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Topics: Complementarianism, Egalitarianism, Feminism

Feminism as a Critical Social Theory: Implications for Christians

June 6, 2024
By Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer
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Editor’s Note: The following article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Eikon.


1. Introduction

With cultural conversations increasingly centered on the radical proposals of critical race theory and queer theory, discussions of gender and feminism seem almost obsolete. However, a deeper analysis reveals that contemporary feminism is a critical social theory which shares the same basic framework as its more extreme ideological cousins.

In this article, we provide a very brief historical overview of feminism, an explanation of how it falls under the umbrella of critical theory, a discussion of the overlap between contemporary feminism and evangelical egalitarianism, and a biblical response to both feminism and anti-feminist “red-pill” movements.[1]

2. The History of Feminism

Many feminists and historians analyze modern feminism in terms of three waves: the first began with the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, the second arrived in the 1960s around the time of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the third began in the 1990s.[2] We recognize that wave distinctions in feminism can be overstated and too neatly defined; nevertheless the prevalence of their usage compels us to employ them and give some brief explanation.

First-wave feminism centered on issues like women’s voting rights, property rights, the abolition of slavery, and the temperance movement. It culminated in the ratification of the 19th amendment to the US Constitution in 1920, which granted universal female suffrage. Leaders within first-wave feminism included Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in the United States and Emmeline Parkhurst in the United Kingdom.

Second-wave feminism was motivated by concerns around female economic, educational, and social empowerment. French Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique were both seminal texts of the second wave. Figures like Gloria Steinem galvanized and popularized the movement. Its legislative centerpiece was the Equal Rights Amendment, which was passed by Congress in 1971 but did not secure sufficient state support to amend the US Constitution.

Third-wave feminism, which began in the 1990s, embraced the critiques of womanist (black feminist) activists like bell hooks[3] and Audre Lorde, who argued that second-wave feminism had centered the concerns of middle-class white women. Highly relevant to third-wave feminism was the concept of “intersectionality,” a term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989.[4] Intersectionality argues that our identities are complex and that race, class, and gender interact to produce unique forms of oppression.

Conventional wisdom among most conservative evangelicals today is that first-wave feminism was unequivocally good and foundationally Christian, while second- and third-wave feminism were more secular and problematic. The actual history, however, is more complicated (and uncomfortable). For example, in 1895, first-wave pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton published The Woman’s Bible, which, on its very first page, made statements like “instead of three male personages [within the Godhead], as generally represented, a Heavenly Father, Mother, and Son would seem more rational;” and “The first step in the elevation of woman to her true position [is] the recognition by the rising generation of an ideal Heavenly Mother, to whom their prayers should be addressed, as well as to a Father.”[5] Other prominent first-wave feminists embraced free love, female superiority, and various heterodox doctrinal positions.

We raise this issue not to poison the well against feminism, but to emphasize that Christians should be careful to distinguish between their support for particular goals within a movement and their support for the ideology or theology of said movement, a crucial point that we will return to later.

3. Critical Theory and Contemporary Feminism

The critical tradition began with Karl Marx and expanded through the work of prominent intellectuals like Antonio Gramsci, Max Horkheimer, Pierre Bourdieu, Paulo Freire, Michel Foucault, and Kimberlé Crenshaw.[6] Critical theory today is a broad category that encompasses many different critical social theories: critical race theory, critical pedagogy, postcolonial theory, queer theory, etc. At its root, contemporary critical theory can be described in terms of four central ideas: the social binary, hegemonic power, lived experience, and social justice.[7]

The social binary divides society into oppressed groups and oppressor groups along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, physical ability, and other identity markers. Oppressor groups are identified by their hegemonic power, that is, their ability to impose their values and norms on culture in a way that makes them seem “natural” and “objective.” These values then justify the dominance of the ruling class (men, whites, heterosexuals, Christians, the able-bodied, etc.). However, through their lived experience of injustice, oppressed people (people of color, women, LGBTQ people, non-Christians, the disabled, etc.) can recognize these hegemonic norms as arbitrary and oppressive and can work for social justice, the dismantling of systems and structures (e.g. white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, Christian hegemony, ableism, etc.) which perpetuate the social binary.

Scholars recognize that contemporary feminism is a critical social theory because it applies these specific ideas to the subject of sex and gender.

First, feminism has always understood women as a collectively subordinated group in need of liberation. Feminist scholar Deborah Cameron writes that despite the historical and geographical diversity of feminist movements, they all share two minimal feminist ideas: “1. That women occupy a subordinate position in society” and “2. That the subordination of women . . . can and should be changed through political action.”[8]

Second, feminism in all its iterations has believed that female emancipation doesn’t merely require legal equality, but also necessitates a change in social norms and commonly accepted views of gender. This emphasis grew in importance during feminism’s second wave but, as we saw in the Stanton quote above, was present even in first-wave feminism.

Third, consciousness-raising and the importance of “embodied knowledges” became increasingly central during second-wave feminism. Influenced by New Left thought, feminists turned to Marxist theories of “false consciousness” to explain the resistance they encountered not just from men, but from many women as well. They argued that men who rejected feminism were trying to protect their patriarchal power and privilege, while women who rejected feminism were suffering from internalized misogyny.

Finally, the importance of intersectionality to contemporary feminism cannot be overstated. In fact, according to feminist scholar Kathy Davis, “‘intersectionality’ — the interaction of multiple identities and experiences of exclusion and subordination — has been heralded as one of the most important contributions to feminist scholarship.”[9] Intersectionality does not merely suggest but requires that feminists work for the liberation of all marginalized groups, whether people of color, or the poor, or the disabled, or the LGBTQ community. This insistence is part and parcel to feminist theory. As bell hooks asserts, “eradicating the cultural basis of group oppression would mean that race and class oppression would be recognized as feminist issues with as much relevance as sexism.”[10] Such solidarity is especially noticeable in feminist support for the demands of transgender women (i.e., biological men who identify as women) even when they conflict with women’s interests (e.g., sex-segregated prisons or locker rooms or sports).

4. Critical Theory and Egalitarianism

The relationship between contemporary feminism and egalitarianism (the belief that there are no God-ordained gender roles in either the church or the family) is complex. While non-evangelical egalitarians are more likely to explicitly claim the label of “feminist,” evangelical egalitarians often resist it.

In recent years, however, evangelical egalitarians have increasingly adopted a feminist ideological framework regardless of their attitude towards the label.

One case in point is Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood, which includes numerous statements that show strong affinity with critical ideas.[11] For instance, she repeatedly appeals to the idea that sexism is one of many interlocking systems of oppression. She writes “patriarchy walks with structural racism and systemic oppression” (33), that “patriarchy is part of an interwoven system of oppression that includes racism” (34), that “[p]atriarchy and racism are ‘interlocking systems of oppression’” (208), and that misogyny “especially hurts those already marginalized by economics, education, race, and even religion” (212). Note that “patriarchy” here means “complementarianism” because Barr explicitly equates the two: “Complementarianism is patriarchy” (13).

Barr is also skeptical of hermeneutical practices and doctrines — including inerrancy — that are used to defend complementarianism. She positively quotes theologian Clarice Martin, who urges her readers to embrace a “liberated hermeneutic” over a “hierarchicalist hermeneutic” (34). Barr writes that “[Inerrancy teachings] buttressed male authority by diminishing female authority — transforming a literal reading of Paul’s verses about women into immutable truth” (189), that “Inerrancy introduced the ultimate justification for patriarchy — abandoning a plain and literal interpretation of Pauline texts about women would hurl Christians off the cliff of biblical orthodoxy” (190), and that “[i]nerrancy wasn’t important by itself in the late twentieth century; it became important because it provided a way to push women out of the pulpit” (191).

Finally, Barr concludes her book by stating plainly that: “Complementarianism is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither have ever been about Jesus” (218).

Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne is another popular book that offers an intersectional analysis of gender.[12] For example, she argues that “For conservative white evangelicals, the ‘good news’ of the Christian gospel has become inextricably linked to a staunch commitment to patriarchal authority, gender difference, and Christian nationalism, and all of these are intertwined with white racial identity” (6-7), that evangelicals in the 1970s promoted “family values” that were “intertwined with ideas about sex, power, race, and nation,” and that the “reassertion of white patriarchy was central to the new ‘family values’ politics” (12). In the Vietnam era, “[f]amily value politics . . . involved the enforcement of women’s sexual and social subordination in the domestic realm and the promotion of American militarism on the national stage” (88).

Like Barr, Du Mez believes that “the battle over inerrancy [in the Southern Baptist Convention] was in part a proxy fight over gender . . . . [Conservatives] insisted on a ‘populist hermeneutic,’ a method privileging ‘the simplest, most direct interpretations of scripture.’ For conservatives, this wasn’t just the right method, it was also the masculine one” (108). She continues, “Inerrancy mattered because of its connection to cultural and political issues. It was in their efforts to bolster patriarchal authority that Southern Baptists united with evangelicals across the nation . . . . Patriarchy was at the heart of this new sense of themselves” (109).

Inerrancy is only one of many doctrines Du Mez believes was shaped by patriarchal beliefs. She also names “complementarianism, the prohibition of homosexuality, the existence of hell, and substitutionary atonement” as “watershed issues” promoted by those who shared a “common commitment to patriarchal power” (204).

The connection between Du Mez’s analysis of power and critical theory is solidified by her own statements on social media. Commenting on criticism of her book, Du Mez remarked that she hadn’t “been at all surprised by the pushback” because she had “academic training analyzing power & cultural systems.”[13] When asked by a reader how “the average person can analyze power and cultural systems so that we aren’t held captive by them?”[14] she replied: “for me it wasn’t one source but years spent reading social & cultural histories, histories of gender, Foucault, Gramsci, Adorno, Habermas.”[15] All four figures listed are prominent critical social theorists.

A final example comes from Juliany Nieves’ chapter “When We Were Not Women” in the 2021 anthology Discovering Biblical Equality.[16] In her essay, Nieves outlines a vision of feminism saturated by critical social theory. In her opening paragraph, she states that evangelical discussions of gender “are characterized by being White centered and male dominated, and often reflective of a privileged socioeconomic class” (597). She adds in a footnote, “Whiteness is a sociological construct [that] preaches in word and deed the presumed (god)-given superiority of Euro-American aesthetics, theologies, cultures, and ways of life and thinking, locating everything and everyone in a spectrum that grants degrees of privilege based on their proximity to the baptized idol of the White man . . . . I call for a decentering of Whiteness . . . to move away from ideas and practices that prioritize Euro-American cultures and their concerns, while moving toward a truly catholic approach, which is multisectorial, multiethnic, multiracial, multilingual, and inevitably intersectional (i.e., considers the intersections between socioeconomic class, gender, race/ethnicity, etc.)” (598).

In her criticism of John Piper’s discussion of female beauty, Neives writes, “In a racialized and gendered society such as the United States, some bodies are given power on the basis of sex and race, while others are destitute of it. Those who are given the power are then the ones who establish social arrangements through their words (e.g. law, denominational policies, theological discourses, etc.), locating bodies in specific spheres” (607).

In her critique of George Knight’s discussion of the nature of “respect” and a “gentle and quiet spirit,” she writes, “Who determines the parameters of what is respectful and what is not? Moreover, who gets to define what ‘a gentle and quiet spirit’ is? How is it defined? How is it to be embodied? Who sets the rules of proper feminine demeanor? In this case, it is obvious who is defining these aspects of womanhood: White males in the Reformed Baptist tradition who assume a maximalist version of complementarianism” (610).

Throughout her essay, Nieves issues strident calls for “an intersectional approach.” She writes: “Unless there is an intersectional approach to decenter Whiteness and maleness from the theological discourse on womanhood and femininity, the conversations will continue to perpetuate the logic of true womanhood as Anglo and middle class” (618); and “[t]he lens of gender is not enough to construct a true egalitarian position. Intersectionality is required” (619).

These examples show that many, though not all, evangelical egalitarians are committed to the ideas of a critical-theory-infused feminism. Of course, some egalitarians still defend their views using grammatical-historical exegesis, but a growing sympathy for other approaches to theology seems undeniable. In the next section, we explain why such a commitment is a problem and how evangelical complementarians should respond.

5. Responding Biblically

The critical social theory that undergirds contemporary feminism must be rejected by Christians for several reasons.

First, while women in many countries legitimately constitute an oppressed group that is consistently subjected to cruel and unjust treatment, this is not the case in most of the Western world. Affirming the proposition that “women in America are oppressed” requires us to redefine “oppression” not in terms of concrete unjust treatment, but in terms of more shadowy and contested social norms. The most relevant examples are male eldership within the church and male headship within marriage. Historically, feminists have seen such rules as a few of the many ways women are oppressed by “the Patriarchy.” To reach this conclusion prior to any analysis of what the Bible says on this subject is to shut the door to biblical correction.

Second, critical theory’s cynicism towards truth claims is radically corrosive. Assertions that complementarian Christians are merely trying to preserve their male power and privilege (if they are men) or that they suffer from internalized misogyny (if they are women) are a non-starter for anyone engaged in serious theological discussion. If we are permitted to dismiss doctrine as a mere power play or as the product of nebulous socio-political forces, then every doctrine, no matter how fundamental, will be open to deconstruction.[17]

Likewise, interpretations should be categorized ultimately as “true” or “false,” not as “patriarchal” or “feminist” or “white” or “black” or “Western” or “indigenous.” While feminist standpoint epistemology would take an interpreter’s lived experience or social location as the guarantor of their inherent authority, evangelicals should instead evaluate interpretations rather than interpreters. Does a particular interpretation accurately capture Scripture’s intended meaning? If so, then it is true regardless of the interpreter’s identity. If not, then it is false, regardless of the interpreter’s identity.

Lastly, anyone who adopts an intersectional framework will become rapidly untethered from biblical orthodoxy regarding sexuality and gender identity. Even a commitment to evangelism or the exclusivity of Christ may eventually come to be seen as an imperialistic construct that oppresses adherents of indigenous religions. The slow (or rapid) progression from complementarian to egalitarian to feminist to LGBTQ-affirming is not a slippery slope; rather, it is the logical outworking of feminism’s philosophical commitments.[18]

For these reasons, Christians must wholeheartedly reject contemporary critical theory and any feminist theorizing that is undergirded by it. Four other responses are worth mentioning.

First, we should recognize legitimate concerns of both secular feminists and egalitarians wherever they occur. There are indeed grievous systemic injustices done to women, especially in the developing world. Sex-selection abortion, which has killed upwards of 100 million baby girls over the last few decades, is the most obvious example of a large-scale systemic injustice that could be legitimately termed “gendercide.” Sex abuse, domestic violence, and human trafficking are also horrific injustices that disproportionately impact women. Complementarians should absolutely refuse to think of these evils as “feminist issues.” As we mentioned at the start of this article, it is crucial for Christians to be able to separate their support for particular goals within a movement and their support for the ideology or theology of that movement.

Second, the proliferation of feminist theory in our culture means that complementarians should guard against latent feminism seeping into professedly complementarian marriages and organizations. For example, a husband must not abdicate his responsibilities as father, particularly in the area of engaging and disciplining his children, and should instead embrace his God-given role as head of his wife (Eph. 5:23) and discipler of his children (Eph. 6:4). Neither should a husband adopt a warped sense of “servant leadership” that causes him to wholly defer to his wife, making her the de facto leader in all major family decisions. Wives should not be passive-aggressive, gossip about or ridicule their husbands, or weaponize sex, withholding it to get their way. The church should not embrace a flawed view of sin that sees men as more inherently corrupt than women. Christian marriages should not approach the subject of submission solely in terms of “mutual submission” while failing to honor and demonstrate the wife’s unique submission to her husband. Ultimately, we must understand that “complementarian in name only” is not complementarian and is therefore in opposition to God’s design for the family.

Obviously, husbands can equally fall into sin in their marriages, controlling their wives, manipulating them, or even physically abusing them. In the context of a discussion about feminism, however, we want Christians to reject a framework which would treat men’s sins with utter contempt while treating women’s sins with indulgence or even acceptance.

Third, complementarians should likewise guard against reactionary movements to our “right,” in the form of “men’s rights activists,” “pickup artists,” and self-proclaimed misogynists like Andrew Tate. As the assumptions of critical theory and feminism have seeped into our culture, a growing number of disaffected young men have turned to online influencers peddling porn, misogyny, and twisted ideas about sex and gender under the guise of masculinity. Ironically, the manosphere often promotes a mirror image version of feminism, where men are the aggrieved, subjugated class that is therefore justified in their contempt for women. Complementarians should reject this view as unbiblical and wicked.

Finally, while complementarians should continue to appeal to the biblical witness regarding male eldership and headship, we should also promote the power of joyful marriages and families. Many young people are terrified of marriage and children. They have grown up amidst divorce, hook-up culture, and the disintegration of the family. Therefore, a community of Christian men who joyfully love and sacrifice for their wives as Christ loves and sacrificed for the church, and Christian women who joyfully submit to and adore their husbands as unto the Lord, will be a powerful witness to the goodness and wisdom of God and his word.

Dr. Neil Shenvi has an AB in chemistry from Princeton University and a PhD in theoretical chemistry from UC Berkeley. He is the author of two books, Why Believe?: A Reasoned Approach to Christianity (Crossway, 2022) and Critical Dilemma: The Rise of Critical Theories and Social Justice Ideology (Harvest House, 2023), and is widely recognized for his writing on critical theory. He can be reached on Twitter at @NeilShenvi or through his website www.shenviapologetics.com.

Dr. Pat Sawyer has a BA in psychology from UNC-Chapel Hill, an MA in communication studies from UNC-Greensboro, and a PhD in educational studies and cultural studies from UNC-Greensboro and is published in the academy and in various popular outlets. His PhD is in the critical tradition and analyzes social justice pedagogy in higher education. He is the co-author of two books: Critical Dilemma: The Rise of Critical Theories and Social Justice Ideology(Harvest House, 2023) and Disney and Apologetics: Exploring the Moral Power and Theological Significance of Disney Stories (High Bridge Books. 2023). Pat is on the editorial board of the peer-reviewed education journal, Philosophy, Theory, and Foundations in Education. He is married and has three children and can be reached on Twitter (X) @RealPatSawyer. 


[1] The “red pill” movement is constituted by largely online communities committed to the idea that men, not women, are systematically oppressed and marginalized by society.

[2] For histories of feminism see Rory Cooke Dicker, A History of U.S. Feminisms, (Berkeley: Seal, 2016) or Julia Heimer Dadds, “Feminisms, Embodying the Critical” in Levinson et al., Beyond Critique (Boulder: Paradigm, 2011), 171–91.

[3] Born Gloria Jean Watkins, bell hooks changed her name to honor her maternal great-grandmother and adopted a lowercase spelling.

[4] For treatments of intersectionality, see Patricia Hill Collins, Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory (Durham: Duke, 2019) or Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality (Cambridge: Polity, 2016).

[5] Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Woman’s Bible – Part 1(New York: European Publishing, 1895), 14.

[6] For discussions of critical social theory, see Levinson et al., Beyond Critique (Boulder: Paradigm, 2011) or Ben Agger, Critical Social Theories (New York: Oxford, 2013) or Craig J. Calhoun, Critical Social Theory (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995).

[7] For a Christian analysis of contemporary critical theory, see Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer, Critical Dilemma (Eugene: Harvest House, 2023).

[8] Deborah Cameron, Feminism (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2019), 8.

[9] Kathy Davis, “Intersectionality as Buzzword: A Sociology of Science Perspective on What Makes a Feminist Theory Successful,” Feminist Theory, 2008, vol 9, issue 1, 67.

[10] See bell hooks, “Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression,” in Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 239–40.

[11] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2021).

[12] Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne (New York: Liveright, 2020).

[13]Kristin Du Mez (@kkdumez), Twitter, Dec 31, 2021, 12:02pm, https://twitter.com/kkdumez/status/1476962014761267215.

[14]Ryan Ashton (@ryanllashton), Twitter, Dec. 31, 2021, 12:39pm, https://twitter.com/ryanllashton/status/1476971307388616705.

[15]Kristin Du Mez (@kkdumez), Twitter, Dec 31, 2021, 12:53pm, https://twitter.com/kkdumez/status/1476974873377443844.

[16] Juliany González Nieves, “When We Were Not Women” in Discovering Biblical Equality, Ronald W. Pierce and Cynthia Long Westfall, eds., 3rd edition (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021).

[17] See Alisa Childers and Tim Barnett, The Deconstruction of Christianity (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2024).

[18] See Colin J. Smothers, “Is the Slippery Slope Actually Slippery? Egalitarianism and the Open-and-Affirming Position,” 9Marks Journal (December 2019).

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