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Male Feminist Theology: a Vision; a Proposal
I sat in my first ever counseling appointment in an office that was
connected to my first seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary in
Philadelphia. Not having met my assigned counselor before, I now settled
into the chair across from the center’s newest staff member: a young,
unmarried white male who had been in my Hebrew class. His only counseling
training was at John MacArthur’s incredibly conservative school in California.
I walked him through my chronic social anxiety issues. He asked about my
family. I told him about my rough childhood with parents always fighting, and
my Southern Baptist Church’s offering no support. My mother had eventually
stopped going to church altogether (but maintained her faith) because of the
endless line of congregants and pastors giving empty platitudes, keeping
distance and telling her things might change if she just “submitted” more
and had more sex with my Dad. As I was telling this story, the counselor
stopped me mid-sentence:
“Wow, I can totally see it. Your anxieties and difficulties come from
your childhood being raised in a household where there was a loss of biblical
authority and the destructive spirit of feminism.”
He gave me a “prescription” to pray every day over the next two
weeks and journal about it before coming back (yes, seriously). I never went
But let’s rewind a bit. A few months before this session, I found myself
standing on the side patio of the administrative building with a classmate of
mine, talking. Recently, I had started questioning my long-entrenched view
of male-dominated leadership and complementarianism, and I didn’t know
how to process it. I asked my friend—himself going through changes and
maturations more profound than my own—his thoughts. He told me that he
definitely saw in Scripture a progression, a trajectory leading to more and
more inclusion of women into leadership. He said that this was most
evidenced by Baptism. To read the Testaments together, one can see how,
for thousands of years, circumcision was the single biggest identity marker
for the people of God. It was the sign that you were a full, visible,
participating member of God’s chosen people. It was also, perhaps, the
single most “male-exclusive” sign one could possibly have. We are so far
removed from the first century; we cannot have any grasp on just how
dramatic it must have been for this sign of God’s covenant to move from
circumcision to baptism—as universally applicable of a sign as you could get!
And it was in this moment that things started to shift; as I saw the
movement in Scripture of a radical inclusion of women in light of Jesus,
where previously there was none. It was here that the battle line was drawn,
and I have not gone back since.
So yeah. Like I said. I didn’t go back to the counselor railing against
feminism and a “lack of biblical authority” being my “problem”.
And yet the process is not done. One can change their mind on issue,
but true progress is when we pull that one strand of yarn to see how it
necessarily shapes and affects the rest of the knot. When it comes to women
in the church, if one’s consciousness has truly been raised to the issue, then
they must see how far and deep and wide patriarchy’s reach goes—even into
our theology itself. As liberation and feminist theologians have reminded us
time and time again, there no such thing as a “neutral” theology (Japinga
1999, 18). All theology arises out of the experience, personality, culture, and
time of the theologian. There is no “objective” or “standard” theology from
which “feminist theology” is a diversion. When we talk like that, what we
have in mind is more akin to “white theology” or “male theology”.
So what does a straight white cisgender male who wants to support
the cause of feminism do with his theology? What does feminism have to say
when a man, like myself, steeped in nothing but Western androcentric
theological constructs wants to have a theological method that is inclusive of
the feminist experience and critique? What sort of theology can a man do
that doesn’t simply appropriate the theology of women into his own, as one
more patriarchal act of theological colonialism? In the pages to follow, I want
to make an attempt to set forth a male feminist theological method.
Our project must begin with an exploration of the theos of our
theology: “God”, which is the name that Christians give to the underlying
mystery of the universe (Fletcher 2005, 102-104). Because this Divine One is
ultimately a profound mystery, the reality is that our understanding of this
God (even in spite divine revelation) will be fragmented, partial, and
paradoxical at times. Therefore, it is my contention that while attempting to
stay true to the revelation we have been given we should feel a radical
freedom to cast and recast our theological articulations—the facets of the
theological diamond through which we minister and worship—in whatever
terms that serve the realities of God’s Kingdom in the context in which we
find ourselves now. And the current context in which we find ourselves is one
in which God’s daughters have been oppressed, abused, marginalized,
silenced, and kept out of our traditions—both ecclesially and scripturally.
Thus men who desire to take on a male feminist theological method should
feel the freedom and the responsibility to employ what Cristina Traina calls
the “preferential option for women”, wherein we prioritize the voices and
experiences of women within our ways of knowing, including in our theology
(41). In this paper, we will go through the cardinal doctrines of Christian
faith, ending with a section on the ethical implications of these theological
Passion: A Theology of God, Creation, and Humanity
A Suffering & Reconciling God
As a male feminist, I hold to a God that suffers in the Divine nature and
character from eternity past. This has been proposed before, and the primary
critique is that it is an “Open” or “Process” view of God in which the God who
is biblically described as “never changing” is subjected to the cataclysmic
change of suffering (Brown and Parker, 14-19). But the view offered here is
not an Open view. God’s nature and work (an expression of this nature) is
inherently telic. It has a goal towards which it is moving. But it is a
“movement” that could be no other way. It is who God has been, is, and
forever will be. What is the “shape” of God’s nature? It is suffering unto life
and shalom. God’s very nature is one that begins in suffering and leads to
new life within itself, not unlike the female process of childbirth. This Divine
“shape” overflows into to Trinitarian begetting, procession, and perichoresis,
as well as the Divine creative, “new life” impulses of Creation, election,
Incarnation, Resurrection, and New Creation.
Some critics of this view say that if this is God’s Nature, it doesn’t hold
any resources for liberating women from their oppression. But this is why we
need to say that God’s suffering nature is not “simply” suffering—it is
“Suffering-Unto-Shalom”. We must not say one without the other. This God
seeks to bring all things into Communion and solidarity with her own telos of
life and shalom.
For a male feminist, theology must start from this place where the
suffering of women is not something “foreign” to the otherwise distant,
Kingly God. This conception of God cannot be identified with patriarchal
identifications of power at the expense and marginalization of others
(Johnson 2001, 134-135). A male feminist theology must begin with a God
who—within her nature—experiences solidarity with women, not “merely” or
“incidentally” as a result of other subsequent acts or sovereign decisions.
A Dying & Rising Christ
Just as the Godhead itself is Suffering-Unto-Life, so are each of its
members. The Son is the lamb that has been slain since eternity past (1
Peter 1:18-21; Revelation 13:8). The Cross of Jesus is an expression of the
eternal truth of the Suffering God breaking into our world; it is not a worldly
experience “added to” the Divine Nature (now this would be an Open view!).
In Christ and the Incarnation, God is shown as one who identifies with and
sides with the marginalized, and those that suffer under the powers and
principalities of the world (Kwok 2005, 168-171). It shows how God
comprehensively embraces human weakness and fallenness within history,
and not just in a set of intentions or ideas. A further insight from this is that
Scripture repeatedly says that this world was created “through” Jesus, this
dying and suffering (and rising) Child. Therefore it bears those very marks of
suffering and death (unto new life). The marginalization and oppression of
women are not anomalies, but are actually them partaking in the Divine
Sufferings-Unto-Shalom echoing throughout creation. Remember: partaking
and communing in this Divine Nature does not end with suffering, injustice,
and oppression, but rather life, justice, and shalom. A male feminist sees in
Christ a God who defers to the marginalized, and assumes that those
peoples are the first and primary recipients of the effects of Christ’s work and
salvation. The male feminist shows the same priority in ministry.
A Grieving & Comforting Spirit
This Suffering-Unto-Shalom nature of God is found even in the Spirit.
From eternity past, we see this Spirit has been fluttering over chaos itself
(Johnson 1993, 44). She is found wherever there is need for life, creative
energy, or restoration (41-45). This Spirit is the means by which God brings
the life of Creation and Humanity into Communion with the Suffering-untoLife God. What God the Parent ordained, the Child accomplished, the Spirit
makes real within the nitty-gritty of on-going human life and suffering. The
Spirit is the Person of God most acquainted—most near—to the heart and
depth of human, societal, and creational pain, suffering, and injustice. Where
there is pain and injustice, this is where the life of the Spirit is most richly
felt. This Spirit grieves, groans, and suffers along with the world—especially
women and other marginalized peoples. But just as with the other members
of the Godhead, this suffering does not stay there. The descriptions of the
Spirit as both Creator and Comforter show the all-encompassing communal
and mutual reality of the life of the Spirit in the world. She is in all things and
brings all things into the Divine experience. She brings healing, life, creation,
and communion to the world She created and the people whom She has
constituted. By definition, then, the Spirit is most known and (in a sense) is
most Herself in those places and communities that need the most comfort
and creative energy in the midst of chaos. A male feminist, then, carries the
assumption that the Spirit is most tangible, most at work, and most deeply
known in communities of suffering and marginalization, namely women.
Further, a male feminist also sees the doctrine of Scripture as part of
the doctrine of the Spirit, and not of God the Father. Typically, Systematics
start with God and his unknowability, and then moves to his revealing acts in
Creation, Scripture, and Jesus. But this over-emphasizes the abstract, “otherworldly” ways God is known, over and above the embodied, grounded ways
God speaks. This emphasis keeps theology—and other sources of Divine
revelation and authority—disconnected from both Creation and women: two
things that are often intimately associated with each other in both the Bible
and philosophy (12-16). Male feminists must treat Divine revelation as part
of the doctrine of the Spirit in order to emphasize the “breathedness” of
Scripture. We do this to focus in on the active role the Spirit plays in using
Scripture to reveal God—not by displaying God purely in himself, but through
the words of people responding to him in real life and community (Plaskow,
36-52). God never arrived in the world in her full “God-ness”. Rather, the
Spirit is God’s breath within Revelation. Seeing it this way emphasizes the
“bottom-up” nature of Scripture. Clothed in cultural forms, the Spirit uses
Scripture in various communities in various ways to show God differently
(Kwok, 2005, 74-82; Hill-Fletcher 2005, 82-96). Taking this articulation of the
Spirit as a guide, the male feminist sees the oppression of women as an
imperative for creative action and comforting solidarity with them.
A Groaning & New Creation
The world, having been created by and through a suffering God,
participates in the life and structures of sin and injustice as well. It is no
coincidence that Creation has been thought of as having a solidarity and
identification with the feminine. The rocks cry out, the trees clap their hands,
and all creation knows its creator, and this Creator is a Spirit who is woven
into the depths of pain and oppression. Those who know pain and oppression
are also those closest to the earth (Hinze 2001, 47-52). There is a mutual
solidarity that oppressed peoples experience with this Creation, and that
Creation itself expresses for those people (Johnson 1993, 29-40). And yet,
looking into the history promised for the cosmos, we see a New Creation. The
labor pains will give way to birth (Romans 8). And as Creation is ushered into
New Life, it will bring those with whom it shares its deepest painful mutuality:
the sufferers and victims of the world, especially women.
Within this Creation, there also exists (in Paul’s wprds) “powers and
principalities” that are made evident in corporate entities (like societies,
culture, and the Church) and institutions within society. Sin and injustice gets
expressed from within the structures that humans create to order their
relations. The problem is, their attempts to order relations is not unto life and
shalom (moving against the very rhythm and Nature of God), and therefore
these structures formed from the created world by humans lead to the
oppression of the earth and other communities, especially women. God’s
work in this world is intended to bring it into a Newness of Life—even by way
of and within these structures and institutions. Christians are meant to live
as the “future” people of God, in the present.
Taking these things in mind, the male feminist refuses to create the
false distinction or hierarchy between humanity and creation. He seeks a
mutuality among all persons and the world. He actively works against the
structures and systems that keep women enslaved and seek to express his
mutuality with them and the earth in his deference and preference to their
A Broken & Freed Humanity
Within cosmic history, we can see how human relations became so
dysfunctional. Brought about by Evolution, a process driven by death and
“the will to power”, we see very real natural sex differences between
biological men and women (Jones 2000, 27-29). Early on in hominid
development, we see how these physical disparities have led to violence
against and silencing of women. On this foundation, we have whole
civilizations built by and for a perpetuation of these male power structures.
Governments and religions end up being written, edited, and transmitted by
men, for men, in patriarchal cultures. This has marginalized women from
much of human ordering, especially in those places of greatest societal
concern, including the Church (Japinga 1999, 75-78). A male feminist
theology can have a range of opinions on whether gender identity is
essential or constructed (84; Jones 2000, 22-23). But in my view, humanity
has real natural and biological limitations that are not mere accidents. At the
very least they have necessary implications for how societies construct
gender identities. For this reason, I find a “strategic essentialist” view is most
helpful (42-48). It identifies how gender has been socially constructed, but
does so in a way that pragmatically and constructively critiques rather than
simply deconstructing to the point of meaninglessness and disempowerment.
It critiques what we have while acknowledging it’s all we have to go on
(Japinga 1999, 80-84).
Another feminist insight to remember though, is that whatever humans
are in and of themselves, our “selves” change over time and are formed and
constituted in their relation to one another—one’s very being is dependent
on mutual social embodiment (Fletcher-Hill 2005, 95-99). Further, feminist
perspectives, having been denied the sort of power and privilege that can
narrow and distort one’s view of human life, can actually give us what can be
considered the fullest and truest account of humanity as a whole—not just
women (Traina 40-41). To attend to feminism is to attend to one’s own soul
and being, no matter your gender identity.
A male feminist also participates in personal and communal lament
over the situation of women in history and Christian tradition (Plaskow 2836). A male feminist assumes the validity and reality of female perspectives
on their experience. He understands that he is unable to know her
experience fully and can only defer to it. He seeks not to critique or assess
feminism for any other reason than to embrace it all the more deeply, to
understand it all the more well, and enact it all the more comprehensively.
Socially, a male feminist seeks the full expression of women’s humanity in all
places of society in which they have been silenced or disempowered. He will
create space for them, but will not relate to them on the basis of his power
and privilege. He will attempt to become increasingly conscious of this
privilege and will seek to move against it.
Peace: A Theology of Sin & Salvation
Just as with one’s theology of God, there are a myriad of views on sin
that are ultimately faithful to Scripture. And yet, depending one’s context
and communal needs, different emphases are more important at some times
than others. Thinking in terms of a male feminist theological method, sin
should be defined as “anything that goes against the ground of one’s being,
which is the ‘Suffering-Unto-Life-and-Shalom God’”. The view on Scripture
articulated above allows for maintaining a high authority of Scripture while
still assenting to the scientific consensus on biological evolution. If that is the
case, then on the topic of sin’s “origin”, one can say that there was no “Fall”,
no “historical Adam” in whom we all sinned, and no “fault” of Eve that has
carried through the generations. Rather, in line with the Suffering-UntoShalomic God through whom the world came to be, we can say that Creation
was started in a state of “un-shalom” (this is not a moral statement; it is not
that the world was created in sin, just that it began in a different state than it
will end), and “history” is the process by which God is guiding this world and
humanity into ever-increasing communion with him, which is New Life and
Shalom. Therefore, “sin” is any personal, societal, creational, or even cosmic
thing that works against this telos—this end for which all things came to be.
A male feminist, then, moves away from “sin” in a legal sense and begins
identifying it among human relations, structures, and cultures.
How does God respond to human sin and depravity? Through the
atoning work of Christ. We first freely admit that Atonement is a multifaceted mystery (Japinga 1999, 126). And yet, individuals must at times and
in certain modes consciously give priority to certain views over others, no
matter their preference, in order to serve the needs of the Kingdom. A male
feminist, in service to the needs of women in God’s world, must see the
atoning work of Jesus as a process by which he brings all suffering and
brokenness into communion with himself, but only so that in the mysterious
alchemy of the Cross, it might be changed into flourishing shalom and
liberating life. In other words, the Cross translates the painful life of the world
into the very life of God, thereby making injustice, sin, death, pain,
marginalization, and oppression into the very places where (by the Spirit)
liberating, Resurrection Life can show through. Death and oppression do not
have the last word. (125-125).
The Doctrine of the Church can be placed under this heading. In this
view, the Church is a community that models this atonement, seeking to turn
personal and societal death and chaos into life and shalom by expressing
absolute solidarity with suffering and pain and—trough their own cruciformity
—being the place in which that “alchemy” now takes place. This leads to
security, comfort, and unconditional acceptance (Russell 48-55) within the
community of faith. Atonement is moving pain onto the path to life. The
church does this through validation, empathy, and solidarity. It also does it
by exalting women to places of esteem in the community and consciously
and prophetically moving against the structures, systems, culture, and
policies that perpetuate patriarchal injustice.
Praxis: Scripture & an Ethics of Liberation
Scripture: Hermeneutical Methods
Due to the history of the biblical text and the way that the Spirit has
chosen to reveal God through human words—even patriarchal ones—it is not
a simple process to interpret and apply Scripture and classical theology in
today’s day and age. We find Lynn Japinga’s chapter on “Feminist
Perspectives on the Bible” to be of immense help in demonstrating the dual
impulses that all feminists—even male ones—must employ when
approaching Scripture: trust and suspicion (1999, 35-53). Further, we also
hold to Monica Schaap Pierce’s summary of Japinga’s methodology in her
lecture given on January 7th, 2015 entitled “Feminism and the Bible”. First,
we must maintain a certain suspicion of the patriarchal nature of the text,
working to become conscious of the ways that women have been excluded
from the textual tradition. Second, we do acts of remembrance, in which we
focus on and exalt those stories of women that we do find in the Bible.
Lastly, we work for acts of retrieval, where we look into Christian history to
find empowerment and voice for marginalized women.
Ethics: Social Critical Realism
For a male feminist, applying these theological principles in everyday
life, means one must navigate between two primary ethical concerns:
autonomy and mutuality (Farley 2006, 211-215). A male feminist ethical
method has met the consideration for autonomy when it has created space
for women, deferred to their experience of reality and society, and given
voice to their concerns that have been silenced in all other places and times.
Mutuality is accomplished when women’s voices are included in
conversations that would otherwise be male-dominated, when men actually
embody solidarity with women, and when feminist concerns are prioritized in
a communal context.
As for a way of discerning ethical issues that serve feminist ends, I
propose following the three-fold division of feminist ethical methods
articulated by Cristina Traina (24-48). I start with a Liberalist telos and goals:
holding fast to the idealistic, utopian, and (perhaps, even) naïve strain within
me that believes there are higher principles by which to judge “the good”
and “the right”. In this sense, I think all Christians must be ethical Liberals to
some extent. We hold to a transcendent moral imperative that is in spite of
the “facts on the ground”. The imperative is bigger than history, situation, or
culture. Yes, it’s been abused. But through on-going discussion and
engagement, we can refine this.
And yet, like I said, this is ultimately idealistic and unrealistic. This is
why, even as I cling to that hopeful zeal, I must have a Naturalist grounding.
My liberalism must be tempered by hardened realism, by way of
philosophical Naturalism. This says that I can have as many lofty
assumptions about The Good and The Right, but in the end, even those
pursuits and the definitions thereof are limited by Nature. We have limits and
realities that smack us in the face as we strive for more. We must
acknowledge we are limited and finite. We cannot exceed the bounds within
which we are set.
Lastly, even as I do this dance between Liberalism and Naturalism, I
occasionally need to move over to a Social Constructivist critique in order to keep
my conclusions provisional and open to change. The ethical method I propose for
male feminists would be this: pursue the goals of Liberalism within the
bounds of Naturalism; and as we do so, continually engage in Social
Constructivism to critique our own conclusions. The Liberalism gives life and
transcendence to a potentially deterministic and injustice-perpetuating
Naturalism, while the Social Constructivism keeps the entire enterprise fresh.
Practice Makes Imperfect?
To conclude, I would like to make what I hope is a prophetic call.
Having articulated a male feminist theological vision and some ideas for
applying it philosophically, I want to end with a call to men who desire to
take on the cause of women. I want to do this through some incredibly
practical, grounded suggestions to start the path forward.
As individuals, male feminists will actively seek spaces in which they
act restoratively and reparatively to bring healing in the places of injustice.
They will participate in consciousness-raising techniques for themselves and
others in order to bring awareness of this reality to those still seeped in their
own power and privilege. Again, this will include continuing to raise their own
awareness. One of the largest critiques of male feminists today is the fact
that they become just as patriarchal and unjust in their confidence that they
“get it” while others do not. Male Christian feminists will engage in talking
about the Divine in feminine terms. They will do this neither ironically, nor
with an implied wink-and-a-nod to their own enlightenment, but as genuine
worship to their God. To this end, and more importantly, they will actually
engage with the Divine Herself in feminine terms. Not only their public
speech, but also their private prayers, journaling, devotionals, and religious
thoughts and meditations will consciously engage God in feminine language,
listening to and for the feminine voice of God to us.
As male feminists live and move and work societally, they will work on
multiple fronts for the cause of women. Culturally, they will perform active
and conscious resistance against norms and mores that perpetuate
patriarchy. Politically, they will do prophetic engagement with feminist
priorities. This may mean advocating or voting for political issues that they
themselves disagree with, but respect the space of women to decide for
themselves. Economically, male feminists should use their money and social
engagement toward supports for women and families.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there is much work to do in the
Church. Male feminists leading in a church context should have conscious,
overt, purposeful, and public inclusion and priority of women in every single
role in the church. If there are not qualified or desiring women, then the
openness to do so should be full-throated and well-known. There should be
explicit overturning of usual gender binaries by men in theology and ethos.
For example, “men’s retreats” might not have the usual “sports, drinking,
smoking, etc.” that is expected of masculine, patriarchal culture; when
talking about theologically “masculine” topics like judgment and sovereignty,
perhaps using feminine names for God during the discussion could open up
these theological ideas. Male Christian feminists should express corporate,
institutional solidarity with feminist concerns and issues, both local and
global. There should be inclusive language in both worship and theological
articulation. The Bible translations used in the Church’s life, the songs they
sing, and the liturgies they use, should be self-consciously inclusive and
diverse in their language for the Divine and humanity. And lastly, male
feminists in a Christian context should be conscious of the terminology they
use for speaking of their fellow Christians who are women, considering the
ethical foundations above. For example, “Co-Heirs” or “God’s Daughters”
would stress their autonomous reception of the full benefits of Christ and his
church, while “Sisters” would stress the mutuality and familial relationality
and solidarity that exists among male feminists and women.
In this essay, a male feminist theological method including ethical
applications has been articulated and discussed. The hope is that this would
be the beginning of a robust discussion by women and men wanting to be in
solidarity with them about how God might work in, for, and through them all
for the good of all humanity, ushering their suffering selves into the New Life
of shalom and equality.
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