I grew up in Finland—one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. Though no culture is perfect, Finland continuously tops UN and World Bank rankings for best place in the world to be a mother and woman, and is also home to some of the happiest people in the world. The World Economic Forum named Finland the third most gender-equal country in the world in 2017.
As a young person, it seemed that my generation had moved beyond the issue of patriarchy. Due to the work of my grandmother’s generation and many generations before her, gender equality and egalitarianism were well-established cultural values in secular Finnish society.
Historically, the Finnish nation-building project didn’t start out with a feminist ethos. It was birthed by a small, northern people surrounded by powerful and often threatening neighbors, who needed to survive in a rugged and distant terrain. To say “stay in the kitchen ladies, you’re not needed in the public sphere” would have been impossible. Every pair of hands was needed—first to rebuild from the rubble of war and then to innovate and create something truly unique.
John Henley, European affairs correspondent for The Guardian, recently wrote: “Of all the Finnish words that are hard to translate into English, the one Finns cite most is sisu: a kind of dogged, courageous persistence regardless of consequence.” Egalitarianism is a testament to the dogged, courageous persistence of Finnish people. It arose out of necessity as the people of Finland fought to survive and then to reimagine a nation.
By the time it was my generation’s turn, the world was our oyster. Women studied whatever they liked and my dearest friends went on to become CEOs, diplomats, artists, and business owners in addition to daughters, wives, and mothers.
Early on, my life took a different turn. When my three sisters and I were just children, my parents joined a Finnish Pentecostal church. We would later join an American evangelical church plant that eventually brought our entire family to the US. For context, joining churches like these is highly countercultural in Finland. To my knowledge, only about 1% of Finns attend Pentecostal or non-denominational churches.
Growing up, I hid this part of my life in shame. I didn’t tell my friends that we now attended church three times a week and that the trips we took to St. Petersburg weren’t like the vacations they took to Mallorca. While they were drinking fruity drinks by the pool, we’d hit the streets hard with gospel tracts in hand.
It was probably because of this shame that I didn’t embrace all of the church’s teachings, including complementarianism. Instead, I learned to balance female agency in the world and female submission in the church like a pro water skier.
I advocated for sexual education for women and girls in school while also attending abstinence-only teen Bible studies that never discussed women’s bodies or sexuality. Many girls in my church community became pregnant before they finished high school.
I never saw a woman on stage at church unless she was in a knee-length skirt, singing. Women certainly weren’t at the table when poor decisions were made about how to deal with sexual abuse in the church. By contrast, I saw many examples of women shaping policy in secular society, including laws surrounding sexual harassment and abuse.
After one year in Bible college in the US, I planned to pursue my interests in leadership and international affairs at university. But when I shared my plan to pursue international studies at a secular university, my classmate, who had married the summer after high school, inquired: “where is God in your plan?”
I won’t forget my defiant answer: “I think he’ll know where I am.”
For a long time, I tried to balance two worlds and two belief systems. I tolerated patriarchy in the church but lived free outside its walls. I sat in the pews, guarding my little secret: I was a fully emancipated and capable woman, living out my full personhood in every other area of life—even my marriage. Yes, the church didn’t accept me as a full person, but surely I could forgive such a small oversight?
It was a thousand little things that finally released my theology from patriarchy. It was reading Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey, where she wrote: “He loves us. On our own terms. He treats us as equals to the men around him; he listens; he includes us—calls us all beloved.”
It was the birth of my daughter, as painfully perfect as her brother three years before her.
It was returning to the Finnish language Bible—one of the only languages with gender neutral pronouns. There, I found myself on every page, where every “he” was also “she,” and therefore me.
It was witnessing the strength of women around the world—from the streets of Baltimore to Bamako. It was the conviction that, without these courageous women, families and communities would not survive. Certainly this was true of their churches as well?
It was realizing that my creativity and talent weren’t an anomaly, accidentally placed in me instead of a man. God speaks the same affirmation to me, and to every woman and man, that he did at creation: “very good.”
Recently, my sister said to me, “I’m not an oppressed person. I am a white woman from Scandinavia. But for as long as I can recall, my creative life was subjected to the suffocating critique of a church where patriarchy was rampant.”
We were two sisters, living in the same house, but we had entirely different understandings of what was and was not allowed for women. For me, the rules of patriarchy were voluntary, but for her, they were creedal and unbreakable.
Finland is one of the most gender-equal societies in the world, but I had the same experience with gender roles in the evangelical church in Finland that I later had in a US evangelical church after I moved there. Women are still pressed to the sidelines of the evangelical church, no matter how egalitarian the surrounding secular culture.
How many more women believe the untruths of patriarchy, and waste years not manifesting their unique personhood and their calling to create? Millions more?
I am not willing to offer my daughter on that altar, hoping that her pastor and husband will practice benevolent patriarchy instead of the #churchtoo kind. I won’t risk my sisters, or myself, anymore. I won’t sit this one out and neither should any other woman.
We are all nation-builders in the church, meant to shape and create alongside men (Gen. 1:28). In songs of worship, we ask God to “build your kingdom here.” But God also gives us the ability to help do that—by building a church and world after God’s heart.
Like the women who helped rebuild Finland seven decades ago, we must be doggedly, courageously persistent. We must oppose patriarchy wherever it still exists, and speak biblical truth to power until all women are free.
Editor’s Note: Finland has a reputation as a world leader in gender equality. However, Finland’s evangelical churches do not necessarily mirror the egalitarian values of the surrounding culture. Eeva’s story is one example of this dissonance.
A small but influential minority claiming to represent “true” biblical Christianity promotes male-only leadership and patriarchal gender roles in churches throughout the country. This is crippling the advancement of the gospel in this mostly secular country.
Join CBE in Helsinki, Finland, this summer on August 3-4 for “Created for Partnership,” an international conference co-hosted by CBE and our Finnish partner, Ratas. Connect with Christians from around the globe; learn how to advocate for biblical gender equality in your own church; and be a catalyst for egalitarian momentum in Finland and beyond!