August 22, 2017

The Flawed Hermeneutics of Evangelical Feminism

Andy and Erika Merkle

NovDec2013-cover192x250We don’t have women pastors in our churches. But those who do might not be the liberals you imagine. Some are Evangelicals, people who hold to a true gospel, salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We call them evangelical feminists.[1] And not only does their view affect who can fill the role of pastor, but it also determines how men and women function in marriage. Moreover, they claim their position is firmly supported by a conservative interpretation of Scripture. This article aims to expose evangelical feminists’ faulty support for their positions in contrast to the hermeneutics we practice as complementarians.[2]

Dissecting Hermeneutical Faults

The evangelical feminists’ hermeneutic can appear very reasonable at first glance.[3] However, a close look at their interpretations reveals several repeated errors, the four most common represented below with examples.

Redefinition or mistranslation of key terms and phrases.

Concerning the term “help”[4] in Genesis 2:18, Gilbert Bilezikian argues that this term does not imply any subordination. Rather it shows Adam’s need for a “rescuer.”[5] Furthermore, illustrating one side of the most prominent debate in the gender-role controversy, Rebecca Groothuis (and many others) argues that the Greek term kephale (head) in 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23 does not hold any connotation of authority, but instead means “source” or “origin” exclusively.[6]

Dismissal of legitimate conclusions from narratives.

Complementarian scholars maintain that when Adam named Eve in Genesis 2:23 he demonstrated his Godordained headship in their relationship, just as Adam did when he named the animals.[7] However, feminist Richard Hess simply writes that “the text nowhere states that the man exercised authority over the animals by naming them. … There is no obvious way in which the man exercised any authority over either the animals or the woman.”[8]

Appeal to historical reconstruction to avoid the clear authorial intent.

Gilbert Bilezikian dismisses Paul’s argument in 1 Timothy 2:13, 14: “The fact that Adam was created first is meaningless for the ministry of teaching in the church.”[9] He subsequently argues that the only reason Paul acknowledges Adam’s creation prior to Eve is to connect it to her deception by the serpent, concluding that she was more vulnerable because “as the latecomer, she did not have the training God had provided to face the tempter.”[10]

Fabrication of an unspecified context.

Evangelical feminists emphasize the need that “individual Bible verses be interpreted in light of both their immediate literary context and the larger context of the teaching of the Bible as a whole.”[11] While this principle is hermeneutically sound, the feminist applications of it and frequent context invention result in interpretations that are far different from those of complementarians. For example, Gilbert Bilezikian relegates Paul’s prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:11–15 to specific instructions to the Ephesian church “in a state of terminal crisis,”[12] not timeless instructions for all churches. This interpretation is invalid because we simply have no information indicating that the Ephesian church was in such a state. Furthermore, such an approach could lead us to dismiss any of Paul’s instructions in the book.

Discerning Some Deeper Hermeneutical Problems

Three additional hermeneutical practices of evangelical feminists are even more disturbing. First, they marginalize male headship texts while claiming that we make our position a central doctrine. Gordon Fee insists that a “patriarchal” view is supported only by “implication” and “incidental evidence,” not by “explicit statements in Scripture,” while also arguing that complementarians make their position a “basic” and “primary” theological construct on the level of the doctrines of universal sin or justification by faith.[13] This sort of argumentation simultaneously misrepresents both the teaching of Scripture and the position of complementarians.

Second, evangelical feminists make complementarians out to be legalists. Singling out Galatians 3:28, evangelical feminists argue that a modern adherence to any New Testament commands reflecting a gender hierarchy in the church or home destroys the equality of grace. According to Gordon Fee, complementarians practice “a new form of pharisaic legalism”[14] by turning “ad hoc biblical imperatives into a form of Christian law requiring observance.”[15] Thus, Fee demonstrates how evangelical feminists fail to harmonize male headship texts with a theology of grace. For them, gospel equality must mean functional equality.

Lastly, a study of evangelical feminist writings yields a probing question: Which came first, the evangelical feminists’ hermeneutics or their convictions?[16] Though the answer may vary for individuals, Rebecca Groothuis unintentionally reveals the progression of her belief system: “Many who are evangelical feminists today, myself included, used to believe in the ‘chain of command’ for no reason other than that they believed the Bible taught it—even though they did not like the idea and even though they found the secular case for women’s equality appealing.”[17] She fails to admit that she interprets the Bible with presuppositions. This tendency is the most sobering fact of evangelical feminism—sobering, because it represents a real possibility for any student of Scripture.

Applications

Determining the hermeneutical faults of evangelical feminists can prove challenging. Even more difficult, though, is appropriately and consistently reflecting God’s image as men and women in our respective roles. We dare not point out others’ faults without scrutinizing ourselves even more closely (Matt. 7:3–5).

Christian men, be Christlike servant leaders, not dictatorial authoritarians, by taking responsibility for the spiritual and physical welfare of those whom God has placed in your care at home and church (John 13:1–5; Eph. 5:25–32; Col. 3:19). Honor the women in your life as fellow-creations in the image of God and fellow-heirs of the grace of God (1 Pet. 3:7).

Christian women, follow the men God has placed in leadership roles in your life by imitating Christ’s submission to His Father and the church’s position of subjection to Christ (John 4:34; Eph. 5:22–24; Col. 3:18). Make much of God’s gifts and talents to you and the opportunities you have to influence others for Him. Pastors, preach functional gender difference and the equality of the sexes—all within the framework of man’s creation in the image of God and re-creation in the image of Christ (Gen. 1:26, 27; 2 Cor. 5:17). Encourage men and women to depend upon the grace of Christ to better reflect that image. Fellowbelievers, be careful not to arrive at Scripture with an idea you wish to prove or legitimize. Let the Bible speak first, interpret it skillfully, then heed it well (James 1:22).


Andy and Erika Merkle and their children live in Decatur, Illinois, where Andy serves as the assistant pastor at East Park Baptist Church.

  1. Evangelical feminists, unlike radical feminists, believe that men and women are created equal and that all believers are equal in Christ. However, like radical feminists, they deny anything other than a physiological difference between men and women. No gender hierarchy indicating a unique male leadership role is allowed in the home or the church. Evangelical feminists refer to themselves as egalitarians, “equalitarians,” or Biblical feminists. Prominent evangelical feminist authors include Gilbert Bilezikian, Gordon D. Fee, and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. []
  2. Complementarians believe that men and women, created in God’s image, are equally valuable but functionally different in marriage and the church. Prominent works include Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More than One Hundred Disputed Questions (Sisters, OR: 2004); Andreas J. Köstenberger and David W. Jones, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010). Complementarians are distinct from strict patriarchalists, who believe the Bible urges men to exercise an authoritarian style of leadership in the home and church and, for some, in all spheres of life. See the teachings of Vision Forum, Michael Pearl, and Bill Gothard. []
  3. Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War between Traditionalism and Feminism (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1997), 112–14. Groothuis describes the “Biblical feminist hermeneutic” with eight principles, including sensing authorial intent, translating Scripture accurately, using the analogy of Scripture, and giving attention to a text’s receptor situation and culture. []
  4. While the word “help” doesn’t in itself point to male headship, the entire sentence clearly does. Eve was created as a helper for Adam, not vice versa, Paul’s precise point of argumentation in 1 Corinthians 11:9. []
  5. Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says about a Woman’s Place in Church and Family, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 22. []
  6. Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 151–52. []
  7. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 462. []
  8. Richard S. Hess, “Equality with and without Innocence: Genesis 1–3,” in Discovering Biblical Equality, ed. Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 87. []
  9. Bilezikian, 243, n. 42a. []
  10. Ibid. Mounce, however, argues that vv. 13 and 14 supply two distinct reasons for the prohibition of vv. 11 and 12 on the basis that “this is the most natural reading of the verse, primarily because its syntax so closely parallels that of v 13.” He also argues that the egalitarian interpretation of these verses reads into the text an unsubstantiated assumption about Ephesian culture, namely, that the women were uneducated. Furthermore, Eve states in Genesis 3 that she had received instruction from God regarding the tree. William D. Mounce, Word Biblical Commentary, 46: Pastoral Epistles (Thomas Nelson, 2000), 136–43. []
  11. Groothuis, Good News, 149. []
  12. Bilezikian, 132. []
  13. Gordon Fee, “Hermeneutics and the Gender Debate,” in Pierce and Groothuis, 373–78. []
  14. Ibid., 381. []
  15. Ibid., 373. []
  16. Andreas J. Köstenberger, “Gender Passages in the NT: Hermeneutical Fallacies Critiqued,” Westminster Theological Journal 56:2 (fall 1994): 261–63. Köstenberger’s article is an extremely valuable comprehensive analysis going far beyond the scope of this article. []
  17. Groothuis, Women Caught, 120, emphasis mine. []


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