Interview with Sarah Bessey (Author of Jesus Feminist)

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Sarah, can I just tell you; “Jesus Feminist” was not what I expected it to be at all. It is funny, but when I hear the word feminist (even as a feminist) I often think of loud mouth, tough women with a bit of a chip on their shoulder. What I loved about your book was that you broke every preconceived and stereotypical idea of what feminism has often been understood as. In this book, you somehow pulled off a complete devotion to the humble ways of Jesus and the true definition of feminism at the same time. I know you have been a Christian for a long time, but may I ask you, what made you start identifying as a feminist? 

Thank you so much, Jory! I think I first started to self-identify as a feminist in my late-teens but I had a passion for women’s issues from a young age. I recently found an old book that I wrote when I was in grade 6 and on the “author bio” page, I wrote that, among other things like being born in Regina, Saskatchewan and loving to water-ski that I “hated male chauvinists.” Ha! I credit Judy Blume for that. Anyway, I didn’t have any negative connotation with the word “feminist” – to me, a feminist was simply someone who cared about equality. So my own great passions and pain intersected on women’s issues and so of course it made sense to call myself a feminist. Of course, as you said, many people have a stereotype in their mind of what a feminist is or how a feminist thinks – sometimes even how a feminist looks which is silly. I often didn’t seem like a stereotypical feminist to some folks, particularly my context in church-life, so people would ask me what kind of feminist I was and I would just say, Oh, I’m a Jesus feminist! It was a bit cheeky in the beginning, just a joke of a way to say that I was a feminist precisely because I loved and followed Jesus but eventually it stuck and I started to love it and use it as a qualifier.  

Oh man did you challenge my “girl-power-pride,” but you did it in a way that I could accept because I knew you were on my side. Your heart for women was evident in every turning page. I was especially impressed with your soft, loving, and truly feminine approach. You made me feel like it is just as powerful to stay at home with my future kiddos as it is to run some highly successful ministry someday. You obviously have a gift to “big sister,” “mother,” and mentor girls and women. What life experience(s) have shaped this sort of “total acceptance” you have for other women

Thank you for saying that, Jory. I think my rootedness on this issue is in my belief that each of us is precious and deeply loved by God. At the root of my feminism is the freedom that Christ brings to each of us. And I believe we each matter and all of the moments of our lives mater. The truth is that most of us do a bit of it all – we might run the big successful ministry or be a part of something that feels equally significant *and* we often have families or relationships, too. God is just as present in our small and seemingly invisible lives as in the big splashy obvious stuff. In fact, I’ve often found my greatest transformation happened in obscurity and faithfulness. And in the meantime, if we’re not all free, well, we’re not free.  

As Christian women we often feel like we have so much to offer the church, but our gifts often go unseen or worse, seen, but unused. You make mention in the book and on your blog that you will no longer waste your time “fighting for a seat at the table.” This idea has really stuck out to me. I have found that as a woman in ministry, I have struggled to have a place of authority and influence in church even when I offer to do it for free. It seems there are so few positions for women in the church and the few positions that do open up often go to pastor’s wives and such. Was there a specific experience that made you decide that you were done fighting for a position and how do we do this without giving up on our calling? 

I have wrestled with that idea for so long. I think some of us are called to “the table” to help enact change slowly and painfully through things like the church constitutions and white papers and elder boards. I think that’s good and hard and holy work, too. I admire those of us – male and female – who are committed to the daily scrum of scholarship and negotiation and advocating in those environments. But for me personally I feel like I just want to get on with it. I grew up in an egalitarian home and church environment so I can’t fathom going backwards. I can’t fathom having to argue with someone about my inherent value and worth and equality before God when it’s so settled in my soul. So to me that phrase means that I’m getting on with it. And I want other women to stop waiting for permission and simply get on with it. Do what God has called you to do. If you can’t do it where you are, go where you can. You’re loved and you’re free – let’s live like it. 

You speak a lot about redemption in “Jesus Feminist” and on your blog. It is obviously a pretty important theme in your life and ministry. Many scholars believe that patriarchy in the home and the church is God’s design for marriage and ministry. Even more liberated thinkers on the church-front still claim that the husband is the head of the home due to Paul’s letters. You have stated that you believe in mutual submission between a husband and wife and that Jesus is the head of the home. How do you reconcile this belief to Paul’s letters and how is your theology more redemptive than a more traditional interpretation

I go into this in a lot of depth in the book so this will be a short summary but I think that Paul has been misunderstood and misrepresented. A lot of this discussion is rooted in how we read and understand the Bible. The verses of Scripture can’t be read in a vacuum of literalism. We need to read the whole of Scripture to truly understand it. And so for Paul’s letters, for instance, I looked at his full ministry – how he praised and esteemed women in leadership in the Church, how he turned the Greco-Roman household codes within the patriarchal society of his times on their head, how he used feminine metaphors to explain the mysteries of Christ, how he subverted the systems, how he passionately defended equality among not only men and women but masters and slaves, Greeks and Jews. I began to see that there is a vast body of scholarship that agreed with this view – it’s not new, it’s simply not worked its way from academia to the hearts and minds of a lot of believers. In writing Jesus Feminist, I wasn’t fighting against Paul, trying to reason him away, I was fighting *with* Paul. We were on the same side. Now I think that if Paul knew how a few of his words had been twisted, misinterpreted, and misapplied to be used against women, he would be broken-hearted. I also believe in the redemptive movement hermeneutic when it comes to women – I write more intensively about this in the book but basically, God has set us, as the Church with in the world, on a path of redemption. There is an arch and we are moving towards shalom. The Church should be on the forefront of moving that arch of redemption further out into peace and reconciliation.  

In your book, you shared your experiences with women in the third world country of Haiti. I think it is often easy for women in first-world-countries to excuse or even praise patriarchy. In our setting, patriarchy might even be appealing to some as it can sometimes include a more pampered life as “the man” heads to work, makes all the major decisions, and takes full responsibility for the family. But you have seen how patriarchy leads to much darker existences for women outside of our context. In your opinion, what sort of evils does patriarchy lead to worldwide

Oh, my goodness, patriarchy is so damaging as a system. And patriarchy is not “men” – it’s a system that enslaves both men and women, in my opinion. Almost all of our seminal social issues track their way back to our treatment of women somehow. Patriarchy contributes to tremendous evil throughout the world but I think the core sin of it is that it perverts the alliance God intended between men and women. It damages how we were meant to be together, how we were made in the image of God together, and it dehumanizes us. This dehumanization leads to tremendous evil and everyday wrongs.   

In my opinion, this conversation you have decided to engage in with such a bold book, is a spiritual battle. It seems we are not really fighting against “flesh and blood,” but against evil that continues to try and oppress God’s daughters. I receive almost weekly emails or comments from Christian women who are deeply entrenched in both marriages and churches who don’t respect their God-given authority and truly feel they are considered “second-class-citizens.” How do you recommend these women join our army and fight against such injustice but follow Christ’s ways at the same time

I receive those emails or stories, too, and they are very precious to me. I think it’s a truly personal decision for many of us and our “fight” is often connected to how we’re made and placed. The starting point though is always Christ. We start with our Jesus and then we learn how to walk in the ways of Jesus and then we find the courage and boldness and gentleness to fight the powers of darkness, to conspire against evil, to plant gardens in our exiles. The fruit of the Spirit will bloom in our lives as we remain connected to the Vine (John 15 and Galatians 5) and Scripture tells us that against such things there is no law. And in the meantime, feed your spirit with the truth  of God’s view on women and then walk it out. There are so many ways to show up in your own life and we need each other. I needed to see other women walking in freedom to know that I could walk in freedom, too. We can encourage each other, honour one another, advocate and rabble-rouse on behalf of one another. My way won’t be your way and that’s how it’s supposed to be. In the meantime, we’re each always looking for ways to set up an outpost for the Kingdom of God in our right-now lives.    

Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I am truly honored to work with you and have your thoughts on my blog. “Jesus Feminist” has inspired me to walk out my mission of “breaking the glass steeple” in a gentle, humble, but unapologetic disposition. Your book has led me to a deeper understanding of what it truly means to be a Christian woman.    

highly recommend “Jesus Feminist” to all my friends; housewives and career women alike, because all are accepted at Sarah’s table! 
 
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Sarah Bessey is the author of the best-selling book, “Jesus Feminist.” She is also an award-winning blogger and writer as well as a popular speaker. You can find her online at www.sarahbessey.com. Her new book “Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith” is coming out in November. 
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