The Women’s March drew over four million people worldwide. In America, 450,000 women marched in Washington, DC; 150,000 met in Seattle; and about 250,000 gathered in Chicago. My Facebook feed could barely hold all the pictures of friends, both Christian and otherwise, marching together. They marched for myriad issues, including many pro-life friends strongly opposed to abortion who nevertheless resonated with other concerns voiced by the march.
Yet many orthodox conservative believers dismissed the concerns of both organizers and the millions of women across the United States and the world who gathered on the day of the Women’s March. They focused singularly on the conflict over whether pro-life women were welcome, painting organizers as rebellious, abortion-loving women whose concerns were not fit to engage.
The whole thing reminded me of Acts 17 and of how differently Paul at Mars Hill brought the gospel to Athens, a culture with which he had strong disagreements. Paul interacted with Athenian culture and concerns instead of dismissed them.
This is a new Mars Hill.
Christians have developed a love affair with apologetics—the defense of the truths of scripture through reason or discourse. Paul demonstrated this kind of defense in Acts 17, in which he used the culture of Athens to point locals to Christ.
You’ll find books on the topic gracing bedside tables of many professing Christians. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Keller’s The Reason for God are consistently ranked the best sellers in this category.
Like the Apostle Paul, Lewis and Keller engage skeptic readers where they are and point them to the ways in which the truths of scripture and the character of God meet them at their starting point and move them forward to belief, building understanding from the ground up. Yet this has not characteristically been the way conservative ministers have engaged skeptical women, particularly those whose cultural concerns were demonstrated by the January Women’s March.
For many in more conservative traditions, acknowledging the legitimacy of any concerns that coalesced around the Women’s March feels like opening the door to skepticism—it seems like a challenge to the entire biblical idea of male leadership in the church and home.
But as Paul and Lewis and Keller suggest, that particular fear of engagement is unhelpful. It restrains many who are well equipped to engage women in their skepticism from ever ministering the gospel truths that best meet them in their questions. Paul gives us a different way in Acts 17, a way I believe applies to modern day women’s marches.
The Ancient Way
Paul, first, had more than a passing understanding of Athenian beliefs and culture. He was well versed in their ways, and yet he didn’t dismiss them. He found commonality with listeners, as Lewis did in Mere Christianity and Keller did in The Reason for God, and built the story of faith from shared concerns. Paul understood the idols of the Athenian culture, and he didn’t dismiss their religious concerns. He met them in them and built up from them.
I see that you are extremely religious in every respect. For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed: “To an Unknown God.” Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22–23)
When it came to the Women’s March, many conservative Christians offered a modern day contrast to this method. They forsook the example of deep understanding. They never listened long enough to hear the concerns and were quick to label marchers and their sympathizers as abortion-lovers.
But many of my friends who showed up at either Washington’s or Seattle’s marches did not go to support abortion—most were strongly pro-life. Even my pro-choice friends see abortion as a last resort, not something to be celebrated, but a necessity to be protected. Those who showed up, both pro-life and pro-choice, were primarily concerned with the election of a president with a serious history of sexual exploitation and even abuse of women.
A number of my friends have experienced sexual assault or abuse by an older, stronger, or more financially secure man in their life at a time when they were vulnerable. Even troubling support of abortion among women at the march is regularly founded on such concerns.
Biologically and culturally, men can walk away from sexual fornication, abuse, or even assault with few if any consequences. It wasn’t until 1975 that men could be sued for child support. For the overwhelming majority of human history, a woman had no recourse if a man walked away from her after sexual fornication or forced himself upon her in sexual assault. She was left with the full consequences of the act, including feeding and protect another human life, often without resources to feed and protect herself. Apart from Christ, abortion makes perfect sense as the coping mechanism in secular cultures in which many men internalize sex as a right.
Dismissing these concerns all but guarantees the biblical position is met with riot instead of revival.
Idols take different forms today, particularly in Western cultures, than they did in the ancient near east. For many women, the idol has become the self, a learned response to trust only themselves because neither individual men, the state, or American religion can be trusted with their concerns. Paul’s interaction at Mars Hill equips us to engage pink cat–hat wearing women with such concerns.
Paul’s way asks us to see women who are deeply concerned about a sexual culture forced upon them for millennia in which they did not have agency, in which they had to fight for the most basic rights to protect themselves and have some say in their future. Women have lived in many cultures that did not treat them as fully human beings.
It is the one true God who first declared woman as the good answer to the incomplete nature of humanity at creation. And it was this same God who spoke some of the earliest protections of women from sexual abuse in the history of humanity.
All that is wrong in the world flows not from how God created woman as the strong helper—ezer in the original Hebrew—in the image of one true Ezer, but in all the ways fallen humanity has turned away from him. The answer for women in response is not found in complete independence from man but complete dependence on the one true God, who protects and provides for his children, including his daughters, as only he can.
Read “Wonder Woman as an Apologetic Tool”
The answer, too, is not found in female sexual independence that mirrors a man’s, but in sex submitted by both men and women to God’s constraints, which forbids the type of sexual exploitation Donald Trump exemplifies.
The cries of women against sexual abuse and exploitation personified by Trump’s pussy-grabbing comment remind me of the hole in Athenian religion that made an idol to an unknown God. Athenians knew something was wrong and some important truth was missing. There must be another answer, because their gods and attempts to answer their concerns left a hole. The status quo of what was left was unacceptable. There must be more! Many don’t know this is the cry of a God-sized hole in our heart: humans created in the image of God, marred by our Fall, yet longing still for the one true God and the Eden he created—by any means possible.
Women’s cultural concerns are in here, not just out there.
In a recent informal survey of 550 Christian women, 60% had a favorable or mixed reaction to the Women’s March. Respondents, most who were strongly pro-life, offered feedback. “There were issues against women that needed addressing.” The march “seemed like an attempt to brace our collective selves for the next hit” in light of the “harm that men have done to women over the centuries.”
“I realized I have a lot of shame and guilt over just being a woman with passion and desires, and it was healing to be loud and proud of how God made me for once rather than quiet and submissive.” And “it made me feel a little more safe in a Trump America.”
It is noteworthy that three out of five Christian women, well over a majority of women potentially sitting in the seats of our churches on any given Sunday, would resonate this much with the Women’s March.
And, like Paul in Athens, it will benefit ministers of the gospel to think how to engage women, discipling those in Christ and evangelizing those who are not, in their real concerns, not the caricatures we sometimes draw of feminists and proponents of women’s rights.
Paul didn’t open on Mars Hill by telling Athenians that their idol to an unknown god was stupid or rebellious. He instead connected the truths of their creation by God with the foundational longing of their heart, the one true God for whom they were created to worship. Women, too, even unbelieving proponents of abortion wearing pink cat ears angrily marching against Donald Trump, have a true longing in the deepest recesses of their hearts based on their creation in God’s image, which Satan attacked and the Fall perverted.
Every one has heard people quarreling. Sometimes it sounds funny, and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds I believe we can learn something very important by listening to the kinds of things they say. —C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Pastor or ministry leader, do you dismiss those concerns? Do you mock them? What if instead we find the deeper longings of the hearts of our sisters and connect them to their creation in God’s image?
Read Part Two
What if we minister the good news of Jesus, in our congregations and out into our communities, as the bridge over the gulf separating our fallen humanity from our created longings? When we seek to understand the deepest longings of anyone’s heart, we are better equipped to minister the gospel accurately and effectively.
Cover image by Alice Donovan Rouse.