How vividly do I remember witnessing a childbirth for the first time. I was young, maybe nine or ten.
About thirty minutes before the birth, my dad summoned me, asking whether or not I wanted to see a babe make its grand entrance into the world.
My answer? Of course!
I hopped onto his motorcycle, and we hastened along a dirt path scratched out of the rainforest by some gargantuan finger.
Tall vine-tangled rainforest trees tried to nab us as we rode up and down mountains, bumping and winding and gulping down gnats.
We arrived at the thatched village hut, called a “shabono”, just in time. Ducking through a hobbit-high door frame, our eyes took a few minutes to adjust to the dim light of the smoke-filled interior.
I was surprised to hear no sound, though four or five women were gathered around the laboring woman.
Panting, neck muscles straining, she squatted above a gargantuan green banana leaf.
And just when our eyes had adjusted to the dimness and the stinging smoke, a tiny babe, coated in mucus, slid silently from between its mother’s legs.
For a moment, everyone stared at the babe. The babe had to be deemed worthy; it must be without defect. Otherwise, it would be taken into the jungle and killed.
After investigating the child for defects and finding none, the women began to care for the newborn. Soon, that universal infant cry, so like caterwauling, filled the room.
I will never forget this experience: The miracle of new life coupled with the earthiness of my surroundings and the “other-ness” of cultural customs so different from my own imprinted itself firmly on my memory.
Upon witnessing this birth, I was filled with this great sense of unity which binds all of humanity— new life is new life, whether cradled under the mossy trees of the Amazon rainforest or ensconced in a blue blanket in a sterile American hospital room.
This past week, as I pondered the various ways in which I have read and interpreted the Bible's take on a woman's life work, I could not shake this vivid memory.
You see, in Yanomamo culture, a young woman’s status was lower than a dog’s; she was a man’s property. A man often had multiple wives. Most women were regularly abused and violated.
Before my third child was born, my husband and I lived in Bolivia. While there, I became friends with several Bolivian women.
Women in Bolivia went to school, and some graduated from college even, but they were not allowed to drive cars. Furthermore, there were many jobs which were considered to be women’s work (childcare, cooking, cleaning), and the men did not engage with these facets of life.
Imagine with me an ancient culture not so different from the Yanomamo or Bolivian cultures, in which the men were seen as more valuable and held a higher status than women: this is the cultural backdrop of most, if not all, of the Bible.
Stated another way, when I picture these two cultures’ treatment of women, it helps me grasp why there are so many difficult texts about women in the Bible.
Yet, what is God's vision of "woman"?
In Part 2 of this series, I ended with a quote from Sarah Bessey in which she shared a vision of men and women being “warriors fighting in distinct unity”. This vision of women certainly sounds different from that of the cultures I cited above.
The portrayal of “women as warriors” didn’t make much sense to me until I delved into the meaning of “helpmeet”.
I had been taught that a “helpmeet” was man’s perfect partner, meant to submit to him and help him carry out his mission in this world.
Boy was I surprised when I learned how the two Hebrew words combined to formulate “helpmeet” were actually used in other parts of the Bible; they didn’t have anything to do with subordination.
What is a “Helpmeet”?
I have two precious daughters and one sweet son.
They are my inspiration and the reason I push myself, work hard and face my fears.
I am constantly asking myself what message I am sending my children about women.
Am I telling them women are only good at certain jobs?
Am I communicating through my actions that women are only meant to be “background people” and not leaders?
(I am not saying there is anything “less” about being a background person. I am just saying I don’t want my kids to think women “can’t” or “shouldn’t”. )
Am I working as an equal partner, a warrior, alongside my husband, or am I demonstrating a subservient nature?
This resolve to demonstrate female equality awakened when I finally “got” what a “helpmeet” was.
I’d like to begin by narrating two stories for you (these stories are the main reason I am a feminist woman-of-faith):
Once upon a time, divine love, the Word, breathed God-life into this planet.
And this Word said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” so that they can rule over creation together.
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Then God told these two image-bearers to “fill the earth and subdue it”.
And God saw all that God had made, said it was good.
Once upon a time, divine love, the Word, formed this man-creature out of dust and breathed life into him. The man’s name was Adam.
God gave Adam some instructions, some “do’s and don'ts”, along with a job— name the animals.
And God noticed the man was alone, without a “suitable helper”. So he put the man to sleep and took out one of his ribs. God used this rib to form a woman. Her name was Eve.
Or, was that the beginning?
Whether or not you take them literally, both of these stories are in the opening chapters of Genesis.
Can you guess from which of these two stories we have gleaned the idea that a woman’s job is to stand by a man’s side, helping him?
“The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’” (Gen. 2:18) — Story 2
According to Story 2, the woman was made for the man, right?
At least, this was the narrative I grew up hearing.
But what does the phrase “suitable helper” mean?
The first creation narrative, Story 1, makes it clear that the man and woman were both created in God’s image. Wouldn’t that mean they both demonstrated God-likeness, and so were equals?
God spoke to both of them and gave them a job to do, together.
In the second creation narrative, Story 2, it sounds more as though Eve was secondary, an afterthought. It sounds as though she was designed to help the man do his job.
So why the contradiction?
Many scholars have certainly combined these two stories to affirm the idea that men and women are “equal yet different”.
At first glance, it seems obvious from these passages, doesn’t it?
Yet one glaring problem I see with the “woman-was-created-for-man” interpretation is that there are many women who are either single or do not marry a man.
This whole interpretation leaves them out!
There were many women featured in the Bible, in fact, who were exemplified for their character qualities; we do not even hear mention of husbands, or even men, in their lives, women such as Rahab, Mary Magdalene and Deborah.
To repeat, if the Adam and Eve story was supposed to provide us with wisdom, we need to ask this question: How does the “equal yet different, woman as "helpmeet" to man” interpretation apply to single women or women who aren't married to men?
Let’s dig into the meanings of “suitable” and “helper” in the Hebrew language...
The word translated into “suitable” is “kenegdo” in Hebrew.
The King James Bible translated “kenegdo” as “meet for him”. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew lexicon translates "kenegdo" as "corresponding to".
I love looking at how other languages translate words; interestingly, in the New Afrikaans Translation , "kenegdo" is translated as "sy gelyke" which means "his equal".
In your opinion, do any of these translations— “suitable” or “meet for him”, "corresponding to" or "his equal" — connote “subordinate” to you?
When I hear “suitable” or even “meet”, I hear “perfect fit” or “perfect complement”.
It was like a half-finished picture: something was missing for wholeness to be displayed; Adam needed a complement, an equal.
Eve was Adam's perfect counterpart.
None of the animals had been “suitable” as an equal to Adam; Eve was.
Marg Mowczko holds an MA with a specialization in early Christian and Jewish studies. She writes extensively about “ezer kenegdo” and what it means.
On her blog, she explains that “kenegdo” means “equal” or “corresponding”. If you enjoy getting into the nitty gritty meaning of words, I highly recommend reading her article on kenegdo here.
If “kenegdo”, then, means “equal to”, or “corresponding”, isn’t the implication behind these words similar to what the first creation narrative implies— that Adam and Eve were both made in God’s image?
Adam by himself was not complete. We can even assert that by himself, Adam wasn’t the full expression of the image of God.
Does this thought make your heart beat faster?
Stop and think about the women in your life. They are divine-image-bearers.
Have you affirmed this in them recently?
Have you told them the world wouldn’t be complete without them?
Are you empowering them to be fully who they are called to be?
My husband has been doing this for me. He does all the “house-and-kid” stuff after his job ends so I can write. He believes my life’s passion is important.
In Sarah Bessey's words, "In the early new light of Creation, God didn't set up a 'masculine' rule as his standard and plan for humanity. No, it was masculine and feminine, together, bearing the image of God." (Jesus Feminist)
Now that we have tackled “kenegdo”, let’s tackle “ezer”. This is the word which has been translated as “helper”.
Ever wonder who coined the complete term “helpmeet”? It was a poet named John Dryden (1631-1700). He decided to hyphenate “help” and “meet” into “help-meet” so as to describe his wife in a poem. Interesting, right?
Before I get into what “ezer” means, I’d like to ask: If someone helps you, does that make them subordinate to you?
In fact, what words would you use to describe a “helper” who is also subordinate? The terms “slave” and “servant” come to mind...
The word “ezer” is used twenty-one times in the Old Testament.
Blogger Rachel Held Evans, explained that “ezer” was used, “[...] twice in reference to the first woman, three times in reference to nations to whom Israel appealed for military support, and sixteen times in reference to God as the helper of Israel.” Read more here.
Wait. Military support? God-as-helper? These uses of “ezer” certainly don’t connote subordination.
Check these verses out. I have highlighted “ezer” in bold.
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless.
-Psalm 10: 14
But as for me, I am poor and needy;
come quickly to me, O God.
You are my help and my deliverer;
Lord, do not delay.
Blessed are you, Israel!
Who is like you,
a people saved by the Lord?
He is your shield and helper
and your glorious sword.
Your enemies will cower before you,
and you will tread on their heights.”
God-as-helper, desperately needed, warrior-on-our-behalf, companion-by-our-side, rescuer...
Sit with these meanings for a bit.
The fact that God is an “ezer” for God’s people has been life-changing for me.
If I am an “ezer”, then I am a warrior.
This is so very different from what I previously believed. It means first of all, in marriage, that I ought to be working alongside my husband in everything.
In the larger sphere of society, this means that I ought to be bringing my whole self, all my gifts and talents, to the table, for the good of the world.
This means women should not in any way be valued as less than men.
Women ought to be compensated equally as much as men, and their word should be seen as equally authoritative to that of men. If a woman holds a title, she ought to be addressed by that title, just as men are.
If I am an “ezer kenegdo”, then I am a perfectly suitable warrior, fit to fight beside man- needed, necessary, valuable, capable, powerful and compassionate, bringer-of-aid, rescuer.
Sarah Bessey writes:
If a woman is held back, minimized, pushed down, or downplayed, she is not walking in the fullness God intended for her as his image bearer, as his ezer warrior. If we minimize our gifts, hush our voice, and stay small in a misguided attempt to fit a weak and culturally conditioned standard of femininity, we cannot give our brothers the partner they require in God's mission for the world.
Godself is in fact an Ezer to God’s people.
Before I go any further, I’d like to say I believe men and women alike demonstrate various facets of God’s image; I do not think these bearers of the “imago dei” should be categorized or delineated by gender (as in, "only women are compassionate" and "only men are loud").
Where does the idea that Eve was to be subordinate to Adam come from, then?
The short answer?
In my opinion, it comes from the pronouncements of “The Fall”.
Whether you see “The Fall” as metaphorical or literal, you can see it resulted in the “goodness” of everything God had brought forth getting mussed up.
After The Fall, a “curse” was pronounced on the man, the woman, creation and the serpent. The idea of “curse” implies that things were going to be very different from how they had been previously.
The “curse” for the woman reads:
“Your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you.” Gen. 3:16
The subordination of woman, then, in my opinion, was a result of the fall, of humanity’s brokenness, of its “having gone wrong”.
This subordination of woman to man has not exactly born good fruit.
Take a moment to review these stats: https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures.
Need a Kleenex?
I love that God isn’t interested in leaving the world hopeless and fallen. God is about restoration and rescue. God is our ezer.
As my pastor often says, to loosely paraphrase, “God is going to get everything God wants”:
“He [God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Rev. 21:14
What do you think we should be about, friends?
The fall, or “God getting everything God wants”?
Subjugation, or restoration?
Ultimately, we could haggle over words and meanings forever. For every argument one way, there is an equal argument another.
I would say most Christians, regardless of what their view of the meaning of “helpmeet” is, would agree that women are equally imbued with God’s image and should be treated with respect.
Most would agree that women can have careers or pursue higher education.
The difference in perspective, though, is highlighted when we look at the ultimate, highest purpose of “woman”.
Is “woman” fulfilled when she is subordinated to a man, acting as his helper?
Or, is “woman” an equal counterpart to “man”, a fellow image bearer, an important contributor to all the work which needs accomplishing in this world?
Can woman be fulfilled and effective without a man in her life? (A resounding yes! from me...)
Is woman a warrior armed for battle you’d be lucky to have fighting by your side?
"And men, what a gift for you! What a revelation! A man does not need to deny a woman's identity as a beloved and unique warrior in Christ out of misplaced fear or insecurity or a hunger for power. Let's praise God together for this truth. Sons, brothers, husbands, friends, can you imagine? God knew that it was not good for you to be alone, and he gave you your best ally." (Sarah Bessey, Jesus Feminist)
Does woman have valuable insight, wisdom, leadership and skills to contribute to this world? Absolutely!
I urge you to take some time to consider the implications of each of these points of view.
I love how Rachel Held Evans described male-female equality, and how she came to a more feminist viewpoint not by reading feminist literature, but by reading the Bible: https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/accidental-feminist.
"Most of all, if these critics knew me, they would know that it isn't feminism that inspires me to advocate gender equality in the Church and in the world; it is the gospel of Jesus Christ."
I feel the same way.
In this article, Rachel Held Evans mentioned the term “patriarchy”.
Remember my comparison at the beginning of this post of the Yanomamo and Bolivian cultural treatment of women to the treatment of women in the Bible? The word often used to describe this treatment is “patriarchy”.
Patriarchy is another plausible reason some of the Bible seems to be placing women "beneath" men.
I am excited to dig into this thought more in next week's post.
Meanwhile, I love hearing your thoughts! Thanks again to all of you who have followed my Facebook page, leaving comments there as well as on the blog. Your stories and thoughts mean so much.
“All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
It’s an ancient but well-known tale: the people were building a great tower. Working together, they were unstoppable. It was all so very glorious.
Then, someone went and fixed their vocal chords, and their speech came out all gobbledy-goo. Not being able to understand one another, they fought.
The vision lost, the goal garbled, all work ceased.
Oppressed, downtrodden, hurting people of this world have something to say; they have vision.
United, shoulder-to-shoulder, they would be an unstoppable force.
Stir them up, turn them against each other, and you’ve gone and shattered the beautiful Vase of Solidarity, rendering it unusable.
I love how Martin Luther King put it: “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be…”.
Herein lies the intersection of faith and feminism: Faith says, “Love one another.” Feminism says, “Women ought to have dignity, rights, responsibilities and glories equal to men.” (See Sarah Bessey’s description of feminism in Part 1.)
Combine “love one another” with “treat women as equals” and you will create a potent elixir capable of bringing both healing and empowerment to “50% of the population”.
What do we women need healing from, you ask?
In reply, I shout, “SO MUCH!”.
And wrapped around the “SO MUCH”, I believe, is a thick saran-wrap called “Shame”. Without addressing this shame, I believe, we will never be truly free.
Research professor Brene Brown has spent decades studying shame (along with empathy, vulnerability and courage). In an interview on a website called “The Mothers Movement Online” , Brene Brown describes it in this way:
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations. Shame leaves women feeling trapped, powerless and isolated.”
For this reason, I would like to begin Part 2 of my faith and feminism series with a conversation about womanhood and shame and the power of love to heal.
There is always this danger of saying, “I am a feminist” and then isolating all women who don’t fit into our definition of “feminist”.
I get this. I’ve been there.
I wonder if we do this to each other because deep down we worry we have gotten some things “wrong”. Seeing someone making different life choices than us can make us feel shame, deep down in our bellies.
And guess what, friend? Shame moves us away from one another.
In Part 1, I described a feeling of being trapped by divergent “views” about marriage, motherhood and womanhood.
Instead of life feeling open, free and good, it felt constraining and frustrating. Can you relate?
Brene Brown actually talks about this feeling of being trapped, and explains its relationship to shame.
She says that many women experience a “trapped” feeling because, “There are hundreds of expectations, but very few realistic options for meeting those expectations available to us.”
For example, many mothers are faced with the following choice: "Build a career and place your children in childcare" or "Stay at home and lose money, time, and necessary resources to pursue a career".
(As an aside, I have witnessed so many amazing mothers coming up with creative solutions, refusing to be bullied by either/or options, and fighting for what is best for both themselves and their children.)
If, instead of pointing judgmental fingers at each other, we could step back and look at the problem of expectations-versus-options, we may just see a path through, a way to empower women.
Furthermore, a willingness to listen to other women’s stories would give us empathy.
Empathy, according to Brene Brown, is the polar opposite of shame.
What if, dear friends, we embraced a broad definition of feminism: “treat men and women equally,” and refused to hold up as unequivocally true other descriptors of what a feminist is or should look like?
What if we simultaneously embraced this motto: “love one another”?
For instance (and please forgive the generalizations):
As women, as human beings, our similarities far outweigh our differences. It is time for us to build solidarity. There is too much at stake not to.
If we as “feminists-of-faith” are a movement towards equality, we should not be guilty of isolating anyone.
Are you a woman who has experienced shame?
Have you felt trapped or guilty about simply trying to do what is best for yourself or your family?
How about the men out there, striving together through life with us? Any insight? Thoughts?
Last week, I promised to delve into the topics of sexual freedom, patriarchy in the Bible, the term “helpmeet”, and why it is important to give women equal leadership opportunities in the church.
I am so passionate about these topics, and am thrilled to share what I have learned with you.
As I’ve been researching, thinking and writing, however, I see these topics are juicy enough to take up several more blog posts (I wrote 15 pages this week alone).
I’m absolutely keeping my promise to address all these issues, and I can guarantee there will be one post every week, by Friday...
But would you hang in there with me over the course of the next few weeks to address all the issues I mentioned? There’s just so much proverbial ground to cover.
I appreciate you! Please do comment here or on my Facebook page. I'd love to hear from you.
And now, without further ado, let’s dive in.
On Marriage: Are We “Equal, yet Different” or “Equal”?
I’m not certain who began the narrative, or how it spread throughout the female population of our small church, but it went something like this: There was this gorgeous woman in a neighboring city whose husband was both verbally abusive and an alcoholic.
This woman almost left her husband, but in the darkening hours chose instead to do the “godly” thing and remain by his side, submissive and prayerful.
And, wait for it... because of her godliness, this woman’s husband became a believer, turned his life around 180.
You can imagine how this sounded to my young, “new-mother” ears. You can also imagine the feelings of horror it elicited in me. And yet…
Around the time this story was floating around, alighting on humble hungry ears, someone handed me “the best marriage book they had ever read”: Created to Be His Help Meet by Debi Pearl.
About the book, author Debi Pearl herself says, “[...] I want you to know that it is possible today to have a marriage so good and so fulfilling that it can only be explained as a miracle.”
I devoured this book, as always an avid and hungry learner. And though many of Pearl’s words made me feel ill, I could not pinpoint why.
She used verses and scriptures I had trouble arguing with.
If you’ve only ever been given one “narrative” for what scripture means, and you have simultaneously been told it is the simplest, most literal reading (whilst also being cautioned about your deceitful heart), it is very hard to think critically.
While I didn’t follow all of Pearl’s advice, her point of view about marital submission became mine, as did her view on the wife’s sexual role in marriage (more on that in a later post).
To sum up Pearl’s view on the woman’s marital role:
“If you are a wife, you were created to fill a need, and in that capacity you are a ‘good thing,’ a helper suited to the needs of a man. This is how God created you and it is your purpose for existing. You are, by nature, equipped in every way to be your man’s helper. You are inferior to none as long as you function within your created nature, for no man can do your job, and no man is complete without his wife. You were created to make him complete, not to seek personal fulfillment parallel to him.”
We will dig into the meaning of “helpmeet” later.
For now, I’d like to focus on this strong dichotomy between a husband’s role a wife’s role in marriage.
Remember how, in Part 1, I shared that I protected my “domain” from my husband? Yep, this is why.
Mrs. Pearl clearly states, “[...] no man can do your job.”
Furthermore, Pearl taught me that as a wife, I was created “to make him [my spouse] complete”.
Summed up, my life was to be about fulfilling a specific role only I could fill.
Furthermore, my purpose was eclipsed in completing my husband, and not in seeking any personal fulfillment.
How the "equal-yet-different" view affected my marriage...
Do you know what the fruit of this viewpoint was in my marriage?
I dropped my own desires and dreams in favor of “completing” my husband.
In losing much of my autonomy, I eagerly grasped at the little bit of power afforded to me by becoming the sole manager of my domain: the house and the children.
I felt ashamed about this, but I often swallowed bitterness and anger at having to take care of all the cooking and cleaning.
As the years passed, my husband and I found ourselves settling into this way of "doing marriage".
Changing my mind
I remember vividly when, one day, my husband, frustrated, pointed out to me that the pet passage for “separate-male-and-female-roles-in-marriage” opened with the statement: “Submit to one another” (Eph 5:21a).
Submit to one another...
I sat with this for quite a while.
It was the beginning of many “aha” moments for me about marriage.
I pondered why so many preachers focused on the woman’s job to “submit to her husband”, when it was clear from this passage that husbands and wives ought to be “submitting to one another”.
What did it mean for a husband and a wife to submit to each other?
This was a radical departure from everything I had thought up to this point; it was the seed which grew radical change in my marriage, change for the better.
Before I get into specifics, here are a few thoughts:
Here are some websites which discuss the two views of marriage. Some of them take a neutral stance, while others lean towards a certain conclusion:
And now, back to my new, “radical”, conclusions about mutual submission and how they changed my marriage (for the better).
Marriage Equality For the Win!
When I believed I had to submit, I appointed my husband as the final decision-maker in our home. It is stressful for a man to be “stuck” with making all the decisions himself.
Really, how can we say that a man, simply by nature of his male-ness, is all-knowing and all-discerning?
It was nice for my husband to know that I was standing beside him to face life, and not behind him.
As my husband and I navigated the new landscape of mutuality, we had more conversations than we had ever had. I learned that in some areas, I knew better what would be the right move to take, while in others he did.
Our conversations and debates sharpened each other, and, ironically, brought us both into more humility, mutual respect and admiration.
When we were doing marriage by playing out each of our "roles", I hadn’t realized how much I suppressed my own desires and dreams.
The more I awakened, the more I began exploring my own interests; I became much happier and more fulfilled.
Prior to this, I often looked to my husband to affirm me. After all, what else did I have? Submitting, meeting his needs, that was my job.
What a load off my husband’s shoulders when I found my own satisfaction and vision.
And what husband would not desire for his wife to feel capable and satisfied?
Stepping out of claiming any “dominion” over the house and kids also did wonderful things for our marriage.
First off, I used to denigrate housework as “woman’s work”.
Yet, isn’t all work around the house necessary and good? (Not to mention, since when did we begin qualifying work as work by whether or not we make money doing it?)
Oddly, seeing my husband cleaning the house and cooking elevated "house-care" and affirmed it as good work.
Secondly, my husband began to cultivate his own unique relationship with our children as he partnered with me in caring for them.
No one is perfect, and I have areas of weakness as a mother.
Disallowing my husband from comforting the children and meeting their needs was shortchanging them: how they have benefited from my husband’s nurturing style!
He has gifts and skills I do not, and vice versa.
Last but not least, I gained freedom to pursue my own business ideas and higher education opportunities. This made me a better mother.
My view of myself changed: I was not “just a mom” or “just a home-educator”, I was a smart, talented and creative woman.
I began to treat homeschooling as the job it is. This has greatly benefited my children.
Beauty in Equality and Covenant Relationship...
My pastor shared last Sunday an amazing vision for marriage as a covenant relationship: both parties enter said covenant agreeing to grow and learn and be affected by one another.
(A little hint about what I think of women's roles in the church: my pastor is a woman; I have learned so much from her...)
How often do we realize that God chose to enter a covenant relationship with us, "the bride"?
And because of God’s relationship with us, God is affected by our joys and sorrows, our celebrations and our pain?
In her book, Jesus Feminist, Sarah Bessey says this about marriage:
“[...] if our marriages can give some small and imperfect glimpse of the Kingdom of God in action, warriors fighting in distinct unity, then we need to dance, in and around and with each other, in intimacy and mutual submission.”
Wait, did she just call men and women, “Warriors fighting in distinct unity”?!
Single friends reading this: I promise, this entire discussion has to do with you, too. I know single women are often marginalized, especially in faith circles.
Dear one, you are just as important as the rest of womankind. The world needs you. We’re going to crack that powerful notion open.
Men reading this--we need you on our side, respecting us, fighting with us for equality in marriage and in the church and in the world.
So what does it mean for a woman to be a "warrior" fighting alongside men?
Let's continue the discussion next week.
Stay tuned for a post by next Friday, August 30...
If you haven't already, be sure and follow me on Facebook or subscribe to my RSS feed (on the right-hand side of my blog feed) to be notified of new posts.
A warm thank you to everyone who commented on my first post: your thoughts were super insightful and a blessing.
I vividly recall my high school graduation. It was held at a church, and I was graduating alongside a dozen or so fellow homeschoolers. The pastor of the church was doling out honorary awards to each graduate based on our “character qualities”.
When it was my turn to receive an award, the pastor announced I would be receiving the “Future Homemaker of the Year” award.
“Really?!” I thought to myself. “Is that really all anyone sees in me?!”
I was college-bound. Everyone knew that. I was planning to major in education and become a teacher; I most definitely wasn’t going to college to “shop” for a husband.
When I look back over my life so far, this moment of angst at being labeled “homemaker” and the subsequent feeling of invisibility I experienced demonstrated my early feminist leanings.
“Feminist,” of course, is merely a label. It can mean different things to different people, so for the sake of this article, I will begin by sharing my definition of feminism.
A few years ago, I began to think about what it meant for me to be a woman moving through this world. Sarah Bessey’s book Jesus Feminist was pivotal.
Indeed, I cried my way through the book.
I felt she was speaking words of hope into my ear while rubbing balm on a soul I hadn’t even realized was wounded.
Sarah Bessey defines feminism in this way: “At the core, feminism simply consists of the radical notion that women are people, too. Feminism only means we champion the dignity, rights, responsibilities, and glories of women as equal in importance— no greater than, but certainly not less than— to those of men, and we refuse discrimination against women" (Jesus Feminist).
Similar to Bessey's definition, for me, feminism means that:
I believe women should be given equal opportunities as men in every sector of life, whether religious, political or economic.
I believe women should be free to live their lives as they choose and should have power over their own bodies.
I believe women and men should be equal partners in marriage, submitting to one another.
Five years ago, if you would have asked me to read Bessey’s description of “feminism”, I would have told you I agreed with it. I would have said I believed women were equal to men, they just had different roles in marriage and in the church.
I would also have warned you the word “feminism” should not be used to describe an ideal of female/male equality because, in my imagination, a feminist was a man-hater who believed women should abort their babies; the feminist also hated those women who stayed home with their kids or homeschooled.
I see now that labeling “feminists” and “feminism” as dangerous was keeping me from exploring what feminism actually was. It was keeping me from asking hard questions about my life as a woman, my marriage and even whether or not I was understanding the Bible correctly.
As I mentioned earlier, when I finally opened myself up to exploring male/female equality, deep wounds and a great deal of withheld bitterness were revealed in my heart.
Before I get into my story, however, I’d like to take a few moments to “myth-bust” the idea that feminists are man-haters or that “feminism” means you can’t be what you want to be (even a stay-at-home, homeschooling mother).
Feminism includes a broad spectrum of viewpoints and ideas; you don’t have to espouse all the ideals of feminism in order to embrace gender-equality.
A brief history of feminism
Long before there were “waves” of feminism in our society, there were many people who had feminist ideals. Plato believed women had the same “natural capacities” as men. Throughout the years that followed, there were many female writers who espoused this belief.
It wasn’t until 1848 that feminism became an organized movement with a clear goal.
This era, from 1848 until 1920, has been labeled “first-wave” feminism.
The women who were involved in this movement were mostly white, middle-class women. Many of them were women of faith.
Incidentally, these early feminists worked side by side with Frederick Douglass and were outspoken against slavery.
First-wave feminists focused on women’s suffrage. They also called for women to be allowed an education and equal roles in the church. They pushed for women to be allowed to own property and keep their own paychecks.
One of the leaders of this movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, designed a "Declaration of Sentiments" expressing all the ways in which men were treating women unequally. I encourage you to read it here: https://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/stantonsent.html.
When I learned about first-wave feminism, I was struck by a few things:
First, this was largely a faith movement.
Second, these women were fighting for equal rights for African Americans as well as women.
Thirdly, and finally, these women and their feminist movement are the reasons I have been able to vote and attend college.
Very few Christians would argue that these are evil objectives or that the result of these changes has somehow damaged women or the church.
First-wave feminism evolved into second-wave feminism during the 1960’s-80’s.
Whereas first-wave feminism had involved white middle-class women, second-wave feminism embraced the voices of African-American and Mexican-American women. Feminism also began spreading to other parts of the world.
Second-wave feminism included the ideals of radical feminism, which called for a restructuring of society in order to eliminate male supremacy.
New ideas and rationalizations for equality also came to the fore during this time. A few notions which came out of second-wave feminism were that women shouldn’t consider “male” characteristics to be an ideal and that women shouldn’t believe they could only find fulfillment through child-rearing and homemaking.
I wonder if some of these notions felt threatening to Christians since they believed that in marriage, women ought to be submissive to their husbands.
As a young woman, I heard sermons purporting that when Paul said “women will be saved through childbearing”, he was lifting up being a married mother as the highest ideal. It was pervasive in my Christian culture that girls ought to want to be married and have children.
These “Christian” ways of thinking damaged me in many ways, which I will expound upon later.
I wonder if in our embracing of a “Christian” subculture, a “Christian” way of doing womanhood, we have forgotten the stories of women in the Bible like Deborah, Rahab and Lydia who did much good in this world quite apart from childbearing or marriage.
Beginning in the 1990’s, a new wave of feminism evolved, known as “third-wave” feminism. This third-wave focused on getting rid of stereotypes based on gender-roles and including all classes, cultures and races of women.
Again, I can see where some Christians have felt threatened by this third-wave. If you believe God created certain roles for men and other roles for women, then the desire to eliminate gender-roles will fly in the face of what you believe is right and God-ordered.
I have often heard it said that men and women are equal yet different, meaning they have different jobs and duties. I used to embrace this view.
Unfortunately, the "equal yet different" view was deeply damaging to my marriage (more on that later).
One question I have for those who hold this view is how can you say roles are equal if those roles are hierarchical in nature? Perhaps “separate but equal” is not the best label for this point of view.
There are a myriad of sub-types of feminism. I would encourage you to study them. Even if you don’t agree, leaning into views you have never heard is like allowing a doctor to take an x-ray; it can help you see things more clearly and notice areas of need.
A few of these sub-types are "anarcha", "radical", "liberal", "postcolonial and third-world" and "multiracial".
Here are three websites you can dig into to learn more about feminism:
My dad used to tell me I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up, so I suppose it’s his fault my wrestling with what-it-means-to-be-a-woman would lead me to unabashedly call myself a “feminist”.
He used to tell me a woman could be president if she wanted to, of course she could, and encouraged me to dream big about my future.
At the same time, calling myself a “feminist” would have been frowned upon in the church I grew up in.
Though I was born in the United States, I spent most of my childhood in the Amazon Rainforest in Venezuela. My parents were missionaries to an indigenous people group known as the Yanomamo.
I spent much of my early childhood devouring books and playing outside, daydreaming I would be someone great one day.
I think my earliest dream-of-greatness was to be a pastor, but I had no vocabulary for that.
Acting on instinct alone, I would gather indigenous children, sit them down and teach them to sing “Jesus Loves Me” (in English; yes, I’m blushing).
I also used to boss my little brother around, setting him on one step of the steep stairs in my family home, and then standing at the top to deliver a sermon and lead him in worship.
As I grew older, I tried on many different “hats”, focusing on jobs which were acceptable for women in my social circle.
For a while, I wanted to be a nurse, until I shadowed my aunt, who was a nurse, and almost fainted at the sight of pus and blood when she lanced a boil.
I attended boarding school for a while, wrote for my school newspaper, and decided I wanted to be a journalist.
I took piano and imagined myself becoming a great pianist; I also landed the lead role in a school play and daydreamed about becoming a famous actress.
When I hit my teenage years, my parents moved to a small Venezuelan neighborhood and we experienced small-town Venezuela life.
I noticed the children in my neighborhood were bored after school, and I started a little backyard VBS for them. I loved teaching these children, and decided I wanted to be a teacher.
After graduating from high school, I attended a private Christian college.
During teacher training, I dreamed about teaching children overseas, or in low-income neighborhoods. I wanted to lead and inspire my students.
Although I did not go to college hoping to get married, upon arriving and making friends, I couldn’t help but notice how guy-focused many girls were; and yes, I’ll admit, quite a bit of that pixie dust fell on me.
We young women were training for various careers, but when I look into the past, I see that for many (though certainly not all) of us, catching a guy and getting married was of primary importance.
I can’t help but wonder how we might have been different had we been more concerned with what type of people we were trying to become than about which guys liked us. If I’m honest, we gave those young male friends of ours too much power by being so hyper-focused on marriage.
My senior year in college, I fell in love with a sweet guy who had become my best friend.
Then, I spent a summer crying over the fact.
Subconsciously, I faced a choice: career or marriage and kids.
I did not know at the time that this is what I was struggling with; now I do.
I wish I could go back to that young woman and tell her she didn’t have to make an either/or choice, that she could love with her whole heart, love well in fact, without losing herself.
Deciding to marry Ryan, though, was the best decision I ever made.
Yes, I wish I would have entered marriage with a feminist paradigm; it would have saved me a lot of heartache. Yet perhaps the best lessons are the ones learned experientially.
After we were married, Ryan and I moved near my parents and their church. It was our hope to eventually “do ministry” full-time.
Ryan had majored in theology, and when we married, it was with the understanding we both wanted to use our degrees to help people.
My dream of helping low-income students came true with a job teaching fifth grade in a low-income neighborhood. I taught for four years, until my oldest child, a son, was born.
Up until the birth of my son, I had been the primary wage earner for my family (my husband’s theology degree hadn’t helped him find work). But right when our son was born, my husband completed his nursing degree and landed a job.
Being immersed in a church culture which said the man must be the primary provider for his family, my husband had struggled with feelings of failure up until this point. I was so busy working, I didn’t feel any judgment, though folks were constantly asking us when we’d have kids.
It was a given for us, however, that when we had kids, I would become a stay-at-home mom. The reasons for this were complex.
Yes, some of the beliefs I began to embrace upon becoming a stay-at-home mom, which were rooted in my traditional Christianity, were deeply harmful to myself, my husband and my children.
Other reasons I had for staying home were quite progressive and feminist:
I chose to stay home so I could nurse my babies and practice attachment parenting.
I chose to stay home so I could be free from an employer and the terrible disillusionment and stress which had accompanied teaching (though I didn’t tell anyone this).
Throughout my years of staying home I also experimented with a variety of businesses and endeavors; I read all the time; I kept my own mind and opinions. I refused to let anyone dictate to me how to parent.
I realize now that even dreaming of being able to stay home with my kids was a symptom of white middle-class privilege: My husband and I both were able to earn college degrees. We had grown up in middle class families. We were able to work hard after school to pay off school loans, and by the time we had our first child, we owned a house and a car and were debt free.
Now, back to what I stated earlier about my traditional beliefs being harmful to myself, my marriage and my family.
One of the primary toxic beliefs I embraced at this point in our marriage was that my husband was the head of our household and it was my job to submit to him.
The fact that my husband earned our family’s only paycheck elevated him (in my mind) to a higher and more worthy status. I was just the “grateful”, “taken-care-of” wife.
I would like to point out here that my husband never liked the idea of being the “leader” or “head” of our home. He wanted us to make decisions together, as equal partners. Yet, over and over again, I took a backseat in decision-making and would not express all of my opinions.
In all honesty, I was being lazy. It was nice not to have to worry. My motto has always been, “don’t worry, be happy”.
Not only did I force my husband to make decisions by refusing to speak my mind, but I also embraced a damaging notion that my husband had sexual needs I was supposed to satisfy. I buried feelings of resentment, anger and hurt deep within, and lost all desire for intimacy.
My husband sensed this, and a cold rift began to grow between us.
I fell into a sort of slumber, a deadness to myself. For so many reasons, from my religious beliefs about submission to my own insecurities, I had decided I was “less" than my husband.
I also became so caught up in being supportive of my husband and “his” ministry, I did not seek out friendships for myself.
Life went on. We had two more beautiful children. We moved around, across the states and even overseas, to Bolivia. For a while, we were engaged in full-time “ministry” with a non-profit, which had always been a dream of ours.
Meanwhile, I decided to homeschool our children. Though there was pressure from my Christian subculture to protect my children from the “world”, I can say honestly I chose to homeschool for other reasons.
Like I said, strong opinions...
The chief reason I chose to homeschool was that I loved the art and science of learning and because I felt I could best nurture a love of learning in my children by keeping them out of the “school system”.
As a teacher, I had witnessed children who were “different” being bullied and lost in the system, which had bigger things to worry about (like getting “able” students to pass state tests so as not to lose funding).
Now looking back, I see that in so many ways I held on to my own opinions in spite of my beliefs about submission. I “steered the ship” in matters related to child rearing and homeschooling.
At the same time, I built walls around myself, strictly defining and carefully protecting my “role” as manager of our household. My husband was not welcome to take part in housecleaning, cooking, or even comforting the sorrowing toddler.
Deep down, I felt trapped. I longed to pursue my own interests and ministry opportunities. Every time another woman said “I could never stay home like you do” I was filled with anger.
I viewed staying home as a necessary duty: I was doing what was best for my children.
At heart, I am a passionate go-getter. I long to make a difference in this world. Furthermore, I had no plans of being a stay-at-home mom forever. Once my kids reached high school age, I planned to get back into the “work” world.
Can you see the tension I was struggling with here?
At heart, I believed women could be anything, do anything. Yet, I couldn’t let go of the notion I was supposed to be submissive to and supportive of a husband.
I was supposed to be a “helpmeet”, which meant enabling my husband to be everything God had called him to be.
I couldn’t help but think for myself, yet I was so wrapped up in my “role”, I often chose to bury my own desires.
As the years rolled along, I became an expert on all aspects of my “domain”, but I could not justify pursuing any other realm for myself: friendship, career, etc.
And sometimes it’s easier to hide behind “submission” than to face the hard decisions and dilemmas this life throws at us.
I’ll be honest and say I had grown lazy, though being a stay-at-home mom is no cushy life of ease, especially if you struggle with guilt for not earning a paycheck, as I did, and don’t allow your husband to help with any “mom” tasks.
Deep down, I was empty, lonely, sad and trapped. I was growing angry and bitter. I did not enjoy life as I had when I was young. I was losing myself.
A few things woke me up and made me start to question my beliefs.
One was looking at myself through my children’s eyes.
What message was I giving them about womanhood? If I, like my dad before me, encouraged my daughters they could be anything they wanted, but then I myself wasn’t pursuing anything, what was I really teaching them?
Another thing that made me open up and start thinking about what it means to be a woman was choosing not to spank my children.
If I had come to believe the Bible did not actually tell me to spank, but instead pointed towards a redemptive form of parenting that involved love and grace and relationship, then could I be reading other things wrong? Was that why I was so miserable?
Finally, my lack of sexual desire, in fact, my anger and resentment towards my husband, scared me.
I picked up Sarah Bessey’s book and read it. I bought secular books about sex and desire, books which had a feminist bent. I pondered the way I had always thought about the Bible.
My who-a-woman-should-be paradigm was beginning to shift. It was uncomfortable, it was scary, but I was cracking the world-of-womanhood open like an egg. Suddenly, there was this succulent, runny, wet and wild goo of possibility, and I was swimming in it.
How about you, friend? Whether you are a man or a woman, have you experienced a paradigm shift such as the one I have been describing? If so, what were your feelings and how were you set free?
I'm not done yet!
Come back next week for Part 2, where I will be exploring sexual freedom, patriarchy in the Bible, a new way of looking at the term "helpmeet" and why it is important for women to be allowed equal leadership opportunities in the church.
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I'm a busy mom of three asking hard questions about my faith.