The gender conversation 4: Faith & feminism

There’s no doubting that gender continues to occupy a lot of time, space & energy in the church. It regularly raises the emotions and generates a lot of heat and little light. It can also put Christians into camps where the ‘the other side’ can be seen, talked about & treated as a problem or worse ‘the enemy’. In the church this is nothing short of disastrous. So I’ve invited Hannah Mudge to a blog conversation with me about faith and gender.

Click here for part 1, part 2, part 3,

P: What criticisms or challenges do you make of feminism as a consequence of being a Christian? Or how would feminism be better if it was more Christian?

When it comes to feminist issues surrounding sex and relationships, the fact I am a Christian obviously informs a lot of my feelings about these issues. I could not support a pro-porn position, for example. I know that many people are supportive of ethical porn, that is to say porn that is supposedly non-exploitative, where actors are treated with respect and looked after health-wise, where there is more diversity of ethnicity and body type. I know that there are supposedly Christian erotic resources that purport to show romantic sex between married couples! But the porn industry in general is so problematic. There are other issues that I would disagree with some feminists on because of my faith, but that would be a main one.

I would say that the way disagreements in the movement are played out could sometimes benefit from a Christian approach to conflict and debate. However I know, as a Christian blogger, that this often doesn’t happen on Christian blogs so it is a huge challenge! When you’re dealing with topics where feelings run high and people have genuinely been very affected or hurt by them, it can be hard.

P: How would you sum up how Christianity is perceived by the broader feminist movement?

I think you tend to get two main schools of thought – or this is what I’ve come across. Firstly – those who believe that religion in general has long been a source of oppression for women and continues to do so today – an anti-organised religion position. I agree that religions have contributed to patriarchy and oppression of women and that they still do so, but this position often fails to engage properly with the religions it criticises and often has little understanding of the belief systems. Within this camp you will of course get some feminists who are former adherents to a faith, and who might well have had bad experiences that led to them losing their beliefs. In the past couple of years a number of blogs have sprung up, for example, written by women who grew up in, or married into, the Christian patriarchy movement in the USA. Several are now atheists. If you know much about the patriarchy movement and the spiritual abuse that occurs within, you can understand why this has happened. Secondly, you come across plenty of feminists who are not particularly anti-Christian (or any other religion), but feel it is a personal matter of faith and worry about state-imposed religion, fundamentalism, etc. They do not want potentially damaging beliefs or extremist beliefs to impact on the population in general.

On a positive note, several people I’ve met through being a feminist who are not Christian have told me they’ve found my blog posts about my faith really helpful and interesting, because they provide a more pro-woman stance on certain issues and have helped them to see that Christianity isn’t all about being “against” things and extremism.

P: As feminism is a philosophy and one which helps create identity, how people see themselves, see the world, make sense of the world is there a danger of that being set above Christianity? So that it’s feminism not Christ that takes precedence in shaping who we are and how we see the world? I guess along with that would be how we read the Bible, a conviction that a patriarchal male-led reading of the Bible is wrong and that a feminist reading of the Bible is the right one or at least a better one. So is it that feminism shapes your reading of the Bible or is it the Bible that shapes your feminism? I know no-one comes to the Bible value free and neutral & with that comes all sorts of blind spots and it’s fairly evident that the church has had (and still has) some pretty big blind spots with regards to gender, but what helps you avoid the same mistake just from the other side?

I think that yes, there is a danger of that. The same can be said for all philosophies. I identified as a Christian before I identified as a feminist and I think, for me, it is important that there are certain truths about the Bible and the gospel that do not change – that is to say, the things most people think of as “salvation issues” (though to be honest I’m not sure how I feel about that term and am concerned that some prominent complementarians seem to promote gender roles as pretty much a “salvation issue”!). I would say that when it comes to how we read the Bible, it works both ways. Engaging with certain passages of scripture has led me to the conclusion that creation suggest gender equality and mutuality (I think this is really important and is, incidentally, why from a feminist point of view I feel I could not personally support separatism, even though I understand why women might want to live this way), that the works of Jesus suggested gender equality, that we need to look at some difficult parts of the New Testament through the cultural lens of the time at which they were written. Would I have done this if I did not identify as a feminist? I don’t know. I know plenty of egalitarians who would not claim the feminist label but have come to the same conclusions.

P: Again looking for opportunities to build across the divide, issues such as violence against women is surely one we can all agree on and work together on. Perhaps among churches like mine who have a complementarian view could and should do much more to support campaigns. Can you suggest any campaigns that would be a good place to start?”

Yes, VAWG is definitely an issue that we should all agree on and work together on! You’d be surprised though. I have friends who work tackling VAWG in Christian settings and it is all too often a taboo subject in churches. I think anything gender-related can be very taboo but when it comes to VAWG, this should not be the case because the statistics are terrifying. Did you know that in England and Wales, two women are killed every week by a former or current partner? And also that women between the ages of 15 and 45 are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined. Last week new statistics were released that provided a shocking insight into just how common rape and sexual assault is, but also how low conviction rates are and how many victims are scared to report what has happened. There are many reasons for this and one is the culture that has been created around VAWG that blames the victim for her actions rather than the actions of the attacker, and creates an atmosphere of disbelief. The media doesn’t help matters thanks to the way it reports these issues.

I would really recommend the work of Restored in this respect. Restored is an international Christian organisation working to end VAWG and transform relationships between men and women. They have great resources available to equip churches to deal with issues directly affecting members, like rape and domestic abuse, and more global issues too. Restored works with complementarian churches already and would be a good place to start. Some other organisations I’d recommend are the White Ribbon Campaign, End Violence Against Woman, and Rape Crisis.

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