Category Archives: egalitarianism

The Debate Continues: Evangelical Versus Secular Feminism

Speakers:

Gloria (Secular Feminist)

Sarah (Evangelical Egalitarian)

Abraham (Neo-Patriarch)

Moderator (Neutral)

Moderator: We now have before us three views of the relationship between men and women in society, church and family. It’s time to listen to what each of our speakers thinks of the others’ presentations. This evening evangelical egalitarian Sarah will respond to Gloria’s presentation of secular feminism.

Note: Gloria’s original statement was posted on Ron Highfield’s blog on December 3, 2016. You may wish to refer to the original as you read the critiques.

Three Points of Agreement Between Sarah and Gloria

Sarah: Thank you, Moderator, for the opportunity to reply to Gloria from an evangelical egalitarian perspective. I will begin with the places where I agree with Gloria’s presentation.

(1) In her opening paragraph, Gloria asserts the following principle:

 It is wrong everywhere, always, and for everyone to forbid a woman to do something she wants to do simply because she is a woman.

I agree wholeheartedly with Gloria. What motivation other than irrational prejudice could anyone have for disagreeing with this principle?

(2) I also agree that women’s experience serves as an important source of truth for constructing the ethics of gender relations. Because of their experience of oppression and abuse, women can see oppressive structures and abusive relationships to which men are blind. Even if men come to agree with the principle of equality, they need women to help them see specific areas where they are privileged.

(3) If male privilege is morally wrong, it stands to reason that any theory that justifies it is also wrong. Hence, for the most part evangelical egalitarians agree with Gloria’s call for reform:

Secular feminists demand that every tradition, ideology, theology, or philosophy that justifies male privilege be rejected as false, anti-human, and evil.

In sum, as an evangelical equalitarian, I agree with secular feminists when they stand against male privilege, assert the equality of women, and call for reform that institutionalizes equality.

Moderator: Thank you for this precise statement of agreement. It will help us achieve our goal of getting as clear as possible on the most basic agreements and disagreements between these two philosophies and facilitate our making an informed decision between them.

Sarah Critiques Secular Feminism

Sarah: Clarity is also my goal. So, let me state this clearly: I am not secular feminist. And I am grateful for the opportunity to explain why. I am an evangelical Christian. I believe that God is the creator and ruler of all things and that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. I don’t know whether or not Gloria is an atheist, but it’s clear that she leaves God completely out of her theory. She grounds all her principles and values in human existence and experience. My specific disagreements with her arise from this fundamental difference. In the following I will address five places where this fundamental disagreement comes to the surface in what Gloria says.

(1) As I admitted above I agree with Gloria on the injustice of rules that keep women from doing what they want to do just because they are women. But Gloria goes on to make a much more radical and deeply troubling statement. She says,

Anything that is possible [to a woman] should be permissible. Secular feminists recognize as legitimate no law of nature, no social custom, no political legislation, and no divine law that forbids a woman to do what is possible for her.

I understand why Gloria would make this argument. Patriarchal society forbade women to do many things they were perfectly capable of doing: vote, run marathons, become doctors, serve as police officers, soldiers and fire personal, preach in churches, and many others. But she goes too far when she equates the permissible with the possible. Many things are possible that are immoral, unjust and illegal; they should not be permitted for women or men. In order to free women from rules that derive from the false idea of male superiority, Gloria denies the legitimacy of any rule that does not derive from her own will. In effect, she denies the objective distinction between right and wrong. This move makes as much sense as slitting your throat to cure a headache. It’s effective, but the side effects make it impossible to enjoy the cure. For if there is no objective distinction between right and wrong, then male domination of women is not objectively wrong either! In contrast to secular feminists, evangelical egalitarians believe in a God-given moral law that roots justice, love and the equality of men and women in the eternal divine being and will.

(2) My second objection is closely related to the first. It concerns the source and nature of the dignity of women. In an astounding claim, Gloria declares,

The dignity of the [woman’s] self does not derive from any value system outside the self, from nature or God or society. Its dignity is self-grounded. That is to say, I am related to myself and I am worth something to myself. I value myself more than I value the whole world. Given the power of the self to create its own identity and establish its own dignity, it makes sense for the self to assert its right to determine itself and liberate itself from all external frameworks and forces.

This statement contains so many extraordinary claims I hardly know where to begin with my critique. Gloria rejects being created or loved by God as relevant to the dignity of woman. Instead of finding her dignity in her relationship to God, she grounds it in her subjective feelings of self-worth. And then she demands that other people make way for her to act as she pleases and become what she wishes. The problem with this view is that our subjective feelings of importance and desires to live and act as we please cannot legitimize making objective moral claims on others. For other people have their own feelings and desires that they may assert against our claims. And in Gloria’s system there is no objective law or arbiter to adjudicate competing claims. Unless human dignity has an objective and universal foundation, it can found no rights or claims against the state, social institutions or individual human beings. Because there is no universal authority to which all parties can appeal and are willing to submit, efforts at persuasion are doomed to fail and coercive power becomes the final arbiter between competing wills.

(3) I said above that I agreed substantially with Gloria about the role and importance of women’s experience in this discussion. However she seems to view men wholly negatively. As a Christian I do not view men as irredeemably evil. Men too are made in the image of God. They can repent and learn how to treat women as equals.

(4) My fourth critical observation concerns Gloria’s statements about the practical program of secular feminism. She says,

Secular feminists demand that every tradition, ideology, theology, or philosophy that justifies male privilege be rejected as false, anti-human, and evil. We also demand that every framework, order, institution, and structure that blocks or inhibits the realization of women’s potential be reformed or abolished…And since these institutions are heirs of a long history of oppression, they cannot be left to reform themselves. There must be an aggressive public policy of affirmative action to move rapidly toward equality.

While I agree that institutions need to be reformed in an egalitarian direction, I think Gloria’s rhetoric labeling patriarchal ideas “false, anti-human and evil” crosses a line. Such rhetoric arises from deep anger and fuels the fires of hatred. And her obvious willingness to use government coercion and possibly violence to compel the recalcitrant shows that her philosophy of self-assertion, outlined in objection (2) above, is at bottom a will to power that sets itself above the distinctions between good and evil and right and wrong. In its secret heart it harbors the kind of metaphysical and moral nihilism that would be willing to destroy itself and the whole world to taste one second of revenge on its enemies.

(5) Gloria’s assessment of the Bible is distinctly uncharitable:

Bible, that ancient patriarchal and misogynous text that ought to have been relegated to the dustbin of failed mythologies long ago but is still revered by uneducated men and the women deceived by them.

Gloria’s disparagement of the Bible and those who love it betrays a striking lack of empathy for past cultures and an appalling ignorance of the central message of the Bible. Evangelical egalitarians do not believe the patriarchal aspects of the Bible are essential to the its ethics. There is even an internal dialogue within the Bible in which patriarchy is overcome and replaced by equality. We can see this most clearly in Jesus’ teaching and in Galatians 2:26-28, which I quoted in my original talk:

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

This text shows that evangelical egalitarians have a great advantage over secular feminists in criticizing male superiority and advocating the equal dignity of women. We can ground our program of equality in divine authority. We can challenge Christian men (There are hundreds of millions of them!) to live up to the ethical demands of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Secular feminists’ assertions of dignity and demands for respect, once you see through their deceptive rhetorical form, boil down to expressions of subjective feelings and wishes with no authority at all.

Moderator: Thank you Sarah for this analysis and critique of secular feminism. Next time we will hear from Abraham who will speak from a neo-patriarchal perspective.

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Why The Doctrine Of The Trinity Cannot Be Used To Support Egalitarianism Or Complementarianism Or Any Other Ethical Teaching

In the contemporary debate about the relationship between men and women, in church, home, and society, disputants on all sides appeal to the doctrine of the Trinity for support. In this post, I will argue that the doctrine of the Trinity is the wrong ground on which to fight this battle. Any theological argument made on this issue must be based the economy of salvation and not on the inner mystery of God’s being. The doctrine of the Trinity points toward that mystery but it does not make it clear to the eye of reason. Hence it cannot be used for further deductions.

The doctrine of the Trinity asserts that God’s eternal being is one essence in three persons. This assertion is the terminus of a line of reasoning that moves from God’s saving action in the economy of salvation to God’s eternal being. In a post on the Trinity from May 7, 2016, I outlined this process:

The doctrine of the Trinity arose in three stages. First, Jesus and his disciples confessed the one God and the Christian church never revoked this confession. There is only one God. However once Jesus had risen from the dead and was confessed as Savior and Lord and the Spirit had been poured out on the church, it became obvious that the one God acts for our salvation through his Son Jesus Christ and in his Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is the revealer of God and the Spirit sanctifies us and unites us to God. The Christian experience of salvation and communion with God involves three who act as one. We are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We pray to the Father through the Son, in the power of the Spirit. Everywhere you turn in the Christian faith, ritual, and practice we find the three united in one. Thomas Torrance calls this stage “the evangelical Trinity” (The Christian Doctrine of God).

Second, Christian experience and faith raise questions that demand explanation. At this stage, the church recognizes that the work of Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord, and Revealer and the work of the Spirit as Revealer, Sanctifier, and Giver of life can be accomplished only by God. God acts in the economy of salvation and revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit. In relating to Jesus and the Spirit, we are relating to the true God. When we are united to Christ we are united to God. When we are touched by the Spirit, we are touched by God. In the economy of salvation and revelation we relate to the Father as God, to Jesus Christ as God, and to the Holy Spirit as God. Torrance calls this stage “the Economic Trinity.”

The third stage moves to the ontological or immanent Trinity. The truth of Christian faith and practice depends on the saving and revealing work of Jesus Christ and the sanctifying and life-giving work of the Spirit (the first stage). And the validity of the work of Christ and the Spirit depends on the divine character of that work (the second stage). The final stage asserts that God is triune not only in the economy of revelation and salvation but in God’s own eternal life. Unless God really is Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal truth, we could not receive the revelation and salvation in Christ and the Spirit as a real revelation of the Christ-character of God, of the love of God, of the real presence of God. There might be a different God hidden behind the masks of Christ and the Spirit. The doctrine of the immanent Trinity simply states that what God reveals himself to be for us in the economy, God is in his own eternal life. It is not speculative. For it does not explain the how and why of the Trinity, only the that.

The three stages stand or fall together. If we think God might not really be Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal truth, we would have cause to doubt that God is really at work or genuinely revealed in Christ and the Spirit; and if we doubt that God is really at work and revealed in Christ and the Spirit, would have cause to doubt our salvation, our union with God and our sanctification.

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not a metaphysical theory of God or of the nature of being derived from the idea of God or being. It is a Christian teaching only because and insofar as it is implied in the way God worked in Jesus Christ. It should be confessed because it is implied in the act of faith in Jesus as savior and lord, which is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus. But the doctrine of the ontological Trinity is not comprehensible by reason. It’s not like a logical or mathematical truth in that once you understand its terms, you can see its inner and absolute necessity. Even when you understand its terms and see that it follows logically from a combination of two or more truths of faith, you cannot see its inherent necessity and meaning. Hence this doctrine cannot become the foundation for another line of reasoning that attempts to draw out ethical or ontological truths that were not present in the original faith assertions.

The controversy about whether the doctrine of the Trinity supports an egalitarian or a complementarian or a hierarchical view of the relationship between men and women can never be settled. The disputants always argue in a circle by using their conclusions as interpretive lenses through which to “see” their views in the doctrine. And the reason for this futility is simple: the doctrine of the ontological Trinity points beyond our reach into the incomprehensible mystery of God. I find myself sympathetic to Vladimir Lossky, who in his The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church objects to such thinkers as John Zizioulous (Being as Communion) and Juergen Moltmann (The Trinity and the Kingdom) who want to see in the doctrine of the Trinity an ontology of being or ethical truths that could become bases for further insights into the nature of the church or the ethics of society and interpersonal relationships. Lossky argues that the assertion of the ontological Trinity is designed to drive us to encounter the mystery of God. I advise taking Lossky’s cautious approach rather than the bolder approach of Moltmann.

So, if you want to construct a theological ethics of male/female relations, look to what Jesus taught and suffered, to what he did and what happened to him, and to the apostolic teaching about what his suffering and resurrection means for the way we live at home, society, and church. But don’t try to squeeze something out of the doctrine of the Trinity that you cannot find already present in economy of salvation enacted in Jesus Christ. Such speculations give the impression of being ungrounded and arbitrary. They persuade only those who need no persuasion. And they do an injustice to the doctrine of the Trinity and risk missing the encounter with the divine mystery.