A freedom song for the church.
Sarah Bessey didn’t ask for Jesus to come in and mess up all her ideas about a woman’s place in the world and in the church. But patriarchy, she came to learn, was not God’s dream for humanity.
Bessey engages critically with Scripture in this gentle and provocative love letter to the Church. Written with poetic rhythm, a prophetic voice, and a deeply biblical foundation, this loving yet fearless book urges today’s church to move beyond man-made restrictions and fully welcome women’s diverse voices and experiences.
It’s at once a call to find freedom in the fullness, hope, glory, and work of Christ, and a very personal and moving story of how Jesus made a feminist out of her.
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Jesus Feminist CHAPTER ONE Jesus Made a Feminist Out of Me
Jesus made a feminist out of me.
I can’t make apologies for it, even though I know that Jesus plus feminist might be the one label that could alienate almost everyone. I understand that—I do.
I know feminism carries a lot of baggage, particularly within the evangelical church. There are the stereotypes: shrill killjoys, man-haters, and rabid abortion-pushers, extreme lesbians, terrifying some of us on cable news programs, deriding motherhood and homemaking. Feminism has been blamed for the breakdown of the nuclear family, day care, physical and sexual abuse, hurricanes, the downfall of “real manhood,” the decline of the Christian Church in Western society, and spectacularly bad television. Most of what has passed for a description of feminism is fearmongering misinformation.
In some circles, using the word feminist is the equivalent of an f-bomb dropped in church—outrageous, offensive. It’s likely some people saw this book sitting on the shelf and figured they knew what sort of author was behind the words written here: a bitter man-hater arguing that men and women had no discernable differences, a ferocious and humorless woman, perhaps, and so it’s no wonder they reacted at the sight of Jesus alongside feminist like someone had raked long fingernails across a chalkboard. Who could blame them with the lines we’ve been fed about feminists for so long?
It’s a risk to use the word feminism here in this book—I know. But it’s a risk I’d like you to take with me. Me? I like the word feminist, even if it worries people or causes a bit of pearl clutching. The word feminist does not frighten or offend me: in fact, I’d like to see the Church (re)claim it.
Some people think the concept of a Christian feminist is a misnomer, an embarrassing and misguided capitulation to our secular culture. It might surprise antifeminists and anti-Christians equally to know that feminism’s roots are tangled up with the strong Christian women’s commitments to the temperance movement, suffragist movements, and in America and England in particular, the abolitionist movements of the nineteenth century.1 There is a rich tradition of pro-life feminism, which continues today.2 Christian feminism predates the works of second- and third-wave secular feminist writers, such as Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, Rebecca Walker, and Naomi Wolf. Feminism is complicated and it varies for each person, much like Christianity. It’s not necessary to subscribe to all the diverse—and contrary—opinions within feminism to call oneself a feminist.
Feminism gained popularity as a result of “secular” work and scholarship, but the line between sacred and secular is man-made. Because God is the source of truth, Christians can still give thanks to God for the good works associated with feminism, such as the gaining of status for women as “persons” under the law, voting, owning property, and defending themselves in a court of law against domestic violence and rape. As Canadian theologian Dr. John G. Stackhouse Jr. says, “Christian feminists can celebrate any sort of feminism that brings more justice and human flourishing to the world, no matter who is bringing it, since we recognize the hand of God in all that is good.”3 Modern Christian feminism is alive and well, from social justice movements to seminaries and churches to suburban living rooms, worldwide.
At the core, feminism simply consists of the radical notion that women are people, too. Feminism only means we champion the dignity, rights, responsibilities, and glories of women as equal in importance—not greater than, but certainly not less than—to those of men, and we refuse discrimination against women.4
Several years ago, when I began to refer to myself as a feminist, a few Christians raised their eyebrows and asked, “What kind of feminist exactly?” Off the top of my head, I laughed and said, “Oh, a Jesus feminist!” It stuck, in a cheeky sort of way, and now I call myself a Jesus feminist because to me, the qualifier means I am a feminist precisely because of my lifelong commitment to Jesus and his Way.
PATRIARCHY IS NOT God’s dream for humanity.
I’ll say that again, louder, and I’ll stand up beside our small bonfire and shout it out loud. I’ll scare the starfish and the powerful alike: patriarchy is not God’s dream for humanity. It never was; it never will be.
Instead, in Christ, and because of Christ, we are invited to participate in the Kingdom of God through redemptive movement—for both men and women—toward equality and freedom. We can choose to move with God, further into justice and wholeness, or we can choose to prop up the world’s dead systems, baptizing injustice and power in sacred language. Feminism is just one way to participate in this redemptive movement.
In the context of our conversation here, two common labels used regarding the roles and voices of women in the church today, for better or for worse, are egalitarian and complementarian.
In general, according to theologian Carolyn Custis James, egalitarians “believe that leadership is not determined by gender but by the gifting and calling of the Holy Spirit, and that God calls all believers to submit to one another.” In contrast, complementarians “believe the Bible establishes male authority over women, making male leadership the biblical standard.”5
Both sides can treat the Bible like a weapon. On both sides, there are extremists and dogmatists. We attempt to outdo each other with proof texts and apologetics, and I’ve heard it said that there is no more hateful person than a Christian who thinks you’ve got your theology wrong. In our hunger to be right, we memorize arguments, ready to spit them out at a moment’s notice. Sadly, we reduce each other, brothers and sisters, to straw men arguments, and brand each other “enemies of the gospel.”
I know some people like to poke holes in each other’s arguments, pointing out inconsistencies and trading jabs of verses and scholars and church history like scrappy boxers. Some do this well, with kind skill and mutual respect, and it’s a joy to behold as they learn from each other. Others seem a bit more like mud wrestlers, hanging out on blogs or Facebook comment sections, at boardroom tables or in classrooms, at coffee shops or Christian bookstore shelves, with a lot of outrage—all in an effort to figure out how the other guy is wrong; it’s theology as a fight-to-the-death competition.
And all God’s people said, ”That’s exhausting.”
So could we agree on one quick thing before I keep going? I think the family of God is big and diverse, beautiful and global. So these dogmatic labels, while sometimes useful for discussion in books and classes, aren’t always the right boundaries for a life or a relationship. Most of us live somewhere in the in-between.
Let’s agree, for just a little while anyway, that both sides are probably wrong and right in some ways. I’m probably wrong, you’re probably wrong, and the opposite is true, because we still see through a glass, darkly.6 I want to approach the mysteries of God and the unique experiences of humanity with wonder and humility and a listener’s heart.
I have tried to stop caring about the big dustups between complementarians and egalitarians. I’m pretty sure my purpose here on earth isn’t to win arguments or perform hermeneutical gymnastics to impress the wealthiest 2 percent of the world. I don’t think God is glorified by tightly crafted arguments wielded as weaponry. Besides, I highly doubt this one slim book by a happy-clappy starry-eyed Jesus-loving Canadian mama will put any of this debate to bed when so many scholars and smarter-than-me people continue to debate and argue. That’s not what I’m after.
After years of reading the Gospels and the full canon of Scripture, here is, very simply, what I learned about Jesus and the ladies: he loves us.
He loves us. On our own terms. He treats us as equals to the men around him; he listens; he does not belittle; he honors us; he challenges us; he teaches us; he includes us—calls us all beloved. Gloriously, this flies in the face of the cultural expectations of his time—and even our own time. Scholar David Joel Hamilton calls Jesus’ words and actions toward women “controversial, provocative, even revolutionary.”7
Jesus loves us.
In a time when women were almost silent or invisible in literature, Scripture affirms and celebrates women. Women were a part of Jesus’ teaching, part of his life. Women were there for all of it.
Mary, the mother of God, was a teenage girl in an occupied land when she became pregnant with the Prince of Peace, and as Rachel Held Evans points out, Scripture emphasizes that her worthiness is in her obedience “not to a man, not to a culture, not even to a cause or a religion, but to the creative work of a God who lifts up the humble and fills the hungry with good things.”8
Even Mary’s Magnificat is surprisingly subversive and bold, isn’t it? 9 In the face of evidence to the contrary, she sings how she is blessed, how God lifts up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.
Throughout the records of the Gospels, I saw how Jesus didn’t treat women any differently than men, and I liked that. We weren’t too precious for words, dainty like fine china. We received no free pass or delicate worries about our ability to understand or contribute or work. Women were not too sweet or weak for the conviction of the Holy Spirit, or too manipulative and prone to jealousy, insecurity, and deception to push back the kingdom of darkness. Jesus did not patronize, and he did not condescend.
Just like men, women need redemption. We all need the Cross of Jesus Christ, and we all need to follow him in the Way of life everlasting. In the words and actions of Christ as recorded in Scripture, we see what “neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free” looks like in real, walking-around life.10
During his time on earth, Jesus subverted the social norms dictating how a rabbi spoke to women, to the rich, the powerful, the housewife, the mother-in-law, the despised, the prostitute, the adulteress, the mentally ill and demon possessed, the poor. He spoke to women directly, instead of through their male-headship standards and contrary to the order of the day (and even of some religious sects today).
No, it was just him, incarnation of three-in-one on one. Women were not excluded or exempted from the community of God. Women stood before God on their own soul’s feet, and he called us, gathered us, as his own.
When they threw the woman caught in adultery down into the dust at Jesus’ feet and tried to use her shame to trap him, he leveled the playing field for both sin and marriage. There aren’t too many of us women who don’t imagine ourselves there, exposed, used, defiant or broken—sometimes both—and humiliated. And he, bless his name, restored, forgave, protected, drew a shield of grace around her with his dusty fingertip; and her accusers vanished. “Go,” he said, “and sin no more.”11
When the woman with the issue of blood reached out to touch the hem of his garment, Jesus did not respond with frustration. No, he touched her in return, praised her faith, set her free without recoiling.”12
When Jesus healed the woman who was bent over, he did it in the synagogue, in full view. He called her “daughter of Abraham,” which likely sent a shock wave through the room; it was the first time the phrase had ever been spoken.13 People had only ever heard of “sons of Abraham”—never daughters. But at the sound of Jesus’ words daughter of Abraham, he gave her a place to stand alongside the sons, especially the ones snarling with their sense of ownership and exclusivity over it all, watching. In him, you are part of the family; you always were part of the family.14
When Mary of Bethany sat at his feet, she was in the posture of a rabbinical pupil. Men and women rarely sat together, let alone for religious training, but there she was among them, at his feet. She was formally learning from him, the way the sons of Abraham had always sat—the daughters never had that spot. Even after Martha tried to remind her of her duties and responsibilities to their guests, Jesus defended her right to learn as his disciple; he honored her choice as the better one and said, “It will not be taken away from her.”15
When Mary, the sister of Lazarus, reproached Jesus after her brother’s death, he wept. In fact, he privately taught her one of the central tenets of our faith—the same thing he taught Peter: “I am the resurrection and the life”; this is the rock upon which he builds his church.16 Martha received this teaching, too; she believed him, and where would we be if she hadn’t shared what she heard from the lips of her beloved friend and Savior? 17
When the Samaritan woman at the well met Jesus, he treated her like any other thirsty soul needing the living water.18 She was leading a life that likely generated the hiss of shame and eyes of judgment. She was among the least valued and most dishonored of her day. Yet Jesus engaged her in serious theological discussion; in fact, hers is the longest personal conversation with Jesus ever recorded in Scripture. It was also the first time that the words “I am the Messiah” were spoken from his lips, and she became an evangelist. She told her story. She told of Jesus, and many were saved. When the disciples expressed their surprise at this turn, Jesus was matter-of-fact: this is simply the way of things.
When Jesus finished teaching in a synagogue one day, a woman called out from the audience, “God bless your mother—the womb from which you came, and the breasts that nursed you!” Yet Jesus replied to this common blessing with “But even more blessed are all who hear the word of God and put it into practice.”19 Women aren’t simply or only blessed by giving birth to greatness; no, we are all blessed when we hear the Word of God—Jesus—and put it into practice. We don’t rely on secondhand blessings in Jesus.
We also see seven women in the Gospels described with the Greek verb diakoneo, which means to minister or to serve. It’s “the same one used to describe the ministry of the seven men appointed to leadership in the early church.”20 These women were Peter’s mother-in-law; Mary Magdalene; Mary, the mother of Jesus and Joseph; Salome, the mother of Zebedee’s sons; Joanna, the wife of Chuza; Susanna; and Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus.21
Even though the word of a woman was not considered sufficient proof in court, Mary Magdalene was the first witness of the resurrected Christ and the first preacher of the Resurrection. Jesus commanded her to go tell his brothers, the disciples, that he was returning to “my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Before the male disciples even knew he was breathing, Jesus sent a woman to proclaim the good news: he is risen!22 The last shall be first, again, always.
The women of the gospel narrative ministered to Jesus, and they ministered with him. The lack of women among the twelve disciples isn’t prescriptive or a precedent for exclusion of women any more than the choice of twelve Jewish men excludes Gentile men from leadership.
We can miss the crazy beauty of it because of the lack of fanfare in Scripture. Women were simply there, part of the revolution of love, sometimes unnamed, sometimes in the background, sometimes the receiver, sometimes the giver—just like every other man in Scripture, to be engaged on their own merit in the midst of their own story.
Jesus thinks women are people, too.
Table of Contents
Let Us Be Women Who Love xvii
Introduction: A Bonfire on the Shore 1
Chapter 1 Jesus Made a Feminist Out of Me 11
Chapter 2 A Redemptive Movement 25
Chapter 3 Tangled-Up Roots 33
Chapter 4 The Silent(?) Women of Paul 55
Chapter 5 Dancing Warriors 71
Chapter 6 Patron Saints, Spiritual Midwives, and "Biblical" Womanhood 87
Chapter 7 A Narrative Reborn 105
Chapter 8 Reclaiming the Church Ladies 123
Chapter 9 Moving Mountains One Stone at a Time 139
Chapter 10 Kingdom Come 159
Chapter 11 Intimate Insurgency 177
Chapter 12 The Commissioning 191
A Few Notes 199
Thank You 203
Discussion Questions 207
Further Reading 213