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The History of Feminism and the Church: Part III

November 1, 1999

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt and summary of Mary Kassian's book, The Feminist Gospel: The Movement to Unite Feminism with the Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 1992).


In the early seventies, women-centered analysis of medicine had encouraged a return to the ancient art of witchcraft. Similarly, Elizabeth Gould Davis in The First Sex, had hinted at the existence of a matriarchal goddess religion of the past. But it was Robin Morgan who, at a lesbian feminist conference in Los Angeles in 1973, initiated the merging of feminist politics with women's spirituality. In the keynote address of the conference, Morgan identified the need for personal activism. She cited her own source of strength as being drawn from the ancient art of Wicca.

Secular Feminist Spirituality

Morgan's disclosure of herself as a witch popularized the pursuit of spirituality within the movement. Feminists such as Merlin Stone in When God Was a Woman and Morgan herself in Going Too Far articulated their spiritual experiences and new religious concepts. Because feminism validated women's experience, the propositions of these women gained rapid acceptance and were soon embraced en masse by others.

Feminists could not accept the vision of the Creator God presented by traditional patriarchal religions. They rejected the biblical God who demanded complete worship and obedience, and who judged those who did not conform to His will. Such a God was dualistic and oppressive. And since He was described using predominantly male metaphors, this God also legitimated and perpetuated the subjugation of women and the dominance of men. Therefore, they discarded Him.

The feminist "right to name" allowed women to dictate the shape of religion based on their own experience. Feminists encouraged women to use their imagination in creating new visions of God and new forms of worship and ritual.

This was evidenced throughout a three-day Boston conference on women's spirituality in 1976 where many new forms of religious expression were explored. Some women led workshops on music, dance, and painting, while others taught rituals and incantations of witchcraft. Participants accepted all expressions of personal feelings as appropriate vehicles for communication of religious sentiments. Leaders instructed participants to set aside a small corner of their homes as an altar to be used for meditation and focusing of their wills. They were to set up a mirror to represent the goddess. In that way, women would continually remind themselves that "they were the Goddess and that they had divine beauty, power and dignity."

Feminists had dethroned the Judeo-Christian God and proudly set themselves up in His place. Lest this seem overly brash and presumptuous, they justified it by pointing to the ancient practices of goddess worship and witchcraft. While secular feminists were discovering spirituality, their Christian counterparts were busy renaming God and opening the canon of Scripture.

The Feminization of God

In The Liberating Word, Letty Russell identified a number of problems with the use of traditional language about God in the church. The use of male pronouns to refer to God and the use of generic "man" excluded women from full participation in the Christian experience. It alienated women and reinforced male supremacy. Further, traditional language restricted people's concept of the person and character of God since it neglected many rich, inclusive biblical metaphors.

For these and other reasons, religious feminists argued that our language about God needed to change to accommodate the new feminist consciousness. The change in linguistic symbols would then reinforce changes in the culture and initiate further changes in behavior.

The switch to using inclusive language in the Church precipitated massive changes. First, the claim that using female as well as male pronouns to address God would de-sexualize Him did not become reality. The opposite occurred and God was reduced to a bisexual or androgynous deity rather than One who transcended sexuality. Renaming God in a way other than He had named Himself logically led to an erosion of God's independent personality. God became a "force." One feminist author extended God's name from "He/She" to "He/She/It."

The revision of language also led to an attack on and diminution of His character. God could not be addressed as Father, Ruler, Judge, Master and King, since all of these words bore patriarchal, male-associated, overtones. But these words are not merely figurative. They do not correspond to our subjective experience of who God is; rather they correspond to ontological realities of who God is. In changing these symbols, feminists attacked the very essence of God's character.

Further, the attack denied the doctrine of the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was replaced by Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. The first formula refers to who God is, the second to what He does. And the transference loses the intra-trinitarian relationships, such as the Father loving His Son from all eternity. To lose this is to forfeit our understanding of who God is. And when we fail to understand God, this certainly means we will fail to understand ourselves, since we are made in His image.

Opening the Canon of Scripture

Not only was traditional language about God a problem for feminists in the church, but the Bible itself was a problem. They had introduced a hermeneutic of creative actualization to embellish and expand the usefulness of the Bible for women. But it was not long before these theologians found that the search for a Judeo-Christian heritage that relied solely on Scripture and affirmed feminist theology yielded meager fruit. Therefore, they decided that women could not rely on the canon of Scripture as it was.

Accordingly, they went to other traditions to find that which contained value for women. Christian feminists deemed that religious practices borrowed from witchcraft, neo-paganism and the New Age were legitimate, as were ancient heresies (i.e., gnosticism) and sectarian philosophies from church history (i.e., Montanism, the Shakers, and Christian Science). In this manner feminists in the Church reconstructed the basic foundations of theology itself. They moved away from the Bible as the sole source of authority and toward a theology built on a collection of texts that were credited with similar authority.

Merging the Two Streams

But when a change in the sources of theology occurs, there will of necessity be a change in the belief system as well. The basic beliefs of religious feminism were undergoing a radical transformation and merged with the evolving spirituality of the secular feminist movement. The two streams of feminism were coming together around a coherent world view.

All is One and All is God. Secular feminists believed that everything exists as unified parts of a whole. All is interrelated, interdependent, and interpenetrating. There is no ultimate difference between God, a person, or a stone. Religious feminists asserted that God is the ground of all being, the allencompassing reality that connects humans to each other, to organic and non-organic matter, to nature, to the universe and ultimately to the Divine. God is one. He/She/It unites all things as one. Feminists in the church did not distinguish between the holiness of nature and the holiness of humans; all of creation is holy in the same way because it is all connected to God. While the language of religious feminism differs from secular feminism, the meaning is the same. Self is God. This follows logically from the previous points. If all is one, and all is God, then God is in all, and God exists within the feminine psyche.

The self is God. Religious feminists do not openly identify themselves as God(s), but they do manage to communicate this ideology. Virginia Mollenkott comments, "I really am one embodiment or manifestation or incarnation of God, but I am not God. I am part of the ‘all' that God is ‘above,' and ‘in,' and ‘through,' but my infinitesimal parameters do not contain the whole of who God is, And yet they do, in the sense that God is completely present at every point." While she does not encompass all that God is, Mollenkott is, nevertheless, God, or at least a mini-god.

A New Consciousness and Humanity. Both types of feminism agree that a new consciousness is needed so that dualisms such as right/wrong, holy/sinful, dark/light will be abolished and all will be embraced as one. Religious feminists believe this consciousness will be achieved with the recognition of one's union with God and a recognition that all human beings are children of one divine Parent. When everyone comes to this new consciousness, a new humanity will be ushered in, a new humanity that will actually be the Kingdom of God and the return of Christ.

Clearly this belief system would not fit within traditional religious structures. Therefore feminist women have begun to establish independent worship groups that allow for the development of the religious feminist vision. Rosemary Radford Ruether calls it "Women- Church." The purpose of Women-Church is to dismantle clericalism and to establish all women as ministers. The members meet for prayer and celebration and they engage in some social praxis, such as counseling at a rape crisis center or being involved in women's political lobby groups.

Biblical Feminism

Conservative evangelical Christians were not unaffected by the changes in the culture and began to incorporate a feminist perspective into their theology in the early seventies. Not quite willing to change Scriptural interpretation to the extent of feminist theology, but feeling societal pressure to update the Church's stance on the role of women, Biblical feminists reinterpreted the Bible to align with the definition of equality that had gained widespread acceptance in the secular world. To this end, they reexamined scriptural texts and altered traditional hermeneutics to present the thesis that equality between men and women was to be reflected by the obliteration of sex roles in Church and marriage.

Historically, theologians have held that men and women are equal in creation and redemption, and that such equality is not negated by hierarchically defined roles in marriage and the Church. Biblical feminists, or egalitarians, rejected this traditional view of equality and claimed the right to name and define for themselves what equality meant and what it needed to look like. In doing so, they adopted the basic precept of secular feminism.

In 1974, egalitarians such as Letha Scanzoni, Nancy Hardesty and Margaret Howe banded together to form the Evangelical Women's Caucus. The organization was originally conservative in belief. The only recognizable area in which they differed from traditional Christianity was in the matter of biblical interpretation regarding the ordination of women and the role of women in marriage.

By 1987, however, a number of women found it necessary to withdraw from this organization in disagreement with its apparent endorsement of lesbianism. Subsequently, the remaining members renamed the group the Evangelical & Ecumenical Women's Caucus, a change that accurately reflected its departure from the boundaries of evangelical Christian doctrine. The dissenting members of the Evangelical Women's Caucus formed another group, Christians for Biblical Equality, whose philosophy reflected that of the original caucus.


Religious feminists have been beguiled into defining women's role in the home and the Church for themselves. They accept the feminist precept that individuals have the authority to name. This precept is precarious because the right to name self logically progresses to the right to name the world, and eventually to the right to name "God."

Feminism is, to the evangelical Church, a watershed issue. In order to introduce feminist concepts into Christianity, basic beliefs regarding the doctrines of God, man, the church, and the inspiration and authority of the Bible need to be adjusted. Evangelical Christians who accept feminist precepts may appear very close in doctrine and theology to those who do not; but, should they follow feminist precepts to their logical conclusions, the process of time will see them end at a destination far from Evangelicalism. Just like the snow that lies side by side, these two current philosophies of Evangelicalism will melt and flow into separate valleys, rivers, and finally into distant oceans, thousands of miles apart.

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