The Rise of Evangelical Feminism
A conversation for gender equality month.
Evangelical feminism is on the rise, and the conversation is getting loud enough for the most traditional churches to hear.
Christian millennial women and men are joining efforts and strongly advocating for gender equality inside the evangelical Church, and we are not alone. Pre-millennial evangelical feminists, men and women alike, are speaking up, too. Christian feminists are not a new group, but a revived group that is constantly reinventing itself for the next generation.
Evangelical feminists believe in redemption, justice and full equality for men and women in Jesus Christ. They are passionate about the movement, because they believe patriarchy of any kind to be the result of the fall of humankind (Genesis 3:16) and not God’s original design for His beloved children. They believe darkness will not be defeated until the daughters and sons of God are united once and for all.
Women are freer than they have ever been in the evangelical church, but the church still has a ways to go in issues of gender equality.
We talked to a group of notable authors and activists who have been vocal about feminism in the church.
Sarah Bessey: Canadian blogger and author of several books, including Jesus Feminist
Carolyn Custis James: Professor, blogger and author of Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women and Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World.
Rachel Held Evans: Author and activist who has been a major player in fighting for gender equality in the Church
Zach Hoag: Popular blogger and author who writes about feminist issues on his blog and often gives his platform to female Christian feminists to voice their theological arguments
Why do you care about feminism finding a home within the Church?
Sarah Bessey: To me, it’s really about embracing God’s vision for humanity. It’s about the Kingdom of God and seeing the fulfillment of redemption, reconciliation and rescue in our world. I don’t think people need to necessarily adopt the same language that I have—calling myself a Jesus Feminist, for instance—but it is deeply necessary in our world to see both men and women working together in the fullness of the image of God.
But the thing is that as long as I know how important maternal health is, for instance, or as long as I continue to hear from women who have been abused and raped, as long as I know girls are being denied life itself through selective abortion, abandonment, and abuse, as long as brave little girls in Afghanistan are being attacked with acid for the crime of going to school, and until being a Christian is synonymous with doing something about these things, you can also call me a feminist.
Carolyn Custis James: Failure to equip and embolden both women and men to cultivate and employ the gifts God has given them means the Body of Christ limps. It is symptomatic of the fact that the Church does not grasp the magnitude of our mission in the world, the power of the Enemy, and that our numbers are small against such daunting challenges.
Asking women to follow Jesus in measured cautious ways so men can maintain secure in their primacy, authority and power deludes men as to what really matters according to Jesus and places women in the untenable position of one day explaining to Jesus why we buried our gifts when the need was so great. On that day, I would much rather be explaining why I did too much for His Kingdom than why I did too little.
Zach Hoag: The first reason I chose to enter this conversation is because of the Bible. I can’t deny the prominent place women have in the Jesus story: how Jesus seems to break cultural norms and boundaries and treat them as equals and companions throughout, and how they have an especially heroic role in the resurrection climax. I also can’t deny the women leaders who pepper the biblical narrative, Old and New Testaments, and defy the “submit and be silent” stereotype. Most of all, I can’t deny that the apostle Paul, the guy credited with the “submit and be silent” dogma, first said “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21)—speaking of both men and women. And, I can’t deny that he gave perhaps the most beautiful exposition of the Gospel ever when he said, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
The second reason I chose to enter this conversation, though, is my wife. While immersed in a complementarian church culture, I witnessed how much it hurt her. I was complicit in a culture that hurt other women too, suppressing their personhood and denying their gifts. And after leaving that culture, and experiencing great renewal and freedom in our lives and marriage, I was compelled to begin speaking out against it.
How do you think patriarchy is hurting the Church?
Rachel Held Evans: Patriarchy is not God’s dream for the world. Those who continue to perpetuate it perpetuate an injustice, which of course harms the Church internally and also its witness to the watching world. As long as women’s voices are silenced in the Church, the Church is only operating at 50 percent capacity. The Spirit was given to both men and women, and we stifle the Spirit whenever we tell a woman she cannot preach the gospel of Jesus Christ because of her gender.
Carolyn Custis James: Patriarchy is a distorted social system that consecrates male power, privilege and authority over women. It first reared its ugly head in words of curse after the fall of humanity (Genesis 3). Sin brought this consequence—that the man will “rule” over the woman. This violates God’s original vision (Genesis 1:26-28) for His male and female image bearers to rule creation together. The tragic outcomes of this distortion diminish our humanity.
Whether in its most egregious or benevolent forms, patriarchy stunts both women and men by conditioning both to avoid qualities and strengths God intended that make them fully human and destroying the Blessed Alliance between us that God designed for the flourishing of all.
The kinder-gentler patriarchy advocated and embraced within American evangelicalism is based on the mistaken assumption that patriarchy is the Bible’s message. It is not the message. Rather it is the cultural backdrop of the Bible that sets off in bold relief just how radically counter-cultural the Bible’s message is. Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” He didn’t come to tweak things a little or give us a watered-down version of the world’s fallen way of being human. His Gospel challenges us to live on a different plane of existence.
A mitigated patriarchy still maintains a power structure that elevates the few and marginalizes many. It still doesn’t reflect the Gospel’s call to serve selflessly and sacrifice for others. It still results in women holding back and compromising God’s call to steward their gifts for His Kingdom. It still compels men into a kind of spiritual narcissism that leads to a preoccupation with their authority over others. Tragically, it still opens the door for patriarchal abuse.
What do you believe is holding the evangelical church back from accepting women as equals in worth and authority?
Sarah Bessey: You know, I think we can answer that question in a few ways. There are historic and cultural reasons, for sure. The Church is often a mirror of the culture, and since our culture continues to be caught in the lie of patriarchy in ways big and small, the Church has absorbed cultural mores and almost baptized them in sacred language.
But to me this is also a deeply spiritual issue. I believe that there are a few things holding back the Church from embracing full equality and almost all of them track their way back to fear and to a love for power and control at the root. I believe that until we really root that lie of scarcity, that lie of fear, that lie of power and control and pride from our hearts that we will continue to cling fast to a system that is actually the antithesis of God’s dream for us.
How can women in the evangelical Church respond to injustices they face?
Rachel Held Evans: Educate yourself on the relevant biblical passages so you can intelligently engage challenges to women’s equality. (I recommend resources offered by Christians for Biblical Equality.) But choose your battles wisely. I’ve found that I am more effective at advocacy when I direct my words primarily toward those who are already open to change rather than starting with the most strident or popular complementarians.
Most importantly, remember the words of Jesus to Mary of Bethany, when she was challenged for stepping outside of religious gender norms by sitting at [Jesus’] feet and learning from Him as her rabbi: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” If you are called by God to preach the Gospel and to lead the Church, no one can take that call away.
Zach, how can evangelical Christian men advocate for this cause?
Zach Hoag: I would simply say this: listen to the women around you. Don’t acquiesce to church cultures that diminish their personhood or deny their gifts. If you see something, say something. Stand up, speak out, and if need be, walk away from those cultures and make a way out for others.
If you’re not in a church culture like that, then continue to do the good work of lifting up and empowering the voices of women around you, beginning with wives, daughters, relatives, and friends. It’s time to amplify their leadership even as we use our own to do so.