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Published Date: March 24, 2017

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3 Ways Women Shape Theology

Humanity is ferociously hungry for God, for a binding tie to something divine and important and meaningful. God-study is the product of our sacred hunger, of a relentless longing and curiosity and thirst for knowing. Across time, culture, and place, we have studied God, attempting to make sense of a messy, beautiful, complicated story. We call it theology. 

But what happens when the hall of theology is an echo chamber? What happens when half the sky meets God but the church doesn’t want to hear their story? What happens when the theological insights of women are pressed to the margins of Christianity?

In prioritizing the theological lens of men and trivializing the insights of women, the church has starved itself of women’s spiritual wisdom. We’ve left fields unreaped, despite our growing hunger. We’ve missed out on the sacred stories of many women, rendering secondary that which God regards as primary. But women have so much to say about God. 

Women are hungry for God. Despite our marginalization, we have resisted the urge to bow out of a theological conversation that spans centuries, continents, and church traditions. We have kept after the sacred.

1. Women Challenge Social Hierarchies

Many female theologians have penned subversive theological critiques of patriarchy, racism, and apathy toward the poor. They draw from and articulate a theology that locates God with the oppressed, suffering, and abused—in dramatic opposition to all forms of injustice.

Women such as Jessie Penn-Lewis, Catherine Booth, and Katharine Bushnell used the Bible to critique gender hierarchy in the church. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Lucretia Mott, and the Grimke sisters drew from Scripture in their case against slavery. And many women in theology today, such as Lisa Sharon Harper, Dr. Mimi Haddad, Dr. Mitzi Smith, Dr. Christena Cleveland, and Rachel Held Evans, have written extensively on the far-reaching social implications of the gospel.

I highly recommend Lisa Sharon Harper’s new book in that vein, The Very Good Gospel. In it, Harper draws on her own experiences as a black woman at the intersection of racism and sexism to highlight the relational brokenness that cripples our world. She makes a strong theological case for the gospel as the key to restoring right relationship (shalom) between humans and God, humans and creation, men and women, and people of all races and ethnic groups.

2. Women Point To A God On The Margins

A history on the margins of the church is one way to refine theology. It is perhaps not the path to gold that we women would have chosen for ourselves, but it has left us with something profound to say about the faithfulness of God. Much of women’s theological work has been done from the margins of the church, often without formal education in a seminary or church. But make no mistake, women have always been hungry for God. We are not new to theology.

Women’s theology is just as diverse as men’s theology. It neither articulates a uniform message nor can it be distilled into a single common thread. However, I believe that women’s time on-the-outside-looking-in has greatly impacted our theology. 

As part of my work, I speak regularly with women who have been marginalized by the church or have been otherwise oppressed, abused, or silenced. I am daily struck by their relentless faith in a very good Creator. It seems that women’s confidence in the good, faithful, and just nature of God is only refined on the margins.

This is not to say that men do not lean on God or grasp God’s very good nature, of course. But those with earthly power do not always recognize their acute need for God. They don’t know how hungry they are because they’re addicted to a false supplement, whether that be power, fame, wealth, or social position.

But women have enjoyed less power, wealth, safety, and security throughout history. Thus, it seems to me that women’s dependence on God has historically been less of a choice and more of a necessity. And so, women’s theology often points the church toward a God that can be found on the margins, working enduringly for the good of the oppressed.

3. Women Subvert The Over-Simplification Of God

The church has always struggled with over-simplifying God. In our quest to translate an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present, all-good Creator into human terms, we have often been guilty of making God in our own image. The ongoing representation of Jesus as a blue-eyed, white person, the frenzied insistence that Creator God is, in fact, physically male, and the embrace of a hyper-masculine, nationalistic, warrior Jesus are all examples of this practice.

Social psychologists have long studied in-group bias, a tendency to favor people who look and think like us. It makes sense that we would apply that same sinful prejudice to God, building our God-concept around the aspects of God’s nature and ways that we most relate to.

But many women are subverting this over-simplification of God by drawing attention to Jesus’ physical appearance as a person of color (Mitzi Smith, Nyasha Junior, etc.), to the peacemaking and restoration work of a shalom-oriented God (Lisa Sharon Harper, etc.), and to our Creator’s comfort with feminine imagery and self-description (Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey, etc.).

Women in theology challenge the over-simplification of God with Scripture, encouraging Christians to engage with the aspects of God’s nature and mission that make them uncomfortable.

Though the theological work of women has received far less attention than that of men, and though many women have not been permitted to pursue formal study, we have continued to chase our sacred hunger for God. We’ve persisted in telling our faith stories, in challenging the theological status quo, and in drawing ever closer to the very good God at the center of it all.