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The Impact of Feminist Theology


It is difficult to accurately assess the impact of feminist theology upon the growth and development of Christianity because feminist theology is a relatively modern movement. The extent of its influence will only be seen in future generations when some of the issues have been fully explored and resolved. Nevertheless, it is clear that feminist theology is a highly influential movement in contemporary Christianity and has had a profound impact on the Christian tradition across a range of denominations. The impact of feminist theology can be seen in 3 critical areas:

  1. Theological study and training
  2. Challenging and gradually overcoming patriarchal customs in most Christian denominations
  3. Awareness raising relating to:
    • Inclusive language
    • Models of divinity

Theological study and training

Less than 20 years ago it was possible to undertake an entire course in theology in most reputable institutions without making any study of feminist theology. The efforts of feminist theologians such as Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza have meant that gender issues in Biblical studies is now a mainstream discipline. Twenty years ago it was, at best, a peripheral issue. Feminist theology has also significantly affected other theological disciplines such as Christology, Ecclesiology and Liturgical Studies but most particularly Biblical studies. However, the full force of feminist theology is yet to be felt in the community as it is still largely restricted to specialist theological circles.

Challenging and gradually overcoming patriarchal customs in most Christian denomination

Feminist theologians are closely involved with attempts to improve the status and role of women within Christianity. This focus has manifested itself most prominently in push for the ordination of women. Most Protestant denominations allow the ordination of women. However, there is still an imbalance in the number of women who have been ordained. Furthermore, there is still resistance to the appointment of women to lead congregations. Catholic and Orthodox denominations do not allow the ordination of women. However, some progress has been made in these denominations. For example, women are allowed to act in a number of ministries in the Catholic Church such as lector, cantor, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and alter server. Despite the fact that many women regularly act in these roles they are not permitted to formally hold the office of Lector, Acolyte etc.

Awareness raising

Feminist theology has successfully and extensively placed feminist issues in the forefront of public debate. The Catholic Church in Australia for example, held a public enquiry into the participation of women in the Church. This enquiry came in response to strong lobbying from feminist groups within the Catholic Church. The Synod of the Anglican Church in Australia has debated the issue of the ordination of women for twenty years before eventually allowing individual dioceses to ordain women. The Sydney diocese of the Anglican Church remains opposed to ordaining women to the priesthood.

Feminist theology has been successful in raising awareness of the gender inequalities which exist in the Christian Churches by encouraging individual reflection through the use of gender inclusive language and alternative models of divinity.

Gender inclusive language

Many Christian communities have made a considerable effort to rephrase the words of liturgy into gender inclusive language. This is the result of the recognition of the work of feminist theologians who argue that the gender exclusive language relating to God and the community of Christians is unacceptable. This movement has met with varying levels of success among the different denominations. The Uniting Church for example, has adopted inclusive language lectionaries. In this way speech becomes a reflective incorporation of faith. The Catholic Church on the other hand, has maintained the use of gender exclusive language in liturgy and documents at an official level. However, despite the absence of formal change, some Catholic communities have adopted an inclusive language text for liturgy.

Alternative models of divinity

Feminist theologians have called for a re-interpretation of images of God. They argue that God cannot legitimately be referred to as being exclusively male. Feminist theologians have highlighted alternative biblical images of life bearer, nurturer and sustainer. This awareness raising exercise has been met with varying degrees of support. For example, there is greater willingness amongst liberal and progressive Christian groups to incorporate the feminine images of God found in the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew scriptures. Many conservative Christians on the other hand, are less willing to embrace and incorporate these alternative models of divinity into their liturgical reflection and prayer. The use of alternative models of divinity transcends denominational barriers and is an indication of the ecumenical character of the feminist movement.

The Influence of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza

Revolutionized Biblical studies

Fiorenza's most notable contribution to biblical studies is her classic work 'In Memory of Her' (1983) where she introduces the groundbreaking concept of the hermeneutic of suspicion. This tool, which has effectively revolutionized biblical scholarship, is used to question the andocentric character of the Biblical texts. Using this Fiorenza proposes a radical reconstruction of New Testament literature where the contributions and significance of women in early Christian communities are reinstated.

Evaluation of Fiorenza's influence

Few modern theologians could claim the extent of influence that Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza produced yet the work of Fiorenza is still largely restricted to academic and professional circles. Her work is however, gradually filtering down into grass root levels. The fact that Fiorenza's work is centred upon the biblical texts of the New Testament has made her work all the more controversial because of the sacred nature of the subject matter. By attempting a reconstruction of Christian history with a focus on the New Testament period, Fiorenza has put herself at odds with many traditionalists in the Christian Church who believe that the Bible is above such analysis. Fiorenza's work, however, is widely acclaimed by many liberal Christians across a spectrum of denominations and of course by feminist and liberation theologians.

Feminist Theology - An Evaluation

Feminist theology is a recent movement

Feminist theology is one of the great movements shaping the future of the Christian tradition. The greater religious freedoms which allow twenty-first century women to have a meaningful access to their tradition, can to a great extent, be attributed to the efforts of feminist theologians like Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. It is clear therefore, that feminist theology has been influential across a range of denominations. However, it is difficult to measure the full extent of the influence of feminist theology on the overall development of Christianity because the movement is still a relatively recent phenomenon and the work done by feminist theology is of a contemporary nature. In other words, the extent to which feminist theology has affected the present nature and future character of Christianity is yet to be determined.

Influence varies across the different denominations

At the present time, the influence of feminist theology differs among the denominations of Christianity. However, the degree of influence transcends the issue of denominations. While some issues have been resolved in some denomination but not in others, there are, nevertheless a variety of views within each denomination. In other words, there are conservative elements within all denominations which reject and/or oppose the claims of feminist theology. Yet, at the same time, there are liberal or progressive elements in these denominations which accept and/or support such claims.

The Catholic and Orthodox denominations do not allow the ordination of women, even though women in these denominations are allowed to act in a range of ministries. Protestant denominations generally allow the ordination of women, however reluctance still exists among local congregations and at an official level such as in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.

Whilst feminist theology is yet to be successful in initiating change in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches at an official level, their influence can be felt within grass root levels. For example, despite the absence of formal change in relation to the gender exclusive language used in liturgy, some Catholic congregations have adopted an inclusive language text for the liturgy. This example reveals that feminist theology has been very successful in raising awareness of the gender inequalities which exist within the Church. This then paves the way for incremental change from below as mindsets slowly change. However feminist theology is less successful in provoking structural change from above. Though feminist theology is initiating change from below in some areas the influence of feminist theologians in theological training is still largely restricted to professional and academic circles. The full effect of feminist theology has yet to be felt in the broader extent of Christian community.