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