Feminism, Christianity, and Cognitive Dissonance: Part I

I’ve heard it said that you can be both a Christian and a feminist. I don’t doubt that that’s true, although I admit to finding myself mystified by the people who manage it. In my own case, feminism was one of the first things that led me to seriously question the Christian religion.

I still remember reading “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says,” and thinking, “Excuse me? What is that about?” Now, I know there are Christian churches who don’t take this verse quite so literally (there are plenty of female pastors, after all), but I remember it being made quite clear to me that this was Wrong. Coherent explanations were never forthcoming, however.

Was I not smart enough? Not good enough at speaking? Would I get girl cooties on the message? I never understood. I remember asking, “What if I found myself in a situation where none of the men were Christians? How could I help them?” I was told that I should go get a Christian man to come talk to them. “But what if there isn’t one around?”

Apparently, I was to encourage the men to read the Bible. There was some uncertainty as to whether I could answer any questions or give any guidance, as opposed to just praying for their souls, but apparently the goal was to get at least one man to convert ASAP. Then he could teach. I could… I don’t know, cook for the potlucks? I’m much better at public speaking than cooking, but I suppose God in his infinite wisdom prizes gonads over aptitude. He must have a reason; I’m just not smart enough to know it. Worldly wisdom is folly. I should stop thinking I know better than the almighty creator of the universe.*

Then, of course, there was the issue of divorce. You couldn’t mention divorce without quoting Matthew 5:32:

32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

There were a couple of things here that I couldn’t help noticing. First, no mention of a wife divorcing her husband. Now, I realize that in the culture in which this was written, such a thing would have been unheard of. But if the Bible is supposed to be timeless, wouldn’t it make sense to include instructions for women who did have that option? After all, if God knew the future, surely he could have inspired one of the writers to mention it. Then again, that assumes an omniscient god in the first place, as opposed to ancient people writing down their impressions of how things should be done.

Now, I always heard this verse applied to both genders; in other words, women in this day and age can divorce their husbands, but only if the husband cheats. But that leads me to my second point, one I find rather disturbing. “Except for sexual immorality” excludes all other causes. All other causes. You married young and have discovered that you and spouse are entirely incompatible? Too bad. Your spouse is frittering away all of your money, and if you don’t get out soon you’ll be homeless and starving? Nah, God will provide somehow. Your spouse is abusing you and/or the children? Tough shit. God says to stay.

I grew up around people who were serious about this. How serious? Here’s an example: My great-grandmother, at age sixteen, was coerced into marrying a man twenty years her senior because her father wanted to “marry her off.” This man had a volatile temper and abused her on a regular basis. She stayed with him for a while, but filed for divorce right after he shot her in the face. Yes, you read that right. She went to the hospital, and then she filed for divorce.

I have told that story several times in order to illustrate the insidiousness of the “no divorce except for sexual immorality” idea, and quite a few Christians were shocked that I didn’t condemn her actions. After all, she SINNED. Her divorce was not scriptural. What the loving and merciful god described in the Bible wants, apparently, is for you to stand by your man even if it means a gunshot wound to the face. Why? Because. Because God says so, ok? He knows best. His ways are not our ways. Etc. Stop asking questions.

Just as with the silence in church example, I know many Christians are fine with divorcing abusive spouses. This is good. And in all honesty, it seems far more consistent to reject these two verses then to try and reconcile them with a god who loves people (even if your definition of “people” doesn’t include women, which is a problem in itself, it’s not like women are the only ones who ever suffer from spousal abuse). But these verses definitely led me to question the particularly nasty strain of Christianity I grew up with. In Part II, I’ll explain why even the more liberal versions still strike me as being at odds with feminist values. Stay tuned.

*I realize this is a fairly absurd hypothetical scenario. Far less absurd (at least to me), however, is the idea that a woman might genuinely be the best qualified person around to preach. She might know the Bible better than anyone, be a great orator, and genuinely love spreading the gospel. So why shouldn’t she?

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4 comments on “Feminism, Christianity, and Cognitive Dissonance: Part I

  1. I’m always shocked when I read something like “you can’t be ______ and Christian.” As though Christianity itself is antithetical with the idea of thinking for one selves. But I’m shocked to read that people have said one can’t be Christian and feminism. Doesn’t the Bible say that Jesus said “do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets”? That seems to sum up the core idea of feminism to me. Then again, I am not a Christian by any stretch of the imagination.

    • At it’s core, it’s just No True Scotsman, plain and simple. After all, if I can’t reconcile belief x with belief y, then surely you can’t hold both at the same time either.
      As a general rule, I don’t buy that. I do think some beliefs are diametrically opposed (for example, I’d certainly raise an eyebrow if someone claimed to be a humanist and then condoned genocide, or something like that), but for the most part, if you give yourself two labels, then you are both of those things. If they seem to me to conflict, then I assume you interpret them differently. It causes problems when your mindset is “everyone who disagrees with me is not a real Christian,” but I think the failure is with that mindset rather than the supposed contradiction.

      • “It causes problems when your mindset is “everyone who disagrees with me is not a real Christian,” but I think the failure is with that mindset rather than the supposed contradiction.”

        Yes, well said. (And the “everyone who disagrees with me is not a real _______” mindset really infuriates me.)

  2. Pingback: Feminism, Christianity, and Cognitive Dissonance: Part II | Exploring the Jungle

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