Gender in Judeo-Christian Tradition:
A Critique on Christian Feminist Philosophies
and a Presentation of the Loyalist View.

 contact.gif 2002, R. J. Yen. All rights reserved

The history of Western legal thought has often been blamed for laying the philosophical foundations of gender subordination. Although philosophers from Plato to Rousseau expounded on the natural inferiority of the female gender, Judeo-Christian doctrine has perhaps received the most criticism from feminist thinkers as providing an ideological justification for gender inequality. This paper seeks to address such challenges from traditional feminists by first, examining the roots of female subordination from early Judeo-Christian philosophies, and second, surveying the emerging branches of Christian Feminism which purport to reconcile Biblical texts with the goals of gender equality.

By way of introduction, Part I of this paper provides a brief overview on the role of gender in traditional Judeo-Christian thought. Second, Part II of this paper sets forth the five schools of Christian Feminism and discusses their methods of Biblical interpretation. In addition, this section critiques the approaches of the various schools and concludes that the Loyalist School is the most defensible branch of Christian Feminism. Finally, Part III applies Loyalist philosophy and presents a model of women's roles in the family, church, and greater society.



A discussion of Judeo-Christian philosophy would not be complete without an understanding of the views of the ancient Greek philosophers. From his theory on the creation of humankind, Plato provided a philosophical foundation for gender inequality that was implicitly adopted by the Jewish and Christian thinkers that followed him. According to Platonic creationism, all souls were originally implanted in male bodies and given volition, sensation, and emotion.1 Comprised of only males, the first community of souls enjoyed equality with one another.2 However, the soul of a man who conquered his emotions and developed his intellect would be blessed after his death and reborn as a man. In contrast, a man who failed to master his irrational, emotional proclivities was considered incapable of reason and would be reborn as a woman.3 

Moreover, Plato only briefly discussed the creation of women in conjunction with the creation of birds, mammals, reptiles, and fish.4 By placing women on the same level as animals, Plato revealed an underlying view of women as not fully human. Mustafa K. Kasubhai further elaborates on Plato's creationism and its effect of subordinating women to men:

This theory maintains that women not only follow men, but are less than perfect men, returned to earthly life in order to perfect themselves. If women, by Plato's terms, are those men who fell prey to their irrational, emotional side, and are therefore incapable of reason, it syllogistically follows that women are incapable of making rational choices... Moreover, as irrational beings, women may not always know what they really want, and so it is the man's domain to decide for them.5 

In his Republic, Plato accordingly presented a utopian vision of the ideal state in which truth, morality, and intellect should be valued over emotion.6 As such virtues were directly associated with males, men were viewed as naturally suited for governance of the state. In contrast, women were properly confined to the private sphere of the family. However, Plato made allowances for women to participate in social governance. He declared that "if the difference [between men and women] consists only in women bearing and men begetting children, this does not amount to proof that a woman differs from a man in respect to the sort of education she should receive; and we shall therefore continue to maintain that our guardians and their wives ought to have the same pursuits."7 

Modern scholarship has often interpreted Plato as being open to gender equality. In a recent opinion, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that in Plato's ideal society, "women's native ability to serve as guardians was not seriously questioned."8 Rather, Ginsberg argued that Plato merely expressed concern over the wrestling and exercise classes in which all candidates for guardianship were required to participate, given that Greek custom prescribed that physical training be conducted in the nude. Plato concluded that women could undergo their training clothed so as not to deprive society of the talent of otherwise qualified citizens.

Despite the fact that women were capable of performing most of the duties of men, Plato also maintained that "in all, woman is rather weaker than man."9 Moreover, women were required to divorce themselves from their private role as mothers in order to become rulers. All children are held in common so that Plato's ideal ruling class could function wholly undistracted by private family interests. Thus, the public sphere of governance, in which the rulers engaged in intellectual discourse was viewed as incompatible with the private realm of family life.10 In conclusion, although women could participate equally in the intellectual pursuits of the state, they could do so only if they removed themselves from their biological and societal role as mothers.

By rejecting the maternal role of women, Plato expressed an underlying fear of gender difference.11 Moreover, Plato advocated gender sameness in the Republic by comparing the similar functions of female and male dogs and concluding that human society should emulate the canine world.12 Jenny Wald argues that in revering intellect, Plato's philosophy subordinated the body, with its reproductive capabilities, to the mind. Metaphorically, Plato thus subordinated nature to culture, mother to father, and female to male.13 

Like Plato, Aristotle believed in the inherent superiority of men over women. Aristotle expounded at length on the physical differences between male and female animals as examples of male superiority. For example, he noted that males were larger, longer-lived, stronger, and more articulated.14 Aristotle suggested that female physiology was defective compared to the male body, and syllogistically, that men were intellectually superior to women. From this proposition, Aristotle concluded that women should be ruled by men: "It is clear that the rule of the soul over the body, and of the mind and the rational element over the passionate, is natural and expedient... Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind... the one rules, and the other is ruled. . . . The courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying."15 

Like Plato, Aristotle believed that the natural order of the universe determined the proper roles of men and women in society.16 By looking to the biology of reproduction, Aristotle claimed that males actively provided the form or soul of the offspring, whereas women passively provided the matter.17 Moreover, Aristotle argued that form was more divine than matter, suggesting that males were superior to females.

In his Politics, Aristotle applied his view of the woman's inferior role in reproduction to her role in society. For example, Aristotle proposed that marriage and reproduction should be regulated by the state, thereby reflecting an underlying view of women as breeding vessels and subordinate members of the state.18 Moreover, the private maternal role of women served to prevent them from participating in the public sphere of governance. Unlike Plato, Aristotle clearly stated that men alone could serve as true citizens, whereas women could flourish only within confines of the household.19 


The Old Testament provided the Jews with varied images of women, including the bravery of the prostitute Rahab,20 the sexual trickery of Judah's daughter-in-law, Tamar,21 the courage and wisdom of Queen Esther,22 the military assertiveness of Deborah,23 the faithful obedience of Ruth,24 and the unrelenting wickedness of Jezebel.25 Despite examples of capable and honorable women featured in the scriptures, however, the Rabbinic tradition generally espoused the view that women were inferior to men. For example, Jesus ben Sirach warned in the Apocrypha: "Do not look upon any [woman] for beauty, and do not sit in the midst of women; for from the garments comes the moth, and from a woman comes woman's wickedness. Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good; and it is a woman who brings shame and disgrace."26 

Moreover, Judaic philosophers adopted ideas regarding a soul-flesh dichotomy espoused by Plato and Aristotle. However, such thinkers elevated the soul to correspond with godliness, thereby further denigrating the supposed feminine nature of the flesh. Philo, a Jewish scholar at the time of Christ, wrote concerning men and women:

There is in the soul a male and female element just as there is in families, the male corresponding to the men, the female to the women. The male soul assigns itself to God alone as the Father and Maker of the Universe and the Cause of all things. The female clings to all that is born and perishes; it stretches out its faculties like a hand to catch blindly at what comes in its way, and gives the clasp of friendship to the world of created things with all its numberless changes and transmutations, instead of to the divine order, the immutable, the blessed... 27

Philo also subscribed to Plato and Aristotle's views that the weaker nature of women caused them to be intellectually and morally inferior to men: "Mind corresponds to man, the senses to woman; and pleasure encounters and holds parley with the senses first, and through them cheats with her quackeries the sovereign minds itself."28 Thus, women were viewed as temptresses of men: "A wife is a selfish creature... adept at beguiling the morals of her husband."29 

After Philo's generation, Josephus, a Jewish historian, continued the Judaic teachings on female inferiority. Josephus interpreted that Jewish law as asserting that a woman should be "inferior to her husband in all things"30 and that women should be barred from testifying in court because of their moral weaknesses.31 


In early Christian thought, women were also associated with the inferior nature of the flesh, while men were aligned with the spirit. Tertullian, a Christian apologist during the first century, depicted women as temptresses by nature.32 His contemporary, Origen, wrote on behalf of the Greek Fathers, that "God does not stoop to look upon what is feminine."33 

The Judeo-Christian account of creation, in which the first woman was derived from man, provided a philosophical basis for gender inequality. Eve was described as a wicked temptress and blamed for the fall of mankind.34 Tertullian spoke of Eve with misogynist undertones: "Woman... do you not know that you are [each] an Eve?. . . You are the Devil's gateway. You are the unsealer of that forbidden tree. You are the first deserter of the divine Law. . . On account of your desert, that is death, even the son of God had to die."35 

Augustine and other early Christian philosophers also suggested that because Adam and Eve were originally created to live together in a harmonious order of authority and obedience, a husband is therefore "meant to rule over his wife as the spirit rules the flesh."36 Because a woman's role in reproduction aligned her with the fleshly nature, she could rightfully be subjected to the spiritual authority of the male. Augustine further suggested that women were not created in the image of God but rather in the imperfect likeness of man; accordingly, women had a natural weakness and greater propensity toward sin.37 Thus, Augustine viewed celibacy as a holier state than marriage, noting that to join with a woman in matrimony was to make "a covenant with death."38 

St. Thomas Aquinas also considered women to be mentally and physically inferior to men, thereby supporting their subordination to men.39 Like Plato, Aquinas suggested that women lacked the Adiscernment of reason" which was naturally possessed by men.40 Moreover, Aquinas suggested that women were created only to aid in reproduction.41 During the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin and John Wesley reaffirmed these early views by emphasizing that women should be naturally subject to their husbands.42 

In contrast to the temptress Eve, the Virgin Mary represented to early Christian philosophers the immaculate role of women as mothers.43 Mary symbolized the woman's proper role as the breeding vessel of man, and yet she was uncorrupted by the fleshly requirement of sexual intercourse.44 Mary was exalted for her submissive acceptance of her role as the mother of Christ, while her own sexual autonomy was denied. Christian doctrine surrounding the Virgin Mary can thus be compared with Aristotle's view of reproduction. As Aristotle believed that man provided the soul to the offspring, Christian philosophers believed that Mary, a yielding recipient, was impregnated by the Holy Spirit.45 Aquinas adopted Aristotlean thinking and declared that while men provided the active power in reproduction, women were intended merely to passively aid men in the work of procreation.46 

The dual imagery of Eve and Mary in Judeo-Christian tradition established a view of women as both whore and saint, evil and sacred. Female sexuality without motherhood, as exemplified in Eve, was viewed as corrupt, while motherhood without sexuality, as embodied in Mary, was revered as ideal.47 Contemporary legal scholar John H. Arnold suggests that the exaltation of Mary ultimately objectifies and devalues women: "Mary's unique role in the plan of salvation is to acquiesce, to be 'come upon,' 'overshadowed' by the Spirit of the Lord, and to conceive a son. . . This [could be] viewed as nothing more than the classic patriarchal rape/incest myth."48 

Despite their view of women as being connected with the fleshly nature or as mere vehicles for reproduction, early Christian philosophers were simultaneously praised for promoting more liberating relations between men and women within the family and providing women with higher status than in pre-Christian Roman and Jewish society.49 For example, women in pagan Rome were often excluded from participating in worship services. Jewish leaders also relegated women to a side chamber or a balcony of their synagogues, so that they could silently from a distance watch the men read from the Scriptures. The new order established by Christ and disseminated by the Apostles allowed women not only to participate in worship services, but encouraged women to prophesy.

In addition, the early church taught men to abandon their former misogynistic tradition of keeping numerous wives and concubines. Christ's teaching on monogamy affirmed the importance of the wife's role in the marriage. Women could no longer be viewed as merely fungible and dispensible sexual property of men. Rather, men and women were to mutually belong to one another in a covenant of marriage. Contemporary Loyalist John Bristow maintains that the Apostle Paul's teachings in fact challenged both the Hellenic and Jewish traditions of misogyny.50 For example, Bristow offers the following examples of Christianity's liberating impact on gender relations:

A female is a deformed male, Aristotle taught. Male and female are one in Christ, Paul declared. Women as well as men are to lead in worship, Paul noted. Men and women are to be separate during worship, Jewish custom dictated, and only men count in determining a quorum for worship. Women are to learn, Paul insisted. Women are inferior to men in their ability to reason, Aristotle argued. Sexual intercourse in harmful, many Stoics believed, and marriage distracts a man from the study of philosophy. Marriage and sexual intimacy are a gift from God, Paul observed... A man's courage is in commanding, a woman's in obeying, asserted Aristotle. Husbands and wives are to be responsive to the needs of each other, Paul instructed... Ever since Eve, the Jews were taught, women have been morally weak and a source of temptation to men. 'Woman is the glory of man,' Paul stated... The authority of a woman belongs first to her father and then, when she is married, to her husband, Greek and Jewish laws agreed. A woman shall have authority on her own head, Paul insisted.51 

Therefore, early Christian thought presented a mixed view of gender relations. Although some Christian philosophers viewed women as being either morally blameworthy like Eve or as passive sexual recipients like Mary, others apparently sought to provide women with greater freedoms and rights in worship.

As a whole, early Judeo-Christian tradition perpetuated and transformed the patriarchical views of sex inequality that had been espoused by Greek philosophers. Jewish and Christian thinkers disseminated the underlying view that women were inferior by nature and could therefore be ruled by men. Such views have pervaded through the present era and pose continual challenges for both Christian and secular feminists. The following section presents an overview of the various approaches taken by Christian feminists in opposing the roots of female subordination found in the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular.


Given the significant influence which traditional Judeo-Christian philosophy had in the creation of patriarchy in Western civilization, Biblical re-interpretation naturally emerged as an inevitable component of Feminist thinking. Historian Gerda Lerner, for example, argues that criticism of the Bible was a fundamental prerequisite for women to achieve equality:

Whatever route women took to self-authorization and whether they were religiously inspired or not, they were confronted by the core texts of the Bible, which were used for centuries by patriarchical authorities to define the proper roles for women in society and to justify the subordination of women... Since male objections to women thinking, teaching and speaking in public were for centuries based on Biblical authority, the development of feminist Bible criticism can be seen as an appropriate and perhaps not unexpected response to the constraints and limitations imposed upon women's intellectual development by religiously sanctioned gender definitions. These Biblical core texts sat like huge boulders across the paths women had to travel in order to define themselves as equals of men. No wonder they engaged in theological reinterpretation before they could move on to other, more original and creative ideas.52 

From the first recorded re-interpretation of the Bible by a woman named Helie in the second century,53 women have sought to develop a more accurate and woman-centered commentary of the holy scriptures. Although contemporary Christian Feminism encompasses diverse schools of thought, this section adopts the five categories of Feminist Biblical Interpretation as articulated by Carolyn Osiek54 and offers a brief overview of each school.


The Loyalist school of Christian feminism was pioneered by Sarah Moore Grimke, a Quaker activist of the nineteenth century whose Letters on the Equality of the Sexes became the most radical feminist work of her time.55 Grimke argued that biased male interpretation of the Bible, rather than the sacred scriptural text itself, created the Judeo-Christian tradition of subordinating women. Grimke encouraged women to learn Hebrew and Greek to interpret the Bible themselves, rather than rely upon English versions which were translated by men:

My mind is entirely delivered from the superstitious reverence which is attached to the English version of the Bible. King James' translators certainly were not inspired. I therefore claim the original as my standard, believing that to have been inspired, and I also claim to judge for myself what is the meaning of the inspired writers.56 

A steadfast believer in the trustworthiness of the original Biblical text, Grimke also simultaneously championed the cause of gender equality with zeal. Grimke surveyed the status of women from different cultures such as Asia and Africa, and from different eras, ranging from Ancient Mesopotamia through the American present. Grimke also challenged discrimination on various fronts beyond religious tradition, such as education, law, and economics. In proclaiming that men had exercised dominion over women for nearly six thousand years, Grimke pleaded:

All I ask our brethren is... [to] permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy... All history attests that man has subjected woman to his will, used her as a means to promote his selfish gratification, to minister to his sensual pleasures, to be instrumental in promoting his comfort; but never has he desired to elevate her to that rank she was created to fill. He has done all he could to debase and enslave her mind; and now he looks triumphantly on the ruin he has wrought, and says, the being thus deeply injured is his inferior.57 

Over a century since Grimke's death, feminists of the Loyalist school have continued her work in Biblical interpretation. Loyalists maintain that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, and therefore by definition, cannot be oppressive to women.58 Scriptural passages which have been cited as advocating the subordination of women have merely been erroneously interpreted by male commentators.59 Accordingly, Loyalists use careful exegesis, comparison of other Biblical passages, and linguistic analysis to refute literalist interpretations of any one passage.

However, Loyalists accept that some hierarchy is necessary for social order. Although men and women are not intended to exist in a dominance/submission relationship, a structure of leadership is necessary for unity in the church and society.60 In fact, many Loyalists prefer to regard the Bible's teachings as providing differentiation, rather than a hierarchy, of roles. When God created male and female, he made the two different and unique and offered both important roles. Moreover, contemporary Loyalist Mary Kassian argues that gender differentiation and gender equality need not be mutually exclusive:

The Bible does not teach the inequality of men and women. Each person, man or woman, stands before God as an individual created in the image of God, and at the same time as a sinner in need of salvation. Therefore, each person, whether male or female, has at the same time both an infinite equality of worth before God and one another, and a total equality of need for Jesus Christ as savior. However, the equality of man and woman does not undermine the difference between the sexes. It allows for the realization and fulfillment of this difference. Biblical equality affirms that although both male and female are created in the image of God, they exist as complementary expressions of the image of God... Those who have unduly restricted the Biblical freedom of women are just as guilty of abusing God's pattern as those who have cast aside all boundaries.61 


In direct contrast with the Loyalists, proponents of the Rejectionist School advocate the complete rejection of the Bible. According to Rejectionists, Christian texts are inherently and irreparably oppressive to women. Theologians Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe describe the Rejectionist school as one which entirely forgoes Biblical interpretation and opts for a religion based upon women's life experience:

According to this view, the authority of human experience, and especially of women's experience, to identify norms of justice and dignity stands in judgment over the human words of the Biblical text: What is wrong in the treatment of women today always was wrong, and to continue to find any value in literature that perpetuates such wrong can only extend the harm done. For these readers, the interpretative task relative to the Bible is set aside, and the foundations of women's spirituality and women's religious experience are sought elsewhere.62 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an early Rejectionist, argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition, given its patriarchical roots, was intrinsically oppressive to women.63 Stanton believed that the plain language of the Old and New Testaments provided a foundation for the subordination of women. Influenced by her leadership, the Women's National Liberal Union declared in its formal position on the Christianity that it rejected the Christian religion:

The Christian church of whatever name is based on the theory that woman was created secondary and inferior to man and brought sin into the world, thus necessitating the sacrifice of the Saviour... Christianity is false and its foundation a myth which every discovery in science shows to be as baseless as its former belief that the earth was flat.64 

In 1895, Stanton and her colleague, Matilda Gage, published The Woman's Bible, a summary of Biblical criticism. For example, Stanton and Gage noted in discussing the Genesis account of creation, that Darwinian evolutionary theory undermined the entire Biblical story and that common sense indicated that a snake could not have spoken to Eve. Stanton ultimately concluded after completing the collaborative work that the Bible was merely a text of "Hebrew mythology" which was "far less attractive in style and less refined in sentiment" compared with Greek mythology.65 

Over seventy years later, Rejectionist Mary Daly advocated a complete dismissal of the Bible and the formation of a post-Christian feminist faith.66 Daly argued that Christian teachings deceived women into accepting an inferior role and that any purported promise of "equality in Christ" was nothing more than a covert glorification of men. Because Christianity sought to divorce itself from ancient pagan religions, in which goddesses were often worshipped, Daly argued that Christian theologians constructed their views of women as exact opposites of the powerful goddesses. Thus, women were viewed as weak, sinful, and passive, capable of redemption only by serving as docile wives and mothers. Daly later proposed that women should create their own religious tradition which was capable of conquering patriarchy and transforming the male-evil power into female-good power.67 She hoped that a new feminist spiritual movement would be free from the dogma of institutionalized religion and therefore both "Antichurch" and "Antichrist."68 


Proponents of the Revisionist school argue that the Bible was written in a patriarchical society and therefore contains inherent male-centered doctrines. However, revisionists use exegesis and consideration of contextual factors such as cultural practices which existed at the time of authorship, to explain passages which appear to advocate the subordination of women.

Unlike Rejectionists, Revisionists believe that the Bible is replete with teachings which should be upheld and in particular, that the scriptures contain several passages which commend women. Frances Willard, an early Revisionist and President of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, recognized that while certain Biblical passages could not be interpreted as anything other than oppressive to women, such passages should be read "in the light of the freeing activity of Jesus Christ" who was "woman's emancipator."69 Willard argued that a correct reading of the Bible rendered a view of women as highly valuable:

Mother-hearted women are called to be the saviors of the [human] race. I speak it reverently, as a loyal worshiper of Him who said, 'Mother, behold thy Son'... Next to God, the greatest organizer on this earth is the mother. She who sends forth from the sanctuary of her own being a little child has organized a great spiritual world, and set it moving in the orbit of unchanging law. Hence woman, by her organism, is the greatest organizer ever organized by our beneficent Creator.70 

Thus, Willard urged that women learn Hebrew and Greek to "bring out the women's side of the [Bible]. We need the stereoscopic view of truth in general, which can only be had when woman's eye and man's eye together shall discern the perspective of the Bible's full-orbed revelation."71 


Philosophers of the Sublimationist Hermeneutic school seek to unearth the femininity of Biblical symbolism. For example, Subliminationists argue that God is both masculine and feminine. Hildegard of Bingen, an early female theologian of the Twelfth century, viewed Eve and Mary to be symbols of God's divine power to bring forth life.72 

A contemporary Subliminationist,Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, argued that God was pictured in the Bible as a woman giving birth, a nursing mother, a female homemaker, a bakerwoman, a mother eagle, and a mother hen.73 Mollenkott also cited passages such as Psalm 123:2, "As the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God," to declare that God could be called feminine titles like "Mother" and "Mistress."74 

Joan Chamberlain Engelsman further suggested that the Bible included an allegoric figure named "Wisdom," who embodied the female deity, Sophia.75 Sophia was unique from but equal with the male Godhead. Moreover, Engelsman and her contemporaries argued that Sophia was God's lover and together created the earth with Him. Susan Cady, Marian Ronan, and Hal Taussig, who continued Engelsman's exploration of Sophia in their collaborative work, Wisdom's Feast, maintained that Jesus Christ was actually Sophia incarnate. The authors then suggested that Apostles Paul and John sought to obscure her true identity by creating the image of a wholly masculine Christ.76 

In addition to feminizing aspects of God and exploring the symbolic power of female characters in the Bible, Subliminationists also re-interpreted the roles of male characters in Scripture. For example, Mollenkott described Joseph, the human father of Jesus, as an early feminist, because he showed willingness to accept a secondary role, subordinate to Mary, in the birth of Jesus.


During the early 1970s, theologians Letty Russell and Rosemary Radford Ruether began to develop a philosophy of women's liberation based upon the liberation theology of Latin America and other Third World countries. Russell argued that sex discrimination was the root of all oppression and that women must strive to achieve freedom for themselves. Ultimately, Russell and Ruether argued that women should create a new humanity.

The Liberationist school maintains that the Bible's primary theme is the liberation of all people and that this "canon within a canon" should guide all scriptural interpretation.77 Thus, the Bible should be interpreted as advocating the emancipation and equality of women, and passages which suggest gender inequality must be read in light of this overriding message. For example, Ruether argues that feminist theology must focus on the liberating power of God, who Ruether refers to as both masculine and feminine:

Feminist theology needs to affirm the God of exodus, of liberation and new being... [God/ess] is not the creator, founder, or sanctioner of patriarchical-hierarchical society... God/ess liberates us from this false and alienated world, not by an endless continuation of the same trajectory of alienation but as a constant breakthrough that points us to new possibilities that are, at the same time, the regrounding of ourselves in the primordial matrix, the original harmony. The liberating encounter with God/ess is always an encounter with our authentic selves resurrected from underneath the alienated self.78 

Similarly, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza argued that the Bible should not be considered a product of divine revelation but also the natural product of a patriarchical society.79 Thus, re-interpretation of the Bible was necessary to reverse the use of the scriptures as an ideological legitimization and justification for patriarchy. Fiorenza advocated the use of "creative actualization" to analogize Biblical passages with current struggles against oppression.

Under Fiorenza's interpretive method, a reader should be free to embellish or rewrite Biblical passages. For example, Judith Plaskow applied Fiorenza's hermeneutic to create a new account of creation, in which God created a woman, Lilith, who ran away from Eden to escape becoming Adam's helper.80 According to Plaskow's account, Lilith returned to befriend Eve and empower her new companion after sin entered Eden. The account ends with a suggestion that Lilith and Eve will undermine God and Adam by building a new and superior Eden.

Like Liberationists before her, contemporary theologian Phyllis Trible also recognized the patriarchical confines of the Bible and the various meanings which could be accorded to any scriptural passage. Trible viewed the Bible as a tool for women to find gender redemption, returning to creation in the image of God. Trible developed a method of "rhetorical criticism" to uncover the masculine bias of Biblical texts and to reformulate narratives.81 Under her interpretive method, Trible focused on the examples of abused and disparaged women in the Bible and sought to retell the stories from the victims' perspectives. In doing so, Trible believed that women could harness their anger and disillusionment with the male writers of Scripture and begin to redefine themselves and the Bible. For example, Trible hoped that retelling the story of a nameless concubine who was brutally raped and murdered by a gang of men82 would vindicate the suffering of countless unnamed women in the Bible.


In examining the methods of Biblical interpretation and ideals of the preceding schools, it appears that the Loyalist school best reconciles the Biblical text with Feminist goals. Loyalists remain faithful to the fundamental tenet of the Christian faith holding that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. Moreover, Loyalist philosophy is consistent with the goals of traditional Feminist thinkers who seek to bring about gender equality and affirmation of women in society. Although they accept role differentiation between the sexes, Loyalists argue that differences need not obliterate the ultimate truth that men and women are fundamentally equal.

The Rejectionist school cannot be considered a legitimate branch of Christian feminism because it does not accept any Judeo-Christian texts as valid. Although they recognize the need for spirituality among women, Rejectionists wholly reject the person of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible. Thus, Lerner concludes that Rejectionists belie a "very real alienation from religious thought and [a] rejection of all feminist Bible criticism which came from within the Christian frame of reference."83 

Additionally, Rejectionists may be criticized for supporting a reversal of gender roles. Although Loyalists and other Christian feminists pursue gender equality, Rejectionist philosophy appears to advocate a hierarchy in which men are subordinate to women. As contemporary legal scholar Amy Miles contends, "Rejectionist theory visualizes an upsetting state of the world. In a perfect Rejectionist world, women are liberated, but rather than freeing the world from oppression, women become the oppressors."84 

The Revisionist school properly recognizes that the Bible was authored by men in a particular time period and geographical community, who were undoubtedly products of societal indoctrination. Thus, Revisionists do not believe in the infallibility of the Bible; rather, they argue that the text's meaning evolves over time and that certain passages are simply invalid. Accordingly, the Revisionists seem to undermine the fundamental Christian tenet that God's principles revealed through His Word are absolute and unchanging.

Like the Revisionists, Liberationists reject the fundamental Christian belief that the Bible is infallible and absolute. For example, Ruether maintained that only the Biblical passages which related to women's contemporary quest for liberation were valid.85 Similarly, Russell argued that the Bible's legitimacy should be tested by Christian communities seeking to bring about liberation in the greater society.86 Moreover, proponents of this school fail to address the Bible's passages on role differentiation of the sexes within the church and family.

Finally, the Subliminationists inadequately represent both traditional feminists and Christians. Subliminationists have been criticized by traditional feminists for focusing on the other-status of women in the Bible and thereby perpetuating gender differences rather than emphasizing gender equality.87 In particular, the feminization of certain aspects or images of Christianity fails to address why God himself should remain masculine. For example, Ruether questions the Subliminationist attempt of feminizing the Holy Spirit:

The feminine aspect of God is to be identified particularly with the Holy Spirit. It is doubtful, however, that we should settle for a concept of the Trinity that consists of two male and one female 'persons.' Such a concept of God falls easily into an androcentric or male-dominant perspective. The female side of God then becomes a subordinate principle underneath the dominant image of male divine sovereignty... In such a concept, the feminine side of God, as a secondary or mediating principle, [acts] in the same subordinate and limited roles in which females are allowed to act in the patriarchical social order. The feminine can be mediator or recipient of divine power in relation to creaturely reality. She can be God's daughter, the bride of the (male) soul. But she can never represent divine transcendence in all fullness. For feminists to appropriate the 'feminine' side of God within this patriarchical gender hierarchy is simply to reinforce the problem of gender stereotyping on the level of God-language. We need to go beyond the idea of a 'feminine side' of God... and question the assumption that the highest symbol of divine sovereignty still remains exclusively male.88 

In addition, the feminine-masculine dichotomy created by Subliminationists undermines the deity of God. For example, Mary A. Kassian, a contemporary Loyalist, argues that Subliminationists reduce God's character to human-defined sex roles: "[Subliminationists] presented an image of a deity who is bisexual or androgynous rather than one who transcends the polarity of the sexes."89 Moreover, Kassian contends that the Subliminationist use of feminine metaphor diffuses God's uniqueness: "God became 'rock,' 'eagle,' 'door,' etc. His personality was thus diffused to encompass all natural phenomena. Renaming God in a way other than He had named Himself logically led to an erosion of God's independent personality."90 

The Subliminationists can also been criticized on other grounds. The emphasis on esoteric Biblical symbolism tends to isolate feminists who seek to bring about real world change. Moreover, Subliminationists neglect to address Biblical passages which appear to advocate female subordination. Thus, the Sublimationist Hermeneutic school appears only to provide a symbolic method of appreciating Scripture.


Having concluded that the Loyalist school best reconciles Christianity and feminism, this section applies Loyalist philosophy to define the roles of women in the family, church, and greater society. In particular, the following subsections provide Loyalist interpretations of scriptural passages which have often received criticism for advocating gender inequality.


In the book of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul wrote that women should submit to their husbands "as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything."91 Paul further elaborated on the husband's role, commanding men to emulate Christ:

Love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.92 

First, Loyalists point out that the Bible mandates that men and women mutually submit to one another, as Paul commanded in prefacing his instructions to wives and husbands.93 Thus, there should be reciprocity of duty and service in marriage. Women should submit to their husbands out of reverence for Christ and in respect to the order which he prescribed for families.94 

However, Loyalists apply linguisitic analysis to show that submission should not be confused with that of a master-slave relationship. First, the Greek word used for "submit" was hupotassomai, which connoted a voluntary pledging of support, as opposed to the Greek word peitharcheo, which was used to describe the submission of children or slaves to their masters. Second, the Greek word for "head" used by Paul was kephale, loosely translated as "the first solider into battle" rather than the Greek word, arche, used to describe military rulers.95 Thus, the portrait of male leadership should involve sacrifice, bravery, and honor, but not dominance.

Finally, Loyalists point out that Paul instructed men to love their wives in the utmost sacrificial and giving manner, to the point of laying down their lives. Thus, husbands appear to bear the greater burden of responsibility and deference toward their wives. In order to follow this command, men would have to value their wives with utmost respect and honor. Moreover, it is unlikely that wives whose husbands are willing to relinquish their lives for their sake can be legitimately viewed as oppressed and subordinated.

The Apostle Peter also instructed women to submit to their husbands: "For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers."96 

Like Paul's instructions, this passage provides different duties for men and women in the marriage relationship. Wives should submit in love to their husbands, whereas husbands should respect their wives. In addition, Loyalists clarify that Sarah did not call Abraham her master in all things; rather, this passage points to a specific incident when Sarah used the Hebrew word "master," synonymous for the word "husband," in jest.97 Moreover, several passages in the book of Genesis depict Sarah as being assertive and independent.98 

Finally, the Greek word for "weaker" did not connote moral or intellectual inferiority; rather, Peter likely intended to refer to sheer physical strength. Given the social norms of his day, in which women did not participate in athletics, Loyalists argue that Peter was probably conditioned to think that women were generally physically weaker.

Finally, Loyalists refute misogynistic interpretations of the creation account by using linguistic analysis. For example, the book of Genesis describes the creation of woman in which God stated: "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."99 Loyalists point out that the Hebrew word for "helper", ezer, was not meant to suggest that women were created to be slaves of men. Rather, the same word is better translated as "partner" and was used to describe God himself nearly twenty other times in the Old Testament. Thus, women should be viewed as having an important and authoritative role alongside men.


In the church, Loyalists also accept some degree of role differentiation between men and women. However, the sexes are fundamentally equal and mutually dependent in Christ. For example, 1 Corinthians 11:11-12 provides that "in the Lord... woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God." Moreover, role differentiation does not imply hierarchy between the sexes: "Those parts of the body [of Christ] that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor... There should be no division in the body... Its parts should have equal concern for each other."100 Thus, the Apostle Paul elaborated on the role of men and women in the church:

God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must remain 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.101 

Loyalists first point out that contextually, Paul referred in this passage to a specific problem of disorderly gossip and conversation occurring during the worship services of his time. He could not have meant that women were to be silent on all things because women were allowed to prophesy and pray in church, as he recognized in 1 Corinthians 11:5. Moreover, unmarried women were facially exempt from Paul's admonition. However, Loyalists accept that women should be submissive, as in marriage, to preserve order in the church.

In 1 Timothy 2:11-15, Paul wrote that "a woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing--if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety." Thus, Paul again set forth the submissive role of women in the church, adding that this order was established by the fall of mankind. However, Paul could not have meant that women were saved only by becoming wives and mothers, as this contradicts his message in Ephesians 2:8: "It is by grace you have been saved, though faith--and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast."

Generally, Loyalists interpret this passage in two different ways. Paul may have meant that women who have faith need not be anxious to suffer pain or death during childbirth (which was not uncommon in Paul's time), as they will be saved from Eve's curse. Alternatively, Paul may have intended to refer to spiritual childbirth. In particular, although Eve condemned women in Eden, Mary redeemed women with her crucial role in Christ's birth.102 In addition, Paul could not have meant that women should not take any teaching or authoritative role, because they were allowed to prophesy in the services which he conducted. Moreover, Paul acknowledged that his pupil, Timothy, had been taught of the Scriptures from his mother and grandmother.103 

Loyalists also point out that as Paul declared, "God appointed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues,"104 the New Testament provides examples of women holding all of these positions.105 Finally, the context of this passage is important: Paul referred to a group of untrained Ephesian women who tended to domineer the men in the church and spread false teachings.

As an overriding theme, Loyalists emphasize the fundamental equality of the sexes in the church. As Paul wrote to the Galatian church, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."106 Order based on gender, thus, is necessary for the human world in marriage and in church, but is ultimately unnecessary in perfect communion with God.


The Bible is full of passages describing women who take authoritative roles in the greater society. Loyalists point to the Old Testament depictions of Deborah, the judge who later led Israel to military victory; the Queen of Sheba, the ruler who traveled a great distance to came to trade with and learn from King Solomon; and Esther, the queen who valiantly exposed a scheme to murder the Jews.107 The New Testament also contains positive descriptions of women in early Christian society, including Lydia, a successful businesswoman who became the first Christian convert in Europe; and Priscilla, a respected teacher in Corinth and Ephesus.108 

Many Loyalists cite the portrait of the noble and godly woman in Proverbs 31:10-31 as evidence that the Bible encourages women to be equals in society. In this passage, the female protagonist appears to be the primary breadwinner in her home.109 She is described as hardworking and makes wise business decisions on her own.110 She is also characterized as physically strong and intellectually proficient.111 She is charitable and active in her community.112 She is able to teach others and is well-respected in her society.113 In addition, her husband arises to praise her for her noble character and good works.114 This chapter in Proverbs thus indicates the Bible's allowance for women to participate in leadership outside of the church. Any gender differentiation or hierarchy prescribed for marriage and the church does not appear to rigidly translate into the outside world. In fact, such interpretations of scripture have met relatively slight resistance from traditional Christian theologians. For example, even conservative officials of the Vatican have advocated equality for women holding careers outside of the home for a considerable number of years.115 

In conclusion, Loyalist interpretations of scripture present a redemptive stance for a heavily criticized and misunderstood Bible. The Loyalist school appears to reconcile a primary goal of feminism in eradicating inequality between the sexes with the principles of Christianity, one of which being that God created male and female. Although some gender difference is presupposed by the Loyalists, critical interpretation of Biblical text reveals that God intended for men and women to receive basic equal rights and privileges. Moreover, differentiation of roles occurs only in the family and church spheres, where the secular law tends to avoid regulation.


1 See Plato, TIMAEUS 57 (H.D.P. Lee trans., 1965).

2 Id.

3 Id. at 58.

4 Id. at 120.

5 Mustafa K. Kasubhai, Destabilizing Power in Rape: Why Consent Theory in Rape Law is Turned on its Head, 11 WIS. WOMEN'S L.J. 37, 47 (Summer 1996).

6 See Plato, THE REPUBLIC OF PLATO (Francis M. Cornford trans., 1941).

7 Id. at 454.

8 United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515, 116 S.Ct. 2264, 2287 (1996) (citing Beryl J. Levine, Closing Comments, 6 L. & INEQUALITY 41 (1988)).

9 Plato, THE REPUBLIC 454 (W.H.D. Rouse, trans., 1956).

10 See id. at 156.

11 See Jenny Wald, Outlaw Mothers, 8 HASTINGS WOMEN'S L.J. 169, 172 (Winter 1997).

12 See Plato, THE DIALOGUES OF PLATO 331 (Benjamin Jowett trans., 1975).

13 Id. See also Susan M. Okin, WOMEN IN WESTERN POLITICAL THOUGHT 1-50 (1979).

14 See Aristotle, HISTORY OF ANIMALS 93 (A.L. Peck trans., 1970).

15 Aristotle, THE POLITICS 7 (Stephen Iverson trans., 1988).

16 See id. at 2.

17 Aristotle, ON THE GENERATION OF ANIMALS (A. L. Peck trans., 1963).

18 See Aristotle, supra note 15 at 7?9. See also Wald, supra note 11 at 173 ("Essentially, the major role of the female sex is to produce the 'matter' for the state. Women are tied to the family and home in order to preserve the political order of society. Confined to the private role of mother, women are kept out of the public sphere, and they are placed in a subservient position to men. Both Plato and Aristotle adhere to the idea that gender is determined by biology, and that the essence of being a woman in society is a mere reflection of the natural inferiority of the female sex in reproduction.").

19 See Aristotle, supra note 15 at 8.

20 For the Biblical account of Rahab, see Joshua 2:1-24.

21 See Genesis 38:1-30.

22 See Esther 4:1-8:17.

23 See Judges 4:1-5:31.

24 See Ruth 1:1-4:15.

25 See 1 Kings 21:1-29.

26 Sirach 42:13-14.

27 Philo, THE SPECIAL LAWS 3.178 (F.H. Colson trans., 1968).

28 Philo, ON THE CREATION 165-166 (F.H. Colson trans., 1968).

29 Philo, supra note 27 at 3.169.

30 Josephus, AGAINST APION 2.25 (William Whiston trans., 1849). 

31 See Josephus, ANTIQUITIES OF THE JEWS 4.815 (William Whiston trans., 1849).

32 See Paul K. Jewett, MAN AS A MALE AND FEMALE: A STUDY IN SEXUAL RELATIONS 154-156 (1975).

33 Andrew M. Greeley and Mary G. Durkin, HOW TO SAVE THE CATHOLIC CHURCH 135 (1984).

34 See Wald, supra note 11 at 173 (citing Marina Warner, ALONE OF ALL HER SEX 58 (1976)).

35 Rosemary Radford Ruether, Misogynism and Virginal Feminism in the Fathers of the Church, in RELIGIONS AND SEXISM: IMAGES OF THE WOMEN IN THE JEWISH AND CHRISTIAN TRADITIONS 157 (R.R. Ruether, ed., 1974) (citing Tertullian, DE CULTU FEMINARIUM, I, 1).

36 See Elaine Pagels, ADAM, EVE, AND THE SERPENT 113-114 (1988) (citation omitted).

37 See Greeley and Durkin, supra note 33.

38 Augustine, CONFESSIONS Bk. 6 (Edward B. Pusey trans., 1949).

39 See, e.g., Courtney W. Howland, The Challenge of Religious Fundamentalism to the Liberty and Equality Rights of Women: An Analysis Under the United Nations Charter, 35 COLUM. J. TRANSNAT'L L. 271, 377 (1997).

40 Thomas Aquinas, SUMMA THEOLOGICA, Prima Secundae: Quaestio XCII, Art. 1 (Robert J. Henle trans. & ed., 1993).

41 See id. at IIIa, Quaestio XXXI, Art. 4.

42 See Jean Calvin, COMMENTARIES ON THE EPISTLES OF PAUL TO THE GALATIANS AND EPHESIANS 231, 317 (David W. Torrance & Thomas F. Torrance eds. & T.H.L. Parker trans., 1965); Stanley Ayling, JOHN WESLEY 218 (1979).

43 See, e.g., See Lucinda J. Peach, From Spiritual Descriptions to Legal Prescriptions: Woman as "Fetal Container" in the Law, 10 J. L. & RELIGION 73, 76 (1993?94) ("In contrast with Eve, Mary... has represented such qualities as purity, celibacy, chastity, asexuality, passivity, receptivity, and submissiveness.").

44 See Warner, supra note 34 at 185.

45 See Wald, supra note 11 at 174.

46 See Aquinas, supra note 26, at IIIa, Quaestio XXVII, Art 5.

47 Id.

48 John H. Arnold, Clergy Sexual Malpractice, 8 U. FLA. J.L. OF PUB. POL'Y 25, 31 (Falll 1996).

49 See generally Rodney Stark, THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY (1996).


51 Id. at 111.


53 For a discussion on Helie's interpretation of a Pauline teaching, see id. at 140.

54 See Carolyn Osiek, The Feminist and the Bible: Hermeneutical Alternatives, in FEMINIST PERSPECTIVES ON BIBLICAL SCHOLARSHIP 93 (Adela Yarbro Collins ed., 1985).

55 Amy Miles, Feminist Theories of Interpretation: The Bible and the Law, 2 GEO. MASON U. L. REV. 305, 309 (Spring 1995).


57 Id. at 10-11.

58 See id. at 307.

59 Id.

60 Id.


62 THE WOMEN'S BIBLE COMMENTARY 5 (Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds., 1992). Heretofore, this commentary will be referred to as WOMEN'S BIBLE.

63 See id. at 309.

64 Lerner, supra note 52 at 164 (citing Program of Women's National Liberal Union Convention, Feb. 24-25, 1890).

65 Kassian, supra note 61 at 222.

66 See id. at 308.

67 See Osiek, supra note 54 at 98.


69 Id.

70 ROOT OF BITTERNESS: DOCUMENTS OF THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF AMERICAN WOMEN (Nancy F. Cott et al., eds., 1996) (reprinting Frances Willard, The Dawn of Woman's Day, in OUR DAY: A RECORD AND REVIEW OF CURRENT REFORM 2, No. 11 345-360 (November 1888)).

71 WOMEN'S BIBLE, supra note 62 at xiii (citing Frances E. Willard, WOMAN IN THE PULPIT 31 (1889)).

72 See Lerner, supra note 52 at 142-143.


74 Id. at 61.

75 See Kassian, supra note 61 at 179.

76 See Susan Cady, Marian Ronan and Hal Taussig, WISDOM'S FEAST: SOPHIA IN STUDY AND CELEBRATION 11 (1989).

77 Id. at 309; WOMEN'S BIBLE, supra note 62 at 4.

78 Eliot Deutsch, INTRODUCTION TO WORLD PHILOSOPHIES 453-454 (1997) (reprinting Rosemary Radford Ruether, SEXISM AND GOD-TALK: TOWARD A FEMINIST THEOLOGY (1993)).

79 See Kassian, supra note 61 at 110-111.

80 See Judith Plaskow, The Coming of Lilith, in RELIGION AND SEXISM: IMAGES OF WOMEN IN THE JEWISH AND CHRISTIAN TRADITIONS 341-343 (Rosemary Radford Ruether ed., 1974).

81 See Kassian, supra note 61 at 114.

82 For the Biblical account, see Judges 19.

83 Lerner, supra note 52 at 165.

84 Miles, supra note 55 at 308.

85 See Rosemary Radford Ruether, A Method of Correlation, FEMINIST INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE 115 (Letty Russell ed., 1985).


87 Id.

88 Deutsch, supra note 78 at 449.

89 Kassian, supra note 61 at 144.

90 Id. at 144-145.

91 Ephesians 5:22-24.

92 Ephesians 5:25-28.

93 See Ephesians 5:21.

94 See Romans 13:1-2.

95 For a detailed linguistic discussion of Ephesians 5:21-33, see Bristow, supra note 50 at 32-47.

96 1 Peter 3:5-7.

97 See Genesis 18:12.

98 For example, Sarah commands Abram to build a family through her maidservant Hagar in Genesis 16:2. Later, Sarah orders Hagar to leave the camp in Genesis 16:5-6. In both instances, Abram takes a passive role.

99 Genesis 2:18.

100 1 Corinthians 12:22-23, 25.

101 1 Corinthians 14:33-35.

102 For a detailed discussion on the many interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:15, see Bristow, supra note 50 at 75-77 and Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger, I SUFFER NOT A WOMAN (1992).

103 See 2 Timothy 1:5.

104 1 Corinthians 12:28.

105 See, e.g., Aida Besancon Spencer, BEYOND THE CURSE: WOMEN CALLED TO MINISTRY 96-120 (1985).

106 Galatians 3:28.

107 For historical portraits of these and other women of the Old and New Testaments, see Edith Deen, ALL OF THE WOMEN OF THE BIBLE (1983).

108 Id.

109 See Proverbs 31:13-10, 23-25, 27. Although her husband served as a religious leader, she likely earned more money from her clothing business and real estate investments.

110 See Proverbs 31:16, 18, 27.

111 See Proverbs 31:17, 25-26.

112 See Proverbs 31:20.

113 See Proverbs 31:26, 28-31.

114 See Proverbs 31:10-12, 28-31.

115 See, e.g., Bishops from Around the World Meet with Vatican Officials, AGENCE-FR. PRESSE, February 9, 1999.

Rhoda J. Yen is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center.  She is currently an attorney in Jones, Foster, Johnston & Stubbs, P.A. in West Palm Beach, where she practices commercial litigation and employment law.  She also teaches Constitutional Law as an adjunct professor at Florida Atlantic University.