love, faith and religion Jesus had in mind, for men or women. It’s simply gendered power politics, and I want no part of it. I’m under no illusion my femininity sanctifies me, any more than a man’s masculinity demonizes him.
Feminism is not a dirty word. In it’s purer forms, feminism is at the very heart of Christian practice, because it is about redistribution of power, recreation of harmful systems, and rethinking the way people work and live together. It’s about the Church – a church where men and women are able to fully express their full selves, sexual, political, personal, spiritual, social and intellectual, without fear. This is the church I have imagined, and my hope is feminism will be one of the various looms we weave the fabric of such a Church from.