The term feminism comes with a lot of baggage. We tend to shy away from it because there’s a fear of bringing cultural issues into our churches. We strive to be “in the world,” not “of the world.” But I don’t want it to scare us. I teach sociology, and I often tell my students that the systems we see in action in the world are just as present and active in the church. Pews and songbooks do not discourage Satan from infiltrating our communities, and often, oppressive systems may put on different clothing in church, but still show up as wolves.
Let’s break it down into something more manageable. Feminism is is the belief that women hold equal worth and dignity to men. The best description of feminism I’ve read was one given in an interview by Sarah Bessey (author of Jesus Feminist). Her description of feminism is this:
Feminism is the simple belief that women are people, too. At the core, feminism simply means that we champion the dignity, rights, responsibilities, and glories of women as equal in importance to those of men, and we refuse discrimination against women.
What does that look like? And aren’t we already doing that? I’m not so sure. As we peel back the layers, we find that our theology and practices don’t always align with this concept. Some women experience discrimination even within our own buildings–in teachings and relationships and conversations and attitudes. The church needs feminism. Not at its surface, but at its core. Otherwise, we risk a discrimination that is emotionally, spiritually, and bodily dangerous to women.
Whatever is behind our initial reactions to these words, we should come to the table with open hearts because there are stories waiting to be told and experiences waiting to be heard.
Deconstructing the Problem
It has taken me several years to put into words my experience as a woman in the church. C.S. Lewis puts it best:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.
I like this quote because it highlights a very real truth: Intention doesn’t matter if the result is harmful.
I am part of an online group that allows women to share their experiences within the Body, and the common theme is one of silence. Whether it is an outright silencing from others telling them they can’t do something, or an innate silencing from expectations and roles that keep women “in their place,” there seems to be a damaging trend of devaluing and dismissing the Spirit within them.
This silencing is dangerous because it sets up a power differential: there are some people whose voices matter more than others. In a community, that creates spaces for abusers to step in. No matter how good our intentions, if our churches aren’t safe, then we’ve got a big problem.
How does this silencing manifest itself? When we tell a woman that she can’t preach or teach or be outspoken or wear certain clothes or stand on the stage or lead prayers or stray from the kitchen and nursery, we run the risk of denying her dignity and worth. Internally, she begins to believe that her desires are wrong. She questions her calling and her relationship with God. She hears the continuous criticism of who she wants to be, and she decides that she must be broken. By silencing her voice and her desires and her call, we tell her that her voice isn’t the one we care about. We tell her that, really, God doesn’t care about it either.
I’m not necessarily talking about women’s roles–I’ll leave that discussion with someone else. What I am talking about is the acknowledgment that women share equal dignity and worth with men. Do our churches embrace this idea?
Our society has informed our attitudes and beliefs about women. Sexism exists in the form of discrimination and prejudice against women. It promotes the belief that man is superior to woman. It oppresses and dominates, and tends to relegate women to the side.
Our core beliefs about how women are made, who women are supposed to be, and how women are required to live out their faith can be infected by this sexism. And these beliefs don’t only affect women, but also men. Sexism affects our conceptions of each other, sometimes without us even noticing.
Many of our conversations about women contain some pre-conceived notions of who women are or who we think women are supposed to be. When we refuse to re-examine our core beliefs, we risk ostracizing half the church.
It’s important to understand where these core beliefs come from.
(This is Part 1 in a multi-part series. Part 2 will examine how sexism in our churches has traditionally been protected through the misuse of Scripture.)
Kaitlin Shetler received her bachelor’s degree in social work from Harding University in 2009 and her master’s degree in social work from the University of Tennessee in 2010. She currently serves as the director of the ACCESS Ability program at Lipscomb University and is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW). Kaitlin has over twelve years experience working with at-risk populations, including survivors of domestic abuse, older adults, and the disabled. She lives in Hermitage, TN, with her brilliant husband and sweet baby girl and attends Hermitage Church of Christ, a community that has welcomed her with open arms and little to no eye rolling. Her passion is working alongside people to better the church and the world through advocacy, service, and dismantling oppressive systems. She often speaks and writes on feminism, abuse, disability, race, and sexual assault within church contexts.