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Imagining Equity: The Gifts of Christian Feminist Theology

by Jeff Miller | July 31, 2021
Cover of Imagining Equity: The Gifts of Christian Feminist Theology

Karen Strand Winslow opens her latest book with a rhetorically powerful introduction, challenging readers to “visualize no sexism” and to “imagine the history of the church with women of all races standing with their brothers on platforms of authority.”1 Winslow does not claim such a history would solve all problems, but she does insist it would have given us “a very different and better world” (1).

The introduction goes on to explain the subtitle’s terminology, “Christian Feminist Theology.” Winslow does not disparage similar terms such as egalitarianism and mutuality.2 Nevertheless, she prefers “feminism” and, more precisely, “Christian feminist theology,” describing it as follows:

Christian feminist theology challenges traditional theology and church practices that have restricted half of the people of God from serving God and the church as priests, pastors, teachers, and baptizers. It is constructive in that it finds in the Bible examples of dynamic adaptation and revision of customs in narratives, prophecy, and wisdom, including especially the incarnation and Jesus’s life and teaching. (5)

The introduction closes with a five-page “tour” of the book’s six chapters. This robust summary is an example—as are the epilogue and Winslow’s writing style—of the book’s user-friendly character. Indeed, the author herself calls it “a primer . . . an accessible introductory volume” (6).

Chapter 1, “A Christian Feminist View of Sexism and Religion,” digs deep into the origins of sexism, asking and answering foundational questions. Drawing not only from biblical studies, but also from the sociology of religion, Winslow identifies roots of sexism and patriarchy in ancient sacrificial systems: “Sacrifice was a male bonding ritual that excluded females from its practice and benefits and thereby established patriliny, which is tracing descent through the male line in order to transmit property, names, and family heritage” (15). She then identifies Greek dualism as another ancient source of sexism and traces its influence through the church fathers, medieval theologians, and beyond. Reflecting the book’s subtitle, “The Gifts of Christian Feminist Theology,” ch. 1 concludes as follows: “Those who use their gifts for liberating biblical interpretation and theology can thereby untangle sexism from Christianity and steer present and future generations away from patriarchy’s perils. This is the task of Christian feminist theology” (28).

Chapter 2, “A Christian Feminist View of Old Testament Scripture: Outsiders, Prostitutes, and Wives,” tells and applies the stories of certain “women who were essential to the formation of Israel and the church, owing to their wits, wisdom, and faith” (29). Winslow intentionally chooses to discuss women who were outsiders—Tamar, Zipporah, and Rahab. Readers of this chapter should know that it represents the tip of an exegetical iceberg, for Winslow’s publications on the women of the OT are abundant.3 Among the chapter’s key insights is that these stories elevate creating and preserving life and the shrewdness of the women who do so:

Nonetheless in order to appreciate delightful biblical stories and to understand troubling ones, we must learn from each passage, while remembering how important life is to God, and that this is Israel’s story about how unexpected and marginalized people outwit the powerful. We learn from these women what faith looks like in action. (39–40)

Chapter 3 shifts to the NT: “A Christian Feminist View of Women in the New Testament: They Loved Much.” It gives a brief catalog of the numerous women to and with whom Jesus and Paul ministered. It then focuses on two famously difficult texts, 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2.

Winslow mentions the interpretation that 1 Cor 14:34–35 includes material Paul cites and refutes.4 She seems to prefer, however, the view that these two verses are a post-Pauline insertion, calling it the conclusion of “most textual scholars” (43). After briefly summarizing these options, she moves quickly to an especially helpful conclusion:

In any case, verses 34–35 advised women against conversing and asking questions in the churches; the passage says nothing against them prophesying, preaching, or praying, which obviously occurred without censure, for under these circumstances they were to cover their heads (1 Cor. 11:5, 13). (44)

Winslow does not consider Paul the author of 1 Timothy (or of the two other Pastoral Epistles). She does not defend this view (remember, this is “a primer . . . an accessible introductory volume”) but does briefly explain the nature and implications of such an approach. Nor does she use her view of authorship as an escape clause to side-step the letter. Instead, her conclusions about 1 Tim 2 are rooted in the local and specific nature of letters: “1 Timothy 2:12–15 (‘I do not permit women to teach . . .’) is addressed to the needs of the church at Ephesus. The words about women in 1 Timothy were applicable only to that time and place and were not part of a discipline manual created for all churches for all time” (46). Her interpretation of 1 Tim 2 draws heavily on the book I Suffer Not a Woman by Catherine and Richard Kroeger, which considers certain aspects of an early gnostic mythology as the salient historical background for understanding this text.5 It is good to see interaction with the Kroegers’ scholarship on 1 Tim 2, which is not currently as influential as it was in the 1990s.

Certain commonalities between Wesleyan theology and Christian feminist theology form the foundation for ch. 4. These include “delight in ambiguity and the dynamic nature of God and scripture,” “divine-human interdependence, relationality, and cooperation,” and emphasis on “experiential, practical theology” (51–52). While these are the chapter’s theological foundations, its catalyst is that, despite official denominational stances, many women pastors face opposition from local Wesleyan congregations. Winslow’s strategy includes revisiting certain biblical texts with significant input from historic Wesleyan voices, especially B. T. Roberts, founder of The Free Methodist Church who, in 1891, authored the still-timely treatise, Ordaining Women. In this chapter, Winslow speaks not only with insight as a scholar, but also with influence as an elder in the Free Methodist Church. As such, she twice issues a call to action:

I call for an intentional focus on education in order to support the ordination and placement of women pastors in order to bring the salvation of God as preached and enacted by women to people in and out of the church. (52)

I conclude this chapter by emphasizing that if women may be ordained, they must be given churches. If not, their ordination, their call, their training, and their gifts mean nothing. To break the barriers against appointing women as pastors to our churches, congregations must be educated. It is the responsibility of leadership to do this. (63)

Chapter 5 unveils a connection between the doctrine of Roman Catholicism and of the famed scholar, apologist, novelist, and Anglican layman, C. S. Lewis. Expressed most clearly in Lewis’s 1948 essay now titled, “Priestesses in the Church?,” that doctrine is that women are unfit for the priesthood precisely because, as women, they are incapable of representing the Lord to the church. Winslow not only points out this sexist doctrine, but counters it:

Lewis’s conception of the masculinity of God—a conception that makes God in the image of man—is never clearer than when he writes that male priests fail when they are insufficiently masculine. I propose the opposite assertion: that priests and ministers fail, the church fails, and the cause of Christ fails because most ordinands have been insufficiently feminine; they have been incompletely human and incomplete as divine representatives. (85)6

The final chapter, “Christian Feminist Revisioning of Theology,” describes the nature and task of feminist theology. Christian feminist theology critiques and exposes; it reflects, recovers, and reforms. If this chapter is the apex of the book (I believe it is), then the chapter’s own highpoint is its section titled, “Revisioning and Transforming Theology and Society” (99–102). Consider, for example, the eloquent power of this summons to unity:

True unity and equality mean that women share men’s experience of faith and also that men learn and share women’s experience of faith. Christian theology must reflect their experiences of the fabric of life as it is lived in its various colors and textures by all women in all nations. (100)

A brief epilogue reiterates certain main points and tells a portion of the author’s own story. In my opinion, this book is an important contribution, for Methodists and other Wesleyans to be sure, but for other Christians as well. I intend to re-read it and to recommend it to my students as well as to church leaders in need of guidance and encouragement.


This book review appears in “Challenges of Marriage and Singleness,” the Summer 2021 issue of CBE’s academic journal, Priscilla Papers. Read the full issue here.
 

Notes

1. Winslow's other books include Daughters and Fathers in the Hebrew Bible (forthcoming); 1–2 Kings: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, New Beacon Bible Commentary (Beacon, 2017); Early Jewish and Christian Memories of Moses’ Wives: Exogamist Marriage and Ethnic Identity (Edwin Mellen, 2006).

2. See further, Karen Strand Winslow, “The Purpose, Principles, and Goals of Egalitarian Biblical Interpretation,” in The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Approaches to the Hebrew Bible, ed. Susanne Scholz (Oxford University Press, 2021).

3. See https://apu.edu/faculty/cvs/kwinslow.pdf.

4. 1 Cor 14:34–35: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (NIV).

5. Catherine Clark Kroeger and Richard Clark Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11–15 in Light of Ancient Evidence (Baker, 1992), esp. ch. 16 and pp. 171–77. Their translation of vv. 12–13 is: “I do not allow a woman to teach (didaskein) that she was the originator (authentein) of man, but she is to be in conformity (hesuchia) [with Genesis 2]. For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (Winslow, 47). Note that Winslow dedicates the book to Catherine Clark Kroeger and other mentors.

6. Priscilla Papers was pleased to publish a slightly edited version of ch. 5: Karen Strand Winslow, “Women Priests and the Image of God,” Priscilla Papers 34/2 (Spring 2020) 23–30.

Book info
Publisher:
Wesley's Foundery Books
Year:
2021
ISBN:
978-1945935916