There’s a lot of talk at the moment about feminism. Much of this is coming from the UN campaign He For She, fronted by actress Emma Watson. The premise behind He For She is that feminism isn’t just for women; men play an important part in campaigning for equality for women. If you’re not familiar with He For She, I encourage you to find out more by going to their website.
The Bible has a bit of a bad reputation when it comes to its portrayal of women. A lot of that is down to the way the church has treated women in the past (and still does in some parts). That in itself is partly due to how we interpret the Bible. Paul’s writings about women can largely be understood to be aimed at the culture of the time, but have been treated as commands for the church today. There have been a lot of good articles and blog posts written about Paul’s attitude to women, so I’m going to focus my attention elsewhere and address the notion of equality.
Equality is central to feminism, or at least it should be. When I’ve raised the issue of feminism with other men, often I’ve noticed their defenses go up. As those conversations have progressed, it’s become clear that we both have different understandings of feminism. Once I clarify that I’m not talking about the radical kind of feminism which seeks to reverse the places of men and women in society, these conversations tend to become much more amiable. When we understand feminism to be the idea that people should have equal rights, regardless of gender, most of us agree that’s right. That’s what equality means. So what does that look like in the Bible?
To answer that question, we need to turn to Genesis chapter 2.
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” (Genesis 2:18 ESV)
This is an important verse for our understanding of equality. The word “helper” has been interpreted by some to indicate inferiority on the part of the woman. The assumption there is that if someone is a helper, they are lower down the social hierarchy than the one they are helping. However, the Hebrew says something different. The word translated as “helper fit” (elsewhere “fitting helper”) is ‘ezer kenegdo. The first part of that word, ‘ezer, refers to a more powerful force coming to help a less powerful force. It’s used elsewhere in the Old Testament in reference to God helping mankind. Kenegdo refers to “a helper fit for him” or “a power equal to man”. This creates a contrast between the unequal ‘ezer and the complimentary kenegdo. The possible meaning of that contrast can be debated, but one certainty is that you cannot argue that woman is inferior to man from this verse.
It seems clear that God’s intention in creating woman was because there were things that man couldn’t do, so he needed a partner who could do them. Where man was weak, woman was strong; where woman was weak, man was strong. This is what we call “complementarian”. I’ve said already that equality is central to feminism, but equality alone does not do either gender justice. In the eyes of God, man and woman are equal, but they are not the same. It is absolutely important that we have equal rights for women, because we are equally valuable as human beings. However, we mustn’t be frightened of acknowledging that men and women are different. There are some things that women can do which men find either impossible or very difficult, and vice versa. That doesn’t mean that either gender is inferior – quite the opposite. Where would man be without woman? Where would woman be without man? The genders are equal, but distinct. That was God’s intention. When he created man and woman, he intended them to work in partnership, each one complimenting the other, so that they might succeed together.
I believe that God is a feminist, in that he values men and women equally. He created the genders to be different from one another, and it is in those differences that we see how valuable each gender is. Remember that word kenegdo? God’s plan for women was that they function as a “fitting helper” for men, to make up for their inherent imperfections. There is no room for inferiority in this plan. There is no room for superiority either. This isn’t something we’re good at. Both inside and outside the church, men disparage women through sexist jokes. These men probably think that it’s just harmless banter – even if it’s taken as such, it’s still not honouring to the women around them. Similarly some women have, in the name of feminism, elevated the pursuit of career above the desire to be a mother, so that those women who choose to stay at home with the children must be subjugating themselves beneath the boot of man. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great for women to have careers. They have a lot to contribute to the world beyond raising children (which is itself a most fulfilling career). It comes back to kenegdo. Men and women are different, and it’d be foolish to deny that. Men and women are also equal. Therefore, I’m unashamed to say that I am a feminist. I support the goal of He For She to see the equality of the genders recognised in every area of society, because I believe in a God who loves and values men and women because he created them as such.
What about you? Men, have you agreed with this post, but never thought of yourself as a feminist? Perhaps this post has changed your thinking in some way. If you’ve been known to occasionally engage in banter which could be interpreted as sexist, I encourage you to think more carefully about what effect that banter could have on others around you. Our goal as men should be to build up the women around us, so they can become the best women they can be. Women, have you thought about God as a feminist before? If you’ve ever felt inferior to men, I hope that this post has helped you in some way. Think about the men in your life. Is there some way you can encourage them to become a He For She? In what ways can you build up those men, so that they become the best men they can be? In God’s eyes, we’re all equal and incredibly valuable. We’re equal partners in this thing called life, so let’s work together to start seeing each other as God does.