Jesus and the Feminists by Margaret Kostenberger

Derek Ouellette —  May 11, 2010


I’ve been reading Jesus and the Feminists: Who Do They Say That He Is? by Margaret Kostenberger as research for my upcoming blog series on 1 Timothy 2:11-14. I’ve stayed clear for a long time from the debate of women in the ministry and pleaded ignorance to passages such as the one I just mentioned – ignorance is bliss. But as someone who is serious about biblical studies I could only keep my head in the dirt for so long. Eventually I knew that I would have to wrestle with this passage and maybe come to some sort of conclusion that unsettles my soul. But if that’s the case I want to take Paul very seriously here and not jump to conclusions one way or another (“the text is cultural”/”woman shut up”).

The subject of women in the ministry with particular reference to 1 Timothy 2:11-15 has come up several times over the past few weeks and I have had opportunity to discuss the different perspectives from both sides. I have friends who will not sit under a woman in church and I have other friends who dismiss this passage in 1 Timothy as being culturally specific and irrelevant to contemporary society. I found both conversation partners to be gracious and the conversations itself to be fruitful, but I’ve also decided to get my hands dirty in the grit of this passage (upcoming series.)

Fundamentalism / Evangelicalism

I was in the midst of two friends talking about women pastors last week and thought I would throw out the question of 1 Timothy 2. Immediately I felt a bit of a defensive backlash as though by virtue of posing the question I had already crossed the line and battered some woman somewhere. I have found this to be a common occurrence. To ask the tough questions and to take Paul seriously seems to mark one off as a chauvinistic Fundamentalist.

Evangelicals are serious about the scriptures; that’s what makes us “Evangelical”, but Margaret Kostenberger addresses the confusion made between Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism by feminists:

“Some are dismissing an evangelical approach to Scripture out of hand for illegitimate reasons. For example, conservative evangelical Christians may at times find themselves confronted with the label “fundamentalist,” and their conservative viewpoint on gender issues gets rejected without further discussion. But there is quite a difference between fundamentalism and conservative evangelical reading of Scripture. Fundamentalism often tends toward a narrow-minded approach to Scripture. It at times may impose systematized doctrine onto the text and tend toward legalism. It is also often characterized by simplistic thinking. Some have even used the Bible in the past to justify such terrible things as slavery and racism.” [p.35]

In contrast to a narrow-minded, legalistic and simplistic thinking common in Fundamentalism, Margaret goes on to explain a more balanced way:

“Conservative evangelical interpreters of Scripture, while attempting to interpret the Bible literally, are open to taking all the relevant factors into account to aid interpretation in order to acknowledge their own presuppositions, and they can therefore be more nuanced and open to complexity and diversity.” [ibid]

Feminism At A Glace

Margaret’s book is essentially a historical study which opens with an overview of the history of the Feminist Movement which came in three waves:

  • The First Wave in the 1830’s surfed in on the backs of the racial and social justice issues of the day.
  • The Second Wave in the 1960’s was much more targeted, its primary issue being “Gender Issues”.
  • The Third Wave in the 1990’s Feminism radicalized in a pursuit of what is called “feminine self-realization”.

The book is further broken up from there into three parts, each dealing with the three levels of extremities within Feminism: 1). Radical Feminism; 2). Reformed Feminism; and 3) Evangelical Feminism (or egalitarians). Kostenberger’s approach is to focus on the key personalities of each movement in order to draw out observable patterns and common features among them.

Radical Feminism

Radical feminism is characterized by a wholesale rejection of the Christian religion and its scriptures as being irredeemably patriarchic and authoritative. They believe in “equality” within humanity which breaks down any sense of gender distinctions between males and females. Because the Bible is patriarchal (fathers rule the house, men rule society) it cannot be relied upon and a new paradigm for society (and religion) must be constructed in favor of a feminist presupposition.

Radical feminists are the most consistent form of feminism. Their ideology leans toward socialism and communism. They tend to be lesbians and promote cross-dressing. They also tend to have Christian (or religious) backgrounds and are usually well educated.

Bio overviews: Mary Daly: Roman Catholic background, Ph.D. in religion, claims “only lesbian radical feminist can rise above the normal experience of male patriarchy” [p.41]; Virginia Mollenkott: Plymouth Brethren background, “Mollenkott imagines and constructs an omnigendered society in which all gender distinctions are transcended, lesbianism is celebrated, and cross-dressing practiced” [p.48]; Daphne Hampson: Anglican background, premise is that “Jesus is not God; Jesus did not die for our sins; Christianity is a myth” [p.51].

Radical feminists propose a new paradigm – a religion to supersede Christianity – its authority lays not in biblical revelation but in feminists’ experience. [p.216]

Reformed Feminism

Unlike radical feminism which eschews Christianity and the Christian scriptures completely, Reformed feminists seek to work within the Christian tradition in order to reform it from within and rescue it from its patriarchal bias. They do not consider the scriptures to be inerrant, infallible or authoritive in any traditional sense; they use gender-inclusive language and reinterpret the biblical text according to their feminists’ ideologies.

You’ll find these feminists in the Jesus Seminar, a group of so-called “biblical scholars” who have made it their mission to investigate and keep what they perceive to be “truth” about Jesus by ruling out anything in the Gospels which they believe could not have actually happened or be true. They get rid of all references to miracles, the resurrection, the idea that Jesus was the Son of God the Father (he was the “child of Mariam and the prophet of the Divine Sophia”) and, in our present topic, anything that portrays Jesus as being patriarchal. They have adopted a “hermeneutic of suspicion” meaning that when they read and interpret the Bible they are greatly suspicious of the fact that it was written by men in a male-dominated society.

Their authority lays in their feminist ideologies, not the scriptures. Where the two contradict feminists ideologies over rules any biblical text. Like the Radical feminists the Reformers tend to be in favor of socialism and communism. They define “equality” in a way which removes all hints of “gender distinctions”. They decentralize Jesus and replace him with the “Divine Sophia” – female Wisdom is God. Finally, many reformed feminists believe Jesus was egalitarian (a feminist) because of his radical treatment of women, but this notion of Jesus the feminist is rejected by most other feminists on the grounds that it cannot be sustained textually [p.112].

Evangelical Feminism (Egalitarianism)

Evangelical Feminists (hereafter “egalitarians”) stand apart from both Radical Feminists and Reformed Feminists in that unlike the latter two, Evangelical Feminists believe the Christian Bible to be inerrant, infallible and authoritive in the traditional sense. This also means that they are the least consistent of the three and they have the most challenging task ahead of them. They don’t have the luxury of writing off the Bible like the Radical feminists do and they cannot simply choose to keep the bits they like and dismiss the rest like the Reformed feminists do. They have to deal with the scriptures as they are and somehow interpret it in light of their feminists’ ideologies.

Such names associated with this position (covered by Margaret) are Krister Stendahl, Ben Witherington, Richard Longenecker, Grant Osborne, and Stanley Grenz. To this list we could probably add the entire Emergent Church movement and – to name a specific – Biblical scholar Scot Mcknight whose articulation of this view will be the subject of an upcoming blog.

Egalitarians believe that Jesus – in introducing a new humanity – taught and endorsed equality between male and female. Again, “equality” is defined in a way that rules out gender distinctions. They point out that Jesus gathered women around him, that he taught them, that they were the first witnesses of his resurrection and so on.

As a hermeneutical principle they tend to look for a “canon within a canon”. This means they use certain biblical passages as being the standard by which a subject is interpreted and all other passages that stand opposed to them are to be marginalized. Such passages are Galatians 3:28 (“there is neither male nor female… all are one in Christ”) and Genesis 1:27 (“God created man in his image… he created them male and female”) and passages such as 1 Timothy 2:9-15 is made to be subservient to them, thus a “canon within a canon”. Margaret observes that for egalitarians “the conservatism of 1 Timothy 2:12 is transcended by the… programmatic pronouncement of Galatians 3:28” [p.137].

For Evangelical Feminists there is no distinction in role or any other type between males and females in God’s Kingdom. Jesus himself – they argue – was an egalitarian (feminist) and endorsed women in the ministry and even women apostleship. Yet still one consistent problem which egalitarian scholars have not yet been able to adequately explain is why Jesus – if he endorsed women in leadership equal to men and if he was a feminist – chose twelve men to be his apostles and the cornerstones of the church and no women.

In the end the egalitarian position fails because it goes against what is obvious both within the biblical text and also the culture of the times. To suggest that Jesus was a feminists’ is to impose later ideas back on to the text. To suggest based on the fact the Jesus did raise the worth and dignity of women to true humanity that this somehow implies that Jesus saw no distinction between the roles of men and women is to hugely misinterpret the text and overstate the case.

Traditional Position (Complementarianism)

Margaret defines Complementarianism as “a non-feminist evangelical approach [which] contends that male-female equality in personhood and value must be placed within the larger framework of male-female distinctions in role.” [p.180]

She further defines this position as understanding

“Scripture to teach genuine gender equality in terms of personal worth and dignity before God in Christ and desire to see male-female partnership and mutuality in marriage and the church. Nevertheless, they hold that while ‘there is no longer male or female’ as far as salvation in Christ is concerned – all are saved by grace through faith regardless of gender – the created order is not superseded by redemption in Christ. The New Testament writers still command even believers to observe the pattern of wifely submission and male authority, and distinctions in role are maintained in the home (e.g., Eph 5:21-33; Col 3:18-19; 1 Peter3:1-7) and in the church (e.g., 1 Tim 2:11-15; 3:1-7).” [p.181]

The remainder of Margaret’s book is taken up in the task of examining every passage in the Gospels in which Jesus encounters a woman and concludes with: “none of the passages we have studied gives any indication that Jesus envisioned a community where men and women would be equal in positions of leadership.” [p.212]

Final Thoughts

Margaret’s book helped me understand the history and complexities of Feminism. You just can’t look at someone who is a feminist and call them that because they may think “I’m a Christian, not some New Age lesbian”. In their minds they may not think they are a feminist because they may not realize that there are different extremities within feminism. There are Christian feminists – egalitarians (Evangelical Feminists). It may even be true to suggest that there are more egalitarians then complementarians in today’s world where the feminism of the 1960’s has left an indelible mark on society and political correctness.

What I learned from this study will probably prove helpful in my upcoming series on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 even though Margaret’s book was primarily concerned with Jesus and the Gospels – not Paul or the Epistles. My own position is not so much a “position” as it is a “work in progress”. As I said in the introduction, essentially I have kept my head in the sand when this discussion came up, never taking a strong position either way. Let it be clear that I sympathize with egalitarians.

I know women who are extremely smart and very capable to teach, even doctrinal stuff. On the other hand I know men who are biblically naïve and superstitious – wholly incapable of handling the Word of Truth. I’m sure Paul had very similar experience with capable women (Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia) and he probably knew men who were as useful as broken tools (Demas), which for me begs the question: why would Paul make such a strong general and universal statement as “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12)?

It is that “why” question which will consume my study of 1 Timothy 2:11-15.

Be Sociable, Share!

Derek Ouellette

Posts Twitter Facebook Google+

a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Jesus and the Feminists by Margaret Kostenberger --

  • Josh

    Are you saying the Demas was a “tool”?

  • Josh

    Sorry for the stupid comment… lol.

    Great post man! Looking forward to the rest.

  • Derek Ouellette

    lol. It was not a stupid comment, I actually said that for Paul Demas essentially became a “broken tool”, because like a broken tool Demas became useless to Paul since he deserted him (2 Tim. 4:10). So yes, Demas was a tool.

    Hope you grow with me in this discussion and series.
    .-= Derek Ouellette´s last blog ..Noticing the Obvious in the Mundane =-.

  • Geneinne

    Have never read Margaret Kostenberger book but still think Paul was addressing a cultural issue. Although I do agree there are alot of ‘tools’ out there! (smile)

  • xTraex

    I look forward your future findings on this subject, it’s one that has also been brought to my attention as of late as well. this book also seems like one I need to get my hands, if you’re gonna deal with feminism it’s important to know what you’re dealing with. I’ll definitely be paying attention as you progress.