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Evangelical Feminism

Dr. A. J. Higgins M.D. (New Jersey, USA) addresses the issue of feminism from a Biblical perspective, with particular emphasis on how feministic thinking, in the form of “evangelical feminism”, is challenging the way the Bible has been interpreted for many centuries.

Its Roots

What should be our Scriptural worldview of the feminist movement? How do we balance equality and the significance of womanhood with the current societal thinking? Beyond society, “evangelical feminism”, an attempt to justify female participation in local churches by the Scriptures, is also assailing us. What is the Scriptural worldview on all this?

There is a world of difference between being feminine and being a feminist. The former is the fulfillment of God’s ideal for the gender. He formed her to be a “helper” to the man He created. The latter is a formidable foe to all God intended a woman to be.

How has the feminist movement become such a force for change in our western society? The feminist movement is not a 20th century phenomenon. It had its roots in the woman’s suffrage movement which began in many countries in the 19th century. It received its great impetus, however, in the 20th century and is moving full-speed ahead in the 21st. Many names and various causes can be linked with the movement, some very justifiable. We certainly abhor any mutilation of young women in foreign countries as part of rituals, the sex-slave trade, spousal abuse, sweat-shops where women work for a pittance of what they deserve, and any inequality of women in society. The feminist movement, however, goes well beyond these issues and has even spread to what is now called “evangelical feminism”. By “evangelical feminism”, we mean the promoting of equality, not only of persons, but of roles, in local churches, by professed evangelicals.

In North America, the concept of equal roles in religious institutions began in the 1950’s and 60’s in the liberal, main-line Protestant denominations. That thinking eventually spread to more conservative and evangelical groups in the 80’s and 90’s. A number of women, and men as well, have taken up the cause and have tried to justify it by their handling of Scripture, some of which we will consider.

Its Reason

The natural heart is at enmity against God, whether it is the male or the female heart. It will express itself by rejecting whatever role God has assigned or by abusing that position. The failure of men does not justify the response of women, but it does reveal how easily it can occur. Thus, it must be confessed that one of the influences which has spurred the rebellion of women against the “conventional” and Scriptural role assigned to her has been the arrogance of, and the abuse by, the male species. Mistaking headship and its responsibility to care, with lordship and its role of control, men have ruled over women at times with heartless indignity. Some have assumed that, since God assigned males the place of leadership, men were inherently superior in wisdom and skill. The failure to recognize the absolute equality of women as made in the image of God has led to frustration and anger on the part of many women.

When that frustration is combined with the inherent rebellion of the human heart against God, the ideal matrix has been established for a movement against unjust oppression to occur. This is not an attempt to justify the radical claims of feminism; it is, however, vital to realize that sin and failure on the part of men have given an opportunity for the rebellion of the human heart and the opposition of Satan to all that is of God to display itself.

While there are several different translations for Genesis 3:16, “Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee”, it does suggest the beginning of the two-fold problem of abuse by the male, and competition by the female. So, while the problem faced is contemporary, the seed was sown in the Garden, millennia ago.

Underlying all of this and carefully orchestrating the entire scene is the strategy and subtlety of Satan. Opposed to God from his fall, Satan’s strategy has been to remove from the world every trace of God and God’s design. Creation order, marriage, family, the roles of male and female, all derive from the Word of God and serve as a reminder to all mankind that the Creator has rights in His creation. By introducing evolution, Satan has enabled men to dismiss God from His creation. By redefining marriage, he has cut the tie to the Biblical definition and divine order. By role reversal or gender “blurring”, he has marred the picture God intended to have portrayed.

Its Rationale

There are many ways in which evangelical writers have attempted to justify women in places of leadership in churches. What follows is a sample of some of their specious arguments.

Times have changed

One of the arguments raised by those who would like to see women have a greater role in the church is that times have changed. A lack of education and male oppression kept women in ancient Biblical times in a place of subjection. Now we are “enlightened”, and women are educated and fit for leadership. The problem with this is that, when Paul defines roles, he does not refer to educational status or intelligence but to divine design. Also, women such as Lydia, Phebe and others in Scripture do not fit the pattern of oppressed women. Christianity elevated the status of women and gave them a dignity that the prevailing culture did not afford them.

The Trajectory of Truth

One of the most subtle arguments has been what is called the trajectory of truth. This idea argued here is that the New Testament is not final but only shows us where truth was trending. So that in the Old Testament and in the early days of the New Testament, women were totally subjugated by men in their bias and evil. The Lord Jesus began the process of liberating women by His actions, such as speaking to the Samaritan woman, by His kindness to Martha and Mary, etc. The New Testament assembly broadened that appreciation for women, commenting on their service and labor (Phil 4:3; Rom 16). All well and good so far. But then the trajectory hypothesis enters and says that the eventual stage of women’s rights to which everything was heading would be the full equality of women in both value and roles, without distinction in the church.

This liberal theology sounds very plausible but it has several fatal flaws. The chief error is that it makes the Word of God of none effect. We are allowed to decide which directions things are going and to “add” to the Word of God. If we applied this theology to other areas, consider where it would take us. The Old Testament limited personal revenge to an “eye for an eye”. The New Testament instructs us not to seek revenge at all (Rom 12:17-21). So the next step would be to reward and encourage evil. The Old Testament allowed polygamy, although it never sanctioned it. The New Testament stressed one wife, so that the trajectory is from many to one, and the only other step is to none!

If the New Testament is not prescriptive for us, we are at sea to know what pleases God. There are principles in the Scripture for which discernment is needed for a right application, but when there is clear precept, we cannot treat it with the cavalier hermeneutic of trajectory interpretation.

Truth has been Misunderstood

We really have misunderstood all those texts in which Paul limits the role of women, or so we have been told. For example, 1 Timothy 2:12 does not mean a woman cannot be a leader in an assembly; it only means she should not usurp that authority. But if that place is given to her, it is not a problem. The difficulty is that the word for “usurp” really means “to have” and does not have any relationship to the idea of usurping.

Then we are told that what Paul forbade at Corinth was chattering in the background and not public speaking (1 Cor 14:34). The problem here is that the use of “silence” and “speak” in the rest of the chapter cannot possibly support this interpretation. It would lead to total confusion if this interpretation of the words was employed consistently in the chapter.

Paul was a Woman Hater

Finally, when all other arguments fail, we are told that Paul did not like women. He had a personal and bitter prejudice against them. Possibly he had a mean and austere mother; possibly he had been married and his wife had deserted him. You can supply the reason. But whichever explanation for his bias is suggested, eventually it calls into question the inspiration of Scripture. This is not narrative history as we have in the Old Testament, over which we can make our own moral judgments (wars, cases of incest, adultery). This is prescriptive order for an assembly.

Its Results

The results of the infiltration of feminist thinking into evangelical circles are significance. If those who have justified same-sex marriage through the twisting of Scripture deserve gold medals for their Scriptural gymnastics, then those who support women as leaders in the church merit a silver medal.

The first and obvious result of women attaining leadership roles in a local church is that divine order is overturned. Divine order is not an indiscriminate, whimsical choice God has made, but is designed for our blessing and His glory. The order established by God contains both a pattern and a picture. It goes back to His original purpose in the creation of headship invested in the male. It foreshadows as well the relationship of Christ and His Church. To mar the order is to mar the picture.

In succumbing to the pressure of society and allowing the elimination of distinct roles, we are also compromising and denying Scripture. Once any truth is compromised, we position ourselves on a slippery slope, and truth becomes a commodity which we can sell for personal gain, society’s approval, or convenience. As stewards of the truth of God (1 Cor 4:1), and collectively as “pillar and ground of the truth”, Christians must recognize that the truth is not “ours” to barter with. All truth is God’s truth and all truth eventually relates to His Son. Faithfulness is the mandate for stewardship!

Satan’s great desire is to remove the divine insignia from God’s world. As the god of this age, Satan is trying to fashion and mold everything after himself. Every “success” in overturning a divine order means that the world is less and less conscious of God. Investing leadership in women in the assembly is another attempt to accomplish this.

Biblical Roles

What, then, are the Biblical roles we affirm? How do we approach and view the role of women in the local assembly and in society? The section in which Paul, by the Spirit of God, deals with relationships, (Eph 5:22-6:9), is prefaced by verse 21: “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.” While some do not feel this is a general statement prefacing all relationships, it certainly, contextually, fits with what follows far better than with what precedes it. In the parallel portion in Colossians, the section on relationships is preceded by the statement that “Christ is all and in all” (Col 3:11), and His Lordship is stressed.

The implication is that we are all called to a role of submission. Husbands, leaders in the assembly, fathers, and masters all submit to the Lord. No one is exempt from submission. None of us is above the Word of God or the claims of Lordship. A husband submits to the Lord and, as a result, treats his wife in accord with verses 25-29. Leaders in an assembly submit to the Chief Shepherd and likewise, treat the flock in accord with His commands (John 21:13-17). Masters recognize that they have a Master, the consciousness of which regulates their treatment of employees.

There is, as well, a clear defining of roles within the Godhead. The Son has taken a place of submission to the Father (1 Cor 11:3; 15:28). This immediately negates any thought of inferiority in submission. Therefore, a woman submitting to the leadership of a man does not have any thought of inferiority. There is absolute equality before God as to personhood and blessings.

In the home sphere, a woman is to be a helper in the Biblical (and Edenic) sense. Submission is an attitude which allows God to determine our lives in every role in which He places us. It is the concept of equal value but different roles in the economy of God. As head and helper work together, each “submits” their personal agendas for the good of the marriage.

In a local assembly, as men and women find their roles and fulfill them as designed by God, the assembly gives testimony to the truth of headship in a world of disorder. Each has a sphere of service as outlined in Scripture, and each has an invaluable contribution to make to the assembly. The sisters are not less important than the brethren. We must affirm this in both our words and in our attitude toward each other.

(Used with permission from Truth and Tidings magazine)