His Wisdom for Her World

Can We Be Christian Feminists?

By on November 19, 2015 in Feminism, Theology with 11 Comments

Feminism has been getting a facelift lately. From Beyonce’s 2014 VMA performance, to Emma Watson’s U.N. “He for She” campaign, women are identifying themselves as feminists to champion a broad umbrella of issues. Essentially, being pro-women is considered synonymous with feminism.

It’s occurring among evangelical Christians, too. Earlier this year, the millennial-oriented, faith-and-culture publication, Relevant Magazine, featured an article entitled, “5 Ways the Bible Supports Feminism” on its website, making points like, “God intends male and female to contribute their unique strengths to benefit each other and the world,” and “Humans are sinful and Christians are called to fight injustices.”[1] Who could disagree with that? So, the article reasons, Scripture must agree with feminist beliefs. In her 2013 book, Jesus Feminist, Sarah Bessey said Jesus made a feminist out of her, calling women to explore “God’s radical notion that women are people, too.”[2] She also stated that, “until being a Christian is synonymous with doing something about these [injustices against women], you can also call me a feminist.”[3] For the globally minded woman compelled to speak out for the silenced, Bessey hits a nerve.

On the academic front, consider the 2011 work, Tamar’s Tears: Evangelical Engagements with Feminist Old Testament Hermeneutics, which claimed, “[I]t is possible to be an evangelical feminist biblical scholar.”[4] In the chapter, “Can our Hermeneutics[5] Be Both Evangelical and Feminist?” Todd Pokrifka stated that a feminist approach to Scripture is not only congruent with evangelical Christianity, it is also the morally highest expression of evangelical Christianity. In his own words: “[M]any of the hallmarks of feminist hermeneutical approaches to the Bible should be embraced by evangelicals precisely because they are a natural outflow of biblically-based evangelical theological convictions about God (especially God’s justice), and humans (sinfulness and fallibility as writers and reader) and about God’s work (redemption). That is, an evangelical hermeneutic not only is compatible with much of feminist hermeneutics, but it may spur one to adopt feminist hermeneutical convictions and approaches.”[6] For Pokrifka, feminist theology and evangelical theology work together.

In a nutshell, since feminism advocates that women are equal in value and dignity, and the Bible also proclaims women have equal value and dignity, then many conclude that feminism and the Bible must agree. But can we mix feminist and evangelical approaches to the Bible? Will the basic ingredients of feminist ideology work with the basic ingredients of evangelicalism? To answer this, we have to look at the foundations upon which both of these views are built.

 

The Foundation of Feminist Theology: Women’s Experience Determines Truth

Within a feminist approach to theology, women’s experience both interprets Scripture and determines whether or not Scripture is true. The feminist reader filters the biblical text through her personal awareness of women’s collective experiences (most often experiences of oppression). These experiences determine what in the Bible is valid.

According to Pamela Young, discovering women’s feminist experience is a process of self-realization.[7] This self-realization involves seeing how women have been conditioned or socialized into being controlled and dominated by other men. Instead of defining themselves, women have conformed to men’s expectations.[8] For example, behaving in stereotypically “feminine” ways (i.e. like a “lady”) and fulfilling stereotypically feminine roles (i.e. being a nurturer) are examples of women’s socialized experience. The whole goal of this process of self-realization is for women to stop defining themselves on male terms, and to define themselves on their own terms.

And the conclusions of this process are nonnegotiable. Women’s experience is plaintiff, judge, and jury in deciding what the Bible really means, and how it applies to us today. For feminist theologians like Katherine Greene-McCreight, women’s experience is superior to biblical revelation. As she says in Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine, “[th]e Bible is authoritative but carries no ultimate or overriding authority.”[9] For Greene-McCreight, women’s experience is placed over and against Scripture.

So how does a feminist interpreter determine whether or not a biblical text is valid? Rosemary Radford Ruether, one of the most notable theologians in feminist history, suggested this: “The critical principle of feminist theology is the promotion of the full humanity of women.”[10] So far, so good…But that’s not the whole story. Ruether also claimed, “[W]hatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine”[11] This means the individual woman’s perspective is the deciding factor in determining what it true (i.e., promoting the full humanity of women) and is false (i.e., denies the full humanity of women). For instance, if an individual woman determines that the boundary in 1 Tim 2:11-15 or the account of woman’s creation in Gen 2:18-25 diminish her full humanity, she must dismiss them as concepts that don’t completely reflect God’s character or intention.

Ultimately, within a feminist approach to the Bible, the reader judges Scripture to determine what is true, and what is false.

 

The Foundation of Evangelical Theology: Scripture is God’s Self-Revelation.

Within an evangelical approach to theology, Scripture is the highest authority. This is so foundational that if you changed it, you’d no longer be talking about evangelicalism. The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology defines an evangelical as an orthodox Protestant, “[w]ho has a preeminent place for the Bible in her or his Christian life as the divinely inspired, final authority in matters of faith and practice.”[12] That would include the final authority over experience. For an approach to be considered truly evangelical, Scripture can have no rival.

Consider the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978), written and affirmed by evangelicals and often considered a theological benchmark.[13] According to the Statement, “Recognition of the total truth and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture is essential to a full grasp and adequate confession of its authority.”[14] Among its affirmations, the Statement claims, “that the written Word in its entirety is revelation given by God;” “that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration;” “[and] that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.”[15]

This approach to Scripture is incongruent with the feminist conviction that we can (and must) determine whether or not a biblical text is true.

 

Can We Be Both Feminist and Evangelical?

In their purest forms, feminism and evangelical are incompatible. It is simply impossible to maintain two different theologies that have two different (and competing) sources of ultimate truth. The conviction that Scripture is the highest authority is incongruent with the belief that women’s experience is the highest authority.

Despite how popular it’s becoming to identify evangelical Christianity with theological feminism, these two worldviews have clashing claims. And, eventually, one of them will give way to the other. In trying to make one perspective sound like the other, we end up distorting them both.

While modern feminism may advocate for some worthy causes – such as issues of women’s dignity that we, as the Church, are also responsible for – we don’t need to borrow from feminist ideology to make our Christianity relevant. The belief that women have equal value is a biblical concept, not a feminist one (Gen 1:27-29). Just look at Jesus treated women to realize that women’s dignity is a biblical value, one that the Church does not owe to a secular, social movement.

No, we cannot really be both feminists and evangelicals. But, in our conviction that the Bible is pro-women, we don’t have to be.

 

[1]Amy Buckley, “5 Ways the Bible Supports Feminism,” RELEVANT Magazine [on-line], 29 April 2015; accessed 27 July 2015; available from http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/worldview/5-ways-bible-supports-feminism; Internet.

[2]Sarah Bessey, Jesus Feminist (Brentwood: Howard Books, 2013).

[3]Ibid., 172.

[4]Todd Pokrifka, “Can our Hermeneutics Be Both Evangelical and Feminist? Insights from the Theory of Practice of Theological Interpretation,” ed. Andrew Sloane, Tamar’s Tears: Evangelical Engagements with Feminist Old Testament Hermeneutics (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2012), xii.

[5]Hermeneutics means the process of interpreting the Bible.

[6]Pokrifka, “Can our Hermeneutics Be Both Evangelical and Feminist?,” 327

[7]Young, Feminist Theology/Christian Theology, 55.

[8]Ibid., 55.

[9]Greene-McCreight, Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine, 48.

[10]Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk, 18.

[11]Ibid., 19.

[12]Timothy Larson, “Defining and Locating Evangelicalism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology, eds. Timothy Larsen and Daniel J. Treier, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 1.

[13]While not every evangelical considers herself an “inerrantist,” The Chicago Statement demonstrates the widespread belief among evangelicals that Scripture is entirely true, trustworthy, and accurate in all it affirms.

[14]“Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” Preface.

[15]Ibid., Articles 3,6, and 12, respectively.

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About the Author

About the Author: Katie McCoy serves as Assistant Professor of Theology in Women's Studies at Scarborough College of Southwestern Seminary. She holds a PhD in Systematic Theology from Southwestern (2016). Her research focused on Old Testament laws about women's personhood and what they teach us about women's dignity and social justice.

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  1. Jory Micah says:

    Hi Katie. Nice writing, but I have to disagree with your major criticism of evangelical feminism, which is that we interpret scripture based off our experience. This simply is not true. Many of us have graduated from conservative evangelical universities/seminaries in which we have gone to great measures to learn what the Bible says apart from our “experiences from oppression.” No doubt though, experience always play into biblical interpretation no matter how great of a theologian one is; as this whole post you have written is biased as to your particular experience. Why? Because we are unable to separate ourselves from our experiences. This is theology 101. Looks like you are a smart cookie, so you probably already know this. Many (actually most) evangelical feminists believe that the Bible has the final authority. They have studied the same passages you have studied in great regard, but come out of their studies with a different perspective than yours (or what you have been taught). I hope you hear my heart, but this post is not accurate of evangelical feminists. Find me at jorymicah.com if you want to correspond more. God bless your blog! Xo

  2. Retha says:

    Katie McCoy, I see you did some homework: You can gives multiple sources for believers who call themselves feminists. That is good! But you do not give evidence for “The feminist reader filters the biblical text through her personal awareness of women’s collective experiences (most often experiences of oppression). These experiences determine what in the Bible is valid.”

    That is firstly a redefinition of femism, and secondly a statement of which, between feminism and the Bible, is most important to the Christian feminist. Both allegations are baseless.

    1) Redefining feminism:
    Feminism, according to the dictionary, is believing in equal social, economical, etc. opportunities for men and women, and working to achieve such equality for women.
    Others would rather define feminism as freeing women from oppression. One of the reasons is that “freedom from oppression” makes it easier to see why feminists concern themselves with things like rape laws.
    Feminism is does not mean reading everything in the light of female experiences. When feminism argues for thinking from a female experience, it is in opposition to always thinking from only the male experience. It is not about women replacing God, but about women adding the other part of the truth in a world that speak mostly from the male perspective. Of course, in a world where God calls believers not to lord it over others, to love others as ourselves, where Jesus can be seen in the least, God calls us to see the perspective of those who are undervalued as much as the perspective of the top dogs. Ultimately, a Christian follows God and not human perspective. But caring about the perspective of women (too), and not just men, is good.

    2) Telling us which will be the highest priority of the Christian feminist:
    If a Christian is into helping the poor/ freeing people from opression/ encouraging people to love one another/ making peace, does that mean the highest priority of such a believer is helping the poor/ freeing people from oppression/ encouraging people to love one another/ making peace, as opposed to following God?

    Many believers testify to having a high view of scripture and God and Jesus – and that causing them to believe feminist (equality as in Genesis 1 and 2, justice and freedom from oppression as in multiple sayings of Jesus and others) ideas.

    In short, you redefined feminism to call it fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. If you want to make a real case for this incompatibility, you need to compare evangelical Christianity to the real definitions (equality, justice, freedom from oppression) of feminism.

  3. Gail says:

    I must take issue with your statement that “within a feminist approach to theology, women’s experience both interprets Scripture and determines whether or not Scripture is true. ” Just as there are many types of Christians (fundamentalist, conservative, moderate, progressive, liberal, etc.) there are many types of Christian feminists. You can’t make this claim of all Christian feminists, only of those who fall on the extreme liberal end of the spectrum. There are plenty of moderate Christian feminists who believe Scripture is true, but take issue with traditional interpretations developed from only a male perspective.

    I also think it is a far leap to say that RRR’s statement “[W]hatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine”[11] means the individual woman’s perspective is the deciding factor in determining what it true (i.e., promoting the full humanity of women) and is false (i.e., denies the full humanity of women). It seems to me that “whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine” because it would go against the nature of a just and loving God who created man and woman in his own image and gave them an equal mandate to rule and nurture creation.

  4. krwordgazer says:

    Many of us call ourselves feminists because we sincerely believe that Jesus taught and exemplified the full equality of all human beings, and that this is what the kingdom of God is all about– and that means we believe the Bible’s teachings are the foundation of our feminism, not the other way around.

  5. Meredith says:

    I am both a feminist and a christian. I write and publish about the misogynistic abuse of power in the church. Can someone please explain to me how I cannot be both? It seems to me that standing up for women and children is what Jesus did.

    • Retha says:

      Meredith, can you please give me a link to your blog? I always like to see the perspective of more Christian feminists.

    • Lilian says:

      Hi, Meredith. In my opinion a Christian woman cannot be both, the reason for me is simple. God gave the responsibility to men since the beginning as Christ loved us, and he was created first. It doesn’t mean we are with less value, just God pleased to do that and we are the complement of men, why God decided that I think had a very good reason. I am so pleased to be a Christian woman. As I believe the Bible is the Word of God, woman is a precious gift for men as her other half. No more no less, just exact as God said.
      we don’t need to say woman feminist, in the concept of woman only is everything what God wanted for us. Blessings.
      ( I like the word woman of God 🙂

      • Retha Faurie says:

        “we don’t need to say woman feminist, in the concept of woman only is everything what God wanted for us. ”

        I am a feminist exactly because I want to be, and want all women to be, everything God called them to be. Even when men limit them, women should, as the disciples said, obey God rather than men. Christian feminism is to want women as safe as men, to want them to live out their gifts as freely.

  6. Marni says:

    Thank you for this post. I am going to do more research for myself concerning Evangelical Feminism – for I just learned of its existence last night. It concerns me deeply due to the reality it brings in concepts of Paganism (woman-focused perspective). I know of this too well personally, for after a very feministic perspective in my upbringing in Judaism, Paganism for a handful of years (prior to my acceptance of Christ in my mid-20’s), drove me to live in a feministic mindset. And it nearly ruined my marriage, because I elevated myself to a level of that if my husband constantly – thinking I had the same rights to any and every position he can hold in life. But even while holding to Pagan tenets, I realized just how off this was. I also began to take a deeper look of how my parents marriage looked where this mindset was okay. It didn’t sit well with me to duplicate what I grew up with being taught through not only conditionings, but also example. Once I accepted Christ, and began to walk with him in relationship, I saw that not only did feminism play a huge part in my challenges as a woman (and now a child of God), but also the narcissistic abuse I endured from my mother (and enabling of this behavior, along with the feminism, as well as emotional neglect from my father). I know all too well the dangers of feministic perspective, and they just are not congruent with Christian doctrine. Trying to mingle the two together, is like trying to force oil and water to mix. It just doesn’t. When shaken, they mingle with one another down on a molecular level – but they don’t connect. Ever. Thank you for this clarity.

  7. Hi Katie!Thanks for this great article. I am teaching a class on Feminist Hermeneutics and Theology this fall and was encouraged to see this post. Keep up the good work! Is it possible to get a hold of your dissertation? Many blessings!
    Marny Kostenberger

    • Katie McCoy says:

      Hello Mrs. Kostenberger,
      What a wonderful encouragement your comment is! Thank you for reading. I wish I could sit in on your class! Your Jesus and the Feminists book is on my summer reading list. I’d be delighted for you to read my dissertation – I’ll email it to you today.

      Warmly,
      Katie

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