Jesus Feminist…What’s the Big Deal?

I love a good story, don’t you? I especially love to hear the stories of women and what God has done in their lives.

Let’s head outside. I want us to sit around a fire pit ringed with stones and watch the moon move over the Pacific. I want us to drink good red wine, dig our toes into the cool sand, and wrap up in cozy sweaters. We’ll feel the cold of the evening steal across the water soon, and the mountains are resting with their hands folded. And I want us to talk . . . (1)

I’ve got a crazy idea for you. Let’s be done lobbying for a seat at the Table. You know – that fabled “Table” we all talk about:  “We just want a seat at the Table!” we say. (3)

So starts Sarah Bessey in her recently released book, Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women. For those of us in ministry, I dare say that there have been times that every woman has said, or at least thought, these words. And, through Bessey’s way with word pictures and her emotional writing style, Jesus Feminist quickly pulls on the heartstrings of our experiences, lulling a reader to insert her own life into Bessey’s.

But, readers beware: Do not be pulled in to developing or dismissing doctrine, beliefs, and theology based on the story and experience of one writer – or even of your own life.

The Premise

Pulling from her life experiences, Bessey takes the reader through her journey of falling in love with Jesus and simultaneously embracing the title “feminist” because…Jesus was a feminist, or so she says. She explains her use of what could be considered a shocking title this way.

At the core, feminism simply consists of the radical notion that woman are people, too. Feminism only means we champion the dignity, rights, responsibilities and glories of women as equal in importance – not greater than, but certainly not less than – to those of men, and we refuse discrimination against women. (13-14)

On the surface this does not look to be so bad.  In fact, Bessey splashes this notion of feminism on the cover of her book as a second sub-title, “Exploring God’s Radical Notion That Women are People, Too.” This subtitle is the one point where egalitarians and complementarians agree. And possibly in the purist definition of the word “feminism,” we can even begin to entertain the fact that Jesus was a feminist. But, like many words of these modern times, pure definitions have been skewed, tainted, and laden with baggage that make it more of a lightning pole than an explanation.

Some Good

Bessey tells a good story and her writing style is one that flows easily. Many of her experiences are ones that women can relate to. From being disenchanted with and hurt by the church, to failed pregnancies, to wanting to be used by God for something significant, every reader will find something in her story with which she resonates.

Additionally, Bessey does ask some good questions and puts some topics on the table (even if she did banish the metaphorical “Table”) that complementarians would do well to answer. Women are loved by God and are as important to His Kingdom as men, but have we gotten so distracted being on the defensive that we haven’t affirmed women in their own callings? This is most evident in her closing chapter that is titled “The Commissioning.” These final nine pages are an emotional commissioning to women that calls and affirms the reader to go and do what she has been called to do. As complementarians, have we lost sight of the older intentionally launching the younger out into the world to do what she has been called to do in the way she has been called to do it. I dare say that many of our women yearn for a spiritual mother to do just that.

Some Concerns

Bessey relies heavily on other egalitarian writers including Rachel Held Evans (who penned the Forward) and Carolyn Custis James, yet she does not engage in complementarian works. This is a weakness among many egalitarian writers. Any argument or thesis holds more water if it stands solid and comes through the sieve of its contradictory view unharmed. But, without that testing and engagement, it leaves Bessey misrepresenting complementarians, painting pictures of women sitting around having tea parties and being doormats to their husbands. As a complementarian, I can tell you that this the farthest thing from the truth.  Likewise, her use of Scripture is minimal and in some chapters, non-existent.

Even with a minimal interaction with Scripture, Bessey claims to hold to what is called a “redemptive movement hermeneutic,” especially as William J. Webb demonstrates its use. This method of interpreting Scripture seeks to find the “redemptive spirit” of the text with a movement toward an ideal ethic, with the New Testament being better than the Old Testament but still bound by its cultural context. This means that the Bible can’t actually be taken at face value because the culture in which it was written wasn’t quite “ready” for what God really wanted to say. See the danger here? I do not doubt that Bessey holds that the Word of God is His Word, but her choice to embrace a hermeneutic that discounts God’s Word to be inerrant and sufficient for all times, and all cultures, and all places, she (and others with similar views) puts herself in the driver’s seat of determining what is and what is not valid for today.

Close to end of the book, in Chapter 11, Bessey begins to conclude her writing with these words: I’m through wasting my time with debates about women-should-do-this and women-should-not-do-that boundaries. I’m out. What an adventure in missing the point. These are the small, small arguments about a small, small god (171).

Unfortunately, I fear that Bessey has missed the point, dismissing the significance and big picture message of the Gospel that has been painted by the creator Himself. For it is through marriage and the church, lived out within the boundaries set by God, that the world is presented with a message of grace, forgiveness, love, and sacrifice.

Why Does It Matter?

At this point you may be wondering why does this little 200-page book even matter. It’s just the story of one woman. But, it does matter. Too often, we as women are pulled into the stories and take it all lock, stock, and barrel as Truth. Merely looking at the varied endorsements of the volume would lead many to trust its conclusions without testing them against the whole of Scripture.

Before jumping on any bandwagon or embracing anyone else’s conclusions, we would do well to run them through the sieve of God’s Truth:

  • Settle what I believe about the authority and sufficiency of Scripture
  • Commit myself to line up under Scripture’s teaching – the whole of its teaching, not picking and choosing.
  • Recognize that, yes, women are people too, created in the image of God. We are all gifted for His service and there is much work to be done to win this world for Christ.

I cannot dismiss Bessey’s experiences; it is her story and her life.  And there is something appealing about sitting around a fire with a group of women and really talk about womanhood, church, the labels, and where we go from here. (2) Perhaps tickling the desire to have such a conversation between women is the best service Bessey provided. Let’s do step away from “the Table” – the titles, the labels and the defensiveness. Let’s gather around the fire as just women. Let’s sit together, open God’s word, and explore God’s notion that women are people, too

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6 thoughts on “Jesus Feminist…What’s the Big Deal?”

  1. Monica says:

    Thanks Terri! … such an important issue! Appreciate this greatly!

  2. I”m right smack in the middle of this book and I totally agree with your review. Her story is compelling and I can relate to her negative experience with women”s ministry often being nothing more than tea parties and craft events; I wish more women”s ministries went deeper and spent more time helping women to live godly lives than figuring out how to cook a pot roast or knit a doily. But I was also bothered by this argument that Paul was obligated to write his perspective on submission and church roles because of the culture that he was living in – it just seems like it limits God”s truth within a historical framework and as though God was just waiting for 2014 to for us to figure out what He really thought? Doesn”t hold water with me at all…

  3. Terri Stovall says:

    Thanks, Monica. I hope it is helpful. We were getting questions about this as I am sure you were.

  4. Dr Stovall. I would love to hear more about intentionally launching the younger out into the world. You should write about that next.

  5. Greg says:

    Great review. I can speak from personal experience from having Bill Webb as my hermeneutics prof at seminary. His hermeneutics book almost destroyed an entire denomination and has led many into wrong thinking concerning scripture.

  6. Mariah Cuellar says:

    Thank you for writing this review! I just read the book Eve in Exile and the Restoration of Femininity and was talking about it with a friend. She recommended Jesus Feminist to me and based off of the title alone I was already suspicious. I enjoyed your review and believe it was helpful. Admittedly I have not read the book and most likely won’t based off of what I have researched, but I do think that if the title is a correct representation of the book then it is dangerous and if it is not then the author needs to do some research on the history of feminism. If anyone is looking for a good book to give to a woman I would greatly recommend Eve in Exile and the Restoration of Femininity by Rebekah Merkle. It is informative on the history of feminism and it also shows truth through scripture about how much God loves and values women. It is short and sweet. I guess my biggest critique is that I wish it was longer and got more in-depth on some of the topics. Just wanted to throw this out there to someone who may be looking for a good book geared towards women.