Category Archives: Ethics

Succeeding at Success

A few weeks ago I spoke about the “little voice” in the back of our minds that never lets us rest carefree. As soon as we feel ourselves relaxing that very feeling triggers the thought that we ought to be doing something. What keeps the “little voice” awake? What drives the back and forth process between relaxation and anxiety? Is there a state of mind in which our emotions are blended together in a stable harmony? And what unifying force can order the mind toward such peace?

I suspect that the “little voice” means well. Perhaps it is trying to help us toward that perfect balance. But its guidance is only as good as its knowledge and its prodding is only as healthy as its habits. And its ability to succeed depends on its image of success. So, today let’s examine the concept of success.

What is Success?

In general, success is the state of having achieved a goal. Human beings are future-oriented, goal-setting beings. We act to achieve goals. But there are many things we could do and many good things that clamor for our attention. As beings with reason and knowledge, we are able to ignore this myriad of alternative possibilities by selecting and ranking goals. Otherwise, we would become paralyzed into inaction or driven to exhaustion by fear of missing out. Since life demands that we work toward many goals, some serially and others simultaneously, we need a unifying principle to order our goals into a harmonious whole. Some goals seem much more important than others. Some can be achieved quickly and easily while others take longer to reach and require much effort and patience. Some goals are specific, and success is easily measured. Digging up a small stump in my front yard, which I did this morning, took about 10 minutes. Mission accomplished! Training to enter a profession takes longer, but when you graduate and are granted a license, you have succeeded. But why spend 10 minutes working in my yard, and why spend 10 years working toward a professional credential? These goals must be ordered as means toward some even more comprehensive end or they would not seem worthwhile. Achieving them would seem empty and meaningless.

Success at What?

The logic of ends and means leads ultimately to the necessity setting a whole-life goal aimed at the greatest good we can imagine. This one goal becomes the unifying principle that enables us to rank and order all other goals in a meaningful way. The worth of every other goal is measured by its usefulness as a means toward achieving our whole-life goal. But the two-fold problem with most whole-life goals is that (1) they are stated so generally that it’s difficult to imaging actually achieving them, and (2), given their generality, they don’t give us much guidance for what to do on a daily basis. If your whole-life goal is happiness or pleasure or fame or respect or independence, you can never arrive at the destination. And how do these goals impart the wisdom you need to keep on track toward the ultimate destination? This is the soil in which the “little voice” thrives. It sprouts up in the fertile plane between our whole-life goal and our daily lives. It whispers, “Are you sure that what you are doing today is the best way to achieve your whole-life goal? Don’t get too excited about removing that stump and earning that professional credential, because you’re no closer to achieving your whole-life goal.”

God and the “Little Voice”

Is there a whole-life goal that is comprehensive, important, and compelling enough to order all our goal-seeking activity into a harmonious whole but is also specific, achievable, and effective in guiding our daily activity? Is there a supreme end that closes the space where the “little voice” rules? Yes, I believe there is. And you won’t be surprised when I echo the Bible and the entire Christian tradition by saying that God is the greatest good and the chief end of human life. I am sure many will say, “Amen!” to this. But sometimes we’re a bit unclear about how making God our whole-life goal deals with the two-fold problem and the little voice. Unlike other whole-life goals, such as happiness, respect, and fame, God is not a general principle or subjective condition. God is a living reality who knows himself perfectly; God knows exactly what he wills and what he does. God knows exactly what he wants us to do and become. Hence doing God’s will, pleasing God, and living with God forever are specific goals—as specific as removing a tree stump or graduating from graduate school—not vague, unmeasurable generalities. And God knows what he wants us to do each step of the way toward achieving our final goal. The “little voice” thrives on generalities and uncertainties. God does not struggle with the “little voice.”

Succeeding at Success

But is our chief end of pleasing God and living with him forever achievable? If “God” were a general principle like happiness or fame or respect, the answer would be no. Achieving subjective states like happiness—even if that were possible—depends on our own power, and it can be thwarted by unfortunate circumstances. But God is not an abstraction. God is alive, and the achievability of our chief end is grounded in his power and love, not in our power and wisdom. In setting our whole-life goal as becoming and doing what God wills and living with him forever, we are merely accepting his grace and affirming what God has promised to give us. Our success is not in doubt because God’s success is not in doubt. The “little voice” cannot convincingly argue that God might not succeed.

Guideposts Along Road to Success

What about specific guidance for our daily lives, in the big and little decisions we must make? Even if the “little voice” cannot threaten us with ultimate failure, perhaps it can still annoy us with questions about the wisdom of the daily decisions we make. “Is it really best to spend your time reading a book? Perhaps you should have spent more time in prayer this morning? Do you really think you need that new computer?” And on and on it goes. As I said above, achieving our final goal is possible and certain only with God’s power and love. In the same way, God’s power and love alone—not our wisdom—grounds our hope of making the decisions and accomplishing the goals that will lead us to eternal success. If the end is not in doubt, neither are the means. Once again, the “little voice” is robbed of its plausibility. It cannot threaten us with the possibility that our lack of wisdom or the likelihood of making mistakes may lead us irretrievably astray. Trusting in our own power and wisdom, gives the “little voice” its power and plausibility. Trusting in God silences the voice, because then its only option is to question God, and that is not plausible.

Ron Highfield

Author Page at Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/author/ron.highfield

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Where’s the Outrage?

Today we return to the theme of  “Love not the world,” taken from 1 John 2:15-17:

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

In times of social unrest we often hear extreme expressions of such emotions as fear, anger and anguish. These expressions are sometimes accompanied by dismay that more people do not seem to feel these emotions as violently as they should. Hence the agonized questions, “Where’s the outrage?” “Why the apathy?”

I’d like to reflect today on these questions.

They presuppose that the right response to perceived injustice is extreme, near out-of-control emotion. A good person, one who cares about right and wrong, justice and injustice, would feel these strong emotions and be moved by them to express them in equally strong ways. Anyone who doesn’t feel and express these emotions shows themselves to be insensitive to wrong and lacking in compassion for its victims.  But is this presupposition really consistent with the Christian understanding ethics and virtue?

John tells us not to love the world or anything in it. Love for the world crowds out love for the Father.  He condemns three emotions or passions, passion for physical pleasure, passion for possessions, and passion for honor. John does not mention other passions, fear, anger, and jealously, but his argument applies equally to all emotions. Allowing any object or any experience in the world to control our emotions and direct our behavior will displace love for the Father. We should not allow ourselves to be controlled, consumed or outraged by the world and its desires. They will pass away.

What then should a good person feel and do in the face of wrong? If allowing ourselves to be outraged, fearful, and anxious conforms to the pattern of the world, what is the correct response? I think John would say that our utmost passion should be to love the Father and do the will of God in every situation. In other words, our emotions and actions should be determined by the unchanging love and will of God rather than by the images and words we meet in the world. Every day the world confronts us with enticing things and revolting things, with good and bad, curses and blessings, beauty and ugliness, safety and danger, right actions and wrong actions. John tells us not to allow our emotions and actions to be determined by the changing scenes around us. We should instead anchor them in God so that we can experience clarity of purpose, steadiness of composure, and consistency of action.

John is not alone in his caution about human passions. I know of no place in the teaching of Jesus or anywhere else in Scripture that encourages us to be angry and express outrage. Quite the opposite is taught. We are taught self-control, moderation, and patience. Would Paul, the author of Galatians and the following ethical teaching, encourage us to rage?

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other (Galatians 5:19-26).

Would the one who pronounced his blessing on the “peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) and instructed us to “turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39) rebuke us for apathy because we are not sufficiently outraged at our enemies?

James seems to think our tendency to outrage is a fault not a virtue:

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be…17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness (James 3:9-18).

Peter also lived in a time of social unrest. What advice did he give?

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing…14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.

No my friends, outrage is never a virtue. Anger is not a reliable guide to justice. Cursing is never a sign of devotion to truth. Nor are self-control, patience, kindness and blessing indications of apathy. Where is the outrage? I can tell you where it’s not: it’s not in any heart devoted to “the love of the Father.” There is no room for outrage there.

Three Views on Women in Leadership: A Hyperlinked Index

A reader of this blog requested that I compile an index that organizes and hyperlinks all the posts in my recent series on the debate between secular feminism, evangelical egalitarianism and Christian Neo-Patriarchy. This series ran through December 2016 and January 2017. I am in the process of turning this series into a book with the tentative title Three Views on Women in Leadership. I am considering giving last names to Sarah, Gloria and Abraham. I am open to suggestions. I am also open to suggestions on anything I need to add to the book to make it better.

I changed the order from the way they appeared onthe blog. Now they are ordered so that the responses follow immediately after the presentations. If you wish, you can forward this page to a friend who would like to read them all together in this new order.

 

Gloria Explains and Defends Secular Feminism

Sarah Responds to Gloria

Abraham Responds to Gloria (Part one)

Abraham Responds to Gloria (Part Two)

Abraham Responds to Gloria (Part Three)

Sarah Explains and Defends Evangelical Egalitarianism

Gloria Responds to Sarah

Abraham Responds to Sarah (Part One)

Abraham Explains and Defends Christian Neo-Patriarchy (Part One)

Abraham Explains and Defends Christian Neo-Patriarchy (Part Two)

Gloria Responds to Abraham

Sarah Responds to Abraham

Women and the Bible: An Egalitarian Critiques Patriarchy

Speakers:

Gloria (Secular Feminist)

Sarah (Evangelical Egalitarian)

Abraham (Neo-Patriarch)

Moderator (Neutral)

 

Moderator: Welcome to our twelfth and final talk in our dialogue on the relationship between men and women in society, church and family. This evening evangelical egalitarian Sarah will reply to Abraham the spokesman for neo-patriarchy.

Sarah: Thank you Moderator for your guidance throughout this dialogue, and thank you Gloria and Abraham for your stimulating presentations. From my perspective, among the most interesting and surprising developments in these discussions were those occasions where Gloria and I agreed against Abraham or Abraham and Gloria agreed against me (!) or Abraham and I agreed against Gloria. I didn’t expect these strange alliances to develop. Each person’s presence added something important to the discussion.

And I have to say, I found both my dialogue partners’ thoughts challenging. Gloria challenged me to show more convincingly just how the message of Scripture supports the case for equality in ways reason and experience cannot. Abraham’s creative combination of reason and scripture to support the justice of traditional role differentiation surprised me and made it necessary for me to seek in the future a combination of the two that supports egalitarianism. But my task tonight is to reply to the central argument in Abraham’s first speech.

Sarah Summarizes Abraham’s Argument

As I understand it Abraham’s argument can be summarized as follows: Abraham asserts the infinite worth of each individual, man or woman, and insists that our primary duty to one another is love. He defines love this way:

“To love another is to seek what is best for them individually, given their natural and historical circumstances.”

Hence to love others and do them justice cannot be identified with treating them equally but falls under the rule of seeking “what is best” for each person. Abraham argues further that since men are on average much stronger physically and more aggressive in temperament than women, the rule of love and justice—that is, of “seeking what is best”— demands that men (and society in general) adopt an attitude of protectiveness toward women. In a just order, the rules and roles for women must give them special protections not needed by men. In Abraham’s words,

“Christian neo-patriarchs believe they ought to view women as mothers, wives, sisters or daughters and adopt a loving and protective attitude toward all women. Not a condescending attitude, for we know that women are just as intelligent and wise as men and women possess infinite worth to God.”

Based on this moral vision, Abraham criticizes the egalitarian demand that all social and church offices and roles be open to women and men alike based on giftedness (or ability) rather than on gender. Instead of this meritocratic rule he defends the church’s practice of withholding “ruling” offices and functions from women as consistent with the teaching of Scripture and the demands of love and justice as exemplified by Jesus.

Sarah’s Four-Part Reply

What’s Wrong With Equality?

I shall reply to the four most basic claims made in this argument. (1) In criticizing my emphasis on equality, Abraham asserts that women and men possess infinite worth in God’s eyes. Equality, he says, is a morally suspect idea. Apparently Abraham thinks my argument and practical program of reform depend on the concept of equality. Without it, so he thinks, egalitarianism falls to the ground. In response, I admit that attributing infinite worth to women says something more sublime about women than the equality claim asserts. But if both men and women have “infinite” worth, don’t they also have equal worth? So, how does Abraham’s move defeat my argument? Shouldn’t women still be treated equally even within Abraham’s theoretical framework? How can he justify departing from the rule that equal dignity demands equal treatment?

Abraham replies to the equal-dignity-equal-treatment challenge by defining love and justice as “seeking what is best” for each person given their natural and individual differences. Equal or infinite dignity demands not equal treatment but true love and justice individualized for the needs of each person. It’s hard to find anything wrong with this principle in theory. But here is the problem: who decides “what is best” for men and women collectively or individually? Wouldn’t there be lots of room for stereotypes, misinformation, prejudice and selfishness in such deliberations? And why should men have any say in determining “what is best” for women? Perhaps each woman should decide for herself what is best for her?

To escape this endless, convoluted discussion evangelical egalitarians choose equality as the norm for the treatment of women rather than “what is best.” The concept of equality is simple and generates simple rules. It’s not subject to endless discussions that attempt to take into account myriads of factors. Indeed, as Abraham points out, equality is more a mathematical than a moral concept. But at least mathematics is simple! There is less room for obfuscation and humbug!

Even for Christians, “Biology is not Destiny!”

(2) Abraham makes much of the biological differences between men and women. I grant that in terms of raw physical strength and psychological aggressiveness men have the natural advantage. But Abraham argues that those biological differences demand to be embodied in hierarchical relationships in society and church. Moreover, he contends that though technological advances can ameliorate the social impact of these differences to some extent, they cannot neutralize them completely. Gloria dealt with this claim effectively in her response to Abraham, so I don’t need to address it at great length.

However, I want to consider one aspect that Gloria as a secular person could not really understand or deal with effectively. Gloria pointed out that Abraham presupposes that God’s choice to create male and female unequal in the areas mentioned above justifies maintaining traditional social inequities. She deals with the problem by dismissing divine creation. I do not believe this is necessary. Indeed, as an evangelical Christian I believe God created male and female with all the differences that that entails. Those differences are good for each gender and for society. We are better and happier together than alone.

But it does not follow that it is wrong to strive to overcome the negative impact of those differences, especially when they are magnified by the effects of sin. God also made males and females intelligent, so it cannot be wrong to use this God-given intelligence to equalize the sexes in the workplace and in other areas. If it were wrong to use our intelligence for this purpose, wouldn’t it also be wrong to use it to cure disease, treat pain, increase productivity and enhance human life? Even for Christians, “Biology is not destiny!”

Condescension and False Dichotomies

(3) Abraham argues that men will relate to women either protectively or exploitatively.  He allows no third alternative. As Abraham sees it, on average men possess superior physical strength of a kind that gives them the ability to intimidate and harm women in one-on-one, private encounters. This fact forces men, whether consciously or not, to adopt one of two attitudes toward women: protectiveness or exploitativeness.

Although Abraham asserts that protectiveness need not be “condescending,” given women’s equality of dignity and intelligence, I am not convinced. It seems to me that both protection and exploitation are condescending and domineering. Both imply that women depend on the goodwill of men in a way that men don’t depend on the goodwill of women. These attitudes discount the equal dignity and intelligence of women and reduce them to their bodies. And this condescension is a constant source of insult and irritation to women.

Additionally, Abraham sets up a false dichotomy. I don’t deny the biological facts of the situation, but why can’t men overcome the impulse to condescension of any kind and simply treat women as equals? Why must the issues of sex and power—as inseparable as the two sides of a coin—cast their cold shadows over every encounter between men and women?

The Weakness of the Biblical Case for Neo-Patriarchy

(4) What about the teaching of Scripture? Abraham contends that Scripture teaches the subordination of wives to husbands in the home and of women to men in the church. He attempts to inoculate Scripture from the secular feminist charge of irrational male prejudice by showing that Scripture’s perspective and its instructions are reasonable, just and loving when measured against the facts of nature. He anticipates the evangelical egalitarian argument from Galatians 3:26-29—“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female.”—by limiting its application to justification. These verses speak of a new way of relating to God. In the matter of sin and its forgiveness, the worldly status of people makes no difference. All that counts is faith and the life that flows from it. This text does not speak of actually recreating people so that they are no longer male and female. Accordingly, Abraham concludes, it should not be taken to imply that the traditional social, ecclesiastical and familial orders be reordered so that being male or female makes no difference. Hence preserving the “ruling” offices in the church for men is not only reasonable, just and loving, but also obligatory. I shall reply to each phase of this argument in order.

First, I can see why Abraham appeals to reason and natural law to absolve Scripture of irrationality and male bias. He presents an interesting case for patriarchy. Some people may find it compelling. But I don’t believe it really meets the challenge of secular feminism. It leaves the essential idea of patriarchy intact. I too want to defeat critics of Scripture that accuse it of such prejudice. But I don’t see the need to appeal to biology and natural law. I think we can show that the central message of God’s love, new creation and redemption in Christ shows that patriarchy is peripheral to the ethics of Scripture and has been made obsolete by the Christian vision of equality in Christ.

Second, I’ve already dealt extensively with Galatians 3:26-29 in this dialogue, so I don’t need to spend much time on it. I admit that the subject of this text is justification before God and unity in Christ. This is the subject under discussion in the Galatians as a whole. But that doesn’t settle the issue of what follows from the fact of our solidarity in Christ. If our worldly—even biological—status makes no difference in the matter of sin and salvation, surely we are not permitted to carry on “business as usual” in society, church and family! If God accepts us because of our faith rather than any biological or social status, surely we must accept and relate to each other on that same basis! And if we really accept each other on this basis, how can we defend and practice an order based on biological and social status? Moreover, if we insist on continuing the old order, don’t we render our assertions of salvation by faith and oneness in Christ empty phrases? Pie in the sky with no ethical teeth?

Third, what is this all talk about “ruling” and “ruling offices” in the church? Jesus rebuked his disciples for talking like this. He told them that the greatest among them is the one who serves all the rest (Mark 9:33-37). And Jesus himself set the example of greatness in service by washing his disciples’ dirty feet and dying on the cross for sinners (John 13:1-17 and Philippians 2:1-11). The New Testament understands every office and function in the church as service to others for Christ’s sake. If we are thinking rightly about church officers and functions, we won’t view them as ruling but as serving roles. Hence even if you think women should not rule over men, why object to them serving the church in any way they can and doing anything the church needs done and calls them to do?

Moderator: Thank you Sarah, Gloria and Abraham for a very stimulating debate. This concludes our time together. I hope that truth will be served by such respectful and thoughtful conversations as we have witnessed in these twelve sessions. And I am sure you agree.

Programming Note: I am now in the process of editing this 12-part dialogue for publication as a small book. The tentative title is Three Views on Women in Church Leadership. The purpose of the book, like the purpose of this dialogue, is to help churches, church leaders and members to think through the issues now facing many Bible-believing churches concerning the apparent tension between the teaching of Scriptures on the subject of women and church leadership and the increasing demands of society for the equality of women to men in society and church.

“Biology Is Not Destiny”: The Feminist Case Against Male Superiority

Speakers:

Gloria (Secular Feminist)

Sarah (Evangelical Egalitarian)

Abraham (Neo-Patriarch)

Moderator (Neutral)

Moderator: We are now entering the last phase of our dialogue on the subject of gender relationships in society, church and family. Only two presentations to go. In this our eleventh session, our representative of secular feminism Gloria will respond to Abraham’s presentation of neo-patriarchy. Please welcome Gloria to the podium.

Gloria: Thank you. There are so many things I’d like to address in Abraham’s talk, it’s mood of condescension, it’s male-normative perspective, and it’s exaggeration of female vulnerability. My suspicion is that Abraham’s rational and theological arguments are mere rationalizations of the prejudices I just mentioned. I will let the audience decide. Despite my suspicions, I will limit my assessment of Abraham’s talk to its philosophical aspects.

As I see it Abraham’s case rests on his rational analysis of the natural characteristics of women and men. Men are physically stronger and temperamentally more aggressive than women. Women become pregnant, carry babies and provide them with milk from their bodies. These factors make women vulnerable to male exploitation and dependent on male protection. According to Abraham, these facts of nature will necessarily manifest themselves at the social level and, consequently, they justify the social, ecclesial and familial inequalities present in traditional societies. To be fair, I should point out that Abraham admits that particular arrangements will differ from society to society and from age to age. Nevertheless, it is clear that Abraham denies that these natural inequalities will ever be neutralized completely at the social level. Nor should they be, in his view.

Far be it from me to deny the basic facts of biology. Nor do I deny that biological differences will manifest themselves in society. In a one-on-one, unarmed encounter, men have the advantage over women in a fight to the death. And in primitive, warrior societies where the survival of the tribe depends on its effectiveness in battle, I admit there are good reasons for the traditional division of labor between men and women. And I understand that the warrior class (males only) will also demand to be the tribal leaders. Nor do I dispute the overall reasonableness of this demand, since leadership in that setting is about conducting war or perpetually preparing for it.

Like his hero Aristotle, Abraham recognizes that women and men are equal in native intelligence. I think he would also admit that if human minds did not live in bodies or if they could be transferred to unisex humanoid robots, the differences would be overcome. So far so good, but our agreement ends here. From this point on Abraham’s argument goes terribly wrong. The facts do not warrant the conclusions he draws from them. Though he admits that modern technology has made the physical differences between men and women less significant in the sphere of work and war than in the past, he still seems to think that the superiority of the naked male body for war and work (hard physical labor) creates a moral imperative for society to mirror this relationship of superiority and inferiority in all dimensions. Perhaps his belief that God created nature lies behind his assertion that the order of nature possesses the force of law. Some such metaphysical belief must be at work here.

I begin at a different place and argue for a different result. I argue that equality of intelligence between men and women, which Abraham also accepts, creates a moral imperative for us to strive for equality in all other areas. Biology should not determine ethics. Or, as one of my feminist sisters said, “Biology is not destiny!” Unlike Abraham, I do not believe in divine creation. Evolution creates facts but imposes no moral obligations. Hence I do not believe that the factual biological order possesses any moral force. In sum, Abraham allows biological inequality to blunt the moral force of intellectual equality. I argue that it should be the other way around.

I envision a society where technology eventually makes all—or nearly all—work depend on knowledge rather than muscle, thought instead of testosterone, and where law roots out all irrational bias against female knowledge workers. As to areas of work where muscle still determines productivity, I believe society should not allow profit to be the sole determining factor for allocating social goods. The moral imperative of intellectual and moral equality should rule out of court any bias against women in hiring for such labor intensive jobs.

Concerning Abraham’s contention that women continue to need male protection, it should be pointed out that everyone, men as well as women, need police protection against violent criminals, male or female. Men murder other men more often than men murder women. Society as a collective is neither male nor female, and it is stronger than any one man or gang of men. Society has replaced big brothers and fathers as the protector of women. Modern family law has replaced the will of father as the law of the household and has outlawed domestic violence, marital rape and other abuses of women.

In response to Abraham’s theological arguments, I have little to add to my case against Sarah’s theological use of the Bible. In response to Sarah, I argued that the Bible cannot be made to support feminism; such support would be redundant in any case. Feminism doesn’t need any help from religion. Indeed Abraham represents the Bible more accurately than Sarah does. Sarah is grasping at straws. Abraham is correct to argue that the Bible supports patriarchy rather than equalitarianism. But I am not moved by either argument, for the Bible holds no authority for me. The arguments between Sarah and Abraham about biblical interpretation seem to me much ado about nothing.

Moderator: Thank you Gloria. I appreciate your contribution to this dialogue. It was invaluable.

Note: The twelfth and last part of this series will be posted on Tuesday, January 24. Sarah will present her response to Abraham.

A Dialogue Between a Secular Feminist, an Evangelical Egalitarian, and a Neo-Patriarch

Speakers:

Gloria (Secular Feminist)

Sarah (Evangelical Egalitarian)

Abraham (Neo-Patriarch)

Moderator (Neutral)

Opening Statements

Moderator: I am very grateful that you three have agreed to engage in a dialogue on a topic of intense interest and immense significance for my audience, that is, the ethics of male/female relationships in society, church, and home. Of course, we will not attempt to address every dimension of that issue but will focus on power and privilege, which are at the center of the contemporary controversy. As moderator, I will not take sides but I will attempt to enforce civility and encourage clarity. And I will try to keep you from straying from the topic under discussion. The dialogue will begin with opening statements from each of you. Please state your view clearly, explain your grounds for holding it, and detail some of its practical implications for society, church, and home. The order will be Gloria, Sarah, and Abraham.

Secular Feminism

Gloria: Thank you, Moderator, for the opportunity to explain and defend secular feminism to this audience. And since you seek clarity in this dialogue, I shall begin with a statement as clear as crystal: 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. Some things are logically impossible for everyone. Some things are physically impossible for everyone. And some things are physically possible for some people but for not others. But anything that is possible 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. And we condemn every political, social, ecclesiastical, and familial institution that keeps a woman from actualizing her potential the way she wishes.

Having stated clearly what secular feminists assert, I shall explain the grounds or justification for our assertions. Those grounds fall into two categories. The first concerns a view of the self that is presupposed by all modern progressive movements, including secular feminism. The second concerns women’s experience of their own selves as women. The modern view of the self began to surface in the Renaissance, continued in the 17th century Enlightenment and in the 19th century Romantic Movement, and came to maturity in the late 20th century. When you disengage the human self from all external frameworks that impose on the self a preexisting, unchosen, and alien identity—state, society, family, church, and nature—you discover the essential self. This self exists apart from these frameworks and possesses power to create its own identity, that is, to become what it wishes to be. Its essence or one essential property is freedom, the creative power of will. The dignity of the 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. In fact, this assertion is the self’s essence and its proper act. And it demands that others respect its self-respect. This then is first justification for secular feminists’ assertion of their right to self-determination against all external frameworks and powers.

The second justification is specific to women. Women are self-creating selves like all human beings but in their own particular way. We secular feminists call it “women’s experience.” Women experience their female bodies from within, and they experience the external world of nature, society, church, men, and family as women. And that experience includes misrepresentation, oppression, exclusion, domination, abuse, and rape. Women’s experience includes the feeling of powerlessness, forced silence, and dismissiveness on the part of men. Women experience being valued only for the satisfaction of male lust, as wombs used for reproduction, as housekeepers, cooks, caretakers for children, and babysitters for immature men. We secular feminists consider women’s experience an authority by which to critique the oppressive structures of the patriarchal past and those that still remain.  More accurately, the modern view of the self, which I described above, is the authority by which oppressive structures are judged to be wrong and women’s experience is the way even subtle oppressive structures are revealed as oppressive for women. (In philosophical language, the first is ontological, having to do with the mode of being, and the second is epistemic, having to do with the way of knowing.) Because of their experience of oppression, women can see things that men cannot see.These two sources together provide a foundation and justification for secular feminism.

The third thing the Moderator asked me to do was to detail some practical implications of secular feminism. I will be as clear in this section as I was in the first. 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. These institutions include all public and so-called private institutions: government, churches, military, clubs, families, societies, and schools. 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. As for churches, they are the worst offenders, not only because of their oppressive practices but, more egregiously, because of their patriarchal ideology dictated by 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. While I am on that subject…

Moderator: Perhaps this would be a good place to stop, since you seem to have completed your case and are now skating close to the edge of incivility. I think you have given our audience a clear idea of the nature of secular feminism. Your statement was clear, bold, and honest. It will give us something to think about and discuss in the next phase of the dialogue.

Next, we will hear from Sarah our representative of Evangelical Egalitarianism.

The Decisive Issue

Practice has made us perfect at evading the decisive issue in almost every decision we make, in every action we take, and in every word we say. The decisive question we must answer is not “How does this action make me appear to others?” It’s not “Do I feel strongly about what I am saying?” Nor is it “Can I find some justification for this decision?” It’s not even “Will this act accomplish something good or is this word true?”

The most important question for me at every point is this: “How does it stand between me and God?” “What is God’s judgment about me?” It’s not “How does it stand between my brother or sister or my enemy or this or that public figure and God?” It’s not “How does my group or nation or other groups and nations stand in relation to God?” I answer to God for what I am and do. You answer to God for what you are and do. And the moment I begin making judgments about how it stands between you and God, I have already begun evading the decisive issue in my life, which is God’s assessment of me.

Perhaps the most familiar and misused of Jesus’ sayings is found in Matthew 7:1-2:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

This saying is often misinterpreted to mean that since everyone is their own judge and gets to determine what is good and right for them, no one else has the right to make that determination. This interpretation is doubly wrong. First, we are not our own judges. Jesus does not forbid judging others because it violates others’ right judge their own case. God is the judge—everyone’s judge—and that is why Jesus forbids judging each other. To pretend to make a judgment only God’s has the right and knowledge to make and the power to enforce, is to place ourselves in God’s judgment seat. And no one who truly recognizes God as their judge can at the same time substitute their own judgment for God’s judgment.

There is a second problem with the popular misinterpretation of Jesus’ command not to judge. In verse 1, “to judge” means to pronounce a verdict on someone’s person. (This is obvious from what Jesus says in verse 2 about the measure or standard used. His warning assumes that in our judgments we usually hold others to a higher standard than the one to which we wish to be held.) Jesus speaks of a judgment about the ultimate disposition of an individual, a judgment that should take into account every factor that touches the case. That is to say, it is a judgment only God can make. It is not mere recognition that someone broke a law to which they were subject. Jesus does not deny that some actions are wrong for everyone or that we can know what those actions are and recognize when another person does them. You are not “judging” someone when you recognize or even inform them that they are breaking a law. It becomes a forbidden judgment only when you try to speak for God, as if you knew the “sinner” as well as God does or understood completely the extent of God’s mercy or depth of his justice.

How does it stand between me and God? This is the question I should remember when I am tempted to contrast other people’s weaknesses and sins to my strengths and good deeds and excellent motives. When I feel the urge to vent my anger or unleash a sarcastic or insulting word, remembering that God is my judge will give me pause. I don’t get to judge myself. Nor am I allowed to inflict the punishment of anger and insult and violence on others. When someone expresses a “stupid,” “benighted,” or “biased” opinion about religion, politics, or morality, if you must respond at all, respond with the consciousness that God alone knows the human heart, and that God alone determines how others stand before him. Be as merciful to others as you want God to be to you. When I think of Matthew 7:2, my friends, it scares me to death; for I need maximum mercy! Don’t we all?