Feminist theology

There are a number of Christian beliefs which I wish I didn’t hold: I wish I could be a universalist; I wish I could give equal legitimacy to gay relationships; I wish divorce and remarriage wasn’t such a no-no. And I wish I could buy the claim that men and women are not inherently distinguished; instead I  would argue that men are tasked with leadership and authority roles which it isn’t right for women to exercise.

This is a minefield. Over the centuries the church has got it badly wrong, suppressing the gifts of women to an unhealthy extent. Actually that wasn’t restricted to women; the ability of most to develop their gifts to any significant extent wasn’t really an option. But the failure to offer women the education that was available no doubt left us deprived of their gifts. This can be over stressed; the church did better than the cultures from which it was emerged, and the New Testament hints at women having a significant role in the early church, though one that faded subsequently.

The issue is, of course, about how we interpret the bible. For the purposes of this discussion I’m taking Genesis as authoritative, which given that Jesus did so in his condemnation of divorce, seems appropriate. So what does this give us?

Genesis 2 offers us the story of the creation of woman. She is bought to Adam, and he NAMES her. This matches his relationship to the animals, whom he has named and has authority over. We name what we have authority over; even in our culture, the parents’ naming of their children reflects our authority over them. And this occurs BEFORE the fall; it’s not after it. Thus suggesting ‘Had God wanted demonstrate that woman is less fit to rule, he would not have given them the same calling to take dominion’ misses the significance of being a queen; a queen shares the king’s authority in reality, though ultimately under his authority.

It’s also important to recognise the words used in the Hebrew for rulership. The type of rule that the man is described as exercising over the woman as a result of the curse of the fall is מְשָׁל ‘mashal’ – the sort of rule exercised over a foreign land, rather than the rule of the king of Israel over Israel, which is the word מְּלֹךְ ‘malak’ which has the concept of taking counsel in it. So the fall results in a collapse of the relationship between man and wife from consultative and healthy to domination and unbalanced – as the phrase about ‘Your desire will be for your husband’ also suggests.

Turning to the New Testament, and its use of the creation story, we have 1 Tim 2:

‘8 Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.’

The point here is that women, after conversion, are still limited in what they should do. If we are to take this passage seriously, we have to provide an interpretation that engages with the reference to the events in the Garden. My own preference is to see this as a ban on church leadership for women; a policy that remains in place in theory in most of Christendom, though the drift towards Catholic parishes being headed by a woman religious because of the shortage of priests is a reality that is unhealthy. A particular problem relates to what is meant by ‘teaching’: it may well relate to the specific laying down of what the church believes on a topic that is distinct from week by week preaching. If so, this provides space for a woman to be the one who brings the sermon on a Sunday; however this leaves open the question of when ‘teaching’ IS occurring in the church. Not a topic I want to open up now.

A detail to bear in mind any discussion of this issue is way in which the punishment that lands on Adam and Eve persists to this day. Men still till the ground with great difficulty, and women suffer pain in child birth. Any attempt to minimise the truth and implications of the rulership of men over women should be able to point to these other effects being removed before claiming that women are to be released from the rulership. So when Christians by miraculous means are painlessly producing babies and our jobs don’t require the ‘painful toil’ and ‘the sweat of the brow’, then the rest of the package is defunct. Until then, we should resist trying to avoid what does seem clearly taught as part of the reality of living – though this is NOT an excuse for men being gratuitously dominant over women.

Finally we must recognise that the existence of what seems to be a gift from God doesn’t create the right for the possessor to use it. This is most clearly seen in presently celibate people; such individuals are gifted to be parents and sexually active, both good gifts from God. But just because they have that gift doesn’t mean they have the right to exercise it. So the fact that a woman appears well equipped to be a church leader doesn’t constitute evidence that she is fulfil that role.

Conclusion

‘Had God intended for man to rule over woman, he would have stated it more clearly when creating her. Instead he speaks it out as a consequence of her sin, and by doing so he relays the pain it is inflicting on both humanity and creation, but also, to the heart of God… It is time to set Eve free.’

I hope I’ve challenged the logic of this rhetoric. We are called to be faithful to the God who is revealed in the bible, even when He requires us to go against the fashionable views of the world that have come to dominate large parts of the institutional church.

Finally – to shoot us at men; the reason why women end up doing the jobs which the bible seems to indicate should be reserved for women is because we duck our responsibilities. We sit back and let them do the sharing, the leading and the praying. We may be sitting back in church because we have over committed ourselves at work – making our career the centre of our lives instead of finding God’s balance for it.

Recommended reading:

David Pawson Leadership is Male

John and Paula Sandford Restoring the Christian Family

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3 thoughts on “Feminist theology

  1. Jules

    You are absolutely right, of course: the issue is about how we interpret the Bible.

    In order to justify your conclusion, and place it in opposition to the social progress that’s been made in the last 50 years in the West, you have to be rock-solid on the presupposition that the Bible is an authoritative guide-book for humanity from God.

    I challenge you to demonstrate this from first principles. You would have to show:
    – that there is an Authority to which we are accountable, i.e. God, and that this God is good rather than evil, such that humans are obliged to do what he requires;
    – that every word of Jesus of Nazareth (or at least the ones in the Bible, or at the very least, the ones you are using here) carries the authority of that God;
    – that every part of the collection of writings now known as the Bible (or at least the parts you are using here) carries that same authority.

    Your argument should be written so as to be convincing to an intelligent outsider, i.e. based on public evidence, and not based on a prior faith decision. You have an unlimited word-count, and you have your lifetime to complete.

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    1. brucep66423 Post author

      Thank you for the comment. The task you propose appears to make sense, but is actually unreasonable. This is because it implies that there is an alternative to finding out about God from the bible – or at least using the bible as the measure of what is actually of God.

      I was at a lecture recently that argued that John Wesley’s approach was to have the Holy Spirit as his guide to life, but the scriptures as his rule. This articulates the view I’ve long sought to offer as a response to the tired certainties of systematic theology – which does get very deadly very easily. The point is that we can have experiences that we label as ‘spiritual’ – but then have to decide whether they were anything to do with the God who revealed Himself in Jesus. How can we decide? To reject the authority of the bible – which is what you are in fact doing – is to claim that you have an insight more correct than those who were far closer to the actual experience of which we can be confident. This is surely a road that will tend to end, at some point, in deception. If indeed the devil presents himself as an angel of light, we must be prepared to resist his lies; the bible provides the only firm foundation for this.

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      1. Jules

        If I’ve understood your reply correctly, you are still taking the existence of God as a given. But this is one of the points I am asking you to demonstrate from first principles. In rejecting the authority of the Bible, I am not claiming to have any better insight; rather I’m admitting that I don’t believe there is any authority.

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