"In our churches, let's challenge the structures that are based on faulty translations and poor exegesis..."
"Let's celebrate the true concept and reality of marriage..."
"Let's change our mind about the things that limit God's work in us..."
"Let's demand the fair treatment of women and girls around the globe..."
The Liberating Truth continually exhorts us to do something about injustice.
Danielle Strickland's new book, which focuses on why the church should work to combat gender inequality - and how it can do this - comes with glowing recommendations from well-known faces representing Tearfund, Soul Survivor, Stop the Traffik and Spring Harvest among others. But does it live up to the hype?
Actually, it does. It's a slim volume and as someone who likes really in-depth analysis I wondered just how much it would communicate about something which is such a major issue, a divisive issue, a painful issue. The impact of the book is strengthened by how straightforward its message is. It's divided into two sections - the first exploring the problems caused by gender inequality and the different ways this is manifested, whether that means poverty, stifling marriages, male-dominated religion, prostitution and trafficking, negative stereotyping or violence against women and girls. The second lays out a Biblical response, looking at the so-called 'difficult' passages of scripture and encouraging an egalitarian approach to gender issues and a call to Christians to stand up and speak out against the oppression of women as well as a commitment to encouraging readers not to limit what women can do.
Being a woman who's gifted in an area of leadership can be incredibly difficult, as songwriter and worship leader Vicky Beeching tells in her foreword to the book. She writes of leading worship at a meeting then being asked to leave the room immediately afterwards - because the (male) attendees felt her gender should bar her from sitting in on a 'leadership' event. Vicky was shocked and upset. She writes of how she's felt hen working with churches which don't allow women to teach, preach or lead, saying:
"Some people don't ever feel aware of their gender in relation to their calling, but I can say I've felt extremely aware of it in all the twelve years I've been in ministry."
This is a key point. It's not something which everyone will feel bothered about, because they might not have the inclination and the calling. But this doesn't mean that it's a non-issue. Vicky mentions the "many women across the globe" who have poured out their hearts to her about struggling with being treated like second-class citizens within God's family. This is an issue for everyone. It's an issue which Jesus Himself confronted head-on. Rather than ignoring those groups which chose to oppress and branding them as extremists, or 'just culturally different', He worked in opposition to them to challenge societal convention.
Danielle kicks off her first chapter with a few musings on one of my least-favourite aspects of Western Christian culture: the books and resources which tell us that all Christian women long to be a pretty princess with a Prince Charming to complete their life, focusing on appearance, on strict gender roles and stereotypes as the be-all and end-all of being a Christian woman. She feels the same way as me - that in the real world, we are all different and neither men nor women have to fit into restrictive stereotypes.
"So this book is a celebration of the diversity of God's calling to all people," she writes.
One of the things I loved about The Liberating Truth was the number of times a line just jumped off the page and impacted me, usually just through its simplicity and truth. Danielle tackles what gender inequality looks like across the world today, making it exactly clear how she feels about what you'll see lampooned as 'fun feminism' or 'empowerfulment' in the blogosphere, what I feel when I think about how materialism and exploitation have become tied up with the notion of 'empowerment' in a late capitalist nightmare.
"The problem is that no matter how you dress up oppression, it will never lead to freedom."
Danielle pulls no punches She addresses the enormous and also incredibly difficult issue of domestic violence and abuse within the church - and the irresponsible and dangerous answers women seeking help are often given. She expounds on prostitution and the 'Nordic model' before moving into discussion of the acceptance of patriarchy, subservience and oppression in the church, drawing on the example of Catherine Booth as a pioneer of egalitarianism and calling readers to 'finish what she started', giving women the freedom to pursue God's best for them, whether that means preaching, teaching, leading, stepping out, fighting injustice or making changes in their marriages.
But what's the reasoning behind this? Danielle starts with one of the most important things you should know and one of the most important things which has impacted me as a woman and also as a wife. The story of creation in Genesis and its lack of hierarchical order, contrasted with the effects of the Fall and its obvious deviation from God's design for relationships. The precedent this sets for God's view of gender equality.
And she urges us to question the way we see and talk about relationships and marriages in today's world - where one person must always be 'in control', 'wearing the trousers', 'under the thumb', 'having the final word' and 'emotionally blackmailing'. To focus on relationships as they were meant to be, not on how they came to be.
"The real point is not that there is no difference, but that there is no equality distinction and no limitation in using our gifts..."
Danielle admits that there is a lot of confusion in the church about gender issues and that many people aren't sure what to think; they hear reactionary responses or cultural tradition being held up as Biblical truth and as a result women are existing with their potential being limited by their gender. In the second half of the book, she addresses common areas of scriptural confusion in a really helpful and enlightening way, drawing on the work of theologians such as Gilbert Bilezikian and N T Wright and emphasizing the focus on 'oneness in Christ' in the New Testament while tackling difficult issues such as Paul on women in the church, the 'Junia question', headship doctrine and that troublesome verb - 'authentein'.
These chapters went over much of what I already feel is important about Jesus and his relationships with women, but are a valuable resource and also really made me think about certain passages in a way I hadn't before - the focus on men having to have certain credentials in order to lead, which put me in mind of the way people often question the validity of a woman in a position of power within the church as if it's something to worry about, while paying little attention to the credentials of men in leadership, sometimes until it's too late.
The significance of Jesus's appearing first to Mary Magdalene and commanding her to inform his other disciples of what had happened is discussed at length and I found this fantastic and definite food for thought. This at a time when a woman's testimony was not permitted as evidence in either a Roman or Jewish court of law.
"Mary's commission was not limited to 'women's ministry'..."
As part of her final chapter focusing on scripture, Danielle discusses marriage and the oft-repeated fallacy that problems within marriages are simply down to a refusal on either the part of the man or the woman to accept their specific 'role' in the relationship. She issues a call to readers to consider the impact of an egalitarian approach to marriage, how freeing it could be and how much it could reflect what God is like to both the church community and 'the world'. This is vital. I know from first-hand experience the freedom she's talking about and I loved her final words on the subject - that through this the world might see past the negative stereotypes of Christian marriages.
"...they'll see a sacrificial and loving empowerment. A love that wants the best for each other, regardless of cultural norms."