Can We Be Christian Feminists?
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.” 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.” 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.” 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.” In the chapter, “Can our Hermeneutics 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.” 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. 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. 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.” 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.” 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” 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.” 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. 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.” 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.”
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.
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.
Sarah Bessey, Jesus Feminist (Brentwood: Howard Books, 2013).
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.
Hermeneutics means the process of interpreting the Bible.
Pokrifka, “Can our Hermeneutics Be Both Evangelical and Feminist?,” 327
Young, Feminist Theology/Christian Theology, 55.
Greene-McCreight, Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine, 48.
Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk, 18.
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.
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.
“Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” Preface.
Ibid., Articles 3,6, and 12, respectively.