by Letha Dawson Scanzoni.
I know that some people think that the words Christian and feminism are as incompatible as oil and water, but that’s because of a misunderstanding about both Christianity and feminism.
Christianity is built upon the gospel message, a message that’s supposed to mean “good news”—glad tidings of great joy to all people, not just half the human race. It’s a message about a God who’s involved with us, who cares about each one of us. And it’s a message of freedom from all that would oppress us, all that would block us from living up to our full potential, all that would keep us from being all that we were meant to be.
The goal of being all that we can be is what feminism is all about, too. The media (both secular and Christian) have all too often distorted the basic message of feminism, giving rise to the mistaken notion that a feminist is anti-male, anti-family, and even anti-God. But a feminist is nothing more nor less than a woman or man who believes that men and women should be considered equals in God’s sight and in earthly relationships, responsibilities, rights, and privileges. I don’t see how the terms Christian and feminist are incompatible when understood that way.
Unfortunately, some Christians have given secular feminists the impression that Christianity is bad news for women rather than good news. As a result, many feminists think Christianity has nothing to say to them, even though many may have a deep spiritual longing and would be open to what Christian feminism is all about. We lose an important opportunity when we fail to reach out with a healing message of love to women who have been deeply wounded by misinterpretations and misapplications of Scripture and hurt by attitudes of churches.
The reason some Christians consider feminism to be incompatible with Christianity is that they have interpreted the Bible as teaching a prescribed social order that restricts women to a specific role, a role that limits what they can do or be and requires subordination to male dominance —no matter what a woman’s interests or abilities or sense of God’s calling may be.
But other Christians, such as those of us in EEWC-CFT, read Scripture differently and see it as teaching the full equality of women and men in the home, the church, and the society at large.
My personal story
Sometimes, when I am asked how I came to see that Christianity and feminism can be viewed as harmonious rather than clashing, I find myself thinking back to my childhood, growing up in a mountainous rural area of Pennsylvania. I did well in school and looked forward to doing whatever I chose to do in life. That’s what my parents had always told me.
It had never entered my mind that girls couldn’t do anything boys could do. When I heard of certain careers that were considered closed to women at the time (the 1940s), I considered this fact achallenge and hoped to change things when I grew up. (“I’ll show them!”)
Those feelings continued after I responded to an altar call when I was eleven years old and asked Jesus Christ to come into my life as my personal Savior. I had yearned to know God in an intimate way, filled with a deep spiritual longing as I would look up at the stars at night and think about the vastness of the universe. So when I was invited to revival services by a young friend my age who was a minister’s daughter, her mom told me what I needed to do and walked with me down the aisle.
After that experience, I assumed God would want me to develop and use any and all talents I had been given. It wouldn’t have made sense to me to hear that God would give abilities to both girls and boys and then would allow only the boys to actually use them! Hadn’t my Sunday school lessons taught me that Jesus said not to bury our talents?
During my teenage years, by then living in a new town and attending a new school, I discovered I had musical talents and began building a reputation as a trombone soloist and leader of my own band. Tommy Dorsey was my idol. Dreams of fame and riches whirled around my young head, and I didn’t think a lot about serving God for a few years.
But around the time of my senior year of high school, I chanced upon a close-out books display in a department store and spotted a copy of Charles Sheldon’s 1896 novel, In His Steps. I was attracted by the cross on its cover, my old spiritual hunger having resurfaced; so I purchased the book for 50 cents. (This was around forty years before the book’s theme—“What would Jesus do?”— was rediscovered, and the WWJD phenomenon emerged as a Christian youth movement.)
As I read In His Steps, I was inspired by one woman in the story who dedicated her music to serving Christ. I kept thinking about the book— agonizing over it, haunted by it—for days after I finished it. I struggled intensely with the feeling that maybe money and fame weren’t what I should be seeking after all. Maybe I should instead find a way to use my music, my life, for God.
One evening, in the privacy of my own bedroom, I felt I couldn’t stand the inner struggle any longer. I had to resolve it. It was tearing me apart. I wanted to talk about this with someone, but couldn’t think of anyone in my particular circles who would remotely understand. Townspeople, music teachers, and my parents were counting on me to fulfill my dreams to have my own dance band “like Tommy Dorsey” someday.
As I sat on the edge of my bed and thought about all this that night, I feared I was becoming a religious fanatic! This was becoming ridiculous! What would people think? At that point, I resolved to end all these struggles once and for all and just pursue my original goals of money and fame. I would simply forget about the woman in the novel who had dedicated her life and her music to working among people living in poverty.
At that point, almost without thinking, I reached over to the nightstand and picked up the pocket New Testament that the Gideons had distributed in my high school. (That was permissible at the time.) The Bible fell open to John 12:43 in the King James version: “For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.”
I knew then that I could no longer resist God’s Spirit. What it would mean for my future, I did not know. I only knew I wanted to change my priorities. And so that night, I prayed that my life and my talents, like the woman in the book, might be used in God’s service—although I had no idea how or what this might mean. So I kept my decision to myself.
Danger! Road blocked ahead!
Then, during my early college years (even though I did not start out in a specifically Christian college but at the Eastman School of Music), I began meeting Christians from strict conservative evangelical groups, especially from fundamentalist churches—people who talked about prayer and Bible study and a personal walk with God. They seemed at first to be just the kind of friends I had yearned for.
But in that context, for the first time I began hearing that my gender placed limits on how I could serve God! There were roadblocks to keep women out of certain areas of service. And I was told that it was God who put the roadblocks there.
Leaders and friends from these groups encouraged me to perform at Youth for Christ rallies and on a fundamentalist radio broadcast. They also told me it was all right to play my trombone at the various churches that began asking me to participate in their worship services when I went back to my home town on vacations. But they said it was wrong for me to accept invitations by these churches to give Bible instruction during services. Several of the mainline denominational churches in my home town were considered “liberal” and “unbiblical” in the minds of my new conservative Christian friends. However, these churches had found my new religious zeal and Bible study fascinating, and several of them had invited me to be the guest teacher of their combined adult Sunday school classes during college breaks.
Upon mentioning this to an expanding circle of fundamentalist friends (some new ones in a town not far from my hometown as well as my friends back in Rochester, NY where I was studying music), I was lectured about “violating biblical principles.” Why? Because men were present in these adult classes. That meant, they said, that a female was usurping male authority rather than keeping silence as 1 Timothy 2:10-12 instructed. But it was all right, they hastily added, for a woman to teach young boys under the age of twelve.
That made absolutely no sense to me! I pointed out that most of the particular churches that were inviting me had known about my music reputation during high school days, had sometimes invited me as soloist then, and were now fascinated to learn of my interest in Bible study. They wanted to learn more. One young man, a college student, told me he had in fact committed his life to Christ after hearing one of my guest lectures. Hadn’t my new Christian fundamentalist friends told me we should share the gospel message? I thought that was what I was doing!
Still, these dogmatic interpreters of Scripture told me I was wrong to continue such speaking. So when people in my hometown churches would say after one of my Bible studies, “You should become a minister,” I began replying that I had been told it wouldn’t be permissible. They couldn’t understand that—although I don’t think any of them had ever seen or heard a female minister themselves at that time (early 1950s), since women clergy were rare even in mainline churches.
However, in my heart, I was still not convinced that God saw things in the restrictive way I was being taught. But I was only 17 years old that first year, and it was hard to contradict those older than I and who, I thought, must surely know the Bible well.
Nevertheless, I began searching through the Bible myself and noticed that in 1 Corinthians 11, it was clear that women prophesied (preached) but that it was apparently important that they kept their heads covered when they did so. So, I began making sure I wore a hat when I spoke in churches, thinking that maybe somehow that would make it all right even in the minds of those who were telling me a woman should keep silent!
Of course, at that time I had no understanding of how important it was to understand the cultural background of biblical passages or any other principles of biblical interpretation.
More study, more questioning
When I was almost 19, I transferred to Moody Bible Institute to study in the sacred music department, but in the required Bible courses I continued to hear about a divinely ordained gender hierarchy. My questioning intensified, although I did not voice it in classes and could only admire the one woman, an older student (perhaps with a missionary background), who had the courage to speak out a couple of times. I never told her what an impression she had made on me by asking the questions she raised, even though she did not receive satisfactory answers from the instructor.
The essence of biblical feminism
Over the years since then, I have continued searching the Scriptures, along with studying history, theology, and insights from the social sciences, both formally (as a religious studies major at Indiana University) and informally. My studies have also taken into account my own experiences and those of other women who have had so much to offer the church but who have been told that having been born female is an impediment to serving God—except in very rigidly prescribed and limited ways.
Opponents of biblical feminism try to argue that, by seeking gender equality in the home, church, and society, we are motivated by selfishness and pride and have no desire to obey God. No, quite the contrary. We are motivated by a love for God and a desire to respond to God’s calling to serve with all our hearts and minds and to use the particular talents and gifts God has bestowed on us individually. We believe we would be disobeying God not to heed that call!
I am convinced the church will be held accountable for trying to block that call to women by its efforts over the ages to stifle our voices and clip our wings in an attempt to keep us from being all we were meant to be.
Sharing the message
I began writing about all this—first some articles in the mid-1960s for evangelical magazines, and then a book coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty, called All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today , published in several editions between 1974 and 1992. Although the book is now out of print, we are convinced its message is still greatly needed because 21st century Christians cannot afford to ignore the topic of gender equality any more that we could afford to ignore it in the 1970s.
Our book presented what we had been finding in our research over the years—that Genesis teaches that male and female were created equally in God’s image and that both were given equal responsibility for involvement in both work and family. The Genesis story indicated that the beautiful equal partnership between the sexes was marred by the entrance of sin into the world. It was in that context that God predicted that man would lord it over woman. It was a prophecy, not a command.
We knew that such “lording over” someone couldn’t be God’s will. Jesus said that people who were considered outside God’s family practiced lording it over others but that his followers should steer clear of such attitudes and behavior.
The more Nancy and I studied the four Gospels, the more we saw that Jesus never trivialized women, never discriminated against them, never regarded them as inferior to men. He commissioned women to be the first witnesses of his resurrection in a time and place that did not regard women as worthy witnesses.
In our book, Nancy and I also wanted to emphasize that the Holy Spirit descended upon both male and female believers without gender distinctions, fulfilling the Scripture in Joel 2:28-29 that said that both sons and daughters, menservants and maidservants, would prophesy (Acts 2:17-18).
And then there was the description of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 to consider. It was clear that this fruit was intended to characterize all believers, irrespective of gender— even though qualities such as love, gentleness, kindness, peace, patience, and so on have traditionally been considered “feminine” qualities.
It wasn’t hard to see that men needed to be free from the rigid role notions that too often have kept them from fully participating in the tender, nurturing, expressive side of life, just as women needed to be freed from the gender-role restrictions that were designed to keep them from full participation in the strong, action-oriented, public leadership side of life.
In thinking of promoting gender equality, it’s not just a matter of certain Bible verses or passages. Basic biblical principles at the heart of our faith also apply.
Examples of such principles that should characterize our lives, regardless of gender, are:
- justice (treating all persons fairly and equally without favoring one category of persons over another),
- love and empathy (entering into others’ experiences and wanting the best for all persons, supporting them in their efforts to become all they were meant to be, living up to their full potential rather than placing obstacles in their way that limit their aspirations),
- stewardship (not rejecting or wasting God’s gifts that come to the church in female bodies, as well as in male bodies, and not allowing the talents of girls and women to be buried—or their lights to be “hidden under a bushel”).
So when I think about or talk about feminism, it means I’m convinced that the church needs women and men to be working together in full and equal partnership and applying all the principles listed above.
We have a big job to do in the world today; and we must recognize, develop, and utilize the talents of all God’s people—regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, or anything else that divides us.
Let’s never forget that in Christ “there is no longer male and female” (Galatians 3:28), for we are all one. Only by remembering this can we be all we were meant to be. And that’s what biblical feminism is all about!