FEMINISM AND THE AMERICAN EVANGELICAL CHURCH – PART 1

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There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man,

there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus – Galatians 3:28

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The Feminist movement continues to make inroads into evangelical circles. The thought that they will cease pressing their views on the Church is unlikely since the gender-rights activists tend to see their crusade in terms of liberating women from male oppression and degradation.

Some Evangelicals have acquiesced and adopted the views and proposals of the Feminists. A Phoenix evangelical fellowship complied by ordaining a female pastor: initially she was not called “pastor” in official church documents; rather she was known as the Director of Adult Ministries – the title “pastor” was reserved for social networking sites, where the change would be less noticed by their conservative members. Eventually the title pastor made its way to the website too.

A Christian Reformed Church in Dearborn presented the ordination of women in a more devious way. A vote was taken during the morning service. “Should we ordain women pastors?” was not the question asked; rather the congregation was challenged with “Should women be allowed to exercise their gifts?” How could anyone vote against a referendum framed in such a way?

The goal, it seems, is to eliminate the tensions between the conservative and liberal factions and bring the evangelical church into closer harmony with the secular culture. It would also counter­balance some of the sinful abuses of male authority that even the orthodox believers acknowledge.

Why such narrow-mindedness on the part of orthodox believers? What issues could be so serious as to justify such a refusal to budge? Why should the conservatives forbid female pastors from exercising their spiritual gifts?

Dangers Loom

The theological ramifications are so far-reaching that to assent to Feminist theology would betray some of the fundamental aspects of a biblical view of man and his world. This is not to impugn the integrity of the Feminists, most of whom are undoubtedly sincere in their arguments. It is to question, however, whether the Feminists have accurately understood, not simply the teachings of the Bible, but perhaps more importantly, the unbiblical presuppositions that they to bring to the Scriptures.

The concerns of the orthodox believers concentrate on what they see as the catalyst of the Feminist movement. To understand their concern, this force must be examined.

Presupposition Behind Feminism

The Feminists who think of themselves as evangelical believe the theological underpinning is Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This passage is perhaps the bedrock of the entire evangelical Feminist position.

According to the Feminists, Galatians 3:28 teaches that God has created in Christ a whole new order of relationships. The hierarchical view of social relationships, they say, is a product of the old world order stemming from the Fall. In the new order, all discrimination based on race, economic status, or sex is to be eliminated. In Christ, they say, rela­tionships between men and women should transcend the male-female division. Thus gender becomes irrelevant in shaping roles and relationships.

Evangelical Feminists insist that the Apostle Paul is not speaking of equality of men and women in their standing before God, but of the practical outworking of that standing in society.

The Feminists interpret Galatians 3:28 to assert it that there are no longer gender-specific roles, no longer categories, no longer differences of responsibilities.Men and women do not lose their biological distinctive by becoming Christians, of course, but in the light of Galatians 3:28, all social distinctions between men and women should be removed.

Unavoidable Contradictions

Such a view of Galatians 3:28 places the Feminists in apparent conflict with numerous other passages of the New Testa­ment which clearly teach that Christians are to maintain their gender-based roles. This conflict is dealt with in three ways.

First, the perceived conflict is a matter of interpretation. Feminists simply deny that the New Testament anywhere teaches a hierarchical model of male-female relationships. For example, liberals Herbert and Fern Miles examine a key Greek term:

The word subject is a translation of the Greek ὑποτάσσω. ὑπό means under and τάσσω means to arrange. It was originally a military term referring to the relation of a soldier to his commanding officer. Paul uses it in Ephesians 5:24 to explain the relationship between Christians, but Feminists claim it is best translated relate yourselves to, respond to, or adjust yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Having switched the apostle’s meaning — and then giving a similar treatment to the analogy of Christ and the church — the Feminists conclude that there is nothing in the fifth chapter of Ephesians that would even remotely indicate that wives are responsible to their husbands. Most of the Feminist writings handle biblical passages with more sophistication than this, but the attitude remains the same: change the mean­ing of the text from what it has traditionally been taught to teach, to something that is more compatible with the Feminist opinions.

Predictably this scheme is unconvincing to many scholars who reject these revisionist interpretations; they see it instead as reading into the text the meaning the Feminists want to get out of it. Even some advocates of the Feminist theology have difficulty with the integrity of these false interpreters. For example, con­cerning 1 Corinthians 11 efforts have been made to liberate the passage from its usual interpretation and make it a proof-text for Paul’s true Feminist views. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott writes, “Although there are some Feminists who think that all of Paul’s words and attitudes can be explained in a com­pletely harmonious egalitarian fashion once we achieve a full under­standing of the cultural conditions and the Greek usage involved, to date I have not found [my Feminist colleagues’] interpretations convincing.”

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Next, the conflict between the traditional interpretation of Galatians 3:28 and the modern Feminist view is commonly viewed at the level of cultural significance vs. modern application. This approach acknowledges that the New Testament writers taught a hierarchical model of male -female roles in the New Testament. Feminists even sometimes admit that this was evident at the time of the Holy Spirit breathed forth the text. The Feminists may even acknowledge it was an appropriate way of handling male-female relationships twenty-one centuries ago in light of their unique circumstances. But the point is quickly made that these teachings are no longer binding on more sophisticated Christians.

This approach attempts to separate the cultural and temporary in the New Testament from that which is universal and timeless. Often with this approach the New Testament writers are por­trayed as understanding that the elimination of gender-based roles is the ideal; yet they refrained from teaching such revolutionary designs lest the Gospel be hindered. Thus they have advocated social and political changes in sexual relation­ships would have distracted Paul’s converts from the central message of the Christ and therefore they continued teaching sexist sermons.

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A third ap­proach the Feminists use — which is clearly growing more popular among 21st century liberals — says in effect that Paul did teach a hierarchical model of male-female relationship but he was simply in error. His Pharisaic biases prevented him from seeing the full implica­tions of his own preaching. Some Feminists believe that Apostle Paul contradicted his teachings concerning women. Inner conflicts developed between the rabbinical training he had received from Gamaliel and the liberating insights he learnt from Jesus.  Thus any passages teaching male-female hierarchy should be viewed as distortions of his human mindreflecting merely Paul’s rationaliza­tionsrather than God’s truth.

Though there is not always agreement among Feminists as to which of these approaches should be applied to which of the hier­archy passages — most writers apply various combinations of the three — the one constant in all of the evangelical Feminist discussions seems to be their understanding of Galatians 3:28. When Paul said, “There is neither male nor female in Christ,” he was eliminating all social distinctions between the sexes. It is this vision of classlessness that Feminists claim as the basic and most potent force behind their movement, and everything else is modified so as to harmonize with this vision.

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There are two reasons why orthodox Christians believe the evangel­ical Feminist understanding of the Bible is erroneous. First is that the Feminists’ strained attempts to reinterpret the hierarchy passages, their elaborate reconstruction of the New Testament cultural setting so as to discard those pas­sages, their insistence on bias, conflict, and error in the Bible are unnecessary. One does not need any of this to bring harmony to the teachings of the New Testament on male-female relationships. One need only rethink the Feminists’ understanding of Galatians 3:28. Yet they seem completely un­willing to do so.

Galatians 3:28 says nothing explicitly whatsoever about how male-female relationships should be conducted in daily life. Even the Feminists acknowledge that the context of Galatians 3 is theo­logical, not practical. Paul is making a theological state­ment about the fundamental equality of both men and women in their standing before God. Thus any ideas about how this truth should work itself out in social relationships cannot be drawn from Galatians 3:28, but must be brought to it from one’s presuppositions and biases.

To be sure there is nothing improper in suggesting such prac­tical implications. Furthermore, orthodox believers do not claim that the truth of Galatians 3:28 is without social consequences. Quite the opposite, we insist that the fundamental oneness in Christ of all Christians does carry profound implications for how Christians are to relate to one another. Where the orthodox believers depart from the Feminists, however, is in specifying what those implications should be.

The Feminists insist that the implication must be the elimination of all gender-based roles. Orthodox believers ask, simply, why?

This conclusion is not logically required at all. Social equality and social hierarchy are not mutually exclusive. Just as in the American system of government — not to mention the Trinity — the concept of ontological equality (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, . . .”) and hierarchy of authority- submission roles exist without conflict, so also may equality and hierarchy exist in the church and the home without being logically out of step.

 

Nor does the issue of how God has ordained that these hier­archical roles be populated enter the question. Submission of wives to husbands is no more logically inconsistent with social equality than is the submission of citizens to elected officials. The one may be more palatable to the contemporary minds than the other, but neither one is more logical than the other.

In the light of this, all the twisted handling of hierarchy passages, all the assertions of conflicting concepts, and supposed error in the biblical writers are unnecessary. Paul could say, “There is nether male nor female in Christ,” and, “Wives, rank yourselves under your husband’s authority,” without contradict­ing himself at all.

One may ask at this point, What then are the legitimate social implications of Galatians 3:28? Instead of leaping to the unwar­ranted inference that all gender-based roles are to be eliminated, would it not be more fitting for Christians to let the Scriptures define what inferences should be drawn? Such inferences are both numerous and plain in the New Testament, and require no feats of exegetical trickery.

Orthodox believers find the New Testament writers regulating rather than eliminating the hierarchical roles, to prevent them from being abused.

Wherever there is properly constituted authority, there is also the potential for abuse. The biblical answer to this problem, however, is not to eliminate that authority but to use it in a way that honors Christ. Hence, those in authority — husbands (Ephesians 5:25-33; Colossians 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7), elders (1 Peter 5:1-4; Acts 20:28-31), parents (Ephesians 6:4; Colosians 3:21), employers (Ephesians 6:9; Colosians 4:1) — are instructed in how to use their God-given authority in a godly way. Conversely those who find themselves under a properly con­stituted authority — wives (Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18), slaves (Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25), children (Ephesians 6:1-3; Colossians 3:20), members of the congregation (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; Hebrews 13:17), citizens (Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1)—are also instructed in how to fulfill their roles in a godly way. The result is not a society without authority or submission roles, but a social hierarchy, ordained by God and carried out in a manner that fulfills the teaching of Christ (Matthew 20:25-28).

Christians need put forward neither a lack of astuteness or courage in the biblical writers, nor uncertainty, bias, and error in their writings to make sense of the Bible. By refusing to accept the superfluous conjectures that Feminists bring to Galatians 3:28, an objective reader may retain the general harmony of the various passages on male-female relationships. The authors of the New Testament knew what they were about. They were aware of the necessary social implications of the gospel and they defined a social reality which in every way fulfills those social implications within the overall design of God for creation.

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