Some thoughts about “Christian feminism”

Some thoughts about “Christian feminism” December 29, 2011

Going where angels fear to tread: a response to “Christian feminism”

Anyone who pays close attention to my writings and especially to my blog knows I am an advocate of women’s rights and equality of women with men (and vice versa). My wife and I have enjoyed an egalitarian marriage for almost 40 years. I have two adult daughters I (with my wife) raised to resist any attempts to limit their potentials due to their gender. Within evangelical and Baptist circles I have advocated for women in ministry as equal with men in every respect. I have written guest columns in various publications to that effect and I have encouraged all my women students to follow God’s call wherever it leads them—including into lead pastor positions in churches. My wife and I have been members of two Baptist churches (in a row) pastored by women. We would not join a church that would not ordain women as deacons or to the gospel ministry. I have stood up in church business meetings and argued for quotas for women on church committees and boards (without success). (This was in a former church, not our present one.) In one church where we were members for 8 years I insisted that when the pastoral search committee talked about its future pastor (not yet selected) they say “he or she” and not just “he.” (The church had no policy against having a female pastor but tended to assume all candidates would be men.) I delivered a plenary address at an annual meeting of Christians for Biblical Equality and promoted that organization to my students and anyone who would listen. Furthermore, I have always taught my students that gender does not apply to God-in-himself/themselves, only to the second person of the Trinity because of the incarnation. (In other words, since the incarnation, there is a man in the Trinity—Jesus. But that does not mean God is male, rather, because of the incarnation, a man is one of the Trinity. Nothing about that fact makes men superior to women or maleness superior to femaleness. There is no ontological reason why God could not have become female.) I have taught students about the “motherly office of the Holy Spirit” (Zinzendorf, Moltmann) and regularly referred to the Holy Spirit as “she.” I have prayed publicly to “Our Father, who is also like a mother to us…” (much to the consternation of some traditionalists). I have taught my students about “Christian feminism” and  used books such as Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is in elective theology courses. I have argued very strongly for searching for women candidates when I have been on faculty search committees at three Christian universities.

I say all that for the benefit of anyone who thinks what I say following indicates sexism on my part. I won’t deny that, as a man in a still largely sexist society, I wrongly benefit from male privilege. I won’t even deny that sexism, so deeply embedded in our culture, seeps into my attitudes from time to time. I pray that God will protect and preserve me from that and help it never to affect my students, my wife, my daughters or any other women. I am simply of the opinion that sexism, like racism, is an insidious disease that affects everyone in a culture saturated in it since its very inception. (E.g., “all men are created equal….”)

Now, having said all that, I have some serious qualms about so-called “Christian feminism.” Let me clarify. The term “feminism” has at least two distinct meanings. One goes back to the women’s suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and to the “women’s liberation” movement of the 1960s. It simply means equality of women with men in every aspect of society. In that sense of feminism, I gladly embrace feminism and identify myself as a feminist. However, gradually, over the past few decades, “feminism” has taken on a different, added connotation especially in academic circles. (I say “connotation” because this second meaning of “feminism” may not be in any dictionary; it is nevertheless the growing impression of what the term means among both its advocates and its detractors and it is increasingly how the term is used in the scholarly academy.) This second meaning is, in brief, that women’s experience and way of being-in-the-world is superior to men’s and should be made the cultural norm including in education. One does not have to read far into the literature of feminist theory to grasp this belief and resulting agenda for social engineering. In my opinion, it has trickled down into public education (and no doubt much private education) so that, as Newsweek magazine reported in a cover story entitled “The Boy Crisis,” in public education generally boys are now treated as “defective girls.” That is, they are expected to learn the way girls typically learn and are punished or drugged for not conforming. The result is a huge increase in the dropout rate among boys and a correspondingly huge increase in the percentage of college and university students who are female (almost 70%).

In other words, I have come to believe that, while society still has a long way to go in achieving real equality between women and men in every area, in some areas the trend is already in the other direction—toward males (especially boys) being treated as unequal with women (especially girls). Another area where women are forging ahead and leaving men behind is in public health. I have blogged and written about that much in the past. I am still convinced that public health, both government sponsored and non-profit, is biased toward women. There is little or no public health concern about the fact that, in general, men do not live as long as women—even when they live healthy lifestyles. We hear frequently that “more women than men die of heart disease” without the added qualification that “heart disease” in that fact includes heart failure due to old age. What we don’t hear is that more men than women die of cancer and more men than women die of classical heart attacks and at much earlier ages.

But my concern here is primarily with so-called “Christian feminism” as it is represented by the main feminist theologians: Rosemary Ruether, Letty Russell (now deceased), Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Elizabeth Johnson, Susan Thistlethwaite, et al. I do not include in this list so-called “evangelical feminists” such as those involved in the founding of CBE and (on the British side) Elaine Storkey (author of What’s Right with Feminism?) because I think their beliefs about gender and their agenda for the churches is very different from those in the list of “main feminist theologians.” I have gone out of my way to hear (beyond just reading) as many of the main feminist theologians as possible. I have been at professional society meetings and public forums where the main speakers were Ruether, Russell and/or Thistlethwaite and I have corresponded with Johnson. I have not had the privilege or meeting or corresponding with Schussler Fiorenza, but I have read some of her books and watched youtube videos of her lecturing.

What I am experiencing is that a growing number of young, evangelical women students are being influenced by these “gender feminists” especially with regard to language about God, the nature of the Bible and Christian tradition (i.e., basic orthodoxy), and contemporary worship. I am certainly not of the opinion that these main feminist “Christian theologians” have nothing valuable to offer or that men and women students cannot learn from them. That is not at all what I believe. I encourage students to read them, but as with all theologians, they should be read critically. And therein lies a part of the problem; they do not want to be read critically. For them, feminism is an issue of justice. It is right that society and culture and churches should favor women’s experience and feminist consciousness (which is based on women’s experience) and that theology, including God, should be revisioned and reconstructed using women’s experience and feminist consciousness as the norm even over scripture (to say nothing of tradition). The result is, for example, that Elizabeth Johnson (and I think this is true of the other main feminist theologians) finds nothing valuable or helpful in male experience or consciousness. She stops short of saying that men are bad, but all of the positive images of God she recommends using in worship (for example) are female-based while all male-based images of God are criticized as hierarchical and oppressive. To a very great extent, the agenda of the main “Christian feminist” theologians is to flip tradition on its head and replace male images and metaphors for God with female ones. Whenever God is addressed as “Father,” for example, words such as “warm” must be attached; God must be imaged as a “motherly father” if as father at all.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against “balancing” male and female images of God in God-talk and liturgy. As I said earlier, I have myself prayed to “Our Father who is also like a mother to us….” What I am objecting to is that mainline feminist theology does not seem to me interested in simply balancing the scales, so to speak, but aims at reversing traditional sexism in theology and church life so that what they call “women’s experience” is valued more highly than men’s. Men’s experience is typically demonized (without quite saying so) and relegated to the dustbin of oppressive tradition. In order to be acceptable to these feminist theologians, men must become like (their perception of) women. Again, I agree that many men could benefit from being more nurturing and collaborative than they tend to be and society as a whole, and church life, could benefit from that. But it seems to me these feminist theologians are not only arguing for that. They seem to me to be using what they perceive as typical women’s experience, as defined by them, as the norm for political life (in its broadest sense including ecclesiastical organization, language, etc.) to the exclusion of men’s experience.

I agree with feminist theology (but not only feminist theology) that hierarchy among humans can be and usually is oppressive (except in relation to children who must be disciplined and constrained by adults). I don’t know if it can be escaped, but I resist it wherever I find it. By “hierarchy” here I mean the idea that status over automatically gives a person the right to dominate and control those whose status is below. I am not an anarchist; I believe leadership is necessary in every social order. But “leadership” need not be hierarchical. My problem with feminist theology is that it tends to imply that leadership itself is hierarchical and that every shred of hierarchy must be abolished even to the point of God being conceived as equal with creation and vice versa. There is a pantheistic strain in feminist theology. I once heard Susan Thistlethwaite deliver a talk on “God and her survival in a nuclear age.” Rosemary Ruether’s feminism in God and Gaia extends to arguing that we should abolish the idea of human survival of bodily death because it implies hierarchy (of humans over the rest of creation). Talk of God as “womb of creation” inevitably implies some kind of pantheism or at least panentheism.

My main concern is that this gender feminism, this mainline “Christian feminism,” is trickling down into so-called “liturgical renewal.” It is not confined to the ethereal realms of academic theology. An example, in my opinion, to be avoided, is (at least some of) the hymnody of contemporary feminist liturgist Brian Wren. I have sung some hymns by him to which I have no strong theological objection, but much of his “reimagining” of God in poetry and hymnody is strongly influenced by the kind of feminism I am talking against here. For him, all images of God are rooted in human experience. Sounds okay, right? But wait, aren’t some revealed? Is Jesus’ addressing of God as “Father” (and teaching his disciples to pray to “Our Father”) rooted in patriarchal experience? Is the Bible’s imagery of God at all normative for Christian theology, devotion and liturgy afterwards or can that imagery be “transcended” for the sake of contemporary political relevance and to promote a political agenda such as radically anti-hierarchical feminism?

One of the basic principles behind gender, mainline feminist theology is that “If God is male, the male is God.”  First of all, that wouldn’t follow even if it were true that God were male (which he isn’t). It’s simply an illogical statement meant for rhetorical effect. But what I think gender feminist theologians (including Wren) mean is that insofar as we use the Bible’s predominantly male imagery of God we teach people that maleness is closer to God than femaleness. Without doubt that has been the case throughout much of Christian history. But does throwing out male imagery of God in favor of predominantly female imagery solve anything? Or does it simply reverse patriarchy? The answer given by feminist theologians is that is not a problem because the opposite of patriarchy is radical equality. Revising imagery of God to suit our own needs (one feminist theologian said she needs a “God who looks like” her) seems dangerous to me. Pretty soon we leave biblical imagery of God behind and use imagery we have invented for our own purposes. As Donald Bloesch used to point out, this is exactly what the so-called “German Christians” did in the 1930s. (I am NOT comparing feminism with Naziism! I am pointing out a danger in moving away from biblical imagery in favor of culturally preferred “relevant” imagery. Where does it stop?  What limits it?)

Feminist theologians (including Wren) believe the Bible delivers to us a patriarchal idol. It also delivers, less obviously, perhaps, a liberating principle of equality—especially in Jesus’ ministry with women. In a sense, then, we must use the Bible against itself. I’m not totally against that; I believe there are elements in biblical revelation that are culturally conditioned and must be criticized using more dominant themes. What I am against, however, is using a contemporary cultural, political agenda (e.g., all hierarchy is bad and must be abolished including God over the world) to decide what is valid and what isn’t in scripture and tossing aside biblical imagery such as God as “Father” in favor of imagery we prefer and create to suite our agendas. Wren, for example, suggests these as alternative images of God (to the Bible’s): “Beautiful Moment,” “Maker of Rainbows,” “Weaver of Stories,” “Straight-Talking Lover,” “Midwife of Changes,” “Daredevil Gambler,” and “Life-Giving Loser.” (See What Language Shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: A Male Response to Feminist Theology [Crossroad, 1989].) He even goes so far as to refer to Jesus Christ as “she” (something common among feminist theologians justified by the idea that the Logos who became incarnate as Jesus Christ is the same as the “Sophia” of the Wisdom literature of the Bible.)

I have two main problems with feminist theology including Wren’s (and similar) liturgical revisioning. First, it is not clear to me at all that there original revelation (e.g., scripture) is normative. It seems to me that something called “women’s experience” and “feminist consciousness” is elevated to that level. The result is that “anything goes” so long as it is liberating and culturally relevant (i.e., speaks to and promotes the feminist political agenda). Of course, Christian feminists such as those I’ve named do argue that the Bible contains prophetically liberating elements, but there does not seem to be any commitment to the Bible as a whole as divine revelation, normative for Christian thought and practice (including worship) everywhere and at all times. The result is that there is little distinctively “Christian” about it. Second, closely related to the first, is that the cross tends to get left behind in feminist theology and liturgy. Sometimes it is positively denigrated as “divine child abuse.” Of course, feminists don’t deny that Jesus was crucified, but they do not think his crucifixion was a divine act. Instead it was a martyrdom that unmasks the evil of patriarchy. The cross and redemption theology in general tends to take a back seat (if not in the trunk!) to creation and re-creation theology. In this I find it often less distinctively Christian than pagan.

I’ll close with an anecdote about one of my encounters with a leading feminist theologian. I was about to write my chapter on feminist theology for 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (co-authored with Stanley Grenz) when Letty Russell (Yale theology professor and author of several influential works of feminist theology) spoke at a mainline Protestant seminary (noted for its liberal leanings) only about a mile from where I was teaching at that time. So I drove over to hear her. I arrived a little late and found only one seat empty—at the very back of the chapel. The chapel was filled with women. I think the seminary’s president and I were the only men there. Right at that time, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. was meeting downtown. It was dealing with a controversy over a Presbyterian church near Washington, D.C. that had called a United Church of Christ pastor to be its pastor. (The two denominations have pulpit fellowship.) This particular UCC pastor had publicly declared his disbelief in Jesus’ divinity. The local presbytery had barred the Presbyterian congregation from calling him as its pastor. The church’s appeals worked their way up to the General Assembly that year. Letty Russell spoke passionately for about 45 minutes about how that particular deliberation was a distraction from the main issue which was supposed to be quotas for women in all denominational boards. She said that her denomination always does that—changes the agenda to something “unimportant” like the deity of Jesus Christ when an issue of concern to women comes up for consideration. The chapel crowd of almost all women literally stomped their feet, yelled their support and approval, clapped ferociously throughout Russell’s talk and cheered her on as if this were a pep rally for a Texas football team. (Actually, I kind of liked the passionate participation and “feedback” of the gathered women.) Apparently my body language gave away some intimidation. The woman sitting next to me patted me on the knee and said “Don’t worry honey. We won’t hurt you.”

I have nothing against full equality of women with men in every area of culture, including the church and its institutions, so long as achieving that does not result in reverse discrimination especially for boys and young men. I have nothing against supplementing predominantly male biblical imagery of God with female imagery especially drawn from the Bible itself. I have nothing against feminists protesting patriarchy in the churches so long as they do not discard orthodox doctrine in the process. I have nothing against liturgical renewal so long as it is not done out of political correctness or a desire to be culturally relevant to the neglect of given revelation. I am firmly opposed to addressing God exclusively in gender neutral terms (“Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” in place of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”) or in female terms to the exclusion of male terms (e.g., “Mother” or “Motherly Father” to the exclusion of “Father” and “Lord”). I am firmly opposed to singing hymns in worship that are written to promote a political or social agenda with the purpose of making people feel good about themselves. I am firmly opposed to talking about Jesus Christ as “she” or depicting him as a female on a cross (“Christa”). Without any doubt, Jesus was and is male. I firmly oppose any hints of pantheism or panentheism (as that term was originally meant—to denote God’s dependence on the world) in theology or worship.

I promote teaching Christian folks that God has no gender in spite of the predominantly male imagery of God in scripture. I promote teaching that both male and female characteristics are valuable but prone to distortion and that both genders need redemption without in any way destroying or even undermining their uniqueness as created by God. I promote Christian leadership without hierarchy. I promote liturgical renewal that is not ideologically driven. I promote teaching boys and men to be suspicious of our socially-driven tendencies toward patriarchy without demeaning maleness itself.

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  • Gary

    My first reaction is…it is over-reaction. For every right cause, there is a left. For every extreme position, there is an opposite extreme position. Your comment “I am still convinced that public health, both government sponsored and non-profit, is biased toward women”…I don’t know about that. Is it because there are many more female nurses, because there are not as many opportunities for them as doctors? I still see many more male doctors than female doctors. Or are you talking about the health “industry” itself? This is dominated by the health care and pharmecutical companies marketing money. And who in a family usually buys health care products? The mother, not the father. Most men, as a stereotype, usually want to ignore health issues, especially of their own. Mothers usually do not, in a stereotype. I am not so sure I believe the 70% of women in college, versus men. Maybe it is correct, but I would bet the average starting salary of the graduate is much higher for the male than the female…..i.e. more doctors, engineers, etc are male, more females are nurses, teachers, etc. So maybe it is good to have a “far left” to counterbalance the “far right”, until everything is indeed equal.

    • rogereolson

      Both government health agencies and NGO health organizations spend much more on women’s than men’s health through grants for research, etc. Health researchers have told me it is difficult to get grants to conduct research into men’s health. And yet men continue to die, on average, younger than women. I have not heard that mentioned as a public health issue. The various “big” health advocacy organizations all seem to focus mostly on women’ health (cancer, heart disease, etc.). I often hear this idea that the focus of the health industry is on women because women make most of the health-related decisions. My answer is–then why not aim some public announcements, advertisements, educational commercials, etc. (which we see all the time in the media) at women about men’s health–to get women to help their fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, etc., to live longer and healthier lives? We don’t see that.

      • Deborah

        Mr. Olson,

        Have you read The MisMeasure of Woman by Carol Tarvis? One of the topics I believe she discussed was how incredibly biased most epidemiological studies were to men, not stopping to think that including women in the studies might provide more varied results. Since my father himself is an epidemiologist, her research struck a nerve b/c I’d remembered thinking the same thing when I was doing some input work for my father, looking up science journals on line. There WERE a lot of studies about breast and ovarian cancer (it would seem that stronger emphases on these has been part of a an attempt to correct the underemphasis of the past… which is still a great need b/c heart disease WAS treated for decade’s like a men’s disease in research, leaving huge biostatistical gaps), but a lot of the studies for gender neutral diseases still included men only. I think the bias you see now is b/c of embarrassment over this huge gap.

        And I also think there’s still a bias the other way in some areas…. I have found that in struggling for many years with a disease considered a woman’s disease (although maybe one out of eight patients are men), that it is next to impossible to get funding. Even when a doctor has made a lot of progress on a study that shows remarkable potential, he is apt not to get the funding to take the study a step further. In this particular case, there has been a tendency to belittle the illness even though it keeps many women literally bedridden and many of us not much bettter, and there would seem to be a gendered component to this even in what the popular media has to say. I also have known a couple of women with very severe problems with miscarriage who knew something was wrong with them (something that proved to be easily fixed, but in the meanwhile they kept losing children) whose insurances and doctors kept resisting testing.

        All that to say that I’m not sure the medical complaint really holds up as a one-way bias. It still seems to very much be a man’s world run by a man’s mind medically in some areas (where they are determining what is important or even true in a sometimes very condescending way) even though there have been some real areas of advance. I would be a wholehearted supporter of more research for men too, but I’d need to give all these caveats first.

        I do struggle on and off with whether to term myself a Christian feminist for the very reasons you describe, although I occasionally find the radical authors interesting to read and insightful on particular points.


        • rogereolson

          Two reasons given for why medical research in the past (more than 25 years ago now) was conducted mostly on men is that most volunteers for studies were medical students (mostly male then) and women were often excluded from studies of new treatments because of fear of possible damage to the fetus if the woman should be pregnant. Over the past 20 to 25 years, however, the tide has turned the other way so that most research is now being devoted to women’s health and very little to men’s health. Men continue to die younger than women (an issue you don’t mention), on average, by about 5.5 years. True, much of that is men’s own fault, but why is it nevertheless not a public health issue (for education, etc.)? As for heart disease and sex/gender: Men continue to die younger of classical heart attacks while organizations such as the American Heart Association focus so much attention on women’s heart health (every February is “God Read for Women”). Why is there no month for men’s health (that anyone pays attention to)? Or even a week? Or even a day? I think after 20 to 25 years of reversal of the past, it’s time to get back to paying at least some attention publicly and in research to boys’ and men’s health. When do you ever see a public service announcement aimed primarily at males or about males and their health? I see one maybe once a year. I teach at a large research university and “work out” at the fitness center three times weekly. I see boys and men there who are obsessed with their bodies. One I know has become a physical wreck by working out too much; he looks like a concentration camp survivor–just skin and bones. I see him obsessively working out every time I go there and I know he’s there for hours ever day. He’s not the only male I know who does that. But ALL the public attention aimed at such disorders (body dysmorphism, eating disorders, etc.) is aimed at women students. I have never seen a workshop advertised for or about men’s health issues–suicide, pornography addiction, excessive body building, steroid use, etc. Everything is aimed at women. Every poster I see about health features women and is aimed at women (e.g, about diabetes). So, my perception is that things have gone askew the other direction from where they may have been a long time ago. I would just like to see more balance. I am not advocating less attention to women’s health; I’m advocating more attention to men’s (than currently is the case).

          • Laura

            I have participated for several years in the Susan G Komen 3-Day walk, which raises money for breast cancer awareness, education, etc. Nancy Brinker (Komen’s sister) often says that every single advance related to breast cancer has been funded by the Komen foundation. The Komen foundation was formed, in part, because there was no political or economic will to fund studies related to breast cancer. So here you have a gigantic private foundation funding essentially every advance related to a women’s health issue because “public health” isn’t funding it. I hope all that privately-funded breast-cancer research isn’t part of what you are describing as a public-health shift toward attending only to women’s issues?

          • rogereolson

            What I am advocating is that someone with money start a similar movement for men’s health (e.g., prostate cancer that kills about 35,000 men annually). I’ve never even suggested that anything be taken away from public concern or funding regarding women’s health. All I’ve ever argued is for greater public attention to men’s health. I’m sure you’re aware, however, that even some women are upset that so much attention and money is going to breast cancer that other cancers that affect women are not receiving sufficient attention and funding. A group that promotes awareneness of and research into finding a cure for ovarian cancer, for example, calls it “the other cancer.” Every time I turn around I see something about women’s health–on billboards, on TV, on products on the store shelves, etc., etc. I’m not against that. What I’m opposed to is the almost total absence of any public attention to men’s health.

          • Deborah

            Hi, I didn’t repeat what you had already stated in your article simply b/c it was already stated. When it comes to public campaigns re: men’s health, I’d agree w/ you. Most of these are funded in part by the pharmaceutical companies, etc., and women are, I think, a more reliable customer base. So I think some of that is money driven. Some of it is driven by the age-old stereotype (but unfortunately very true among men I know) of men hating doctors or any attention to health issues as if it would make them sissies, etc. Perhaps that is all the more reason to emphasize it.

            It makes perfect sense for epidemiologists to continue to work on the biostatistical gap re: women on afflictions that affect both genders b/c we are just starting to close that gap really. And I would still contend that it is awfully hard to get them to pay any attention to “women’s diseases” apart from the most headlined (thanks, as Laura indicated, to grassroots movements on breast cancer, etc.). Even my MALE doctors have acknowledged that!

            So I just think it’s more complicated. I suspect that money, a bias regarding what men want in terms of egos and comfort w/ health issues, and an ongoing condescension toward and bias against women in many medical areas are all key players here.

          • rogereolson

            Well, I’m not a woman, so I have not experienced the “ongoing condescension toward and bias against women” you mention. I’ve heard of it for many years, but my wife has never experienced it. As a man, however, I have experienced it. I won’t go into details, but you can take my word for it. Many male health issues are dismissed by doctors as unimportant, mental, etc. Men just aren’t as prone to complain about it or as organized as women have become to raise objections to it. In my experience, many doctors are simply condescending and dismissive toward all patients. (Not my current GP, thankfully.) My main complaint is about non-profit health-related organizations that continually harp on women’s health and rarely, if ever, publish anything about men’s health. But also the media. Recently, on CBS Evening News, there have been several reports on women’s health. When was the last time you saw anything on network news about men’s health? (I’m not talking about those awful commercials about “ED” such.) Everywhere I turn I see ads, public service announcements, information about women’s health. Virtually nothing about men’s health. I really don’t know how anyone can disagree with that. As for the “gap,” my perception is it is more than closed. And men continue to die, on average, 5.5 years younger than women–even among populations such as Seventh Day Adventists that do not drink alcohol or smoke tobacco or even eat meat. I have not yet seen any research about why that is the case. Nobody seems interested.

          • Deborah

            I’m sorry you’ve experienced that.

            I do not have t.v. and cannot speak to present campaigns really.

            Although my father is not a woman’s lib person by any stretch of the imagination, I believe he does not consider that gap closed in terms of diseases that have little to no female statistically helpful information yet.

            Male specialists have acknowledged to me that my disease is dismissed as a woman’s disease.

            But obviously you have some experiences regarding belittling in medical areas as a man. Perhaps there is more of an expectation that men SHOULD be reticent to go to doctors and just “suck it up” even from the doctors. That would be terrible.

            Death rates are an interesting mystery. I guess it would be very difficult to come up w/ SOLID theories that cover the spectrum of illnesses b/c of the lack of controls, etc. I’ve heard that since anger can be a component in a number of men’s biggest killers that some doctors relate it to anger rates in men combined w/ less attention to receiving medical care (which is sort of inbuilt into most women’s lives even by virtue of having children), but epidemiologically most explanations proffered would seem wishy-washy for lack of ability to control for them. I guess a very extensive and holistic cross-cultural database would have to be developed very devotedly and carefully in conjunction with international academies of science to get anything that might be workable. And it certainly would be worth doing.

  • Wow. Thank you. This post is brilliant and thorough. I appreciate you speaking from a place of wisdom, knowledge and experience.

    I think you’ve got the grass roots movement going on, with women in the local churches finally realizing how oppressive and patriarchal and heirarchichal things are. From a lifelong woman’s point of view (smile) things are really bad and quite pathetic in many churches. I have no calling to leadership or teaching ministry in a church – I’m called right now to the traditional role of wife and mother – but I watch many “sisters” told they can have NO other ministry outside of nursery, decorations, and studies for women and children. It’s so hard on them, and so unfair – and thank you for standing up for fairness within the church.

    But on the other hand – which many of us are not even aware of, we don’t read the feminist theologians – you have academia pushing well beyond where the local church wants to go.

    Balance is such a beautiful thing. Thanks for laying it out there.

  • Gary

    As one followup. I mentioned that the health care and phamecutical industry targets women, since they buy health products for the family. One of the MOST obnoxious commercials, when watching sports events…and it shows the one area where health marketing targets men, is ED. So it shows where the women place their emphasis, and the men place their emphasis. I might add, if the U.S. had a woman as president, the U.S. would probably engage in fewer wars. So I applaud feminism. I which it would influence our foreign policy more.

    • rogereolson

      I’m not so sure. UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher (about whom a major movie is about to be released) was pretty warrior-like. It was she who launched the war against Argentina to recover those barren islands in the south Atlantic ocean claimed by both countries. And she was fully supportive of Ronald Reagan’s cold war policies and the first Bush’s war against Iraq in Kuwait. She was not exactly a “dove.” Then there was Israeli prime minister Golda Meir who waged wars against Arab countries. (I’m not criticizing Thatcher or Meir or the wars they conducted; I’m simply pointing out that women leaders can be warriors, too.)

    • Like Michelle Bachman?
      Christians support war because ‘patriotism’ outweighs Christ, not because they are not feminized.
      Most American Christians are simply ignorant of the early Christian attitude to war and dismiss Jesus’ teachings as easily as feminists dismiss the Bible.

      • rogereolson

        I’ve been doing a lot of research into historical Pentecostalism lately (for a paper I will read in the near future at a Pentecostal-related university). I wonder how many Pentecostals know that virtually all Pentecostals were pacifists until sometime after WW2?

        • Gary

          “I wonder how many Pentecostals know that virtually all Pentecostals were pacifists until sometime after WW2?” About the same time (actually a little later, more toward Vietnam) bible translations moved from “Thou shall not kill” to “Thou shall not murder”, to enable our fighting men to not feel guilty when killing in the name of old-men politicians sitting in Washington, watching their defense related stocks increase.

          • Gary

            BTW, for more on the subject, read “You shall not kill or you shall not murder? An Assault on the Biblical Text” by Wilma Ann Bailey, for historical background on specific religions changing their attitudes, and the translations following the same.

      • Tim Reisdorf


        You stated that Christians support wars because ‘patriotism’ outweighs Christ. It seems like a blanket statement. Do you regret that people fought back against Germany and Japan in WW2? I think that most anyone would support a war if it had the opportunity halt some viscous evil – even Christians may support it.

  • james

    On the issue of good teaching, the challenge with Christian feminists is that they bring to light some important aspects of equality and fairness. I participated in a graduate theology program dominated by feminists. They were fair and i really enjoyed learning from many of them but i often wondered where the cultural accomodation would stop. I am in many ways a feminist but i do not think we do justice to women by reversing male metaphors of God to female. Maybe it is more of a searching for how God also represents the feminine.
    For example, that Jesus became flesh is an affirmation of body. This i think in many ways can be an affirmation of the female. It also creates a reversal of the view that women’s bodily experience is inferior to men’s rational superiority.
    Or perhaps emphasizing how wisdom in the bible is seen and described as feminine–see Proverbs etc.
    I think this is a better and less prone to a slide into pantheism or panentheism.

  • Ally

    do you happen to have any suggestions of other female theologians one should read? (I was recently given a list by a visiting professor of mine that is HIGHLY concentrated with the above mentioned feminist theologians – my professor was VERY clear to make the point that there would be a lot I wouldn’t agree with, but that they’re necessary reading – I would just like to find some good reading to balance it out, while still attempting to balance out the predominately male field of theology)

    I also just want to comment and say how much I appreciate your blog – there are very few out there as high quality as yours, and absolutely no others that I know of that come from your general perspective. (Sometimes it feels like the whole world is Calvinist when the blogs are so predominately that way…)

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for your compliment about the blog. I truly appreciate it. Unfortunately, there have been all too few female academic theologians–until the last few decades with feminist theology. Most women Christian thinkers have focused on spirituality. You might want to look at In Her Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought edited by Amy Oden (Thomas Oden’s daughter, I believe) (Abingdon Press). But it only goes up to the 1940s and most of the women Christian writers represented in the book wrote about spirituality (as opposed to doctrine or systematic theology). One much neglected woman theologian was Rachel Hadley King. Some contemporary women theologians whose work I highly commend and recommend include Cherith Fee Nordling (Gordon Fee’s daughter now teaching theology at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary), Amy Plantinga Pauw (Louisville Presbyterian Seminary), and Leanne Van Dyk (Western Theological Seminary). (I’m only including here names of women systematic/constructive theologians and not biblical scholars, scholars of spiritual formation, etc.)

      • Brandon Morgan

        Sarah Coakley, Janet Martin Soskice, Marilyn McCord Adams, Kathryn Tanner, Catherine Pickstock, Eleanore Stump…to name a few more.

        • rogereolson

          Thanks, Brandon. Where was may mind? Of course these are outstanding women theologians not usually considered “feminist” in the contemporary sense of feminist theology.

  • Joshua Penduck

    What disturbs me most about radical feminist and ecofeminist theologies is that I often find them counter-productive in real-life situations (i.e. when they’re not preaching to those who would naturally agree with them). For instance, in the Anglican Church in the UK, many of the opponents of female bishops are confirmed in their suspicions when confronted with feminist texts – i.e the suspicion that giving women leadership roles in the church is unbiblical and tends towards outright liberalism. Ruether’s essay, ‘Ecofeminism: the challenge to theology’ states that in light of patriarchal abuse, the Trinity should be re-interpreted as ‘the sustaining matrix of immanent relationality’ and as ‘the symbolic expression of the basic dynamic of life itself as a process of vital interrelational creativity’; whilst the true original sin is not disobedience (or breaking of the relationship) to God, but rather in humanity seeking to escape ‘mortality, finitude and vulnerability’ (i.e. believing in a life beyond). I mean, come on Ruether! And you expect to convince conservative Anglicans (not fundamentalists, just genuinely concerned conservatives who worry about the direction their church is taking) with lines like that? And if Ruether doesn’t intend to convince THEM, surely this is tending towards a fundamentalist separatism itself? Then there’s figures like Mary Grey reinterpreting terms such as ‘transcendence’ and ‘immanence’ in spatial (and thus materialist) terms. It’s taking a genuine concern (patriarchal abuse) and exploding it completely out of proportion.

    It’s times like this that I thank God for feminists such as Elaine Storkey, who combine rigorous biblical scholarship and Orthodox theology with feminist concerns. It’s scholars like her (and her Anglican Liberal-Catholic counterparts) which are actually providing a good and solid foundation (theologically and biblically) for the installation of the first female bishops in the UK.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, Elaine Storkey has been my model of a “good Christian feminist” for years. When I was chair of the “Convocation Committee” at a college where I taught previously I insisted that we bring her from England to speak to our community about sane feminism. She had recently published “What’s Right with Feminism?” She was an excellent speaker and her talks and conversations with us tended to shut down both rabidly anti-feminist and rabidly pro-feminist members of the community by showing there is a kind of feminism that is not extreme. Unfortunately, her kind of feminism is rarely even acknowledged as “feminism” anymore. The category “feminism” has come to be owned by the radicals (in theological circles, anyway). Some years ago the “Evangelical Feminist Caucus” changed its name to “Christians for Biblical Equality” because of that.

  • Peter

    Thank you very much. Like dancing across a field of land mines, you articulated your understanding carefully and clearly.

  • havarti

    On a more practical level (perhaps another discussion), I am wondering if you have any thoughts on how (if possible) to promote egalitarianism without using reaction to oppression as the impetus for discussion.

    You make it clear in this post that in attempt to make real change there is a tendency to overcompensate for the wrong that was done. For example, changing of the divine names to better suit the feminist cause will inevitably raise red flags for some conservatives who need to deal with gender issues. All of a sudden, to these conservatives, egalitarianism becomes a liberal issue rather than a valid biblical understanding. It seems that the negative view of egalitarianism is linked to feminism’s overcompensating tendencies.

    I am with you on the things that you are “firmly opposed to,” and I totally agree, but I also sometimes wonder how much change will be made if people aren’t reacting as strongly and fiercely as the feminists. How can we work towards change without becoming overzealous (to the degree of being unfaithful) revolutionaries for the cause of egalitarianism?

    • rogereolson

      One of my favorite theologians was Donald Bloesch who wrote (among many books on other issues) Is the Bible Sexist? and The Battle for the Trinity. Both dealt in a very sane and moderate fashion with issues of God, gender, inclusive language, etc. Bloesch was an egalitarian in every sense (and his wife was and I trust still is after his passing a very strong woman), but he was firmly opposed to extreme over reaction to patriarchy by radical feminist theologians. He’s the one who suggested to me addressing God as “Our father who is also like a mother to us….” He advocated discovering and using feminine images of God in scripture without replacing male imagery. My late friend and co-author Stan Grenz co-authored an excellent book on egalitarianism in church life with Denise Kjesbo entitled Women in the Church–another very moderate and balanced advocacy book for egalitarianism. My wife and I have been members of two moderate Baptist churches in a row (over the past 15 years) that had women lead pastors, women deacons, etc. Neither church was “feminist” in the extreme sense and neither pastor ever felt the need to put men down or engage in double standards or advocate heretical revisions of doctrine, etc. What they did, for example, was preach occasional sermons (narrative style) about the gospel from the perspective of women in the Bible (e.g., Ruth and Mary). And they went out of their ways to affirm women as fully equal with me to the extent that, in one of the churches, for a while, it was difficult to find men to take leadership roles (so many strong women came to the church!). Neither church could be called “feminist” in any way analogous to the liberal/radical feminism of Ruether or Russell or Schussler-Fiorenza. But in both churches women held offices at every level and the pastoral staffs had just as many women as men (at times).

      • LFDS

        I have looked and looked and looked for a church like one you describe here. I can’t find it.

        • rogereolson

          I don’t know if it still exists, but a few years ago one branch of Pathways in Denver was pastored by a woman. You might try contacting Christians for Biblical Equality to ask about one in Denver (or wherever you live). If you know Doug Groothuis or his wife, you might ask them.

  • Shoot! I love your work for Evangelical Arminianism! I have always included (and been scorned for it) Non Calvinists as true Christians. I have enjoyed your blog as well. I however really do have issues with Egalitarian exegesis. I think those that exegete (sp?) that direction really have to do some scriptural gymnastics. I had more to say but I think creating a flame war on your personal blog would be in bad taste and while it is a distinctive that demands aggressive dialog, it is not one that we need to show the world as a separator… (same as Arm vs Cal to me anyway) but dang Bro!

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Roger, that was a long essay.

    Some of what you said reminded me of Alex P Keaton’s declaration (in order to woo a girl), “I am a woman”.

    Quotas. God does not seem to work with quotas the way that you favor. You had how many sons and how many daughters? Doesn’t sound equal to me. Yet, you would insist on a quota on the sex of who God calls to leadership of the laity? It would appear that God is being practical in choosing the best candidates and you tend to be more ideologically driven in insisting on some arbitrary balance.

    Equality. I am with you on so many of these issues in gender. Yet, one must be vigilant that equality before the law does not mean the same in strengths and weaknesses. If men tend to be better front-line military fighters (because it matches their strengths better), why would we insist on quotas. Further, on that same topic, studies in the Israeli army found that mixing the two sexes on one side of battle does horrible things to the stability of the males in combat (and horrible things to the surrender options of the Muslims they are commonly fighting). Yes, people ought to be equal before the law, but let that not be an invitation to do something stupid in the name of fairness.

    • rogereolson

      I can’t recall right now what I said about quotas that got you going. (I wrote that essay some time ago and didn’t know what to do with it so I finally copied it here.) Did I advocate quotas? Well, in some circumstances I’d say yes–since we cannot read God’s mind and often fail to be as equal as he is, I think having quotes (for example for male and female deacons) might be a good thing–IF it seems that the congregation is simply too reluctant to follow their beliefs in practice out of some cultural conservatism. As for the military, I agree with you completely (I think). But I would argue that 18 year old women should also have to register for the draft. It seems very unfair to me that only young men have to register. However, IF the draft were ever activated I would advocate using women to replace men in non-combat positions in the military. I don’t think putting women in combat is a good idea for several reasons including what is likely to happen to them if they are captured by the enemy. But also, I do suspect 18 and 19 year old males may find it difficult to concentrate on killing with attractive 18 and 19 year old females “in the trenches” beside them. If anyone thinks that’s sexist, well, consider the source–a 60 year old man with two daughters and a granddaughter!

      • Tim Reisdorf

        Concerning the males in combat, I think you’ve got it wrong. It’s not that they think about them sexually (which they do), it’s that when in combat they try to protect the women to the detriment of the unit. It is their “protect the women and children” instinct that does not allow them to simply see the female soldier as just another soldier. The studies on this topic in the Israelite Army have seen male soldiers fly into rages when their female soldiers are killed or wounded. They did not do this when their fellow male soldiers suffered the same.

        Concerning their enemies, some soldiers (thinking primarily of Muslims) will not surrender to a woman. As a soldier, you want your enemy to surrender. If they do not surrender as a matter of principle, that increases the brutality of an already brutal situation.

        • rogereolson

          Those are good points and I agree with them, but I can’t think what I wrote to give you the impression I was only thinking the male soldiers (fighting alongside female ones) would be distracted by them sexually. I know I intended more than that–exactly what you suggest (i.e., male soldiers being overly concerned for the welfare of female comrades in arms). However, I think you may be naive about the 18 and 19 year old male soldiers (and perhaps also some female ones) being distracted sexually by comrades in arms of the opposite sex.

  • Thanks for the reflection. This, of course, brings up the issue of how to think of the persons of the Trinity. I am not sure this is the place to make this request, but I would surely like to receive some of your responses to the Bruce McCormick’s Kantzer lectures. He touches on much that is of importance to you and the subject of Arminianism. He seems to be asserting that the doctrine of God within evangelicalism needs two things: more grounding in actual Nicene theology as well as more contemporary reflection. I was intrigued by his assertion how little reflection there is on this topic, suspecting that changes here might force changes in other theological categories with which we are more than comfortable. So even while we endlessly debate some issues, such as the nature of justification as forensic, we do so on old territory, a territory that has been shaped by more contemporary interactions with the doctrine of God. McCormick makes the point of how little interaction there was on this level during the Reformation, i.e., Calvin only gives three pages to this doctrine. If along the way you could give us your take on McCormick’s contributions, that would be of some real help.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll put that on my list of things to read/watch/listen to.

  • First of all, thank you for this post, Roger, but I must disagree with a couple of things.

    I feel a little slighted by what you’ve written here. As a Christian feminist, I feel that you have taken elements of extreme within the movement, and made it seem as though they are central. My first problem is your definition of contemporary feminism: I know no feminists who would agree with how you have summed up the women’s lib movement. There are women who believe in a rather extreme matriarchal system – they do exist – but they are rejected by mainstream feminists. I think you do a quick switch when you categorize “feminism” as a matriarchy (you talk around it without using the term) and then pull out theologians who fit that mold.

    You’ve taken those that are on square 20, and given rise and cause for others to object to those who are still on square 2. Let me explain what I mean: The feminists you cite have a primarily academic role (as you note) which, for better or worse, means that in mainline churches, they don’t have a whole lot of sway. They are also those feminists who fit your thesis of feminism as a movement to hold men higher than women. And they are ones are participating on the conversation at a completely different level than the average person who identifies as feminist within the church.

    Unfortunately, it makes it hard for those “on the ground,” so to speak – those making the strides within churches themselves to be recognized as feminist without people immediately recoiling – when you take the words of Christian feminist theologians you disagree with and centralizing them within the movement as a whole (as far as I can tell, you object to a sub-movement within a movement – the discussion and changing of language, which is only a small part of the Christian feminist movement). For those of us who are trying to get our fellow Christians to understand that feminism isn’t a dirty word, critiques like this don’t help.

    This is not to say that critiques are not welcome or are not necessary – I do believe you have a good point in not overriding the orthodox characterizations of God – I disagree with your assessment that this particular tenet of SOME Christian feminist theologians is at all mainstream. For the vast majority of the church, feminists haven’t even touched on language – we’re still fighting to be able to teach something other than children’s Sunday school.

    Basically, as a Christian feminist blogger, I dread the commenter who is going to come in and ask me to defend against your critique of an element in the academia of Christian feminism that is not being discussed by the church as a whole. This sort of quick leaping from small elements of women’s lib to “this is Christian feminism in general” hurts those feminists who aren’t even close to the language argument by giving those already disinclined against feminism fuel for their anti-feminism tirades.

    • rogereolson

      Well, within academic religious circles “feminism” does primarily refer to the radicals I mention and those immediately influenced by them (e.g., hymn writer Brian Wren). If I were you and did not agree with them, I’d drop the term “feminist.” As for whether they are influential within mainstream churches, I assure you they are–or will be through the many seminarians being educated under their influence (through their books and professors influenced by them). I thought I made clear that I have nothing against “the women’s movement” as a movement for true equality; that’s no longer all that feminism stands for. Why do you think the Evangelical Feminist Caucus changed its name to Christians for Biblical Equality? Don’t blame me; I’m just the messenger. What I described in that post is what “Christian feminism” now means except for those who have not caught up with the movement.

      • Rebecca

        1. I guess I agree with Diana that boiling down as complex political and social movement to 4 or 5 radical academic authors is pretty disingenuous. Sure they may be taught in seminaries but that doesn’t mean that everyone who reads them and appreciates them takes their opinion of men as gospel truth any more than reading and learning from Augustine means you have to accept his view on women. Most of the women (and men) I went to seminary with who identify as feminists would agree with most if not all of what you say in your post – and still keep the feminist label.
        2. I am curious – do you agree with everything argued by all evangelical writers? You seem to disagree strongly with them on hierarchy and complementarianism and yet still hold on to that label. Why are you willing to keep one term and not the other? Do you really think the academic authors you speak of have more impact on the life of ordinary Christians than the complementarians leaders you argue against? (Or what about all the bad things done in the name of Christianity? Should we change the name of our religion to move past that?) Yes labels acquire baggage – but I think we need to ask tough questions about why we are quick to throw out one but not another? I guess it does feel a little like it is your privilege speaking or academic bias (your comment to Diana gives the impression that you see academic circles as much more influential and powerful than the experience of woman in the larger church) that you will keep the one (evangelical) but not the other.
        3. If you want to use the term egalitarian in academic circles or as a clarification I can see the value – but in ordinary discourse I agree with Diana – saying you aren’t a feminist for most people has a lot more to do with the first meaning you outline (equality) than the second. I guess I would have been a lot less bothered if you had said “why I prefer this term to feminism – but still call myself a feminism” – that way it would feel less like you are unwilling to show solidarity with the sorts of problems so many women who call themselves feminists still address.

  • Ed Cook, D.Min.

    Good on you. I pastored a church for over 20 years that was 2 blocks from a major university in a liberal state – The University of Washington. I loved the ongoing interaction with my student congregants. Years ago I wrote a white paper for my congregation to help explain my position on equality between the sexes so that short references I might make from the pulpit would not be misunderstood out of context. The bottom line position was advocacy for Feminist Christians rather than Christian Feminists. (Background information: My undergraduate degree was in English. Which, BTW, causes me to comment that gender is a philological term. The proper phrase would be “equality between the sexes” rather than “gender equality” – but I digress.) My understanding is that in an adjective-noun relationship, the primary identifier is the noun and the adjective’s function is to further qualify a characteristic of the noun. By this logic, a Christian Feminist is one who has subordinated being a Christian (etymologically a Christ-follower) to Feminism as a defining ideology. If this is the this case, Feminism becomes idolatry. Just a thought… -e.

    • Rob

      I think those are good points. I have no idea what people are talking about when they use the term “gender” in these sorts of discussions. I hear people sometimes say that “gender is a social construct” and since I am a realist of the traditional sort, I take that just to mean that gender is imagined. But when people talk about gender they seem to be talking about sex–which is quite real. There are very real differences between male and female.

      I worry that insisting on talk of “gender differences” and “gender equality” is a way of avoiding the idea that there is a real, objective human nature that takes two different forms. I am not sure if it is worth trying to figure out because the assumptions about reality and knowledge underlying the radical feminism Roger mentioned are in no way compatible with Christianity. You are right about the “Christian Feminist”. It reveals where one’s true allegiance lies. There are many Christians today who accept the authority of Modern or Post-modern thought first, and subordinate Christianity to it.

      • rogereolson

        Amen, Rob. Thanks.

    • Ed, thanks for your thoughts here, especially reminding me of the order of language. But, in regards to the sex vs. gender conversation, which interests me the most, I have a few ideas to knock around. In common everyday conversation, many people use gender and sex interchangeably, but in my writing I define gender as the social constructs and sex as the biological differences. There is a significant connection between the two, but they are not the same thing. In the church, we have created our own set of social constructs regarding gender roles that are not necessarily biologically based or biblically based. As for Rob’s comment, gender as a social construct does mean in some sense that it is imagined, but the real effects of such social constructs are not imagined. An Ohio State Alumni defines equality in these terms, “equality is about the freedom to choose options that best suit a person’s character, talents and interests; the freedom to choose a career or choose to raise a family or both, for example. It’s the freedom for both women and men to choose roles in their professional and personal lives that they are most comfortable in and qualified for without artificial societal restraints. Equality is also about compensation, accessibility, and respect based on a person’s qualifications and talents, not gender. It is about valuing characteristics that are considered “feminine” as highly as those considered “masculine” and realizing that we need both.” Regarding the larger conversation here on the male vs. female imagery for God, I agree with Roger that we must not obliterate male imagery and replace it with female imagery for any reason. We need both.

      Regarding the ordering of our language and your point about nouns and modifiers, I would argue that in some Christian circles it is more important to be a Christian human male or Christian human female, subordinating our humanity and our Christianity to our biology and sometimes even to our artificial societal gender constructs. This puts our differences first, which tends to divide us, and Jesus’ goal for us is to be one (see the Gospel of John). When we read Jesus’ goal of unity, we never imagine uniformity, but often our churches promote uniformity to a large degree within the sexes, i.e., all men… and all women… because this is the way God created you (in other words, because of your biology). I’m not sure that’s why God created our biological differences.

      Ed, I’m curious, are you still in the Seattle area? I am hoping to do my graduate studies at the UW and hopefully be a “good feminist Christian” someday 😉

      • rogereolson

        I won’t respond for Ed, but I’d like to add a comment about equality. You define it well (using the anonymous Ohio State alum’s definition). But I argue that in SOME religious contexts we need to move beyond equality to interdependence (without in any way undermining equality).

        • Roger, thanks for the response and your comment regarding interdependence. I agree wholeheartedly, equality is a necessary part of interdependence and we must not stop at equality. But, when moving toward interdependence we must look to mutuality rather than complementarity. Complementarity too easily leads to unhealthy dependencies because a complement is that which completes or brings something to perfection and this creates a dependence on another human being of a particular type to become complete.

          I struggle with the feminist label sometimes because some feminists go beyond equality to an unhealthy independence that denigrates maleness and masculinity.

          I appreciate the discussion here. Thanks for your work and for posting on this topic. I read the Story of Christian Theology in Seminary and appreciate your scholarship.

          Also, here’s the link to the source of the equality quote:

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Women can get along without a man just fine, until they need one.

  • Ellen Hallin

    Thanks for your thoughts on Christian feminism. Where I think some of your critique is fair, there are some mainline Christian feminist theologians who do negate men’s experience categorically (Mary Daly) and some of their theology arguably cannot even be considered Christian given their denial of the divinity of Christ in their writings (Pui-lan Kwok and E. Fiorenza). I would suggest that still, in general, Christian feminist theology in the best sense rarely is given any kind of credible hearing – especially in more conservative evangelical settings. They are generally relegated to the dustbin of theological reflections by being portrayed as dangerous feminist thoughts that are angry, male bashing, and Christ-denying. So yes, it is fair to critique anyone’s theological work especially if his or her theology devalues anyone’s experience or seems to veer from core Christian thought regarding Christ. I think for those of us who wish to see women in our churches be able to participate with men, equally valued in every respect, we need to be careful of sweeping generalizations against Christian feminists that only serve to make it easy to continue to discredit any one who wishes to bring a feminist perspective to Christian theology.

    • rogereolson

      I prefer the term “egalitarian.”

  • Roger, I appreciate your thoughts here. I have only minimally read some of the feminist theologians you mention and agree with some of your concerns. I’m not clear about your assertion about the different meanings of feminism, namely that the “second meaning is, in brief, that women’s experience and way of being-in-the-world is superior to men’s and should be made the cultural norm including in education.” Is this your critique of all feminism or only the Christian feminism your are talking about here? I’ve read and had concerns about the feminization in education you mention, but I’m not clear on the connection with feminism. Perhaps I will discover more on this as I begin my research in feminist studies in the academy. I am not necessarily aspiring to be a theologian, but I do plan to get a PhD in feminist studies. Perhaps one day I will be a “good Christian feminist” like Elaine Storkey. (Now I have to go buy her book, thanks to you!)

    • rogereolson

      It’s my critique only of the feminism I talk about in the rest of the post–Ruether, Russell, Schussler Fiorenza, Johnson, et al. But they have become, for better or worse, the gold standards of “Christian feminism” in academic theology.

  • Thank you for this post. You’re conclusions in the matter are welcome and needed. But the subject is just another example of what prompted me to write “The Herodians are Alive and Well” on my blog on the day after Christmas. Herodianism is certainly the raison-d’etre of the secular world, but it has also made an all too comfortable home in the church. It’s depressing. Is there anyone in Christendom who loves, honors, and bows before King Jesus and serves Him only?

  • Dr. Olson,

    I appreciate your insights and thank you for sharing them. I agree with some of your concerns, but because of the sharp divide between the academy and the church, most of evangelicalism is not touched by the liberal feminist views of women such as Ruether and Johnson and Schussler-Fiorenza (especially regarding liturgy). Within evangelicalism at least, the pendulum has been pushed so far toward patriarchy that more radical reconceptions of God-talk and doctrine must be advocated in order to truly challenge and question the traditional conceptions. While Ruether and Johnson have certainly been influential in how I engage scripture and tradition, Sallie McFague has been most influential in my theological journey toward a feminist/liberationist perspective. If you are unfamiliar with her, she advocates better metaphors for God that do not simply erase male imagery, but complement it and reveal God as transcending maleness and occupying spaces of male and female and also non-gendered relationships (friend, lover, and the the earth as the body of God, which dives into the panentheistic and supports her ecological theology).

    I’m personally drawn toward feminist theology because of the critique of hierarchy that coincides with the critique of patriarchy (I also slant toward anarchism). I participate in a very conservative and Calvinistic evangelical church and my experiences there reinforce how desperately evangelicalism needs a feminist influence much to the chagrin of Mr. Driscoll. I constantly experience firsthand how male-dominated God-language and patriarchal theological structures influence gender relations and exclude women. The commotion over gender-equality in the church is so tightly knotted with male imagery for God. I believe it is necessary for us to push the boundaries of our God-talk to include both female imagery and non-gendered imagery in order to allow the church to broaden its imagination for how we relate to each other and to the earth/non-humans. These gender issues are also tied up with the evangelical resistance to the LGBT community.

    What are some of your thoughts on this stuff? Also, could you expand a bit on your thoughts about panentheism?

    • rogereolson

      I have a paper on panentheism that I propose to read at a regional AAR/SBL meeting this Spring. We’ll see if the proposal gets accepted. One of my arguments is that, like most important theological categories, “panentheism” is changing meaning. Anyway, I will post something here about panentheism, but I’d like to wait and find out where my paper is headed–possibly toward eventual publication. I am aware of Sallie McFague and her work on metaphors. I think she pushes God-talk too far in the direction of being equivocal and I think she advocates using revisionist God-talk (away from scripture and tradition) for social engineering too much. I think it is dangerous to invent new images of God that are not rooted in scripture that suit our social and political, ideological, agendas. It opens a Pandora’s box of possibilities. As for patriarchy and hierarchy in the church: I, too, am opposed to both. But I don’t have to learn that from feminist theology. I find strong impulses in my own baptist tradition to draw on in pushing against hierarchy. To those who are caught in strongly patriarchal and hierarchical religious contexts I say “Come out from among them!” There are many churches that are not that way.

  • Jon Altman

    I was Rosemary Radford Ruether’s student at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary from 1982-86. I must say that I do not recognize the person who taught me from your description of her. She certainly was not averse to being challenged or critiqued by her students (male or female) or by colleagues. She even sought out opportunities to put her ideas in the “public square” by appearing on early “talk radio” programs in the Chicago area. She was, if anything, the most “orthodox” of the three persons (the others a Caucasian male and an African American male) who taught the “systematic theology” course I took at G-ETS. I certainly never felt “belittled” or “marginalized” in her class.

    I’d further note that, for at least Ruether and Johnson, their “formational” experience is in the Roman Catholic Church, which definitely DOES establish a hierarchy, with the (exclusively male and celibate) Pope, Cardinals, Bishops and Priests (in that order) at the “top” and layMEN just below and layWOMEN below them. For women the role of mother is denigrated (since it involves the “impurity” of sex) over against the “higher” calling of women to be nuns. If you (or I) had been an intelligent woman growing up in such an oppressive church environment, who is to say that we would not have reacted strongly against it?

    You also say nothing about the “younger generation” of feminist theologians, such as Amy Laura Hall. Are you unfamiliar with them?

    • rogereolson

      Well, I wasn’t Ruether student, but I have heard her speak at professional society meetings and I have read many of her books. I have not said anything against her personally. What I oppose is her theology. Are you going to tell me that she doesn’t deny, for example, human life after death and that she doesn’t deny that God is above (superior in being to) the world? Have you read God and Gaia? Have you read her book of liturgies for Women-Churches? My complaint about her has nothing whatever to do with whether she was a good teacher or a good person, likeable, open to criticism, etc. My only complaint is that her theology is, I believe, more pagan than truly Christian. As for Johnson–her book She Who Is advocates use of female imagery and language for God to the exclusion of male imagery and language of God–indirectly. What I mean by indirectly is that she never comes right out and says so and even pays lip service to using both male and female imagery for God, but all her examples of female imagery are positive and none of her example of male imagery are positive. I corresponded with her at length back in the 1990s when I used her book in a seminar. She never satisfied me that she does indeed think male imagery of God has enduring value. As for context–I don’t think belonging to a hierarchical and patriarchal church justifies going to extremes the other direction. If a church is hierarchical and patriarchal and you can’t reform it, leave it. No, I don’t know of Amy Laura Hall. I’m sure there are lots of feminist theologians I don’t know about, but I do know that within academic circles the three or four I mention in my essay on feminist theology are still considered the “gold standards” for “feminist theology.” In 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age that I co-authored with Stan Grenz I did include some non-radical feminist theologians like Pamela Dickey Young, but over the intervening years I have noticed that they (feminists who disagree with Ruether, Russell, et al.) are not in the center of the discussion about feminist theology. If they want to call themselves “feminists” I have no objection, of course, but I am simply saying when the phrase “feminist theology” is uttered it usually means the kind of theology represented by Ruether, Russell, et al. When you were at Garrett-Evangelical Divinity School did you come into contact with my friend Bob Tuttle? He taught theology there also. He is an evangelical and a very irenic and gentle one at that. And yet he told me he felt marginalized by SOME colleagues simply for being relatively conservative theologically and especially for being charismatic.

  • jesse

    Dr. Olson, can you please explain a little bit more by what you mean when you say “Christian leadership without hierarchy”?

    • rogereolson

      Great question. To me that would be leadership that guides and directs an organization through knowledge and persuasion (not domination and manipulation) and through listening and consensus building (not presupposing and controlling). In my opinion, it is also leadership chosen by those led and not imposed on them. Admittedly this is an ideal and an impossible one in some contexts, but it’s an ideal I think Christians should strive for in their churches and organizations. I have been in churches and Christian organizations where it was at least approximated. These were those that valued community over predictability and efficiency.

  • Rob

    I think there is some confusion about what Feminism is; advocating female deacons does not make you a feminist! Feminism is not about gaining equal rights or at least it has not been about that for a hundred years. Movements seeking rights for women in the 18th and 19th centuries have been called “feminist movements” but this is misleading. Roger is correct that they are essentially egalitarian movements.

    Women in contemporary evangelical churches who want to see more female deacons and pastors are essentially carrying this egalitarian movement from mainstream society to the evangelical church. It is a worthy goal but calling it “feminism” conflates two very different views into one.

    Egalitarianism is essentially a Modern position and it is exclusively about rights. It makes no claims about the nature of truth or perception or socially constructed reality. I think everyone on hear who has identified herself as a “feminist” sounds more like an egalitarian.

    “Feminism”, as used by anyone inside a secular university (like the one I teach at), is a Post-Modern stance that assumes 1) reality is constructed out of experience such that all truth is perspectival and “objective truth” is a punch-line 2) the experience that constructs reality is in turn determined by socially constructed realities of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.
    3) Men have used their socially constructed reality as a weapon against women

    Ruether and Daly absolutely fall under this label of feminism and it is the only one anyone in an English, Philosophy, or Gender Studies department cares about.

    • Timothy

      I am not quite in agreement with the definition of reality under the post-modern section. As far as I know, it is not reality which is constructed but the way we express that reality, i.e. truth. Because truth is what is expressed and what is expressed can only be expressed in language and language always has a cultural and perpectival element, truth must of necessity include a cultural and perpectival element. The reality that the truth is attempting to express is not so dependent. Reality is real. It is just not accessible without language intruding.
      On the wider issue of whether feminists are egalitarians or something else, the example of Elaine Storkey is interesting. I fully agree with Roger in his high estimation of her but I doubt whether she could be classified as “Modern” as opposed to “Post-Modern”. She would have as many problems with Modernism as with Postmodernism and would employ many of the same criticisms of Modernism as employed by Postmodernism. But then Postmodernism is not one thing but a range of ideas.

  • Robert

    I’m in agreement w/ Roger on this one.

    As an undergrad, I attended a large, Midwestern, land-grant university, where I took an upper-level religious studies course entitled “Christianities and Cultures.” Liberation and feminist theologies were among the subjects.

    Reading the likes of Mary Daly, Leonardo Boff, and others, I couldn’t shake the sense that these writers viewed Christian scripture and symbols as nothing more than powerful evocative rhetorical symbols that could be appropriated to advanced a political agenda. There was little interest in supernatural metaphysics or individual ethics. I consider myself a moderate feminist, and I think that some of the basic ideas of liberation theology have a solid biblical basis (and are a welcome corrective to cozy, middle class, Republican evangelicalism), but the leading exponents of these theologies have zero credibility as even semi-orthodox believers.

    Grenz and Olson’s 20th Century Theology provides a good overview and a fair but incisive critique.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for the book endorsement! I think you are right about Daly and may be right about Boff (although I liked his book about the Trinity), but Gustavo Gutierrez (perhaps the real “father” of Latin American liberation theology) is a genuine Christian of profound spirituality. I observed this when he came to our seminary to speak and interact with us and wanted mostly only to talk about spirituality. I’ve never read anything by him that makes me think he regards scripture or doctrine as only “powerful evocative rhetorical symbols…appropriated to advance a political agenda.” That is how I tend to view the leading feminist theologians, however.

      • Robert

        That may be fair re: Guitterez (sp.). I certainly wouldn’t want to cast aspersions on everyone who identifies w/ either of these movements, as there is a perfectly good baby somewhere in that bath water.

  • I really appreciate your respectful critique of and your support of the feminist movement. I really do.

    But I did have a few disagreements, one being your claim that women’s health issues are promoted more than men. I feel like women are constantly having to fight for reproduction rights (and not just abortion, for those that find that immoral, but even contraceptives). Several of the GOP candidates are strongly supportive of laws that could make hormonal birth control illegal. And, though breast cancer awareness is promoted nearly to the point of trendiness, very little of the money generated by the breast cancer movement actually goes toward finding a cure. Breast cancer has almost been trivialized to sell products, while other cancers–including prostate and ovarian cancers–go unnoticed.

    I agree, though, that women have a movement that supports their needs, while often men feel like they don’t. Society tells them to suck it up and be a man. Feminism is run by women and therefore not equipped to address male experience and fight for male issues. I would like to see a movement for men, fighting alongside feminism for equality!

  • Tim Bayly

    >>One of my favorite theologians was Donald Bloesch who wrote “Is the Bible Sexist?” and “The Battle for the Trinity.” Both dealt in a very sane and moderate fashion with issues of God, gender, inclusive language, etc.

    In “Battle for the Trinity” Don demonstrated with great erudition that repudiation of the Fatherhood of God was repudiation of Christian faith.

    >>Bloesch was an egalitarian in every sense (and his wife was and I trust still is after his passing a very strong woman)…
    Not in the home–Don was the patriarch, there. And not in the classroom–Don was the professor, there. And not at conferences–Don was the speaker, there. And not anywhere, really, except in principle, and even in principle he sometimes waffled. If one had to label his principles, you’re right to say he was an egalitarian. But like every egalitarian, if one were to label his practice, there were constant appeals to and exercises of authority. I’ve never seen a marriage yet where there is egalitarian practice. One or the other rules, and its’ either by force of personality or accident of sex and submission to God’s Order of Creation.

    Concerning dear Brenda Bloesch, Don complained to me that Brenda was pressuring him to read “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.” So apparently, this was one area where she was wiser than her husband.

    Don and Brenda were dear friends and I trust God is giving Brenda strength in the absence of her beloved husband. What a Godly and feminine and (you’re right) strong helpmate she was!

    • rogereolson

      I was with Don in many conference settings. Both as speaker and questioner (even of Rosemary Ruether!) he was always most humble and gracious.

  • John

    You are making a generalization like everyone does, namely presupposing that women live “longer”? Not true when my fathers grandfather was alive, he lived to be older then his wife who died a few years younger even though she had white hair. So she died sooner. So throughout the whole world not every single woman alive, lives a longer lifespan than a man is false. there are just as many men who live a few years longer then women.

    • rogereolson

      Uh, you’re relying on anecdotes; I was relying on statistics. Of course not all women outlive men. I never made that claim. The truth is that in general and overall, women live longer than men (with many exceptions, of course).

  • Just found your thought-provoking blog via a post from the Sophia network in UK – so no surprise that I would call myself a feminist, as well as an egalitarian! I don’t agree with all your conclusions, but you lay out some of the issues well and you’re right, they need debating, thank you for starting the conversation.
    When I first became a feminist in the 1970s, there was an extreme fringe that talked themselves into the position that anything male is wrong/bad and while that sharp edge may have been necessary to gain the ground (a familiar pattern in all civil rights movements), I agree our vision of a society based on the theological truth that we are all created equal needs to be a society that avoids oppression of men and women, boys and girls. So of course that applies to us as the Christian society, grappling with our understanding of God’s truth in our lifetime.
    Here’s the thing. Our theological understanding is restricted by our societal perspective, which overall is male-biased (notwithstanding some specific exceptions, like boy’s achievement in UK education, for example, or the health issue you mention). So to me I’m a feminist because there is still a need to highlight this imbalance and address it; I’m a promoter of black rights for the same reason. Our theology and our church (I’m CofE) are still overly dominated by male (white) hierarchical thinking as well as imagery and so we exclude, we support abuse and domination, and even where we speak differently we don’t model what we preach.
    An egalitarian theology shouldn’t, mustn’t replace the domination of women with the domination of men, for sure, and you’re so right that we need to highlight the egalitarian qualities of manhood and maleness as well as those of womanhood. For me that includes recognising that language is part of that social construct, so to carry on calling God just Father is to perpetuate the male domination myth. Let’s reclaim the mothering of fatherhood, certainly, but let’s also expand our God talk to reflect our current, more inclusive insight into God’s nature and truth – God our Mother, our Sister, our womb and our warrior, our feeder and our protector…all are facets of the God diamond of our understanding.
    News to me, by the way, the notion that our identities are hierarchical. Does it matter whether I am a feminist Christian or a Christian feminist? There’s a Pauline duality in that I don’t recognise. My identity as a child of God doesn’t dominate but is a cloth wob=ven from the warp and weft of all my a woman, mother, follower of Christ, teacher etc,

  • j grantham

    You say God is “like a mother”. Should you not also say God is “like a father”? When the bible uses God as father it is metaphor rather than being our literal human father. The bible also tells us to call no human person “father” which tells us the use of father for God is unique and not the same as “male”.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t think of God as male, but Jesus taught us to address God as “our Father,” so I prefer to stay with that. However, I have often addressed God (even in public) as “Our Father who is also like a mother to us.”