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 of 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.
The Sufficiency of Scripture
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.
As Christians we must re-learn to begin with God’s Word, with “in the beginning” instead of the politics of victimization. One of the most fundamental problems of late-modern life is the radical nominalism—for which Martin Luther is notresponsible—in which we have all been catechized. Nominalism, however, is a cruel master because it denies nature, what some have called “givenness.” The only way out of our late-modern morass is to recover basic biblical categories, nature and grace. As important as nature it does not sanctify it and it cannot save us from sin and the effects of sin. It is to grace that we turn now because grace is the only way to overcome the dialectic of recrimination.
Scripture begins with two sexes (not genders) in a mutual, ordered relationship. Man was made from the earth, by God, and woman from man (Gen 2:7, 18–23). We can see for ourselves from the creation narrative that there was an order. Our sin, willfully committed against God and against his holy law introduced disorder. The curse upon sin disrupted the harmony of the relations between the sexes. Genesis 3:16 says of and to the female, “Your desire shall be for your husband ( וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ) and he shall rule over you (וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ). Whatever ambiguities there may be in this part of the narrative, it should be clear that sin corrupts the natural order and that harmony and only grace can restore it to any degree before the consummation.
It is necessary to observe and grasp both the creational order as found in Genesis 1 and 2 and how Paul applies that order. He appealed to the creational order in his instructions about how men and women are to conduct themselves in public worship (see 1 Cor 11:7–11; see also 1 Cor 14:34). He noted what we have seen, that the woman was made from man (and thus a wife is not independent of her husband, even in public worship) nor is a man independent of his wife, since men are now, after creation, born of a woman).
He turned to it again in his instruction to pastor Timothy. As in 1 Corinthians 11, he is addressing the conduct of public worship.
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 9likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control (1 Tim 2:8–15).
The parallel in vv. 8–10 is between the the virtues Paul expects of men and women. Christian men ought to worship together in peace and women in self-control and modesty. Of course it is not that men are permitted to be immodest or women violent but these are things that he had doubtless noticed (e.g., in Corinth) and, as a more experienced minister, passed on to Timothy as issues of which to be aware relative to the churches in Asia Minor.
The Authority of Scripture
However difficult these verses may be for our hyper-egalitarian age, v. 12 has been the place where the discussion has been focused most intensely for the last 30 years or so: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (διδάσκειν δὲ γυναικὶ οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω οὐδὲ αὐθεντεῖν ἀνδρός, ἀλλ᾿ εἶναι ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ). Again, the context for these instructions is public worship. We must not attempt to make Paul seem ridiculous by universalizing these instructions. Paul is not a Muslim and he is not teaching Sharia law. Indeed, if we compare these relatively clear verses to the some of the relatively (not absolutely) more obscure instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:13 we can infer that the command to be silent is not absolute in church since silent prayer was unusual in the ancient world. Further, Luke explicitly says that Aquila and Priscilla “explained” (ἐξέθεντο) to Apollos a better understanding of the history of redemption (Acts 18:26). Finally, whatever Paul meant by using “deacon” (διάκονον) she surely did not perform her service silently. She and other women had a significant and visible role in the church since Paul refers to her as prostatis (προστάτις), which occurs just this once in the New Testament but which, in classical usage, is used of a leader, a ruler, or a governor. She was most likely a widow who hosted a congregation in her house and was performing an important service for Paul. The word is sometimes translated as “patroness” in this context. We know that Phoebe was not alone in her service to the Lord since Paul says explicitly, ” help these women (αὐταῖς, αἵτινες), who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers (συνεργῶν), whose names are in the book of life” (Phil 4:3). For Paul “co-worker” is an exalted title.
However painful and difficult Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:12 may be for us late moderns, they are God’s Words. We dare not dismiss them as “misogynist” or “hopelessly patriarchal” as some have done. Christians are not entitled to take such a high-handed approach to holy Scripture. If we may dismiss Paul’s words here because they are inconvenient then how may we protest when others dismiss his declaration that Christ’s bodily resurrection (1 Cor 15) is a fact? Such an approach to Scripture is the equivalent of setting a fire in the basement while hoping to live on the second floor. It cannot stand.
So what does Paul mean when he says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man”? In the modern ear, after the rise of feminism (especially 2nd and 3rd wave feminism), this has been the subject of a great deal of debate, of course. The context is public worship so we may reasonably infer, as argued above, that he restricts his instructions to the sphere of public worship. E.g., I have addressed the question of women teaching Sunday School elsewhere. We must reject those approaches that seek to find a way out from under these difficult verses. E.g., there is no reasonable ground for thinking that Paul was addressing some sort of ancient and resurgent feminism in Ephesus. On this see the work of my colleague S. M. Baugh, “The Apostle Among The Amazons.” Read in context, shorn of obfuscations, Paul’s intent evidently is that females should not do what Timothy does: exercise ecclesiastical, teaching authority in the visible church. The words “I do not permit (ἐπιτρέπω) a woman (γυναικὶ) to teach (διδάσκειν) or exercise authority (αὐθεντεῖν) over a man (ἀνδρός)….” In contrast (ἀλλ᾿), she is to “remain quiet” (εἶναι ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ).
Two errors are to be avoided. The first is to the temptation so to expand the exercise authority as to verge upon a Sharia-like attitude (e.g., patriarchalism). This is not Paul’s view of females generally nor of the role of women in the church. Remember, this is the same Paul taught that, in Christ, there is no “male and female” (οὐκ ἔνι ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ· Gal 3:28). This was categorical rejection of the way that females were regarded and treated in the Greco-Roman world. Contrary to popular reports, Paul was no misogynist but neither may we try to make him a feminist.
The other great error, as broached above, is the temptation simply to ignore this teaching as do the mainline (liberal) denominations, as some Pentecostal traditions have long done. One of the most remarkable aspects of the life and ministry of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson (1890–1944) is her resolute belief in God’s Word and her simultaneous and complete disregard for 1 Timothy 2:12. On this see “Magic and Noise” in Always Reformed.
It is this second error that one sees in the rhetoric of “gender apartheid” and “toxic masculinity.” When the podcasters spoke about qualifications for special office (e.g., elder) in the church they mocked the idea that only men are permitted to hold special office by reducing the qualifications to male anatomy. Of course, Paul has much more extensive qualifications (e.g., 1 Tim 3:1–7 for elders and vv. 8–13 for deacons). Were the offices of minister, elder, and deacon open to females they would have to meet the same high tests but Paul restricts those offices to males. Why?
He grounds his order for the church in the creational pattern we observed in Genesis 1 and 2:
For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Timothy 2:13–14).
The order in the church is not arbitrary. It is a reflection of the creational pattern. Paul here implies all that we saw in Genesis 1 and 2. There was supposed to be order and mutuality. The man was created first and the woman from man but thereafter all men are born of women so that, without them, no man can be. Even our Lord himself, whose humanity was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit, was in the womb of the virgin and was born from the blessed Virgin Mary.
The Word of God is holy and inerrant. There is neither “gender apartheid” nor “toxic masculinity” in Scripture but the creational differences and order between male and female are clearly revealed, taught, and applied. The visible church is the earthly manifestation of the eschatological kingdom of God but eschatology does not wipe out nature (creation). It renews it. One of the difficulties in the current discussion is that the classical Reformed approach to nature and grace has been supplanted with the radical Anabaptist view of nature and grace, whereby grace is thought to obliterate nature. Scripture knows nothing about such a view. In the biblical and Reformed view, grace renews human nature in redemption and that renewal is manifested in sanctification, which includes obeying the order established for the visible church.