Highlights of Women Caught in the Conflict:
The Culture War Between Traditionalism and Feminism by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis
1. In the debate among evangelicals concerning the properly biblical “place” for women in the church today, traditionalists may usually be heard arguing their case from the biblical texts that directly address the roles of men and women in the NT church. However, the case for unequal gender roles does not begin with a set of biblical prooftexts
, but with a set of assumptions about feminism and modern culture. The biblical texts are then interpreted and applied in light of these assumptions.
2. The anti-feminist
traditionalist argument goes like this: Any objection to “traditional” gender roles is “feminist,” and anything feminist is entirely a product of modern culture, and modern culture stands in total opposition to biblical values. Therefore, any interpretation of the Bible that questions the “traditional” roles could only arise, not out of a genuine respect for the authority of Scripture, but out of a desire to use the Bible to justify an agenda that the church has imported from modern culture. This particular understanding of how “feminism” relates to culture and to Christianity is, in large part, what fuels the emotional firestorm that can so easily be ignited whenever evangelical Christians discuss this issue.
3. Once we examine the influence of culture, Christianity, and tradition in the historical development of the feminist and traditionalist views of gender roles, we see that evangelical feminism cannot justifiably be dismissed as an offshoot of the modern feminism movement, nor can traditionalism be automatically accepted as the model of family life upheld by the Christian church for centuries past. Reducing the issue to a simple conflict between biblical tradition and modern secular culture misconstrues the nature of the two positions and deflects the discussion from actual ideas to superficial caricatures.
4. The gender roles that are considered “traditional” today are modeled on the middle-class suburban American culture of the 1950s; and this culture was essentially a reincarnation (with minor adaptations) of the middle-class Victorian culture of the 19th
century. Except for the truly traditional elements of male authority and Christian moral standards for sexual behavior, the gender roles of the traditionalist family model today (such as the woman being “full-time mother” and the man being “sole provider”) are no older than the last century. These roles do not come from biblical teaching or centuries of Christian tradition, but from the economic and social changes that occurred with the industrialization of American society. Moreover, the nature and purpose of male authority has been revised considerably by today’s traditionalists, so that even this truly traditional item has been transformed into something of a historical anomaly.
5. The idea that women should be allowed to exercise their gifts alongside men in the evangelical church has not popped up suddenly in church history, simply in imitation of modern secular feminism. More than a hundred years before Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963, a significant number of evangelical women and men were earnestly exhorting women to emerge from obscurity and do what God had called them to do—even if their calling was to a public ministry of preaching, teaching, or evangelizing. This emphasis on women’s ministry was a by-product of the evangelical revivals of the 19th
century—as were other social and spiritual concerns, such as the anti-slavery movement, the missionary movement, and the campaign for women’s right to vote, own property, and obtain an education.
6. After 1920 or so, the early evangelical women’s movement petered out, as did the women’s movement in American culture at large. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, a concern for women’s equality resurfaced in both secular culture and the church. So it has been easy for conservative Christians to assume that evangelical feminism came from secular feminism, and therefore to dismiss it in one fell swoop and without further discussion. In reality, biblical feminism is not a recent social development that depends on contemporary secular feminism for its impetus, but rather is historically rooted in a movement that began in a much earlier time and arose out of a much more Christianized culture.
7. There are various types of feminism today, arising from a diverse assortment of worldviews—including pantheism, postmodernism, humanism, socialism, classical liberalism, and Christian theism (which itself is divided between those who adhere strictly to biblical authority and those who do not). All feminists are in agreement that woman’s traditional “place” in the home and society is somehow unfair and inequitable. But their understanding of how women are untreated unfairly, why this is so, and what to do about it, depends on the worldview that undergirds
their feminist theory.
8. Briefly described, and roughly in order of their historical origin as social/religious movements, some of the major types of feminism (with their respective worldviews) are:
(1) Evangelical/biblical feminism (based on Christian theism, grounded in biblical authority) seeks to exposit
and implement the biblical principle that, because every human being stands on equal ground before God, there is no moral or theological justification for granting or denying spiritual status, privilege or prerogative solely on the basis of race, class, or gender (Galatians 3:26-28). Biblical texts that have traditionally been understood to say otherwise should be interpreted in light of both their cultural context and the fundamental principle that Scripture will not contradict Scripture (the analogy of faith).
(2) Classical feminism (based on classical liberalism) strives to achieve equal rights under the law for every individual, regardless of race, gender, or any other social grouping. The individual’s right to free choice is emphasized, but is also circumscribed by a social consensus of moral norms based generally on Christian ethics.
(3) Liberal feminist theology (based on Christian theism, not grounded in biblical authority) revises and reconceptualizes
the Bible from the woman’s point of view. Portions of the biblical text that are considered hopelessly biased by the sexism of the male authors are rejected. Those texts that resonate with the principle of liberation and equality are accepted as “authoritative.”
(4) Modern liberal feminism (based on humanism and socialism) fights for legal rights that are not “equal” in the sense of being color-blind or gender-free, but rather are dispensed according to a standard of reverse discrimination, whereby past grievances are compensated for. Since there is no cultural consensus of Christian moral values in modern society, the individual’s right to free choice has become the new moral absolute (hence abortion rights and homosexual rights are included in the feminist “rights” package).
(5) Spiritual feminism or goddess religion (based on pantheism and polytheism) maintains that the Goddess—generally regarded as the divine feminine creative force of the universe—is within every woman. The goal is for women to become attuned to, and experientially
one with, the goddess within, and thereby to become spiritually empowered. This is accomplished through various religious, mystical, and occult rituals.
(6) Woman-centered radical feminism (based on the maximal relativism and irrationalism
of postmodernism) deems “truth” a product of one’s experience, which is, in turn, a product of one’s gender, race, and/or ethnic background. For the woman-centered feminist, the traditional, patriarchal, “male” way of thinking and doing must be overturned and replaced with a female perspective (i.e., “truth” according to women’s experience). This approach is fairly common among feminist academics.
9. Evangelical feminism differs from other types of feminism in that it looks to the Bible, not women’s experience, as its final authority. It therefore adheres to the fundamental biblical norms for sexual behavior, and within this context seeks to provide for women the opportunity to utilize their God-given gifts for the good or the church and the glory of God. The goal is mutual submission and service to others in obedience of God—which contrasts sharply with other types of feminism that focus on acquiring “female power” and independence from (or even superiority over) men.
10. The problem with modern, non-evangelical feminism is not that it is feminist, but that it is modern. It has turned away from the biblical and classically liberal idea of the equality of the individual under God. Like other modern isms, it is ideologically based upon radical individualism and moral relativism; that is, it locates the source of moral values in the individual rather than in God. As a result, feminism today is very different from the pro-family, pro-life, Christian-compatible feminism of the 19th
11. To be “pro-choice” is to be anti-woman. This truth was seen clearly by early feminists, but it is lost to the view of modern feminists. Nineteenth-century feminists sought to hold men accountable to moral standards for sexual behavior, and opposed abortion in part because it allowed men to escape their responsibilities. Modern feminists, however, have leveled the moral landscape by advocating sexual promiscuity for women as well as men—which has created a demand for the “quick fix” of abortion. Because abortion is now seen as the woman’s “choice,” pregnancy and parenthood are also seen as the woman’s choice. This puts the entire responsibility for children upon the mother, and relieves the father of any obligation to care for his offspring—which hardly works in favor of women’s social freedom and equality. The fundamental assumption of the abortion agenda is that women are not “equal” as women (a condition that can involve pregnancy); they must have the opportunity to be made “equal” (i.e., not pregnant) through invasive surgery, whenever the “man’s world” in which they live, and to which they must adapt, requires it. In advocating abortion rights, modern feminism betrays the premise of any liberation movement (namely, belief in the equal rights of all human beings) by denying the rights of preborn
12. Many people tend to have a “bandwagon mentality”; they assume that anyone who is not on the traditionalist bandwagon must be on the radical feminist bandwagon, and will ultimately end up advocating abortion rights, homosexual rights, sexual “freedom,” and even goddess worship. Evangelical feminism tends to be perceived as a “package deal”: it cannot be purchased separately, but with it comes all the baggage associated with moral relativism and radical feminism. Those who believe that women should have equal opportunity with men for ministry in the church, and shared authority and mutual submission with their husbands in the home, are regarded as having stepped out onto a slippery slope that will soon have them sliding into all the blasphemous excesses of feminist apostasy. But is evangelical feminism on a slippery slope? Does it have within it the beginnings of blatant and blasphemous error? Is it, in both essence and premise, identical with modern secular feminism? No, no, and no.
13. Many errors in thinking have contributed to this state of affairs, including: naiveté
concerning the inevitable influence of culture on biblical interpretation; historical myopia (ignorance of the historical development of ideas); “poisoning the well” (condemning an idea on the basis of where it is believed to have come from); chronological snobbery (accepting or rejecting an idea according to whether it is from the past or from the present); the false dilemma (thinking that traditionalism and radical feminism are the only options from which to choose); caricature (exaggerating the worst in feminism and then ridiculing it); and imputing false motives to one’s opponents (evangelical feminists are anti-family, traditionalists are anti-women).
14. Traditionalists tend to believe that the biblical teaching about gender roles is not open for debate, and that anyone who questions the traditionalist gender agenda has been unduly influenced by the unbiblical
beliefs of modern culture. With such fears, prejudices, and preconceptions in place—aided and abetted by the deeply-held but usually inarticulated
emotional resistance many people have to the very idea of women’s equality—the biblical case for equality between women and men does not even receive a fair hearing. In the end, an interpretational
disagreement that is within the bounds of biblical orthodoxy comes to be regarded as a watershed dispute between the heretics on one side and the champions of biblical authority on the other.
15. We need to clarify what is and what is not at stake in this conflict, so we can engage in healthy debate on an issue that is legitimately debatable on biblical grounds. What is not at stake is women’s opportunity to be whole persons and to pursue their callings whatever they may be, as well as everyone’s opportunity to benefit from the full range of women’s gifts and to learn from and relate to women as whole persons.