Boys, Girls, and Theological Feminism

[Extract from the book Elijah Men Eat Meat]

I do not permit a woman to teach and have authority over a man.’ -1Tim 2
Wives, submit to your husbands. Husbands, love your wives.’ -Col 3

On the 20th March, 2014 Labour MP Ben Bradshaw of Exeter stood in Parliament and gave a speech commemorating the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women in the Church of England. Reflecting on the issue as a Catholic, he proclaimed,

I confidently expect the Roman Catholic Church to embrace the ministry of women, in exactly the same way as the Church of England has done. It is a theological inevitability. It may not happen in my lifetime, but the fact that we have done it, blazed a trail and shown how positive, successful, valuable, wonderful and holy it is will help progressive Catholics on the same road.[1]

Two elements of this speech are noteworthy. The first is the confident assertion that this change was a ‘successful’ one. The second is the view that all of Christianity will fall into line with this ‘theological inevitability’.

What is the fruit of Theological Feminism?
A couple generations ago, some denominations embraced theological Feminism (TF). We acknowledge this is a huge umbrella term. On the shallow end, TF includes married pastoral couples where the husband and wife are ordained together. These churches are mildly Egalitarian and are typical of some Pentecostal denominations (think Brian and Bobby Houston of Hillsong) that don not hold to gender roles in the church but often do in the home. The husband still does most of the preaching and is seen as the ‘lead’ pastor, but the wife also carries the title pastor even if hers is a more supportive role. This Egalitarianism is the shallow end of the TF pool.

There are many expressions of Pentecostalism so the degree of Feminist influence varies, but the general trend of the last 20 years has been towards Egalitarianism. One of the biggest shifts is that of the Vineyard movement which was started by John Wimber in 1984. Wimber drew a clear line between ‘ministering’ (which all Christians are called to) and executive ‘governing’ which only elders (qualified men) do. In 1994 he wrote,

I believe God has established a gender based eldership of the church…
I endorse the traditional (and what I consider Scriptural) view of a unique leadership role for men in marriage, family, and in the church…Consequently, I do not favor ordaining women as elders in the local church.[2]

          Current Vineyard leadership has slowly departed from Wimber’s instruction and now ordains women as both elders and lead pastors. Other denominations practice this more widely. These include churches where the lead pastor is female and is unmarried, married to an unbeliever, or has a Christian husband under her authority in the congregation.

But we can’t stop here. The TF pool gets deeper still. There are churches where leaders openly refer to God as ‘Mother’ in their prayers, worship, and liturgy. One group, ‘Priests for Equality’ have printed The Inclusive Bible that refers to God as both He and She and changes some of the masculine references to God. These theological Feminists hate gender and try to minimise it whenever they can. These are the ones who want you to trade in your ‘he’ and ‘she’ pronouns for a neutered ‘ze’. They loathe the fact that God chose to become incarnate as a male and seek to present him in more androgynous ways. One wonders if they would not castrate Christ if they could. There are many at the shallow end of the TF pool, mild Egalitarians, that would disassociate themselves with what goes on at the deeper end.

TF History
How has all this happened?[3] Canadian professor Mary Kassian points out that the TF movement emerged alongside secular Feminism[4] which has as one of its aims the blurring of gender distinctions. In the 70s, it was packaged as a version of Liberation Theology and still is in some circles.

This new ideology promised that by treating men and women as interchangeable in all ministry (and later family) roles, the church would become more fruitful. It was the Bishop of Bristol, Barry Rogerson, who led the first ordination service for women in the Church of England (CoE) where he cited Jesus By their fruits you will know them. The meaning was clear: the CoE would now be more fruitful with women vicars. His speech was not unusual. Many had been saying that adopting Feminist practices we would usher in a new day of fruitfulness. It was promised that, by becoming gender-blind, we would inaugurate a new day of effectively engaging wider society with the gospel. Numbers had been slipping and TF would now be the saving life force that would turn the tide.

What did it look like practically? Constance Coltman was the first woman to be ordained in a major Protestant church here in the UK 100 years ago in 1917. Her church was part of the Congregational movement that had become forerunners in theological liberalism. Today this denomination is known as the URC (United Reformed Church). Methodism―which had a long tradition of permitting women to preach―started actually ordaining women as presbyters in 1974. And it was in 1994 that the Church of England started ordaining women―17 years later than their American Episcopal cousins. The CoE has worked at making up for lost time and now ordains close to the same number of men and women each year. The Methodists were the first to use a liturgy that addressed God as Mum. The CoE followed their example a few years later.

What does the data say?
How did this decision impact these large British denominations? Did the new dawn of gender understanding deliver the growth and robust health as promised? If we are to take Bishop Rogerson’s invitation to judge this new practice by its fruit, what conclusion should we come to 20+ years later? Did the Mummy God that some started praying to send revival?

Affirming data is simply not there. Statistics show that theological Feminism lied. It failed to keep its promises. Numbers continued to go down. Anglican attendance is now 65% of what it was in 1994. Sunday attendance in Methodist churches is only 25% of what it was in 1974 and the URC figures are not much different (the URC statistics we’ve seen count membership, not attendance, but the same rapid loss is reflected). On top of that, URC and Methodism have the oldest average age of attendees of any denomination with the Anglicans not far behind. What happened to Feminism helping the church reach the cutting edge of the new secular culture? Statistics seem to go in the opposite direction of the common rhetoric which asserts, ‘You need to give up your old, conservative views of gender and sexuality or else all your young people will leave your churches and never come back.’ It’s commonly heard, but we struggle to find data that backs up such assertions.

It is hard to discern just how embracing TF has helped us be an Elijahian witness in a dark and perverse world. Yes, there are some good men and women in those denominations doing good work. We could find exceptions to these trends. But as a whole, TF has not reversed the downward spiral and, though such a hypothesis is beyond the scope of this reading to analyse, some argue that it may have accelerated the decline.

Not only has attendance in all of these denominations plummeted and aged, but on average now, only 38% of those in attendance are male―and few theological Feminists that we encounter seem to have a problem with this. In fact, some still claim their denominations have not gone far enough in ‘smashing the patriarchy’.

True of all Religions?
It should be noted that this trend is not true of all religious groups in the UK. It should not be assumed that all religions or Christian denominations have seen equal decline under the general influence of secularisation. The Pentecostal grouping (which includes both mild Egalitarian and Complementarian), has actually grown nearly 25% during this same time. Other non-Feminist church movements have also seen growth.

All this leads us to ask if MP Bradshaw’s statement regarding the huge ‘success’ of the CoE’s ordination of women and the ‘theological inevitability’ of all branches of Christianity embracing such a position is a well-founded statement. One wonders what type of statistical analysis he used to reach such a conclusion.

Now some may say: But embracing TF or rejecting it should not be based on ‘numbers’. It should be based on the clear teaching of Scripture! I’m glad you brought that up. The two are separate but not mutually exclusive issues. God’s work done God’s way produces godly fruit. It is beyond what we can do in a short reading to give a full exposition of all the relevant passages of Scripture. There are much better books by smarter authors who have already done so.  Simply stated, 95% of Christians through 95% of church history (at least!) have not understood the Bible to teach TF. No, there has not always been total agreement through the Centuries on all gender issues. The Angles and the Saxons gave more authority to female church leaders in the 5th-10th Centuries than what we see after the Norman invasion of 1066. But even under the more flexible Angles and the Saxons, there was still a role of oversight (Bishops) reserved for qualified men who functioned as spiritual fathers in the church. Even then, gender roles were never taught to be fully interchangeable in the church or the home. Until now.

We ask if the presence of modern TF in the church has made a noticeable difference in helping the church to be a holy, growing force in the world that aggressively kicks down the gates of hell through the bold preaching of the gospel. Based on any unbiased research, is this really the case? If anyone knows of a large denomination that has seen accelerated growth after embracing TF, please email us the details and we will make fair note of this example.

Until now, we simply haven’t come across any.

[See Part One: Boys, Girls, and Menism (MRA) ]
[See Part Three: Theological Feminism & Gay Activism in the Church ]

Extract from Elijah Men Eat MeatReadings to slaughter your inner Ahab and pursue Revival and Reform (Get Here) 

[2] Liberating Women for Ministry and Leadership, Vineyard Reflections, March/April 1994
[3] Mary Kassian has well documented the effects of Feminism on the 20th Century church.
[4] We happy acknowledge that Feminism has changed over the decades. Most divide Feminism into three phases: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Wave Feminism. There are many Christians who would be rightful sympathetic to the goals of equality by the early Feminists but reject the blurring of gender distinctions by 3rd Wave Feminists.


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