Gloria (Secular Feminist)
Sarah (Evangelical Egalitarian)
Moderator: It’s hard to believe that this is our tenth session in our dialogue on the relationship between men and women in society, church and family. Abraham will now reply to Sarah’s evangelical egalitarianism from the perspective of neo-patriarchy. Perhaps Abraham can keep it brief this time.
[Note: Sarah’s talk was posted on this blog on December 10, 2016.]
Abraham Replies to Sarah
Abraham: Thank you for the opportunity to reply to Sarah and for the encouragement to brevity. Let me begin by referring back to Gloria’s critique of evangelical egalitarianism. As a secular feminist, Gloria has no sympathy for the Bible or evangelical Christianity. Nor does she betray much understanding of either one. But she has stumbled on the central problem with Sarah’s position, that is, the tension between the evangelical view of the moral and doctrinal teaching of the Bible and egalitarianism. Gloria argues for their incompatibility, and so will I. But our agreement ends at this point. Gloria rejects the Bible in order to preserve egalitarianism. I reject egalitarianism in order to preserve evangelical Christianity (and reason!). And Sarah wants to preserve both.
The Function of the Feminist Principle in Evangelical Egalitarianism
Sarah affirms her full agreement with Gloria’s feminist principle and program of reform. For your convenience I will quote it again:
“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.”
Sarah said of this principle, “I agree wholeheartedly with Gloria. What motivation other than irrational prejudice could anyone have for disagreeing with this principle?” In my reply to Gloria [Posted January 06, 2017], I criticized this rule from a rational point of view. I won’t repeat those criticisms here except to say that I demonstrated that this principle is neither self-evident nor universally applicable. It is not true that “irrational prejudice” is the only possible motivation for making different sets of rules for men and women. No one, man or woman, really believes this!
Sarah’s larger argument assumes the feminist principle without analysis or argument. It then expends most of its energy attempting to demonstrate that the Bible can be interpreted in a way consistent with or even supportive of it. Clearly, the feminist principle serves Sarah’s argument as a self-evident norm by which to measure the moral vision of the Bible. Gloria argued that Sarah’s use of the Bible is redundant except as an appeal to her evangelical audience. I think Glory makes a good point. But if the feminist principle itself is not self-evident or universal, Sarah’s entire argument collapses. She loses her infallible principle that enables her to separate the Bible’s higher moral vision (egalitarian) from its lower one (patriarchy).
Let’s take stock of where we stand. I have made it impossible for Sarah to continue using the feminist principle as the unquestioned norm for her biblical interpretation. Even now her entire argument lies in ruins. It cannot be resurrected without extensive revisions. And without the presumption of the self-evidence and universal nature of the feminist principle her case can never return to its former glory. But now let’s look at Sarah’s argument from another angle. Let’s examine her claim to have preserved evangelical Christianity in her argument for egalitarianism.
Treachery of Feminist Hermeneutics
Sarah claims to be an evangelical Christian and she claims that one can defend evangelical theology while affirming the feminist principle. She gives a brief definition of evangelicalism:
We believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, crucified for our sins and raised bodily from the dead. We accept the Old and New Testament Scriptures as the inspired Word of God, the authority for faith and practice for the Christian church.
Of course Sarah admits that many texts in this “inspired Word of God” fall far short of affirming egalitarianism. The Old Testament law makes different rules for men and women, some of which sound to modern ears highly disparaging to women. Jesus chose only men as apostles. Paul speaks of man as the “head” of woman, and he gives different rules for women and men when they speak in the assembly of the church (1 Corinthians 11:1-16). He tells women to be silent in church and to ask their husbands any questions they have when they return home (1 Corinthians 14:34-38). He speaks of the husband as “the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church,” and enjoins submission of wives to husbands (Ephesians 5:1-21). Peter speaks of women as “the weaker partner” (1 Peter 3:1-7). In 1 Timothy 2:11-12, women are forbidden to “teach or assume authority over men.” The rulers of the church, elders and bishops, must be men (1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1).
Secular or religiously liberal feminists, neither of whom submit to the authority of the Bible for faith and practice, can easily dismiss these texts as products of ancient patriarchy. They don’t need the Bible to support their moral vision; they get their morals from progressive culture. But evangelical egalitarians cannot take this easy option. They must find a way to subordinate the “patriarchal” texts to the “egalitarian” ones without denying that Scripture is “the authority for faith and practice for the Christian church.” How can this be done?
There is only one way. Evangelical egalitarians must argue that the “patriarchal” rules and restrictions on women do not express the essential moral vision of the Bible rooted in the facts of the gospel of Christ. Instead, these regulations are conscious or unconscious accommodations to patriarchal culture or situationally determined applications of such other principles as good order or time-sensitive apostolic judgments that can be revised by the church. My concern with this approach to interpreting the scriptures is this: despite evangelical egalitarian claims to the contrary, many people will conclude that one can remain a good Christian while ignoring or discounting the clear moral teachings of the scriptures. If we can find a way around the apostolic teaching about the roles of men and women in the governance of the church and the family, can we not follow the same procedure when the subject is same-sex marriage or homosexuality or abortion? In other words, I think evangelical egalitarianism opens the door to so-called liberal Christianity.
Galatians 3:28 Again
Sarah and other evangelical egalitarians argue that Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female.”) articulates the essential egalitarian message of the gospel whereas the submission and restriction texts do not.
You may be surprised to hear that I agree with Sarah up to a point. In biblical interpretation and doctrinal application it is very important to distinguish the central gospel message and Jesus’ high ethical vision from the detailed applications the apostolic church had to make from day to day and situation to situation. Surely everyone believes that Paul would agree that it’s much more important to believe the gospel and love your neighbor than to keep women silent in the churches. Is it still important for women to wear a head covering and for men to keep their hair cut short? Matters such as these have to be debated and judgments have to be made in every generation. They cannot be settled in advance.
And I agree that Galatians 3:26-29 articulates a central gospel principle:
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 states plainly that gender, social status and ethnic identity do not determine one’s relationship to God. Faith and baptism unite people to Christ. But evangelical egalitarians are mistaken to deduce from Paul’s clear affirmation that the means of justification apply to all without distinction the conclusion that all distinctions in society, church and family must be abolished. Justification deals with something all people share regardless of gender and social standing: all have sinned and everyone needs a savior. Here there is no difference. But people are not the same in all respects. And Paul and other New Testament authors take these distinctions into account in their moral teaching about social, ecclesiastical and familial life. And I believe they are right to do so.
Sarah admits that some distinctions must be made in roles, offices and activities in the church. But, she argues, these distinctions must be made according to “giftedness” and not according to gender. What about this principle? What is “giftedness”? It is a power, native or learned, natural or supernatural, that enables one to perform a task. It’s called a “gift” because whether in a natural way or a supernatural way this power derives from God and is given by grace. To be consistent with her egalitarian assertion, Sarah would have to insist that being created a woman or a man is not a gift, because if it were it could rightly become a basis for assigning roles and functions and offices in the church! But according to Sarah, to be given that set of characteristics and powers entailed in being a woman or a man implies nothing about church roles, offices and activities. And for the church to consider maleness or femaleness a gift and make distinctions accordingly would be wrong.
I find Sarah’s exclusion of maleness and femaleness from the category of “giftedness” implausible and arbitrary. As I argued in my response to Gloria, being a woman or a man is not a superficial characteristic like eye color or height. The differences between men and women are profound and are bound to have consequences for the order in society, church and home. Hence the apostolic rules differentiating the roles and functions of men and women in the church and home cannot be presumed without examination to be in violation of the Pauline principle of justification by faith or the evangelical egalitarian principle of giftedness. In fact, they are rooted in the created order, which can be discerned to some extent by reason, and they are intended for the good of women and men.
Moderator: Thank you, Abraham. Next time we will hear Sarah’s and Gloria’s replies to Abraham.