Throughout history, women of faith have often struggled to discover their place in the church—and more broadly, in the world. Take my friend Sarah Schwartz for instance.
Since childhood, Sarah has always been a natural leader, but as she grew up and began stepping more fully into this gift, she started to receive conflicting messages about what was expected of her as a woman. More specifically, as a Christian woman.
In college, these conflicting messages drove Sarah to Scripture. As someone who takes Scripture seriously and wants to follow Jesus with every part of her life, she started reading different books on different theologies of gender. “I read everything I could get my hands on,” says Sarah, “and I really just came to believe that God's heart was one for women to experience the same dignity and respect in this world as men experience.”
Sarah recently graduated with her M.A. in Theology from Biola University and actively advocates for the equality of men and women, both inside the walls of the church and beyond. That’s why I reached out to her for an interview after receiving today’s question:
Question #3: What does it look like to be a Christian feminist?
Instead of trying to answer this one on my own, I connected with Sarah. Here are some snippets from our conversation, which started with her defining feminism.
Sarah: I'd say that I define feminism as a Christian woman the same way that a non-Christian woman would. I think the definition remains the same. Feminism is a movement for the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. And while I'm a Christian and that is a part of my identity and there are women who aren't Christians who believe in feminism, I would say that my Christian faith makes me believe in feminism all that much more. I believe that the idea that women deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect as men in every sphere is actually very deeply Christian. So while it's entirely possible to be a feminist and not a Christian, I would say that my Christian faith actually inspires me to pursue feminism that much more.
Can you talk a little more about that?
Sarah: Yeah. So in following Jesus and trying to better understand the heartbeat of God, as revealed in the Scriptures and in the life of Jesus Christ, I see our God as one who is always on in the corner of the marginalized. He's always advocating for fair and just treatment for those who are vulnerable. We see this particularly in the way that the Old Testament law talks about how Israel is supposed to treat the foreigner, the widow and the oppressed. There's consideration taken for those who are vulnerable in society.
We see that in the Old Testament and then we see it continue on with Jesus's Sermon on the Mount. And women throughout the history of the world to present day are overrepresented in those categories in terms of violence and systemic poverty, abuse, harassment, mistreatment. So then it follows that God's heart is also for women.
So what does it look like to be a Christian feminist?
Sarah: For me, being a Christian feminist means to think about the words of the Old Testament where it says, "What does the Lord require of you but to love mercy and to do justly and to walk humbly with your God?" I want to structure my life in a way where the money that I spend is helping empower women. I'm gonna buy things from companies that treat their female workers well or who put fair labor laws in the factories that they own. I want to be sure to call out the very best in my female friends and in my sister and my cousins and I want to be a voice that reminds them that they're capable. And that they should ask for that job promotion or they should go for that degree.
At the end of the day, I believe that in the kingdom of God, women are and will be celebrated as the full image bearer creations that they are. So how can I live that now? By following Jesus and following his commands to their logical end in every sphere of my life.
Many people point to Genesis 2:22-23 and say that women are not in fact equal to men because woman was made from man. What are your thoughts?
Sarah: So I would say that that's kind of sloppy interpretation. It’s generally the very theologically conservative people who interpret it that way and they would never apply that kind of hermeneutic to any other passage. Because it’s implicit in the text rather than explicit in the text.
The text doesn't then follow and say, "And because of this, woman is inferior to man." Right? I think it's important to recognize like what the text does and does not say. And also, as always with any responsible exposition of scripture, we have to look at big picture things and we can't isolate verses.
The creation narrative is actually really beautiful in it's affirmation of women being full image bearers. When God says, "Let us make man in our image," he created them and affirmed that both men and women bear the image of God fully. Then, when Adam and Eve are commissioned to rule over the Earth, to sustain and care for the Earth and tend to it, it isn't "Adam, you rule over the earth and Eve, take notes." It's a command given to both of them.
What do women’s marches represent?
Sarah: I've found that a lot of the hesitation of Christians to participate in the women's march is that the women's march organization did decline to work with a pro-life organization in the initial planning of the original women's march. A lot of Christians associate feminism with abortion rights, and that’s when I like to draw it back to a comparison to Christianity.
So within Christianity, we have a variety of expression and beliefs and practices within our faith tradition, right? We have a variety of denominations and people who are Calvinists and people who are Arminian and everything else under the sun. What makes all of those people Christian is that they believe in who Jesus is and what he did for us and what that means for humanity. And so they disagree about a lot of things but they come back at the end of the day to those core truths that define them as Christians.
It's the same with feminism. You're gonna find a lot of feminists that disagree with each other about a lot of things including abortion rights, but at the end of the day the umbrella under which they all fall under is the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of women. So I am a feminist, I am pro-life and I don't support abortion. There’s a major misconception that in order to participate in things like the women's marches you have to support abortion, which is just simply not true.
What would be your challenge to Christian women today?
Sarah: I would challenge Christian women to live fully into the giftings that God has given them. And I’d challenge them to be careful not to import our own culture’s ideals and ideas about femininity when thinking about what gifts it's possible for them to have. In the white, middle to upper class evangelical culture, the ideal way to live is to have a husband who makes more money than you so that you can have kids and stay at home. That's great if that works out for you and if that's what you wanna do. I was raised by a stay at home mom, I have benefited from that particular set up within my own family unit, but also I think sometimes we forget that we are like 5% of the world where that's possible.
The many luxuries that we are afforded are not afforded to women in other parts of the world. And if I'm gonna be an advocate for women, if I'm gonna think critically about womanhood, I need to be thinking about women who don't look like me or experience the world like me.
What is the question that I'm not asking? What piece of this conversation do you feel is missing?
Sarah: Well I've been thinking a lot lately about how often we don't know our own history. It’s only through my own research and digging that I feel like I understood the movements of feminism and the sacrifices that were made by women. So I never learned about how women during the suffrage movement were beaten and arrested and force fed in jail because they were advocating simply for a woman's right to vote. My own grandmother, who is 88 years old couldn't have a credit card in her name until the 1970s. And things like domestic violence between a husband and a wife—there wasn't a law against those things until the 70s. Sometimes we approach these things without even realizing how close we are to them in history.
For people who are interested in learning more, can you recommend some books or articles that might be good resources? Maybe some people who think the same as you and others who have differing perspectives?
Sarah: A book that I recommend all the time is by Sarah Bessey and it's called Jesus Feminist. For people who are more interested in the theology, Discovering Biblical Equality by Ron Pierce and Rebecca Groothuis is a really good book. The counterpart to that, which is the complementarian theology, is Rediscovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. And then also another one that people really enjoy and I think is a really good read is Rachel Held Evans A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans both also have blogs.
So there you have it. One woman’s experience of thinking through her faith and her feminist values. I hope her words and recommendations will help you form your own views on this topic. Please share your thoughts and responses in the comments below.