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.
I began to understand Paul in the context of his time, specifically regarding the Roman household codes. As everywhere the gospel was preached, women had flocked to the church, along with slaves, the poor, the weak, and children. . . . they had never been included in the teaching, encouraged to prophesy, or given dignity as participants. Many scholars believe that in their newfound freedom, a group of Christian women were disrupting the meeting with questions. Paul was asking them to learn in quietness and talk it over at home with their husbands. Even Paul's recommendation that women should ask their husbands if they had questions was revolutionary for that time. He was encouraging women to learn!
Some Christians would say that you are contextualizing Paul to the point of erasing a timeless truth—that women are not to have teaching authority over men due to a creational hierarchy. How do you respond to that critique?
I believe that reading Paul as giving more freedom and more inclusion to women is more faithful to Scripture and the redemptive movement of God therein. It's more faithful to the heart of Paul, who had women apostles and deacons. He had women ministering and leading in his church; Priscilla was teaching Apollos. In his own ministry, he was not practicing the idea that women shouldn't teach in a church setting. So it certainly wouldn't be that he was teaching for all times and all contexts.
I believe that knowing how these passages have been misused would break Paul's heart. That the passages have been used not only to just deny women ministry opportunities, but also to belittle them in and outside the church—let alone the ways that the passages get twisted and misused for real evil. Interpreting Paul as offering more freedom to women makes everything else in the Scriptures makes sense. Whereas reading him as laying down a new restriction because women are women looks like an anomaly. It looks like a weird record scratch.
How did the women in the charismatic churches you grew up in inform your views?
Some of it's the charismatic background, and some of it's the Canadian background. We joke in Canadian church circles that we either know you or we know someone who knows you. The church is so small, sometimes you just need someone to teach.
Growing up I was comfortable saying the word pastor in front of a female name, because many women worked and taught alongside their husbands. They had very active and visible roles. I appreciated that women who didn't feel called to preach or teach or lead, but yet who were really strong business leaders or teachers in their communities, were empowered to do that work outside the church.
If God gifted you as a preacher, then you needed to get up and preach, sister. There were women like Christine Caine who had the sense of fire shut up in their bones. There were women who were led toward counseling and psychology, and there were women who liked to look after babies. There was no dichotomy saying that you had to be either in a public leadership role or a mother. A lot of my own life may not look like what people expect from the book's title. I'm a married stay-at-home mom, I like to look after the house—I've had the freedom to choose this life with joy. There's no part in me that would want to belittle or malign anyone who feels fulfilled in the home, in their roles as wife and mom. I hope not, because those are my roles.
How would you respond to a woman who eschews the feminist label because she's really content being a wife and mom, and doesn't want influence or visible leadership?
I would really affirm that. Those are great callings. But motherhood is a season of our lives, one that changes as our children grow up and become independent.
I was someone who had a career for 10 years before having our first daughter. Then when I was pregnant with our second child, I was back to work and going every day, and we had great childcare. But my heart longed to be home, to be the one doing nap wakeups and changing nappies and doing solid food. I was never someone who said, "I just want to be a mom; that's all I want in life." I went to university and was doing very fulfilling work, yet my heart longed to be home with my babies.
I know that not every woman feels that way. Career or staying home—one option is not better than the other. For women who have a marriage that is more traditional, in which the husband supports the family, that's great. If that's what works for you, then you get to make those decisions for yourself, and that's wonderful.
But, if all of our theology is based on our own experiences and doesn't take into account people who have different circumstances, different education levels, different choices—people who don't have even the luxury of getting to decide to stay home—that's a problem. Is it the gospel to say to a single mom that she has to be in the home, raising children at the exclusion of all other things in life, if she is not able to do that? What is the kingdom of God for women if it's not the tiny box that we have ascribed for them? The gospel is a celebration, so we need to expand our vision, to include all women in the kingdom of God.
Katelyn Beaty is CT managing editor.