feminism, Christian

   Christian feminism deals with issues of women's roles within the church and society from the perspective of Christian beliefs and practices. Protestant churches have been intimately connected with the efforts of women to improve their status and role from the very beginning of the women's rights movement in the 19th century. The first convention on the rights of women, called by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1848, met at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York. Among the points discussed was Stanton's complaint that women were generally barred from participation in church affairs.
   A key goal of 19th-century Christian feminists was entrance into the ordained ministry. Such notables as Phoebe Palmer and Catherine Booth wrote books promoting that goal. Although a few such as Antoinette Brown Blackwell and Olympia Brown achieved the goal, it would take a century before most barriers to the ordination of women were lifted. In the first half of the 20th century, a number of denominations, mostly Holiness and Pentecostal groups, ordained women. Women such as Alma White of the Pillar of Fire and Aimee Semple Mcpherson of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel emerged as the founding leaders of their own denominations.
   The missionary enterprise brought additional obstacles and opportunities. Women sometimes found openings there that were not available in the United States and Europe. Women were commissioned as medical missionaries, starting with Clara Swain in India in 1870; they were able to build and head quite significant medical establishments. Missionary women were able to found and head schools, which sometimes grew into modern universities.
   A new wave of feminism emerged in the 1960s, the new movement generally traced to the appearance of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963). Feminists charged that women had been systematically barred from full participation in all the social arenas and institutions of modern society. They claimed that by changing that situation, they could revolutionize society; outdated assumptions about the nature of social relationships would disappear; and the equality of women would come to be seen as the norm.
   The movement had an immediate impact in Protestant churches, with interdenominational efforts arising to change the status and role of women in the churches. A new enterprise, feminist theology, explored female perspectives in theology and called for an end to male domination of the field. Church feminists called for opening the ordained ministry to women, reorganizing denominational bodies to give women greater access, and appointing women to policy-making positions in the denominational administration, teaching posts at church-sponsored colleges and seminaries, and roles in church judicatories.
   Among the first denominations to respond was the United Methodist Church, founded in 1968 by a merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church (1939-68). In 1972, the new Commission on the Status and Role of Women was created; in 1976, the general conference approved a requirement that women make up 30 percent of membership on boards, commissions, and committees of the national church and its regional conferences. The church already ordained women, but a new recruitment drive was begun, and seminaries were revamped to be more welcoming to female students. In 1980, Marjorie Matthews became the first woman elected to the bishop's office. Other liberal Protestant churches (and ecumenical organizations) followed a parallel course.
   Slowest to respond among the major Protestant groups around the world were the various Anglican churches. The Episcopal Church took the lead with the ordination of women in 1976 and the consecration of the first female bishop, Barbara C. Harris, in 1989. Since then, a number of other Anglican churches have begun ordaining female ministers, but very few have approved the admission of females to bishop's order.
   Women's concerns were also addressed in the Ecumenical movement. As early as 1948, Kathleen Bliss addressed women's issues at the first assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC). Her text on the status and role of women in the churches became the major resource for the commission set up by the WCC at that assembly. The WCC commission, which has changed names several times, has taken a somewhat more conservative stance than some of its member churches, as it has had to reflect the life of its more conservative Protestant and orthodox members. it has concentrated more on women's role in secular society than in the church. in 1988, it proclaimed a Decade of the Churches in solidarity with Women, and asked member churches to work toward freeing themselves from centuries of sexist practices and teachings.
   Women's groups in the mainline Protestant bodies have called attention to gender references in the text of liturgies, hymns, and even the Bible. They have called for inclusive language, so that texts that obviously refer to both men and women should no longer read as if they referred only to men. Thus, for example, the Christmas hymn "Good Christian Men Rejoice" might be rendered as "Good Christian Folk Rejoice."
   Women in liberal Protestant churches have also been active in the abortion controversy, often identifying with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights, which supports legal abortion. In contrast, feminist women in more conservative churches have tended to distance themselves from the abortion issue.
   The conservative Fundamentalist and Evangelical movements reacted somewhat differently to Christian feminism. The Southern Baptist Convention has strongly opposed the admission of women to the ordained ministry, and other conservative Baptist churches have concurred. They have tended to take literally those New Testament passages that appear to suggest a subordinate position for women in the home and church (for example, I Timothy 2:11, I Corinthians 14:34, Ephesians 5:24). On the other hand, conservative churches in the Calvinist tradition were building relationships with Pentecostal and Holiness churches that admitted women to the ministry.
   While Fundamentalists have generally dismissed the new feminism, Evangelicals have responded more positively. A 1973 workshop issued the influential Chicago Declaration of Societal Concern, and in 1974 the Evangelical Women's Caucus was formed. The most important Evangelical response to the new feminism appeared that same year: All Were Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women's Liberation by Letha Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty.
   Four years later, caucus leaders Letha Scan-zoni and virginia Ramey Mollenkott issued a call for gay rights in Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? Many feared that the women's movement would lose any chance for success if it became identified with lesbianism. When the caucus passed a resolution supporting gay rights in 1986, more feminists withdrew and founded a new organization, Christians for Biblical Equality. The caucus also itself assumed a new name, the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women's Caucus, and it has continued to make common cause with liberal Roman Catholic and Protestant feminists.
   In 1988, a group of Fundamentalist and Evangelical leaders formed the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and issued the Danvers Statement in an effort to block the spread of feminism in their churches. The council assumed that males are called by God to bear the primary teaching authority in the church as ELDERS or pastors, and that marriage implies that the husband will bear the primary responsibility of leadership in the home.
   African-American women and their churches also participated in the movement. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church began ordaining women in the 1890s, though other churches took much longer to follow suit. Black churches have tended to be more conservative on this issue than their white counterparts. Black female theologians have also complained of the inadequacy of feminist theology to meet their needs and have launched a Womanist theology movement looking toward their own liberation as African-American females.
   Further reading:
   ■ Kathleen Bliss, The Service and Status of Women in the Churches (London: SCM Press, 1952)
   ■ Rosemary Radford Reuther and Rosemary Keller, eds., Women and Religion in America, (New York: Harper & Row, 1981)
   ■ Letty M. Russell, Church in the Round. Feminist Interpretation of the Church (Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993)
   ■ Letha Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty, All Were Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women's Liberation (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1975)
   ■ ----, and virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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