Fighting with God about Feminism
by Elle Berry | 22 January 2018 |
I remember my first real fight with God. Just like many relationships, the first fight was not result of a single moment, but rather the culmination of mounting tensions, misdirected hostility, jumbled communication, and underlying fears. I was nineteen years old, and while I call it my first fight, it was not as though I hadn’t known God for a long time. I grew up in the church, and I was what many in evangelical circles refer to as saved. My previous disagreements with God were generally about behavior (mine and others), which usually were resolved when I had a revelation of wrongdoing.
But this fight was different. This was my first grown-up fight with God. It was the point in the story—which I am guessing we all reach sooner or later—when we start asking questions that do not readily present simple answers. Different people certainly come to different questions at different points in their lives? But for me, my first such fight with God was about feminism.
The truth was, it wasn’t a one-night-fight. It was a continuing conversation that happened on a loop cycle over the course of about six months, building with intensity with every lap we made. It would start in the quiet of the evening, on nights when I was alone with my thoughts, and I would find myself pacing around my room as my thoughts paced around my mind. “Why do so many stories about women, feature them only in the context of a relationship, most frequently only as a romantic interest? Men’s stories are about them being explorers, inventors, or warriors. But not so with women. Why do so many stories treat women as supporting cast? And why are the majority of the stories in the Bible entirely about men? And sure, you could argue they were written in a different time; but if the Bible is inspired by God, why are women pushed to the margins? Is that what God intended? If God doesn’t prefer men to women, why are women treated as less—historically, but even now, in leadership, and opportunities and story space? Why, in church, do women learn about the stories of Daniel, David, Joseph and Paul, but the stories of women like Ruth, Esther, Mary and Martha are relegated mostly to the children’s departments or women’s ministries? It’s as though everyone can learn from and take interest in men’s stories, but only women and children can learn from, or take interest in, women’s stories. Were women created just as an accessory to men? What does it mean to be a good woman? What does it mean to be a good woman in the church? God, what is Your heart for women?”It’s been a long time since I was caught in the loop of these questions, and while they no longer bother me as much, their origins are still painfully obvious. I grew up in a house where my gender was never spoken of in a derogatory way, and I don’t remember being told I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. Likewise, I was never told that I wouldn’t have value if I didn’t get married. However, it was assumed that I, like my grandmother and mother, somewhere in my twenties, would meet the one. And my culture—both the wider secular culture and the Christian culture—reinforced this.
And there is certainly nothing wrong with that path. But despite being raised as a strong, and independent woman, I still fell into the trap that so many girls fall into. This trap says our value is defined in proportion to our relational success with men. Frequently the unspoken insinuation is that deviation from the aforementioned path renders those who do not follow it defective. As author Christine Caine says in her book Unashamed “I felt that because I was neither the firstborn nor a son, I was someone ‘less than.’ ‘You’re only a woman,’ I was told in so many ways—and it was crystal clear that this was not a good thing.” So many women walk around with some vague version of that feeling. While these messages are often subtle in the western world, many of us still pick up on the sense that we are less, somehow, than our male counterparts, or that our value is established by our relationship (or lack thereof) to them.
This manifests in things like our billion dollar beauty industry, or our fixation with being desirable. Beautiful and desirable for whom? And why? Often, both women and men seem to classify women’s lives into three parts; before the man, with the man, and after the man. And, for those who remain single past the point of expected union, many spend years struggling to escape the “waiting place” mindset. Your real life begins, women often feel, when you find the one.
This is not, I should clarify, a demonization of marriage. It is, however, intended to caution against the ways we have for so many years, defined womanhood. There is danger in telling half the human race that their primary value is in the context of connection to male hierarchy. There is also danger in placing the enormity of your value and worth within the context of a single human relationship that will never span the entirety of your life. For anytime that relationship becomes messy or damaged, and for all the years that there is no such relationship, there also rest your value.
But at nineteen, I didn’t know any of that. All I could feel was this throbbing dissonance between what I was seeing in the church and culture, versus what I believed about God. What my aching heart was really asking was, Is my significance determined by what the culture says is important? Does God and the church share that definition of how women find significance? If I don’t live up to their classification of significance, do I still have a place in the church and in the kingdom of God? And those questions were the background for the entire fight. It was about my fear that I wouldn’t have meaning in my life if I didn’t follow the avenue that was prescribed for women. Combine that with a longing to be part of some daring and exciting adventure, which seemed to be more accessible and admirable for men.
The culmination of these thoughts gnawed at my heart, and as the months added up, it felt as though I was venting only to the four walls of my mind, and nothing else.
But then, one night, something changed. I had been sucked into my normal round of questions, and that had resulted in the normal streams of frustration. But suddenly, in the midst of my distress, I heard something, still and calm, deep within my heart. “What is it to you, if I care more about men than women? What does it matter to you? You follow me.” I was stunned. I had been arguing for months, but I didn’t really expect an answer. Yet I was confident it was God I was hearing. My mind immediately jumped to a passage in the gospel of John, where Peter is talking to Jesus on the beach, and Peter is making comparisons between him and the apostle John: “What about him?” questions Peter. And Jesus, responds (more or less), “don’t worry about it—you follow me.” What I was hearing in my heart was as though the God of the universe was telling me, ”You do you. Stop wondering if you fit a mold. Spoiler: you don’t. Simply do the things you know to do, and don’t compare that to anyone else.”
Frustratingly, the insinuation could easily mean that God was siding with the patriarchy. And yet as much as I didn’t like that idea, I found myself deeply moved and comforted. The truth was, God wasn’t answering my questions, but He was answering my person. And while answers are wonderful, and at times even important, the strongest resolution to fear isn’t logic; it’s connection.
The argument didn’t completely end there. Over the next few years, I’d still go through the motions, because the questions still mattered. Yet, each time I’d hear the same thing: “You follow me.” The arguments became shorter, till eventually the questions would surface, but before I even went down the spiral, I’d short circuit the process entirely. You do you, I would remind myself, resigned to the elusiveness of concrete answers.
One February a few years later my youth pastor asked me and a friend to put together a Bible study for a weekend retreat. Not feeling terribly inspired for topics, I headed to a local bookstore to scout inspiration. As I was scrolling through the shelves, a book called Lost Women of the Bible caught my eye. I all but ignored it, thinking it would be another standard “how to be a Proverbs 31 woman” guidebook: rules for a life I wasn’t sure I would ever live. But for some reason, I started skimming the pages.
What I found was my initial introduction to a theology that entirely reframed how I was looking at women, both in Biblical stories, but also in our wider purpose. Of the many ideas I found there, Author Carolyn Custis James introduced me to the etiology of the word helper, which is the first description applied to woman, in the book of Genesis. Most of our English translations render this word helper as a subordinate, diminished character. But as James writes in her book When Life and Beliefs Collide, “Helper comes from the Hebrew word ezer, an interesting word choice loaded with significance. Ezer appears twenty-one times in the Old Testament. Twice, in Genesis, it describes the woman …but the majority of references refer to God as the helper of his people. The remaining three references appear to refer to military aid.”
The first description given to a woman in the Bible is only applied to three areas: woman, God, and military. An interesting discovery, isn’t it? Pouring over Ms. James writings, it became increasingly clear that women were anything but a subplot: we were, and are, a critical and strategic ally, co-authoring the human story, every part as crucial as men. Women’s value rests not in our relationship status, as wife or mother, but because we, like our male-counterparts, are image bearers of the Divine.
Arguing and questioning do not always have a positive connotation. Perhaps “wrestling” would describe a more theologically acceptable framework? Whatever you want to call it, I do know this: when I brought my questions before God, I discovered one who is faithful, and found myself closer to, not farther from, the one I was questioning. I am certain, more than anything, that God is big for enough for our arguments, our frustrations, and our messiest questions. There is nothing too taboo to ask. I also found that many times the answers are slow coming. God seems more likely to answer the person, than the question. But the path of Christianity is to a relationship, not a dogma. As such, learning to trust the one who answers is as important as the answer.
Being what author Sarah Bessey dubbed a Jesus Feminist, has never been more important than it is now. Good theology matters. But equally important is being brave enough to act on it. I believe passionately that God has been waiting and yearning for such a time as this, to usher the other half of His church into their full calling. A whole is stronger, than a half. The time is ripe, and women are willing. The spirit is moving, women are answering. This organic movement is already well under way.
The only question that remains in my mind is, will the church hierarchy join, and if so, how long will it take them?
Elle Berry is a writer and nutritionist, presently putting the finishing touches on a graduate degree from the University of Western States. She is passionate about creating wellness, maintaining a bottomless cup of tea, and exploring every beautiful vista in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at ChasingWhippoorwills.com