Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE), the leading advocate for evangelical egalitarianism in gender roles, assures us that they are committed to evangelical orthodoxy, including biblical inerrancy and Great Commission fidelity. But evangelical Protestants should wonder what is afoot when the organization decides to highlight a feminist theologian whose views are far, far from evangelical confessional orthodoxy.
The Spring 2005 issue of the CBE magazine Mutuality featured a profile of Molly T. Marshall, the newly elected president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kansas. The magazine asks Marshall to speak to the evangelical gender debate, and probes how her election as a seminary president will enhance opportunities for ministry for women.
What the magazine doesn’t probe, however, is exactly what Marshall believes about a theology of gender. Yes, Marshall has been a longstanding advocate of women in the pastorate. But her views go far beyond this. Her feminist theology has led her to advocate references to God as “she,” and to question evangelical views of human sexuality. In A Baptist’s Theology, published by Smyth and Helwys Publishers, Marshall called for a reevaluation of sexual ethics. In particular she sought to criticize “less nuanced approaches replete with proof texts and adamant denunciations” on issues of sexuality.
“Our understanding of sexual orientation, male/female equality, marriage, contraception, childlessness, and celibacy have moved far beyond the biological and philosophical perceptions of early Christianity,” she argued.
“Baptists have allowed the Puritan impress to linger in this area,” she continued. While “Hester Prynne of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter feared no one but God,” she wrote, “we too often fear what others might think to forge clearer, more informed understanding in the realm of human sexuality.”
In the PBS documentary, “Battle for the Minds,” which is referenced in the CBE article, Marshall also dismissed conservative opposition to the 1992 “Reimagining” conference of feminist theologians in Minneapolis, a gathering in which attendees from mainline Protestant denominations worshipped the deity Sophia and celebrated “communion” with milk and honey.
Marshall’s theological revisionism is not limited to gender concerns. In a debate with Marshall at the 2003 American Association of Religion (AAR), I expressed concern about the “eclipse of Christ” on the theological left, including in Marshall’s writings. Marshall countered that her theology represented instead the “recovery of the Spirit.” What is at issue is Marshall’s neo-pluralism regarding the doctrine of salvation combined with her panentheistic view of God.
Marshall has long advocated that those of other world religions do not need to come to explicit faith in Christ in order to be saved. Marshall’s book, No Salvation Outside the Chruch? A Critical Inquiry, based on her doctoral dissertation, articulated her viewpoint that there are other ways to salvation than belief in Jesus Christ. In the dissertation she criticized those who approach a Muslim or a Hindu as one “already condemned before God.” Marshall also argued that those who never hear the gospel will be given another opportunity to respond to God after death.
The Marshall profile is just one more reason to wonder where the theological trajectory of CBE is heading. There was a time when CBE sought to highlight evangelical egalitarians whose egalitarianism seemed almost incidental to their otherwise conservative doctrinal stances. In recent years, however, the evangelical egalitarian movement seems to be slowly inching closer and closer to the feminist theologies of mainline Protestantism. When leading evangelical egalitarians, including CBE leaders, now call for feminine God language, and when the official publications of the organization feature well-known liberal feminist theologians, one must wonder how “evangelical” evangelical feminism still is.
Really this should not be all that surprising. The hermeneutical moves necessary to justify evangelical feminism cannot sustain the kind of confessional orthodoxy represented by the first generation of CBE endorsers. As the movement explores more fully the theological presuppositions that make “biblical equality” possible, we should expect to see more and more of a distance from evangelical orthodoxy on matters of God, Christ, salvation, and biblical revelation.
This is nothing to celebrate. But it is a reminder that the gender issue is not an isolated issue. Instead, it is connected organically to the way one views God, Scripture, salvation, eschatology, indeed the meaning of life itself. This means that evangelical complementarians must go beyond simply explaining what women can and cannot do in the church. We must place the gender issue within the framework of a theology of Christian patriarchy, a theology rooted in the glorious mystery of the Fatherhood of God and his purposes in Christ.
Evangelical feminism is a real and present danger to the church. And its power is not just in misinterpreting a few Mosaic and Pauline texts. Instead it has the power to uproot the entire mosaic of Christian truth. Molly Marshall is just another sad example that feminist theology isn’t just about who has “Reverend” listed on the office door. It is about more than who wins “evangelicalism.” Instead, it is about the evangel itself.