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A Jesus feminist

Sarah Bessey

As International Women's Day approaches, Sarah Bessey hails a wholly (and holy) radical champion of gender equality who predates modern campaigners by two millennia.


Jesus made a feminist out of me.

I can't make apologies for it, even though I know that Jesus plus feminist might be the one label that could alienate almost everyone. I know feminism carries a lot of baggage, particularly within the evangelical church. There are the stereotypes: shrill killjoys, man-haters, rabid abortion-pushers and extreme lesbians, deriding motherhood and homemaking. Feminism has been blamed for the breakdown of the nuclear family, day care, physical and sexual abuse, hurricanes, the downfall of 'real manhood' and the decline of the Christian Church in Western society. But the word feminist does not frighten or offend me: in fact, I'd like to see the Church (re)claim it.



Some think the concept of a Christian feminist is a misnomer, an embarrassing and misguided capitulation to our secular culture. It might surprise antifeminists and anti-Christians equally to know that feminism's roots are tangled up with the strong Christian women's commitments to the temperance movement, suffragist movements and, in the US and UK in particular, the abolitionist movements of the 19th century1. There is a rich tradition of pro-life feminism, which continues today2. Christian feminism predates the works of second- and third-wave secular feminist writers, such as Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, Rebecca Walker, and Naomi Wolf.

Feminism is complicated and it varies for each person, much like Christianity. It's not necessary to subscribe to all the diverse - and contrary - opinions within feminism to call oneself a feminist. As Canadian theologian John G. Stackhouse Jr. says, 'Christian feminists can celebrate any sort of feminism that brings more justice and human flourishing to the world, no matter who is bringing it, since we recognize the hand of God in all that is good.'3

Modern Christian feminism is alive and well worldwide, from social justice movements to seminaries and churches to suburban living rooms. It means we champion the dignity, rights, responsibilities and glories of women as equal in importance - not greater than, but certainly not less than - to those of men, and we refuse discrimination against women.



Several years ago, when I began to refer to myself as a feminist, a few Christians raised their eyebrows and asked, 'What kind of feminist exactly?' Off the top of my head, I laughed and said: 'Oh, a Jesus feminist!' It stuck. I am a feminist precisely because of my lifelong commitment to Jesus and his Way.

Patriarchy is not God's dream for humanity. It never was; it never will be. Instead, in Christ, and because of Christ, we are invited to participate in the Kingdom of God through redemptive movement, for both men and women, toward equality and freedom.

We can choose to move with God, further into justice and wholeness, or we can choose to prop up the world's dead systems, baptizing injustice and power in sacred language. Feminism is just one way to participate in this redemptive movement.



Two common labels used regarding the roles and voices of women in the church today, for better or for worse, are egalitarian and complementarian. Egalitarians 'believe that leadership is not determined by gender but by the gifting and calling of the Holy Spirit, and that God calls all believers to submit to one another.' In contrast, complementarians 'believe the Bible establishes male authority over women, making male leadership the biblical standard.'4

On both sides, there are extremists and dogmatists. We attempt to outdo each other with proof texts andapologetics, and it's exhausting. So could we agree, for just a little while anyway, that both sides are probably wrong and right in some ways?

After years of reading the Gospels and the full canon of Scripture here is, very simply, what I learned about Jesus and women: he loves us. On our own terms. He treats us as equals to the men around him; he listens; he does not belittle; he honours us; he challenges us; he teaches us; he includes us - calls us all beloved. Gloriously, this flies in the face of the cultural expectations of his time - and even our own time. Scholar David Joel Hamilton calls Jesus' words and actions toward women 'controversial, provocative, even revolutionary.' 5



In a time when women were almost silent or invisible in literature, scripture affirms and celebrates women. Women were a part of Jesus' teaching, part of his life. Women were there for all of it. Mary, the mother of God, was a teenage girl in an occupied land when she became pregnant with the Prince of Peace. Her worthiness is in her obedience 'not to a man, not to a culture, not even to a cause or a religion, but to the creative work of a God who lifts up the humble and fills the hungry with good things.'6

Even Mary's Magnificat is surprisingly subversive and bold, isn't it? (Luke 1:46-55) In the face of evidence to the contrary, she sings how she is blessed, how God lifts up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.

Throughout the records of the Gospels, I saw how Jesus didn't treat women any differently from men, and I liked that. Women were not too sweet or weak for the conviction of the Holy Spirit, or too manipulative or prone to jealousy, insecurity and deception to push back the kingdom of darkness. Jesus did not patronize, and he did not condescend. Just like men, women need redemption. In the words and actions of Christ we see what 'neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free' looks like in real life7.

During his time on earth, Jesus subverted the social norms dictating how a rabbi spoke to women, to the rich, the powerful, the housewife, the mother-in-law, the despised, the prostitute, the adulteress, the mentally ill and demon possessed, the poor. He spoke to women directly, instead of through their male-headship standards and contrary to the order of the day (and even of some religious sects today). Women stood before God and he called us, gathered us, as his own.



When they threw the woman caught in adultery down into the dust at Jesus' feet and tried to use her shame to trap him, he levelled the playing field for both sin and marriage. There aren't too many of us women who don't imagine ourselves there, exposed, used, defiant or broken - sometimes both. And he, bless his name, restored, forgave, protected, drew a shield of grace around her with his dusty fingertip; and her accusers vanished. 'Go,' he said, 'and sin no more.'8

When the woman with the issue of blood reached out to touch the hem of his garment, Jesus did not respond with frustration, but touched her in return, praised her faith, and set her free without recoiling.9

When Jesus healed the woman who was bent over, he did it in the synagogue, in full view, calling her 'daughter of Abraham' - and giving her a place to stand alongside those who had only ever heard of 'sons of Abraham' until then. In Jesus, you are part of the family; you always were part of the family10.



When Mary of Bethany sat at his feet, she was in the posture of a rabbinical pupil. Even after Martha tried to remind her of her duties and responsibilities to their guests, Jesus defended her right to learn as his disciple; he honoured her choice as the better one and said, 'It will not be taken away from her.' (Luke 10:42 ).

When the Samaritan woman at the well met Jesus, she was among the least valued and most dishonoured of her day. Yet Jesus engaged her in serious theological discussion; it is the longest personal conversation recorded in scripture. It was also the first time that the words 'I am the Messiah' were spoken from his lips, and she became an evangelist. She told her story, and many were saved. When the disciples expressed their surprise, Jesus was matter-of-fact: this is simply the way of things.



We also see seven women in the Gospels described with the Greek verb diakoneo, which means to minister or to serve. It's 'the same one used to describe the ministry of the seven men appointed to leadership in the early church.'11 These women were Peter's mother-inlaw; Mary Magdalene; Mary, the mother of Jesus and Joseph; Salome, the mother of Zebedee's sons; Joanna, the wife of Chuza; Susanna; and Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus. (Luke 8:3)

Even though the word of a woman was not considered sufficient proof in court, Mary Magdalene was the first witness of the resurrected Christ and the first preacher of the Resurrection. Before the male disciples even knew he was breathing, Jesus sent a woman to proclaim the good news! The last shall be first, again, always.

The women of the gospel narrative ministered to Jesus, and they ministered with him. We can miss the crazy beauty of it because of the lack of fanfare in Scripture. Women were simply there, part of the revolution of love, sometimes unnamed, sometimes in the background, sometimes the receiver, sometimes the giver - just like every man in scripture, to be engaged on their own merit in the middle of their own story.



1 John G. Stackhouse Jr: Finally Feminist: A pragmatic Christian understanding of gender: Why both sides are wrong - and right (Baker Academic, 2005), p85

2 One example is Feminists for Life: http://www. feministsforlife .org

3 Stackhouse, Finally Feminist, p8

4 Carolyn Custis James, Half the Church: Recapturing God's global vision for women (Zondervan, 2010), p154

5 Loren Cunningham and David Joel Hamilton, with Janice Rogers, Why Not Women? A biblical study of women in missions, ministry, and leadership (YWAM Publishing, 2000), p111

6 Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a liberated woman found herself sitting on her roof, covering her head, and calling her husband 'Master' (Thomas Nelson, 2012), 72

7 See Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11

8 John 8:3-11 (NLT). Mark 5:25-34, and Luke 8:43-48

9 Matthew 9:18-26, Mark 5:25-34, and Luke 8:43-48

10 Luke 13:16

11 Cunningham and Hamilton, Why Not Women? 125.