Perhaps a month ago during a podcast hosted by a few women in the PCA and one woman from the OPC complaints were lodged by the hosts against what they describe as “gender apartheid” in the conservative Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) churches. Those denominations are mainly represented in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). Now those podcasts have been featured in a story in The Atlantic. In the article some of the same charges rehearsed that were raised in the podcast. In this essay I wish to think about and reply to the charge of “toxic patriarchy” and “gender apartheid” in the NAPARC denominations.
What is sexism and does it exist in NAPARC denominations? I doubt that there is an agreed definition today but the Oxford American Dictionary defines it thus: “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.” This seems like a reasonable place to begin. I am old enough to remember earlier generations of feminism (e.g., the struggle for females to get work beyond secretarial positions) and my sense of what sexism is shaped by that experience. Today, however, despite the frequent complaints about inequity in pay, the reality is more complicated. Even those who want to argue for the existence of a “pay gap” admit that. When we factor in job choices, pregnancy, career paths influenced by family choices, and family obligations, the growing education gap (the rising numbers of females in universities and the declining numbers of males), the story is not as clear. In short, when we compare apples with apples, this is not 1917. When I was a boy, the idea of female firefighters and female police officers, let alone female CEOs or a female president were considered laughable. Today, the only ones laughing at such ideas are in an isolation room somewhere. This is not to say that females do not face discrimination but the playing field has been changed radically. In response to this changing reality, the goal posts have been moved and the rhetoric has been ratcheted up, particularly among millennial females, for whom MS Magazine and the King-Riggs tennis match is not even a memory.
Is there sexism in NAPARC congregations? Certainly. There is also racism, adultery, covetousness, idolatry, theft, murder (at least in the heart), and almost every other sin and failure that one might list. Every NAPARC congregation consists of sinners. Consider, however, the rhetoric used by the podcasters: “gender apartheid” and “toxic masculinity.” These are very strong words. The dictionary (ibid) defines the noun apartheid thus: “(in South Africa) a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race.” It now includes “segregation on grounds other than race: sexual apartheid.” Again, one suspects that the young people bandying about the noun apartheid have little sense of how horrible it actually was. After all, in their memory, Nelson Mandella (1918–2013) was not in jail but the president of South Africa and honored across the globe for his leadership of the civil rights movement in South Africa.
Another problem with the rhetoric of “gender apartheid” is the use of the word gender. Human beings do not have a gender. Human beings are born to one sex or the other, male or female. Gender is a grammatical category which has been deliberately applied to human sexuality in order obscure the obvious facts of nature (that sex is a biological category) and to create the impression that talk of genuine sexual differences is nothing more than oppression. This, of course, is ridiculous in its face. As a grammatical category, gender is relatively arbitrary. Ships are in the feminine gender in some languages and we use feminine pronouns for them but they have no sex. To apply gender to humans is bizarre. As Camille Paglia has recently reminded us, except for a tiny percentage o cases, humans are actually female or male. That is an unavoidable fact. That some will be offended by this reminder tells us how disconnected from objective reality our culture has become.
On the face of it, the claim that there is “gender apartheid” in NAPARC is not only implausible but even offensive. First, those who make the claim did so on their own, public podcast. Under apartheid black South Africans were not freely, without government interference, doing the equivalent of podcasts. Our podcasters were in no danger of authorities breaking down the door of their studio. Indeed, our podcasters have the ability to control with whom they will talk—they block on social media even the mildest critics and potential dialogue partners. Further, our female podcasters were theologically educated or had other advanced academic degrees. Again, for prosperous females in North America, who have earned masters and doctoral degrees, to complain of apartheid is just silly. It is offensive because it demeans the very real oppression that black South Africans suffered under apartheid. It is the equivalent of comparing standing in line at Starbucks to standing in a chow line in prison. It is not a thoughtful way to argue.
Then there is the charge of “toxic masculinity.” This category is so new that definitions are not easy to find. One author (partly on the basis of the notorious summarizes the Urban Dictionary, an online open-source not for the faint of heart) and characterizes it (quoting the “Good Men Project”) as “narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression.” Is there truth in this characterization? Certainly. There is more to being a man than living up to a film character (e.g., John Wayne or Clint Eastwood). At the same time we live in a time of shifting perceptions when the feminine might even be said to be in ascendancy. I am from Nebraska. I am deeply influenced by strong masculine figures from my childhood. My Dad was big fellow, if not particularly rugged. Still he played football and wrestled. If I got a cut we put dirt on it. He was not (as we used to say) “a sissy.” One of my grandfathers was a farmer and rancher. He was a the epitome of the quiet, stoic westerner. The other worked with his hands, hunted, and could repair anything you wanted. Still, a couple of years overseas taught me that masculinity takes other forms. None of the Englishmen or Europeans I met reminded me much of my grandfathers, some of them were pretty rugged and but others had traits that I once might have regarded as effeminate, yet they were not actually effeminate.
Still, one might reasonably worry that language like “toxic masculinity” is a rhetorical/political tax on boys and men for being, well, boys and men. Contrary to what you might have learned in university, some of the differences between boys and girls are simply hardwired. They are the result of nature, not nurture. We are different and we are meant to be different. We might forgive millennials for being confused. After all, they have been raised in an era when the US military is seriously pursuing not only admitting females to Special Forces (none has so far passed the physical tests) but admitting trans-sexuals or cross dressers to the US military. I refuse to use the silly category “transgender” for the reasons given above. We are not now talking about equal opportunity but the total obliteration of the basic biological distinctions between males and females.
The question remains: Is there systematic oppression of females in NAPARC churches? Again, definitions are essential. In our late-modern subjectivist culture, recognition of sexual differences and of a creational pattern is regarded as “systematic oppression” but Christians may not simply adopt cultural categories and use them to leverage Scripture and nature. Christians recognize that there is such a category as nature, that there are such things as “givens.” There are laws of nature and there is a God who made nature. Properly defined, we should conclude that no, there is not a systematic oppression of females. Are there quarters within the NAPARC world in which females are told, in effect, to “sit down and shut up”? Yes. This is part of the problem. In reaction to the various iterations of feminism, some congregations do not allow females to vote in congregational meetings on the grounds that voting is an exercise of authority and therefore a violation of 1 Timothy 2:12. This strikes me as an unlikely inference and application of this passage.
Christians must begin with the sufficiency of Scripture and its essential perspicuity. Jerry Falwell (1933–2007) may have been glib but he was not wrong when he said to Ted Koppell something to the effect that God had not created Adam and Steve but Adam and Eve. God’s Word says:
Then Elohim said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So Elohim created man in his own image, in the image of Elohim he created him; male and female he created them (Gen 1:26–27).
Whatever the prevailing post-Christian (neo-pagan) culture may tell us, Christians may not doubt God’s Word. That is skepticism. God’s Word gives us a place to start whereby we can criticize both the John Wayne persona and the “gender bending” culture trends of the 2000s. Males and females are both created in God’s image. They are both given dominion over creation. They are intimately related and meant to relate intimately. They are meant to “be fruitful and multiply” (v.28). These are creational basics. It was to this fundamental pattern that our Lord Jesus appealed when it said, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh (Mark 10:6–8; ESV).
There is a creational pattern. There are sexual differences. There are norms to which we must all adhere. In part two I will argue that grace, as transformative as it is of human relationships, does not obliterate those fundamental creational patterns but renews them.
Christians must not be taken captive by popular slogans and thought patterns. We must think critically (i.e., evaluating claims and ideas in the light of Scripture and plain reason) about everything the culture wants to sell us, whether it is vague claims about “toxic masculinity” or “gender apartheid.” In part two we will consider what God’s Word says about how to relate nature (creation) and grace (redemption) and the roles of the sexes in the visible church.