Feminist theology


For AO1 you need to know:

  • Mary Daly’s feminist theology
  • Rosemary Radford Reuther’s feminist theology
  • The ordination of women

For AO2 you need to be able to debate:

  • Whether men and women are equal in Christianity
  • The extent to which feminist theology impacts modern Christian practice

Mary Daly: The maleness of God

Daly argued that God being male gave people the concept that power was a male thing, not female. Daly regards this as a false spirituality because this Christian idea of the maleness of God is merely the invention of a patriarchal mindset trying to justify its having power.

Daly put it like this: “If God is male, then the male is God”. The cultural belief and system of male power over women is enshrined by the claim that God, the highest authority of all, is male. Daly further argued that this association between masculinity and divinity had the function of making male supremacy seem like a fact of the universe which could not be challenged. If it’s just the way things are that God is male, then people will feel unable to challenge male power in society. Whereas in actuality, male supremacy is not a fact of the universe but just the way we happen to organise our society. Belief in a male God is a tool of male power which gives it the appearance of being beyond challenge.

Daly’s solution: “God” as a verb. Daly claimed the concept of God needed to be castrated by referring to God as a ‘she’ but also by changing the meaning of God from a noun to a verb, so people think of God as ‘be-ing’ rather than ‘a being’, since verbs are beyond the masculine/feminine description. This also has the effect of challenging the tendency to view structural oppression as just the way things are; as ‘a being’, rather than a process of be-ing that depends on choice and submission for its continued being. Thinking of God as a noun and associating maleness with God results in that association and nature of god being thought of as fixed, eternal and just the way things are, shielding it from criticism or even being able to imagine it differently. Thinking of God as a verb introduces the flexibility required for a person to see that the unjust state of being is not fixed but may be changed.

Daly: the misogynistic teachings of the Bible and Church

Daly points to the sexist teachings of the Bible and Church as evidence that Christianity is irredeemably sexist.

1 Corinthians 14:34 “The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says”.

1 Timothy 2:12 “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one who was deceived, it was the woman … But women will be saved through childbearing”.

Ephesians 5:22-33 ‘Wives, submit to your own husbands as you do the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church … Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the world”

Eve as the source of sin. Daly argues the story of The Fall has been used to oppress women by portraying them as the source of sin. She claimed that women had internalised feelings of guilt and inferiority and had to recognize this to take the first step towards liberation.

The unholy trinity of rape, genocide and war are the result of a patriarchal world. Daly claimed Christianity has legitimated male dominance which reinforces patriarchy. If oppressive hierarchy like patriarchy exists, the result is unholy trinity of rape, genocide and war. Christianity is therefore complicit in that, and not only indirectly. Daly points to Numbers, where Moses is involved in a campaign of war and tells the commanders of his army:

“So kill all the male children. Kill also the women who have slept with a man. Spare the lives only of the young girls who have not slept with a man, and take them for yourselves.” (Numbers 31:17-18).

The story goes on to confirm that Moses achieved what God had ordered, listing as their spoils tens of thousands of livestock and virgin females. In Deuteronomy 21 it states that after a victory in war, soldiers are free to take one of the defeated enemy’s women as a wife.

Liberal christians & Symbolic view of the bible. Liberal Christians would argue that we should take a more symbolic view of the bible because they regard it as only having literal relevance for the time it was produced in and they often admit that human authors, and thereby patriarchy, had a role in writing the bible, not just God. Liberal Christians thus argue that Christianity is redeemable, if it is reinterpreted to fit more modern times by ignoring the maleness of God in the bible. They could re-write the bible with gender-neutral languae, for example.

Daly would respond that while much fewer people take the bible literally, Christians are still influenced to view women as inferior by it.

Daphne Hampson agrees with Daly, developing this ‘influenced’ argument further. She rejects the idea that liberal Christianity is divorced enough from the sexism of traditional Christianity. She argues that liberal Christians are saddled with the weight of ancient tradition because despite their different approaches to the Bible, they all “read the bible as scripture”. They still view the bible as a book which has a unique value, even though they may take different approaches in their understanding of it. While liberals may attempt to take a different approach to the history and tradition of Christianity, Hampson argues that they cannot just ignore it. It still affects their outlook. Even at a subconscious level, the sexist paradigms and themes of the bible will affect them so long as they continue to read it.

Sisterhood & The superiority of female spirituality

Daly thought the Church was irredeemably patriarchal and sexist against women and had to be abandoned. The Sisterhood of Feminism can take its place and fulfil many of the traditional spiritual functions of religion without being patriarchal. Sisterhood is women liberating themselves from their divisions into e.g. protestant women and catholic women and realising their unity as a ‘sexual caste’ in order to ‘live in the future that we are fighting for’. Anything short of this was ‘compromise’ which Daly claimed has never worked. Sisterhood is the ‘anti-church’ with no hierarchy or dogmas. Women need a sacred space to escape from patriarchy in order to heal.

“It is evident that the covenant is discoverable not only by women but also by men who have been able to hear women’s new words and accept them as an invitation to break out of the archetypal circle”

Daly argues that men need to reject the old sexist ways which involve ‘feeding on the bodies and minds of women, sapping energy at the expense of female death’.

Daly argued that women’s abilities and knowledge are actually superior to those of men. Women should therefore have power over men as society would be more peaceful and better for the environment. ‘I saw women that were repressed. When they’re in classes with young men, they shut up all the time. They’re laughed at if they have unusual ideas. They have to be sexy; then, they can’t really think’. Patriarchal oppression of women has prevented their growth.

Some argue that Daly is advocating female supremacy, which is just as sexist as male supremacy and ultimately dangerous and anti-feminist because it is not about equality. Her advocation of separation between men and women is also seen as radical, impractical and too similar to segregationism which has been associated throughout history with bigotry.

Daly thought female spirituality was superior because men were stuck in patriarchy, however, which might someday be ended, and then true equality could be achieved, and male spirituality would then not be inferior. She argued that females needed their own space to heal from the damage done to them by patriarchy, which does not seem similar to segregationist attitudes.

Arguably segregation is impractical, however, and arguably not worth whatever potential positives it could bring. To many it seems better for men and women to work out their issues together, rather than to separate.

Rosemary Radford Reuther

Reuther argues that Jesus and the Bible can be interpreted in a feminist way and therefore Christianity has the potential to be compatible with feminism. However currently it is sexist because it has undergone patriarchalization: the process whereby misogynistic views take over and dominate. Christianity therefore can and should be reformed.

  • In Christianity, men and women are both equally created with the imagio dei, which should be a basis for equality.
  • In ancient times and in the Bible, divine wisdom is mentioned in female terms. ‘Sophia’ is the Greek for wisdom and it was personified in the female form of a Goddess. This was the culture and theology of early Christianity regarding wisdom.
  • In the Hebrew Bible God is called Yahweh which means ‘no name’. God is beyond gender, calling him ‘father’ is a Christian invention.
  • The early Christian sect Montanists had women leaders and prophets but they were violently persecuted into non-existence.
  • It is speculated that female prophets in Corinth who claimed direct experience of God are what caused Paul to write that women must be silent in the Church and never have authority over a man.

The establishment of the Christian Church as the imperial religion of the Roman Empire was a ‘decisive step in the patriarchalization of Christology’.

There are also psychological aspects to the patriarchalization. There is a tendency to associate men with the higher part of human nature; the mind and reason, and women with the sin-causing lower part; the body and passions. Men project onto women their rejection of their own lower selves.

Reuther’s Christology

Women can be saved by Christ but it requires a re-evaluation of the view of Christ. Reuther points out that the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels is very different to the later doctrines of the Church which involved five centuries of ‘patriarchalization’. Jesus was very different to the expected male warrior type of Messiah. Instead, Jesus was a servant King. Old testament prophecy about the Messiah pictured him as a conquering warrior saving his people and Israel from its enemies through battle. On that view, says Ruether, the messiah is ‘expected to win, not suffer and die’ – which would be the patriarchal view of a spiritual leader. Yet, Jesus did suffer and die. He served his people rather than ruling over them. He washed their feet, spent time with the poor and criticised those in power.

Since Jesus didn’t act like a male warrior messiah as was expected, Ruether argues that Jesus is better understood as a self-sacrificing non-warrior Messiah, invoking female wisdom. This is a more gender-inclusive understanding of Jesus which could therefore be the basis for a redeemed Christianity. Ruether thinks this view which incorporates the female in the concept of God has been masked by the patriarchal interpretation of Jesus as only the male Messiah.

Daly argues that a male figure like Jesus cannot provide genuine spiritual salvation to women under conditions of patriarchy:

“exclusively masculine symbols for the ideal of ‘incarnation’ or for the ideal of the human search for fulfilment will not do.”

“The idea of a unique male savior may be seen as one more legitimation of male superiority.”

“it is most improbable that under the conditions of patriarchy a male symbol can function exclusively or adequately as a bearer of New Being. Inevitably such a symbol lends itself to a reinforcement of the prevailing hierarchies … Under the conditions of patriarchy the role of liberating the human race from the original sin of sexism would seem to be precisely the role that a male symbol cannot perform.”

Daly is arguing that it is simply irrelevant whether Jesus could be seen as being gender-inclusive. The idea that women can be saved spiritually by a male can simply never work in a patriarchal society. It is too legitimating and reinforcing of male superiority.

If merely seen as a ‘male symbol’ as Daly presents him, Jesus would indeed seem unfit to provide genuine saving spirituality to women under patriarchy. However, If Jesus is properly understood as embodying female wisdom, as Reuther argued he did, then although he is technically male in appearance, nonetheless spiritually he is more inclusive. This fits with Reuther’s argument that Christianity underwent patriarchalization – Jesus was a gender inclusive figure which was corrupted by patriarchal reinterpretation. So Christianity can be reformed by this understanding of Jesus.

Nonetheless, Daly’s point is that it doesn’t matter whether Jesus was pro-feminist or not. The condition of patriarchy we are currently in makes it impossible for a male saviour to save women because it inevitably reinforces damaging patriarchal stereotypes and gender roles.

The golden thread

The golden thread is Reuther’s idea that there is a theme of liberation, including supporting feminist causes, in the Bible. This is a thread of validity, which we can disentangle from the patriarchal influences. However, the Bible also contains sexist patriarchal themes. These two themes – liberation and sexism – are inconsistent with each other. They cannot both be God’s authentic revelation. If we can find a way to separate the golden thread of authentic teachings which support feminism from the patriarchal threads, then Christianity might be redeemable.

Reuther describes this golden thread as the ‘prophetic-liberating tradition’. It includes:

  1. God’s defence the oppressed such freeing the Jews in Exodus.
  2. Jesus’ treatment of marginalised people (including the poor and women).
  3. Jesus’ criticism of the established religious views that serve to justify and sanctify the dominant, unjust social order.
  4. Jesus’ moral teachings like the golden rule.

This golden thread is the theme of liberation, which is God’s authentic revelation, the rest is influenced by patriarchal men. Identifying the golden thread gives us a standard by which to compare and judge other parts of the bible and ‘reject’ those that do not fit the liberation theme. The only way for the bible to be feminist is if it rejects the use of God to justify social domination or subjugation. Patriarchy is the idolizing of the male as representing the divine so it must be denounced as idolatry and blasphemy.

Reuther’s golden thread argument depends on her claim that a plausible reading of Jesus’ actions is that they were aimed at liberating of women from the unjust social order. Reuther claims Jesus supported feminist causes, which would suggest Christianity can be redeemed by living up to the example of Jesus. There are bible stories which seem to demonstrate this:

The woman at the well. There were racial, historical and religious tensions between the Jews and the Samaritans, yet Jesus began a conversation with a female Samaritan at a well by asking her for a drink, which was unheard of as the ancient Jewish view was that Samaritans were unclean. She responded by asking how he could ask her such a thing. The disciples are also shocked when they see Jesus doing this. Christian feminists interpret this story as showing Jesus’ willingness to challenge the discriminatory culture of the time.

Just because Jesus thought Samaritan women should not be seen as unclean however does not necessarily go any further than that and therefore doesn’t justify Christian liberal feminism.

The adulterous woman (John 8) is a biblical passage involving a woman who had committed adultery bring brought to Jesus by the Pharisees who asked Jesus if she should be stoned. Jesus said: “let whoever is without sin cast the first stone”. After the Pharisees leave, Jesus tells the woman he does not condemn her, but that she should depart and sin no more. Control of the sexual behaviour of females through violence, imprisoning her within marriage and reproduction is often thought the most significantly destructive aspect of patriarchy by feminists, and it seems Jesus was in favour of the kind of progress that feminists want.

This story at most shows that Jesus was against capital punishment for adultery. He still tells the woman not to sin again and therefore Jesus is still in favour of what anti-Christian feminists regard as a patriarchally constructed conception of ‘sin’.

Jesus said to Martha (Luke 10) that she should not prepare food in the kitchen but join everyone else to listen to his sermon. This could suggest that Jesus was against the traditional social gender roles where women’s job is to prepare food in the kitchen.

Jesus was arguably just saying that his teachings/sermon was more important than preparations in the kitchen – but this doesn’t mean that women’s place overall isn’t in the kitchen. Jesus is not necessarily saying that.

Galatians. Probably the most significant pro-liberation & feminist Bible verse is from St Paul:

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ”. Galatians 3:28.

The non-political reading of Jesus & the Bible. There are other ways of reading these passages which suggests they are not aimed at challenging or change social structures. If Jesus was the son of God, his actions and moral teachings might sometimes appear to challenge social order/structure, but that might just be because he treated everyone as spiritually equal.

Treating people equally might give the appearance of challenging the social structures that are responsible for inequality, but arguably Jesus was only intending to bring his message to all humans equally, as the son of God would do. Regarding all being one in Christ according to Galatians, the idea that all are equal in Christ might seem pro-liberation, but arguably it only refers to spiritual equality ‘in Christ’, not social equality in society. Furthermore, consider God’s creating of humans in Genesis 1:27: “male and female he created them.”

Furthermore, there are passages where Jesus seemed explicitly anti-political. He spoke about the sin and forgiveness of individual people, not about society in general. When questioned whether Jews should pay an unjust tax, Jesus said yes: ‘give unto Caesar what is Caesers’. This suggests Jesus saw a fundamental disconnect between social injustice and religious matters. After arrest by the romans, to explain why he did not fight against his unjust arrest, Jesus said that his kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18), which suggests he sees a disconnect between human politics and the kingdom of God.

We could try to defend Reuther by arguing that these anti-political passages are simply not part of the golden thread of liberation.

However, the problem with that is, these passages aren’t explicitly patriarchal or pro-oppression passages. They are only suggesting that Jesus is not concerned with political or social engagement.

Female ordination

Ordination is the ritual whereby someone becomes a church leader. It involves the laying on of hands, prayer and the invocation of the Spirit of God.

The history of female ordination

In early church there were many women in leadership positions; In the new testament ‘Junia’ is a female apostle (Romans 16:7). There were Female deacons (I Timothy 3:11) and prophetesses (Acts 21:9). There were stories of female apostles such as Thecla, Nino and Junia. Early translations of the Bible altered the name Junia to the male form Junias as it was said to be a ‘mistranslation’ and apostles, all 12 were men.

In 1992, the Church of England voted to ordain women but in 1993 the Church voted to allow individual congregations to opt out of accepting women priests.

12 March 1994, 32 women were ordained in the Church of England but over 400 male clergy protested by leaving the church.

Women currently cannot be ordained as deacons, bishops or priests in the Roman Catholic Church

In 2014 Pope Francis affirmed the traditions of not ordaining women within the church but showed a willingness to women being deacons.

In 2016 the Roman Catholic Church commissioned a study to look into the issue

Arguments about female ordination

Scriptures forbid the leadership of women. 1 Corinthians 14:34 “The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says”. St Paul here clearly seems to be against female priests, since they cannot be priests if they cannot speak to perform services.

Earlier in 1 Corinthians, however, in 11:4-5, it says women should cover their head when they prophesise. This implies they do speak in Church. This contradiction leads some to think that the 14:34 quote was added later and is not Paul’s writing.

The Liberal view of the Bible, or Ruether’s golden thread argument would reject this ‘Biblical evidence’ as just biblical patriarchy, written by human beings, not the word of God.

Christ appointed men as his apostles. The Catholic Church points out that priests are descended from the ‘line of peter’ – from Jesus’ disciples. Since Jesus has no female disciples, it follows that there should be no female priests.

Arguably Jesus only chose male disciples because that was the tradition of the time and no one would have followed him otherwise.

Jesus went against the tradition of his time on many occasions, including when it comes to the treatment of women.

The issue of the role of a priest in religious services. Catholics claim that women should not have a role where they represent Christ – which means they cannot perform certain priestly duties in religious services where that is required. Catholic Conservative MP Anne Widdicome said ‘A woman can no more be expected to represent Christ than a man could represent the Virgin Mary’

Karl Rahner argues that Jesus’ gender was insignificant when it comes to priestly sacramental representation since It’s Christ’s spiritual qualities that matter. So, a female could represent him. Rahner claimed it was heretical to suggest otherwise. Daly would argue that the fact that the Church chooses to have such a superficial criteria shows they are actually motivated by sexism.

Mulieris Dignitatum

 In 1988 Pope John Paul II wrote an open letter called ‘Mulieris Dignitatum’ – on the dignity of women – to defend Christianity against the accusation of sexism. He argued that men and women have different but complimentary qualities and abilities due to the nature God designed them with. So, while men and women are different, they are both equally valuable and in fact need each other. This is a defence of Gender Traditionalism and a divinely designed biological essentialism. This suggests that Christianity and the Church is not sexist and that a male savior can save women.

JP II made two different arguments:

Mulieris Dignitatum argument 1: Motherhood is a woman’s telos; natural purpose. J P II argued that women are ‘naturally disposed to motherhood’. Both physically in that they have a womb and also psychologically in that motherhood creates a ‘special openness’ in a mother to their child such that mothers develop their self-giving abilities and compassion. So, the fulfilment and purpose of the female personality, especially that of compassion, comes from virginity and motherhood. This argument is based on Natural law reasoning about telos.

Feminists typically respond that the attempt to embed gender roles in telos is no different to biblical patriarchy. Just as the sexist parts of the Bible were either consciously or unconsciously invented by men for the perpetuation of male dominance, so too is the idea that God designed the telos of males and females to have different goals/inclinations. Feminists. As evidence, feminists point to anthropological study of different human civilisations, where it is found that there is a large degree of variation regarding gender roles between different cultures. If we had a telos that gave us a natural inclination to behave along particular gender roles, we should not expect to find the diversity of approaches to and views on gender that we do.

They conclude that the Christian attempt to insist that God created women with a telos for motherhood is just a cultural invention by men in order to encourage women to adopt the passive social role of childrearing in the home so men can be active in the world and thus perpetuate their overrepresentation in important roles of power in our society (e.g. politics, business, etc).

Simone de Beauvoir was a radical feminist who was an existentialist like Sartre. Existentialists rejected telos. Sartre argued that there was no objective purpose/telos because “existence precedes essence” meaning humans exist before they have a defined purpose and so have to subjectively define their purpose for themselves. Sartre’s argument was a psychological one, that people cling to fabricated notions of objective purpose like telos because they are afraid of the intensity of the freedom involved in having to create their own purpose, which Sartre thought led to feelings of abandonment (by God/objective reality), anguish (over the weight of being completely responsible for your actions) and despair (over our inability to act exactly as we’d like due to the constraints of the world). It’s much easier to believe in objective purpose than face that existential angst.

Mulieris Dignitatum argument 2: There are important and valued women in Christian history/theology. John Paul II also pointed out that there are many female European saints and that Jesus coming to earth was only possible because of a woman, Mary, which he suggests shows the important place of women in Christian theology. The claim is that Christianity can’t be sexist since there are women it holds in high regard.

Simone de Beauvoir argues that the Christian valuing of Mary shows that it is only through being a man’s “docile servant that she will be also a blessed saint” in Christianity.

Mary Daly makes a similar point to Beauvoir but drives it further. Daly argues Mary is portrayed as a passive empty ‘void waiting to be made by the male’. She argues that Mary is a ‘rape victim’ because ‘physical rape is not necessary when the mind/will/spirit has already been invaded’. The idea that God raped Mary might seem like a startling claim, however consider that there was no consent asked for, and even if there was consent consider the power difference between God and Mary, which would make God difficult to refuse and devalue any given consent. God is the ultimate Harvey Weinstein. So, Jesus’ mother Mary is indeed put on a pedestal by Christianity, but only to encourage women to become passive, submissive and obedient so that women would all the better become the sexual property of men.