Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Rich History of Evangelical Feminism

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Rich History of Evangelical Feminism

Article excerpt


ONE OF MY friends works in Christian ministry at a large, secular university. She is passionate about Christ; she is a gifted teacher, preacher, and apologist; she has dedicated her life to loving college students. She is tenacious in using her spiritual gifts and willing to live on a very limited salary. And, as she told me, "My church spends thousands of dollars so I can share the gospel with college students, both men and women. Yet they will not permit me to preach from the pulpit because I am a woman. This is not only inconsistent. What is worse, they are telling me that there is something wrong with being female!"

However, in the memory of those still living, things have been very different in the evangelical movement. Recently, three women in their 80s came into the office of Christians for Biblical Equality to volunteer. All three attended evangelical churches. All three were raised evangelical and went to Wheaton College. And all three remember hearing of female evangelists such as Amy Lee Stockton and Rita Gould preaching throughout the Midwest, in places that would surprise some of us today. One of the women, Alvera Mickelsen, told me, "You know, it wasn't until 1950 that women preachers were considered 'liberal.' Before that, no one thought twice about women preaching the gospel."

The contrast between the experience of these women and that of many evangelicals in college today tells us that something vital has been lost for evangelicals. While the patriarchal view, which holds that women are subordinate in their role and their very being, has been around for much of history, it was only in the 1970s that a new patriarchal religious strain emerged within the evangelical community: the so-called "complementarian" view, which argues that, while men and women are created in God's image as equals, women have different "roles" or "functions" than men. By "role" or "function" they mean one thing: that women are to be submissive to male authority.

This dissonance between what women are (created equally by God) and what they are to do (take a subordinate role to men) is a challenge to logic. But is it also a challenge to Christian history and scripture? In fact, what evangelical "complementarians" are missing is the fact that the shared authority and ministry of men and women were embraced in egalitarian ways in the work of the apostles--and in the writings and ministry of the early evangelicals of the 1700s.

Because early evangelicals believed that conversion marks the clearest division in life, they included all believers in the work of evangelism, even if it meant challenging social taboos by giving women and slaves new positions of leadership and freedom. The priority they gave to evangelism loosened the grip of prejudice within the body of Christ, challenging the patriarchal assumptions that dominated church culture after the death of the apostles.

TO APPRECIATE THE roots of this break that evangelicals made with patriarchy, let us consider how the earliest Christian church--that of New Testament times--had made its own break from the society in which it arose. Remember, the Christian church emerged in a society where most gender expectations had been shaped by Greek philosophy, which assumed that women's ontology--their being, nature, or essence--was less morally pure, rational, or strong compared to men's. As Aristotle put it in the fourth century B.C.E., "the relationship between the male and the female is by nature such that ... the male rules and the female is ruled." And such philosophical assumptions had consequences in everyday life: Women in the ancient world had no authority in decision-making within social structures, and vast numbers of girl babies were exposed--left in the open to die--after birth.

Consider how differently the church in New Testament times functioned! Women--Priscilla, Junia, Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, Apphia, Phoebe, and more--served in positions of leadership. …

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