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, and 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 a 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 within the NAPARC world. These are the “sit down and shut up” (SDASU) folk. The SDASU reaction is baptized with Scripture, but it 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 is 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 recreated 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 rather 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 give 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 two spheres view—which holds that Christ instituted two spheres in his kingdom, 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)—with regard to creational life, is that our theology, piety, and practice can be distinguished from the culture because cult (worship, church) is not culture. In left-wing forms of transformationalism everything is redescribed in terms of cult (worship). In right-wing (e.g., theonomy and reconstructionism) transformationalism everything is redescribed 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, contra 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 does not need to be baptized to be acceptable. Politics is good. It does not 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 does not 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 evangelical feminists seem to think that if there is one order in the civil sphere then that same order must govern in the spiritual sphere. The SDASU view seems to hold the same approach. They try to leverage the civil sphere with their spiritual convictions.

There is an alternative way to think about family roles, the relations of the sexes, and vocation that is not 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, and 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 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 is 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, or 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.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2009. 


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. I remember the first time I heard a Christian speaker criticize “individualism.” I had thought it was one of the pillars of Christian belief, because it was so aligned, in my thinking, with patriotism. I was shocked and I recoiled, and I was a very infantile Christian. The remedy is the Word and growth in grace and knowledge, grounded in divine truth. I remember Dr. Francis Schaeffer remarking that is possible “to all of the cliff on both sides of the truth of the matter,” and this article is clear-sighted about built-in biases on both sides of the cliff.
    This article is superb, Dr. Clark, and I thank you for it, as well as the significant help in growing in grace and knowledge I have received from the Heidelblog and its kin. I don’t know if this article has been percolating, or if it arises from a particular trigger, but for me it spans over 80 years of growing in grace and knowledge, and it is relevant to any temporal cultural norm.

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