EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Jesus and the Feminists: Who Do They Say That He Is? by Margaret Elizabeth Kostenberger (Crossway).  

Chapter One:  All We’re Meant to Be: Feminism Confronts the Church

Today we stand at the crossroads. As Christians we can no longer dodge the “woman problem.”

To argue that women are equal in creation but subordinate in function is no more defensible than “separate but equal” schools for the races.

—Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be (1974)1

It is an undisputable fact that over the course of church history women have been misunderstood and undervalued. In the first few centuries of the Christian era, women were generically blamed for Eve’s sin and viewed as temptresses and morally inferior. Only slowly did the Enlightenment change people’s attitudes toward women, and fairly recent American history revealed that women were denied basic human rights.

When on March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams wrote in her famous letter to her husband, Congressman John Adams, “I desire you would Remember [sic] the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors” in the “new code of laws.” John chose not to grant her request, and “all men” were pronounced equal in the Declaration of Independence. It was less than a century ago that women received the privilege to vote and were given equal pay for equal work, along with many other common human freedoms in America.

While it is certainly healthy and appropriate for women to be valued and to receive these kinds of liberties, a woman who is committed to God and his purposes will want to be open and submissive to the plan God has for her in Scripture. It is true that in the midst of the conflicting voices on how a woman’s identity is to be construed in this world, determining and practicing what the Bible has to say and what Jesus’ own teaching and practice were with regard to women is a challenge.

Many influential feminist voices have risen to challenge the long-held conservative interpretation of Scripture regarding women, and it is my hope to honestly address and wrestle with these alternative views on Jesus in order to enable women to clarify and lay aside the misunderstandings or misrepresentations that linger. This direct confrontation should help to clear up the confusion and wavering in women who desire to serve him in committed submission. True freedom comes from obedience to God’s will.

In order to set the stage for the study of Jesus’ approach to women, we will begin with a survey of the rise of feminism. After this we will explore some of the most important issues impacting the feminist interpretation of Scripture. The remainder of the book will focus on and evaluate each of the major schools of feminist thought on the topic of Jesus and women.

The First Wave of Feminism

The period of church history leading up to the Protestant Reformation is a good place to begin examining the rise of the feminist movement, a time when ecclesiastical authority was firmly vested in the hands of men. The Reformation itself, with its emphasis on the right and obligation of individual believers to study the Scriptures for themselves, embodied the seeds of a greater consciousness of the value of women. This consciousness led certain women to assert their right to preach and teach.2

Among the first was Anne Hutchinson, who was condemned for dissenting from Puritan orthodoxy in 1638.3 Later, women rose to a prominent role in the campaign to abolish slavery in the American South, a campaign that extended also to women’s rights. This quest for legal equality of women in conjunction with the appeal for the abolition of slavery is commonly known as the “first wave” of feminism.4