Each week, I write a bulletin insert for our church. The topics have ranged from the structure of Genesis 1–11 to assisted suicide to discerning types in the Bible. They usually relate to the sermon or a hot topic in the culture. And though they do not exhaust the biblical, theological, or ethical considerations of any subject, they do help our church members “think Christianly” about many matters of faith.
This blog post is no different. It broaches a subject that requires far more historical, cultural, and ecclesial attention than I am able to give here. But it is a start. Addressing the matter of evangelical feminism is meant to remind us that none of live in a cultural vacuum, and that even most stalwart “bliblicist” inhabits a world where feminism is the norm.
As Robert Samuelson noted this week in the Washington Post, birth control pills, radical feminism as advocated by Betty Friedan (The Feminist Mystique, 1963), and no-fault divorce have changed the way Americans think about marriage. Family life has been radically altered by these three phenomena, and in many ways they have each contributed to the other. Therefore, witnesses for Christ must be aware of how their thinking has been (explicitly and/or implicitly) shaped by feminism and from where those presuppositions originate.
What is evangelical feminism? And where did it come from?
Feminism can be defined as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” Evangelical feminism is the related belief that men and women can and should exercise the same offices in the church (e.g., pastor, preaching) and that husbands and wives should mutually submit to one another in the home. Such a view is common among Christians today, but it wasn’t always that way. (This view has been defended in the book Discovering Biblical Equality; it is has been opposed by Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth).
Believing the Bible to teach biblical complementarity, the biblical truth that God made men and women to be equal in essence but distinct in roles, how has this idea come into the church? For nearly two millennia, the church held to a complementarian view of gender roles. It has only been in the last century that sweeping changes have come into the church. There are many reasons for this but a major turning point was second wave feminism (ca. 1960s), which asserted gender equality all spheres, but especially as it related to women in positions of leadership and women leaving the home to work on equal terms with men.
The Rise of (Evangelical) Feminism
What are some of the sociological reasons for the rise of feminism, and in particular evangelical feminism?
Technologically, the woman’s place in the home changed with the industrial revolution, the creation of the sewing machine (among other modern appliances), and the rise of factories. First wave feminism arose at the end of the 19th C, when women sought the right to vote. However, at the same time, some leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton pushed for more than voting rights. Stanton sought to redress inequalities in employment, divorce, and birth control—to name just a few. A professing Christian, Stanton wrote her own commentary on the Bible and influenced many women with her voice.
In the middle of the twentieth century, World War II sent the boys off to war, and thousands of women took factory jobs. After the War, most women returned home to raise families, but in time the freedoms brought by technology, the experience of WWII, and the push of second wave feminism (radical feminism), brought about an entirely new world in the 1960s.
With the advent of “The Pill,” women were now in control of their reproductive rights unlike any generation before them. The effect on culture has been staggering. The Pill divorced procreation from sex, bringing a raft of changes: women had greater freedom in the workplace; unmarried men could prey upon women without the consequence of children; sex centered on pleasure, not procreation; marriage is not defined by personal fulfillment, not producing a family. (For details, see Mary Eberstadt’s Adam and Eve After the PIll).
Not surprisingly, these cultural changes plus the increasing voice of radical feminists who called for unlimited gender equality impacted the church. Incorporating the views (and the hermeneutics) of feminist thinkers, many in the church began to question the roles of men and women in the 1970s and 80s. They believed God made mankind as male and female, but male ‘patriarchy’ was and is a result of the fall (Gen 3) not God’s good design (Gen 2). This was the argument: men and women are equal in essence and in roles.
Therefore, women should not be limited to working in the home; Titus 2:5 (‘teach the younger women to be workers in the home’) is a time-bound, cultural relic that can be dismissed today. Likewise, gifted women should not be refused the right to be senior pastors just because they are women. For many reasons, Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:12–13 are outmoded, in error, or narrowly chauvinistic. Interestingly, many evangelical feminists sought to affirm biblical truth, even as they reinterpreted the meaning of the text based on new cultural standards for women and men.
Two Complementarian Answers: CBMW and the SBC
A response to this rise of evangelical feminism (otherwise known as egalitarianism) came from at least two places. First, in 1987 a group of American scholars and pastors, men and women, met in Danvers, Connecticut to write and sign the Danvers Statement. This doctrinal statement defended the long-standing, biblical position that men and women are equal in essence, but distinct in role and calling. This view has come to be known as biblical complementarity (or complementarianism). From this meeting, The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) was founded and still exists to promote what the Bible says about biblical manhood and womanhood.
Second, a few denominations stood up to defend biblical complementarity. One of these was the Southern Baptist Convention. For decades, SBC seminaries were rife with second-wave feminism (as this student interview with Dr. Albert Mohler demonstrates). However, when the conservative resurgence swept through the seminaries, a change to biblical roles for men and women returned. And in the wake of that revival, in 1998, the SBC added a statement to the Baptist, Faith, and Message concerning the family. One part of that statement advocated biblical complementarity:
The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.
This statement made it clear where Southern Baptists stood with regard to men’s and women’s role. At the same time, it set Southern Baptist’s outside the pale of mainstream thinking on matters of marriage, sex, and gender roles.
A Gospel That Empowers Men and Women
Fast forward to 2014 and the distortions of God’s original design for men and women are even more perilous. Today the questions are not restricted to discussions about men and women’s roles. The church is facing new challenges related to homosexuality, gender as a socially constructed idea (i.e., persons may create their own gender), and the legality of boys using female bathrooms and girls choosing alternative pronouns to identify themselves.
We are living in difficult days that pose all sorts of questions. However, the cultural background to our current society is explicable. Ideas have consequences and to engage with our family and friends, to love our neighbors, and to reach the lost for Christ we must have a better understanding of feminism arose and attracted the church.
In truth, we are today very far from Eden, but not far from Zion. The church of Jesus Christ is perfectly poised to equip men and women to live out their gendered identity by the power of the Spirit and the truth of God’s Word. For some women, this will mean repenting of a desire to conquer the world; for other men, it will require an ongoing battle to fight spiritual passivity in the home. And still for others, it willmean repenting of a transgender identity.
Indeed, the Fall can be seen everywhere, but nowhere is it more prevalent than in regards to sex, gender, and marriage. Fortunately for those who know the good news of the gospel, we not only have a clear word about what is right and wrong (sinful and righteous), we have the superlative promise that all our sins can be forgiven by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And adding grace to good news, God has given us his very Spirit to enable us to live as he designed—as godly men who reflect Christ-like leadership or godly women who reflect Christ’s church.
May God help us be like the men of Issachar who understood their times and knew the right thing to do (1 Chronicles 12:32).
Soli Deo Gloria, ds