Why I am a Feminist and an Egalitarian (And Why They Aren’t the Same Thing)

Kate Wallace Nunneley

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Feminism vs Egalitarianism

I am both a feminist and a biblical egalitarian.  These two are not the same. In fact, I believe that they are very different.  I also believe that they are both needed.

Feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.”  Considering the gender imbalance in governance, the stats on gender-based violence, the gender wage gap, and the fact that until the rise of feminism around the world women were not considered full human beings by their governments, the need for feminism in the world is not hard to recognize.

Egalitarianism is a theological standpoint that the Bible when translated and interpreted correctly, teaches the full equality of men and women.  Egalitarians believe that in Genesis, man and woman were both created in the image of God.  We also believe that patriarchy and gender roles were not a part of God’s original design for humanity but were a direct result of sin, as they are not mentioned in the creation account until after sin is introduced (Genesis 3).  Because Jesus’ death and resurrection freed us from the results of sin and restored our relationship to God and to one another (Romans 6 & 8:1-2), egalitarians believe that there is no hierarchy between humans in God’s Kingdom.  As a result, egalitarians conclude that women and men are meant to serve together equally in the Church and to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph 5:21).

Both feminism and egalitarianism resist patriarchy as a corrupt and abusive system, but they do so in different ways and for different purposes: where feminism fights for equal rights, egalitarianism advocates for “equal access to servanthood”.

We need feminism outside the Church to fight for women’s rights.

We need egalitarianism inside the Church to advocate for mutual servanthood.

The “Feminist Muscle”

Last summer I spent a week house-sitting for some friends in Dana Point, California. One day, as I was leaving the local Trader Joe’s, I walked to my car and an older man pulled up in the spot next to me.  As he stepped out of his sleek new BMW, he winked at me and started to make small talk.  I simply smiled at him as I put my groceries in my car.  He proceeded to tell me that he was a very wealthy man and that there was nothing he couldn’t buy.  I closed my trunk and began walking to the driver’s side door, putting my car in between us.

Then he said it.

“I could give you a good time tonight. Have you ever been with an older man?”

My blood boiled. My first instinct was to ignore him. I mean, if I ignored him I could pretend it didn’t happen and could try to continue my day without feeling violated. Then my “feminist muscle” kicked in and I said, “I pity you because real men don’t have to buy women”. Then I got in my car, locked the doors, and drove away.

Street Harassment

Every woman goes through this. You walk down the street and someone yells at you from a car. You go into a store, or wait in line at a coffee shop, or order a drink at a bar and a man stares unashamedly at your body.  It is just one manifestation of patriarchy in our culture that women have to deal with every day. It is called “street harassment,” and it is a big problem (see the Everyday Sexism Project).

I have talked to some of my male friends about my experiences with street harassment. Most of them are great about it.  They try to envision how it must feel to be in those situations, and they express sympathy for me and frustration with their fellow men.  But some of my guy friends tell me that this behavior is a compliment.  They say I should be thankful for it because it means I am attractive.

As if that was my goal in life.  As if my value was tied to some arbitrary standard of female beauty.

The world needs feminism because patriarchy – a social system that implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and is dependent on female subordination – has taught us that the subjugation, objectification, and abuse of women is socially acceptable.

Obviously, this mindset is problematic, but it is not only my non-Christian friends who have said this to me. Some of my male Christian friends have expressed it as well. The sad truth is that sexism is not left at the church door; it gets dragged in with all of our other baggage.

Sanctuary Harassment

The results of patriarchy are seen outside the Church and they are seen inside of it. It looks different in both places of course, but it is still there.  Some Christians have wrapped patriarchy up in a pretty little package and labeled it “complementarianism,” but that doesn’t mean that the effects are any less devastating.  Nice patriarchy is still patriarchy; both advocate for male-only leadership and both rely on female subordination. Prominent Christian voices are frequently quoted making claims like:

“God has made Christianity to have a masculine feel. He has ordained for the church a masculine ministry.(1)

“…there are women who are discontent with their God-given role and they seek to reach a place of prominence of teaching and to take authority over the men… Nowhere in the New Testament is any woman ever presented in any such office or role as a teacher in the Church.”(2)

If you are a wife, you were created…a helper suited to the needs of a man… it is your purpose for existing…You were created to make him complete, not to seek personal fulfillment parallel to him.”(3)

We are called as women to affirm and encourage men as they seek to express godly masculinity and to honor and support God-ordained male leadership in the home and church.“(4)

Some people do not believe that this patriarchal gospel is harmful. They do not see any sexist behavior in their churches or in any Christian communities they are involved in.  But women see it.  Women experience it.  I call it “sanctuary harassment”.  It happens when a church or Christian community (a sanctuary), turns into a hostile environment due to sexism.  Need an example?  I met a woman last week who told me that, because of her church’s complementarian understanding of scripture, the women in her church have to sit at the back.

Let me make this clearer: in her church, people are segregated based on their gender.

These messages preach a system that is antithetical to Christ’s own teaching that there will be no hierarchy among His people (Matt. 20:20-28).  We need egalitarianism because the Church was never meant to be patriarchal.

The “Egalitarian Muscle”

Last week I volunteered at The American Association of Christian Counselors conference in Nashville.  It was impressive to see so many Christian counselors in one place.  I am not a counselor, but I went to help an author sell his most recent book. As I was standing at the table selling these books, a man came up to me.  He handed me his money and I handed him his book.  He didn’t leave right away so I looked up at him and thanked him for buying it.

Then he said it.

“You know, my daughter keeps telling me I need to find a new Christian wife.  Are you selling anything else tonight?”

I thought about ignoring the question.  If I laughed it off it would all go away without a scene, right?  Then my “egalitarian muscle” kicked in.  “I know you are not trying to be disrespectful,” I said, “but that is incredibly inappropriate.”  He laughed like it was no big deal and said it was a joke.  I told him it wasn’t funny.  When he continued to ask me what I was doing after the conference, I asked him to leave.

Living Out The Kingdom of Heaven

We must challenge patriarchal messages like these.  They are a result of misunderstood theology, and not a reflection of God’s design for His people.  They are dangerous because they support a mindset that men are dominant and women are passive; that men are leaders and women are followers; that men are substantive and women are decorative; that men are consumers and women are commodities.

I am both a feminist and an egalitarian, but I am a temporary feminist and an eternal egalitarian.

I am a feminist today because I believe we need to fight for the rights of Saudi Women, speak out against the killing of baby girls, and continue to strive for equality of women around the world. 

As a Christian I know that when Christ comes back, there will be no need for feminism, because in His Kingdom all are equal at the foot of the cross (Gal. 3:28). I am enduringly egalitarian because I strive to live out the Kingdom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven, and as it will be in eternity

Let us all strive to restore God’s original design for humanity.

Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

———————————

 

(1) Taken from Patheos
(2) Taken from Apprising Ministries
(3) Excerpt from the book “Created to be His HelpMeet” by Debi Pearl
(4) Excerpt from “The True Woman Manifesto

Graphic designed by Kate Hickman.

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35 Comments

  • Although Genesis 1 – 3 do not mention male authority or leadership prior to the fall, later scriptural passages do support the idea of male leadership (even prior to the fall). Romans 5:12-14 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 both place the blame on Adam as the cause of sin entering the world. The Genesis text clearly states that Eve is the one who ate first. How then can Adam be the source of sin entering the world unless before the fall it was his responsibility to lead.

    Isn’t it wrong to ignore Scripture that clearly supports male leadership in the home just because it obviously does not support a 100% egalitarian viewpoint (read Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3). If we say the passage about wives submitting to their husbands is not relevant, then we must also conclude that children do not need to obey their parents. When we choose to ignore Scripture because we don’t like what it says, Scripture in its entirety becomes irrelevant.

    I strongly believe that we are equal before the Lord. But this does not mean that we have equal roles. Men are not more saved than women nor are they more or less important in the Kingdom, but if the Bible says anything about roles, it is that God Himself has designated a distinction. As a husband, I am commanded by Scripture to love my wife as Christ loves the Church. That means that I put my interests aside for her. So I do the cooking and help clean and raise the kids.

  • Thank you so much for writing this! I’m twenty-one and a Christian, but was not raised in the church or in a Christian family. For many years I have struggled (and still continue to struggle) with gender roles in the church and the concept of “submission.” I cringe when I hear well-known megachurch pastors proclaim what is “Biblical” and ultimately makes me afraid to date, or even be around Christian men. I fear that if and when I do get married, it will just end up being one big power struggle.

    And while I have not experienced harassment in the church, I certainly have when it comes to just walking around my college campus. My friends and I like to go dancing and there was a recent incident where a guy tried to touch me innapropriately; I was able to get away from the guy (thankfully) but the rest of the night I kept wondering why I have trouble sticking up for myself. I want to be Christ-like in these situations, but I also want to make it clear that unwanted attention and taking advantage of people (in whatever form in may be given) is not OK.

    Again, thank you and God Bless!

    Alyx

    • Alyx, I am sorry to hear about your struggle with gender roles in the Church. It is not an easy struggle, and it is one that is met with hostility many times.
      I am also sorry to hear about that guy touching you inappropriately. It is absolutely not ok for someone to touch you like that. Women’s bodies are NOT public property!
      I have to say that I too am figuring out what the most Christ-like way to respond to this kind of behavior is. How does Christ in me influence those situations? I am still figuring that out, but I think part of it is leaning on the strength of God to stand up to it. To fight injustice feels strange when it is standing up for yourself, but I think that is ok. I also think that if we do speak up, we just may be helping other women in the process. They will either see us doing it and have courage, or the perpetrator will think twice before doing it next time. Always trust your instincts in judging the safety of the situation though. When confronting such engrained behavior, sometimes we get the brunt of the backlash. We are all in this together and I stand with you 🙂

  • I really do respect your thoughts in this article. One question I would ask though is, how is your first example of street harassment (the man at Trader Joe’s) different from your example of sanctuary harassment (the man who bought a book). Your definition of sanctuary harassment seems to be more or less the advocation of male-only leadership and female subordination, which is fine. But to me, the man who bought the book acted with such behavior not because he advocated male leadership and female subordination, but because he was just like the man at trader joe’s and had little to no respect for women in general. Your thoughts?

    • Hi Jen,
      Thank you for your comment! Your observations are great and allow me to bring clarity to my writing. Thank you for that!
      To clarify, I do not think the two examples are different, except for the fact that one takes place in a secular setting and one takes place in a Christian setting. I was trying to explain that patriarchy exists outside and inside the Church. It can sometimes be expressed in different ways (the media’s degradation of women, for example, vs the outright teaching that patriarchy is “God-ordained”) but the resulting behavior can be very similar, like the two examples I gave from my own experience. I should have clarified that I believe that the man in the second example was acting out of an understanding that men are consumers and women are commodities, and that this understanding is perpetuated by patriarchal teaching in the Church. In the blog, I use the term “sanctuary harassment” in a broad sense to cover both the patriarchal teaching of female subordination to men, and the resulting behavior by individuals. I hope that helps clarify things a bit. If not, please let me know 🙂

  • I have also experienced his “sanctuary harassment.” It was so overtly sexual that it was nearly criminal, but in my naïveté, I figured out how it could have been my fault. I passed this naïveté on to my children. I hope they learn to fight their battles better than I have. Your voice is so hopeful and soothing for my heart. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • K., it is definitely a learning process. I am still figuring out how I want to respond to these kinds of situations, and I feel for you. Don’t be too hard on yourself. It is really hard to be in those situations. I think the more we talk about it, the more others feel like they can stand up too 🙂 Thank you for your comment!

  • this is so perfect!

    “I am a temporary feminist and an eternal egalitarian.”
    ^^stealing this from now on.

  • First off, thank you so much for your voice! I have experienced both of these scenarios and worse, throughout my life. A little over ten years ago I discovered CBE and it was like a wellspring of life to me, like the living water that Jesus gave to the Samaritan woman. I left the organized church at that time in my life and except for an occasional visit to appease my husband, I have no intention of returning. I do miss leading the body in worship as a singer/musician but I guess I’m saving that for eternity.

    I am fully egalitarian and fully feminist but I am grieved that I have to struggle with the use of the “feminist” term in both Christian and secular circles. The Christians assume that I hate men and am rebellious, even implying that I must not really be saved. And the secular world and many Christians too, assume that I support the homosexual equality movement which attaches itself to the overall feminist/equality movement. I grew up in a somewhat Catholic home with the secret of homosexuality alive and thriving. Like any other sin, I understand the struggle, the addiction, and the pain that goes along with choosing to be out of God’s design. Most often unless I am in a one-on-one situation I choose to be silent on the subject which has become rather militant.

    Please be encouraged and keep speaking for yourself and so many who are ill-equipped or simply afraid to speak for themselves.

    • Yvonne,
      I am so sorry that you have dealt with such hardship! Many women are hurt by the Church over these issues and they are leaving. Have you ever read Jim Henderson’s “The Resignation of Eve”? It is a great book that really dives deep into this and shows that, despite claims that men are leaving the church in droves, stats actually show that women are the most significant group leaving, not men. I found a lot of healing in that book, just hearing other women’s stories and reading stats that show that I am not alone. I would highly recommend it. Also, you are always welcome here and we are so glad to have you as a member of this community 🙂

      Kate

      • thank you Kate for your reply. i will definitely take a look at the book you recommended. and thank you for the welcome. i’m glad to find a community of likemindedness.

        Agape!

  • Kate,

    I really appreciated your article. I find the frank truth of it to be refreshing, as well as a stark reminder of how much I still have to learn. I grew up in an extremely conservative, anti-feminist, complimentarian environment both within my family, social, and church circles. I have often experienced both street and sanctuary harassment, and would like to learn how to respond better, as I have often been guilty of responding with quiet shame and embarrassment trying to desperately ignore it, or believed the misguided male attempts to tell me this kind of attention is some twisted form of a compliment. I have only really started to educate myself and work at coming out of the excessive amounts of baggage that came with this background in the past 3-4 years.
    I have two questions. My first was if you have any books to recommend reading on the feminist side, particularly with helping understand both it’s history and purpose given I only ever heard an extremely negative, and largely ignorant point of view. I have found the CBE website and resources through Junia Project to be greatly helpful in finding resources on biblical egalitarianism. However when it comes to better understanding Feminism and my research so far, for someone as undereducated as I am on the subject it’s a little overwhelming to know where to start. I’m currently in the middle of reading the Feminine Mystique and Half the Sky, but would love some more references.

    My second is what advice do you have to offer for responding to both types of harassment. I find that my surroundings now put me more in contact with the first than the second, given I live on a US military base with my husband in Japan. The military community is a strange one in that women have made considerable strides in its workforce, but as a culture it still largely promotes a patriarchal mindset. One only need follow the news to see the issues we’ve had with sexual harassment on all levels. My husband is currently the active duty member, but I am actually in the process of looking into joining myself, so I am trying to learn how to navigate these waters as a spouse but also prepare for how to respond as a potential coworker myself. In the military, career women tend to fall into two categories with very few exceptions. One would be extremely vocal feminists who alienate themselves from their male counterparts in their efforts to prove they are “just as good.” Two would be the women striving to be “one of the guys” who are hesitant to stand up against culturally accepted sexist behavior and comments in their efforts to build good working relationships and sadly end up tolerating it, if not joining in it. From my limited experience so far there are few exceptions to this rule.

    Anyways, sorry this comment has gotten rather long, I just am greatly interested in learning how to improve myself both as a woman in secular circles, as well as learn how to be an example as a Christian woman around my friends, family, and fellow believers.

    Thank you for your input and encouraging message!

    • Hello and thank you so much for your vulnerable and honest comment. I am sorry to hear that you have gone through both sanctuary and street harassment. It can be very hard to deal with and often stays with you. I truly feel for you!
      To your first question – I am so glad you found CBE. They are an invaluable resource! I am also glad that you are reading through Half the Sky and The Feminine Mystique. Those are very good and very informative. I have found that they are also pretty sad though and can be hard to take in large doses. (Some other classics that you are probably aware of would be A Room of One’s Own and The Second Sex.)

      Aside from the classics, Oxford University Press has come out with a fantastic series of books called “A Very Short Introduction Series”. The one on feminism does a great job exploring the history of the feminist movement in the West (and surprise, there are Christian origins!). I highly recommend this book. It is scholarly and easy to understand at the same time. Please send me an email on the contact page and I will send you some others!
      http://www.amazon.com/Feminism-Short-Introduction-Margaret-Walters/dp/019280510X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1380935054&sr=1-1&keywords=very+short+introduction+feminism

      To your second question – I am still trying to figure out how I want to respond to harassment, and so am not sure what to say. I guess, first, in the Church I try to deal with sexist comments in a nicer way – I will say that the comment is inappropriate and/or will ask a question like “Do you know that when you say that, it makes women feel_____?” or will say “I’m sorry you think that it is ok to talk to another child of God that way. That makes me really sad”. I believe it is important to say something, but I also want to be aware that, for many men, they are not saying these things because they are bad people, they are saying them because they have been brought up in a horribly patriarchal culture.That being said, they still need to unlearn the behavior. That is why I choose to say something in Christian settings. In secular settings, I play it more by ear. If the situation feel unsafe, I may hurry out of there without saying anything, because it may just be a bad situation all together. Other times, I will respond with something like “I don’t exist for you”. It is simple, not mean, and addresses the underlying problem. BUT when confronting a system of behavior that is so engrained, we have to be careful because it may cause them to lash out in word or in deed. Please be careful and know your surroundings.
      You are in a very hard spot in the military. You are right, it is an extremely patriarchal culture and has been known to be very violent against women. I would say, be ready to defend yourself physically, and do some research to find out how to report sexual assault in the military. I believe the military has its own resources for its specific situation, but I am not familiar with them here are a few to check out:
      http://www.afpc.af.mil/library/sapr/index.asp
      https://www.safehelpline.org/?gclid=CNfz-6fI_rkCFbCDQgod_S4A4Q
      http://www.militaryonesource.mil/sexual-assault
      http://www.militaryonesource.mil/sexual-assault?content_id=266975

      I am sorry that I am not much help. I wish I could help more! Please contact me through the contact page and we can chat or email about some other books/ articles and to brainstorm about ways to respond.

      Thank you again for your comment!

  • Thank you so much! This is a whole new perspective for me. I have always questioned and cringed when I hear the way women are talked about and classified in the church, but always thought that it was me being prideful. But over time I have come to the realization that women are equal to men, and that I shouldn’t be ashamed of these thoughts, because they too are Gods thoughts.

    • Amen and well put Dalia! No need to be ashamed of those thoughts, especially at The Junia Project! I am glad you are a part of this community!

  • When I finished the article, with tears in my eyes, I felt like standing and applauding. Thank you for your words.

    • Oh my goodness Bob, thank you for your encouragement! I’m glad you enjoyed it and I am glad we are partnering together on The Junia Project!

  • Kate, this is so well-written and well-reasoned. Thank you for the thoughtfulness you put into your posts. This is the world I lived in and suffered through both at church and at work — and in public places — all of my life. My PhD dissertation and all its attendant research was about uncovering sexism in the church and how that related to the evangelical academy. Christianity Today published a short article about my research and later told me they received more hate mail about that article than any other article they’d ever published. That was 1997.

    Keep your feminist and egalitarian muscles strong. You are a courageous, brilliant woman. We need your voice.

    • Wow, thank you so much. I am so glad to be doing this journey with amazing people like you! Thank you!

  • Kate,
    This is was an excellent and powerful post. You helped articulate our need to step out of comfort zones and into courageous and respectful confrontation when we are being oppressed or others are being oppressed around us. What great examples you give for both feminism and egalitarianism! I am turning 55 this year and am just beginning to be able to give voice to these issues and to take appropriate action, even when it may mean making others uncomfortable. I so appreciate that the Junia Project is influencing many young women and men towards having this kind of awareness and taking just action throughout their lives! Thank you, thank you!
    Stephanie

    • Stephanie, Thank you for being such an amazing support! Keep up the good work and let us know if we can help in any way!

  • Wow! This is one of my favorite posts yet! So many great quotes. I am a feminist and an Biblical egalitarian. One thing I have noticed or sort of inherently felt is that some people just want to be labeled egalitarian, and that is fine I would never purport to tell someone what they should label themselves especially when the impressions these labels give are constantly changing and we’re probably trying to change their perceptions often ourselves. The thing that I wanted to point out though, and it could just be all in my head, is that feminist thought processes seem to be more open to egalitarians and all that they entail and want to represent, while egalitarians on seldom occasions want to push away from associations with feminism because they perceive it as selfish, worldly or cold-hearted man haters. I just sense that some people who just use the egalitarian label and push away from feminism are drawing divisions. I just would love to see those divisions go away because I do feel they are partly from misconceptions of feminism. I do fully understand that they are different and have different goals I just wish they would draw on each other more often as you seem to be representing so beautifully in this post.

    What do you think it is that would cause an Biblical egalitarian not to want to identify as a feminist? Also, what would make a feminist (christian) not want to identify with the Biblical egalitarian label?

    The reason I ask is because I identify so strongly with them both and even though they have different purposes and goals, I can’t see why one would not want to identify with the other besides the perceived selfishness of feminism.

    • Thank you for such a great comment! You present excellent questions!

      First, I agree that many egalitarians do not want to identify as feminists. There are so many reasons for this, but the main one seems to be the overall view of feminism as negative and worldly. Although this can be true about feminism, I think it mostly stems out of misunderstanding. I know I was never educated about the feminist movement in school before college, and I wouldn’t have known enough to want to identify myself as a feminist. Education about the historical and social movement could be helpful in ending the negative views of feminism.

      Second, in this third wave feminism, more issues than female equality are being addressed. Not many egalitarians are addressing these other issues, mostly because they don’t have much or anything to do with equality between men and women, especially in theology. Because egalitarians are not addressing these issues, some feminists may not want to take on the label. They will stick with the broader label instead.

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