Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Ministers in Skirts
by Douglas Jones
Believers very rarely fight strategic battles. When provoked, they sometimes fight effectively and well in tactical skirmishes, but do not do well outside their tactical radius. When some outrage can no longer be ignored, battle may be joined and the outrage attacked. But scarcely any believers see a pattern in the general mayhem. Very few generals can stand on a hill and consider all the movements of all the troops. In our cultural wars, this is why the issue of women in the pulpit, or on the elder board, has been handled the way it has beenó which is to say, ineffectively. Many good folks have dedicated themselves to fighting this thing as though it were a tactical issue. But it is not. In the current climate of unbelief, the proper exegesis of the Pauline teaching on the role of women in the Church will never settle anything. The words seem plain enough. "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety" (1 Tim. 2:11-15). But here is the catch: the words are plain only to those who are willing for them to be plain. For those reckoned among the unwilling, the passage is full of mysteries. Because woman is the glory of man, a wife should go to the local congregation with a covering of hair, a humble woman's glory. And why is this? "For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man" (1 Cor. 11:8-9). It may fill all us moderns with regret, but such teaching cannot in any way be reconciled with feminism of any kind. But for those in the Church who want to conduct some kind of dialogue with feminism, the words present an exegetical obstacle course. How can we keep this wording, and thus remain evangelical, and at the same time get around what it says, and thus be theologically trendy ? We need to look at the original Greek! But the existence of debate within the Church tells us far more about the muddiness of our hearts than it does about the obscurity of any text. Those Christians who do see what these passages say will frequently be sucked into a tactical debate because they foolishly believe that their opponents have accepted the authority of the text. But this is not the case at all. Evangelical feminists have not accepted the (patriarchal) authority of the text; they are simply at that early stage of subversion where open defiance would be counterproductive of their purposes. So what is our strategic position? How has this debate gotten a foothold? Why is there such an interest, in evangelical circles, to admit women into the leadership of the church? The answer is that we do not want feminine leadership; we want more feminine leadership. The men in our pulpits for many years have been simply jury-rigged women; when the request comes to bring in the real thing, on what principle will the request be denied? We cannot say that we must have masculinity in the pulpit because we do not have that now. For well over a century in the American church, the norms of spirituality have been the standards set by a saccharine Victorian feminism. In the early part of the nineteenth century, like two mobs converging on a quiet crossroads, two revolutions merged to produce this effect, and we have not yet recovered any understanding of what life in the Church was like before this happened to us.1 The first was the rise of a sentimental and domestic feminism. Prior to the industrial revolution, the role of women in America was at the center of the economy. Women managed the home, manufactured the cloth, processed the food, fed the entire family, etc. But with the rise of industrialized wealth, the role of women shifted from producing to consuming. The women were, in effect, disestablishe-and became decorative. Middle class women became a new leisure class, with money to spend, and time to fill. And one of the things they began to do was to write and read sappy novels. The second factor was the sentimental revolt of ministers against the strictures of theological Calvinism. The older Calvinist establishment was perceived as austere and harsh (and in the Yankee culture of New England, it frequently was). This revolt had manifestations on both the right-wing and the left-wing. The left-wing anti-Calvinists were the Unitarians, who captured Harvard in 1805. The right-wing anti-Calvinists were the revivalists, typified by leaders such as Charles Finney, who were greatly swelled with a humanistic, democratic spirit which they all thought was the Holy Ghost. All this occurred while the churches of New England were in the process of being disestablished, no longer receiving funding from tax revenues. More important than the loss of tax money, however, was the fact that these Congregational clergymen, long accustomed to their role as a central part of the Estab-lishment, found themselves outsiders, now having to compete for parishioners, just like the lowly Baptists and frontier Methodists. The women with time on their hands provided a ready audience for these ministers, and the anti-Calvinist ministers provided a suitably sentimental gospel for the women accustomed to their feminized literary entertainment. So an alliance was formed between the clergymen and the women, and a new spiritual norm was established within the Church. All these developments, centered largely in New England, were not followed for the most part by the more conservative and agrarian South. But the new regime of feminization came to the Southern church as well. The War Between the States decimated the strong masculine leadership of the South for all intents and purposes. The men were no longer leading because the men were dead. Since that time (exaggerating only slightly) southern churches have been run by three women and the pastor. The literature of the nineteenth century was not reticent in propagating this new sentimental view of the gospel. In these stories, we see an iron regime of domesticity-feminine tastes and values are set up as the standard of godliness and as a genuine regenerative influence. The unregenerate man in the stories was of course worldly wise, and something of a rake, unless he is converted to . . . what? Until he was converted to see it her way, and came around to bask in the gospel of the feminine aura. We are so besotted that current "traditional values" Christians are actually reprinting and circulating this nineteenth-century treacle as though it represented a biblical view of the world. But Elsie Dinsmore represents nothing of the kind. She simply stands for an early form of feminism, and conservatives who hail her piety are revealing that they do not know what has happened to the Church. Another example is the ancestor of our moronic WWJD bracelet-that book entitled In His Steps. The book was in many ways typical of the genre; the divine influence is mediated through a woman. Men can be converted by listening to a pretty voice. It reminds me of a time in boot camp when we were all entertained at chapel by a visiting singing group of lovely women. When the altar call was given, one poor sailor, thoroughly revived, went forward over the tops of the pews. As a result of all these factors, a standard of feminine piety has been accepted as normative in the Church as the standard for all the saints, both men and women. Clergymen, trying to live up to their reputation as the third sex, have labored mightily to be what they need to be in order to maintain this standard. But try as they might, men are no good at being women. However hard they try, their attempts ring hollow. The pressure is therefore on to make room for those who can be feminine in leadership more convincingly: women. When the standards of Christian leadership are all feminine, the individuals most obviously qualified to be Christian leaders will be women. This poses a dilemma-why should we exclude women from leadership when they are so obviously qualified for what we call leadership? At that point we divide, with some calling for them to be included, with other reluctant conservatives admitting that women could do as good a job, or better, but still, we have to submit to this arbitrary pronouncement of Paul. For now. When the background is understood, it explains many things about the contemporary Church. It explains why Promise Keepers, a masculine renewal movement, was so easily diverted into a maudlin and weepy sentimentality. It explains why ministers cannot teach on certain subjects from the pulpit. It explains why Christians cannot articulate why women in combat is an abomination. It explains why the masculine virtues of courage, initiative, responsibility, and strength are in such short supply. We cannot resist the demand to let pretty women lead us for the simple reason that we are currently being led by pretty men. So a skirmish here or there about women's role in the Church will never settle anything. This is why this particular debate, or that particular controversy, will always end, once again, in a stalemate, with the cause of the feminists slightly advanced. The pattern will repeat itself, again and again, until the conservatives finally cave in. They must cave because the feminist opposition is consistently able to appeal to shared assumptions and presuppositions. Until that changes, nothing significant will change. And when it changes, we will see a strategic battle joined. We have not failed because our exegetical skills are rusty. We have failed because we have forgotten what masculine piety even looks like. When it occasionally appears among us, we are entirely flumoxed by it. But God gave the pattern of feminine piety to complement, not to rule. Headship has been given to men. When such headship is challenged, everything is out of joint, and nothing but repentance can put things right. For a final example, in more ways than one, consider last year's evangelical attempts to sandpaper the Bible to a finer and more delicate texture. The reader may recall the situation was an attempt by the folks responsible for the NIV to alter the language of Scripture-fixing some of those pesky and troublesome gender spots. When the plan became public, there was a dust-up and howls of protest from all over. And the tactical skirmish was won by the good guys . . . for the present. But with regard to the underlying issues, nothing changed. With regard to the contributing cultural pressures, nothing changed. With regard to the state of the Church, nothing changed. So when we consider all this, and the condition of the modern Church, there is really no reason to object to any such modifications in the NIV. There is really no reason to object to women in the pulpit of evangelical churches. This is because modern evangelicalism has been covenantally castrated for well over a hundred years. It is high time they got some ministers, and a Bible, to match their effeminate condition.
This article was first published in Credenda Agenda (Volume 11, Issue 2, 1999), a orthodox Reformed publication. Doug Jones is the managing editor of the publication, Credenda Agenda.