A Complementarian Response to Feminist Theology

As a female apologist, every now and again I’ll encounter other women claiming to be feminists who look down on Christianity because they claim it devalues women and that it minimizes the role of the woman in relation to the man. Also, there are some theologians of the egalitarian (evangelical feminists) persuasion who claim that the Bible was written in a patriarchal society, and because of that certain Scriptures do not apply to us in our contemporary culture. Some Scripture passages that the person untrained in hermeneutics might misinterpret as demeaning to women are Genesis 2:18, which classifies the woman as the “helper,” I Corinthians 11:3, which states that the man is the head of the woman, Eph. 5:22 which states that wives should submit to their husbands, and I Timothy 2:12 that states only men are to lead in the church. This controversy is perpetuated by men who have used these Scriptures throughout history to justify abhorrent treatment of women. An accurate treatment of these Scripture passages will be examined later in this article.

This issue is very relevant to us as apologists because we should all, men and women alike, be prepared to give a defense of how Christ and the Christian worldview have actually done the opposite of what the world claims, and have liberated women. By discussing this topic and accurately exegeting Scriptures we’re tearing down strongholds and barriers to people placing their faith in Christ.

I will begin by providing a some context and discussing some background information about how Christianity liberated women in Jesus’ day and how it has done so in more recent history. There are records of Pharisees in Jesus’ day literally running into walls because they placed such a great emphasis on refraining from even looking at women so as to maintain their appearance of holiness before men. Their legalism literally drove them into walls. There are records of rabbis praying prayers in which they openly thanked God that they were not born women.

Jesus showed up on the scene and did some very radical things that were completely counter-cultural. He focused special attention on women and conversed with individual women one-on-one. He spoke at length with a Samaritan woman, taking the time out to teach her about what it means to really worship God. He spoke with a disheveled woman who had just been caught in the compromising position of committing adultery, and acted as an avenue of grace for her in public in front of the same religious leaders who were running into walls to avoid women. Jesus stood apart in that He treated women as though they were equally important in the plan of God as were men. And He modeled for His culture and every culture worldwide since then that a woman is indeed deserving of love, honor, and dignity because she too bears the image of God. And just as men reflect the image of God in a unique way that women cannot, women reflect His image in a way that is unique to the feminine persona.

Jesus offered women new roles and equal status in His kingdom:

“ A woman was the first to bear witness of His resurrection (Matthew 28:8-10). Women followed Jesus with the multitudes (Matthew 14:21), and Jesus featured women and used things associated with them in His parables and illustrations (Matthew 13:33; 25:1-13; Luke 13: 18-21; 15: 8-10; 18: 1-5). In the New Testament the birth and infancy narratives note a remarkable number of women. Matthew include four—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba—in his genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:3. 5-6). Through these women to whom God extended His forgiveness, Messiah would come. Jesus spoke to women (John 4) and taught them individually and privately (Luke 10: 38-42). A company of women often traveled with Him (Luke 8: 1-3), and He often spoke highly of women (Matthew 9:20-22; Luke 21: 1-4). He safeguarded the rights of women, especially in His teachings on marriage and divorce (Matthew 5:27-32; 19:3-9). For Jesus to expend time and energy in teaching women indicates that He saw in them not only intellectual acumen but also spiritual sensitivity.[1]

In addition to the aforementioned scriptural references, Scripture also refers to the woman as a “helper” to the man. This may have a negative connotation in our culture, but in the Old Testament, “helper” describes the “ethical, spiritual, and physical assistance given to one in need…[it] defines a woman’s role in the functional difference existing between husband and wife. A “helper” is one who provides what is lacking in another, one who can do what another cannot do alone. The Lord comes as a helper to assist the helpless, not because He is inferior and relegated to menial ‘helping’ tasks, but rather because He alone has what is necessary to meet the needs [Exodus 18:4; Deut 33:7; Hosea 13:9; Psalm 70:5).[2]

Furthermore, the passage that speaks of man as the head of woman (I Corinthians 11:3) is not speaking of ontological subordination, but subordination in role and function. The Trinity serves as an example of this: though the Son is equal in substance to the Father and the Spirit, the Son is (eternally) submissive to the will of the Father (John 5: 17-24).[3] This passage as well as Ephesians 5:22 acknowledge that man is the head of the woman as Christ is the head of the Church, which necessitates that the husband should love his wife sacrificially as Christ loved the Church and gave His life for her. This teaching is liberating for women in that it places the greater responsibility in the marriage on the man as the one who must love, protect, and honor his wife in the same manner Christ demonstrated to His bride, the Church. So, rather than being oppressive to women, these passages are actually liberating for women, while holding the man to an even greater responsibility.

Although I Timothy 2 may be interpreted as sexist by egalitarians, the following is more of an accurate interpretation of this Scripture:

“Paul was no sexist, but rather a champion of the equality of men and women before God—a sharp contrast to the chauvinistic teaching of many of his contemporaries. Paul recognized that male-female equality did not require abolishing all role distinctions, which were defined by God in creation…Evidently, the dales teachers taught that male authority in church and home and the woman’s childbearing role were curses for sin, which Jesus’ atoning work had eradicated (Gen. 3:16). Paul recognized that Eve’s curse involved oppressive male leadership and pain in childbearing, but male leadership and childbearing were part of God’s plan for pre-fall creation (Gen. 1:27-8; 2:18).[4]

The Feminization of the Church and the History of Secular Feminism

In Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey offers an explanation for how feminism came about in history via the phenomenon of the feminization of the church. She believes that this shift actually began to take place with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, which divided the private sphere of family and faith from the public sphere of business and industry. Before the Industrial Revolution work was conducted from the home, with the husband and wife co-laboring as partners in the household/workplace. The man retained his position as head of the home, but his actions as the head were also motivated by his responsibility to look out for his family first. Pearcey states that in their day-to-day life fathers experienced the same integration of work and child-rearing responsibilities the mother did. Fathers were considered the primary parent, not the mother. This dynamic, Pearcey states, changed with the Industrial Revolution, which took work out of the home, causing men to leave the home as well as their role as the primary parent. This also dramatically changed the woman’s role from more of a renaissance worker in the home to a housekeeper who also provided care for the children. Women were called upon to “cultivate the softer virtues—of community, morality, religion, self-sacrifice, and affection.[5]” As fatherhood lost status, men showed a decreasing investment in being fathers. From 1960-1980 there was a striking 43 percent reduction in the amount of time men spent in a family where young children are present. She also goes on to say that for many women today, on a personal level, the problem is not male dominance so much as male desertion. Men are leaving the home. So the shift took place when women became the spiritual heads of the household. More women than men attended the “awakenings revivals of the 1800s, more women attended church than men, so that’s how the feminization of the church came about, which also opened the door for feminism.

As a result of some of the changes enacted by the Industrial Revolution, the role of the woman in the public and private spheres of society had been minimized and even denigrated. Contemporary feminists and womanists (Black feminists) speak of the woman’s role in the home and church pejoratively, in a degrading way. This is why language of “empowerment” the way feminists use it, is dangerous for a believer to use because it perpetuates this idea of a power struggle between the man and the woman, which is detrimental to both sexes. Nancy Pearcey actually discusses the rapid growth of feminism in the 1960s due to the reason that women “refused to maintain a double standard with men.” She says “Nor were they willing to remain isolated in a private sphere (meaning the home as the workplace) that had been devalued and emptied of much of its productive and personally fulfilling work. Feminists urged women to leave the empty husk of the home and to stake out a claim in the public arena, where ‘real’ work was done and where they could gain some respect.” (p. 344). She states that we can better understand secular feminism by realizing that it was an attempt by women to cross this troubling chasm in order to join men in the public sphere. A better route however, would be to close the gap itself, recovering some measure of integration of work and worship for both men and women.

Because the traditional role of women was and still is devalued some women now feel the need to proclaim their equality with men. Whereas, as Christians, we don’t believe that the woman’s submission to the man indicates inferiority to the man. During Father’s day, a female friend of mine who is a single mother mentioned that several of her friends were wishing her a happy Father’s Day because she’s a single parent to two children. And she remarked how it was actually a comment stemming from ignorance and misunderstanding because she recognized that the man fulfills a God-given role that only he can fulfill, so for someone to wish her a happy Father’s day just because she may have to fill both roles at times was an affront to the clear designation of roles God has laid out in Scripture. It doesn’t mean that the woman’s role is less significant or that she’s inferior to the man; she simply exemplifies another aspect of the character of God in a manner in which the man is not suited for.

Sharon James wrote an article in the Apologetics Study Bible and she says it best when she states that we as Christians should be willing to challenge the following contemporary presuppositions in the light of Scripture:

Presupposition 1: Equality means sameness. Talk of different roles is discriminatory.

Response: Equality does not mean sameness. The three persons of the Trinity are equal in deity, but different in role.

Presupposition 2: Difference in role relates directly to personal worth. Submission equals relegation.

Response: Submission does not mean being of lesser worth. The Son submits to the Father, while being equal in deity, and His submission is His glory.

Presupposition 3: Women will be empowered only when they have become the same as men (filling the same jobs and reaching the same status).

Response: Women do not have to fill the same jobs as men in order to be empowered. This idea insults the large number of women who regard relational success as of greater importance than career success. The Bible honors those women who were wives, mothers, and homemakers (Prob. 31; I Tim. 5:9-10, 14) as well as women who ministered and worked in other ways.[6]

The apologist would do well to note that whenever someone makes an accusation against Christianity claiming that it demeans women or devalues women, the most appropriate and accurate response would be that historically, wherever Christianity has spread throughout the world, the social status of women has significantly improved. The countries where women are most exploited today are those with least exposure to the gospel, such as Islamic countries. Christians have been among the first to provide education and other rights for women throughout history.[7]

Christians have the unique responsibility of restoring to the mind of every culture in which we are all spread out, the dignity, honor, and beauty of women as God created her to be the glory of the man. We are supposed to be the conscience of society. The value of women has been lost, from the most misogynistic culture to the culture that is most characterized by rampant feminism. The essence of the woman has been lost. And no one knows anymore what it means to be a woman. No one truly understands the intrinsic value of the woman. This is where the Christian’s battle against bad theology as well as social injustice against women begins. And we lead by example. It starts in the heart and mind, and that it where we begin to honor women. I have a professor at Talbot, and whenever he refers to his wife, he calls her “his bride,” “his treasure,” “his gem.” They’ve been married for over 40 years now, and he still honors her as a fellow image-bearer of God by treating her as the more fragile vessel. May we eagerly assume our position as the light-bearers of our society and restore the value of the woman in the eyes of a society that has long neglected her true worth.

 

 


[1] Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Holman Reference, 1998), p. 1679-80.

[2] Ibid., p. 1680.

[3] The Apologetics Study Bible (Nashville: Holman Reference, 2007), p. 1723.

[4] Ibid., p. 1801.

[5] Nancy Pearcey, “Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity” (Wheaton: CrossWay Books, 2004), p. 333.

[6] The Apologetics Study Bible (Nashville: Holman Reference, 2007), p. 730.

[7] Ibid., p. 730.

candace@apologetics.com

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