Women in the Church and Evangelical Feminism


Over the past number of decades, the term ‘feminism’ has gotten a bad rap. Many Christians seem intent on contending that ‘feminism’ is an ‘enemy’–to be thwarted at every turn. I am not sure what some Christians have been taught, but when the topic of ‘feminism’ is raised in some Christian circles, a number of people go ballistic!

Some have even speculated that the word ‘feminism’ is the new ‘F-word’ in some Christian settings. The question that comes to mind is: Why is that?

One factor is that there is an overarching assumption that all feminism is wrong.

I would like to take a poke at the new F-word—Feminism!! Therefore, it is necessary to clarify the historical roots of feminism and to put it in the perspective of the three waves of feminism. It will be important to note that the word ‘feminism’ is not just a single- purpose, catch-all word that is both suspicious and should be maligned because it is linked with radical feminism.

The history of the church includes a serious look at changes in how society and the church viewed the place of women. It is imperative that we grasp the facts regarding the historical record in order to be better informed and not caught in a false interpretation of the facts.

History Matters

The following commentary has been taken from an excellent book which explores and resets the idea that ‘feminism’ should be anchored in church history. It should be correctly designated as ‘evangelical feminism’ in order to be historically correct.

Historian and theologian, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, in her book: Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War between Traditionalism and Feminism has provided excellent research with insights into this topic. Rebecca’s work illuminates much of the uninformed and shallow thinking around these issues and bases them in historical happenings and in the context of the Christian church.

I, again, invite you to consider ‘evangelical feminism’ in order to understand its solid Christian heritage and then to recognize the impact that this 19th century movement has had on society as a whole. I ask you to reflect on what motivated people to change the way things were—and were motivated to make a significant difference!

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Let’s peel back a few layers of this onion and see what has gotten people thinking and/or reacting. Dr. Groothuis arrests our attention by using this colorful subtitle and then developing her astute perspective.

The Feminist Bogeywoman

“Feminist ideas are stereotyped; a one-size-fits-all definition of feminism —descriptive of the most radical secular feminism, of course—is used to characterize any idea that deviates from the traditional woman’s role at any point.

Traditionalism today equals   =    Antifeminism.

Many evangelicals have lately been concerned that the wall of demarcation between the church and the world has been breached by assorted evils, including feminism. . . . In this retrenchment effort, feminism is deemed wholly evil and traditionalism wholly biblical.   . . .

Falling back on tradition in order to circumvent the confusion and uncertainty of social change is not warranted, for the simple reason that that which traditionally has been understood to be biblical is not necessarily biblical at all.”

Agreed, it is mandatory that we need to get our facts straight in order to make informed assessments and draw valid conclusions regarding this topic.


Women’s Missionary and Reform Societies

Dr. Groothuis reminds the reader of the massive involvement of women in missionary and reform societies that was burgeoning forth in the 19th century.

“Women’s ministry in the 19th century initially took the form of evangelistic, missionary, benevolence, and reform societies founded and led by women. Numerous such organizations thrived from 1810 until 1920. In their zeal to involve women in ministry outside the home, these groups—without officially sponsoring feminism as a cause—were simply doing the things that evangelical feminists declare every woman should have the opportunity to do.”

Therefore, it can be clearly observed that: “biblical feminism is simply continuing along the lines of a tradition begun nearly two hundred years ago.”

Now we will look at what factors were in play during the 19th century that propelled godly women forward in making a difference in their society. We will consider the ‘roots’ of evangelical feminism in the social milieu of this era.


“Evangelical Feminism Compared with Other Views

The terms biblical and evangelical are used interchangeably to describe a feminism rooted in the Christian world view, which looks to the Bible—not “women’s experience”—as its final authority.

The biblical diagnosis for the “disease” of sexism recognizes that legal and economic inequity and the cultural institution of patriarchy are some of the factors that perpetuate gender injustice. But human sin is identified as the root cause of sexism as well as the factors that perpetuate it.

Genesis 3:16 spells out God’s commentary on sin’s consequences in the area of male/female relationships. Sin has resulted in women being ruled by men in every context—legal, economic, cultural, and personal.

The cure for this universal malaise is the same biblical cure prescribed for every ill effect of human sin: repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Men must repent of the tendency to use women simply to facilitate their own agenda; women must repent of their tendency to circumvent this male domination through sexual manipulation, as well as their tendency to give in to passivity and an unfaithful stewardship of the gifts with which God has entrusted them. . . .

Unlike mainstream feminists who often seem only to be trying to imitate men, and woman-centered feminists who seem bent on being separate from and superior to men, biblical feminists aim for both women and men to become more balanced people who are more harmoniously related to one another.

The goal of evangelical feminism is that men and women be allowed to serve God as individuals, according to their own unique gifts rather than according to a culturally predetermined personality slot called “Christian manhood” or “Christian womanhood.”

Also unlike many secular feminists, women who identify with evangelical feminism are not motivated by a greed for power or a self-centered desire to prove themselves equal or superior to men.

Rather, they are motivated by a sense of justice and the conviction that the traditional order which has been imposed on women and men is not in keeping with God’s will for his people. They desire to see women liberated from the stultifying effects of exclusively male leadership, and they are impelled to seek the opportunity to serve God and minister to others to the full extent of their abilities in obedience to the call of God.   . . .

Traditionally, evangelical feminism derives more from a spirit of “preaching the gospel to the poor” than an attitude of self-assertion and self-fulfillment. Speaking of the nineteenth-century women’s missionary movement, Ruth Tucker echoes similar sentiments:

“Women missionaries generally were motivated by the needs of others rather than their own. They may have looked and acted very much like feminists when they launched the women’s missionary movement in 1861, and when they individually fought for ministry opportunities equal to men’s, but beneath the surface the issues were very different.”

Far from being a struggle to gain power and dominance, the goal of biblical feminism is that men and women in the church might be liberated from the preoccupations with power and authority that characterizes the traditionalist agenda, so that everyone may serve God freely and whole-heartedly without the anxiety that one might be stepping out of one’s place in the “chain of command.”

Evangelical feminists believe that when male authority is billed as biblically mandated, this is not an inconsequential error. Such teaching entails the unavoidable implication of the male’s unique relationship to God—that he is more representative of God and closer to God in the “chain of command”—and it is therefore harmful to both men and women spiritually, socially, and emotionally.


Biblical Feminists and the Bible

Biblical feminists are distinguished from other feminists in their diagnosis and prescribed cure for the problem of sexism, and in their motivation for attempting to solve the problem. They also differ in their use of the Bible.

Other feminists either reject the Bible entirely or seek to interpret it from the perspective of “women’s experience.”

Evangelical feminists regard the Bible as authoritative in its entirety and maintain that sexism in the church derives from the traditional practice of interpreting the Bible in the patriarchal light of “men’s experience.”

The corrective to this androcentric hermeneutic is not a gynocentric hermeneutic, but one which is free of any hidden gender agendas.

  • A biblical feminist hermeneutic is no more woman-centered than it is man-centered
  • It simply seeks to correct a historic imbalance in traditional biblical interpretation as regarding the role of women.
  • It does not attempt to rewrite the Bible or to usurp biblical authority.

Naturally, male translators and interpreters with such a preunderstanding tended to find in Scripture what they expected to find—a central role for men and an ancillary, subordinate role for women.

But evangelical feminists believed that, although the Bible was written in the context of male-dominated cultures, it does not teach male domination as a universal, God-ordained norm.

Although evangelical feminism today has gleaned some truths from modern secular feminism, it is not a product of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s or 1970s, nor does it find inspiration in the pagan feminist spirituality which has emerged since the late 1970s.

Rather, biblical feminism is simply continuing along the lines of a tradition begun nearly two hundred years ago.

For evangelical feminists, the Bible is more than a cultural and religious force with which to be reckoned. It is God’s infallible and authoritative word—every believer’s source of truth. It is for this reason that evangelical feminists for the past two centuries have sought the accurate translation and interpretation of Scripture.

Respect for the veracity and authority of God’s Word is central to the evangelical feminist enterprise, and this is primarily what distinguishes it from the theologically liberal feminist approach to Scripture that has developed in the last century.”


What Does the Biblical Feminist Hermeneutic Include?

“The biblical feminist hermeneutic includes the following eight strategies.

The first and most fundamental principle of biblical interpretation is to endeavor to be faithful to the biblical author’s intent in writing the specific passage in question. We must try to determine why the biblical author wrote what he wrote, and in determining the “why” we determine the basic biblical principle or message of the text. That principle can then be applied to our own situation. All other strategies of biblical interpretation follow from this basic objective.

In order to know why the biblical author wrote a particular text, it is essential to know exactly what he wrote. Therefore, a second hermeneutical principle is the accurate translation of the passages traditionally used to silence and subjugate women.

Biblical feminists have found that many texts which are in fact less than clear in the original language have been translated so as to appear unequivocally to support the idea of male authority. . . .

1 Tim. 2:12 The traditionalist prohibition of women occupying positions of church leadership hinges on the translation of the Greek word authentein in the usual way of “have (or usurp) authority over.” But because authentein is not used anywhere else in the NT, and because authentein seems to have a wide variety of meanings in ancient Greek usage, the traditional translation of this verse appears to be open to legitimate debate.

1 Cor. 11:3-16 is full of notorious exegetical difficulties.

The only appearance of authority is speaking of the woman’s own authority— “authority over (or on) her head” is augmented to read “a sign of authority on her head” (NIV). This leads conveniently to the idea that the veil or covering that the woman is to wear serves as symbol or sign of her submission to the authority her husband has over her.

Such an understanding of the verse is far from obvious when one considers only the literal translation of the text. But when the text is augmented and the meaning adjusted so that the authority to which the verse refers becomes that of the man under whom the woman is placed in the chain of command, then it seems to support the traditional interpretation of the passage.

Third, it is important to maintain interpretive consistency with the rest of a biblical author’s writings as well as the whole of Scripture. Toward this end, unclear and/or isolated passages are not to be used as doctrinal cornerstones, but are to be interpreted in light of clear passages which reflect overall biblical themes.

This hermeneutical principle prohibits building a doctrine of female subordination on 1 Cor. 11:3-16 and 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:11-15, for these texts are rife with exegetical difficulties. Principles clearly expressed elsewhere in the Bible must inform one’s interpretation of such “proof text” passages.

Fourth, texts couched in a context of culturally-specific instructions are not to be taken a priori as normative for the present day. Biblical texts that have a universal, doctrinal orientation are more likely to be considered directly transferable to the present day than those texts that were intended for immediate practical application in a particular cultural situation.

Millard Erickson points to water baptism and footwashing as illustrative of the difference between a biblical command that is put into a universal setting (the Great Commission, Matt. 28:18-20) and a command given in a culturally specific situation (John 13:14-16). The biblical principle behind the footwashing incident is that we always ought to maintain a humble attitude of servanthood, rather than that we ought to institute a permanent sacrament of footwashing. “In that culture, washing the feet of others would symbolize such an attitude [of humility].  But in another culture, some other act might more appropriately convey the same truth.”

This leads to a fifth hermeneutical principle, which is that culturally-specific instructions are to be interpreted not only in light of biblical doctrine and principle, but also in light of the culture to which they were written and the author’s reason for writing them.

For example, when Peter instructs wives to be submissive to their husbands (1 Pet. 3:1), it must be remembered that in Roman society civil law granted husbands absolute authority over their wives and that Peter’s instruction is couched in the context of similar exhortations for believers to submit to the civil authorities. The biblical message, then, would seem to be that Christians are to be respectable, law-abiding members of society by behaving appropriately in the society in which they live, rather than that God has commanded all husbands for all time to be in authority over their wives.

Sixth, events recorded in the Bible should also be understood in light of the culture of that time. For example, a woman leader in a highly patriarchal culture would have more significance than a woman in leadership today. While both instances indicate that women are capable of leadership, chances are that the presence of a woman leader in a patriarchal culture—unless she is the wife, mother, or daughter of a male leader—indicates that something other than cultural forces propelled her to that position. We can therefore surmise that women in ancient Israel of the NT church who were in positions of leadership were quite likely in those positions by virtue of God’s design.

Seventh, because of the progressive nature of God’s revelation in the Bible, NT texts concerning women should be considered more accurate indicators of God’s intent for women than those provided in the OT. The familiar traditionalist idea that a man is the priest of his home, for example, fails to consider progressive revelation.

The OT arrangement whereby priests were always male Levites (or, in pre-Mosaic times, the patriarchs of households) was superseded by the new covenant, wherein Jesus serves as the permanent high priest (Heb. 7:21-24) and the one mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim 2:5), and all believers serve as priests unto God (1 Pet. 2:5-9; Rev. 5:10; 20:6).

Concerning the priesthood of all believers, F.F. Bruce comments, “If, as evangelical Christians generally believe, Christian priesthood is a privilege in which all believers share, there can be no reason that a Christian woman should not exercise her priesthood on the same terms as a Christian man.”

In discussing progressive revelation, Millard Erickson notes,

“In some cases, the essence of a doctrine was not explicitly realized within biblical times. For example, the status of women in society was elevated dramatically by Jesus. Similarly, Paul granted an unusual status to slaves.        Yet the lot of each of these groups did not improve as much as it should have. So to find the essence of how such persons should be treated, we must look to principles laid down or implied regarding their status, not to accounts of how they actually were treated in biblical times.”

Eighth, the propensity for male translators and interpreters to read their bias into the biblical text exemplifies the ever-present need to guard against interpreting the Bible in conformity with one’s own cultural preunderstanding or personal expectations. In addition to safeguarding biblical interpretation from emotional interference, it is important to rely on the direction of the Holy Spirit as well as one’s God-given reasoning abilities in the interpretive process.


Engaging an Evangelical Feminist Hermeneutic

The net effect of the evangelical feminist hermeneutic is the discovery that—contrary to what both traditionalists and radical feminists believe—

The Bible does NOT teach male supremacy as a transcultural norm

BUT teaches instead mutuality and equality between women and men.

The biblical principle of the essential equality of man and woman—each made in the image of God—is set forth in Genesis 1 and 2.

In Genesis 3:16 God delineates some of the consequences of human sin; he does NOT issue a command for men to rule women, as some have believed.

The entrance of sin into God’s created order destroyed the equality and mutuality of the relationship between woman and man; cultural patriarchy was the result.

God revealed himself and his plan for his people by means of patriarchal cultures, but progressively made known his redemptive plan whereby the essential equality of all people would be restored and the practice of sexual hierarchy brought to an end.

This ethic of male/female equality was put into practice by Jesus Christ, who countered the prevailing patriarchal norm by treating women as persons in their own right. It was summarized by Paul in Galatians 3:28 and was put into operation by Paul and the early Christians as they sanctioned the service of those women who had been called by God to leadership in ministry.

In view of the existing customs of the surrounding cultures, however, the principle of biblical equality was exercised with restraint and moderation in NT times. It was important, for the sake of the testimony of the gospel, that Christians appear to the onlooking world as respectable, law-abiding members of society. Clearly, the highest priority of the early church was spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The principle of human equality and liberation which was entailed by the gospel message could not be implemented on a widespread basis, at the risk of alienating non-Christians from that gospel message.

“Thus the early church, even while tolerating slavery for the sake of the missionary principle, pointed to a vision of Christian justice and community which would eventually leave slavery behind. So too, Christian feminists argue, does the Bible point beyond the patriarchy tolerated, yet progressively modulated, throughout salvation history to a vision of mutuality between brothers and sisters in Christ in marriage, church and society.”

Today, when non-Christians are offended, not by an equalitarian gospel, but by a hierarchical gospel, there is no reason to continue in the cultural practices that were initially intended for Christians living in a patriarchal society.


Far Deeper Issues Are At Stake

  • Far deeper issues about the relationship between men and women are at stake than that of who makes the (somewhat mythical) ‘final decision’.
  • Far more crucial is the teaching on love: self-giving and self-denying love which should characterize all relationships.
  • The way others will know that we are Christ’s disciples is in the way we love one another, and not in the way we exercise authority over one another.


Gender Is Not the Primary Determinative Factor

Unlike traditionalism and women-centered feminism, equalitarianism does not sexualize the entire person. Gender is not viewed as the primary determinative factor in a person’s life; spiritual, intellectual, experiential, relational, and personality factors are likewise important. A person’s sex does not deterministically and indelibly color all of a person’s character, being, and life experience. Sexual identity is not conflated with personal identity.”


In Conclusion

Dr. Rebecca Groothuis has again helped us to process the essential data regarding the motivation of the early evangelical feminists. We are brought up to speed regarding how to better approach the subject of ‘feminism’ from a biblical and Christian perspective.

Therefore, we must not equate all feminism with ‘radical feminism’ but discern better the implications of evangelical feminism. Also, we should not forget the impact of Christian women who blazed a trail for equality and justice in the 19th century and see how we can be inspired to do the same!


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The quotations for this article are taken mainly from Chapter 7, but also from Chapters 4 and 8, of the book entitled:

Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War between Traditionalism and Feminism by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis.

Publisher:  Baker Books, 1994.

Later version:  Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, 1997.

The excerpts from this book provide a small taste of the expertise that Dr. Groothuis has regarding the context of evangelical feminism in church history and invites the curious reader to explore her entire book and her other works for themselves.

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For Further Reflection

Two sites which provide Free Articles for personal research are:

Christians for Biblical Equality and God’s Word to Women.

CBE           www.cbeinternational.org

GWTW       www.godswordtowomen.org

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© 2014   Barb Orlowski, D.Min.