This month I’ve been wrapping up my summer schoolwork with an independent study of feminist theology, and I have really loved it! My research has been educational, thought-provoking, and personally challenging, which is exactly what I was hoping it would be.
As I have explored the history of feminism and its relationship to Christian theology, I’ve noticed a significant historical trend that includes, but is not limited to, feminism. To give you a little background on what I mean, one of the early criticisms of the feminist movement was its narrow scope. Although feminism sought to achieve equal rights and status for women, the movement was predominantly led by middle class, educated white women. Women of other ethnicities and nationalities consequently felt marginalized by the dominant ideologies of the movement. Although feminism set out to end this kind of social stratification, it unintentionally added to it.
Now before we villainize feminism for this hypocrisy, it is important to point out that feminism is not the first to make a mistake of this kind. Feminism is just one of many movements throughout history that initially marginalized others in its own quest for freedom. Consider the United States’ own history. Our nation is founded on the pillars of freedom and equality, and yet this newly liberated State was built on the backs of oppressed African slaves. White men achieved unprecedented freedom, only to withhold that freedom from women and minorities.
Examples such as these abound. When a group accesses freedom and empowerment, no matter how populist or democratic its initial intentions may be, it is likely to overlook others in need of liberation. In fact, some movements deliberately disadvantage others in order to ensure their own success.
As I studied feminism and reflected on this historical pattern, I began to wonder whether I succumb to the same kind of tunnel vision. Have I ever focused so unflinchingly on a personal cause or call that I forgot about the bigger picture and marginalized others in the process?
I am quite sure that I have. For example, I love teaching and discipling women in the church. I feel called to serve and equip Christian women, and I feel it is incumbent on the church to do the same. However, my passion can easily morph into tunnel vision, especially when Christian women are marginalized by the church. The urgency of this injustice, which is particularly close to my heart, narrows my gaze.
As a result of this tunnel vision, I lose perspective. My determination to advocate for women in the church can eclipse other aspects of the Christian call. I can become so focused on women in the church that I ignore women outside the church who need the love of Christ, or I forget about women around the world who need food, clean water, safety, and medical support.
Whether this tunnel vision is a manifestation of sin or simply the limited capacity of human nature, it is a common temptation that takes many forms. For people like me, ministries in the church draw our attention away from ministries to the world. For others, protecting their family can prevent them from protecting the poor and the weak outside their family. And still others can become so absorbed in evangelism or social justice that they neglect the friends and family closest to them.
To be fair, none of us is called to serve in every area of ministry out there. In fact, God does NOT call us to a degree of over-commitment in which we do everything, but we do it poorly. However, ministry is not a zero sum game in which commitments are mutually exclusive. There are ways that I can serve the women in my church AND serve women outside the church.
In fact, I know women who do just that. In His goodness, God has connected me with women who exemplify the full vision of the Christian life, and here are just a few of them:
- Author Helen Lee recently published the book The Missional Mom
- Activist Shayne Moore published Global Soccer Mom
- Tracey Bianchi equips women for everyday environmental stewardship in Green Mama
- And my friend Margot Starbuck just posted a challenging blog titled “Myopically Mothering My Own as Mission?“
Although each one of these Christian women writes from the particular perspective of motherhood, each sets an example for mothers and non-mothers alike. These women resist the tunnel vision that would monopolize their time and attention, opting instead for a life that reflects the fullness of Christ’s.
These women also remind us that the different spheres of Christian ministry are beautifully complementary: Global outreach gives me patience and perspective at home. As a mother one day, community outreach will model mission-mindedness for my children. And the reality of female oppression worldwide reminds me to be grateful for the equality women enjoy in America.
When understood this way, the multi-faceted Christian call seems less like a list of duties and more like a glimpse of God’s design for humanity. We are meant to be connected to one another, loving one another and serving one another. When we sequester ourselves in one part of ministry or service, we miss out on the fullness of God’s heart for the world. When tunnel vision limits our sight, I suspect it also limits our love.
There is a difference in the vision of one who is part of a “movement” and one who has been discriminated against. The one who has been discriminated against can agree with all tenets of a movement, but their actions must be focused and narrow to overcome the discrimination. I am a member of the white, middle class women who “led the movement”. White, middle class women led the movement because we were being discriminated against. In my first job out of college, I worked with seven men and was constantly pointed out as being different – “this is our woman” –accompanied by a laugh or admonition to watch your language. As offensive as this was, it was nothing compared to later being denied ordination in a large mainline denomination because I was a woman and “men need these pastorates to support their families”. I grew up knowing woman clergy, the denomination supported ordination of women on paper and I was totally blindsided. Every step I took from then on was aimed at my personal goal of overcoming this prejudice for myself, but with the hope of making the way easier for others. It was narrow and focused from necessity. I tell my story as a caution against applying today’s environment, mores and understanding against those of just twenty years ago, let alone forty years or more. You are looking at the issue from one viewpoint, while those who first brought awareness to the issue were looking at it from a totally different view. I respectfully submit that both views are biblical and necessary and that in God’s own time balance will ensue and no one will be left out from God’s reign.
Charlene, thank you for sharing your story. I am so sorry you have had to endure such discrimination and I am grateful for women like you who labored to change our culture for my generation.
My intention here was not to criticize the feminist movement as being inherently hypocritical, or that women who fought discrimination on a personal level were doing so selfishly or misguidedly. Quite to the contrary, our county needed change desperately and we needed women like you to take a stand against it. My point here was to demonstrate that, in general, even when the cause is good and important and URGENT, it is still possible to have blind spots. Even when we are victims we are still sinners capable of hurting others, and we still bear responsibility for that sin.
I am quite sure that most women did NOT intend to marginalize others in their fight for equal status. Their work was important and necessary, so PLEASE do not hear me as making that criticism. Even so, women my age would be foolish and arrogant not to learn from the strengths AND the weaknesses of the women who went before us. I mean this with all sincerity when I say that I am grateful for the hindsight of both.
Sharon! Such a timely post for me. Just today, after worship a young guy (whose comment I asked for) shared with me his opinion on women in leadership. I preach and teach regularly in my congregation and he was of the opinion that more of his friends would attend our church if women were not involved in the leadership. We are a congregation that affirms and recognizes the role of women in leadership, which is super freeing. It’s usually a non-issue for us. But rather than celebrate that reality I have spent the better mental part of this day unpacking this particular conversation, trying to avoid unnecessary anger yet wanting, honestly, to sit this guy down and “preach” it up to him about why I think he is so very, very wrong. This guy is a great participant in our community, honest, genuine, and he gives a lot to the community. And suddenly I found myself wanting to discredit his contributions because of his particular stand on women. It is so hard to find the balance. Because, on one hand, he did happen to discredit me. But as a leader in this community what is my role here? What am I to say and do? How does my anger devalue our community? I fear I am making little sense but this was just so timely. I am so narrowly focused that it took a few hours to calm myself and see the bigger picture, the wide contribution this young man makes to our community. Even if we do not see eye to eye on my own role in that community. Great reminder.
Tracey, I am so sorry that happened to you! That really stinks. I know exactly what you mean about your thoughts becoming consumed when you face that kind of criticism. In those moments of anger and hurt it is so easy to sin.
I like what you said about thinking through your role as a community leader in that situation. That kind of perspective challenges you to think about where this young man is in his own personal faith journey and how best to serve and minister to him, rather than simply stewing or lashing out. For me, it’s really helpful to reflect on questions like “Why would he make that statement? What sort of theology and beliefs about the church are behind that statement? What cultural influences are shaping him?” Those questions are so important, but I have trouble getting to them when I sit in my anger.
I hope God gives you peace and wisdom as you continue to process that experience!