Evangelicals and Feminism Part 1: Rhetorical Tactics in Theological Discourse

A recent post by a friend about the new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans sparked a lively debate concerning the relationship of evangelicalism to the feminist movement.  After a lengthy discussion we have decided it best to move the conversation to a different forum.  This series of posts is meant to organize the ideas touched on in the debate into a more logical presentation before we delve into areas of further discussion.  The discussants here include Austin DeArmond, a graduate of Southeastern Bible College (SEBC) who is working on his masters at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; Jennifer Hardy Lusher, a graduate of SEBC who is working on her masters at Beeson Divinity School; Luke Gossett, an undergraduate student currently at SEBC who will graduate in May; and myself, Alex Marshall, another SEBC alumni who will be finishing his masters at Yale Divinity School in May. We hope many others will join the conversation.

Austin’s original post implied that Evans’ book makes a mockery of biblical teaching on gender roles, representing a “regressive” and liberal position rather than a genuinely evangelical view, and extolled his egalitarian friends to avoid taking their cues from Evans.  Today’s post deals with the rhetorical strategies used in theological discourse, particularly in an age in which much theological debate occurs online.  For more of an introduction to this debate and the various viewpoints in evangelicalism concerning this issue, see the introductory post to this series.

Rhetorical Tactics and the Practice of Theological Discourse:

Alex:  I think “mockery” is a mischaracterization of Rachel Held Evans’ methods. I haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t speak to specifics of what she says there, but having a good bit of knowledge of her blogging about this project I can say that Rachel is surprisingly accepting of most of the things she tries in this year-long experiment. She has written online frequently of surprising things she learned and found quite valuable during this process. She has expressed a great deal of compassion for women around the world who actually do practice these things. She has, from everything I have read by her, tried very hard not to adopt a tone of mockery.

I think Rachel would invite disagreement with her argument and her conclusions. But I think the kind of outright dismissive attitude that is being struck by many responding to her book is pretty dangerous. If anything is “regressive” it is the move to cut a member of the Christian family off from the rest because we don’t like the attention she has drawn to an issue that we feel particularly sensitive about. And my guess is that the issue that is actually of concern for evangelical leaders is not her conclusions about egalitarianism but her question about the “canon within the canon” that is represented by the Neo-Reformed, Complementarian establishment in contemporary evangelicalism. It is sad to me that rather than addressing that issue, one that I think is extremely important to the legitimacy of evangelical theology, evangelical leaders are intentionally smearing Evans and presenting her claims as something that they ultimately are not.

Luke:  The point is simple. This book is a breaking point for her with many evangelicals, though I think she should have shed that label long ago.  I think evangelicals are becoming weary with people trying to stretch their concepts into a collapse with liberalism. If you do not share our approach to Scripture, drop the label and call yourself what you are.  Austin’s point is if evangelicals think this experiment disrespectful towards scripture and the progressive or liberal wing of Christianity is the one coming to her aid, it might just be that the progressives have some eggs in the Evans basket, and are again taking a moral high road (something they do oh so well), pointing a finger of shame at evangelicals for rejecting her.

Austin:  Evans and others like her would rather do theology like the world does politics. Words like “oppression,” “women’s’ rights,” and “persecution” are brought up in discussions about egalitarianism in such a way that complementarians are made out to be modern-day slave-owners (if you think this doesn’t exist on her blog, read the comments and look up a video on her blog about women in ministry). Forgive me if I refuse to recognize that as a valid form of communication between believers. It’s childish.

I don’t think Evans would be too shocked at people’s reactions concerning this book. In fact, I believe she is likely enjoying it. There’s something to be said about people that are not under the authority of a pastor, a church, or even scripture (yea I said it) whose writings are constantly stirring up controversy on the blogosphere concerning the Church. She would do well to remember that there’s not a square inch in this universe over which Christ does not declare “MINE!” He is passionately devoted to His bride and will see to it that she is continually washed by the Word and loved well until He comes back for her. No one has ousted Evans from anything. People are merely confirming her long descent down the road of petty polemics and liberal compromise. It is interesting that people who willfully walk out in the rain get wet and then turn around to those inside yelling “you pushed me!” Please. If fundamentalism was the tyranny of the weaker brother, then the neo-liberal movement and emergent wing of current Christianity is the tyranny of the Sadducees that are quick-witted and can dish it out but are just too emotionally unstable to “take it.” If she doesn’t like how conservatives respond to her, maybe she should change the way she discusses their theological beliefs and them as people.

Concerning evangelical leaders, c’mon Alex. There’s a wealth of information out there from evangelicals that directly touch on these issues. Also, there are some good reviews of her book from conservatives that aren’t “mean” or outrightly “dismissive.” It just won’t work to paint conservative evangelical leaders as maniacal Fundamentalists who only care about their precious reformed beliefs and refuse discussion. To my knowledge, not a one has responded like that.

Another thing concerning this whole fiasco with Evans, she does not come off as an innovator who is merely seeking to lead the Church to good springs where it can drink freely. She comes off as a jaded, hurt lover who has been burned by the Church. Her critiques seem like they usually come from a place of bitterness. Not love. There’s nothing wrong with critical love- love that loves another so much it puts a mirror to show their dirty face that they might be cleaned. Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “I make no apology for being critical of what I love. No one wants a love which is based upon illusions, and there is no reason why we should not love a profession and yet be critical of it.” If she was in the place of an insider who is coming alongside the Church helping her grow and become who she is destined to be, her comments, rebukes, and assessments may be received. Instead she comes off as an outsider who constantly lobs rhetorical grenades at the Church. Obviously, because wounds shared by people bring people together, she has created quite the community around her. A community that is disillusioned and vocal concerning the problems of the Church without making tangible moves to bind the broken heart of the Church. That is a real tragedy.

On a different but similar note, Rachel Held Evans would do a whole lot more help if she got off the internet and got her hands messy working within her local church. That would require her to remain faithful to people who will cause her pain much like the bride wounds her Bridegroom. The Church doesn’t need many Martin Luthers hammering their 95 thesis on the Wittenberg door of the blogosphere. Karl Barth once said that “no amount of witty and supposedly prophetic and reforming criticism of the Church can replace being part of it.”

Jenn:  Because of common dear friendships, I am predisposed to grant Evans much more grace than I would any other gal stirring up such ruckus (Which is very rare). I don’t know, I’ve been trying to think through this objectively but I just haven’t quite reached objectivity yet. I’m also not ready to throw Evans out of Evangelicalism because I’m learning very clearly that many babies get thrown out with their daily baths in our camp, almost at an alarming rate. A non-Phllip-Jacob-Spener rate if you will. Rachel’s not what I’m used to, but I’m much more open to what she’s doing here than I would have been in the past.

Will I read or buy this book? No, I don’t think so. But I won’t read anything from the Gospel Coalition or John Piper and the Desiring God Camp who write on Womanhood either. I do believe there is a sweet spot somewhere in-between these “extremes” that we might learn to live in. Both seem very “first world” to me.

So if I’m biased I’m fairly biased.

Sidenote: it has been interesting to see that instead of Piper doing a “farewell Rob Bell” thing here he instead has had a sistah do it for him, which is the saddest part of all this.

I’m steering clear of both camps at this time, because I believe they over simplify and both take part in an unhealthy form of extremism. There’s got to be a middle ground and a willingness to live in the tension of that on such a non-essential issue. Phillip Melanchthon (I must have a thing for dead white men named Phillip…) would surely think we have lost our minds. 

Questions for Further Discussion:

  1. Is what Evans is doing an example of “critical love” or of “petty polemics” offered by a “jaded and hurt lover”?
  2. Does Evans position have a place within evangelicalism or does it belong to another branch of Christianity?
  3. Has the reaction (giving specific examples) to Evans been compassionate rebuttal or “nasty,” “mean,” “smear” tactics?
  4. What does a middle ground between Evans position and that of Piper/The Gospel Coalition look like?
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3 thoughts on “Evangelicals and Feminism Part 1: Rhetorical Tactics in Theological Discourse

  1. So a couple of thoughts to add to our discussion of this point. First, I would challenge everyone to read RHE own explanations of the book, which you can find here: http://rachelheldevans.com/biblical-womanhood-faq

    A couple of pertinent excerpts: (1) “In response to second-wave feminism, evangelical leaders have been debating the role of women in the home, church, and society in recent years, and as a result, Christian women receive a lot of mixed messages about what it means to be a woman of faith. While many hail “biblical womanhood” as the ideal, few seem to agree on exactly what it means, and any claim to a “biblical” lifestyle is inherently selective. (After all, technically speaking, it is biblical for a woman to be sold by her father to pay off debt, biblical for her to cover her head when she prays, biblical for her to be one of many wives.) I wanted to challenge the idea that “biblical womanhood” could be reduced to a list of roles and rules, and I wanted to do it in a creative, disarming way.” (2) “I love the Bible. As a Christian, I believe that the Bible represents a sacred collection of poems, stories, accounts, and letters that are inspired by God and shared by his people. As an honest reader, I confess that there are times when the Bible touches me, times when the Bible troubles me, and times when the Bible confounds me. As an interpreter, I acknowledge that my understanding of the Bible’s meaning is fallible. My purpose in embarking on this project is not to belittle or make fun of the Bible, but to creatively investigate our application of it…because I hate seeing it reduced to an adjective or used to restrict the roles of women.”

    Which brings me to my main point, which is really a question: who gets to decide whether someone is honestly wrestling with a text or making fun of it? RHE professes to be doing the former, seeking greater clarity and understanding for herself and others. She is admittedly doing it in a “disarming” way, but not, she claims with the intention of mockery. For those who disagree, what is the basis on which you can make the claim that she is doing the opposite? And why should we take your word for it (and not assume that you are being “nasty” in your response)?

    In other words, in a debate about “motives” like this one, whose words get more weight and why?

What do you think? I would love to hear from you, please share your thoughts. Just remember to be respectful of others.

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