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All About Eve
Feminism and the Meaning of Equality
“Though we adore men individually,
We agree that as a group they’re rather stupid.
So cast off the shackles of yesterday;
Shoulder to shoulder into the fray. . . .
From Kensington to Billingsgate one hears the restless cry
From every corner of the land: ‘Womankind, arise!’
Political equality and equal rights with men. . . .
No more the meek and mild subservients, we;
We’re fighting for our rights, militantly. . . .”
— Winifred Banks (Glynis Johns), “Sister Suffragettes,” in Mary Poppins (1964)
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If pressed to identify the most influential cultural development in Western
civilization of the twentieth century, we believe a good case could be made for choosing
feminism. The woman’s suffrage movement of the early part of the century changed the
political system by giving women, both married and unmarried, the vote. The suffragettes
and feminists of the early twentieth century were culturally conservative by today’s
standards. They were at the forefront of the temperance movement that outlawed the sale of
alcoholic beverages for a time. Prohibition and its repeal contributed to major changes in
the structure of crime in America and led to widespread skepticism about the possibility of
“legislating morality.” The early feminists were generally opposed to abortion, though they
led the effort to develop and legitimize contraception.
Forced into the workforce in record numbers during World War II, the rise of
women in the workplace has continued to alter the economy of the Western world.
Associated issues and controversies have included such difficult matters as sexual
harassment, the rise of the day care and “latch-key kids,” welfare for single mothers, and
gender-based affirmative action.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was in part inspired by the
suffrage and early feminist movements. In turn the women’s liberation movement of the
1960s and 1970s pushed for political representation of women in government, fueled the
sexual revolution, brought about the legalization of abortion, and sparked debates in every
denomination about women’s ordination and the relationship of husband and wife in the
home. Inspired by both the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, the homosexual
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rights movement began building momentum in the 1970s and by the 1990s was dramatically
altering the cultural landscape.
In the 1980s and 1990s women have turned in increasing numbers to goddess
worship, Wicca, and other “New Age” types of religious and spiritual expression.
Meanwhile, in mainline Protestant churches feminism has successfully pushed for the
publication of new Bible translations and liturgies that remove references to God as
“Father” or Jesus as “Son.”
Regardless of what one thinks of these developments, there can be little doubt that
feminism has dramatically changed the way we all think about men and women. Nor is it
only men who have had to change how they think about women. Over the decades, women
have learned to think of themselves in new ways. Some of this changed thinking is surely
for the better. For example, Prestonia Mann Martin, a leading opponent of the woman’s
suffrage movement, in a book co-authored with her husband in 1916 expressed her belief
that women were not merely the weaker sex, but that they were relatively “disabled” as a sex
in comparison with men. Even disabled men, she argued, have a chance to recover, “but
womanhood is an infirmity from which women rarely, if ever, recover.” Martin went on to
warn women against getting involved in the legislative process, on the grounds that women
“lack the aptitude either to make laws or to obey them.” Women should give up the attempt
to change man’s world “because it is his world.”1
Prestonia Mann Martin’s viewpoint was neither coerced nor mindless. Ironically,
she was a thoughtful, informed, outspoken person who was concerned about the world at
large. Her point of view had tradition and the political status quo on its side. Yet a mere
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eighty years later her perspective has all but disappeared, and most of us, both men and
women, can hardly believe that any woman would so belittle her own half of the human race.
Almost all of us now realize that it was wrong to deny women the right to participate
directly in the democratic process by voting.2
Even those who would be critical of feminism, then, must take into account the fact
that all of us should agree that feminism has made legitimate and valuable contributions to
our society’s view of women. It is also important to keep in mind that feminism is not
monolithic. There are evangelical feminists, Catholic feminists, liberal feminists,
ecofeminists (a New Age type), atheistic feminists, and lesbian feminists, just to name a
few of the varieties. While women are far more likely than men to call themselves
feminists, a growing number of men affirm the validity of feminism, and both male and
female scholars, philosophers, and even theologians can be found in growing abundance
who work from a feminist perspective.
Defining feminism, then, is a somewhat perilous venture. A useful definition
offered by feminist theologians Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty is that feminism is “a
belief in and commitment to the full equality of men and women in home, church, and
society.”3 Basic to feminism is the claim that women must not only be regarded as “equal”
in dignity and worth, but also must be “equal” in opportunity to participate in every
institution of human society at every level.
While it is arguably not the most important issue in feminism, probably the simplest
indicator of a feminist position in relation to Christianity is the question of women’s
ordination. Those who favor ordaining women as priests or pastors nearly always endorse a
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full-orbed feminist position, while those who do not support women’s ordination dissent
from feminist thinking at least in part.
The Feminist Challenge to Biblical Values
While feminism is well represented within Christianity, historically feminists have
raised troubling questions not only about the view of women promoted by Christian men
throughout the centuries, but also about the teaching of the Bible about women. It would
not be overstating the matter to assert that one of the most common objections to an
evangelical view of the Bible as God’s unerring word, both from outside the church and
from many inside the church, is that it relegates women to second-class status. This should
not be surprising, since the issue affects slightly more than half of all people! A
representative expression of this objection comes from Episcopal bishop John Shelby
There is no doubt about the fact that the Bible is biased against women. . . . Both the
religious and ethical directives of the Bible were formulated out of a patriarchal
understanding of life, with the interests of men being primary. Are we willing to return to
these destructive definitions of both men and women?4
So, if we are to commend the biblical Christian faith to the world as we enter the
third millennium of the church’s history, we must be prepared to answer the feminists’
questions about the Bible’s view of women. Here we must work hard to face honestly what
the Bible says, whether our own perspective tends toward feminism or a more traditionalist
view. Critics of the biblical teaching will see through any attempt to paper over what the
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Bible says about women and rightly conclude that we are actually embarrassed by those
aspects of the biblical view that don’t fit our modern “enlightened” perspective. Nor, on the
other hand, is it honest to refuse to rethink some of our traditional understandings of the
Bible’s teaching on women.
While we do not claim that our own assessment of the question is the last word, we
do believe that there are some things about which we can be certain. We hope to show that
the biblical teaching on women is not only defensible, but that it is based on absolute truth.
Far from viewing it as a stumbling block or an embarrassment to the Christian faith, we
believe that, properly understood, the biblical view of women is one of Christianity’s
Before turning to the Bible to see just what it does teach about women, we should
point out that there are several views on the matter. For our purposes the most important of
these views are the following.
1. Inferiority. On this view the Bible teaches that women are inferior to men and
assigned a subservient role in life. While there may be some encouragement here and there
in the Bible to take a nobler view of women, overall the Bible’s view of women is
demeaning and cannot be accepted. This is the view espoused by such liberals as Bishop
Spong, for whom the Bible is not divinely inspired or authoritative and who are therefore
prepared to jettison the Bible’s teaching on women.
2. Developing egalitarianism. The word “egalitarian” refers to views that
emphasize full equality between people (here, men and women). We are using the term
“developing egalitarianism” to refer to what Scanzoni and Hardesty, among others, call
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biblical feminism. On this view the Bible is the product of a patriarchal world and to some
extent incorporates that world’s view of women as inferior, yet the Bible also points toward
a higher view of women as equal to men which is developed more fully in the New
Testament. The conclusion is that Christians today should adopt an egalitarian view that
eliminates all vocational and authoritarian distinctions between men and women.
3. Consistent egalitarianism. Some believe that the Bible consistently teaches an
egalitarian view of women. Specific passages thought to be inconsistent with that view are
said to have been misinterpreted. This position is gaining ground in evangelical circles, and
has been defended in respectable fashion by some evangelical biblical scholars. While we
disagree with some of the claims made by egalitarians, their approach to Scripture is
honorable, and they make some valuable correctives to traditional stereotypes of the
biblical view of women.
4. Complementarianism. This view understands the Bible to teach that women are
equal to men in human dignity and worth, though intended by God to submit to male
authority in the home and in the church. On this view the roles of women are
complementary and different, not inferior. We are in basic agreement with this view,
though we do not always agree with some of the leading complementarians in the way they
articulate and defend this position.
Some comparisons are in order here. The first three views all hold to an egalitarian
view of women, although the first says such a view is not really taught in the Bible. All
three of these views regard any subordination of women to men as inconsistent with the
essential equality of women and men, and for this reason reject complementarianism as a
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contradictory and incoherent position. The consistent egalitarian and the complementarian
views both accept the Bible as the unerring word of God, although they differ in their
interpretations of the Bible’s teaching on this subject. The developing egalitarian view
typically holds what is called the neo-evangelical view of Scripture, according to which the
teaching of the Bible taken as a whole is true, but individual statements may not be
completely right. As others have pointed out, one of the reasons for concern about the neo-
evangelical egalitarian position is that it undermines the authority of Scripture.5
Is God Male?
Perhaps the most basic question that can be asked about any religion is what it thinks
about God. How one views God has the most profound ramifications for the whole of one’s
outlook on life. For example, those who view God as a harsh, arbitrary deity looking for
opportunities to spoil their day will obviously live differently from those who view God as a
spiritual power from which they can draw strength for whatever purpose suits them. These
examples are extreme, but they illustrate the point. Likewise, many people think that the
Bible presents God as a male deity, an idea that implies that women are inherently inferior
to men. According to Spong, for example, the Bible insists “on the totally masculine nature
of God and the corresponding assignment of divine (i.e., male) prerogatives to men, who
alone, the myth argues, are created in the image of this God.”6 While Spong is criticizing
this view of God as a myth, there are those who actually affirm the essential masculinity of
God. The easiest example is Mormonism, according to which God is a literal, though
immortal and exalted, man. The traditional Mormon view understands God to be living
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somewhere in the heavens with a celestial wife, a kind of heavenly Mother. But the belief
that God is “masculine” can also be found a little closer to home. John R. Rice, a
fundamentalist writer popular in some independent Baptist circles, wrote in 1941 that “God
is a masculine God. . . . God is not effeminate. God is not feminine, but masculine.”7 Even
though Rice did not mean that God is a literal man with male anatomy, his affirmation that
God is masculine implies a kinship between God and men that women cannot share.
In actual fact the Bible does not teach that God is male, but rather views God as an
incorporeal spirit who transcends all created distinctions and who is neither male nor
female. As if to underscore this point, the Old Testament explicitly denies that God is
either male or human: “God is not a man [Hebrew ish, a male adult], that He should lie, nor
a son of man [ish], that He should repent” (Num. 23:19). Nor is God human at all: “For He
is not a man [Hebrew ’adam, human being], that he should relent” (1 Sam. 15:29). The
Bible clearly reveals God to be an infinite Spirit whom the universe itself cannot contain (1
Kings 8:27; John 4:24; Acts 7:49; 17:24).
It is true, of course, that God is given masculine titles in the Bible such as King and
Father, and is referred to using masculine pronouns (he, him, his). But some choice of
language had to be made. Four possibilities were open to the biblical writers.
(1) Refer to God using feminine titles and pronouns. In ancient religious contexts,
this choice would have unavoidably evoked strong sexual associations. Goddesses were not
merely gods with feminine names, but were portrayed and thought of in a sexual and even
erotic way. Worse still, portraying the one God as female would have suggested that the
relationship between God and creation was like that between a mother and her child — and
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this in turn would have encouraged the deification of nature. The Bible views God as the
creator, maker, and designer of creation, and this relationship was better safeguarded by
avoiding referring to God using feminine names.
(2) Refer to God using neuter, impersonal language (“Source” instead of “Father,”
“it” instead of “he”). The problem with this solution is more obvious: It would tend to
encourage the view that God is impersonal, a force or power latent in the world, rather than
the personal, loving Being he is.
(3) Refer to God using both masculine and feminine language. In a limited
respect this is actually what we find in the Bible, but we must be careful not to overstate the
case (as is often done by egalitarians). For example, while the Bible avoids picturing God
as the mother of nature, Isaiah in particular pictures God as the Mother of the people of
Israel, carrying them in the womb, nursing and comforting Israel as a child (e.g., Is. 46:3;
49:15; 66:13). That the analogy is not to be pressed is made clear by the fact that Isaiah can
also liken God to a husband and Israel to a wife (e.g., Is. 54:5; 62:4-5). Jesus compared
God’s delight in saving sinners to a woman’s delight in finding a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10).
Such imagery can be found scattered throughout the Bible, and it shows that the Bible does
not regard God as male.8 Still, the Bible never uses feminine titles for God (such as
Mother or Queen) and never uses feminine pronouns for God. Nor is the Holy Spirit the
“feminine member” of the Trinity; at least, no biblical language supports such an idea.
(4) Refer to God using primarily masculine language. This is what the Bible
actually does. Again, the main reason for this choice seems to have been to avoid the
serious theological errors of viewing God as a sexual being or as an impersonal force.