Is Christian feminism an oxymoron? Is “radical” feminism a threat to Christianity? How can Mennonites contribute to justice and healing as a culture-shifting reckoning with sexual violence — which has scarred Mennonite communities, engulfed Washington and shaken the foundations of the Catholic Church — exposes the failure to protect women and children from predatory sexual behavior?
The fact that some Christians still believe the answer to the first two questions is yes makes the third more difficult. But Mennonite women are rising to the challenge. Emerging voices affirm feminism as a faith-based foundation for advancing women’s equality and confronting misogyny.
“I still vividly remember the first time I heard a woman preach on a Sunday,” says Melissa Martinez in Timbrel, published by Mennonite Women USA. The current issue features articles on faith and feminism. Martinez continues: “I remember feeling my heart swell and my eyes water, knowing that God has so much more for us than we ever knew — and that feminism was my gateway to a better understanding of all that our Creator wants for us.”
Martinez’s testimony speaks more powerfully than abstract theology or vague warnings about “radical feminism” ever could. One person might be inspired and another repelled by the feminist label, but no one can deny what Martinez felt: Hearing a woman preach opened her eyes to greater possibilities as a child of God. Female spiritual leadership had a redemptive influence.
Another writer for Timbrel, Marathana Prothro, observes that Mennonites may avoid identifying as feminists because they’re convinced it means something negative. But for her, feminism has been spiritually transforming. “Feminism has helped me to realize that I — as a woman — am created in God’s image,” she says. “It’s such a foundational piece of one’s faith that some take for granted, but I don’t, because I lived for so long believing that God was a man and that I was ‘other.’ ”
Prothro’s experience matches a simple definition of feminism offered by a third Timbrel writer, Katherine Goerzen: “The foundational belief that all people are equally created in God’s good image, equally worthy and equally called by God.” Not every feminist would put it that way. But a religious definition is just as valid as a secular one. “Christian feminist” is not a contradiction.
Struggles against discrimination due to race, gender or sexual orientation take place over generations. Mennonite Brethren feminist writer Katie Funk Wiebe, who died in 2016, once said it was important “to keep fighting battles I personally will not win.” Today, her USMB denomination still does not allow women to serve as lead pastors. (Many other Mennonite groups do not permit women in pastoral ministry at all.) A USMB study conference on women in ministry, scheduled for January, acknowledges sentiment for change but isn’t considered a step toward ending the ban.
To speed progress toward equality, Mennonites need diverse feminist leaders, female and male, young and old. Let’s listen to young adults who’ve grown up with nothing but positive feelings about feminism. Let’s heed the voices of experience, like Beth Martin Birky, who laments in Timbrel that she “remained silent through many injustices, including the judgment of female pastors, double standards for gender and sexuality, and exclusion of individuals who don’t fit our gender norms. . . . It’s time for me to stop hiding my feminism from the church.”
Jesus defied the inferior status of women. Men need to search our hearts and consider if we are following Jesus’ example or if we still, in conspicuous or subtle ways, disregard and devalue women. In a historic time of confronting sexism and exposing sexual abuse, we hope many will confess these sins within our own Mennonite communities, affirm the equality of women and support Christian feminism.