Finding my identity as a Christian woman (part two)

Friday, 14 August 2009

This is probably going to be a long one. Sorry.

2007 was the year I got married. It was also the year I hit an all-time low in terms of my identity as a Christian woman. Having struggled for several years with other personal issues I had finally left them behind and was eager to get more involved in church now that I had a permanent base nearby and had 'settled down'. Going back full-time to the church that we'd only attended occasionally for three years was an 'interesting' experience. At the time there were only two young, married, childless couples in the church and although we tried hard, we found it hard to fit in with the older couples who were the same age as our parents and grandparents, or the couples a decade older than us who had young children. Aside from the friendship aspect of church, I was again becoming increasingly uneasy with male-only leadership and its implications for women who felt called to lead or preach. By late 2007 our attendance was again sporadic and unenthusiastic. In early 2008 our church network's magazine published an interview with Mark Driscoll and it made me so angry I couldn't stop thinking about it for days. Why? I won't go into much detail here but if you search for info on him you'll probably find out. Just as a taster, here he is explaining why stay-at-home dads are an issue worthy of church discipline (it's hard to 'respect' them as men, apparently) and this Facebook group gloriously details his most misogynist quotes. At the time I had just been a steward at the very first Million Women Rise march and it disgusted me to find out more about his views.

Since I was 18 I'd been attending various festivals and conferences put on by Soul Survivor, an organisation whicvh runs events for young Christians of all backgrounds and denominations. Something I'd always loved about Soul Survivor and its '18-30' incarnation, Momentum, is that you'd come into contact with so many different church groups, styles of teaching and messages over the course of a week. Women preach on the main stage there. They lead mixed-gender seminars. Looking back on personal journal entries from this time I can see I was incredibly worried that the meek, passive, docile, unopinionated stereotype of (complementarian) 'Biblical Womanhood' was just not me and that, not being able to change this, I would be forever on the outside when it came to serving God. It was at Momentum that I attended some seminars hosted by two incredibly inspirational women who changed my outlook on my identity.

Social justice is one of my passions and on arriving at Momentum I immediately decided I was going to attend a seminar called 'Global Women', hosted by Elaine Storkey. Thinking that I might be on to a good thing with Elaine Storkey, I decided to go to one of her other talks - 'Faith in a Pluralist Society'. I took away so much from these sessions. In her talk on faith and society, Elaine stressed the importance of people of different faiths working together for the common good and why state-imposed religion is a bad thing. In the other session she discussed women and poverty, gendered violence, maternal mortality, selective abortion/infanticide of female children and the environment. It was fascinating and I came away so happy to have heard such an inspiring and passionate woman speak. On returning home I looked into more of Elaine's writings online and found a great extract from one of her books which spoke to me so much. I could really relate to much of what it said about women being marginalised, given 'low status' jobs within the church and made the target of subtly sexist jokes from the pulpit (link at the end of the post).

The second inspiring encounter I had that week was with Jo Saxton. We'd heard Jo preach on the main stage that week and when I saw that she was hosting a seminar entitled 'Equipping Female Leaders' I knew I had to go. The seminar room was packed. Jo started off by explaining that the session was aimed at young women involved in/hoping to be involved in all aspects of leadership, whether that was in the church, the workplace, university or the home. She then asked us if we'd ever had a bad experience due to being a female who was gifted in leadership. Hands went up around the room. One young woman talked of how an elder at her church had told her she had a 'Jezebel spirit' because she'd told him she felt called to lead. Another told us that other women at her church had said she'd 'never find a man with an attitude like that'. The room was full of young women who had been hurt by words like this spoken over them to put them down.

Jo trains emerging female leaders - she'd heard a lot of this before. Over the next hour she talked about problematic theology and interpretations of the Bible which are often used to deny women rights within the church. The very first point she made was on the word 'helper'. That word which had worried me for so long. The word which is translated from the Hebrew 'EZER', used in the line The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18, NIV). In Jo's blog post on the subject, she talks about how this often makes women feel:
For some, the heartbreak just deepens with the feeling that women were set on earth soley to compliment, help, make a man look better. They feel as though it meant they had no contribution of their own to bring. At times suitable has been exchanged for lifesaver, one who brings out the best in their partner. Which doesn’t sound bad at all really. Unless you are single. Then what’s your purpose? Are you a nobody because you didn’t get married?
Jo explained how the word 'ezer' is used many times in the Bible, often to refer to God as He helps people. At other points it can be translated as 'protector', 'defender' and 'strength'. Moving on to the word for 'suitable' - 'KENEGDO', she talked about how it translates as 'facing' or 'standing alongside' - as an equal. As I've seen it described somewhere else, a power corresponding to a man.

For the rest of the seminar Jo talked about issues within other books of the Bible. Another thing I took from this was her explanation of the Greek for 'submit' as it is used in the New Testament to refer to wives, which translates as 'behave responsibly, show courtesy, be united, have respect'. I came away from the seminar feeling as if a weight had been taken off my shoulders. For so long I had felt genuinely upset at the connotations of such words. To me they siginifed inferiority, silence, being restricted and belittled. I'd seen them mentioned in blog posts urging wives not to expect husbands to help with housework and childrearing 'because that's not his role', or articles denouncing the women's rights movement as 'contrary to God'. To see them from a different perspective made all the difference. In the summer of 2008 my husband (also an egalitarian) and I started attending a different church in our city. At first I was very unsure when it came to making new friends and connecting with people. I wondered if I would feel the same as I had before - like I didn't 'fit in'. Thankfully things are much different. Our church has women in leadership and management. Women preach on a Sunday to a mixed congregation. As I've got to know women in the church I see them being encouraged and raised up according to their strengths. As a couple and individually we've made a lot of friends with people of different age groups and I don't feel worried about speaking my mind, airing opinions or being myself.

I know it's not a requirement that your fellow Christians accept all your opinions but it puts me so much more ease to feel I can speak up about my politics, my convictions, my interests and my career and not be judged negatively. Over the past year the feelings I had in the past have virtually disappeared. I respect the fact that all Christian women have very different personalities but know that we may not always feel at home together - I don't think you can expect anything different. Unfortunately a lot of Christians have a certain view of feminist women - that they hate men, hate children and hate stay at home mothers/women who do not have jobs. This couldn't be further from the truth and it saddens me when I hear someone denouncing feminism in this way. I'm still outraged when I read certain blogs or websites or hear certain views being aired but my personal journal is no longer full of concern about how these could impact me. God gifts women in many different ways and I feel this should be acknowledged. In the Bible, there are many examples of strong women who lead, preach and are important figures. Whatever I may feel called to do in the future, it makes me happy to know this.

Further reading:
Elaine Storkey on women and the church
An article on Evangelical Feminism
The Council On Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a complementarian organisation which represents the opposite views on gender and Christianity to my own.


Eline said...

I absolutely loved these two posts! I always wondered how Christianity and feminism can go hand in hand.

Anonymous said...

Though an unsalvageable (sp?!!) atheist I really enjoyed reading these two posts of yours. It was an interesting insight to an aspect of Christianity which I suppose has always concerned me, even as an outsider. Thank you :)

Hannah M said...

Thanks Eline, I hope that my story has, in a way, shown that they can!

Glad you enjoyed reading Arrianne. I think it concerns a lot of people and I know that for some, Christianity and feminism ARE incompatible.

RobHu said...

Hi Hannah - I hope you don't mind me coming here and reading / commenting. I followed links to your story from Dave Bish's post.

I should say that I am a complementarian - before I was a Christian I would have self identified as a feminist, but after becoming a Christian I became convinced that the Bible states that God's view of how things should be is more akin to the complementarian one than the egalitarian one.

What have you made of the technical arguments made by theologians like Grudem about things like the word translated as helper? Personally I found that the Bible on a 'plain reading' in English seemed to support the complementarian position (which was quite jarring to my ears!) - people told me that the words could be translated differently and so on - but when I looked in to it I found that the best scholars seemed to be in favour of the way the terms were translated in our modern English translations, and that the overwhelming weight of scholarship was on the side of CBMW et al.

I'm sure we're both very influenced by our desire for the Bible to say one thing or another (although arguably I started off as a feminist and had my mind changed) - but do you really think that the weight of scholarship supports the egalitarian position? Have you read some of the technical stuff that CBMW have produced (e.g. Rediscovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood)?

I want to also say with Dave that I think this is a secondary issue - which means to me that it's important, but not something so important that we can't maintain fellowship as God's people. I hope my comment is received in the friendly spirit that it's intended in!


Adam said...

Dear Hannah,

A great couple of posts, thank you for posting.

I think that Rob is missing the point somewhat here; we can read all sorts of things into the bible - after all the bible has in the past been used to justify slavery and racist views - but that's a well worn argument!

I attended a talk by Gene Robinson at Greenbelt over the weekend and he ended by pointing out that we may well be proved wrong on complementarianism just as we have been on slavery and so on.

Actually if I'm being less loving to my complementarian brothers and sisters I might simply say something along the lines of 'even if the bible DOES support your view - so what'!

Best regards,


RobHu said...

@Adam - I agree that the Bible has been used to justify all kinds of things in the past. Would you agree that the authors of the Bible (who I would take to be both humans and God himself) wrote specific things about topics which we can determine (exegesis) and apply (hemeneutics) today?

For example, the Bible is used by people to argue that Christ is divine and by others to show that he is not divine. I believe that the authors had a specific answer in mind on this issue (that they thought he was divine), and that similarly the Bible is clear about male and female roles.

What am I missing the point of? My point is that the Bible says certain things and that when we disagree we can carefully examine the scriptures and determine what it says. Does that sound strange?

Hannah M said...

Hi Rob, I can't claim to have looked into every area of the debate, particularly the complementarian side of things so perhaps my knowledge of theology is not as thorough as it could be. I have had a brief look through Rediscovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood but have not read it in its entirety, maybe that's something I should do. On the question of how important an issue it is, I would not want to attend a complementarian church on a regular basis. As for fellowship in general, for me it would depend on how hardline the complementarian position taken by a church was.

No offence meant to Christian men in general, but I have found that many do not consider gender issues to be a major problem within the church and I often wonder if they would feel the same way if they were the 'Other' gender and had had to deal with centuries of repression, negative attitudes, being blamed for sin, held back, etc. As a man you speak from a great position of privilege and power and I think it's important that ALL of us sit back and check our privilege from time to time.

Adam, thanks for your thoughts :) I really wish I'd been at Greenbelt this year, maybe I'll make it in 2010! I think it *is* time to stand up against certain attitudes within the church. It's NOT a case of 'lovingly' letting complementarians have their way over things all the time; certainly we don't see many instances of complementarians being accommodating to egalitarians out of love for their fellow Christians.

RobHu said...

Hi Hannah -

I wholeheartedly agree with you that as a man I am largely blind to many of the negative experiences of women in the church. I would also say that I think complementarian beliefs can and have been used by some as a cover for misogyny. As a Christian committed to obeying God as he has revealed his will in the Bible I want to combat misogyny and to ensure that women are treated as being of equal value and validity as people made in God's image as men.

I'm not recommending reading the whole of RBMW (although that'd certainly be a worthwhile thing to do) - I'm suggesting looking at a few of the issues you referred to in your post, like the meaning of the term helper. When I looked in to these issues in the past (when I would self define as a feminist) I found that the theological support for the egalitarian position seemed poor to me, and that while there were many people claiming that the Hebrew / Greek terms meant something other than their plain meaning it seemed that the majority of scholarship disagreed and that the egalitarian position was a minority position theologically.

I presume that you like me would support either position if you thought that was what the Bible said - the real question here is what the Bible says.


Adam said...

Of course the bible contains principals that we should live by but it's not a handbook on how we should live our lives today, particularly with regard to the role and status of men and women in church and family life.

Maybe the model of our faith being informed by a mixture of tradition, reason and scripture is helpful here?

Hannah, you are right of course - we do need to let complementarians know that they are wrong.

With best wishes,


Hannah M said...

Rob - I'm glad that combating misogyny is important to you. Maybe I will look into the book and what it has to say :)

RobHu said...

@Adam "Of course the bible contains principals that we should live by but it's not a handbook on how we should live our lives today, particularly with regard to the role and status of men and women in church and family life."

First of all let me say that complementarians believe (and teach) that men and women are of equal value (which is I presume what you mean by status). Complementarians believe that men and women have different roles, but these roles do not make one person more valuable than another - in the same way that no one would (or should!) think that their small group leader is a more valuable person than they are, or their church leader is a more valuable person. They've just been given a different role - see 1 Corinthians 12.

What process do you use to work out what the Bible (exegesis) says and how it relates to you today (hermeneutics)?

The general way of doing (extremely roughly speaking) this is to look at the things God says in the Bible and work out whether they seem to be part of God's intended design (in which case they're 'eternal' and can be applied pretty readily to today), or temporary (in which case you have to look at why God said that and what principles lie behind it).

With many of the passages that talk about the roles of men and women they appear to be in the 'eternal' category. Think of the garden of Eden, or look at what Paul says in 1 Timothy 2: "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner." Leaving aside for the moment exactly what Paul stating about women's role here (which is an interesting topic of discussion, but is not the bit I want to focus on), look at his reasoning for there being a different role. He gives 2 reasons:
1. Adam was formed first, then Eve.
2. Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

His reasons for differing roles for men and women (in church) here are because of God's created order before the fall, and Eve being deceived at the fall before Adam. Here are the relevant notes from the ESV Study Bible:

RobHu said...


1 Tim. 2:12 I do not permit. Paul self-consciously writes with the authority of an apostle (e.g., 1 Thess. 4:1; 2 Thess. 3:6), rather than simply offering an opinion. This statement is given in the context of Paul's apostolic instructions to the church for the ordering of church practice when the church is assembled together. In that context, two things are prohibited: (1) Women are not permitted to publicly teach Scripture and/or Christian doctrine to men in church (the context implies these topics), and (2) women are not permitted to exercise authority over men in church. (The reference for both “teaching” and “exercise authority” here is within the context of the assembled church.) Women teaching other women, and women teaching children, are not in view here, and both are encouraged elsewhere (on women teaching women, cf. Titus 2:4; on women teaching children, cf. 2 Tim. 1:5). Nor does this passage have in view the role of women in leadership situations outside the church (e.g., business or government). The presence of the word or (Gk. oude) between “to teach” and “to exercise authority” indicates that two different activities are in view, not a single activity of “authoritative teaching.” “Exercise authority” represents Greek authenteō, found only here in the NT. Over 80 examples of this word exist outside the NT, however, clearly establishing that the meaning is “exercise authority” (not “usurp authority” or “abuse authority,” etc., as sometimes has been argued). Since the role of pastor/elder/overseer is rooted in the task of teaching and exercising authority over the church, this verse would also exclude women from serving in this office (cf. 1 Tim. 3:2). Thus when Paul calls for the women to be quiet, he means “quiet” with respect to the teaching responsibility that is limited in the assembled church. Paul elsewhere indicates that women do speak in other ways in the church assembly (see 1 Cor. 11:5). See also note on 1 Cor. 14:34–35.

1 Tim. 2:13 For introduces the biblical basis for the prohibition of v. 12. Paul indicates that the prohibition is based on two grounds, the first being the order of creation (Adam was formed first), and the second being the deception of Eve (v. 14). “Formed” (Gk. plassō) is the same term that the Septuagint uses in Gen. 2:7, 8, which evidently refers to creation (cf. 1 Cor. 11:8–9). Paul's argument indicates that gender roles in the church are not simply the result of the fall but are rooted in creation and therefore apply to all cultures at all times. The meaning of this passage, however, is widely contested today. Some interpreters argue that the prohibition of 1 Tim. 2:12 does not apply today because: (1) the reason for Paul's command was that women were teaching false doctrine in Ephesus; or (2) Paul said this because women in that culture were not educated enough to teach; or (3) this was a temporary command for that culture only. But Paul's appeal to the creation of Adam and Eve argues against those explanations. In addition, the only false teachers named in connection with Ephesus are men (1:19–20; 2 Tim. 2:17–18; cf. Acts 20:30), and no historical evidence exists of women teaching false doctrine in first-century Ephesus. Moreover, ancient inscriptions and literature speak of a number of well-educated women in that area of Asia Minor at that time (cf. also Luke 8:1–3; 10:38–41; John 11:21–27; Acts 18:2–3, 11, 18–19, 26; 2 Tim. 4:19). Finally, some have claimed that this passage only prohibits a “wife” from teaching or exercising authority over her “husband,” since the Greek words gynē and anēr (translated “woman” and “man” in 1 Tim. 2:12) can also mean “wife” and “husband” in certain contexts. Given the immediate context of vv. 8–9, however, the most likely meaning of the Greek words gynē and anēr here in vv. 11–14 would seem to be “woman” and “man” (rather than “wife” and “husband”).


RobHu said...


Similarly, you talk about families - it's not very popular in the church today to say that marriage is meant to be between two people of opposite gender, but look at how Jesus understood marriage and how he understood the Bible. He applied the same principles I'm saying here, in Matthew 12 we discover that when asked about marriage he said "Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate." Marriage is to be a life long thing between a man and a woman (with a few minor exceptions that he states) because that's how God initially created things before the fall. The Pharisees here are saying to him that in their culture things are different ("Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?"), and Jesus' reply is that their cultural norms are irrelevant where they contradict the timeless design of God.

Now, there are a variety of ways I think one can come to non-complementarian views about what the Bible says. Some of those ways mean treating the Bible in a different way to how Jesus treated it (assuming that it's not the word of God but only human words, rejecting it's authority in our lives, assuming that culture should update scripture rather than the other way around, etc) - I think all those ways are very bad and not faithful to God or Jesus.

One can argue that complementarian interpretations are wrong by approaching the Bible in the same way that Jesus did but arguing that based on scholarship that our reading (say of the term translated 'helper' in Genesis when referring to women) should be translated to a different word or understood differently given the context or grammar. Those are ways of treating the Bible and God faithfully, trying to discern it's meaning. In this approach it's about putting God and his word first before our own desires and cultural preconceptions.

Personally I find the arguments made by scholars and theologians to be far far better on the complementarian side, but I completely understand and accept that other people may look at the issue in detail and come to a different conclusion.

@Hannah I'm curious as to what your approach to the Bible is - would you share my approach but come to different conclusions? Do you think that the Bible ought to determine what culture should be or vice versa?

Hannah M said...

First of all let me say that complementarians believe (and teach) that men and women are of equal value

In theory, yes, but that's definitely not what i've seen happen in both church and CU situations. I'm not saying that complementarian men don't treat women with respect and care, but I definitely found that women who deviated from the mold of 'traditional Biblical womanhood' were often fair game for nastiness, and that there is a lot of general underlying sexism.

I don't think that the Bible should determine what culture should be, no. But at the same time I don't believe that worldly culture of the 21st century should always determine interpretation of Christian beliefs. My views on women's issues are not drawn only from the Bible and maybe you think that makes me a 'bad Christian', but I do feel there are some cases where times have changed, culture has changed and that's it.

RobHu said...

I'm not really sure what it'd mean to say someone is a 'bad Christian'. I think approaching the Bible in the way that you seem to be implying you do means you don't approach it in the way that Jesus does (see for example my comment about Jesus' approach to the Bible with respect to marriage and family). In that sense I think your approach is incorrect.

GeogJen said...

Just found your blog (searching for more info on the Peterborough MP twitter issue after seeing it on Look East). Seems like you've had a similar journey with Christianity and the role of women. I find the Christians for Biblical Equality resources useful [].

Hannah Mudge said...

Hi GeogJen, it's nice to find more people on the same page! I've found the CBE site really helpful too. When I was really struggling with these issues I worried that there were no resources online which could help me - the net seemed to be a sea of blogs about submission and homemaking - but I've found a few good ones since :)

Pilvi said...

Hi Hannah! Happened upon your blog via BitchBuzz, and commenting on a very old post because I found your story very inspirational.

In my native Finland there is a rather small but vocal group within the Lutheran church that continues to denounce female pastors' legitimacy (if you can use that word). It's always been an important issue for me to defend, but because the debate has centered around this one issue, and because Finland is in many other respects a highly egalitarian society (very few stay-at-home moms for example), only now my eyes opened to ponder the larger question of feminism and Christianity. This will probably help me when in my (still relatively) new home of USA I might encounter this debate from a different angle.

I can so well relate to your feeling of unease in some events and associations. When I moved here, I made sure to join a congregation accepting female pastors, just one way to try to make sure I'll feel at home.


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