Evangelicals and Feminism, Part 2: The Voices at the Table

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.  Today’s post deals with the credibility and acceptance of various voices that attempt to take part in discussions such as this one within evangelicalism.  In particular, we ask the question “is the evangelical landscape slanted so that voices like that of Rachel Held Evans are not heard?”  For more of an introduction to this debate, the participants, and the various viewpoints in evangelicalism concerning this issue, see the introductory post to this series.

The Voices at the Table:

Jenn:  I find myself very comfortable with the points that Alex made. When someone, who is a “secondary character” in Evangelicalism, be that female or minority (in both opinion and race) brings up things that are sort of screwy, there’s this instant reaction to throw hands up and take a defensive posture.

Why not engage, thoughtfully consider and then if necessary put your boxing gloves on (and or reach for her bath so you can throw her out)?

I perceive that a LOT of the time complementarians operate with the same tone that you perceive Rachel to be operating with. I’ve seen it first hand far too often. Hence my Gandhi inspired favorite quote “I love complementarianism, not so much your complementarians”.

No defense of Evans here as I’m not that big of a fan. But I am THANKFUL that there is someone out there holding the line against the sometimes misinformed overzealous ramblings of the Driscolls, Wilsons and Pipers (AND Jennifers) of our world. If that means I have to take her book on Womanhood as a part of that, I’m willing to do it, as it scares the hell out of me (as a black woman) to think of where Evangelicalism goes without folks like her.

It’s okay for people to make us uncomfortable, that doesn’t immediately mean they’re wrong. Even if we’re rock solid on our biblical exegesis. It also seems some camps are more open to challenge and discomfort than others.  If we love Jesus we should be ready and willing to embrace it… heck… live in it!

I’m not sure my perception of mockery makes said mockery actual. I also think God’s big enough to use what RHE’s doing for her good and for the good of that random three point complementarian.

Luke:  Jennifer, my question is should we keep a textbook liberal who doesn’t act, practice, or believe what evangelicals do but wants the name evangelical so she can reform it? If I started preaching justification by faith as a Catholic and wanted to keep the name Catholic (though by all means I lined up with Protestantism in all ways), what would I be? I would expect the Catholics to kick me out. Why can’t evangelicals do the same to pseudo-evangelicals? I have no problem with Evans coming to the table but I’d rather her come not trying to be a liberal trojan horse.

Austin:  I’m gonna go ahead though and point out that there’s a huge ontological gap between Piper and Evans. Both are writers and bloggers but one is a pastor-scholar. Also, Wilson, albeit very controversial, is a classics scholar as well. I’m just not comfortable calling their stances or blogposts over zealous ramblings. Anyone who has read them would wholeheartedly disagree (unless of course exegesis now counts as rambling). You cannot compare their (Piper and Evans) scholarship because only one has scholarship. 

Alex:  Austin, what you suggested was that Evans doesn’t have much credibility in this conversation because she is not speaking as a “scholar.” Instead, it has been suggested throughout this conversation, that she is sensationalizing this issue and mocking the “biblical” teaching. I want to raise two responses to this. First, I want to question what you mean by “scholarship.” Evans did plenty of research for this book. She participated in a year long “experiment.” She published a book on a question of scholarly interest. In what sense is she not a “scholar”? My guess is that you would say she isn’t a scholar because she hasn’t met some unspoken but understood measure of qualification- she doesn’t have a Ph.D., she hasn’t served on faculty at a college of university or seminary, she doesn’t read Greek or Hebrew as well as you think she should, or some other such standard.

Which brings me to my second point, which is to point out that such rubrics for what qualifies as “scholarship” are artificial. Historically, they have never been consistent (Ph.D. as the basic qualification for teaching at the collegiate level is something that has happened within the memory of many major scholars today. In fact, there are still major scholars at some of the most prestigious universities who don’t have them, see Alasdair MacIntyre at the University of Notre Dame, for instance). And in terms of evangelical theology, there has been a concerted effort to keep women out of the club until very recently. Look around the evangelical world- how many women teach theology or biblical studies at major evangelical institutions? How many women pastors are major players in evangelical theology? The game has been intentionally slanted to keep those voices out of the conversation. Which creates a circular argument: if the only voices we admit are “scholarly” voices and the only voices which qualify as “scholarly” are voices that share a lot of basic agreement on this issue, can there ever actually be a conversation about this issue?

What I want to suggest is that if there is a reason why figures like Evans are “jaded” or “mocking” or “sensational” in their tone toward the complementarian establishment in evangelicalism, it is because they have been systematically met with hostility and opposition from that establishment. So in a way, this kind of rhetoric is a problem of your (your meaning the complementarian establishment, not necessarily any of the specific people in this conversation) own making. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the oven!

Luke:  Alex, I think your response was textbook circular moral high-ground argument. Complementarians and evangelicals suppressed women therefore as an apology, Evans should get to come to the table without any terms from us, and if we make terms were just as bad as chauvinists or slave owners. This is what you imply.

Now as for Evans as a scholar, I’ll grant that, but being a scholar in chemistry doesn’t qualify you to teach literature. Her experiment is at best a good distraction from the actual issue of what we do with those texts. For evangelicals with certain commitments to the text, she playing in the wrong ball-field.

The circularity- there are certain commitments to the text that have led to an evangelical boys club. The way we see scripture as evangelicals has led to the slant. To deny this way of seeing scripture is to cease being evangelical. Now as a complementarian it is very easy to be misheard so here it goes, Scripture keeps women out of the pulpit. This isn’t barring teaching though in the past women haven’t, but evangelical feminine authority is not going to be okay with a large portion of evangelicals. It may seem like a circular system but you basically are telling a large portion of evangelicals to deny their distinctive approach to scripture so we can adhere to a “higher” morality on your level.

Alex, I hate to tell you that most evangelicals deriving a morality from the text won’t care about your higher than scripture morality. I think your argument is the circular one in that I think you make evangelicals deny what makes them evangelicals to suit what you deem as a fair discussion. I hope for well trained women in theology but they need to know, if they want to identify as evangelical, they are going to have to accommodate themselves to a large portion of evangelicals who are complementarian. Basically to recap, to fit your mold, most evangelicals will have the label evangelical become meaningless to them in the process.

Austin:  I most certainly think Evans belongs in the conversation. But, she doesn’t not belong at the head of the table within the egalitarian/complementarian debate. And I think she also would not want that role. This is evident when she defaults to the scholarship of some of the best of her position such as Scott Mcknight, N.T. Wright, and I. Howard Marshall. My comments were in no way excluding women from the round table or market place of ideas. My only point was that the types of arguments people like John Piper, Thomas Schreiner, and Wayne Grudem make are on a completely different playing field than those made on Evan’s blog. Why? Because these men’s theological work has been done through scholarly books, journals, and in the Greek classes they’ve all taught at their respective schools. To be quite frank, despite her living out in a tent and referring to her husband as master during the course of a year, she is most certainly not a biblical scholar. Until one has mastered Greek and Hebrew, they have no right to be considered a scholar (at least a biblical scholar). She may be a theologian, but of course every believer is one of those in some sense of the word.

I’m not going to respond to the supposed circular argument concerning the exclusion of women within the discussion. It’s too simplistic and a common type of argument within these discussions. Before any meaningful discussion can happen concerning any topic, scripture, or hermeneutic issue, complementarians are expected to gravel on their knees begging for forgiveness from their egalitarian sisters who have been denied the right to vote until 1920, have not got paid as much as men in the workplace, and have been viewed as a piece of meat in our wider chauvinistic culture. I’m sorry, but the complementarians I’ve seen live out their marriage faithfully ( some of the strongest marriages I daily witness are this way), those that I have read and heard preach, and those that represent the movement, have some of the highest views of women and their role within God’s working through his cosmos. In fact, they’re gentle and loving to those that disagree. They are this way 1) because fruits of the gospel are tenderness and love, 2) their philosophical starting point is the God revealed in Scripture and what he says about marriage, women, and Church roles and not the Aristotelian notion that women are simply deformed men and 3) because they know how these discussions are unfortunately framed. Tony Reinke said the other day “Likely most egalitarian women know they’re exegetically wrong. They hold out because of fear. Thus, the dumbest response is aggression.” His comment is indicative of the fact that we know how the debate is typically juxtaposed. Thus, we HAVE to be gentle or the language of “oppression” and guilt will be brought to the forefront. I’m not taking the bait on that one and I implore any reader to also think deeply through that type of guilt trip. 

On a different, lighter note, if y’all get to keep Evans as a spokesperson within the debate, we unfortunately will have to keep Driscoll out front as well… ;P

Alex:  I’m glad Evans gets a seat at the table, and I’m more than happy to pit Evans against Driscoll any day… 

I want to draw out a contrast between two things you said in an earlier post, Austin. First, you noted that scholars like Scott McKnight, NT Wright, and I. Howard Marshall represent Evans position in a much more “scholarly” way and are much more deserving of being at the head of the table. Couldn’t agree more! I want to make clear that I was certainly not claiming that Evans should be considered the foremost authority on egalitarianism.  But second, a little later, you quote Tony Reinke as saying that egalitarian women are maintaining their exegesis, despite knowing its wrong, because they are scared. This is the kind of “shutting out” I’m talking about. Notice that quote is directed at egalitarian women. Reinke doesn’t say that NT Wright is scared when he argues for egalitarianism. And what would Wright be scared of, anyway? The comment is specifically designed to show why women should not be trusted when they vocalize such an “controversial” theological position: they are doing it because they have an agenda or because they are scared or some other untrustworthy motive that is getting in the way of good scholarship. Why do we make those kinds of rhetorical leaps? Why is it ok to make what are ultimately derogatory comments about other Christians because we disagree with their theology and see an easy opportunity to discredit them? Especially if we would say that a similar comment about someone like Piper was “sensationalizing” or “mocking” or “bitter” in its tone…

Questions for Further Discussion:

  1. Does Evans belong in the Evangelical tent?  Is the reaction to Evans because her beliefs are genuinely not evangelical or because she is “rocking the boat”?
  2. Is evangelical theology an “all-boys club?”  Is that something that is inherent to or normative for theology that is considered evangelical?  Could that/will that ever change in evangelical theology?
  3. If Evans was an academic/scholar (had a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies or Theology, for instance) and wrote this book would the reception of it be different among evangelicals? What if this book had been written by a man?  What if the book had been written by a male academic (let’s say Scott McKnight I. Howard Marshall or NT Wright wrote this book)?

4 thoughts on “Evangelicals and Feminism, Part 2: The Voices at the Table

  1. Great conversation – great points.

    Not being a Biblical scholar, I review what RHE says in her blog from a “common believer’s” standpoint. She may not know Greek and Hebrew, but neither do I, and many of the pastors in my life don’t either. But her perspective, her ways of knowing, are still valuable. Intuition, emotion, and experience are meaningful ways of knowing, especially to the non-Bible scholar, because those ways of knowing are common and shared.

    I am wondering what might a similar conversation sound like among lay believers.

    Thanks for sharing a provocative discussion!


  2. Luke, I want to reply to some of what you said.

    My main question for you, Luke, is this: why should accommodation in order to fit into a group be considered a good/desirable thing? Particularly if your self-profesed goal is a truer understanding of something as important as what the bible teaches or what your own role in the church/family/society is? I once heard Peter Enns speaking at an ETS conference and responding to critics who had suggested that his research “wasn’t evangelical.” Enns response, which may explain a lot about why he no longer is on faculty as Westminster, was to say that if your goal is to discover truth and in pursuing that goal you are led beyond the bounds of what a particular group says should be considered “ok,” accommodation to fit into the group is a betrayal of truth.

    You seem to suggest that the evangelical way of reading scripture is not so much a hermeneutic as a set of assumed conclusions or doctrines that scripture will prove. So if you research doesn’t accommodate to those conclusions, you best get out. I want to know how many well trained women in biblical studies or theology you think are going to be willing to operate under that rubric and become evangelical scholars, especially given that one of the conclusions you seem to think must be accommodated is second-class status for women in the church/family/society?

    My belief is that evangelicalism should be better thought of as a hermeneutic (we’ll get more into all of this after an upcoming post on theological hermeneutics, I’m sure, but I want to throw this idea out there now). The thing about hermeneutics is that multiple people can read the same text, using the same basic principles, and come to different conclusions depending on a lot of other factors at play. This is why NT Wright and John Piper can both claim that their understanding of justification is “evangelical”- they have engaged in scholarship using an evangelical hermeneutic that has led them to two different conclusions. Why does the particular conclusion that Evans has been led to earn her the label “text-book liberal,” especially when there are plenty of others arguing for the same conclusion within evangelicalism? Is it because she is a woman who has dared to challenge masculine authority in evangelicalism or is it because she is rocking the boat a little too much or is there some more specific reason why her particular method is “liberal” and not “evangelical”?

  3. http://www.dennyburk.com/what-is-an-evangelical/

    I refer you to this blog which supplies the many reason I do not think that Evan’s is an Evangelical. Beyond that I think that Egalitarianism is a symptom but is something someone can come to a well meant error about and be on the cusp of evangelical. It is funny you mention Enns, I would have fired him from Westminster also, but maybe I am just one of the Evangelical industry fat cats that you can point to as the source of oppression for all generations.

    I think that the manner in which one treats Scripture is the primary issue with evangelicalism but it is evidenced by the way certain doctrines play out. Enns allows for unintentional contradictions and fallacies within the Bible that intend themselves to be true, whilst there are quite good scholars who have found other routes without disrespecting the traditional-evangelical distinctive. My point that is if liberalism is right eventually enough people will see abandon evangelicalism and move toward it. It also seems to me that most of the people “reforming” (semper reformada indeed my friend) Evangelicalism are not more than a liberal trojan horse, or perhaps a liberal convert raised in Evangelicalism. They walk, talk, and act like a liberal why not just go to the liberal denominations rather than trying so intensely to change what evangelicalism is into (what I think Enns is doing) a collapse with liberalism; wherein evangelicalism ceases to have distinctions.

    I do think multiple people with similar (note not the same, more later) hermeneutic principles can come away from a text with differing views. But I think two things may distinguish us from one another. First, I think that at the least one of them is wrong. Second, I think a good exegete and logician can discover the truth of a text fairly conclusively. Not to condemn NPP scholars but I think a reconstruction of Paul’s opponents within his letters that discuss justification (particularly Romans) can lead to a correct view. No matter how much 2nd temple literature one reads the text still has the same words there to be dealt with, and this can rule out or make very improbable certain issues. I consider the NPP one of these issues.

    Now as to hermeneutics I think it is a flaw to say John Piper and N.T Wright use the same principles to get to the differing conclusions. I mean this, Piper and Wright give more weight to some evidence over other evidence and they have methodological reasons for that, but in my estimation Piper’s critique of Innhouse-Brewer is true here, no matter the 2nd temple literature the text doesn’t say that.

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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