Between Christianity and Feminism Needing, Finding and Rejecting Answers

It is impossible to study the Bible without noticing its overtly un-feminist leanings.

Our religious studies teacher gone, my classmate, Tofunmi (not his real name), walked the length of our classroom to my seat. We had a few minutes until our next teacher would begin another lesson in mathematics, English, or literature and the room sizzled with the energy of unsupervised secondary schoolers. Tofunmi was smug, gloating as he recounted the lecture on ‘The Family’. His verdict: men were their wives’ heads. The Bible said so. What could I possibly still have to say?

Once, another classmate said that families without sons were incomplete. I was agitated because, in my family, there’s me, and four other girls. No brother. No son. It meant that when my parents gave me and my sisters chores, there was no juxtaposition of sex. No differentiation. I swept floors and washed cars. Still, it has always been clear that I must learn domesticity, not because basic hygiene and cooking are non-gendered life skills, but because I am always a wife and mother-in-waiting.

Growing up, I learned the word ‘tomboy’ early. I hated dolls, assumed a posture and gait apparently masculine, wore my hair short since I was ten (although at first involuntarily), and frequently presented and acted in ways not stereotypically female. But in Nigeria where gender binaries are non-negotiable, I was always female whether or not I performed femininity correctly.

My mother raised me and my sisters, Christian, though half of my family is Muslim. We go to the kind of Pentecostal church where women are discouraged from wearing trousers and men from growing beards. At first, we went when we could, on most Sundays. When we found a closer church of the same denomination, we started going every Sunday, during the week, for vigils, and for special programmes. At home, through daily devotionals, my mother taught us to prioritize a relationship with God. As much as a child could, I accepted this, along with the Jesus-is-the-only-way, holiness-is-a-lifestyle, miracles-are-possible, prosperity-is-God’s-promise message that our church churned out.

In 2016, I got born again. Aged 16 and newly matriculated into university, I attended a ‘fresher’s service’ at a youth dominated parish of my church, and after an intense experience during which I started to speak in tongues, I decided that I was ready to take Christianity seriously. Immediately, it became important to make sense of a faith that had previously been thrust on me. I split my time between class and my room, where I gave hours to Bible study, prayer and fellowship with other Christians. The more I read the Bible, the more I reconsidered my worldview, sifting through the pieces to align them with the new centre of my identity, my faith. I reconstituted my ambition and gave up secular music.

Then, there was feminism. For me, feminism is obvious. When I hear Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s expression, ‘feminist before I learned the word’  I understand; but it is impossible to study the Bible without noticing its overtly un-feminist leanings. I panicked. I had been embracing an ideology that God seemed to disapprove. Straddling the torturous path between conscience and religious conviction, I chose God because the language of faith is unflinching commitment, which to me meant a willingness to throw anything on the altar of discipleship. Until I could justify it, I relinquished the title ‘feminist’, considering myself instead a Christian who believed in equality— the vague notion that women could lead countries, should earn as much as men, but may, and I hadn’t decided, be prohibited from pastoring or engaging marriage on their terms only—because that, at least, was obvious.

NEEDING ANSWERS

Although at the time it felt like I was trudging a deserted path, I have since encountered other women confronting the ways their faiths project them. As I pored over Khadija Sanusi’s 2020 Republic essay on advocating women’s rights and preserving an earnest faith,  I found myself tracing patterns on the other side of the coin Sanusi was holding. The story starts the same: two women, solid in our belief in gender equality, believers in the world’s largest Abrahamic religions, Islam and Christianity, both patriarchal by trademark. Our questions, so similar: why are men above women in marriage? Why, in the Old Testament, was polygyny encouraged but not polyandry? What are the rights of the Christian woman? Why are female voices silenced in the Church? Why did Mosaic law allow men divorce but not women? What does a woman of faith do when her doctrines about God collide with her doctrines about equality? While Sanusi chose the well-considered path of the old and mostly orthodox, I would withdraw, reimagining convention.

There are other differences in our journeys. While Sanusi was grappling with the Qur’an, I was wrestling the Bible. Reading the Bible in the twenty-first century is alarming. There are ‘problem passages’, portions that read with difficulty for the events described or teaching prescribed, or both. Stories of commodification, kidnapping and rape (Genesis 12:10-20; 20; 19: 4-11; Judges 19; 21). Singular verses removed from allegories and metaphors. In Genesis 3:16, God subjects women to the ‘rule’ of their husbands. Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, frames this as headship and submission. He forbids women from speaking in church—‘It is a shame,’ he says in 1 Corinthians 14:35— and prohibits them from exercising authority over men (1 Timothy 2:12). Furthermore, women are required to cover their heads during public worship, but not men, because while, ‘a man… is the image and glory of God’, ‘woman is the glory of man’ (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). Wives do not have authority over their bodies (1 Corinthians 7:4). Neither do husbands; but it is that idea, that a person should not exclusively decide the use of their body, that is the problem.

Passages like these become doctrine, because in Pentecostalism’s fundamentalism, the Bible is inerrant and infallible. Approximates of the Bible’s own declaration that it is divinely inspired and entirely reliable. This means that there are no mistakes in the Bible, and there cannot be. Infallibility suggests the Bible’s supremacy for moral instruction. In Protestantism, this couples with the Reformation’s sola scriptura doctrine which emphasizes the sufficiency of ‘the Scripture only’ as the right source of doctrine.

FINDING ANSWERS

With my readings leading nowhere, I knew it was time to listen to more enlightened voices. I found them in books I loaned, bought, or found in the public domain. I read articles, academic and otherwise, and blog posts, wading through different sides of the debate to distil a Biblically consistent theology of women.

Quickly, I came to appreciate the importance of interpretation or hermeneutics, as it is technically called. I learnt, as Sanusi did of Islam, that ‘the oppression [Christianity] is so often accused of does not come from religious texts, but from (mis)interpretation.’

Some, like Katharine Bushnell, progenitor of the Christian-Feminism movement, maintain that a male bias colours the Bible’s English text. Bushnell’s intervention was unearthing truth from the original Hebrew/Greek. The specific language and culture that give verses context, many now argue, must be considered for correct interpretation. This idea informs E Randolph Richard and Brandon O’Brien’s Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes. They acknowledge the spatial and temporal gap between the Bible’s original readers and modern learners who, cut off from ancient languages and customs, transpose words into contemporary perspectives and misunderstand them. In differing circumstances, some instructions become redundant or adaptable.

One of the first books I read on biblical femininity was Kenneth Hagin’s The Woman Question. Hagin adopts the contextual hermeneutic, arguing that male headship finds relevance only within marriage, thus men are not otherwise superior. The Greek word for ‘woman’ is same as for ‘wife’, as ‘man’ for ‘husband’, but context makes it clear that the words, when connected to headship, refer to domestic situations. Also, debates about head coverings made sense only in cultures like Corinth’s where a head covered in public could be the difference between a promiscuous woman and a respectable one.

Except in the Book of Timothy, with its strong injunction against women in ‘authority’, the word for authority, authentein, appears nowhere else in the Greek text. Scholars debate the implications of this, as the word is also rare outside the Bible. Did it mean that women should not assault men, as Bob Edwards proposes in his 2014 blog post, ‘1 Timothy 2:12-15: Paul’s Original Language, Timothy’s Original Context’? ‘Murder’ is one possible meaning of authentein. Women led the cult of Cybele, a religious movement in Ephesus, where Timothy was sent. These women required men who wanted to be priests to be castrated. Paul could have been instructing that this attitude could not continue in Christianity. The point, as I saw it, was that there is a way women can assert authority over men that is problematic, the kind of authority no reasonable person would want anyway. There are several biblical examples of women in authority, including spiritual leadership. In interpreting the Bible, no unclear passages supersede clear ones; what is obscure is illuminated   by the explicit. Therefore, odd verses that suggested excluding women from leadership did not erase an established value for women in those roles.

I patched pieces together, receiving what resonated with the spirituality I was developing privately and within my communities, maintaining the routine of my faith. Although I would occasionally share some interesting fact I had learned, I conducted my research alone.  With time, I found comfort in feminism again. With an understanding of women’s roles that was rooted in contextual readings and harmonious interpretation, I realized that feminism did not oppose Christianity if understood as Sanusi defined Muslim-Feminism, ‘as much a feminist as [Christianity] allows her to be’. This meant supporting equality —this time affirming women pastors and inclusive marriages— and non-conformist gender expression. But not sexual liberation, abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, sex workers, divorce, and other things I considered ‘unbiblical’.

REJECTING ANSWERS

By 2019, I had been born again for three years and had comfortably settled into Christian-Feminism, critical of pastors who perpetuated narratives of composed and subservient femininity. 2019 was a tumultuous year. What started with personal concerns with Christianity’s philosophy of evil, Hell, God’s nature, and morality, entered public reckoning with sexual predation in the Church. There was Bukola Dakolo’s indictment of Biodun Fatoyinbo, and nearer, numerous allegations against Kenneth Ifeanyi, a lesser-known Christian influencer on Twitter. I had once messaged him with thanks for his ministry, and on his invitation joined the New Testament Group, an evangelistic initiative he co-founded. Reading accounts of his serial predation multiplied my questions about Christian morality and genuine spirituality.

I started to struggle with inerrancy and infallibility. As critics and Christians realize, there are factual and historical errors and internal discrepancies in the Bible. There are progressive views of inerrancy, but liberal inerrancy makes no sense to me. Inerrancy means perfection, giving no room for error. Adjusting the definition is discarding the concept. My questions were not new, but they took on an unprecedented intensity and my knowledge of apologetics, the systematic defence of faith, did not help.

For the first time, I allowed myself to traverse the Christian voices that had dominated my perception. I learnt about the transmission of the Bible’s source manuscripts, discovering, for example, that John 7:53-8:11, Jesus’ inspiring reception of an adulterous woman, is absent in the earliest manuscripts. I found that the Bible shares similarity with many extra-biblical texts and cross-cultural myths. Several portions of Genesis are staggeringly similar to the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic, one of the World’s longest surviving pieces of literature, dated older than the Old Testament. It became clear that the Bible is a deeply human book, not untouched by the mistakes, opinions, and interpolation of people. Even more, I could not definitively trace these interjections, see where people had interfered with the word of God, when it could even be so called.

The patriarchal texture of Abrahamic faiths is an affront to feminism. The Bible reads androcentric, that is, it is male-centred. As Danna Nolan Fewell notes in the 1993 article ‘Reading the Bible Ideologically: Feminist Criticism’, ‘The Bible, for the most part, is an alien text, not written by women or with women in mind.’ I agree. God, though genderless, is ‘He’. As are angels and other spiritual beings. Almost without exception, leadership (patriarchs, priests, prophets, kings, apostles) is reserved for men. There is no book traditionally attributed to female authorship, and the language is infused with male nouns; ‘sons of God’, ‘brothers’. The latter is cultural, as the Greek masculine form subsumed the female audience too. But I wondered why there was no pointed rejection of those kinds of attitudes. There is, after all, a connection between discriminatory language and discriminatory views of women. In the Bible, there is the undying motif of the femme fatale, a trope of a woman who uses her charm and beauty to endanger men—Eve, Delilah, Jael, Jezebel, the Siren of Proverbs 5-7, Salome. A denial of male accountability. Why is Christianity’s celebrated liberation of women, only discernible through strenuous argumentation, and conflicting messages?

I think that there are passages that do not resolve however interpreted, conceding my limited knowledge of hermeneutics. That itself is a problem. Most people are untrained in this highly academic discipline. Even among experts, there is limited consensus, so doctrine becomes opinion however well-argued or ‘authoritative’. The truth, at least, is elusive, making it imprudent to contend objectivity and finality.

In the end, I could no longer hold to inerrancy or infallibility, nor claim Christian-Feminism. I no longer believed that you could divorce Christianity from oppressive masculinity, nor did I believe as strongly in what happened to be my preferred interpretations of the Bible’s problematic. I was forced to be one of those who identified as feminists ‘for reasons completely detached from [Christianity]’, as Sanusi might see it.

None of this erases Christians who advocate women’s rights outside the feminist title. Much of early ‘feminism’ was religious, and the word was not in use. There are also those who are feminists because they are Christian, sometimes incorporating the supposedly unbiblical. Learning subjectivity has taught me that people find sincere ways to weave seemingly conflicting beliefs together. What became clear was that I could not continue in faith as I had known it, something I am still learning to do. The things I have learnt have pushed me away from exclusivism, even on religion.

Importantly, because I’m human, I realize that I can be wrong, which seems trite, but I find is often not a possibility that people entertain. That I no longer think the Bible is inerrant does not erode all of its instructional value. I am just now cautious about defending what is indefensible or sacrificing the certainty of feminism’s cause for hypotheticals and ambiguities. Women’s discrimination is a real, urgent fact, crossing religion, and needing subversive, dignifying, realistic answers. I realigned my gaze accordingly: a progressive, secular feminist.

After all these years, I agree with Tofunmi: there is something deeply contradictory between orthodox Christian views and feminism’s ambitions

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