I remember vividly the first time I read some feminist theology at university. I sat in my room absolutely addicted – a rare experience. It was so polemical and radical that I was hooked.
However, after an hour or so I could not read any more. I was so emotionally churned up – angry at the terrible lies but at the same time identifying deeply with some of the frustrations and questions of the writers. Maybe you have experienced similar emotions.
Of all theological movements, feminism perhaps touches our sense of identity most profoundly. It is all too easy to make knee-jerk theological reactions that are more emotional than biblical, either for or against ideas proposed by feminist theologians.
To give a proper response to their questions and assertions we need to understand the perspective of these theologians and have an overall grasp of the foundations of their theological views.
We will look at the development of feminist theology in three ‘phases’1, showing that it is based at every point on unbiblical assumptions. It is not just a ‘corrective’ or a ‘valid new perspective’ but radically rewrites and challenges biblical Christianity.
In the present article we consider phase one- redefining female identity.
The rise of modern feminism is usually said to have begun with writers like Simone DeBeauvoir and Betty Friedan, who highlighted the problem of female identity. They argued that women were imprisoned in stereotypical roles – mother, wife, sweetheart – in a world where their identity was everywhere dictated by men.
Women lacked rights and were unable to express themselves because they had their roles forced on them, so essentially they were suffering a form of oppression (‘patriarchy’) and needed liberating.
The original goal of the feminist movement, therefore, was freedom from this oppression – a freedom defined as the possession of all the same options as men because there was no essential difference between men and women.
This is very significant, since feminism and feminist theology is based on the assumption that to be equal means to be identical, having completely interchangeable roles.
Francis Schaeffer called it ‘monolithic equality’. This belief is the foundation on which most feminism and feminist theology is built – and if it is wrong then the entire edifice collapses.
In order to assert this kind of interchangeability or identity, feminists argued that men and women are essentially the same – our differences are all down to nurture. Apart from having different reproductive organs there is nothing that is necessarily feminine or masculine about us.
Germaine Greer’s book The Female Eunuch2 is an exposition of this ‘nurture’ argument. She goes through every possible aspect of male-female differences to show that they are conditioned by the way we are brought up in society. She even argues that things as basic and biological as our shape and bone structure are down to conditioning over the years.
This view – that men and women are basically the same and can do all the same things – has been largely accepted by society. We must, however, challenge it for a number of reasons.
First, the evidence suggests there are real differences. Advances in neurological research have shown conclusively that men and women have different behaviour patterns resulting from natural neurological differences – some observable before birth.3
It seems logical that the observable differences between men and women point to different roles. This is the case at a biological level – men are physically unable to give birth and to breastfeed a small child. But why should we assume that the difference ends there and does not extend to less obvious areas?
Second, the Bible teaches the integrity of human personality. In the face of the dualistic philosophies prevalent in the first century AD, the authors of the New Testament put forward an integrated view of human personhood.
When Greek philosophy or mystery religions threatened to corrupt the churches, the apostolic writers reasserted the goodness of the material world and the physical-spiritual integrity of man.
A striking example is Paul’s warning against sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 6:2–20. He makes it clear that our bodies are meant ‘for the Lord’, are members of Christ himself, and are the temple of the Holy Spirit ‘bought’ by God for himself.
The thrust of the whole passage is that we cannot say that our bodies are not significant to God. He deals with the whole of us. What I ‘do’ with my body isn’t somehow different from and less than what ‘the real me’ does or is.
In other words, a strict separation of spiritual and physical is not a Christian idea at all. As Werner Neuer writes, ‘A person is a total unity of body and soul which cannot be split into a sexual corpse and a sexless psyche’.4
So we cannot join the feminists in dismissing our basic physical sexual differences as merely superficial. We are male and female, not just sexually but ‘holistically’. Our sexuality is not something ‘tacked on’ and separate from the ‘real’ person, as dualists propose.
Third (and most significantly), the Bible gives a theological basis for the belief that men and women are equal in worth and status but, at the same time, have different and complementary roles.
The question of what those roles might be is beyond the scope of this article, but we can consider the biblical basis for saying ‘equal’ and ‘different’ in the same breath. Feminists think this impossibly contradictory. The Bible, however, teaches that it is not only possible for men and women to be equal yet different, but that this actually reflects the nature of God himself.
In Genesis 1:27 we are told that man and woman – male and female – were created in the image of God. The God in whose image we are made is the one true God who is also three – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The three persons of the Godhead are all equally God and yet have (and always have had) different roles.
The idea that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father has come under fierce discussion recently. Gilbert Bilzekian5 and Stanley Grenz6 (among others) have rejected the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son as a ‘recent theological innovation’.
They consider it impossible to be equal in essence and yet eternally subordinate in role – so they read the Church Fathers and the Bible in that light, not allowing for a more nuanced picture.
In orthodox biblical theology, however, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father. He did not become the Son at Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. The members of the Trinity did not need to draw lots to decide which of them would become incarnate. Their roles are essentially appropriate to their persons because it is their relationships with one another that define them.
The Father is the source (‘from whom’), the Son is the agent (‘through whom’) and the Spirit is the instrument (‘by whom’). The Father is unseen; the Son is the image and revealer; and the Spirit is the testifier and illuminator.
Now obviously none of the persons can act unilaterally – there is one God and thus one purpose, one will and one desire. Yet their roles in bringing this about are distinct. Not only are these roles seen in ‘eternity past’ (it being eternally appropriate that the Son should be sent, for he was ‘the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world’; Revelation 13:8), but also in ‘eternity future’.
The latter point is conclusively demonstrated in 1 Corinthians 15:26–28, where at the end of all things, ‘the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all’. The final consummation comes about when the Son is subject to his Father. This state of affairs is utterly appropriate to their respective persons and in no way threatens their shared divine essence.
God’s Trinitarian inter-relationship is the basis for human relationships. The model is not one of interchangeable egalitarianism, but a complex system of initiation and response, of dependence and obedience.
We can say of male and female ‘equal but different’ because of what God is in himself.
1. The titles are based partly on Mary Kassian’s excellent book The Feminist Gospel (Crossway: Illinois, 1992).
2. Greer, G. The Female Eunuch(HarperCollins: London, 1999).
3. See, for example Moir, Ann and Bill Why Men Don’t Iron: The New Reality of Gender Differences(HarperCollins: London, 1999).
4. Neuer, W. Man and Woman in Christian Perspective,tran. Wenham (Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1990), p.6.
5. Bilzekian, G. ‘Hermeneutical Bungee-Jumping: Subordination in the Godhead’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40 (March 1997), 57–68.
6. Grenz, S. ‘Theological Foundations for Male–Female Relationships’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society41 (December 1998), 615–30.
This edited extract from From Athens to Jerusalem(Summer 2003) is reproduced with kind permission of RTSF, part of UCCF.