Christian feminism isn’t the misnomer people think, nor is it a particularly liberal position to hold, nor is it guilty of glossing over gender differences as many imply. Here is a a quick primer.
First, let’s define some terms.
- Heirarchicism/traditionalism – This is the hardcore patriarchal view, which holds that men are to rule over women, on the basis that man are superior to women.. Traditionalists believe that not only are men appointed to be in authority, but that they are more qualified to make rational decisions, more capable of leading, etc. A common traditionalist view is that women are more likely to sin or be deceived, as evidencd by Eve in the creation account. It is more or less impossible for a heirachicist to be a feminist, for these reasons.
- Complementarianism – This is the view of the signers of the Danvers statement, which was fronted by John Piper and Wayne Grudem a few years back. In this view, men and women are created ontologically equal, but created to fill different and complementary niches in life and society together. Men are to be the leaders, while women are to be supportive of men’s leadership. According to complementarians, the supportive role is not lesser, it is simply different.
- Egalitarianism – This is the view that neither men nor women face restrictions on the kinds of roles they can pursue, so long as the individual is gifted for and called to that role. Nonetheless, egalitarians believe that men and women are different in terms of the way they process ideas, make decisions and relate to others.
- Androgyny – This is the view that the only difference between men and women is in terms of sexual makeup and reproduction. Holders of androgyny reject the idea that women are more naturally emotive than men, for instance, and generally want to see women equal the number of men in every facet of society. They also want to change society to stop conditioning men and women to “act” as men and women, so they would encourage young girls to play war games and young boys to play with dolls.
So a traditionalist church does not allow women to speak in the congregation (I have been to these churches), and might even assign the women elsewhere during Bible lessons, whereas a complementarian church would allow women to learn and even to exercise some ministry functions, so long as those functions do not include exercising authority over a man, or “denying masculine headship,” as complementarians often phrase it. Egalitarians open up every role to women, including senior pastor and preaching pastor positions, as well as district and diocese overseers. Androgyny in practice looks little different than egalitarianism, but tends not to be concerned with things like spiritual gifting in the women it assigns, and will sometimes push women to lead specifically to make numbers level out.
My claim is that traditionalist views and androgynous views are incompatible with any type of feminism, but that both complementarian and egalitarian views naturally fit with some forms of Christian feminist work. Those forms will be distinct to each viewpoint, of course, though both will include (competing) education of the church on gender issues.
The goals of complementarian feminism will include building structures in which both men and women in the church can live out their gifting and calling in ministry without denying masculine headship. Likewise, they will aim to teach women how to find full value and worth in these subordinate positions. Third, they will have to find a way to make it clear to the world at large, which has no narrative to make sense of masculine headship for them, that they do value men and women equally, in order to maintain the witness of the church.
Egalitarian feminists, on the other hand, have different work to do, including clearly laying out their scriptural stance on women in ministry (some texts have done this, but very few on the popular level that could stand alongside complementarian works like, say, Captivating by John Eldredge’s wife [or daughter?]), clearing denominational hurdles to women achieving ordination and placement in congregations.
And while egalitarians and complementarians hold differing views on God’s intention in gender in creation, they both need to realize that they are not polar opposites, and find a way to continue to disagree without vilifying each other or harming women further in the process.