In the first 24 hours that 60 other Christian women and I have spent talking and praying in Texas Hill Country, I have seen Sarah Styles Bessey tear up three times. Every time, it's when she starts talking about Jesus.
"I'm a feminist because I love Jesus so much," she tells me as we escape the chatter to discuss her new book, Jesus Feminist (Howard). A popular blogger and mother of three, Bessey grew up in the charismatic renewal movement of 1970s Western Canada. In that post-Christian culture, leaders—men and women—were sorely needed. So every Sunday, Bessey writes, "Women prophesied with honor. They led key ministries. They preached. . . . The church ladies cooked and fed and danced with babies at the back of the room, sure, but they were also at the front."
It's her charismatic identity and its emphasis on the kingdom of God that underscores Bessey's "invitation to revisit the Bible's view of women." Rather than trying to baptize feminism's current concerns (among them LGBTQ equality and pro-choice rights) with pick-and-choose Bible verses, Bessey starts with the whole narrative of Scripture. There, she finds a Jesus—and even a Paul—who saw women as equally crucial as men to advancing the gospel. To paraphrase Rebecca West: Feminism is the radical notion that women are disciples too.
Bessey and I talked about how she came to love Paul, what she would tell stay-at-home moms who are perfectly content, and what strict complementarians can appreciate about her book.
You say you are a feminist because of Jesus. Won't a lot of readers be uncomfortable with the label?
I don't think people need to self-identify under a certain label to have caught the vision of God for women. This is less a book about Christian feminism and more about the kingdom of God, and what it means to move with God to rescue and restore and redeem women on a global scale. There's so much going on outside of our Western conversations: Are women allowed to [preach] and [teach men]? We need policymakers and people who are going to go down swimming for the constitution of the church. But my heartbeat is for the big picture.
How has your relationship with Jesus made you a feminist?
Nine or ten years ago, in a time when I was questioning the church, I began poring over the Gospels, getting to know Jesus. How Jesus interacted with women stood out to me. There wasn't a lot of fanfare about it. The women could be engaged on the merits of their own story. Sometimes they were in the background, sometimes in the foreground; sometimes women were ministering with Jesus, sometimes ministering to him.
One story that stuck with me is in Luke, where Jesus is teaching on prayer. A woman in the crowd says, "Blessed is the woman who gave birth to you, and blessed are the breasts that nourished you. Jesus comes right back to her and says, "Even more blessed is the person who hears the word and does it." He is communicating that she is someone who could hear the Word and obey the Word and live it out. That she gets to stand before Jesus on her own soul's two feet and encounter, know, and love him. I love the honor of women in Scripture.
You spend a chapter on Paul's writings, the source of a lot of debate about women and the church. In what ways did you end up finding Paul's writings liberating?
I spent a year reading Paul through the lens of Jesus. At the end of that year, I had fallen in love with him. He is so generous and subversive and wise and full of love and passionate that I ended up finding my brother Paul.