#mutuality2012 Feminism and Christianity: Interacting with Daphne Hampson

Rachel Held Evans is hosting a week of mutuality on her blog. As part of this synchroblog event, I will be doing two things: One, I will be highlighting posts that I have written on the subject; and two, Leslie Keeney over at The Ruthless Monk and I will be posting about encouraging women to attend this year’s ETS annual conference that is coming up in the fall. We want to write about this now so that people have plenty of time to prepare and plan to come.

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Daphne Hampson argues that the problem with Christianity is that it is permanently rooted in history, a history that is patriarchal in nature, and because it is a religion that must always point back to a historical point it cannot be of use to feminists. On the one hand, she is absolutely correct that “Christianity cannot lose its reference to that history.” (pg. 7) On the other, her assertion that this historical reality of Christianity, as found in the incarnation of Jesus, is a hindrance to and completely incompatible with feminism is logically weak. Just because there is a necessary historical referent does not mean that Christianity is unable to navigate between timeless truth and temporary cultural realities.

Of course, in order to answer the question of whether Hampson is right or wrong in her assertion that one cannot be both a feminist and a Christian, the question of definition must be addressed. What is feminism? In the case of this particular work, Hampson suggests a minimalist definition of feminism: “the proclaimed equality of women and men.” (pg. 50)

Unfortunately, what she presents in her subsequent argument demonstrates that she does not actually hold to in the minimalist definition. Hampson argues that Christianity is inherently patriarchal; that because God is referred to in male terms, and because Jesus never fights against the oppression of women, (pg. 89) there is inequality inherent to Christianity. Hampson suggests that had Jesus been concerned with equality, then instead of having women like Mary sitting at His feet learning, He would have sat at the feet of a woman. (pg. 104) What she fails to consider is that Mary is not sitting at Jesus’ feet because He is male, but because He is the Teacher and she is a disciple. In addition, Hampson fails to consider that the issue of feminism would have been a foreign concept in the first-century Judeo-Christian world.

Hampson is absolutely right that, in the past, Christian structures did not proclaim the equality of the sexes. Indeed, Christianity has often times affirmed a superiority of men over women. But, just because Christian institutions did not fight for equality in the past, does not mean that Christianity itself is antithetical to feminism. Hampson is right to point out the inequality of Christian practices, such as communion, in which a group of men gathered can partake together of communion, but a group of women (e.g., nuns) have to have a man present to administer sacraments. She argues that this demonstrates that “within the Christian context women must necessarily refer to, and exercise a dependence upon, the world of men, of a kind which men would not conceive of having in relation to the world of women.” (pg. 63)

The question, then, which Hampson fails to address, is, is the problem with an inherent inequality between men and women, or is it with a faulty understanding of the administration of communion? Modern evangelicalism is not immune to this. Take for example women’s conferences in more traditional congregations that require that a male pastor still preside/be present at the conference as a way to ensure that the women leaders are under the authority of a male elder.

So, can Christianity be redeemed from its patriarchal past? Hampson argues that it cannot, but I would suggest that there is much to be said for trajectory hermeneutics, such as William Webb’s Redemptive Hermeneutical model, which demonstrate how the biblical narrative demonstrates a theology of gender that differed from its surrounding culture, including, for example, Jesus counting women among his followers, as well as his first post-resurrection appearance to women, which put the women in a position of witness, an area that they were not considered reliable for in the broader culture.

In addition, in 2011, the minimalist definition that Hampson sets forth is a definition that the majority of Christians would affirm. Even within evangelical circles, and the ongoing debate between complementarians and egalitarians, there is agreement, that at an ontological level, men and women are equal in their standing before God through Christ. The question then becomes, does the exclusion of women from certain roles within the Church, such as pastors and leaders, necessarily demonstrate an inequality that must be overcome? Can there ever be complete equality between the sexes when our biological makeups are so different?

Ultimately, Hampson’s argument that Christianity and feminism are incompatible is a result of her not wanting them to be compatible. Twenty-five years of discussion and dialogue about the theology of gender has occurred since the publication of Hampson’s book, and there has been much written on how they can indeed be compatible. And this compatibility does not necessitate the dehistoricization of the faith. Indeed, if anything, the concreteness of the Christian faith, as it is grounded in an historical event, becomes the foundation for this compatibility. For as the Apostle Paul wrote, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:26-29).

This post was originally posted December 12, 2011.