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Published Date: October 31, 2009

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Book Review: Margaret Köstenberger’s Jesus and the Feminists

How would feminists answer Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). This is an intriguing question raised by Margaret Köstenberger (adjunct professor of women’s studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary). She chronicles feminists (defined as those who believe women have leadership positions “on par with men” [212]) from “radical” feminists (who reject the Bible and Christianity as “unusable because of their male patriarchal bias” [22]), exemplified by Mary Daly, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, and Daphne Hampson, to “reformist” feminists (who reject “Christian tradition about women” and use the Bible [not seen as inerrant] “as a means to reconstruct a ‘proper”‘ theology [22]), such as Letty Russell, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, and Kathleen Corley, to “evangelical” feminists (who use an inerrant Bible as a means to teach “complete male-female equality” [22-23]), citing scholars many of whom are members of Christians for Biblical Equality. To compare and contrast radical, reformist, and evangelical feminism and to show development in these movements are worthwhile goals. In addition, Appendix 2 has a helpful summary of general interpretation ideals for evangelicals. Throughout the book are summary charts intending to make basic data simple and clear. Köstenberger concludes that Jesus was not a male chauvinist, but he did not obliterate “gender-related positions” in the church and the home, especially as they relate to leadership and authority (214).

Even though Köstenberger claims to supply the reader with the “facts” (16), and to employ a “listening hermeneutic” (119, 220, 229), and not elevate ideology over Scripture (119), claiming to have no “presupposed notions” (183), in reality what she does herself is analyze feminists’ writings about Jesus through the theological framework of gender defined by the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) (which she cites, 23, 179). In effect, she evaluates all writers on the extent they agree with the following presuppositions: “governing 1 and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men” (179); men bear the “ultimate responsibility and authority” for marriage, the family, and the church (33, 180); Christianity is “patricentral,” not egalitarian at its core (33, 53, 59); men and women are distinct and fulfill distinct positions (85, 163); women should have no leadership or teaching roles (153); women should not serve in church leadership on “equal terms with men” (149, 212); women are not “free to take whatever role to which they may aspire” in the church or the home (138, 152); and the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father (135).2 The principal but not exclusive reason why she insists on these principles appears to be that only men were chosen as the twelve apostles (83, 84, 145, 148, 153, 180, 217).

In effect, this, then, is a very simple book. Every writer, every passage, is evaluated through the same lens: women cannot teach or lead. Ironically, the criticisms she levels against evangelical feminists can also be leveled against her work: she has no sustained argument (141), has thin exegesis (148), is driven by hierarchal presuppositions, engages in deductive study of the text (177), and is reductionistic (57). Köstenberger employs wooden maxims of logic to evaluate her authors. She reinterprets by means of rephrasing. For example, women do not “preach a sermon,” they “relay a message” or “report” or “pass on the news” (144, 212). As for her central question: Who do feminists say Jesus is? The reader learns her answer less directly, more indirectly, because her major focus is evaluating feminist scholars by the CBMW lens.

Because feminists diverge, that raises questions for her about the viability of feminism (16, 180). But she does note that all feminists have certain core values: equality (62, 127), shared authority, mutuality (62), freedom (78), and the redressing of injustice (127). Of course, feminists will disagree on methodology, because, as Köstenberger notes accurately, feminists disagree over the authority and reliability of the Bible. Some are not even Christian (22-23, 41, 55, 114)! However, feminists do not seek a “canon within a canon” (32); rather, “reformist” feminists do because of their use of the Bible in a neoorthodox or liberal manner. All evangelical feminists are not on a “slippery slope” (48), but those who do not maintain their humble trust in God and God’s word. As it is, she cites only two Christian feminists who have moved toward increasing theological radicalization, and these are both lesbians (Daly and Mollenkott, 48).

A major focus of the study is her critique of egalitarians or evangelical feminists, who (as she accurately perceives) believe leadership entails service and mutual submission (48, 172), recognize the metaphor “head” signifies “source” (48), and hold to a high view of Scripture (23). These include Letha Scanzoni, Nancy Hardesty, Paul Jewett, Dorothy Pape, Mary Evans, Ben Witherington, Gilbert Bilezikian, Aída Besançon Spencer, Richard Longenecker, Grant Osborne, Ruth Tucker, R. T. France, Stanley Grenz, Linda Belleville, William Webb, Douglas Groothuis, and John Phelan (all of whom have some reference to Jesus’ view of women in their writings).

What is strange is that she claims “evangelical feminism” begins historically with Krister Stendahl (in 1966) (134). This would be equivalent to noting that since Wayne Grudem cites Gerhard von Rad,3 “complementarianism” began with von Rad. Stendahl, if he were alive today, would no doubt be dismayed to be identified as a progenitor of evangelical feminism. Köstenberger does mention nineteenth-century evangelical feminists such as Catherine Booth, Frances Willard, and Katharine Bushnell (19-20), but does not tie them to the twentieth-century movement (134). Scanzoni and Hardesty and Jewett would serve as more apt progenitors than Stendahl (17, 135-39). This odd connection may stem from the fact that she accepts Ruether’s understanding that feminism was part of liberalism (77-78) in the eighteenth century, when in reality feminism developed from evangelicals speaking on behalf of freedom for slaves.

Even though she affirms the importance of historical/cultural background in exegesis, her use of it is also arbitrary or minimal. For example, why does she believe the Jewishness and the number twelve of the apostles is culturally relative, while the maleness is not “culturally relative” but absolute (173)? Even if we were to accept her conclusion that Jesus gave no indication that women should be teachers (138), never did he do the opposite. Further, despite her claim that Jesus “affirmed traditional marriage” (217), where does Jesus ever say men should be the only leaders of the home or only leaders in the church? He simply affirms marriage between one man and one woman (Matt. 19:4-6). She complains that evangelical feminists draw out inferences from the text (142). But, of course, all scholars draw out inferences (or logical consequences)4from the text, as long as they do flow logically from the text, including her own inference that twelve male apostles means there cannot be female leadership (142). But, if Jesus’ choosing twelve men as apostles was not a temporary pattern, why then was James not replaced when he was martyred in Acts 12:2? Consequently, she appears to agree most with atheistic radical feminists such as Daphne Hampson, who concludes that Christianity is not truly egalitarian at its core (53, 59). According to Köstenberger, if one is a genuine Christian, one affirms a hierarchical authority in gender relationships in the Christian faith.

After her lengthy criticisms of the manner of exegesis of evangelical feminists, her own final “non-feminist” reading of Jesus and the gospels is basically a repeating of the content (with little or no reference to the literary or historical context) of the scriptural accounts. Here she creates a canon within the canon, preferring “teaching” over “narrative” sections of the Bible (although Jesus chose twelve disciples in a narrative section). Therefore, because the Samaritan woman is an “evangelist” in a narrative section of the Bible, she cannot be a prototype (190). Taking this idea to its logical conclusion, no information in the four gospels or Acts (together almost 60 percent of the New Testament) could be prototypical! Similarly, Mary learning from Jesus, she says, should not have “normative significance” because it comes from the “Gospel narrative” (196). Therefore, her selective lens reduces the arguments of the scholars she examines. Citing my own case as a representative example, I see that, even though her Appendix 2 affirms the importance of historical/cultural background (227), she reduces my argument about Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, omitting the key historical/cultural background information (196) that (a) Jewish women were not required to learn because their household duties took priority5 and (b) sitting at a teacher’s feet was a description of the mode of learning of rabbinic students.6 She also fails to cite a number of steps in my discussion of Mary Magdalene and the other women—for instance, my conclusion that being the first witnesses to the resurrection shows the women had “authoritative leadership positions.”7 At this point in my discussion, I do not relate their role to serving as “pastors or elders,” as she does (205). What I do say later in the book is that today churches ordain people with the gifts of “apostles, prophets, and teachers,” because they are considered “authoritative,” and they equip the saints for ministry.8 Köstenberger leaves out all the intervening arguments.

Instead, she claims that I argue that hierarchical “male-female role distinctions are a function of the fall rather than part of the created order” (149). In contrast, I actually state, “God assigns to females and males tasks without differentiated roles.”9 I point out that, after the fall, God does not “command Adam to work and Eve to bear children.” These roles are “assumed.” 10 I do say that Eve’s “curse” was to “long for her husband.”11 Thus, although she is correct that I do not see male/female role distinctions as part of the created order, I do not say that male/female role distinctions are a function of the fall, as she claims I do. In addition, I conclude that “apostleship” is not sufficient to contain all church leadership,12 which she reduces to apostleship is not the same as church leaders (173). But, even though the twelve apostles were all men, that does not tell us that necessarily all apostles, elders, teachers, prophets, and leaders in the early church were all men, all of whom together comprise church leadership. Further, she concludes that the roles of apostle and pastor and elder are not strictly synonymous, but they are “equivalent” (173). However, “equivalent” (defined by Webster’s Dictionary as equality “in significance”) 13 takes on all the qualities of “synonymous” (“equivalent in meaning”).14 Sometimes she even fails to mention all key scriptural references. For instance, she cites 1 Corinthians 11:8 (“a woman [was created] from the man”), but not 1 Corinthians 11:12 (“for as the woman [was created] from the man, in the same way also the man through the woman” (my trans.).

Thus, in effect, though frequently she accurately notes some basic arguments of those she opposes, she leaves out much of the nuances of their arguments. Her book, therefore, does not advance mutual understanding or communication. Her work has not risen to the standard of Southern Baptist scholar A. T. Robertson. Even though he thought 1 Corinthians 14:34 taught that women in church “are not allowed to speak,” “nor even to ask questions,” yet because of those who argued in his day that Paul’s commands on this subject were meant for “specific conditions,” he concludes, “it seems clear that we need to be patient with each other as we try to understand Paul’s real meaning here.”15 We too need to be more patient and accurate as we listen to each other.

I appreciate Köstenberger’s point that, in Jesus, there is no distinction between women and men in access to salvation. She illustrates this by what appears to be a helpful chart on male/female pairs in Luke (210). She does not claim to be exhaustive. Nevertheless, as she does with egalitarian arguments, here too she reduces Luke’s subtlety. For instance, why does her chart leave out Elizabeth and Zechariah (1:57-79), Lot and Lot’s wife (17:28-33), Zacchaeus and the poor widow (19:1-10, 21:1-4), Simon and the grieving women (23:26-31)? She also changes Luke’s order to create artificial parallels; for example, she moves the group of female disciples (8:2-3) back to 6:12-16 to parallel the twelve male disciples (6:12-16), while the widow of Nain (7:11-17) is moved forward to parallel Jairus (8:40-56) to focus on the raising of their male and female children, while the hemorrhaging woman (8:43-48) is omitted. In contrast, Luke subtly wants the reader to compare the healing of Jairus’s twelve-year-old daughter and the woman hemorrhaging for twelve years by sandwiching one incident in the middle of the other. The crippled woman healed on the Sabbath (13:10-16) she moves forward to parallel the man with dropsy (14:1-6). The persistent widow (18:1-8) she moves back to match the persistent friend (11:5-13). Plus, the same woman (13:10-16) she places twice in her chart, once as “Woman healed on Sabbath” (13:10-17) and again as “Daughter of Abraham” (13:16). Some people are also misclassified, I think. The widow of Nain should be on the female side, while Jairus should be on the male side of the chart. Why are the people at the judgment (17:34) categorized as male when the text does not clearly state this? What appears to be her clear observations about Luke’s gospel, when investigated further (see my appendix below), lack accuracy. In the same way, her observations of the arguments of egalitarians, when investigated further, are also not completely accurate.

Finally, how can she, as a woman, teach the male and female readers of her book, yet insist women cannot teach? In summary, while her topic is an interesting and worthwhile one, the reader cannot always have confidence that the arguments of any of the feminists cited are accurately presented.



1. CBMW says “some,” but I did not notice any exceptions in this book.

2. For a response on this last point, among other able responses, see Phillip Cary, “The New Evangelical Subordinationism: Reading Inequality into the Trinity” in Priscilla Papers 20, no. 4 (Autumn 2006): 42-46.

3. For example, Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine ( Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), 462.

4. See Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, which differentiates between logical inferences, probable inferences, and rash inferences ([New York, N.Y.: Random House Reference, 2001], 978).

5. Aída Besançon Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1985), 55, and “Jesus’ Treatment of Women in the Gospels” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, ed. Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2004), 130-32.

6. Spencer, Beyond the Curse, 58.

7. Spencer, Beyond the Curse, 62.

8. Spencer, Beyond the Curse, 97-99.

9. Spencer, Beyond the Curse, 29.

10. Spencer, Beyond the Curse, 39.

11. Spencer, Beyond the Curse, 39.

12. Spencer, “Jesus’ Treatment of Women,” 135.

13. Webster’s, 657.

14. Webster’s, 1929.

15. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament: Volume IV, The Epistles of Paul(Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1931), 185.