by Duane Litfin

Evangelical Christians have strong, but mixed feelings toward feminism. On one hand, they sense there is much that is of value.

What follower of Jesus could ignore the fundamental injustice of laws that work to the disadvantage of women? Who could fail to be outraged at the prospect of a woman being paid a fraction of what a man earns for the same work? What fair-minded person is not dismayed when reminded that it has only been within the life spans of many Americans that women have been thought
worthy of the vote?

Any who are willing can find much in the feminist movement to support. But therein lies the rub. The worthy goals of the movement occur as part of a structure that is contrary to the Bible.

Should a Christian embrace the movement with its heresy, or reject it with its truth? The issue is not so clear cut. Some Christians have embraced the feminist cause entirely. Others are so incensed at the heresies of the feminist movement that they are blinded to its worthier aspects.

That leaves most Christians trying to find a biblical view between the two extremes–searching to find that point of balance where we can embrace the good aspects of feminism while rejecting the bad.

To make the decision more difficult, many Christians are unaware of the theological choices they must make.

Feminists can be divided into three camps:

1. Secular feminists are humanists who disallow any voice to God, revelation, or religion.

2. Liberal religious feminists express an agenda that is virtually indistinguishable from that of secular feminists, but maintain ties with the Judeo-Christian religious establishment.

3. Evangelical feminists hold an evangelical view of the Bible and theology, but also seek to abolish gender-based roles in society, church, and home.

* Feminism and the Bible

The Bible is crucial in determining how an evangelical approaches the debate.

Secular feminists have no time for the bible and are irritated at the very mention of it. They consider the Bible a relic of antiquity that is useful only in showing how men have oppressed women through the years.

Liberal religious feminists vary widely in their approach to the Bible. Some reject it altogether as an oppressive, patriarchal burden.

Less radical are those who seek to retain for the Bible some of the role it has played at the church, and who seek feminist conclusions in the Bible. Robin Scroggs, a respected professor of New Testament at Chicago Theological Seminary, argues that Paul is “the only certain and consistent spokesman for the liberation and equality of women in the New Testament.”

But to reach that conclusion, he has to reject most of the passages in Paul’s letters that contradict his view. “Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals are immediately discarded, and, for our purposes, hopefully forgotten,” he writes. “Also to be discarded as written by someone later than Paul is 1 Corinthians 14:33-36, which prohibits women from speaking in the Christian assemblies.”

Scroggs also dismisses 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 as “hardly one of Paul’s happier compositions.” Nonetheless, Scroggs proceeds in an adroit bit of revisionist exegesis to show that no subordination of the woman is suggested in 1 Corinthians 11. The only other “authentically Pauline” comment on feminism is Galatians 3:28, and that verse shows Paul as a strong spokesman for the liberation and equality of women!

Evangelical feminists take a much less critical approach. Some argue that both ancient and modern readers have read the subordination of women into the text. Others have suggested that the problems have to do with the application of key biblical passages to a modern audience.

* The Feminists and God

At an even deeper level are issues dealing with traditional views of God, especially such “patriarchal” themes as Father, Master, Lord, and King.

Secular feminists eliminate God altogether.

Liberal religious feminists are more interested in redefining God than in eliminating “him.” They see the overwhelming masculinity of the biblical references to God as merely another evidence that sexists males have made God in their own image.

Evangelical feminists have the precarious task of balancing an ancient, biblical view of the Creator with a modern, egalitarian view of the creature.

Because the two don’t mix easily, a vast outpouring of literature over the past 20 years has attempted to make the marriage. Such evangelicals tend to downplay notions of sovereignty, authority, and immutability. They also downplay strident feminist demands such as the elimination of all authority-submission roles.

Evangelical feminists claim that Galatians 3:28 swept away all sex roles and that egalitarianism is a direct, necessary deduction from Christ’s redemptive work.

* Feminism and the Doctrine of Humanity

“What is man?” the psalmist asked.

Secular feminists can claim no authority but their own for arguing that human beings can be whatever they want to be.

Liberal religious feminists see us as God’s creation, made in the image of God, and even brought to our full potential in Jesus Christ.

But both groups seek the transcendence of maleness and femaleness. All structures and stereotypes that emphasize sexual differences are to be resisted. The healthiest people are “androgynous,” capable of expressing both female and male responses.

How can evangelicals, holding to traditional views of God, espouse an unreserved feminism?

The more respected evangelical feminist theologians reject androgyny. They see the image of God as referring primarily to human sexuality. Male-female partnership mirrors the partnership in the Trinity. They thus conclude that the image of God concept leads to the elimination of gender-based roles.

The greater difficulty for evangelical feminists is that the Bible appears to teach sex roles, hierarchy, male authority, and female submission. The biblical versions must, of course, be distinguished from both their sinful abuses throughout history and their caricatures as found in feminist rhetoric.

The evangelical feminist position seems to be a house divided against itself as it pleads for traditional theology and a feminist society.

Printed in Moody Monthly, November 1987. Adapted from “Theological Issues in Contemporary Feminism,” in Walvoord: A Tribute, edited by Donald K. Campbell (Moody Press, 1982).