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Was Christ a Feminist?

Daughters of Sarah, a locally produced journal of Christian feminism, takes on hard questions with extraordinary intelligence and open-mindedness.


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When Dulcie Gannett first stepped onto the campus of Fuller Theological Seminary in the fall of 1973, it didn't occur to her that she would ever have any business teaching a man, any man, about Christianity. Raised in a conservative Presbyterian household, she knew little about what was then tagged "women's lib." But she knew plenty about the writing of the apostle Paul: "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent" (I Timothy 2:12). "I had been involved with Campus Crusade for Christ, and it just had never been an issue for me," she recalls. "I didn't want to be an authority over men. I wanted to learn Greek!

"But, you know, everybody's first year in seminary is a strenuous time of self-examination," when even a small slight can cut deep. "When the guys in the dorm across the street said, 'Don't let those women play pool with us,' that was a significant theological statement." She and some friends decided to take a class on popular Christian literature on the role of women and sort these issues out.

"I went into it thinking, if the Bible supports women's subordination, I'll go along with it. Doing the will of God is the most important thing to me." But as she read Larry Christensen's popular book The Christian Family she grew suspicious. "I realized that this [women's subordination] is not a biblical system. Something else has been dumped on top of it."

Half a world away, lifelong Mennonite Reta Halteman Finger was spending the year in Germany with her husband, who was studying there. "I was pretty much cut off from the church at home," she says. That spring a Mennonite acquaintance from the U.S. brought her a pile of back issues of their denominational magazine, Gospel Herald. "A woman I knew had written an article about expanding women's roles. It was an awakening to me. Then I saw that in the issues after that a number of letters responded to her article, some of them very negatively. They said women have a certain role and must stay in it. They used a lot of Scripture, and although it seemed poorly interpreted to me, I was not sure.

"I thought, this is a scary thing. If the New Testament is really negative to a wide variety of women's roles, then I might have to choose between my belief in Christ and who I am as a woman. And how could I not be who I am?"

Perplexed by the same dilemma at the same time, six women, most of them students or faculty wives at North Park Theological Seminary on Chicago's north side, started their own Bible study group. During 1973 and '74 they met in one another's homes at least twice a month for more than just intellectual discussions. "As Christian women," Lucille Sider Groh wrote later, "we desperately wanted to find our faith and our feminism compatible; in this endeavor our very lives were at stake.

"Most feminists in the early seventies declared the church as a key oppressor of women. We were not convinced. We searched scripture and history and were surprised by both." As 1974 drew to a close they decided to share their surprise: that Christianity and feminism were not only compatible, but inseparable. Each member of the group pitched in $5 to print and mail 200 copies of an eight-page newsletter they called Daughters of Sarah. Groh, now a clinical psychologist and director of the Evanston-based Samaritan Pastoral Counseling Center, thought it would be the only issue. "But we got immediate response. We were just stunned. And it's been going ever since."

In that first issue the lead article profiled and quoted Catherine Booth, who preached and taught, and cofounded the Salvation Army. Booth once said, "Jesus Christ's principle was to put women on the same platform as men, although I am sorry to say His apostles did not always act upon it." Groh recalls, "We got away with saying quite a bit," both in the magazine and on the evangelical-college lecture circuit, "because we quoted people like Booth and Phoebe Palmer. We never quoted Gloria Steinem or those folks."

Church historian Nancy Hardesty followed with an analysis of the biblical creation stories. In the first story (Genesis 1:1-2:3), man and woman are created simultaneously in God's image, which in her view "affirms that personhood is prior to gender." The second creation story (Genesis 2:4-25) has God creating Eve second, as a "helper" to Adam. But Hardesty notes that the Hebrew word does not imply that she's his subordinate: "The word is used 21 times in the Old Testament, 16 times of a superior source of help and never of a subordinate."

These are people that Jerry Falwell has stated he believes do not exist ("A Christian feminist to me is like saying, 'a Christian evolutionist' or 'a Christian prostitute.' They are a contradiction in terms"): women who take both the Bible and feminism very seriously, women who believe that Jesus Christ is Lord but that their husbands are not. For almost 19 years, from varying addresses on the north side of Chicago, Daughters of Sarah has served up a readable, unusually diverse mix of stories about history, scriptures, and women's experiences. Today the magazine has 64 pages, about 5,000 subscribers (down from a peak of 6,800 in 1988) and newsstand distribution; it has one full-time and five part-time paid staff members, and an annual budget of somewhere around $130,000. Finger is the editor, Gannett the book-review editor. In the past year Daughters has won awards from both Associated Church Press and Chicago Women in Publishing. On September 1 it will move to offices at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston (2121 Sheridan Road, 708-866-3882).

Lucille Sider Groh left the group in the late 1970s, but she keeps a proud eye on her print child. "One of the things that fascinates me about Daughters of Sarah is that it still exists. When we started there were at least two others like it. They're long gone. We were part of a movement among young people in the evangelical churches responding to the 1960s, saying, 'How do we make this message work and remain faithful to the church?' As far as I know, Daughters of Sarah is the only remaining magazine that grapples with the Bible and feminist issues."

"Grapples" is an accurate term. By far the most serious scholarly challenge to the Daughters viewpoint from the right is the thick 1991 collection of essays Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, who teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in west-suburban Deerfield. This book is to Falwell roughly as Thomas Aquinas is to Tom Roeser. In more than 500 pages covering Genesis to Revelation, its mostly male contributors argue that the Bible teaches both women's spiritual equality and subordination to male "headship" in home and church. They insist that subordination need not mean inferiority or oppression--an argument that always sounds better if you're not the subordinated one.

"At first," Nancy Hardesty wrote in 1984, "I thought it was just a matter of finding alternative interpretations of those five or six passages which had been used to deny women full participation in the church and equality in the home. . . . But as we have learned with pain, changing our thinking about those verses is only the beginning."

The women who put out Daughters must deal with attacks from the left as well as the right. Many non-Christians, this writer included, would prefer to turn the fundamentalists' argument inside out: if Christianity and feminism won't fit, so much the worse for Christianity. Why should women who refuse to think of themselves as second-class citizens spend time and energy on a religion whose God had only one child (a son) who in turn picked 12 guys to be his disciples, and whose largest single group of followers to this day officially forbids effective birth control and bars women from leadership positions?

Thinking of Paul's "I permit no woman" statement, I asked editor Finger why we should pay attention to the hastily dictated letters of a first-century tent maker. "For 1,900 years people have paid attention," she replied, putting the pragmatic point first. "Western civilization has its roots in Christianity. No matter how secular people are, they still have these roots--like the concept of not stealing. People either live by it in some way, or they at least are aware that they don't. Whenever you run up against a controversial issue, everybody talks about the Bible: 'It's written there that it's wrong.' If we don't interact with that, then we lose our own past."

Ignoring the Bible is not an option, according to Chicago Theological Seminary professor Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite. For instance, she says, "battered women frequently bring their religious beliefs to the process of working through a battering relationship. Phone calls to shelters often begin with the phrase "I'm a Bible-believing Christian, but . . . "' In other words, it probably wouldn't help such a woman, who's already in crisis, to tell her to forget that old book.

Similarly, ethicist Toinette M. Eugene of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary writes in the current issue of Daughters that abandoning Christianity "is a luxury African-American women scholars can ill afford. . . . Although the Bible has been used to justify much oppression, it has likewise inspired African-Americans toward self-determination, equality, and perseverance. To totally repudiate the Bible is to renounce a source of immeasurable strength for oppressed peoples."

Finger, who besides editing the magazine has completed the coursework for a PhD in New Testament at Garrett, has two more reasons not to give up on the Bible. "These writings are the earliest evidences of this tradition that we have. They're critical. They depict Christianity in its newness. Next, I would say--not everybody would agree--I still believe that in some particular way the spirit communicates through these writings what God is like." The God she and the other women of Daughters find in the Bible has a much different attitude than the one found by Jerry Falwell and the pope.

The most common mistake made by Bible readers of any persuasion is probably to forget just how old it is. "You wouldn't read Catcher in the Rye without understanding something about the 1950s," says assistant editor Cathi Falsani, a 1992 graduate of Wheaton College. "Everyone should read literature with some kind of cultural awareness." But most of us know a lot more about Holden Caulfield's world than the Apostle Paul's. Finger adds, "Contemporary people read a little and watch television. They rarely even tackle a 100-year-old novel. Then they go to a hotel and pull out a drawer, and there are some writings that are 3,500 years old."

The easiest response is one that naive atheists and naive fundamentalists have in common: don't put in any more work on it than you would on today's Sun-Times. Read the words. Take them or leave them. From this viewpoint, Paul's "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men" must mean just what it says.

But from the feminist viewpoint, Paul was speaking to a particular church at a particular time, and his injunction was not meant to apply to all Christians at all times. This is easier to say than it is to prove. Understanding the Bible--bridging those two millennia or more--is more like interpreting the Constitution than reading Andrew Greeley's latest novel. In passages like this you have to read the words critically, you have to know the rest of the document, and you have to know at least something about the time and place in which it was written. (Less dogmatic sections of the Bible are more approachable, notes Dulcie Gannett, a licensed minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church and a hospital chaplain. "When I started chaplaincy, I discovered that anybody can make contact with the Psalms.")

The words themselves can have less-than-obvious implications. As Lina Accurso writes in the Spring 1993 issue of Daughters, "For Paul to tell women to be silent and not teach, they must have been talking and teaching in the first place. Moreover, he'd write, 'I do not allow.' He never said, 'Christ did not allow.' He couldn't, because Christ obviously did allow." One notable case is the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), whose testimony drew many of her countrymen to him.

Moreover, the culture of the first-century house churches Paul wrote to was unlike ours. Finger says, "He was speaking to small groups of new, mostly Gentile Christians who needed to live exemplary lives in front of pagan neighbors for the sake of the world mission or for the safety of their own necks." She says, many of those women were relatively young and uneducated, giving Paul a nonsexist reason to restrain their exuberance.

The rest of the book is especially relevant to this passage. Conservative Christians rebut the feminist interpretation by pointing out that Paul follows his statement with a rationale based on Genesis 2-3: "For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor." If Paul had been speaking only for himself and only for a particular situation when he enjoined women to silence, they argue, he wouldn't have gone all the way back to creation to justify it. So he must have been speaking for Christ and for all time.

The feminists make several replies to this. They don't agree with Paul's interpretation of Genesis: Why should order of creation signify superiority? (According to Genesis, plants and animals were created before either Adam or Eve.) Why is it better to sin on purpose than by mistake? More importantly, as Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote in Daughters in 1979, Paul's arguments "flatly contradict one of the New Testament's clearest and most basic themes: that both male and female believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus, no longer Adam and Eve, but through grace the partakers of the divine nature."

Finally they cite the Jews' exodus from Egypt as the first piece of much evidence that the Bible is fundamentally about liberation for the captive and recognition for the oppressed. Jesus was born into a culture so patriarchal that a woman might commit adultery merely by speaking in public to a man not her husband. Yet he accepted women as followers (Luke 8:1-3 names Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, "and many others," and implies that they paid the bills), as students (Mary, Luke 10:42), and as bearers of his message (the woman who was the first to encounter him after the resurrection, John 20). Hence--given the Christian assumption that the Bible must form a coherent whole--they conclude that Paul's proscription applies only to first-century house churches, not to today's.

If this focus on the biblical text sounds pretty Protestant, it is. Throughout its history Daughters has been mostly white and Protestant. But the magazine's current issue confronts racism from a number of viewpoints, and over the years it has run articles that took a less Protestant approach.

Catholics who object to women becoming priests argue from tradition and symbolism rather than particular Bible texts. For instance, if Christ is understood as the "bridegroom" of the church, then it is said that a priest can represent him better if the priest is a man. Gracia Fay Ellwood turned this traditional view on its head in the January 1983 issue of Daughters, under the title, "Should Men Be Ordained?" "The woman who ministers at the font and at the Holy Table is a living symbol of the act of grace she is celebrating," Ellwood wrote. "Consider baptism, direct and powerful in its appeal, which draws upon ancient womb imagery. . . . How can the sacrament of second birth be administered by one whose body cannot give first birth? This would sadly impoverish our imagery.

"Then consider the sacrament of Communion, in which the imagery of birth finds further development. The celebrant enacts the drama of Christ's self-emptying in death. Those present are aware, however dimly, that her body is one that (potentially or actually) gives life by sacrifice. In the pain and indignity and bloodletting of childbirth a woman is in effect saying to her child, "This is my body . . . this is my blood, which is shed for you.' What the celebrant is mirrors that which she presents."

The Daughters art director, Kari Sandhaas of downstate Bloomington, also brings a Catholic, activist leaven to the loaf. Born, raised, and educated in the church, she says, "I grew up with the Vatican II changes. I knew the church was changing, and I took that as part of the church. I was in second grade when the Latin Mass went out. I saw the nuns change their habits.

"I do struggle with the Bible's contents, but I don't see it as encompassing all of revelation. The Bible is not as central as the liturgy and the community and the sacramental experiences. I think revelation is ongoing. Grace is still in the world today. Our tradition is incomplete. It's still being appropriately changed and added to." And sometimes selectively subtracted from: "Women led house churches for centuries. The right wing would never say that that's part of our tradition."

By combining Christianity and feminism and voicing women's experiences, Daughters of Sarah manages to unnerve fundamentalists, secularists, and men. But that's not all. It sometimes unnerves its friends too--by keeping its pages open to more viewpoints than you'd expect.

Every mission-oriented publication must decide what it will print, but to print only 100 percent "correct" material is to become a cult--Trotskyite or Branch Davidian, it hardly matters. Within the limits of feminism and Christianity--no subordination and no atheism, please--Daughters of Sarah has published an unusually wide range of opinions and experiences without compromising its mission.

Sandhaas says a friend of hers, an atheist feminist who teaches English, was surprised when she read the magazine. "She got excited. She thought that it was unique in trying to do what academic feminists talk about--giving voice to a diversity of women's experiences--and that it did so better than any journal she had come across." Maybe there's a message here beyond Christian feminism. Are these people practicing the diversity everyone else preaches?

"We would like to see abortion taken seriously but not as an insurmountable wall that divides us," wrote Reta Halteman Finger, introducing the Fall 1992 issue on birth, adoption, and abortion. "At least we hope we don't end up as did Karen Osman, a tongue-in-cheek writer in our 1985 issue on reproduction and abortion, when she lamented: 'I am adamantly anti-abortion and radically prochoice--I have no friends.'"

The articles in the 1992 issue were arranged as if to short-circuit the idea that abortion is some kind of feminist litmus test. Stories describing experiences of all kinds came first. Beth Junker wrote about the birth of her first child and the transition phase of labor, when she felt that she was going to die--a spiritual experience in which "I lost the pre-maternal self: the self that did not yet have a mother's unique responsibilities, the safe self who had loved only adults who could survive my periodic emotional unavailability." Kari Sandhaas recounted resisting the hospital's obstetrics assembly line when she went through a horrific labor. Marta Guoth-Gumberger wrote on infertility: "God also shares in the pain of infertility. How often does She long in vain to give birth to us in the Spirit?" Nancy Fitzgerald chronicled two wrenching months of parenting her sullen and rebellious 17-year-old along with a Russian exchange student. And there was Trudelle Thomas on single-parent adoption. Nancy Ruth Best on finding her birth family. Lin Collette on giving up her 11-month-old daughter: "I think I could have learned to be a good mother. But at what cost to her and to myself? I have learned that it is less selfish to admit what one cannot do than to try to do what is nearly impossible."

Only after all this, halfway through the magazine, came a dialogue on abortion--rare in any forum. Reverend Julie Ruth Harley of the Bensenville Home Society articulated the prochoice point of view and Mary Krane Derr, a University of Chicago graduate student, the prolife.

The strategy of printing diverse experiences first didn't work perfectly. The magazine still received angry subscription cancellations from both disgusted prochoicers and prolifers. But that the strategy was even attempted shows that Daughters is grappling with diversity of opinion in a deeper way than most feminist, leftist, or religious publications.

Its two 1988 issues on "feminists straight and lesbian" included stories by and about women who believe gay sex is a sin, who have been hounded out of homophobic churches, who don't care about the issue, who think feminists must be progay to be consistent, and who listed some of the "gifts" they thought gay and lesbian Christians brought to the church. (The conservatives were somewhat outnumbered, and later left the magazine to join Christians for Biblical Equality, a group based in Saint Paul, Minnesota, which espouses feminism but rejects homosexual practice. Lucille Sider Groh contends that once Daughters even acknowledged the possibility that homosexuality might be OK, they left their original "evangelical" Christianity and moved to a more mainline point of view.)

The Summer 1992 issue on "feminism and prophecy" tested its boundaries in another direction, with Joanne Carlson Brown's powerful essay "Divine Child Abuse?" Brown charged that the central metaphor of Christianity--the idea of atonement, Christ's sacrifice on the cross--encourages women to knuckle under even when they shouldn't: "If the best person who ever lived gave his life for others, then we should likewise sacrifice ourselves. . . . Perhaps until we reject this idea, we will never be liberated. Perhaps the glorification of suffering is so central to Christianity that we will never be redeemed and liberated until we leave it."

Kari Sandhaas says she brought this piece to the Daughters editorial board at least three times before they finally agreed to run it, along with five responses, not all of them critical (one was from a man who had left the ministry and the church after reading it). Editor Finger disagreed with its conclusions and thought it so badly reasoned she could hardly bear to edit it. "I would stop and say, I just don't think I can do this."

Brown's argument (also found in her book Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse) is old news to secular feminists. But for a Christian feminist magazine to feature and discuss it at length shows an openness and confidence rarely found in any movement's publishing. It's like finding a symposium on postabortion grief in Ms. or an appreciation of property rights in Audubon.

How can Daughters be both so open-minded and committed to Christian feminism? Partly it's Finger's leadership and her background as a Mennonite. But more important--and it goes against the grain for a secular person to say this--it may be that Christianity and feminism bring out the best in each other.

"We hear each other," says Cathi Falsani of the oft-divided editorial board, "and I think readers pick up on that." (She, for instance, is prolife; Sandra Volentine, the managing editor, is prochoice.) Listening to one another's stories is in the best feminist tradition, one that Daughters has remained loyal to. However, open-mindedness is not something most people immediately associate with Bible believers. But Finger says that being accountable to that tradition "keeps us from going out on one particular limb too far. If you don't have that you become much more vulnerable to every trend that comes along."

Still, if all you want is some kind of anchor in the past, wouldn't Greek mythology do just as well? Finger says no. It makes a difference that we have this tradition, she says. The Old Testament is unique among ancient narratives in that it doesn't just whitewash the rulers, but also tells about the prophets who publicly berated kings for doing wrong in the sight of God. And she holds up the apostle Paul's letter to the Romans--often maligned even by Christian feminists--as careful instructions to newly assembled Christian house churches on how to tolerate one another's very different backgrounds and customs. "It is not a wishy-washy tolerance that cares little about what other people do and think," she writes in the current issue of the magazine. "Rather, it expects Christians to alter aspects of their own lifestyles in order to get along with those who are different." Could it be that the first-century tent maker has a message for the politically correct brigade?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.

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