In the broadest sense, feminism is a global movement and social program that directs its efforts toward the emancipation of women. This is done primarily by seeking for women the same rights as men in modern society, especially in the political, social, and economic realms. Often, these efforts are focused upon the removal of obstacles, such as beliefs, values, attitudes, and social structures, which hinder the process of women’s liberation.
Feminism has its roots in the abolitionist movement that preceded the Civil War in the United States. In this tumultuous period, some activists came to the conclusion that the biblical basis for the emancipation of slaves also applied to the rights of women. The focus of this early feminist effort was women’s suffrage. The climax came in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which gave women the right to vote (1920). (We should note, however, that while white women were guaranteed the right to vote, this same privilege was not provided for women of color until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.)
The feminist impulse reemerged in the 1960s, after a vast number of important social and cultural changes. The President appointed the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (1961) and Betty Friedan published her historic book, The Feminine Mystique (1963). As the nation was moved to recognize the oppression of African Americans during the civil rights movement, the consciousness of many women was awakened to their continued inequality. Activists formed a number of women’s rights groups, most notably the National Organization for Women (NOW). The focus of this phase of feminism was equal opportunity in all areas of life, as well as the protection of women’s reproductive rights and sexual freedom.
Feminism entered the arena of Christian theology in the late 1960s, with the impact felt most strongly in the United States and Europe. Feminism conflicted with Christianity on account of the perception that it views women as second-rate human beings and encourages their treatment as such. Mary Daly was the earliest and most vocal feminist to scrutinize Christianity and the church in light of feminism. Her works The Church and the Second Sex (1968) and Beyond God the Father (1973) remain monumental to the movement, although she now considers herself a “post-Christian feminist.”
Today, feminist Christian theologians continue to try to articulate the Christian faith from the perspective of women as an oppressed group. Three are particularly prominent in their influence and promotion of change: Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and Letty M. Russell.
Significant diversity exists among Christian feminist theologians, so much so that one must speak of many feminist theologies, not one uniform feminist theology. Even so, there are five identifiable unifying themes or beliefs for the movement:
1. Traditional Christian theology is patriarchal. This means that it supports patriarchy, an evil system, manifested in language, institutions, and cultural practices, which subjugates and excludes women from the public sphere and prevents women’s experience of full humanity. Also, traditional theology has been written, almost totally, by men and for men, assuming that maleness or the male experience is the standard form of humanity and men are the primary contributors to theology.
2. Traditional theology has repeatedly ignored and distorted women and women’s experience. Because the male was considered “generic” or “standard” for humanity, females were considered deviant and lesser humans. Women were not deemed as having anything important to say. Women who appeared in Scripture or tradition were often ignored or their roles downplayed.
3. The patriarchal nature of traditional theology has had damaging consequences for women. Christian theology has often been a major force in shaping culture. Ignoring women and perpetuating negative views of women both arose from and contributed to patriarchal culture in church and society in general. This circular problem affected the attitudes of church and society toward women and their capabilities, and constricted women’s development as whole human beings.
4. Women must take a lead role in the shaping and directing of contemporary Christian theology and ministry. The only solution for the abovementioned problems is for women to become theologians and ministers, questioning the patriarchal mindset and doing theology in such a way that the history of women and women’s experience makes a difference. Women must become equal, valued shapers of Christian theology and church ministry.
5. Women’s experience, as defined by feminists, must be a source and norm for any serious contemporary Christian theology. This means that women’s experience must provide a basis for theology and a standard by which to judge its adequacy.
As Christian feminist theology develops out of these five unifying themes, four major phases emerge. First, feminist theologians offer critiques of and new perspectives on history. Second, they seek alternative biblical and extra-biblical traditions to support women’s full personhood, equality, and calling as leaders and ministers. Third, feminist theologians construct their own unique method of theology. Fourth, they offer ideas and practices that they perceive to be more true to the feminist understanding of Christianity, including the reinterpretation of Christian doctrines and symbols, the reconstruction of the nature of the church, and the development of feminist ethics.
Even as all agree on the five themes and most progress through the four phases, feminist theologians disagree on numerous important points. Such dissensions present difficulties for evangelicals seeking to respond to feminist theology. For example, there is no unity on the proper role of traditional foundations of Christian theology, like the Bible and early church councils, in feminist theology. They disagree on whether women should remain in traditional churches to work for reform or leave the churches to find fellowship elsewhere. The apologetic task is further complicated by the way the meaning of the term “feminist” has shifted in recent years. In the past, “Christian feminist” could refer to anyone who sought to establish the equality of women in the church and society. Many leaders claimed to be “evangelical feminists,” affirming the equality of women in life and ministry, while remaining committed to traditional Christian doctrines and practices. Yet, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Christian feminist theology has come to be associated with a movement that works toward radical revision of Christian doctrines and practices.
In the search for an apologetic to feminist theology, evangelicals must begin by distinguishing between the movement within the churches for women’s equality and feminist theology in general. The former, often called egalitarianism, has found recognition and agreement across a spectrum of evangelicals and denominations. Insofar as the quest for equality has remained faithful to the biblical, Christian tradition, it has made a beneficial contribution to evangelical theology. Strong disagreement remains between those evangelicals who would argue for functional hierarchy in marriage and ministry (complementarians) and those who would argue for complete equality in the same (egalitarians). Yet, as long as both views remain committed to biblical, Christian tradition, both are acceptable evangelical options.
Moreover, before offering appropriate criticism of feminist theology, evangelicals are wise to recognize at least one valuable contribution of feminist theologians. The view of women propagated by many theologians throughout church history is unbiblical and wrong. For example, Augustine believed women to be only secondary image-bearers of God (De Trinitate 7.7.10). Thomas Aquinas proposed that women are only “misbegotten males” (Summa Theologica, pt. 1, q. 92, art. 1). Martin Luther assumed the inferiority of women and argued that women’s subjugation to men is their deserved punishment for causing the fall of Adam into sin (Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, “Gen. 2:18”).The belief that men possess all worth, virtue, and power while women are inferior, defective, and sub-human, defies the consistent teaching of Scripture (see esp. Gen. 1:1:26-27; Gal. 3:28) and the exemplary practices of Jesus Christ (see esp. Mark 5:25-34; Luke 10:38-42; 13:10-17). Therefore, evangelicals may join feminists in condemning such teachings and affirming the equal value of women as God’s image-bearers.
Ultimately, however, feminist theologians have gone too far in their radical revision of Christian doctrine and practice. There are numerous examples of this departure from Christian tradition, but of primary importance are their conceptions of authority, the nature of God, and the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Based upon their premise that Scripture is thoroughly saturated in patriarchy, feminists do not accept the Bible as the principle authority for theology. Moreover, even though Jesus Christ is the center of Christianity, authoritative divine revelation cannot be limited to him either because, in their estimation, even he did not bring about the full equality of women. With the Bible and Jesus Christ set aside as acceptable sources of authority, feminist theologians turn to their definition of “women’s experience” as the foundation for Christian feminist theology. Generally, feminist theologians do appeal to the Bible and Jesus Christ in their theologies, but only inasmuch as they find in them a liberating message for women. This means that, ultimately, women’s experience, as defined by feminists, is equal to divine revelation.
Yet, if women’s experience is the standard that determines what in the Bible and the teachings of Jesus is or is not authoritative then feminist theologians have given up the prerogative to call their theologies “Christian.” As valuable as it may be, women’s experience is a completely relative and subjective conception, disqualifying it from serving as an ultimate authority for any Christian theology. Without Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures, Christianity becomes whatever feminist theologians say it is. Moreover, in their rejection of all sources of authority outside of women’s experience, feminist theology turns into ideology—an intellectual system based on a social program. Feminist theologians affirm allegiance to gender-equality as their foundational premise and then subject God and the Bible to this commitment. One cannot claim to be one’s own standard of authority, creating theology out of an ideology, and remain within the Christian tradition.
The doctrine of God in feminist theology also possesses no meaningful commonality with classical Christianity. Because feminists view any form of hierarchy as equivalent to patriarchy, they have no room for a God who is Lord, King, Father, or any other “male-oriented” biblical concepts. Even the biblical account of a Creator speaking the world into being is understood to express an oppressive reality, leading feminists to affirm the mutual dependence and co-existence of God and the world. The interdependence of God and creation is formally called panentheism, a view of God that, once again, transgresses the bounds of Christianity. The Bible teaches that God is at once transcendently sovereign over creation and immanently present in creation through his Word and Spirit. Feminists who worship God intertwined with creation ultimately worship the creation and themselves, rather than the Abba Father of Jesus Christ.
The feminist view of Jesus Christ also fails to maintain any meaningful connection with Christian tradition. In fact, feminist theologians remain at odds among themselves regarding whether or not a male Savior can bring salvation to women at all. Some feminist theologians regard Jesus Christ as the paradigm or representative of true humanity, emphasizing not his unique status, but the calling of other humans to become like him. Other feminist theologians, rejecting the classical doctrine of Christ’s full deity and full humanity, present a feminist rendition of the “historical Jesus” who was a revolutionary liberator pointing toward a new humanity that will experience a perfect community of equality. Moreover, almost all feminist theologians reject any sacrificial or atoning view of Christ’s death, believing such a view glorifies violence and abuses the character of God.
Jesus Christ was indeed a revolutionary figure, a liberator of the oppressed (Luke 4:16-21), and the ultimate example for all Christians to follow. Yet, he was much more than this as well. The testimony of the early church and Christian scripture is unanimous: in word and deed, Jesus Christ claimed for himself not only equality with God (see esp. Mark 14:62; Matt. 28:18; John 5:23; 8:58; 17:5), but also the unique status of the one who’s death and resurrection would accomplish God’s salvation (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45). The apostles understood this truth and affirmed it in their writings (see esp. John 1:1-3; Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 1:15-20). Christians through the ages have worshipped Jesus Christ as fully God and fully human, the second person of the Trinity, who’s sacrificial death gained salvation for the world. Feminist theologians have abandoned this most central belief of Christian tradition and, in so doing, moved beyond the bounds of Christian faith.
Feminist theologians present revisions of many other important themes of Christianity, like salvation, the church, and the kingdom of God. Yet their interpretations of authority, God, and Jesus Christ are sufficient to show that they have undertaken a program of far-reaching alterations to Christian doctrine. In standing for the equal status and worth of women in church and society, feminism has made a valuable contribution to Christianity. In the end, though, feminist theologians have gone too far in their radical revision of Christian doctrine and practice, leading them into a religion altogether different.