Christian Feminist Theological Ethics

Cristina L. H. Traina

As Hilde Lindemann has written, ‘Feminist ethics isn’t a branch of ethics – it’s a way of doing ethics’ (Lindemann 2019: 7). Likewise, Christian feminist theological ethics is not a branch of Christian theology and ethics, it is a way of doing Christian theology and ethics. The most basic description of Christian feminist ethics is that it promotes women’s holistic flourishing by considering the right and the good from the viewpoint of women’s distinctive experiential and intellectual wisdom. Most Christian feminist ethics is also liberationist, believing that Christ’s victory over sin comes with the grace to overcome earthly oppression in both world and church. Specifically, Christian feminist ethicists seek to correct and redress Christian androcentrism: the assumption that men who are cisgender – born male-bodied and identifying as men – and heterosexual – attracted to women – are the paradigm or standard for humanity. This assumption yields beliefs, practices, and attitudes that oppress other genders.

The article below surveys the field from a North American white queer Catholic feminist perspective, with an emphasis on the half-century between the early 1970s and the early 2020s, acknowledging that many more authors and trends could have been included. It begins by exploring the historical context of twentieth- to twenty-first-century Christian feminist ethics. Next, it describes feminist approaches to the four main sources of Christian ethics: experience, scripture, tradition, and reason. It then lays out two basic methodological options. After exploring the mark Christian feminists have made on three representative discussions in ethics, it touches on three lingering tensions in the field.

1 Introduction

Like feminist systematic theology, Christian feminist theological ethics reasons from the fundamental theological affirmation that people of all genders equally embody God’s image, and from the realistic acknowledgement that Christian theology, ethics, liturgy, and community practice have contradicted this fundamental belief. Thus, Christian feminists focus on criticizing the anti-feminist elements of these traditions, critically retrieving elements considered valid within a feminist perspective, and constructing new ethical arguments. In addition to applying this approach to all the issues that have characterized non-feminist ethics, Christian feminist ethics has shone a spotlight on previously under-theorized topics in ethics, including the following: embodiment; pregnancy, maternity, and parenthood; trauma; the implications of coercive power dynamics for relations between unequals; effects of structural injustice and plain human finitude on the effort to be a virtuous person; the connection between care and justice; and implications of intersectional interpretations of gender for worker justice, ecology, bioethics, and political violence. Because feminist theology applies a moral hermeneutic of gender equality to all elements of Christian theology and tradition, there is no strict division between feminist theology and feminist theological ethics, and this article will not make one.

Like secular feminist ethics, Christian feminist ethics has insisted that the personal, intimate, and familial are not just linked to the political and social sphere but are political and social phenomena, and vice versa. Epistemologically, feminist theological ethics embraces standpoint theory: knowledge, which bears the mark of the knower’s social, cultural, economic, and political position, is plural and never neutral. Thus, to correct male bias in Christian moral knowledge, Christian feminist ethics critically interprets Christian ethical texts and traditions through the lens of women’s experience, including humanistic, psychological, biological, and social scientific accounts. In this way, Christian feminists have altered the standards for adequate moral argument in ethics. Finally, many scholars of colour reject the feminist appellation because of its associations with white feminism. These scholars are included here because of their critical engagement with white feminisms – which white feminist ethicists are increasingly taking up – and their central affirmation of gender equity.

This description rapidly becomes complex when one asks what, or who, is a woman? Is it a matter of being born with female sex organs? Is it a matter of inhabiting female gender roles socially and emotionally? Do male and female exhaust the possibilities for human identity? The variety of ways in which cultures live out gender difference complicates these questions, which remain unresolved in Christian feminism and in this article. Nevertheless, in this article, reference to ‘all genders’ rather than ‘both genders’ signals that feminist critiques destabilize rigid gender distinctions.

2 Historical context

In the Global North, the development of Christian feminist theological ethics roughly corresponds to the four ‘waves’ of northern cultural and political feminism. Often viewed as successive – as if each were an advance on the last, and as if feminism in all cultures must pass through them sequentially – these waves instead overlap. They appear in diverse orders and at different moments in different global contexts, and older waves endure after new ones appear.

First-wave feminists – their inspiration often traced to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) – gained momentum in the mid-nineteenth century on both sides of the North Atlantic. These (almost exclusively white) feminists emphasized abolition and women’s political equality, including the right to vote. Many were difference feminists who argued that women’s innate compassion and moral purity would transform the corrupt, masculine political landscape, an argument that Christian feminist peace activists like the German theologian Dorothee Sölle revived (rooting it more in women’s social experience than in their biological nature) in the 1980s. Early twentieth-century post-Christians like Swedish author Ellen Key also followed this model. American Quaker abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimke exemplify this approach too. Yet others in this wave, like Black American feminist Sojourner Truth, emphasized the similarities between men and women.

Second-wave feminists emerged in the 1960s, inspired in the US by Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (1963) and in both the US and Europe by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (published in 1949 and translated into English in 1953). Now viewing gender justice primarily as women’s access to men’s social and economic privileges, they expanded reformist calls for women’s equality from suffrage to equal education, employment, and compensation, freedom from domestic abuse, and sexual and reproductive autonomy, among other issues, most of which are still central for feminists globally. Inspired by US psychologist Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice (1982), second-wave feminists also lifted up new, more relational, less individualistic theories of moral development that challenged standard androcentric, rationalistic models like Lawrence Kohlberg’s The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice (1981) or Jean Piaget’s The Moral Judgment of the Child (1932).

US theology student Valerie Saiving’s ‘The Human Situation: A Feminine View’ (1960) and US theologian Mary Daly’s early work The Church and the Second Sex (1968) set the stage for second-wave feminist theology by US authors like Rosemary Radford Ruether, Letty Russell, Beverly Wildung Harrison, and Lisa Sowle Cahill, and German theologians Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel – some of whom have drawn upon European political theology (for instance, Jürgen Moltmann) and Latin American theology of liberation (for instance, Gustavo Gutiérrez) to give women’s social liberation an eschatological horizon.

Like first-wave feminists, Global North second-wave feminists have been mostly white. While also calling for race, class, disability, and LGBTQ+ justice, white feminists’ primary focus on gender justice – which leads to the critique that they universalize white experience of gender – has led to divisions among them and between them and Global North women of colour, some of whom consequently renounce the title ‘feminist’. Second-wave concerns about women’s basic welfare remain central for feminist theologians of colour in the Global South, however. In this strand especially, most scholars cover all bases rather than specializing: biblical hermeneutics, liturgy, systematic theology, and theological ethics.

Emerging in the 1990s, secular third wave feminism continued an emphasis on gender justice while embracing more diverse, inclusive, sex-positive visions of femininity and feminism. It also adopted an increasingly intersectional understanding of oppression (expanding on US legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s influential article ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex’, 1989): structural gender, race, sex, class, ethnic, environmental, and other injustices interact, often exponentially, to oppress women differently. This intersectional, structural critique not only confirmed standpoint theory but amplified calls for radical social change pressed earlier by feminists of colour and lesbian feminists. Formative texts – some of which the white, cisgender, heterosexual second wave had sidelined – include US philosopher Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1989), Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva’s ‘Stabat Mater’ (1985), Black American poet and activist Audre Lorde’s The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power (1984), and US Chicana theorists Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s edited collection This Bridge Called My Back (1981).

Although feminist theology often lags behind secular feminism, authors like Black US ethicist Katie Cannon (Black Womanist Ethics, 1988) anticipated the trend. Brazilian theologian Ivone Gebara (Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation, 1999), Cuban American theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz (En la Lucha/In the Struggle: Elaborating a Mujerista Theology, 1993), and Argentinian theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid (Indecent Theology, 1993) also exemplify ethically-minded theologians not just decrying intersectional oppression but cultivating intentionally diverse, context-specific modes of thought. This group also includes postcolonial and decolonial feminists like Botswana’s Musa Dube (Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, 2000) and Hong Kong’s Kwok Pui-lan (Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology, 2005), some of whom work primarily in a critical, deconstructive mode (see also section 4).

Fourth wave feminism, emerging in the 2010s, is still taking shape. At the time of this writing it distinguishes itself from the third wave in two ways. The first is its expansive vision of gender, gender relations (marriage, for example), and gender ideals; British theologian Susannah Cornwall’s Un/familiar Theology: Reconceiving Sex, Reproduction and Generativity (2017) exemplifies this trend. The second is its digital and activist mode. In theological ethics, some feminist scholars cultivate a significant presence in blogs and publications intended for general audiences alongside traditional modes of scholarly publication; US theologians M. T. Dávila and Emily Reimer-Berry are prominent examples.

Methodologically, Christian feminist theological ethicists have a complex relationship to three current models of moral norms and obligations. Even though they embrace standpoint epistemology, they typically reject moral relativism (which roots moral obligation solely in a person’s attraction to the values, commitments, and customs that a particular community happens to hold) for three reasons. First, fidelity to Christianity is not optional or negotiable for Christian feminists. Second, neither is commitment to women’s welfare optional or negotiable. Third, the values that a community ‘happens to hold’ are frequently misogynist.

This rejection of relativism suggests that feminist ethicists are moral realists (asserting that a coherent body of moral truths exists independently of human desire or invention), a position which dovetails nicely with Christian belief in a divine moral order calibrated to the given goodness of created, earthly, embodied, relational human reality. Because of its interest in women’s flourishing, including the defence of women’s rights, most Christian feminist ethics contains a degree of realism (some Anglican and Roman Catholic feminists even critically retrieve natural law ethics).

However, feminist realists also insist that human understanding of real moral norms is always evolving and that structural sin (unjust practices built into customs and institutions) can make some theoretically coherent obligations incompatible in practice: for instance, paying for childcare while working becomes impossible when women’s wages are depressed and childcare is unsubsidized. Thus, third and fourth wave Christian feminist ethics also tends to exhibit a degree of pluralism, including both the idea that real, morally obligating goods and norms are often mutually incompatible and the idea that different religious communities might install these real obligations in different frameworks. Feminist theological ethics must be pluralistic to a degree, because it is contextual. Consequently, most Christian feminists fall somewhere on the spectrum between realism and pluralism.

3 Sources and interpretation

Christian feminists’ first task is critical. They must distinguish and retrieve authentic equality-affirming strands and interpretations of Christian sources from oppressive strands and interpretations before they can use these sources in constructive work. They share their sources – scripture, Christian tradition, experience, and critical reason – with other approaches to Christian ethics. They differ in their hermeneutic – theory of interpretation – of these sources. First, the scriptural and theological affirmation of all genders’ equal creation in the full image of God – and equal deservingness of flourishing – guides their reading of all sources. Second, as a corrective to the (usually implicit, unreflective) male bias of most historical theological sources, feminist ethicists explicitly and intentionally read scripture, theological tradition, and reason through the lens of female – or at least non-male – experience.

3.1 Critical retrieval of experience

3.1.1 Personal experience and standpoint

Personal experience, the informal knowledge of the world that all people acquire by living, is an element of every ethic. Before the mid-to-late twentieth century, most white male ethicists assumed that their viewpoints were neutral and believed that their experiences confirmed common sense. Those who explicitly incorporated their own experience into their arguments did so, paradoxically, as a means of convincing readers of the universally applicable insights that it provided. Thus, the perspectival uniqueness of their social locations and individual histories remained an unacknowledged factor in their moral reasoning. Feminist ethicists insist that because standpoint – or social location – shapes all experience, yielding diverse moral perspectives, all theological ethicists should employ experience self-consciously and self-critically as an explicit source and norm in theological ethics. In particular, women’s individual, embodied, gendered experiences of their intersectional social locations provide insights not directly accessible to male thinkers.

In feminist theological ethics, therefore, women’s standpoints must correct the androcentric, elite bias of pre-twentieth-century theological ethics. To accomplish this, many feminists have adopted liberationist epistemologies. Although twentieth-century intellects like philosopher Simone de Beauvoir and theologians Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, and Johann Baptist Metz modelled the use of experience in ethical reflection to an extent, liberation theologians put critical reflection on experience at the centre of theology. Twentieth-century Black American, Latin American, and African liberation theology read the New Testament in light of the book of Exodus to argue that God is on the side of historically oppressed people. Injustice is not merely a matter of some individuals’ mistreatment of others but includes systemic evils that cause structural oppression of groups.

These oppressive mechanisms are more visible from the standpoint of their victims than they are from the standpoint of those who perpetuate them. For example, shifting public funds from public transportation to expressway construction is unnoticeable to people who can afford to drive cars and are unaware that their smoother, wider roads come at others’ expense. It is excruciatingly obvious to less well-off people who must bear the time cost of decreased bus and train service, the expense of increased fares, or both. Another example of this dynamic is the destruction of low-income communities to build expressways to begin with.

Liberation theologians dub this clarity of vision the epistemological privilege of the oppressed: because their standpoint gives them a clear view of the mechanisms of oppression, oppressed people’s critically-examined experience carries more weight in liberationist moral reflection than the experiences of the privileged men who shaped most confessional white Christian ethics (see also section 3.4). Likewise, because women experience gender oppression, feminist theological ethics of all varieties has considered women’s experiences not merely different from men’s but more consequential for ethics than men’s, particularly when the women are victims of multiple kinds of injustice, especially violence.

As noted below, feminists drawing on women’s experience have brought new perspectives to classic concerns of theological ethics like the body, work and labour, war, sexuality, abortion, and reproductive rights more generally. However, they have also robustly explored the ethics of childrearing and care work, for example, which male academic Christian ethicists had rarely addressed (with the exception of late nineteenth-century popular Christian male writers and contemporary organizations like the US Focus on the Family).

In addition, experiential differences among female scholars of ethics can lead to diversity in authors’ moral focus and expectations for social change. For instance, 160 years’ experience of structural racism, after the US abolition of legal enslavement, inspires many Womanist thinkers – like Delores Williams, Emilie Townes, and Katie Cannon – who also long and work for earthly liberation to nevertheless design their ethics for the demands of ongoing oppression. They and many feminists of colour focus on virtues and practices needed to survive amid human-caused suffering that seems unlikely to abate. Post-, de-, and anti-colonial feminist thinkers are likewise sceptical that racially tinged colonial oppression can ever be completely uprooted from Christian ethics. To the degree that Latina ethicists focus on the daily, ordinary struggle for personal and familial survival, they too emphasize the qualities needed to continue under oppressive circumstances (see also 6.3).

On the other hand, with the exception of radical separatists like Mary Daly, white feminists typically have been more optimistic that liberative equality can be achieved in home and society; they thus have often focused more on changing structures than on surviving injustice. This optimism reflects their privileged experience of effectiveness in relational, structural, and political change; their comparative lack of personal experience with (for example) racial and economic oppression also makes them likely to see the needed structural changes as simpler and less thoroughgoing and therefore more achievable. However, in recent years white Christian feminists like Mary McClintock Fulkerson, Kate Jackson-Meyer, and Kate Ward have drawn on the idea of moral luck elaborated by philosophers like Thomas Nagel and Lisa Tessman to articulate ethics for situations of ongoing injustice.

3.1.2 Formal interdisciplinary accounts of experience

In addition to reflecting on individuals’ lived experience, feminist ethicists make use of history and the social sciences to describe large-scale patterns of experience. Historical research puts flesh on practices, structures, and experiences no longer accessible to contemporary ethicists but crucial for understanding the settings of particular positions in theological ethics. For instance, both Margaret Kamitsuka (2019) and Beverly Wildung Harrison (1983) contextualize claims about the unbroken tradition of Christian opposition to abortion by pointing out that for centuries procedures meant to restore delayed menstruation – which contemporary Christians would consider abortive – were often acceptable. Likewise, data on poverty, sexual assault, abortion, and all other dimensions of women’s lives help to reveal the structural evils that lie behind individual women’s experiences, confirming analysis of the conditions that must be survived while being transformed.

The biological and psychological sciences too are important formal distillations of human experience. Christian theological anthropology has always relied on up-to-date knowledge about human biology and psychology. For example, St Augustine’s Confessions (1997) contains a nascent developmental psychology, and Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of temperance relied on Aristotelian notions of gender and reproduction as well as on medieval foodways (1948: II–II q. 141). Christian feminist ethics likewise employs contemporary biology and psychology to debunk theological claims about women’s defective and ‘misbegotten’ nature; qualify theological theories of gender premised on women’s and men’s absolute psychological and physical differences; assess and develop moral arguments around reproductive technologies, pregnancy, abortion, contraception, and post-partum health; and make the case that (for instance) same-sex attraction is a normally occurring variation in God’s creation of humanity. Ecofeminists – discussed below – employ economics, political science, toxicology, geology, meteorology, and other social, health, Earth, and atmospheric sciences to develop feminist social-environmental ethics.

For feminist theological anthropology, the body is as essential to the self as are the soul and the spirit. Human existence, including human religious existence, is profoundly embodied, and the welfare of body, mind, and spirit are interdependent. Consequently, physical and psychological health are two indispensable measures of human flourishing and therefore of justice. However, white Christian feminists caution against Western scientific institutions’ male bias; for instance, these institutions have treated white men as the standard in medical research and devoted comparatively less attention to health issues that affect only female-bodied women, like fibroids, women’s heart attack symptoms, and the triggers that bring on labour. Likewise, Womanist and postcolonial Christian feminists caution against these institutions’ injustices against women of colour; examples include involuntary sterilization, the fact that diagnostic equipment like pulse oximeters are calibrated for white skin, and immoral research such as J. Marion Sims’ experimental gynaecological surgery on enslaved Black women without anaesthesia or their consent. Finally, experience of extra-ecclesial sources like literature, music, and visual art provides resources for feminist ethics (see also section 3.3).

Thanks to this formal dimension of experience, many feminist ethicists are male. While they have no direct access to women’s experience and standpoints, male ethicists have increasingly drawn on women’s accounts of their own experience, engaged interdisciplinary analyses of women’s structural oppression and flourishing, and dedicated themselves to women’s equality and welfare, particularly by using their social power to inspire institutional transformation. Male feminists of recent decades include, for example, Indian scholar Shaji George Kochuthara, Nigerian ethicist Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, and US scholars David Matzko McCarthy, William C. Spohn, and Asian-American ethicists Hoon Choi and Jonathan Tran.

3.2 Critical retrieval of scripture

Feminist scriptural hermeneutics comprise a number of approaches, most of which feminist ethicists also apply to theological sources. They stem from the realization that, in the past, nearly all scriptural authors, redactors, transcribers, and interpreters have been men who privileged men’s stories and perspectives. The apparent exception is the female voice in the Song of Songs, which feminist theological ethicists like Patricia Beattie Jung (Sex on Earth as It Is in Heaven, 2017) cite as affirmation of the goodness of women’s sexual yearning and pleasure but which male theologians have traditionally interpreted as an allegory of God and the soul.

Feminist ethicists’ approaches to scripture are myriad; only a few approaches are highlighted here. First, female characters are unnamed, and still others who must have been essential to the narrative are completely absent from sagas dominated by male characters. Thus, as Mary Jo Weaver wrote, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her (1984) reappropriated scripture for feminist ethics by interpreting the New Testament in historical context ‘to reconstruct early Christian history as women’s history’ and by making biblical ‘women’s stories an integral part of the proclamation of the gospel, so as to rob the sacred text of its power to oppress women’ (Weaver 1984: 459). This strategy restores scriptural women to their prominent, precedent-setting place as leaders in early communities. In a different key, German theologian Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel rescued apparently unsalvageable patriarchal texts by reading them through biblical evidence of Jesus’ own feminism (1986). Overall, these approaches have justified early Christian women’s positions as theological authorities and as moral exemplars rather than as peripheral characters and even paradigms of immorality.

Feminist biblical scholars also test scripture by the criterion of female flourishing. As feminist biblical scholars like white US scholar Phyllis Trible, Austrian professor Irmtraud Fischer, and Black US scholar Renita Weems have written, Christians have often greeted biblical stories of violence against women with approbation or simply silence; by implication, they normalize anti-woman violence as good. Other feminist scholars have deployed the rabbinic tool of midrash, a speculative re-narration that fills in gaps in scriptural stories told primarily by, about, and for men. In Sexism and God-Talk (1983), Rosemary Radford Ruether’s midrash ‘The Kenosis of the Father’ reimagined scriptural accounts of salvation history from a feminist perspective. In Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (1993), Delores S. Williams drew on Hagar’s experience surviving surrogacy, enslavement, mistreatment, abandonment, and ejection to elaborate an ethic of ‘making a way out of no way’, empowered by divine accompaniment through an unforgiving desert wilderness. Wilda Gafney’s Womanist Midrash (2017) is a further example.

In addition, feminist ethicists cite God’s creation of men and women equally in God’s image (Gen 1), Paul’s eschatological eradication of the distinction between male and female (Gal 3:28), and Paul’s praise of and greetings to women leaders in his letters (Rom 16, for example) as evidence from revelation of women’s equal status with men before God. They tend to grant less authority to the deutero-Pauline letters (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, and Titus). In particular, they use the lens of equality and historical criticism to undercut the authority of 1 Timothy, which forbids women to teach or have authority over men (2:12); they also use the equality texts to qualify even genuine Pauline texts like 1 Cor 14:34, which admonishes women to keep silent in church, and 1 Cor 11:3–16, which admonishes women to cover their heads while worshiping in community.

Just as second-wave white feminist interpreters of the inherited scriptural text have worked to counter their androcentric bias, and feminist interpreters of colour have worked to counter their narration by the ‘victors’ of biblical narrative, queer feminist theologians like Great Britain’s Elisabeth Stuart have laboured to overcome heteronormative interpretations, in two very different ways. First, like Schüssler Fiorenza, they reconstruct accounts of queer love and non-binary identity within and behind the narrative. Second, as Kristine Meneses (2015) explains, rather than narrowing scriptural meaning to one normative (feminist) interpretation, queer approaches to scripture unsettle customary interpretations without removing them. Just as queerness blurs gender boundaries when it multiplies gender, queer interpreters welcome a wealth of hermeneutic approaches, embracing diverse interpretations without choosing among them. By refusing to decide on a normative reading, and by troubling readers’ assumptions about the texts’ heroes and villains, they encourage open-ended critical and self-critical exploration. This approach gives feminist thinkers a pathway to new uses of scriptural texts: for example, as sources of divinely inspired theological and moral questions rather than of revealed theological and moral answers. Queer approaches also preserve mystery as the limit of biblical interpretation and theology.

3.3 Critical retrieval of theological ethics

Section 2 plotted feminist ethics on the map of ethical relativism, realism, and pluralism. It can also be plotted against mid-twentieth-century Christian distinctions among deontological ethics, teleological ethics, and virtue theory.

Deontological, or rule-based, ethics focuses Christian life on obedience to revealed commandments, which provide a framework that guides sinful people on a holy path. Biblically-based deontological ethics – mostly Protestant – often begin with the Ten Commandments, elements of Levitical and Deuteronomic law, and the apostle Paul’s directives. In practice, mid-twentieth-century Catholic moral theology also functioned as a deontological ethic.

For several reasons, Christian feminists almost universally reject rule-based ethics as antifeminist. First, most male theologians have interpreted the sources above to establish strongly gendered rules that subordinate women to men. Second, these rules tend to be impervious to Christian feminists’ central criteria of women’s experience and flourishing. Third, without attention to context, they are also historically uncritical. Finally, they can reduce conscience to a matter of casuistry – determining which of many rules applies in complex circumstances – rather than a matter of responding justly and lovingly to persons and situations.

Feminists’ interest in virtue ethics has grown as they have reflected on Christianity as a way of being in the world rather than a set of rules to follow or a list of tasks to accomplish. Thomas Aquinas describes virtue as a habit that makes people tend to behave according to their true goal: union with God. Classically, this has meant graced growth in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (or love), which in turn assist human beings in their efforts to be prudent, just, temperate, and courageous. White US scholar Shannon Dunn (2013) has critically reinterpreted these virtues with attention to the strong influence that our communities – for better or for worse – have over our habits of behaviour, and white US ethicist Kate Ward (2021) deploys philosopher Lisa Tessman’s theory of burdened virtue (Burdened Virtues, 2005) to argue that suffering injustice harms our moral and spiritual selves as well as our bodily and social flourishing. Conversely, Womanist thinkers like Katie Geneva Cannon (1988) and Emilie M. Townes (2006) have mined literary and other cultural sources to argue that many of the self- and other-protecting behaviours that people develop in situations of injustice are virtues in those contexts, even though they would be vices for the socially privileged. Likewise, white US ethicist Beverly Wildung Harrison (1981) argued that anger is an appropriate response to unjust treatment; more recently, white ethicist Sarah MacDonald and Black ethicist Nicole Symmonds (MacDonald and Symmonds 2018) suggested that rioting might be virtuous behaviour in some situations of persistent, violent structural racism.

The most common framework for Christian feminist ethics is teleological ethics, which is about pursuit and realization of a goal. In historical Christian ethics, teleology has two (often interdependent) dimensions: the hope of union with God after death, and holistic earthly survival or flourishing. Although Orthodox and some Catholic feminists stress Christianity’s spiritual harm to women as an impetus to correct unjust practices within the churches, most Western Christian feminist ethics has focused primarily on earthly flourishing. From the Roman Catholic side, feminists employ the social justice dimensions of the Roman Catholic natural law tradition (Irish scholar Linda Hogan’s influential work on human rights, for example) and/or liberation theology’s pursuit of the reign of God to connect faith to the pursuit of earthly justice for women. For Protestant thinkers, liberationism and love of neighbour fuel a teleological approach. Importantly, the emphasis on salvation by grace through God’s unilateral merciful action eliminates the pursuit of heaven as an aim of Protestant feminist ethics. Finally, Christian feminists point out that patriarchal dualism – which associates maleness with pure, eternal spirit and femaleness with impure, decaying materiality – oppresses women and the Earth alike; saving the Earth means undoing patriarchy. Scholars from the US like Rosemary Radford Ruether and Sallie McFague, and Dorothee Sölle in Germany, began to make this case in the 1970s.

3.4 Critical reason

Critical use of philosophy has always been a staple of theological ethics. Feminist theological ethics critically employs both philosophy and theories arising from disciplines like literary criticism. The following examples are only a sampling.

First- and second-wave north Atlantic feminists relied heavily on the philosophical liberalism that laid the groundwork for democratic states. John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and other Enlightenment philosophers argued that persons’ equal dignity lay primarily in their ability to reason dispassionately. Authors like Harriet Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill (The Subjection of Women 1869) argued explicitly that, as fully rational persons, women are capable moral reasoners and competent moral agents. These claims issue in liberal – not to be confused with left-wing or progressive – Christian feminism, in which women’s aim is to exercise the same rights that men already possess, in recognition of their equal dignity and share in the image of God. This approach, which assumes that the social playing field is otherwise relatively level, has especially influenced white British and American Christian feminist ethics.

The feminist epistemological privilege of the oppressed, discussed above, comes from Marxist thought by way of liberation theology. Although Christian theology shuns Marx’s historical materialism – the idea that human history and ideas are driven by irresistible material economic forces – liberation theologians agree with Marx that enormous asymmetries of political and economic power lead to the systematic subjugation of many, often a majority, of the human community, and that the subjugated can together analyse, criticize, and resist the resulting structures of oppression. Christian theology adds two further dimensions. First, oppressors and oppressed are members of the same spiritual community, and thus injustice and its redress have spiritual and ecclesial dimensions. Thus, second, liberationist feminism engages in critical social analysis with the communal spiritual and practical welfare of the whole Christian community in mind: for women, for their ethnic or racial communities, and for all persons in poverty. Ghanaian theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye and Kenyan theologian Teresia Mbari Hinga – both founding members of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians – are prominent examples.

Michel Foucault and Judith Butler have recently influenced Christian feminist visions of sex and sexuality, particularly in the Global North. Foucault’s view of human sex and sexuality as cultural inventions has been useful for arguing that historic Christian sexual mores have arisen partly in response to social configurations of gender and sexuality that may no longer be in force. Judith Butler’s treatment of gender as performance – a social language of sorts – creates similar critical distance from essentialist understandings of sexual difference. In general, queer theory’s insistence that ‘woman’ is a social rather than a ‘natural’ category permits Christian feminist ethicists to treat gender as a powerful social reality without essentializing it.

The ethical implications of power differences are also central to feminist theological ethics. Although two people may be existential and ontological equals thanks to their common creation in the image of God, their different social positions inevitably grant one power over the other. Foucault’s vision of power as a relative, often gendered, gradient between persons in different social positions has been indispensable to Christian feminist analysis of labour, abuse, and other issues. For instance, in a society with a gendered pay gap, most women in heterosexual marriages are not only smaller and physically weaker than their partners but have less economic power; Christian feminist ethics illuminates this gap not just to redress the wage differential but to suggest structural protections for the less powerful partner.

In addition, because postcolonial theory (found in literary studies as well as in philosophy) emphasizes the ongoing deforming pressure of colonization on the nexus of religion, politics, race, sexuality, and economy in all societies, it is an important critical and self-critical tool for Christian feminist ethics. Likewise, critical theorists like Hortense Spillers (‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe’, 1987) are important resources for Womanist and white feminist ethicists seeking to undo the racist and colonial connotations of Western Christian ideals of womanhood.

Finally, Christian feminist ethics argue that moral reason exceeds logical verbal argument. For instance, drawing on philosopher Martha Nussbaum and theological ethicist James Gustafson, Diana Fritz Cates argues that emotions can be forms of moral knowing (2009); Wildung Harrison, MacDonald, and Symmonds, cited above, also draw on this insight.

4 Methodological approaches

Christian feminist theological ethics faces a methodological challenge that runs throughout the discussion above. The puzzle is continuity, or (in Christian terms) apostolicity. On one hand, feminists argue that the orthodox Christian belief that people of all genders embody God’s image equally constitutes an ethical mandate for their equal dignity and flourishing on Earth and in heaven. On the other hand, men’s denigration and oppression of all other genders seem to have been woven into the Christian scriptural, theological, and ecclesial tradition since its early days. Can feminists make use of sources so deeply infused with misogyny? If they distance themselves from such sources, in what sense is Christian feminist ethics still Christian? If they embrace them, even critically, in what sense is Christian feminist ethics genuinely feminist? Christian feminist ethicists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have taken two – often overlapping – approaches to these questions.

4.1 Reading outside the tradition

Feminists who seek moral guidance outside or alongside the Christian written moral tradition developed in the Global North still hold women’s dignity and welfare as central gospel norms, but they also argue that widely-read Christian sources and widely-adopted church practices undercut those norms so systematically that they are untrustworthy guides. For example, in many cases central Christian ethical texts and traditions explicitly oppress women – such as unconditional understandings of vows to love, honour, and obey a spouse, or common interpretations of Paul’s letter to Philemon, or Gal 3:28 (which says that Jesus erases the distinctions between slave and free, male and female in heaven but not in earthly life). These texts can oppress women implicitly as well. A good example of the latter is Valerie Saiving’s influential argument, mentioned above, that male theologians’ calls for Christic kenosis, or self-emptying, to overcome the sin of pride harms women who are already emptying themselves to the point of self-erasure; far from being too prideful, they instead need to assert themselves as moral agents (‘The Human Situation’, 1960). To make matters worse, these texts and traditions oppress along multiple axes simultaneously: for instance, gender, sexual orientation, migration status, race, class, and ability.

One feminist response that embraces the experiential, contextual, and plural dimensions of feminist theology is the construction of ethics from the writings and practices of women at particular intersections of oppression. Thus, as noted above, US Womanist theologian Katie Geneva Cannon (1988) turns first to Black women’s literary and musical traditions for virtues and practices that are life-giving for Black women living amid intersecting oppressions. Emilie M. Townes (2006) draws such virtues even from critical adoption of stereotypes promoted by anti-Black racist traditions. As noted already, Delores Williams (1993) correlates Black women’s contemporary experiences of injustice with those of the foreign slave woman Hagar, whom God accompanies through difficulty but does not fully liberate. Still others – like Ada María Isasi-Díaz (1993), who was inspired in part by Michel de Certeau – draw their theological ethic initially from lo cotidiano, Christian Latina women’s all-absorbing, creative, practical struggle to care daily for themselves and their families in oppressive circumstances. Musa Dube (2021) draws on the Zulu and Xhosa concept of ubuntu, or personhood-in-community. They all write from within Christian communities and for Christians, yet often with little or no reference to academic sources in Christian theological ethics from the Global North. In so doing, they authorize women’s real, contextual daily experience as an authentic source for theological ethics.

Second, post-, anti-, and decolonial feminist theologians point out that contemporary Christian practice and theology bear the inevitable imprint of six or more centuries of colonialism and conquest, which incorporated enslavement, rape, family dissolution, violence, displacement, forced conversion, cultural genocide, and other inhumanities both implicitly and explicitly into the normative moral tradition. These feminist ethicists are alert to the sometimes-faint traces of this reasoning in contemporary theology and ethics, particularly in Christian traditions around gender and sexuality. Theologians like Argentina’s Marcella Althaus-Reid (2000) have pointed out that even liberation theology – which inflects some of the feminist approaches below – often adopts a masculinist, oversimple saviour approach that purports to establish God’s ‘Kingdom’ on Earth.

This group of feminist ethicists tends to see their work as more critical than constructive; like forensic pathologists, they diagnose the oppressive, anti-feminist colonial ‘diseases’ that Christians uncritically and unwittingly inherit from their forebears. Like Hong Kong’s Kwok Pui-Lan, they typically aim to make others self-critically aware of the ways in which colonial thinking still inflects Christian ethics, and they may also bring post-colonial readings to scripture and other sources.

4.2 Reading with the tradition

Other Christian feminist ethicists resurrect liberative strands of the theological tradition that have been forgotten or deemphasized. Three approaches – outlined for systematic theology by American theologian Kathryn Tanner in 1997 and elaborated by Joy Ann McDougall in 2008 – engage confessional Christian theological texts directly in a constructive mode. All three approaches deploy their own confessional traditions’ authentic pro-feminist resources to redress their equally ingrained androcentrism. Although these approaches tend to characterize white feminist theology’s more singular focus on gender, they can be employed intersectionally.

First, some identify non-patriarchal precedents and traditions in scripture and early Christian history and build feminist theological ethics upon them. This method can entail arguing that there was a non-misogynist golden era before a ‘fall’ into patriarchal, Constantinian, institutional religion in the early fourth century, or at least that scripture and other early writings hold clues pointing to the existence of an early, non-misogynist Christian ethic. To some degree Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s work, mentioned above, takes this approach. From this point of view, Christian ethics deviated from these origins before the books that comprise the New Testament were redacted in canonical form, perhaps even before those books were written. Feminist theological ethics thus involves retrieval of these early elements for construction of an ethic more faithful to Christian origins.

Second, some embrace theological pluralism, arguing that two or more strands of theological and ethical reflection evolved in continuity with the early Christian community. In essence, there is more than one unbroken tradition. Thus, although the inherited misogynist strand can claim continuity and apostolicity, so can other strands that have since become more marginal. Feminist ethics can rediscover and redeploy these equally authentic, non-patriarchal, historic strands of theological and moral reflection. Thus, one might turn from ethics based in scholastic moral theology to seek insight in historic monastic biblical commentaries, art, sermons, or mystical poetry. Elizabeth Johnson’s (2002) retrieval of Sophia, or divine wisdom, is an example of this approach. Queer feminist theological ethics fits well here, seeking examples of queer holiness in the historical and theological record and multiplying strands and interpretations to emphasize the ongoing diversity and contextuality of theological ethics.

The third, and most common, approach is bringing new feminist readings to mainstays of patriarchal Christian ethics. For instance, in Womanist M. Shawn Copeland’s work (2018), the cross – often deployed to demand an unjust degree of self-sacrifice from women of colour in particular – becomes a symbol of God’s solidarity with humanity rather than of human oppression. In white US theologian Nancy Eiesland’s influential work The Disabled God (1994), Jesus’ wounded resurrection gives rise to a feminist theology and ethic of disability. US white feminist Lisa Sowle Cahill, British author Susan Frank Parsons, and US theologian and legal scholar M. Cathleen Kaveny have reinterpreted the Anglican and Roman Catholic natural law traditions along feminist lines.

Finally, a fourth approach sticks close to church prayer traditions, sometimes eschewing most formal writings in ethics and theology. For instance, Eastern Orthodox distaste for theological innovation discourages feminist ethicists from criticizing traditional theological sources. However, liturgical, iconographic, hagiographic, and devotional traditions are more deeply revered in Orthodoxy than in most strands of Western Christianity. As Ashley Purpura and Carrie Frederick Frost show, they are ripe for feminist reinterpretation that is both fresh and deeply rooted in tradition. And, because liturgical traditions are dynamic, feminist ethicists can encourage theologically and ethically significant feminist updates. For instance, the Orthodox Church in America’s prayers after miscarriage now focus on healing a woman’s suffering rather than asking forgiveness for her participation in manslaughter. Likewise, US Womanist ethicist Cheryl Kirk-Dugan and feminist ethicist Wendy Farley mine hymns for theological ethics, and US feminists Susan Ross and Teresa Berger propose liberative alternatives to antifeminist liturgical practice.

5 Some key issues

In some cases, Christian feminists address ‘traditional’ Christian moral questions, like state violence, from a feminist perspective. Examples include German theologian Dorothee Sölle’s opposition to war and nuclear weapons, American Womanist Kelly Brown Douglas’s race and gender analysis of police violence, Austrian ethicist Gemma Talud Cruz’s work on migration, and American feminist Helen Prejean’s critique of the institutions of capital punishment. Likewise, feminist bioethics is a large field. In other cases, they have developed new specialties, like the ethics of care. Finally, they have integrated areas of ethics that have been distinct: for instance, feminist ethics and ecological ethics. The representative topics below are not comprehensive, and neither are the discussions of them.

5.1 Sex and reproduction

Critique and reconstruction of Christian ethics of sexuality and reproduction has been a staple of Christian feminist ethics; German theologian Ute Ranke-Heinemann’s Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven (1990) touches on many of their objections. Classically, Christian sexual ethics in the Global North had three primary concerns: in what situations male orgasm is morally acceptable; the connection among heterosexual intercourse, conception, and childbearing; and the fierce temptation of sexual pleasure. In recent centuries, Christians mostly treated sex as a matter of personal virtue and intimate interpersonal relations. The postwar rise of psychology, development of contraception, and proliferation of reproductive technologies in the Global North contributed to Christian discussions of family planning, appreciation of sexual pleasure as strengthening bonds within marriage, and willingness to separate conception from the act of heterosexual intercourse. Most Christians have embraced both developments, although the Vatican and some Evangelicals condemn ‘artificial’ contraception and conception. In some Christian circles (Anglicanism and the United Church of Christ are good examples), appreciation of sexual pleasure as an element of joy and bonding has led to affirmation of committed same-sex partnerships or marriages.

Christian feminists contribute to the discussion by (1) highlighting women’s experiences of sex and reproduction; (2) focusing on women’s flourishing; and (3) insisting that sex is a social matter of justice, not merely a private matter of affection. Thus, Christian feminists have contributed to this changing Christian conversation in at least three ways: by incorporating women’s experience of sex into the ethics of sexual relating; by highlighting sexual trauma, sexual abuse, and rape culture, and other structural and cultural forms of sexual violence; and by addressing structural dimensions of the ethics of reproduction.

First, pointing out that heterosexual intercourse cannot occur without men’s sexual pleasure, white US authors such as Mary Pellauer, Patricia Beattie Jung, and Christine Gudorf have written on the corresponding moral and spiritual goodness of women’s sexual pleasure and of its difference from men’s sexual pleasure. Drawing in part on Audre Lorde, queer feminist ethicists including Argentinian Marcella Althaus-Reid, Britain’s Lisa Isherwood, and US Episcopal priest Carter Heyward have discussed the goodness of sexual pleasure in itself and as a source of energy for collaborative social transformation, alongside US scholar Mary Hunt, who reflects on lesbian relationships to develop a robust theological ethic of friendship. British ethicist Susannah Cornwall and others have discussed the implications of queer sexuality and bonding for Christian family structures, including polyamory. British scholar Sarah Coakley explores the implications of these new approaches for systematic theology. In counterpoint, Elizabeth Antus and others highlight the large percentage of women for whom intercourse is physically painful and for whom theological affirmation of ecstatic sexual union is not helpful. Trans and intersex ethics are new frontiers for Christian feminists; in part because of the importance specifically of women’s experience and flourishing to feminist ethics, it matters whom the category ‘women’ includes.

Second, power differentials – usually of men over women, of able-bodied adults over children and all people with disabilities, and of authority figures (like clergy) over their subordinates – often yield sexual harassment and abuse, violating and traumatizing the less powerful victims. US white feminist authors like Karen Lebacqz and Marie M. Fortune have led the way to developing professional ethics that condemn and discourage such sexual violence. White US authors Donna Freitas and Jennifer Beste and German feminist Hille Haker have described the insidious, subtle ways in which institutional practices can both mask and enable sexual abuse and harassment. White US scholar Shelley Rambo has transformed the field with her work on the ongoing shame and trauma that victims experience after sexual harassment or assault. African feminists like Botswanan Musa Dube decry the shame and social and economic exclusion that many HIV/AIDS widows and their children suffer. Margaret Farley makes justice rooted in love the main critical and constructive concept for her ethics of sexuality.

Rather than starting with the traditional Christian ideal of mutual, pair-bonded sex and working outward, others begin with structural issues. White US scholar Karen Peterson-Iyer and others reorganize the conversation on sex by beginning with the economic and power dimensions of complex, persistent phenomena like sex trafficking and prostitution. In contrast to these white authors, Black US scholars Tamura Lomax, Kelly Brown Douglas, and others address the ways in which loyalty to one’s oppressed racial community can obscure its sexually tinged misogyny and heterosexism.

Finally, Christian feminists have debated reproductive ethics. Christian feminist support for contraception as a means for women to care for themselves and their families dates back to white Episcopalian feminist and eugenicist Margaret Sanger in the 1910s. Building on Beverly Wildung Harrison’s groundbreaking 1983 reassessment of Christian theology and practice of abortion, white Protestant feminists Margaret Kamitsuka and Rebecca Todd Peters have argued that women’s conscience and bodily freedom should dictate whether they conceive and whether they carry a pregnancy to term once they have done so. Still, the movement Feminists for Life encompasses many Christians who consider abortion an anti-feminist excuse for society to ignore sexual coercion, paternal responsibility, and social respect for women and children. Like US feminist Maura Ryan, many have also promoted assisted reproductive technology so that women who are infertile for any reason (including singleness or same-sex relationships) may conceive and bear children; US feminist Grace Kao has argued in favour of surrogacy in some situations.

Black Christian feminists also tend to reject involuntary motherhood, but they point in addition to the problematic eugenic history of contraception and to systemic social and access barriers to safely conceiving, bearing, and raising the children they would like to have. In 1994, a group of Black women activists including Christian clergy coined the term ‘reproductive justice’ – now in broad circulation among feminist ethicists – to encompass both freedoms: from involuntary childbearing, and from involuntary childlessness. Still, some Christian feminists of colour, like Black feminist Shawnee Daniels-Sykes and Latina feminist M. T. Dávila, embrace the ‘pro-life’ moniker, joining reproductive justice advocates to counteract pregnant women of colour’s comparatively poor health, inadequate access to respectful medical care, high infertility rates, inadequate access to assisted reproductive technology, forced sterilization, income inadequacy, societal and governmental anti-Black violence, and other structural barriers.

5.2 Care ethics

Even if women also have substantial economic responsibilities, their experience usually includes primary or significant responsibility for care of household members. With the exception of intermittent evangelical interest in elite women’s role in raising virtuous children within the private household (including the early twentieth-century eugenic and temperance movements), traditional ‘malestream’ Christian ethics largely ignored the ethics of day in, day out unpaid care of vulnerable persons. Since the 1980s, however, feminists have moved care work to the centre of the ethical conversation, recognizing it as both indispensable to the flourishing of the cared-for and dangerous to the welfare of the unpaid or underpaid people doing the caring. Philosophers like Eva Feder Kittay – who has addressed care workers’ emotional challenges and potential for abusing their charges – and Susan Moller Okin and Joan Tronto – who have analysed care’s social and economic context – have influenced Christian feminist ethics of care. Among others, white US scholar Sandra Sullivan-Dunbar (2017) argues that love is a necessary but inadequate foundation for an ethic of care; as a matter of justice, society must respect and economically support the care work that is essential to human welfare, whether it is provided by an unpaid family member or a paid worker. Christian feminists who write about the ethics of labour and economy, like Gloria Albrecht (2002) and Christine Firer Hinze (2021), argue that just care for the vulnerable is among the most important moral measures of an economy. From another angle, British theologian Tina Beattie argues for a maternal ethic, but she applies it to men and women alike. Echoing Valerie Saiving’s 1960 insight on women’s kenosis, all agree that it is wrong for society to depend structurally on the unjust, self-destructively self-sacrificial labour of any group, even if that group is women who love their families.

5.3 Ecofeminism

If Christian feminism could be boiled down to one critical philosophical point, it would be rejection of the hierarchical dualism of Western theology and philosophy. Not only does classical Global North thought divide reality into opposed qualities of spirit and matter, reason and emotion, light and dark, and male and female, but it grants the first element of each pair higher value than the second; thus, men – spirit, reason, activity, and light – rule over women – matter, emotion, passivity, and darkness. Ecofeminists reject both oppositions and hierarchies, arguing that the logic of male oppression of women is the same as the logic of mistreating the inferior Earth and its non-human creatures for human benefit. Western culture has often described the physical, ‘Mother’ Earth as a woman who is to be raped, subdued, or fertilized. Thus, restoring women and creation to their rightful places entails undoing the same thought patterns and practices. For example, Ghanaian theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye (2016) decries environmental anthropocentrism, which places humans above ecosystems and other creatures; American theologian Sallie McFague (1993) uses metaphor to develop a doctrine of the world as God’s body; and Filipina ethicist Agnes Brazal (2021) has faulted even the recent Catholic environmentalist/liberationist encyclical Laudato Si’ for reproducing gendered hierarchies.

In addition, Christian feminists generally reject the radical individualism that accompanies Western capitalist philosophical liberalism as anti-ecological. Instead, Christian feminist thinkers point to the practical interdependence of people upon each other and of all creatures upon each other and upon the planet they inhabit. Climate change is confirming this insight. Prominent Christian ecofeminists in the Americas include Rosemary Radford Ruether, Carol Robb, Carol Adams, and Ivone Gebara, among others; prominent ecofeminists in Europe include Dutch theologian Catharina Halkes, among others; African ecofeminists include Sophie Chirongoma, Lilian Cheelo Siwila, and Eunice Kamaara, among others.

6 Debates and tensions

In addition to the diversity of thought described in earlier sections of this article, three related debates characterize contemporary feminist Christian theological ethics. They emerge from Christian anthropology, or theological descriptions of human beings; ecclesiology, or theological understandings of the Christian church; and intersectional critiques of white and colonial feminism.

6.1 Difference and common humanity in tension

Christian feminists argue for the critical importance of both the distinctive, embodied, gendered experiences and social locations, that fuel much of feminist insight, and gender equality before God, which highlights common humanity over gender difference. Yet, in practice, these claims are in tension.

On the side of distinctiveness, all feminists take five facts with utter seriousness: most women are susceptible to pregnancy for much of their lives; women’s hormonal biology differs from men’s, which affects their emotional and spiritual lives; human reproduction necessarily involves women’s pregnancy and childbirth; young children need intimate and consistent nurture, so that mothering and care work of all kinds deserve social respect, support, and accommodation; and women’s historical identity and oppression has been tied to these embodied, sexed realities. The question is, what impact does this have on a doctrine of common humanity?

On one hand, radical separatists like Mary Daly as well as recent ‘new feminists’ like Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Janet E. Smith, Pia de Solenni, Enola Aird, and Karen Doyle have argued that gender is binary. Echoing the equal-yet-distinctive logic of many late nineteenth and early twentieth-century first-wave Christian feminism, many of the latter group draw upon Saint Pope John Paul II’s binary, complementary theology of the body, in which physical sex difference is evidence of deeper psychological and spiritual differences that dictate separate spiritual charisms and social roles for women and men.

Yet, in addition to the fact that gender characteristics vary across cultures, and the fact that a strict sex binary excludes trans, intersex, and other non-binary people, this position raises theological worries. Not only does strict gender essentialism have a weak basis in scripture, but it also implies either that (active) men reflect the image of an active, creating, saving God more perfectly than (receptive) women do, or that, because men and women are radically different, neither are fully made in God’s image.

From the perspective of common humanity, the alternative is to queer and replace a binary understanding of gender with endless possibilities for conceptualizing gender. This entails drawing on history, psychology, and sociology to justify tying gender difference more firmly to cultural custom than to physical sexual qualities. Far from devolving into impossible complexity, British theologian Elizabeth Stuart has argued, these multiple, contextual gender identities fade in the presence of Christians’ primary identity in baptism (2007). The result is a common theological identity of incorporation into the divine that does not rely on deciding questions of sex and gender at all.

Yet the prerequisites of true flourishing, as standpoint theory has already demonstrated, are never one-size-fits-all or neutral. A more fluid approach to gender risks obscuring the personal experiences and social locations of female-bodied people, which genuinely differ from the personal experience and social location of other people, and which society must support and accommodate if they are to flourish. Embodied gender must be at or near the top of the list of factors for which a just society must account.

For now, Christian feminist ethics inhabits a tension between a sexual binary on one hand (natural, cultural, or both) that yields feminist ethics based in women’s experience but risks essentialism and excludes many people, and on the other hand a queer, dynamic, contextual, and inclusive understanding of gender that risks diluting justice around almost universally female concerns, like pregnancy. Resolving this tension might mean reducing the theological mystery of sex and gender to a clear formula. Letting it remain may be the more honest, though uncomfortable, theological and moral choice.

6.2 Post-Christian feminism

Christian feminist ethics relies on the premise that authentic Christianity honours all genders’ experience and flourishing equally. Thus, women’s genuine, comprehensive liberation seems to be a test of the authenticity of any Christian community or system of thought. What happens when a Christian feminist theologian believes that the Christianity they know fails this test?

Some Christian feminist thinkers who take this position – echoing the Protestant refrain that the church, as a fallible human institution, needs unending reform – take on the role of permanent critic, sometimes with an implicit eschatological hope (the idea that perfect justice will arrive with the reign of God at the end of time). They continue to embrace the Christian hope of holistic salvation while pointing out ways in which Christianity perpetually falls short of its own promise. As noted above, Argentinian theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid embraced a queer ‘indecent’ theology that criticized the sexist and heterosexist framework of Christianity both past and present. Similarly, Hong Kong theologian Kwok Pui-lan critically rereads Christian theology and scripture, both Hebrew Bible and New Testament, from a postcolonial feminist perspective with reform in mind.

Post-Christian feminists draw the opposite conclusion. They argue that patriarchy and misogyny are so thoroughly ingrained in the Christian churches and Christian theology – and so profoundly harm women’s spiritual and social flourishing – that women must abandon both for the sake of their own welfare. In essence, their liberatory Christian belief in women’s earthly flourishing drives them out of the church. Among them are theologians (or, as some called themselves, thealogians, a feminine version of ‘theologians’) like Britain’s Daphne Hampson (1996), as well as US thinker Carol Christ. From Gyn/ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978) onward, white lesbian Catholic feminist theologian Daly argued that women could achieve comprehensive flourishing only in extra-ecclesial women’s spiritual community. However, such authors often continue to draw on elements of the Christian theological tradition.

6.3 Undoing versus surviving oppression

Christian feminists agree that salvation history concludes with a reign of peace and justice, but disagreement over Christians’ current place and role in that history affects the shapes that feminist ethics take. As noted above, white second-wave feminists have tended to treat oppressions based on race, ability, age, and other factors as ancillary to gender oppression. Cognizant of structural injustice, fuelled by confidence that they can initiate the reign of justice by pulling the single thread of misogyny, and accustomed to political power born of privilege, they tend to focus on large-scale change. They may develop an ethic of liberation or an ethic for post-liberation life.

Although they too anticipate a reign of equality, justice, and peace, and although they too struggle avidly for this goal, many Christian feminists of colour see the long endurance of racism and colonialism, despite robust efforts to reverse them, as evidence of the practical difficulty of uprooting the tangled mass of human oppressions that includes sexism. Relief that is slow in coming leaves unanswered the current needs of people who continue to suffer unjustly, including the women whose flourishing feminists particularly seek. So, for example, as mentioned above, many Womanist ethicists – like Delores Williams, Emilie Townes, and Katie Cannon – have turned significant energy towards analysing and systematizing the practices that women of colour have developed to flourish in the midst of the seemingly undefeatable double oppressions of sexism and racism. The question is, how to be Hagar? Ada María Isasi-Díaz’s focus on lo cotidiano – the daily – serves a similar purpose. Third wave white Christian feminists like Kate Ward and Kate Jackson Meyer have begun to take this approach as well.

In one sense this tension is analogous to the Christian opposition of justice, or structural change, to charity, or direct service, as if one excluded the other. One could say that this opposition too is false: it is possible to work for liberation while attempting to flourish as well as possible under oppression. In another sense, however, this tension spans a disagreement over the pervasiveness and intractability of structural sin, the likelihood of achieving a just society, and the otherwise ‘unchristian’ or even ‘unfeminist’ behaviour that flourishing under oppression may demand. Although many challenging topics in ethics – like structural poverty, the marginalizing effects of an increasingly digital and global culture, and climate change – beckon, this tension between liberative and survival ethics may be twenty-first century Christian feminism’s most pressing challenge.


Copyright Cristina L. H. Traina ORCID logo (CC BY-NC)

The author wishes to thank the many people who improved this essay by suggesting sources and providing critical commentary at various stages: Rachel Contos, Hille Haker, Derek R. Keefe, Richard Kieckhefer, Susan A. Ross, Cameron Smith, Margaret Mary Stapleton Smith, Richard X III, and the anonymous reviewers of the St. Andrews Encyclopaedia of Theology. All remaining infelicities are the author’s responsibility.


  • Further reading

    • Briggs, Sheila, and Mary McClintock Fulkerson (eds). 2012. The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Bounds, Elizabeth M. 1993. ‘Resources in Feminist Religious Ethics: Annotated Bibliography’, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 9: 227–232.
    • Curran, Charles E., Margaret A. Farley, and Richard A. McCormick (eds). 1996. Feminist Ethics and the Catholic Moral Tradition. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
    • Espín, Orlando O. (ed.). 2015. The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Latino/a Theology. Malden, MA: Wiley.
    • Kwok Pui-lan, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (eds). 1998. Women’s Sacred Scriptures. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.
    • Lindemann, Hilde. 2019. An Invitation to Feminist Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2nd edition.
    • Parsons, Susan Frank (ed.). 2002. The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. 2014. Feminist Biblical Studies in the Twentieth Century: Scholarship and Movement. Bible and Women 9.1. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.
    • Tong, Rosemarie, and Tina Fernandes Botts. 2017. Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction. New York: Routledge. Fifth.
    • Ware, Frederick L., Antonia Michelle Daymond, and Eric Lewis Williams (eds). 2019. T&T Clark Handbook of African American Theology. London: Bloomsbury, T&T Clark.
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