‘Feminism,’ in the conservative PCA tradition, is often equated to a humanistic revenge against a historically misogynistic patriarchy. The term is frequently used in PCA circles as a dysphemism, calling to mind the noble battle the Church – sound theology, tradition, and doctrine – faces against secular philosophy. Both sides perceive the issue as a zero-sum-game. But in reality, there is simply a spectrum of opinion, and on this spectrum it is possible for feminism and PCA doctrine to coexist peacefully.
In brief, feminism is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” As for the meaning of PCA doctrine, it is traditionally outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Book of Church Order, and in the PCA Historical Centre’s collection of PCA Position Papers. Regarding the theology underpinning the doctrine, a PCA Minority Report states that, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” The Church will often take stands on social or political issues, such as those presented in Position Papers, but these stands, while certainly doctrinal, are often subject to change and should not be considered “central tenets” of PCA doctrine. They are of great import in forming a unified community in the Church, but they are also peripheral to many issues of the Christian’s faith and salvation.
Vern Sheridan Poythress, a theologian in the Reformed tradition, writes, “Ostensibly, the feminist movement aims at freeing women from oppression. But such freedom in the true sense can come only through the divine powers of liberation and love contained in Jesus Christ. True freedom is found in obedience to Christ; anything else only constitutes some form of slavery to sin.” This quote from Poythress, while well-intended, fails to adequately perceive and address the underlying misunderstanding about feminism in Reformed traditions. However, he fails to perceive the entirety of the problem. The Church is called not simply to liberate the oppressed through salvation, but also through active, physical work in the name of Christ. Christ’s love goes beyond offering salvation. He offers healing. Christ’s healings were temporary and those who received them continued to deteriorate and eventually they also died. Nonetheless, there was liberation and reflection of eternal salvation in temporary healing.
The feminist movement’s aim at “freeing women from oppression” is the same aim of Christ. Ignoring the reason behind the action, because the action seems unbiblical or because the advocates of the action do not find salvation in Christ, is a deceptive ad hominem that succeeds only in indirectly encouraging apathy towards real issues facing the Church today. When we so fear the movement that we are lead to the inability to address and identify the movement’s roots as being overwhelmingly reactionary, we live in ignorance not only of the movement, but also – and this is the move grievous offence – we remain ignorant of the factors prompting the inception of the movement. Penetrating to the heart of the issue, we find a profound truth falling on deaf ears of many in the PCA tradition.
PCA Doctrine on Women in the Church
The Church has written very little on the topic of women in the church, and even less on the issue of feminism. Most feminist related literature in the PCA comes from the Women in the Church (WIC) foundation (1976), from writings debating the acceptance of women in the military (2001), and from writings surrounding the debate of whether women should be allowed to fill the role of deacon (1976). These sources show a common trend of male authority, though not superiority, in the home and in the Church. These sources argue that “scripture delineates three great societal institutions: family, church, and state. We have argued for the continuing subordination of women to men in two of the three (family and church)…. We conclude that women are not by creation design subordinate in the social sphere.” In effect, the Church argues, from tradition and from scripture, that the subordination of the woman on behalf of the man is strongly backed in the “spheres of family and church” but that it is not divinely ordained that this subordination should cross into the sphere of politics and society. Further, subordination does not necessitate oppression.
Nonetheless, mitigating this common trend of male authority – what we may call the patriarchy – is a parallel trend wherein we find a profound advancement of social equality in the Church. The argument that “‘women-in-general’ are not under the authority of ‘men-in-general’” reverses the Church’s historical understanding of social structure. The Church has come to recognize the effect of the Fall on equality. Finding an original equality in Genesis based on the Imago Dei, a Study Committee on the Role of Women in the Church writes, “Paul’s discussion of personal renewal in Christ (Colossians 3), of the gifts of the Spirit (I Corinthians 12), and even of martial distinctions (I Corinthians 7), shows clearly that he saw an equality of the sexes with respect to their being and functioning as God’s image.”
Yet, a problem remains in the system. There is still a fear that social equality of the sexes will push over into the church and the home. In response to this fear, the Minority Report of 1976 wrote, “Let the male totally assume any spiritual teaching…and let the females busy themselves with good works and teach only those things that make better homes where our covenant children are reared. Reverse the trend of sinful man that removes the authority structure of the image of God.” The quote asserts a very dominate authority, using language that is insensitive at best and oppressive at worst. Though it comes off as powerful, it is an authority asserted only in regard to “spiritual teachings.” Mary Kenny, a founding member of the radical Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, recently wrote,
Patriarchy controlled, repressed, and alienated women, and had a deforming effect on the relationship between the sexes, and on spiritual life, too. As a young feminist, I would certainly have agreed with that thesis: and indeed, the 1950s was a strong patriarchal era. In later life, older women come to understand that much of authoritarianism that men may affect is sheer bluff: in our salad days we thought these patriarchal figures really were immovable tyrants, rather than paper tigers. Perhaps ‘patriarchy’ is not always all bad: perhaps, like any power, it is only bad when abused: or when there are no checks on its reach. Perhaps the question is more nuanced than we once might have imagined.
The findings of the Minority Report established patriarchy as a divine institution in the home and church. While it did not speak much to the role of women in society, in 2001 the PCA Minority Report Recommendations on the issue of women in the military acknowledged that, “with our church we…recognize that the woman was created as a ‘suitable helper’ for her husband. But we do not argue from this that women because they are women are therefore necessarily excluded from sharing in certain aspects of having dominion in public society and ‘secular’ culture.” The beauty illustrated by this previous quote is that the Church is progressing while also remaining in the tradition. In light of the Church’s resistance to change, its acknowledgment of a history of oppression is remarkable. It is maintaining its theological interpretation and value of the hierarchy of the sexes with respect to Christianity, while doctrinally affirming that certain understandings previously held by the “historic Christian church” should be “set aside as erroneous.”
There is an issue, however, between the Church’s orthodoxy and its orthopraxy. It is affirmed in writing that, “Historically the gifts of women have often been more neglected than those of men. The church must be careful to correct this tragic waste of God’s blessings.” But this affirmation begins and ends with the writing. It is not enough for the Church’s recognition of neglect to remain limited to a study committee. The Church has been called to responsible action against oppression and we eagerly await her answer to this call.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote of oppression, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” If acknowledging the problem is the first step, systematically erasing the problem from Church history is certainly not the second. And the historical oppression of women is a problem. The PCA Church is neither a perfect institution nor is it following in the footsteps of a perfect institution. Yet, in the Church’s comfortable stupor, it has chosen to ignore history. How can it claim to understand oppression in the status quo if it has only a loose memory of its historical oppression? Poythress writes,
Of course, large sections of the church today have doubts about these matters, and some go so far as openly to oppose Biblical principles. But the doubts and oppositions arise, as I see it, from temporary aberrations and weaknesses in the life of the church and the larger society, rather than from the force of truth….Radical philosophical and political egalitarianism, coupled with sin and envy, has generated hatred of all differences and differentiations among human beings…Such egalitarianism, when extended to the family and the church, refuses to acknowledge any differences between men and women….many people have become sincerely concerned about past and present oppression of women and unnecessary strictures on the use of women’s gifts. Such evils do exist and should be opposed, but they do not justify radical egalitarian conclusions.
Thus we fight a battle on two fronts. On one hand the Church finds exploitation of subordination in the abuse of women in the home and in the Church. On the other hand, it perceives a problem in the abuse of the patriarchy in society. The fear of addressing past and present oppression, in both realms, though specifically in the Church and home, is that it may result in an overcorrection. The preservation of tradition, doctrine, and theology is of utmost importance to the survival of the Church. Rather than err on the side of extinguishing tradition, it has opted to remain neutral. The Church, in the face of opposition, fears conforming to philosophical egalitarianism. Again, we have been presented a false dilemma which has led to the choosing of the lesser of two evils. It is possible for the Church to address oppression in the home, Church, and society, whilst retaining its tradition and doctrine.
Forms of Feminism
Feminism is controversial and difficult to define. While there is no specific definition of the movement that is ‘feminism,’ there are various forms of feminism, each identifying their movements with a shared history, fought over similar battles. Indeed, feminists generally see their struggle as a continuous fight against subordination of any kind. Here it must be noted that theologically the PCA Church finds little justification for subverting the patriarchy within the Church and home. Almost any feminist would find issue with the Church’s theology because this theology requires, at some level, an acceptance of subordination. I worried that we need not unite PCA doctrine with secular feminism; we need only to find common-grace insights of feminist theory and analyze their compatibility or incompatibility with PCA doctrine. To this end, the question must be posed: what is feminism?
Rebecca West wrote in The Clarion, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute…” Writing more than a hundred years ago, West was labelled ‘feminist’ for advocating women’s suffrage and other similar issues, issues we today accept as the norm. Feminism as a movement solidified in the 1970s. Nancy Tuana writes that feminism “emerged in the US in the 1970s following only a decade behind the rise of the US women’s movement in the 1960s.” The advancement of feminism became a major issue in the second half of the 20th-century, but as a concept it has been around since the time of Plato and as a movement it began in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Liberal feminism, radical feminism, Socialist feminism, Christian feminism, and cultural feminism are each responding to the same problem: injustice and oppression. As fallen creatures in a broken world, we naturally seek justice and redemption. Nevertheless, these forms of feminism come from a faulty human rationality which believes its attack on oppression will ultimately succeed. Christian feminism is the only form of feminism which comes close to being compatible with PCA doctrine. Still, the Church does not allow women to become ordained elders or deacons. As the ordination of women is one of the key aspects of the Christian Feminist movement, this form is not compatible. There is an initial conflict; every form of feminism makes a certain claim about the roles of men and women, but the Bible, from the theological perspective of the PCA church, has already ordained roles for men and women. Feminism, as a whole, seeks to subvert the patriarchy. PCA doctrine seeks to uphold much of the patriarchy. The mediation, if there is to be any, will not be found in the system of beliefs each ideology holds, but in the principles supporting those beliefs. Susan James writes,
Feminism is grounded on the belief that women are oppressed… [by] men, and that their oppression is in some way illegitimate or unjustified. Under the umbrella of this general characterization there are, however, many interpretations of women and their oppression, so that it is a mistake to think of feminism as a single philosophical doctrine, or as implying an agreed political program.
There is a common thread in each form of feminism: unity around a common oppression. This is the definition to which we will adhere. Feminism is not a single philosophical dialogue, nor is it merely “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities,” it is unity around a common past and present oppression. This idea we will call ‘minimal feminism.’
It is not likely a PCA elder or deacon would adhere to any of the current forms of feminism. Thus, the primary purpose of this paper is to reconcile past and present oppression of women with PCA tradition and doctrine. Minimal feminism is built on the elemental idea that the vast majority of feminist theories are essentially reactionary. At its core, minimal feminism is an idea; a way of seeing a systemic problem. It is not a proposed solution and it does not seek an immediate answer to the problem. Though feminist movements greatly vary in their solutions to the problem, they are unified in their reaction to the problem. The effect we perceive is the feminist movement, the cause is a historical social marginalization. At its core, the feminist movement is united. The sole reason the movement divides from its initial unity is because humanity fails to understand how to address the problem. The reconciliation of the PCA Church with present oppression of women is birthed in the Church’s agreement with a minimal feminist theory. This agreement is at heart a voice speaking against an abusive social patriarchal hierarchy and against the abuse of subordination. There are three primary ways minimal feminism is compatible with PCA doctrine: tradition, scripture, and doctrine. Having already showed compatibility in doctrine, we will now examine compatibility in tradition and scripture.
First, the Reformed tradition often chooses to ignore male and female saints prior to the reformation. Despite inheriting a long history of faithful servants of Christ Jesus, we often place value only in a few names: such as St Francis of Assisi, St Thomas Aquinas, and St Augustine. In our ignorance, we fail to remember many other saints, both male and female. Mary Kenny writes,
Some of the early female saints can be said to be as significant in the development of Christian values as bishops or popes. St Fabiola, a Roman patrician matron (d. 399) who converted to Christianity after a flaky life as a young woman, virtually invented the modern hospital by gathering together sick people under one roof and tending to them…Many of the female saints and holy women who were to follow in the first 1500 years of Christianity were not just highly influential, but provided real leadership, in medicine and social care, inspired by a sense of Christ’s message of redemption.
Awareness of the early church and the Catholic tradition is crucial to understanding the place of the Reformed Church in the Judeo-Christian redemptive history. Ignorance of our brothers and sisters prior to the Reformation weakens the foundation of our tradition. Part of our ignorance is in the lack of recognition of the women as greatly influential in the expansion and prospering of the Church. Early Church fathers do not comprise “the whole tradition of the faith.” The PCA Church is born of saints: both male and female.
Second, scripture advocates for minimal feminism. In a context where misogyny, discrimination, and mistreatment of women were not uncommon, Jesus was an advocate for all those burdened by a broken creation. The stories of the woman who touched His robe, the woman taken in adultery, the Samarian woman at the well, and the many others, all display awareness for oppression based on gender. Whether it is the woman with the alabaster ointment or the women who came to the tomb to witness and give testimony to the single most glorifying and redemptive event of all creation, the Bible gives womanhood a value, a respect unparalleled by any other religion.
Advancing the Kingdom of God
A PCA position paper makes note of the issue of reformation,
Our Lord has given to the courts of the Church the protection and propagation of the Gospel, and the discipline and care of his people. Those who faithfully proclaim the gospel in the power of the Spirit may, in the purposes of God, turn everything upside down. The Gospel proclaimed brings the Kingdom of God to bear upon the world. When our true desire is the glory of God, invariably it is discovered that the Gospel’s benefits are of immeasurable worth to human culture and society. The greatest gift the Church can give the world is to be the Church.
There is compatibility between minimal feminism and PCA doctrine. Patriarchy, understood correctly, is a necessary and Biblically ordained institution. Nonetheless, Biblical acceptance of patriarchy, never, under any circumstances, allows for apathy regarding the persecution of women in the Church, in the home, or in society. Fear of egalitarianism has blinded the Presbyterian Church of America into a position condemnable by scripture. It is imperative and urgent that the courts of the Church actively pursue acceptance of the values of womanhood.
In three areas the Church needs rectification. In the first place there is a need for acknowledgment and teaching of the historical oppression of women. The Church must take on the responsibility of its history. As children of the living God we must ask forgiveness for transgressions past and present. Slavery and racial oppression were justified by the church for generations. We must live in a humble awareness of this great fault. The oppression of women is of equal importance. Second, the encouragement of action against existing oppression must be a chief concern. The course of action need not disrupt PCA doctrine regarding the role of women in the home and Church. There is a belief, common in the Church, that the role of women, in all arenas is that of “helper.” This belief, contrary to the Church’s orthodoxy, should be diluted with the teaching that men and women are one and the same in the eyes of Christ. As the apostle Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Until the Church truly realizes the value of womanhood beyond its value in relation to manhood, the Church will be participating in repression of both scripture and the Imago Dei.
Third, and finally, it is the Church’s purpose to work in passion and humility, in thought, word, and deed, to advance the Kingdom of God. Likewise, it is each Christian’s prerogative to aid the Church. Jesus says in Matthew these words of encouragement, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”
Until the Church comes to terms with its past, teaches its flock in the present, and advocates on behalf of women in and outside the Church, it is not fulfilling its duty to love God or to love its neighbour. No amount of theological justification for subordination can destroy the need for the matriarchy or the great value of women in authority. We must not subjugate in subordination. Perhaps the creation order calls the male sex to a headship, and in a chauvinist society this is perceived as evil. Either way reveals an opportunity to love as Christ loves the Church. Not once did Jesus unjustly subordinate the Church. Instead, He brought forgiveness, justification, and unconditional love. PCA doctrine and minimal feminism are, perhaps necessarily, compatible. Therefore, the PCA Church ought to allow minimal feminism to play a functional, living role in its existence as a church, lest it embrace an oppressive “hermeneutic of the role of women in society.”