What are women free to do?
I’ve been thinking about that question a lot lately. Depending on where you’re standing, this question can sound like a loaded one. For some, it is a political question. For others, an ecclesiological one. I have been thinking about it from a different angle altogether.
Over the last few weeks I have been studying freedom from a philosophical perspective. As much as we talk about freedom in this country, it’s a very complex issue that means different things to different people. In fact, I would argue that the American understanding of freedom is somewhat different from the Christian understanding of it. But I have also been thinking about freedom as it relates to women in the church. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the purpose of women’s ministry, and what it means when women in the church are truly free.
Amidst my research thus far, one idea that has really captured my imagination is that of negative and positive freedom. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these two concepts, they can be summarized as follows:
Negative freedom = freedom from. It is freedom from external restraint, such as freedom from an oppressive government, freedom from slavery, or freedom from an abusive relationship. It is essentially about freedom of opportunity.
Positive freedom = freedom to. This kind of freedom has a more internal component to it. It characterizes an inner freedom that manifests itself in free action. For instance, Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor used the example of someone who is so paralyzed by a fear of breaking with the norm that his actions always conform to the status quo, rather than reflecting his authentic self. Such a person might possess negative freedom, but he does not possess positive freedom.
Both negative and positive freedom are important for Christians. By advocating for the victims of oppression–whether the oppression is overt or subtly systemic–we demonstrate signs of God’s good Kingdom. Likewise, Christians also emphasize positive freedom. In Christ, we press beyond the liberation from external restraints to a liberation from fear, insecurity, or hate.
In the realm of women’s ministry, both types of freedom are valued and promoted. We could be doing much more on both fronts, and there are still some major issues that have yet to be confronted, but women in the church are undoubtedly finding freedom from both external and internal oppressors. That work is happening, and we need to continue it.
Which leads me to my main point. As much as we talk about freedom for women, as many books out there encourage freedom from legalism or shame, there is an action component to positive freedom that I fear we have missed. Positive freedom is not merely an internal version of negative freedom. It is not just another type of freedom from. Rather, there is an operative function, whereby women do something with their freedom.
This leads us back to the heart of my opening question. For me, the emphasis in the question is not on the “what” but on the “do.” Now that you are free, what are you doing with that freedom? How are you using your freedom to serve God? Are you using that freedom from shame to live a comfortable existence, or to run full steam after God? Now that you are free from the expectation that your house and hair must always look perfect, how are you using that extra time to serve your church, your community, or the world?
In addition to asking that question of ourselves, women need to ask that question of their women’s ministries as well: What is the point of women’s ministry? Does it simply exist to help women be free from pain? That is a worthy and crucial function, but it is also too small. The ultimate goal for women should not be passive freedom, but an active freedom that changes the world for God.
I will close with a passage from Hebrews to which I have already alluded. These verses are especially relevant because of what the author does with his freedom. He throws off everything that entangles for the purpose of running harder and faster toward the goal. It is also worth noting that the goal is not himself–it is not comfort or even healing, but Christ. That is, ultimately, why we cast off hindrances–to live a life defined by an all-out pursuit of Jesus.
Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
– Hebrews 12:1-2