This post has been edited.
When I usually come across articles like the one describing Dr. Ashley Ray’s lament on the “feminist rebellion,” I usually ignore them. However, I am reminded of how comments like this reflect embedded beliefs and practices of many people. This is similar to Donald Trump’s and other candidates’ xenophobic comments, which seem exaggerated to the point of being grotesque, but actually reflect some peoples’ beliefs.
When I tell people I identify as a feminist[i], some folks seem shocked or confused, in part because of comments like Ray’s, which attempt to paint the feminist movement in broad strokes without knowing the breadth of feminist theory and literature. No uniform definition of feminism exists: multiple feminisms encompass differing racial, cultural, political, and theoretical perspectives. Further, three waves of feminism in history (and an opaquely identified fourth in some circles) highlight different concerns of women. To which feminism does Ray refer?[ii]
Ray would say the bible condemns feminism and offers proof texts of Scripture. Understanding the act of reading Scripture is always an interpretation (we bring our finite selves to the text, whether we realize it or not), we realize we need different methods of biblical interpretation beyond an inerrant or “plain reading.” Ray recognizes other’s biases or agendas in interpreting Scripture, but fails to consider his own. (We all have biases). What is at stake for Ray emphasizing the submission of women as part of a “divine hierarchy”? How does this connect to his beliefs about God, and his love of neighbor (including transgendered neighbors, whom he is concerned about related to anti-discrimination policy in Houston)?
As a Baptist, I believe we need feminisms (yes, I use the plural form intentionally)—the two are not mutually exclusive.[iii] In fact, some of the early and proto feminists in the United States were Christian, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth. Christian feminisms help us interpret the bible by fostering a hermeneutics of suspicion and suggesting we interrogate common-held biblical interpretations (especially ones that have harmed women) and the underlying agenda behind them.[iv] Feminism asks us to test our theology: does it attest to a loving God? What ecclesial and political structures inhibit the full flourishing of humanity, and how does our faith speak to this? Central Baptist Theological Seminary’s president Molly Marshall writes she turned to feminism based on her reading of Apostle Paul’s assertion of freedom and equality in Galatians 3:28. She explicitly connects her feminism to Baptist values of the priesthood of the believer and the freedom of the local church.
Further, if Baptists want to take concerns of women in ministry seriously, we must self-reflect on how we may engage feminisms in order to promote equality in all levels of ministry in the church. At a time when the number of women leading congregations is at the same level as 1998, despite large numbers of churches who claim that a woman could lead a congregation “in principle,” feminist perspectives ensure our beliefs align with our practices.
One such potential feminist practice today is the intentional use of inclusive or expansive language when speaking of God. I remember talking to an acquaintance who for the first time heard God described as mother. The acquaintance said this could not be true, as God definitely was a man according to the Scriptures and history. This led us to a discussion about the Trinity (Jesus may be a man, yes, but is the Triune God essentially male?), and metaphors to describe God. In fact, are not all of our words about God metaphorical?[v] Thus, acknowledging God’s mystery means opening ourselves up to the abundance of metaphors for God in Scripture and the Christian tradition.
Another thing pastors and congregational leaders can do to align with Christian feminisms is to cite and lift up examples of women in sermons.
Who we see lifted up as an authority figure reflects our embedded beliefs of who serves as an image of God.[vi] If someone claims to believe women as fully created in the image of God, yet only cites male figures from the pulpit as examples and exemplars, a disconnect is formed between statements and practice. Citing leaders such as Malala Yousafzai, Jarena Lee, Mary Magdalene, Catherine of Sienna, or the Baptist writer Anne Dutton enrich us spiritually and offer us insights into the Triune God not found in male authors.
As we approach February, Martha Stearns Marshall month, a time for Baptists to intentionally celebrate women’s voices in the pulpit, we know the future of the church depends upon how we listen to and treat all people. Christian feminisms not only expose us to our biases, but help us with a plethora of resources so we can fully love our neighbors as ourselves.
Thanks to Alyssa Bennett Smith and Joshua Smith for offering comments. All errors are mine.
[ii] For a brief, but helpful summary of feminisms in the United States, see Josephine Donovan’s Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions.
[iii] Please note that I do not speak for all feminists or all Christian feminists.
[iv] See Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 1994).
[v] See Sallie McFague’s Metaphorical Theology for more on this. Also, Johanna W. H. van Wijk-Bos’s Reimagining God: A Case for Scriptural Diversity offers examples from Scripture on metaphors for God.
[vi] See for more information on how who we cite reflects what we believe: https://nearemmaus.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/voices-of-authority-and-theological-method-who-we-read-is-just-as-important-as-what-we-read/