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Definition

Feminist theology claims to seek the equality, justice, and liberation of women from what it perceives to be oppressive male systems of power and domination in religion.

Summary

Feminist theology is theology and biblical studies done using feminist methodologies and theories of interpretation. Feminist theology seeks the equality, justice, and liberation of women from what are perceived to be patriarchal or androcentric systems of power and domination that have shaped the church, the history of the translation and interpretation of the Bible, and the Bible. It does not typically regard the Bible as the authoritative Spirit-inspired Word of God. There is not one “feminist theology” but many, each reflecting different historical, cultural, and global settings, particularly using intersectional analysis. Feminist theology, like feminism more broadly, seeks revolutionary change and its effects have been far-reaching, and provide the context for contemporary evangelical ministry.

Overview of Feminist Theology

Feminist theology has developed both alongside and in dialogue with secular feminism. While the word “feminism” might suggest a comprehensive monolithic ideology or movement, it is more an umbrella term for many different feminism(s) that use differing methodologies, address different concerns, and advocate different views, some of which are mutually exclusive. The same is true of “feminist theology.” There is not one “feminist theology” but many, each arising from different historical, cultural, and global settings. This state of flux and diversity is a defining feature of current feminism and feminist theology and is regarded positively as reflecting feminism’s ideological commitments.1
Feminist theology is not so much theology and biblical studies done by women, but theology and biblical studies done using various feminist methodologies and theories of interpretation. Generally speaking, feminist theology seeks the equality and welfare of women by opposing and dismantling what are seen as patriarchal or androcentric (male-centered) systems of power, domination and exclusion.

Feminist theologians believe these systems of male power and privilege have shaped the history of the church, the history of traditional biblical interpretation—and sometimes even the content of the Bible (written by men for men)—and have justified and resulted in the oppression, silencing, and exclusion of women in all areas of life, including the church. In its search for liberation of women from these structures, feminist theology is informed by and usually considered a form of Liberation Theology.

Intersectionality

In recent years, the concerns and methodologies of feminist theologians have broadened from a focus on women and gender relations to include the compounding effects of race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, (dis)ability, post-colonialism, and what are perceived to be other dynamics of power and privilege. The interconnected, overlapping nature of these social categories is known as “intersectionality.” Intersectional analysis seeks to identify and deconstruct the way that different experiences and dynamics of marginalization intertwine and multiply the harmful effects of each other. It is a feature of third and fourth wave feminism.

On this analysis, the perspective and needs of the marginalized take priority over those of the privileged—among whom are white, well-educated, middle-class, Western, female feminists—and the gender essentialism that characterized much (Western) second-wave feminism, which assumed the experience of all woman was the same (e.g., poor and rich; Western and non-Western), is also deemed problematic. Accordingly, gender essentialism, and sometimes (counter-intuitively) even a binary view of gender, have been replaced by post-modern subjectivism and diversity.

Feminist theology now employs a wide range of methods and perspectives reflecting the varied experiences of women around the globe; including African-American women (womanist theology); Hispanic-American women (mujerista theology); Korean women (minjung feminist theology); low-caste Indian women (dalit feminist theology); African and Asian women; women in post-colonial cultures; differently-abled women; and those from the LGBTIQ+ community—including trans-women (biological males).

Embodiment

Despite this diversity, most approaches are interested in the nature and implications of women’s embodiment, and suspicious of body-soul dualism as well as theories that associate women with bodily existence and the natural world, and men with the “higher” world of rationality. The complementarity of men and women portrayed in the Bible and until recently widely accepted in historic, orthodox Christianity is typically rejected. Instead, feminist theology stresses the value and experiences of women’s embodiment as both the source and goal of theological reflection, and the corresponding need for women’s bodies and the experience of female suffering to be acknowledged and present in sacramental ritual and liturgy.

Ecofeminist Theology

Feminist theology often also embraces ecological or environmental concerns, which take various forms that reflect different underlying theologies. For example, one form arises from intersectional concerns for justice and poverty relief, and a commitment to local and global economies, and the environmental conditions necessary to sustain production. Another arises from the belief that male notions of hierarchy, domination and exploitation are responsible for degrading the created world and must be replaced by a feminist approach which upholds the mutuality of humanity and the creation, seeking to achieve their mutual flourishing. Another arises from the rejection of what is regarded as the patriarchal God of the Bible (i.e., God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit of the Father and the Son) and of all hierarchical and/or dualistic distinctions between the divine and the created world, and instead embraces either panentheism or a feminine deity or Creator Spirit.

Evangelical or Biblical Feminism (Egalitarianism)

Since the early 1970’s, some evangelicals have sought to bring feminist thought to bear on the study of the Scriptures and church practice. Initially, they formed the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (EWC), eventually splitting over the issue of homosexuality in 1986, and forming the EWC and Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE)—with the former affirming homosexuality, and the latter rejecting it. The EWC is now aligned with liberal feminist theology.

Evangelical feminists recognize the authority of the Bible as divinely inspired. However, for a variety of reasons, they do not accept that Scripture teaches there are different roles and responsibilities for men and women in the family or the church or alternatively argue that these differences do not apply today. They seek identical roles for women and men in ministry and also within marriage.

Feminist Hermeneutics

For all their differences, feminist theologians usually approach the text of Scripture with similar convictions about its interpretation that determine their understanding and application of the text. The articulation of this hermeneutic varies but usually includes: a hermeneutic of suspicion, a hermeneutic of retrieval, and a hermeneutic of reconstruction.2

A hermeneutic of suspicion involves reading against the text rather than with it. Instead of uncritically accepting the inspiration, authority, inerrancy, and wisdom of the entire text of Scripture, a hermeneutic of suspicion assumes the male patriarchal/anti-women bias of Scripture (written by men for men), and critiques and deconstructs the text and/or the tradition of translation or interpretation associated with it. Not all Scripture is regarded as “the word of God,” and so there is a canon within the canon. Only that which conforms to feminist beliefs should be proclaimed in the church (cf. “hermeneutic of proclamation”).

A hermeneutic of retrieval seeks to recover and venerate the lost history of women in the Bible and the history of the church. It also involves remembering the suffering of women in Scripture, especially victims of violence and injustice (e.g., Hagar, Tamar, the unnamed concubine, and the daughter of Jephthah),3 and questioning the place of these accounts in Scripture and their continued use in the church (cf. ‘hermeneutic of remembrance’).

A hermeneutic of reconstruction seeks to revise traditional (male-dominated) approaches to the Bible and historic Christianity and replace them with women-centered approaches. In so doing, the Bible becomes a resource for the liberation of women, and feminist theory leads to changed praxis (cf. “hermeneutics of creative ritualization” or “actualization”).

These hermeneutical principles are reflected in a statement produced by feminist authors meeting at the 2010 conference of the Society of Biblical Literature. They determined that “feminist” work—

  • must challenge/destabilize/subvert the subordination of wo/men, rather than strengthen or reinforce it;
  • must reflect appreciation of and respect for wo/men’s experience by acknowledging wo/men’s capacities and agency; […]
  • must have as its consequence far-reaching changes in religion and society, as well as political and revolutionary significance. Hence, it must be practical, this-worldly, transformative, renewing, and transitional.4

In short, feminist theology is not a theoretical academic pursuit, but is a means to an end: namely, to bring far-reaching revolutionary changes to the lives of women, the church, and wider society.

Theological Language

The critique of language is an important part of this revolutionary change. Most feminist theologians regard the masculine theological language of the Bible and the perceived masculine bias of traditional theological language as problematic, believing that “if God is male, then the male is God.”5

At the more radical end, some feminist theologians use “G*d” or “God/dess” or Sophia rather than “God,” which is thought to be irretrievably linked to male patriarchal images of God; and “the*logy” or “thealogy” rather than “theology” (cf. Greek word theos is a masculine noun; thea is the feminine form). Other feminists use both male and female names, pronouns and images for God or gender-neutral names like Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Re-naming and re-imaging God is a key project for feminist theology, and these linguistic moves reflect significant departures from historic Christian doctrine.

Less radically, some major English Bible translations have adopted a gender-inclusive or gender-neutral approach, both in order to render the original languages more accurately in modern English, and to respond to changes in language that are the result of feminism. The principles of sound translation, and Bible translation in particular, are complex, and some of these translations have been less reliable than others—sacrificing accuracy for the sake of intelligibility or the avoidance of offence.6

Irrespective of whether feminist convictions are accepted, the changes that feminism has brought to everyday language are a consideration for contemporary Bible translations, and the preaching and theological reflection that make use of them. For example, while the English Standard Version (ESV) retains the use of the generic “he,” it also points out in footnotes that the Greek word adelphoi (translated “brothers” in the main text) may in the New Testament “refer either to men or to both men and women who are siblings (brothers and sisters) in God’s family, the church” depending on the context.7 Thus, while the ESV has not replaced “brothers” with “brothers and sisters” in the main text (cf. NIV 2011), the addition of these footnotes recognizes both the effect of feminism on language meaning and on readers of the ESV.

Engaging with Feminist Theology

These changes in everyday language are evidence of the far-reaching effects of feminism. The central premise of feminist theology—that the church, the Bible, and even the God of the Bible, are misogynistic and bad for women—has been accepted by many if not most people in the secular West. Hence, a resistance or hostility to the biblical gospel and historic Christianity provides the backdrop to most efforts at evangelism and outreach and impacts regular Christians in their daily lives.

Most denominations have faced debates about women’s ordination and the ministry of women, and many have conceded ground to feminist principles and exegesis. Even within denominations that have not changed their polity, individual churches and households can be divided on the role of women in the home and the church. An understanding of feminist theology and its effects are therefore necessary for effective ministry in most cultural settings.

However, there is some common ground between Bible-believing Christians and feminist theologians. For example, beliefs or practices that undermine the dignity and equality of women (e.g., unequal pay, pornography, domestic abuse, and sexual harassment) should be as abhorrent to Bible-believing Christians as they are to feminist theologians—even if we do not agree on the root cause of, or solution to, these problems.

At the heart of both feminist theology and evangelical theology is a question: What is the Bible? The feminist answer is that the Bible is a collection of fallible or at best unreliable human words that must be sifted and read with a hermeneutic of suspicion if they are to be good for women. The answer of the Bible itself is that the Scriptures are the Spirit-breathed authoritative life-giving true word of the living and true God (2Tim. 3:16), and that while the church may err, Scripture does not.8

Footnotes

1Laurel C. Schneider and Cassie J. E. Trentaz, “Making Sense of Feminist Theology Today,” Religion Compass 2/5 (2008), 788–803, here 796.
2Laurel C. Schneider and Cassie J. E. Trentaz, “Making Sense of Feminist Theology Today,” 792.
3E.g., Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984).
4Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Between Movement and Academy: Feminist Biblical Studies in the Twentieth Century” in Feminist Biblical Studies in the Twentieth Century: Scholarship and Movement, ed. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2014) 4, who attributes the words to Monica Melanchthon. The fracturing of “wo/men” is intended to reflect the diversity of women’s identities and include “disenfranchised men,” p. 3, fn. 4.
5Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973 ) 19.
6See, D. A. Carson, The Inclusive Language Debate: A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), although it predates the TNIV (Today’s New International Version) published in 2002.
7Preface in English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001) ix, and footnotes, e.g., Rom. 1:13.
8Articles XIX and XXI, Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.

Further Reading

Evangelical non-feminist/complementarian resources

  • John Piper and Wayne Grudem (editors), Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism.
  • Kirsten Birkett, The Essence of Feminism.
  • Mary Kassian, The Feminist Mistake: The Radical Impact of Feminism on Church and Culture.
  • Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism?
  • Margaret E. Köstenberger, Jesus and the Feminists: Who Do They Say That He Is?
  • D. A. Carson, The Inclusive Language Debate: A Plea for Realism.

Classic feminist theology texts

  • Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation.
  • Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Reconstruction of Christian Origins
  • Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives.

Classic evangelical feminist (egalitarian) texts

  • Elaine Storkey, What’s Right with Feminism.
  • Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothius, Gordon D. Fee, Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy (2nd ed).

Overview of feminist theology from a feminist perspective

  • Pamela D. H. Cochran, Evangelical Feminism: A History.
  • Laurel C. Schneider and Cassie J. E. Trentaz, ‘Making Sense of Feminist Theology Today’.
  • Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (editor), Feminist Biblical Studies in the Twentieth Century: Scholarship and Movement.

This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.