Last year a group of Christian women launched a Seneca Falls Two conference to address the prevalence of violence in Christian homes—abuse they believe is a result of a misinterpretation of Scripture. The Seneca Falls Two conference took place on the 162nd anniversary of the American Suffragists Conference, held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. At the original Seneca Falls meeting, 300 men and women met in a Methodist church to demand equality for women as the means of protecting women and children from abuse in the home and society. The purpose of the Seneca Falls Two conference was not to demand equality for women in society because the first Seneca Falls Movement proved successful in accomplishing that goal. Rather, their objective was to demand that churches and Christian homes embrace the biblical basis for shared decision making, again, to prevent violence. What is more, they are also asking for an apology from prominent complementarians whom they believe are directly responsible for promoting a theology of male hierarchy that leads to abuse.
The convention drew a direct link between male authority and domestic violence. One convener, Jocelyn Andersen, was herself a victim of domestic violence. Growing up Southern Baptist, she understood her role to be submissive to her husband. But, it was never enough she tells us. One minute her home was peaceful, the next it was violent. Her husband’s behavior in no way correlated to her own submission, despite warnings from prominent pastors that women who are not submissive provoke violence in their husbands. Andersen, married to a Baptist pastor, said her husband held her hostage for nearly twenty-four hours beating her and ranting about women who try to rule over men. Abuse was the reason many promoted the vote for women and participated in the first Seneca Falls Convention. Abuse is the reason many today work to extend the message of Scripture’s teaching on gender equality to the Christian home and church.
Andersen, and others like her, follow in the footsteps of early evangelicals. Consider the work of Josephine Butler and Katharine Bushnell. Their evangelism worked in tandem to address social issues faced by women and children, and their efforts led to one of the largest expanses in Christian faith. Yet, after years of working to free the oppressed, they began to see that the global abuse of women was inseparable from a devaluation of females that led to male dominance and female submission. Working in India among brothels established by the British government to attract and retain soldiers and officers in India, Katharine Bushnell, a medical doctor, along with Josephine Butler infiltrated these garrisons to learn firsthand how young girls had been forced to work as prostitutes. Writing about her understanding of abuse, Bushnell says,
…the social evil would never be got rid of so long as the subordination of woman to man was taught within the body of Christians…Furthermore, we agreed that we must have the whole-hearted backing of the Christian church in our [work], and that we would not have it until men came to understand that a woman is of as much value as a man; and they will not believe this until they see it plainly taught in the Bible. Just so long as men imagine that a system of caste is taught in the Word of God, and that they belong to the upper caste while women are of the lower caste; and just so long as they believe that mere flesh—fate—determines the caste to which one belongs; and just so long as they believe that…Genesis 3:16 [teaches] “thy desire shall be for thy husband, and he shall rule over you…the destruction of young women into a prostitute class [will] continue. But place Christian women where God intends them to stand, on a plane of full equality with men in the church and home, where their faculties, their will, their consciences are controlled only by the God who made man and woman equal by creation…then the world will become a much purer [place] than it is today…
To make the teachings of Scripture clear, Bushnell wrote God’s Word to Women: One Hundred Bible Studies on Woman’s Place in the Church and Home. Bushnell’s book was a death-blow to any notion of gender superiority on the pages of Scripture. Her arguments were biblical and systematic, and they also added momentum to the first wave of egalitarians who wished to extend biblical authority to women, not only to advance the gospel, but to also redress the abuse of women and children. A deeply biblical movement, the early evangelicals developed the first systematic and biblical affirmation of the ontological and functional equality of women and slaves. They showed in word, in deed, and through their biblical scholarship that Christian faith truly is good news for women, liberating them from the abuses they had always known by showing them how Scripture offers equal dignity and also equal authority to both males and females. May we stand on their shoulders, may we respect their service, and may we extend their important ministries for the sake of the whole church, and indeed the whole world.