Foundations of Women's Ordination, part 6: Evangelical Feminism

Foundations of Women’s Ordination
Larry Kirkpatrick
This article zeros-in on the form of Feminist Theology generally closest to that advocated by some in the Adventist Church: Evangelical Feminism.
Among other things, in this series we have discussed biblical interpretation, historical-criticism, the broader history behind Women’s Ordination, and Liberation, Feminist, and Queer Theologies. We have considered these things precisely because we do not want to determine our own positions too quickly. Background offers insight. Allegedly biblical arguments are being offered today in favor of ordaining women to male headship clergy positions in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Do these arguments truly arise as biblical imperatives, or are they being projected onto the Scriptures after the fact? Where have some acquired their urgent ideas? Are we under obligation to change our approach because we have studied the Scriptures and found that, based on a corrected understanding, we have been mistaken? Or, is what we see an attempt to obtain a “bull’s eye” by painting the target onto the side of the barn after first shooting the arrow? Did the urgent thrust for Women’s Ordination (more precisely, women being appointed to serve in spiritual leadership positions biblically reserved to males) come not only from outside the church but outside the Bible? And is the current effort to find a biblical basis for the practice witness to this origin?
A Condensed History of Evangelical Feminism
Whereas second wave secular feminism begins in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and second wave Feminist Theology especially comes to the front in the early 1970s, Evangelical Feminism becomes distinct in the mid-1970s. In 1973 the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (EWC) is formed. Key books are published. Primary examples include Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be (1974); Paul Jewitt, Man as Male and Female (1975); Virginia R. Mollenkott, Women, Men, and the Bible (1977); Virginia R. Mollenkott and Letha Scanzoni, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (1978). Pamela D.H. Cochran comments on those years:

. . .[F]ew progressive evangelicals questioned whether Gundry, Scanzoni, Hardesty, or Mollenkott were evangelicals. Most also approved of their overall hermeneutical methods, including the use of higher criticism (Pamela D.H. Cochran, Evangelical Feminism: A History, p. 623).

The Seventh-day Adventist Church in roughly the same period was able to warn against the use of the historical-critical method. The church held meetings titled “A Symposium on Biblical Hermeneutics” on the campuses of Andrews University, Pacific Union College, and Southern College, with the goal of putting the brakes on the use of the historical-critical method. The same year a book dealing with these issues was published, Gordon M. Hyde, ed., A Symposium on Biblical Hermeneutics, 1974. The concern culminated in 1986 when the church published this warning,

Even a modified use of this method [historical-critical] that retains the principle of criticism which subordinates the Bible to human reason is unacceptable to Adventists. . . . we urge Adventist Bible students to avoid relying on the use of the presuppositions and the resultant deductions associated with the historical-critical method (“Bible Study: Presuppositions, Principles, and Methods.” This statement was approved and voted by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Executive Committee at the Annual Council Session in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 12, 1986).

Evangelicalism, diverse, lacking unity, without sufficiently centralized and authoritative structures, was unable to effectively prevent the use and impact of the critical methods.
Tension began to build within Evangelical Feminism soon after its debut. Even in 1975 at a significant meeting the topic of homosexuality arose in a joint presentation by Hardesty and Mollenkott. Their presentation was titled “Woman to Woman Relationships.” Mollenkott and Scanzoni’s, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor, in 1978 marked further intensification of the issue. The movement held together for another eight years. In Fresno, 1986, homosexuality divided it.
The EWC Executive Council decided in their 1985 meeting to stop passing resolutions in their open meetings. But in Fresno 1986 the business meeting chair decided that decision had been only advisory. Resolutions were permitted. Soon, a resolution was offered favoring civil-rights protections for homosexuals. The motion passed 80 to 16, with 23 abstentions. Accusations followed; then resignations. Many withdrew their support for the group. A year later, Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) had been formed (see Cochran, pp. 96-103).
This was nothing new. Back in 1970, a similar process on the secular side had led to a split in the National Organization of Women (NOW). Then, NOW president Betty Friedan had urged that homosexuality issues be avoided, worrying that such a course would be divisive and play into the hands of those wishing to discredit NOW. She identified the NOW pro-lesbian faction as the “Lavender Menace.”
In a major NOW meeting in 1970, the Lavender Menace was indeed present. As the first planned speaker walked to the microphone, one turned out the lights and unplugged the microphone. In the darkness, some laughed; others gave rebel yells. When the lights came back up, the aisles were lined with lesbians wearing “Lavender Menace” t-shirts, holding slogan-laden placards. A manifesto was distributed and others were asked to join. When NOW tried to regain the floor of their own meeting, audience and Menace resisted. Lavender took over the hall for that afternoon, sharing the microphone, describing their anger. The meeting that day concluded with a spontaneous group dance. By September 1971, NOW was under different leadership. Lesbianism was officially recognized, lesbian rights accepted as legitimate concerns for feminism.
In both cases—secular feminism and even Evangelical Feminism—the movement was unable to avoid the question of lesbianism. As it had happened in one venue, so it happened in the other. NOW had been founded in 1966; it took four years to reach the point of lesbian split. Evangelical Feminism began in 1973 and made it until 1986 before dividing.
The Theology of Evangelical Feminism
Margaret Elisabeth Köstenberger observes that

While radical and reformist feminists rally around the notion of liberation from oppression, evangelical feminists adopt equality as their central tenet. The teaching of Galatians 3:28, that in Christ ‘there is no male and female,’ serves as the key biblical text by which all other teachings of Scripture are to be measured (Margaret Elisabeth Köstenberger, Jesus and the Feminists: Who Do They Say That He Is? p. 129, emphasis in original).

Evangelical Feminists tend to hold a high view of Scripture. Whereas Radical Feminists discard the Bible, and Mainstream Feminists salvage bits and pieces from it, Evangelical Feminists attempt to keep all of it. Evangelical Feminists begin with a second assumption: that the equality of men and women in all respects is a fundamentally correct view. This equality must, therefore already be built into the Bible.
Their approach is predetermined; means must be found to harmonize two ideas. This must mean reinterpreting Scripture in an attempt to bring its teachings into harmony with their egalitarian assumptions. In Evangelical Feminism the whole program must be devoted to methods of interpretation that partition off passages difficult to harmonize, or, reinterpret passages so that they are seen to be in support of their view of equality.
Common Markers for Evangelical Feminism
Let’s look at particulars.
Evangelical Feminism may be identified as a subbranch of Mainstream Feminist Theology. (See parts three and four of this series for the theological underpinnings.) We can say that Evangelical Feminism is an adaptation of Mainstream Feminism. One will often find a subset of the following views to be held by Evangelical Feminists.

  • Galatians 3:28 is seen as Paul’s “breakthrough insight” confirming equality for all, and serving functionally as a canon within a canon, a measure to which all other Scripture and interpretations of Scripture is compared
  • The goal is attaining the “full humanity of women”
  • The Greek word Kephale is claimed to mean “source,” not “head” (removes male headship)
  • Genesis 1:26-28 demonstrates that men and women are equal (this is true but the insisted upon definition of role differentiation as unequal treatment, is false)
  • Jesus’ treatment of women was revolutionary, and there is a “trajectory” in the Bible by which it is seen that a current understanding of the gospel should lead to the appointment of women to positions of leadership like men, although the end-point of this trajectory stands outside the New Testament (this idea can be used to allege any variety of trends and of end-points)
  • Male priority is equated with male superiority and female inferiority
  • Paul’s appeals to Genesis two are misguided; he is trapped in rabbinic teaching
  • Suspicion that the pastoral epistles (including 1 Timothy and Titus) and Ephesians are post-Pauline (deutero-canonical) in origin, or, have at least been redacted—further edited—after Paul wrote them (hence, carrying no normative biblical authority)
  • Women were the first proclaimers of Jesus’ resurrection (their proclamation was not general; they were instructed to return and tell the apostles that Jesus was risen)
  • The sacrifice of Jesus reverses the effects of the Fall (especially male headship and gender-based role distinctions, and these incorrectly traced to the Fall in Genesis three)
  • Authority is in a congregation itself and not in leaders from it appointed to it; leadership is not about power but service; it is an authorityless authority
  • Some passages are seen as being ‘culturally conditioned’ and therefore not applicable in today’s situation. They are assigned a local status only, their instruction denied as being timeless and universal
  • The “priesthood of all believers” means that women too should be ordained as leaders even in male-headship roles
  • The new interpretations differ from long-standing interpretations
  • Scripture is read from an egalitarian viewpoint but this does not in general reflect a natural reading of its texts

The reason for long-standing historic interpretations is often one of two: either because of the early establishment of dogmatic positions (e.g. the mistaken practice of Sunday-keeping, the mistaken belief in Original Sin), or, because the teaching is the most straightforward way of reading the Bible. Newer readings are often based upon ideas themselves much more recent and for which serious biblical support is lacking.
An egalitarian reading assumes that the Scripture teaches that men and women are equals in virtually all respects. While spiritually this is so in terms of the universal need for salvation, no wider general assumption can safely be made. Jesus did treat women with great respect and included them in the close circle of His followers, but He did not select even one to serve as an apostle. If Jesus did choose women apostles, this cannot be assumed or imagined; it must be demonstrated.
In the Bible, beside Moses as the human author of Genesis chapter two, the most difficult writer for pro-Women’s Ordination advocates to deal with is Paul. Greatly appreciated for a section of his epistle to the Galatians—he is discounted for his work in other New Testament writings. Primary Pauline arguments related to Women’s Ordination are found in several passages (1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:34-38; Ephesians 5:22-33; 1 Timothy 2:9-14; 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-12).
Evangelical Feminist writings tend to inflate evidence in the Gospels and deflate evidence in the Epistles. This is a reinterpretation of the Bible. But

[E]galitarian interpretation in practice often falls short of the hermeneutical ideal expressed in theory. . . . Unlike radical feminists, who reject Scripture entirely, and reformist feminists, who adopt a hermeneutics of suspicion based on a perceived patriarchal bias in Scripture, evangelical feminists on the whole claim to consider Scripture as authoritative, inspired, and inerrant. For this reason they cannot simply dismiss scriptural passages that do not conform to their egalitarian commitment, nor can they expand the Christian canon or say Paul or other writers of Scripture were in error. Their major interpretive option is therefore to find ways to interpret biblical passages along egalitarian lines, and, where this proves difficult, to postulate a ‘center of Scripture’ with regard to gender roles that allows them to set aside as culturally relative or otherwise inapplicable passages that do not support evangelical feminism.

The result is at times strained exegesis, and at other times unlikely interpretations that seem to be driven more by egalitarian presuppositions than by an inductive study of the text. While it is therefore hard to fault evangelical feminists for their professed view of Scripture or hermeneutical theory, their exegetical practice is frequently vulnerable to criticism (Köstenberger, pp. 175-177, emphasis in original).

Since Bible-believing Christians tend to compare purported teachings of the Bible with the Bible to see whether those things are so, Evangelical Feminism has chosen an especially difficult course. Theory and claim must be compared with actual practice.
Unresolved Contradictions
Köstenberger notes certain affinities between Evangelical Feminism and its sisters (Radical and Mainstream Feminism):

(1) an effort to identify and magnify the contributions of women in Scripture;
(2) the reinterpretation of biblical passages dealing with women in keeping with feminist or egalitarian presuppositions;
(3) the use of a ‘canon within a canon’ approach, by which certain biblical passages are elevated to normative status while others are marginalized; and
(4) the characterization of authority as intrinsically negative and the substitution of an authority-less servanthood model for leadership (Margaret Elizabeth Köstenberger, Jesus and the Feminists: Who Do They Say That He Is?, p. 219).

An effort to identify the authentic contributions of women in the Scriptures is not problematic. But if that effort results in inordinately magnifying those contributions—that is, in making more of them than Scripture does—that is a problem. When such passages are inflated beyond what they actually indicate, God’s revelation is distorted. Even small distortions may add up to testify to an erroneous conclusion.
Egalitarian presuppositions (such as essentially complete role interchangeability) are also problematic. At least some aspects of these propositions arise outside the Bible. Having been brought to the Scriptures, these propositions come to constitute an imposed position. It is true that the Bible does present egalitarian principles, especially in scope of the salvation question. When it comes to general questions of intelligence and capability, men and women are for all practical purposes equal. But when imported presuppositions radically deny positive Scriptural testimony for role differentiation, then the broader biblical witness and authority is denied. The issues of Women’s Ordination, male headship, female submission, are not about men being smarter or better or more capable; they are about a created order, a Designer’s design, with all of its nuance and picture language illustrating spiritual realities. As Paul says, “This mystery is profound, but I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32 ESV).
A third issue is that of interpreting certain passages (e.g. Galatians 3:28) in ways that give them a peculiar authority and priority over a host of other texts—often texts bearing not just generally but quite directly upon these issues (e.g., Genesis 2;
1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:33-35; Ephesians 5:22-33; 1 Timothy 2:11-14; 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-12;
1 Peter 3:1-7). Following the ‘canon within a canon’ approach, certain texts are favored, others treated marginally, or even ignored.
The fourth problem identified by Köstenberger is a problematic overall attitude toward authority. Is authority itself intrinsically wrong? Is its exercise really something to be eradicated? Does the embrace of servanthood truly mean that one has no authority? Jesus is the ultimate servant, yet He tells us that “all authority” in heaven and earth is given Him (Matthew 28:18-20).
Köstenberger describes the dilemma of the Evangelical Feminist:

It has become clear that radical and reformist scholarship has largely concluded that Jesus was not a feminist and that he did not pursue a radically egalitarian agenda. It has also become clear that evangelical feminists must come to terms with this conclusion, which contradicts their argument that Scripture presents Jesus as egalitarian (Ibid.).

If the Radical and Mainstream Feminist wings have deep problems with Scripture—so deep that they reject the Bible’s normative authority—what will be the final outcome for Evangelical Feminists? When they land where they are going, where will that be?
This lack of resolution is seen in disagreement concerning the Mainstream Feminist analysis of Genesis two. Evangelical Feminists argue that sex role differentiation traces back to Genesis three and the Fall, that it is not a part of the world as God created it. But hear Mainstream Feminist Rosemary Ruether:

Even in the original, unfallen creation, women would have been subordinate and under the domination of man (Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk, p. 94).

. . .[M]ale-female hierarchy was not just a product of sin, it was a part of the natural order created by God (Ibid., p. 97).

Mainstream Feminist Ruether sees headship and subordination as built-in to Genesis two, not Genesis three. Here is seen the primary reason why Mainstream Feminist Theology has rejected the view of Scripture claimed to be held by Evangelical Feminists. Evangelical Feminists are still trying to reconcile Feminism with the Bible through reinterpretation; Mainstream Feminists long ago understood that such a project must be fruitless. Therefore, they made their break and discarded the principle of normative authority for all 66 books of Scripture.
So, what is going on? Mainstream Feminists are reading Genesis two as we who oppose Women’s Ordination do—that is, both we and they see sex role differentiation as having been designed into the created order as represented in Genesis. The difference is, we accept Genesis as a historically authentic inspired record revealing the Creator’s design; they see it as an uninspired human document written by men and intended to subjugate women. And Evangelical Feminists? They disagree both, with Mainstream Feminists and with Christians who oppose Evangelical Feminist Theology—but have not offered persuasive evidence for their position.
Inevitable Influence
Readers will recall that in the first article in this series, it was pointed out that Feminist Theology comprises a variety of approaches, and that its interpreters do not all use the same methods. We do not claim that Adventist proponents of Women’s Ordination embrace all that has been discussed in our series. And yet, it remains true that the ideas of the foremost feminist theologians exercise an inescapable influence.
Adventist advocates of Women’s Ordination tend to approach from an Evangelical Feminist perspective. We have described Mainstream Feminist Theology and interpretation because it represents the root of theological feminism. Köstenberger is correct in pointing out that Radical Feminism, at one end of the spectrum, is the most consistent with its own principles, while Evangelical Feminism, at the opposite end, is least consistent (Margaret Elizabeth Köstenberger, Jesus and the Feminists: Who do they say that He is?, pp. 216, 219). If then Evangelical Feminism is an overflow of those more general Feminist presuppositions but manifest among Bible-believing kinds of Christians, we should be wary of its origins.
There is also the problem, we think, of some pro-ordination Adventists using sources which they intentionally choose not to disclose. In a Bible-believing denomination like the Seventh-day Adventist Church, exegetes holding to principles of interpretation far removed from the accepted norm may endeavor to move the church toward their view through presentations in which they choose not to identify the original sources of their ideas. Such a procedure may allay the fears of theologically uninformed readers who assume then that the ideas are original with the Adventist author. Such approaches will not always escape scrutiny.
What is a Biblical Argument?
Advocates of Women’s Ordination sometimes state that they are offering an array of Scriptural arguments but that these are speedily dismissed or it is pretended that they were never given. But almost all such “arguments” are very recent. That is, for more than 1800 years, arguments from the Bible for Women’s Ordination were almost non-existent.
Suddenly, however, arguments are being presented which are claimed to be biblical ones. But what shall we define as biblical argument? Shall we call any argument that uses Scripture a Bible argument? Shall we identify an argument as Scriptural by the unremarkable fact that assertions are made about certain texts, or, by the nature of the interpretive scheme involved in making those assertions? Here, Gregory J. Lockwood offers insight:

Not every way of interpreting the Bible is equally true to the Bible’s self-understanding and therefore equally faithful to God and helpful in building up the church. No matter what assurances may be given regarding a common commitment to the Bible, it is by no means insignificant that higher-critical methodologies foster a critical stance toward the authority, truthfulness, and clarity of parts of the Bible. . . is the Bible clear, harmonious, and self-consistent, or does it contain (as critical scholars suggest) divergent theological strands which make it ‘possible to draw different, even diametrically opposed, conclusions on the subject from different parts of scripture’? Thus the issue of women’s ordination is no isolated phenomenon. Rather, the church’s stance on the issue will be symptomatic of its attitude to more fundamental questions of hermeneutics and the doctrine of Scripture (Gregory J. Lockwood, “The Ordination of Women,” in Women Pastors? The Ordination of Women in Biblical Lutheran Perspective, pp. 140, 141).

As Seventh-day Adventists, we take a Bible-believing, Protestant position: the “biblicity” of an argument can only be determined by weighing its methodological consistency in light of the self-testimony of Scripture. That is, we begin from a starting point of faith—not doubt. We believe that although arriving at a sound interpretation of the Bible can require careful study, the Scriptures manifest a harmonious, self-consistent message. The Bible is not a chaos of conflicting ideas. In contrast, higher-critical (and postmodern) approaches begin with doubt and skepticism. They do not anticipate a unified testimony in Scripture, and, from that starting point, rarely find such.
The biblicity of an argument is a function of its faithfulness to Scripture. Thus, we could not designate many higher-critical arguments as being biblical arguments. When long sections (e.g., Genesis chs. 1 – 11), are set aside as mere non-historical myth, or defined somehow as “narrative” or as “theology” exclusive of being “history,” or, when whole prophetic sections of the Bible are set aside as written after the events they predict (Daniel), or books authored by Paul are said to be not written by him (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians), we have evidence that a great deal of theory is being brought to bear upon the text.
Let’s be clear. The Bible’s self-testimony does not support higher-critical and kindred assumptions. Such assumptions reject biblical reports of creation in six literal days, a worldwide flood, resurrection from death, Jesus’ ascension, and so forth.
In order to persuade a serious student of the Bible that an argument is biblical, the arguments must be true to the self-testimony of Scripture. When the biblical credentials of such an argument cannot be persuasively demonstrated, they fail.
This article has looked especially at Evangelical Feminism. The arguments will be familiar to most Adventists who have an acquaintance with the issues, because they represent many of the variations heard in the argument in the Adventist Church. In keeping with the preliminary and informational nature of this series of articles, we have for now resisted engaging and countering the particular arguments of Evangelical Feminist Theology. We have shown Evangelical Feminism to be a subset of Liberation and Mainstream Feminist Theology. We resonate with the attempt by Evangelical Feminists to respect the testimony of Scripture, even as we recognize that Evangelical Feminism has struggled to be successful in that endeavor.
Our next article turns specifically to the manifestations of Feminist Theology seen in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Pastor Larry Kirkpatrick has served churches in Nevada, Utah, California. They presently serve in the forest fastness of Northern Idaho where Larry lives with his wife Pamela and their children Seamus (age 7) and Mikayla (age 6).

One reply on “Foundations of Women's Ordination, part 6: Evangelical Feminism”

Excellent article! This sums up the real ‘back story’ behind WO issues currently swirling thru the SDA church promoted and fostered by ‘progressive’ SDA proponents.

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