The ardent feminist who found delight in biblical submission
When Claire Smith was at school, the Christians in her year group voted her “the person least likely to become a Christian.”
Coming of age during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, the author and theologian was a devotee of the creed that “anything a man can do, a woman can do better.”
“So for me to become a Christian was just massive,” she says as we sit in the Eternity Cafe in Sydney’s Town Hall Arcade.
It’s a surprising revelation from this quietly spoken academic and speaker who has become an authority on the “equal but different” view of biblical gender roles.
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Claire says that “in God’s kindness”, the big things of Christianity got sorted out first when she became a Christian in her early 20s, “and it was several years before I came to realise that Scripture was saying something that didn’t fit with my very feminist mindset.”
“So for me to become a Christian was just massive” – Claire Smith
It was while studying at Moore College, an Anglican theological college in Sydney, that Claire was confronted by parts of the Bible that challenged and offended her feminist outlook. Rather than putting them into the too-hard basket and closing the book, Claire embarked on a deep and extensive study of seven key passages about men and women that continue to divide Christians today.
Spending many years thinking about those passages in 1 Timothy, 1 Corinthians and 1 Peter that advocate different roles to women and men in the church and marriage led to a radical remoulding of her heart to the extent that today she delights in what she calls God’s good design for men and women.
“I guess the remarkable thing to me is that the more I studied God’s word, the more I delighted in those things,” she says.
“The remarkable thing to me is that the more I studied God’s word, the more I delighted in those things.” – Claire Smith
In her book, God’s Good Design, Claire takes the reader through the same process she went through in working out how men and women should relate together in God’s purposes, while answering many common objections, such as the case for mutual submission in Ephesians 5 and removal of gender differences in Galatians 3.
Claire also spent five years writing a PhD on the place and practice of teaching and learning in the early Christian communities, which included looking at the texts on men and women’s ministry. She is currently working on several writing projects (chapters for books) and preparing for speaking engagements here in Australia and the UK.
According to Claire’s reading of the key texts, most of which refer back to Genesis 1-3, it is fine for women to co-lead mixed Bible studies, write theological books that are read by men and women and take Sunday school. It is the leadership of the church and the authoritative preaching of the word to a mixed congregation that are out of bounds.
“There’s not a sense that women will be held back by accepting this.” – Claire Smith
Talking to Eternity at a time when more women are preaching, even in the conservative Sydney Anglican Diocese, Claire says the issue is much bigger than the tension around women in the pulpit because “it goes to who God made us as men and women but also it goes to the clarity and the authority of his word.”
“I would say that if God’s word gives men and women different responsibilities in marriage and in the church then it will go best for us if we live accordingly, so there’s not a sense that women will be held back by accepting this,” she says.
“God gifts both men and women. They’re equal in creation, in salvation, in his purposes. It’s not that men get all the good stuff and women get all the bad stuff. We are equal and we use the gifts that we have in many of the same ways, but in certain respects differently as it applies to certain roles in the church and within marriage.”
“Why is it so important to speak to men? Are women not good enough?” – Claire Smit
Asked if it could be seen as hair-splitting to exclude women from preaching when they can teach in other ways, Claire counters: “Why is it so important to speak to men? Are women not good enough? Is it not enough of a blessing to share God’s word with women?
“And I think this is where the discussion has been unnecessarily narrow … One of the things that, unfortunately, has happened in many of our church cultures is that everything has been shrunk down to the sermon as if that’s the only important bit – that’s the only time teaching happens.
“I think we do need to find opportunities for women to participate in our public gatherings.” – Claire Smith
“Actually, when you think about what happens in the service and outside of the service, there’s lots of learning that takes place; and if you look in the New Testament, women are praying and prophesying, and people are learning from their ministry – and I think we do need to find opportunities for women to participate in our public gatherings; and similarly for men who aren’t able to teach – because it’s not all the men who are preaching the sermon, it’s only the few. What about all the other men? They also have things that we can learn from.”
Asked what a marriage that entails submission to male headship looks like in practical terms in this day and age, Claire says it is different in every marriage and evolves over time as a couple grows together and faces various challenges.
“There has been for me … a growing joy in being Rob’s wife and in allowing him to lead us as a couple.” – Claire Smith
“But I think underneath it all there is a sense in which the husband has a role of responsibility and initiative to shape and lead the marriage and the family. Now, that’s a sacrificial role, so it’s not, ‘Great, I’ve got this and I’m going to use this to get what I want;’ it’s, ‘How do I use my leadership in the way that Jesus does? How does he use his authority to lay down his life to serve us?’ So a husband should use the God-given role that he has been given to love and cherish his wife, to provide a family where she is able to be all she can be in the Lord. And of course, that’s what makes any use of threats, intimidation or violence within marriage so wrong. It’s so contrary to the way Christ loves the church.”
Claire says her marriage to Rob Smith, an Anglican minister and noted songwriter, has changed over the years as they have both grown into their roles.
“There has been for me a growing understanding and a growing joy in being Rob’s wife and in allowing him to lead us as a couple and care for me and nurture me. And, yes, I’m blessed because he really has wanted me to use all of my gifts to the fullest of my abilities and, for example, encouraged me to spend five years doing a PhD and supported me in that. Now he’s doing one! So we’re going the other way now.”
She acknowledges the privilege of having an Anglican minister for a husband, which gave them the flexibility to share parenting roles when their son was young.
“The Lord has been very kind to me, but I realise not everyone has my experience of marriage,” she says.
“That’s part of cherishing, that … you enable them to do what they can do to serve the Lord.” – Claire Smith
“I was getting invitations to sit on committees and speak in places and Rob says that at one point he realised ‘I married her because she loves the Lord and wants to be involved in ministry and my responsibility is to help make that happen.’ So, he rearranged things and worked from home when I had meetings and engagements; he said ‘I’ll be at home and look after our son so you can go and do the things that the Lord had called you to do.’
“Ideally, one of the aspects of the husband being the head is this enabling and nurturing and cherishing – that’s part of cherishing, that you love someone and you enable them to do what they can do to serve the Lord.”
“I’m not convinced that that flows over into all women are helpers of men.” – Claire Smith
Like those who espouse an egalitarian view of biblical gender roles, Claire believes the fact that Eve was created to be a helper to Adam is not a put-down.
“Is it a demeaning term? No, because, actually, the same Hebrew word is used most often of God and for military aid, so God is a helper to his people, or military aid helps someone. So it’s the sense of the resources of the first aren’t sufficient and so they are met by a helper,” she says.
“The second thing is, I’m not convinced that that flows over into all women are helpers of men. In fact, that’s not the way that I would read it. In the New Testament it’s worked out, first, in the relationship between husband and wife, with the husband being the head and the wife submitting to him voluntarily – the ‘voluntary’ is important – and second, in the church, it’s expressed in women not teaching or having authority over men, and that’s how our submission is expressed in that context.
“I think we need to be careful that we don’t push things on to men or women that just aren’t in the Bible.” – Claire Smith
“But in terms of the secular workplace, I think you respect your fellow colleagues, male and female, you love them, you share the gospel with them, you pray for them, you help all of them become the people that the Lord has created them to be. And so you will relate to men as men and women as women, but I wouldn’t myself see that helper role working out in the Genesis 2 sense. Similarly, I wouldn’t look at a woman serving on a crèche team and say, ‘Oh, there’s a woman being a “helper”. I’d say there’s a woman using her gifts to serve the Lord.’ Just as we would if there was a man on the crèche team.”
Claire also believes that Christians should resist many unhelpful cultural gender stereotypes such as that men are violent and women love shopping.
She points out that the Proverbs 31 woman is “buying and selling fields, she’s got her own private enterprise, she’s making it happen and yet she’s a woman who honours her husband and delights in her family and, as I say in the book, you don’t get the sense that her family is missing out on anything for all her activities outside the home. So, I think we need to be careful that we don’t push things on to men or women that just aren’t in the Bible.
“Women have tremendous scope both in how we express our femininity in a way that pleases the Lord and tremendous scope in terms of our involvement and contribution within Christian fellowship.”
“I would like to move away from a discourse of power into talking about responsibility to serve.” – Claire Smith
On the #metoo phenomenon, Claire believes Christians should be at the forefront of defending all those who are vulnerable and who are exploited and that includes the unborn, and children and anyone in a position of less power.
“I think that one of the things that our society has done that makes it very difficult to think about the Bible’s teaching about men and women is that all sorts of leadership is reduced to power. And power in the way it’s conceived is malevolent. So it is self-seeking, self-serving, and violent and exploitative and so on … I would like to move away from a discourse of power into talking about responsibility to serve.”
“In terms of the #metoo movement, I think it has some good elements and some not so helpful elements. I think it runs the risk of being tokenistic, and virtue signalling – all of that. Should employees be safe and respected with dignity? Yes. If people adhered to the Scriptures would that be the result? Yes.”
“If everything that is good is in the Scriptures, then I will work with the feminists to bring about a good for women.” – Claire Smith
Similarly, with feminism, she believes that the good changes it has brought about are only good because they are in keeping with God’s will as expressed in the Scriptures.
So it is possible to be a feminist and a Christian?
“Well, I think I’d want to say, why would you need to be? I would rather be a Christian. Because if everything that is good is in the Scriptures, then I will work with the feminists to bring about a good for women as I’ll work with the environmentalists to bring about environmental good,” she says.
One problem with most types of feminism for a Christian is its espousal of abortion, she says.
“I think I would say no, no, I’m a Christian, that’s my identity. I am in Christ, and then there will be aspects in certain streams of society that I can agree with and in a sense be a co-belligerent with them.”
One problem with most types of feminism for a Christian is its espousal of abortion, she says.
“There are the lives lost, but also the negative effect on women. And so many women. As I’ve said when I speak on this and write on this, we must assume that is so even in our churches, especially among women who’ve become Christians as adults” she says.
“There was a hashtag campaign last year called #shoutyourabortion. Really, of all people, Christians are the ones who have freedom to share their stories because we know that we’re forgiven, that there is no condemnation because the Lord has taken our sins.
“That provides eternal comfort, the only one that there is.”