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On Friday: Defining terms.

This week there’s been a wee blog link up going on in this world we call the Internet, FemFest. I haven’t joined in, in the writing sense, but I have been thinking. Always thinking.

In the year or so since I started this Feminine Friday series I’ve been thinking a lot. Friday’s posts are usually my favourite, and they’ve caused me to ponder some big issues, examine why I think what I think, and dream in different ways about what I might do with my time once I’ve finished working for UCCF.

But, in the last couple of months I’ve been thinking off and on about terms and labels, and the need to define oneself.

Complementarian. Egalitarian. Misogynist. Feminist. Anti-Feminist. Victim. Oppressed. Oppressor. Object. Patriarch.

We throw words like this around. We wear some as badges of honour, whilst others see those same words as utterly abhorrent. We force labels on others, and we keep some for ourselves, refusing to allow those who disagree to claim them for themselves.

Language is a funny old thing really. And perhaps that’s one of the things I’ve been learning through this whole process: what I mean by one word is quite different to what you mean by the very same word, only, because we’re using the same word we think we’re talking about the same thing.

It’s all quite confusing, but allow me to show you what I mean.

Lots of different people and organisations describe themselves as Complementarian, but they often mean quite different things by the word, and work it out in practice in quite differently. I’ve talked about this topic before, so if you want to read my (long and rambling) thoughts, feel free to click over here, and here, and here, and here, but if not let me give you one brief example.

The Gospel Coalition has, in their Confessional Statement, a paragraph about their beliefs about humanity, and therefore, what they believe about men and women, and their respective roles within families, and within the church. This is what they say on that latter point:

Men and women, equally made in the image of God, enjoy equal access to God by faith in Christ Jesus…In the ministry of the church, both men and women are encouraged to serve Christ and to be developed to their full potential in the manifold ministries of the people of God. The distinctive leadership role within the church given to qualified men is grounded in creation, fall, and redemption and must not be sidelined by appeals to cultural developments.

That’s a complementarian position: men and women made equal, and/but different. I agree with that view (even if I fundamentally disagree with it appearing in a statement of faith) but the reality is that how I think that works itself out in practice is going to be very different to the way that others think it should be worked out in practice. For some people the ‘distinctive leadership role’ means that men only are allowed to be elders of the church, but that women can lead and teach ‘under’ their authority; for other people the ‘distinctive leadership role’ means that women may not teach, or pray, or make any sound at all. Both of those people, and everyone in between, describes themselves as ‘complementarian’. Tricky.

It has troubled me in the past wee while to see the degree to which feminism has become a dirty word amongst some groups of people. A couple of months ago I read an article by Denny Burk, ‘A Sad Tale of Feminism Gone to Seed’. In it he presents the case of Elizabeth Wurtzel, who portrayed, in Burk’s words, the ‘dark side of feminism’ in an article for New York MagazineBurk sees Wurtzel’s ‘confession’ as a demonstration of why he considers feminism to be such a tragedy:

“[God] did not make us unisex. He did not make us genderless humanoids with no direction for our intimate lives. He made us male and female. And for those to whom it has been given, He made us to give ourselves away to years of finding stale Cheerios in every hidden crevice of the minivan, to seasons of graduations and of anniversaries and of empty nests, to gray years with the love of your life who is your best friend, to lifetimes of covenant love.

Feminism is the killer of that dream, even though precious few seem to notice.”

Feminism, for Burk, means women abandoning their true destinies of wifehood and motherhood, and so being left sad and alone (and may I say, as one who is currently enjoying God’s very good gift of singleness, that statement rather annoys me).

Feminism for some might mean fighting for rights (for education, healthcare, a political voice, reproduction, equal pay, safety from violence, or anything else you can think of), for others it might mean dismissing the worth of men, for others it might mean saying that women are superior to men, and for others it might just mean demonstrating that women are not inferior to men.

So, here’s the deal. I’m giving myself a new label, one that to some is going to sound the epitome of oxymoronic, but I don’t care.

I’m a Complementarian Feminist.

I think God made women in His image, equal in status and worth and value to men. I think Jesus died and rose again to save women and men, to make them His.

I think God made women different to men (not worse, or better, just different) – different in the way that our bodies look and work, and perhaps different in the way that we think and feel (although I’m still thinking that one through as to how it works and what it means). We were made to complement one another, to help one another, to show one another different views and thoughts and ideas, and to offer one another a glimpse of community, to point us towards that perfect community of the Trinity.

Father, Son, and Spirit. Also equal, also different.

That’s why I’m a complementarian.

votes-for-womenBut, living in a fallen world means that we live with sinful hearts, hearts which have caused the strong to walk upon the weak for thousands and thousands of years, and sadly, that has often meant men walking on women: refusing them a voice, or an education, or safety. It means that in this country 100 years ago women weren’t allowed to vote, and Saudi Arabia they’re still not. It means that in Pakistan a 15 year old girl was shot for protesting against a ban on girls being allowed to go to school. It means that in some parts of the world (including Britain, by the way) girls are killed before they’re even born, because families would prefer a son. It means that about 100 women are killed by partners or ex-partners every year in England and Wales. It means that an average of 85,000 women are raped every year in England and Wales.

I don’t think any of this is acceptable. I believe that all of us, men and women, are made in the image of God, and so find equal worth in Him.

I, a woman, was made in God’s image. My femininity is part of who God is.

The world says women are less than men. God says we’re not.

And that’s why I’m a feminist.

So, in the end, it’s less about the words themselves and more about what we mean by them.

I’ve explained what I mean by them, how about you?

In summary: defining stuff.

This entry was published on March 1, 2013 at 12:19 pm. It’s filed under Feminine Fridays and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

14 thoughts on “On Friday: Defining terms.

  1. Thanks Ellidh, Good post. I’m a complementarian feminist also 🙂

  2. You’re certainly not the only one. I could add that I’m a feminist *because* I’m a complementarian – as a complementarian I believe in the equal status of women, and so am as likely to argue for that as I am for the complementary differences.

    You’re right though that the terms get defined differently depending on who is using them. In some contexts I wouldn’t use the term feminist because I would be misunderstood. So I probably agree with Mo’s article too!

    • ellidhcook on said:

      Thanks for visiting and commenting Matthew.
      That’s a helpful point, I suppose my feeling on the subject is that if language is so confusing then we’re always at risk of being misunderstood, but I’m frustrated with the anti-feminist rhetoric that is found in some circles and so if I’m with them I’m going to call myself a feminist, and explain what I mean by it!

  3. Hurrah! I concur 🙂

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  5. I really enjoyed reading your thoughtful post. I think it is a great shame that “feminist” and “feminism” has become a bit of a bad word in some circles. Burke’s quote seems to epitomise this. The great irony of course is that the dream he presents (though woefully narrow in scope) was only really made possible through the decades of campaigning by feminists for better healthcare, education and even nutrition for women and their children, which lowered both maternal and infant death rates – what a shame this is no longer remembered in the West!

  6. Hi Elli,
    Interesting stuff. I’m afraid, though, I just find this a naive view of feminism. If feminism just means wanting rights for women, then it would be hard to find someone who isn’t one amongst any of my acquaintances. But, ISTM, the feminist movement and project is making some much bigger statements about gender and personhood than this. And I think most of the values implicit in that are not ones evangelicals can sign up to. Particularly feminism seems interested in power struggles between men and women in order to win an individualistic freedom. I don’t think you can have that view, and Christianity together.
    FWIW, most feminists I know would not accept you as a feminist because you are complementarian. Do you think they are just wrong about that – or is there something in the general view of feminism that does rule out complementarianism – as most feminists, Christian or not, seem to think?

    • ellidhcook on said:

      Hi Mo,
      Thanks for the comment. I’m afraid that whilst you may find my view of feminism to be naive, I find your view of feminism to be rather narrow! The ‘feminist movement’ as you call it is something claimed by thousands of people across many cultures and groups, for well over 100 years. To imagine that all of those people would define it in exactly the same way is to fundamentally ignore their ideology and work.
      Yes, I would imagine that a lot of feminists would not accept me as such, but I would, potentially, have comparable disagreements with their interpretation of feminism. Germaine Greer, who would almost certainly be amongst those who would have problems accepting my claim, said that her reason for writing The Female Eunuch was a plea for women to have ‘freedom to be a person, with the dignity, integrity, nobility, passion, pride that constitute personhood’. I struggle to see how that as an idea is contrary to evangelical or complementarian views. Nor do I see the desire to protect the many, many women who are being ill-treated, persecuted, denigrated, or killed, simply because they are women, as being anything other than Christlike.

  7. Fair enough. We disagree about what feminism is. Most “Christian feminists” would disagree with you too! They, and I may, of course, be wrong!

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