Beyond Fundamentalism and Feminism

Back in May 2007 Carl Trueman raised the problem of the pressures females feel in conservative evangelical and Reformed Churches. This issue raises the question of how Reformed Christians ought to relate to the broader culture. How do we live in a given culture without becoming captive to it? On the matter of feminism there seem to be two poles with most Americans probably in-between somewhere.

On one pole would be the feminists. The moderate wing of the movement called for equal pay for equal work, the right to vote in civil elections, the right to drive, things that are generally conceded by even the most socially conservative critics of “feminism.” The more radical wing of the feminist movement sought to overturn not only all social conventions but distinctions between the sexes altogether. It was a rebellion against nature (e.g. abortion as sacrament of the sexual revolution). The whole spectrum of modern feminism has found representation in the mainline and borderline churches and in broader evangelicalism.

The feminist movement sparked a reaction among fundamentalists and and within the NAPARC world. These are the “sit down and shut up” folk. The SDASU reaction is baptized with Scripture but often fails to distinguish between the two spheres of the kingdom (civil and spiritual) and thus moves fluidly between them. Thus the Pauline injunction against females exercising authority in worship or teaching has been extended to areas beyond the spiritual sphere, e.g. to lengthy discussions and reports about “women in the military.”

We have a duty to try to transcend our culture and not to become captive to it. Obviously, that’s very difficult to do. How does an American stop being an American? I had no idea of the number of purely cultural assumptions I held until we lived overseas. Like sanctity, we will never achieve perfection in transcending our culture in this life (Heidelberg Catechism 114-115). To some degree we must pick a culture or perhaps pick and choose as we navigate a variety of cultures simultaneously.

Nevertheless, there are ways we can gain some distance from our own culture. The first step we can and should take is to criticize our own culture. This is the antithesis of metaphorically baptizing our culture. We need to learn to question the assumptions on which our culture operates. We should ask what they are and whether they have any basis in Scripture. For example, inasmuch as late modern culture is grounded in assumptions about the nature of personhood and individual autonomy, until the so-called “evangelical feminists” begin to question their uncritical adoption of Cartesian definitions of “person” they will remain every bit as much captives of Modernity as they allege that Paul was a captive of ancient Patriarchal culture.

At the same time, conservatives who are tempted to react to feminism by retreating to Victorian notions of “femininity” in order to justify their chauvinism need to question their assumptions about male superiority and the “natural order” of things. There is a natural, created order (evident in natural revelation—biology), and there is a re-created order for the church (contra the feminists). That order, however, is not grounded in male superiority or female inferiority but on the divine will and special revelation.

There is a third way to approach these questions. Theoretically, even though they are always situated within a given culture, Reformed confessionalists should have a lever against any given culture because we are tied to a theology, piety, and practice that is not rooted in early or late Modernity but that belongs to another time and place. To say that we are so utterly captive to our time and place that we cannot subvert or transcend it is to given in to skepticism. Reformed Christians, however, still believe in texts and some kind of objectivity in history and reality.

One of the benefits of the view, which holds that Christ instituted two spheres in history, one religious (represented by the visible church) and another “secular” or cultural or common (not “neutral” since it is obligated to the law revealed in nature) that has to do with creational life, is that our theology, piety, and practice can be distinguished from the culture because cult (worship, church) isn’tculture. In Left-wing forms of transformationalism everything is re-described in terms of cult (worship). In right-wing (e.g., theonomy and reconstructionism) transformationalism everything is re-described in terms of culture (politics, power). In either case, cultural acts become cultic (religious) either by being baptized with the adjective “Christian” or by becoming sublimated to the goal of cultural transformation.

If God’s creation is fundamentally good (and not inherently evil, conta Marcion and the Manichaeans), then vocations rooted in creation and creational norms need not be baptized. There is no such thing as “Christian math.” One either does math in a way that is congruent with creation or not. There is no such thing as Christian softball. Sport is a creational act. It is clean. It doesn’t need to be baptized to be acceptable. Politics is good. There it doesn’t need to be baptized in order to be an appropriate vocation for Christians. Certainly, whatever Christians do they ought to do well, to the glory of God and for the well-being of others, but there is nothing wrong with simply reveling in the joy of creation. Good music is inherently beautiful. It doesn’t need sanctification.

What does this have to do with the role of females in Reformed family and church life? Plenty. It speaks to both the “evangelical feminists” and to the SDASU crowd. Both act as if there is only one sphere in the kingdom. The EFs seem to think that if there is one order in the civil sphere then that same order must obtain in the spiritual sphere. The SDASU view seems to hold the same approach. They try to leverage the civil sphere with their spiritual sphere.

There is an alternative way to think about family roles, the relations of the sexes, and vocation that isn’t tied either to the “right wing” (taking back America to the 1950s) or to the “left wing” (taking back America to the 1960s). It understands relations between the sexes relations first relative to creation and then relative to grace.

According to the Reformed understanding of Scripture, males and females are humans made in God’s image, sinners in Adam and that the elect are redeemed and justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Those who are united to Christ are being renewed in the image of Christ. Yes, we all have to live with some current cultural norms, but we can criticize the current norms by virtue of our understanding and confession of Scripture.

Contra some of the more extreme aspects of feminism, we recognize that there are indeed creational norms to which both males and females must submit. The sexes are distinct. They have distinct biological functions and they have distinct social functions. We also recognize that even in the economy of redemption there are distinct functions for the sexes within the visible church.

Against SDASU reactionaries we should recognize that there’s nothing inherent to the Reformed understanding of Scripture that says that females may not earn a living, fulfill a vocation outside the home, that they may not vote, drive, lead corporations or countries. However poor the “evangelical feminist” hermeneutic is, which weakness has been demonstrated, we should be equally critical of exegetically and hermeneutically sloppy SDASU appeals to scripture in support of misogyny.

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  1. Ohh, boy, there goes Dr. Clark, being controversial again. I’m in a denomination that is filled with SDASU people, and that uses Kuyper to talk about taking our culture back. Please don’t stop being controversial.

  2. Amen. I particularly liked:

    “There is no such thing as “Christian math.” One either does math in a way that is congruent with creation or not. There is no such thing as Christian softball. Sport is a creational act. It is clean. It doesn’t need to be baptized to be acceptable. Politics is good. There it doesn’t need to be baptized in order to be an appropriate vocation for Christians. Certainly, whatever Christians do they ought to do well, to the glory of God and for the well-being of others, but there is nothing wrong with simply reveling in the joy of creation. Good music is inherently beautiful. It doesn’t need sanctification.”

    We do need to be saved from the “Christian” alternative to culture. Especially “Christian” music!

    • I tried to be an equal opportunity booter as I also criticized the evangelical feminists. I’m persuaded by Steve Baugh’s criticisms of e.g. K. Clark-Kroeger’s claims about “amazons” in Ephesus and the like. The feminists in the CRCNA (Christian Reformed Church in N. America) made some very bad arguments on the way to justifying their conclusion in 1995 in favor of the ordination of females to presbyterial and pastoral office. I have a lot of old friends, however, who have, in my view, over-reacted to feminism by taking the SDASU view which simply intensifies the problem. I have friends (not colleagues at WSC!) who think females ought not vote in congregational meetings because that constitutes an exercise of authority over men. This exegesis and application of Scripture is about as poor as that of the feminists. Paul’s instructions for worship and church office are clear enough and they do place the church in tension with contemporary egalitarian Zeitgeist but distinguishing between two kingdoms (or “spheres” to use Kuyper’s language) does clarify things a bit. Paul wasn’t saying that females cannot hold civil office or authority and it’s likely (as Steve Baugh has pointed out) that some of the apostolic churches were hosted by wealthy female patrons who ran whole households was virtual businesses. In other words, the relations between the sexes in the 1st century were more complicated than the SDASU crowd assumes.

  3. Scott,

    As a member of the CRCNA, and at the risk of sounding simplistic, it has always seemed to me that the row between the sub/ordinationists is mainly a cultural fight disguised as a cultic battle, a fight between those who want men to know the world is flat and those who want women to know their place. As usual, I never seem to be able to find a seat at this table.

    Fantastic post.

  4. “the nature of personhood and individual autonomy, until the so-called “evangelical feminists” begin to question their uncritical adoption of Cartesian definitions of “person””

    Can you explain this?

    What is the Cartesian definition?

  5. Walt,

    Before Descartes, Christians defined a person as “an individual substance of a rational nature.” The shorthand for this was “rational soul.” We defined persons first of all as image bearers, as having faculties (intellect, will, emotions) relative to God.

    The French philosopher Rene Descartes (d. 1650) defined persons in terms of the their autonomy, their independence from others. This has become the default modern definition of “person” and underlies much of the way people think of humans relative to slavery or abortion. We can speak of mere “fetuses” (as if speaking Latin immunizes us from culpability) as we often do because of our Cartesian assumptions. If human persons are such because of their relation to God as image bearers, it’s more difficult to buy and sell them or kill them in utero.

  6. Seems like I recall reading in one commentary or another that of the reasons for Paul teaches about women and the so-called SDASU phenomenon in places like 1 Timothy had a great deal to do with the fact that the oracles in pagan Greek society were always women. Therefore, if they spoke in church everyone would turn to them and listen, as in the manner of the oracles.

    Anyone know if this is accurate or if I just came across a bunch of bunk?

  7. George,

    To be sure I don’t think Paul’s view is accurately characterized as SDASU. He does teach that there are certain ecclesiastical roles, which he grounds in creation because the church is the new creation, but he isn’t saying SDASU. He is accused of teaching this by feminists but it’s not true.

    Steve Baugh has dealt with this explanation (female oracles) or one like it. See his entry in the Grudem volume Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

  8. Unfortunately, there are those who do seem to hold the SDASU view, almost literally. One of the members of a small group Bible study my wife and I used to attend was a former Plymouth Brethren. Apparently, that denomination believes that the elders (no pastor) should have the ultimate authority for preaching and discipline and that women are allowed no role anyplace. In fact, he still makes his wife wear hats during worship services under the guise of the “head coverings” spoken of by Paul.

    He was visibly annoyed and very curt whenever my wife or another woman in the study group would give an opinion about a scriptural passage. It got to be so conspicuous that we finally left the group.

  9. I wonder about your distinction between “civil” and “spiritual” kingdoms and your subsequent points about such. Scripture reveals that God intended a covenantal community — one, unified — that is both civil and spiritual. There can be no distinctions between the “two” because they are not “two.” I agree with the premise that “all Truth is God’s Truth,” but I respectfully disagree with your view that Christ instituted two kingdoms and that worship isn’t culture (paragraph 8)… it SHOULD be, and some eschatological passages present a world in which this is perfectly realized.

    On a different note… I am a liberated, evangelical Christian woman. I vote. I drive a car. I’m loud. I served six years in the military. I argue with my husband, give announcements and speak in church, work outside the home, wear pants, cut my hair as I like, listen to rock and roll, and don’t wear a hat to church (all the time). Yet I find in Scripture and in actual, real-life practice, that none of these things bring any benefit to me or my family spiritually. I do them out of selfishness, my unchurched upbringing, and worship of American culture. Let’s say on a practical level that it’s wonderful that I can drive myself to the store for milk, or take a forgotten lunch to school. What I have sacrificed is planning and foresight in favor of mere convenience, thoughtful structure to my family’s schedule in favor of careless whimsy, and greater financial stability in favor of the “freedom” and burden of having two cars and two insurance payments. And in the other aforementioned cases… fashion in favor of modesty, reveling in worldly pleasures and the waste of dining out and movies (since we can financially because I work) in favor of training my daughter to prepare meals and precious time around the family altar, increased faith in God-ordained provision for my needs in favor of prideful self-reliance, and a godly attitude in favor of my subtle influence encouraging society to “blaspheme God’s Word” (Titus 2). Surely God’s Word gives us a standard to live by, one to which we should give far more attention and reverence.

    A look at today’s economy and one wonders if women were to return to being PRIMARILY keepers at home, would the unemployment rate stabilize as plenty of jobs are now available for men? There is a way things SHOULD be. You posit that the relations between the sexes should be understood “first relative to creation and then relative to grace.” I maintain that creation and grace are manifestations of the same divine intention, neither exclusive to the other.

    Okay. So, I’m pointing out the extremes here. I wouldn’t go so far as to say “a woman driving a car is evil,” “the suffragette movement was unbiblical,” (as I myself enjoy worldly benefits of those things) but I have to say that what women have given up for these “rights” is not worth what we received in terms of convenience, and certainly not worth what has happened to our society. Sin has led to the establishment of many institutions and habits we now consider normal (cf Welfare). We now have children abused as our emphasis on sexual freedom saturates the media, millions of babies killed in the name of reproductive rights, the vulgarization of our society in the name of free speech, girls disrespected and abused while they naively seduce men with immodest fashionable clothing, failure of men to BE MEN and protect women and care for their families, since women have demanded their “rights” to do so instead… the list goes on. We must not cherish the rotting fruit of feminism or grasp at some way to wrap Scripture around our godless culture. There is something inherently beautiful, noble, and wholesome about submission, modesty, restraint, gentleness, service, and self-sacrifice. The minority of misogynistic men who abuse should not dictate a wholesale revulsion or vilification of traditionalism. Let me be “Victorian” if it means I honor God. His Name be praised.

  10. Kerrisa,

    The distinction between two kingdoms is an ancient distinction in Reformed theology. It isn’t mine it’s John Calvin’s. See the work of David VanDrunen. Here are some links.

    There was a unified kingdom during the Mosaic, national covenant, but according to Gal 3 and the Westminster Confession ch. 19, that national covenant was temporary and typological, its function was to point to Christ and to the new covenant (2 Cor 3; Heb 7-10).

    You’re entitled to your soco-economic opinions. That’s one of the points of the essay: they’re just opinions. You can’t baptize them and make them articles of faith and Christian morality. That’s why Reformed folk have a doctrine of two kingdoms and Christian freedom. You’re free to think and act that way, because they’re matters of the civil kingdom.

    As to speaking in church etc, see 1 Tim 2. Another concern of the two-kingdoms ethic is that we obey the Word of God where it actually does speak specifically to an issue.

  11. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for your thoughts in response to my comments. I respect and appreciate your views and so I wish to understand them better and will thoughtfully consider what you have shared. I read 2 Cor 3 and Hebrews 7-10 as you referenced, and I don’t understand what you are seeing there in connection to a unified civil and spiritual community. I would appreciate your exposition of these passages so I know what point you intend; it appears to me that the passages are speaking of how we are forgiven, not of the supposed institution of secular versus sacred realms. Even if I concede that two such realms are ordained by God, I fail to see how certain behaviors can be allowed in one and disallowed in the other.

    I have to say that your comments along the lines of “you’re entitled to your socio-economic opinions” do have a somewhat dismissive and unpleasant tone, and I expect that is not what you intended, but I wanted to clarify for the sake of all readers. You claim that I am “baptizing” my own opinions and making “them articles of faith and Christian morality.” They would be MY OWN opinions if the Bible did not in plain language state how things should be (I feel that one should not need a theology degree to unearth truth in Scripture; God makes it plain). My major point is that just because this is how things are does not mean that this how things should be. My own habits and practices, be they obedient or sinful, prove that the plain meaning of Scripture (such as Titus 2, I Peter 3, and Eph 5) bear the truth out as they are either applied, and blessings are seen… or ignored, and the better way is relinquished. Modesty, conduct during worship, personal choices of entertainment, men failing to protect women but encouraging them to do it instead — please do explain how any of these CANNOT BE “articles of Christian morality” and can possibly be separated into a civil vs. religious realm. There is either a right, good, true, Christian way to do these things, or a distorted way (at the least harmful) or even completely sinful and rebellious way (at the most).

    I wish to point out that in your response, you rely heavily upon creeds, tradition, human works, and confessions to support your point. They are well and good, and I admire your love of your denomination. However, Scripture should be paramount. I looked up I Tim 2 per your reference to women speaking in church. What is it that you wished me to learn from this passage? That I am wrong to speak in church (as I stated before)? Perhaps it IS wrong, and I would accept a rebuke on the basis of Scripture. That was part of my point: ingrained habit and cultural norm does not equal godliness, but often leads to the inability to see how very wrong something is. It seems to me that you are excusing certain cultural norms by placing them in the “civil realm.” Thank you for your discussion on these issues.

  12. Kerrissa.

    I’m not Baptist nor am I an American evangelical. I don’t have to re-invent the faith every day personally.

    Has this biblical work been done? Yes and it is being done.

    The classical Reformed distinction between the spiritual and common spheres was obscured in the 20th century so it’s less familiar than it once was. People need to be re-introduced to the ideas in order to be able to consider them.

    I’m a historian, so I tend to refer to “man-made” documents. That’s what historians do. Mea culpa.

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