Staying with the Lemmings
by S. M. Hutchens
When I wrote “Abreast of the Times” (Fall ’95) about the inclusive language statement in Trinity International University’s (formerly Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) Graduate Studies Handbook, I hoped the article would move the school to have a searching look at the anthropology of egalitarian feminism and make a thorough and decisive course correction, breaking ranks with the many schools that have joined the evangelical feminists’ march to the inclusivist sea. I find Dean Hunter’s reply to Touchstone, appearing on page 6, very disappointing in this regard. Trinity has clearly “handled” the problem, but not corrected it, and this, I believe, calls for a rather extended editorial comment.
Let me first say that I appreciate the Dean’s predicament, and the juggling act his letter represents is about as skillful as it can be under the circumstances. His faculty is clearly divided on inclusive language and other matters that relate to feminism in its subtler forms. There are powerful forces he and the Trinity administration must placate on either side of the cluster of issues my article thrust forward. On one hand, the Trinity constituency—principally the Evangelical Free Church and its ministerium—is predictably more conservative than the faculty as a whole and, holding much of the purse’s power, can make its opinions acutely felt at the school if it chooses to do so. On the other, there are the large number of evangelical progressives more closely connected to the school on a day-to-day basis who expect it to do what they consider the right thing with regard to women and their ministries. Beyond this there is the looming, and I assure the reader very significant, problem of what the rest of the religious establishment thinks of Trinity, particularly accreditation agencies, graduate schools to whom its alumni apply for doctoral studies, firms that publish the faculty’s books, and professional associations to which its members belong. These, taken together, weigh in very heavily in favor of inclusive language. Trinity, speaking through the Dean, has decided to do what it can to please, or at least pacify, them all.
My article on Trinity’s inclusive language statement was first sent, on the advice of a friend who knows the school well, to the Evangelical Beacon, the denominational magazine of the Evangelical Free Church. The Free Church at large, he was quite sure, was not aware of the statement’s existence, much less its significance, and he very reasonably thought it should be given the opportunity to deal with the matter before the news was published elsewhere. I received a polite letter from the Beacon’s editor informing me that this was not the sort of thing it printed. We then sent it on to Trinity itself, with the invitation for someone to defend the statement in a response to be placed alongside the article. The invitation was considered, we were told, at the highest levels, and Trinity declined to respond. Abreast of the Times was published in Touchstone and we heard nothing about it for months. Touchstone, alas, we thought, is not likely to be read by many people in Trinity’s world.
Then I received a telephone call from an alarmed Free Church pastor. He had never heard of Touchstone, but a friend, a priest of the Charismatic Episcopal Church, had placed my article on his desk. He read it and hit the roof—this was unbelievable! Did such an inclusive language statement really exist? Could I document what I had written? I sent him copies of the Handbook pages in question, and he began a personal campaign to inform the Free Church of the language rules Trinity’s faculty had imposed on the school.
Shortly thereafter some more visible things began to happen at Trinity, and I have not entirely resisted the temptation to sarcasm to describe them. We are told in the Dean’s letter that during the 1995–96 academic year the Educational Policies Committee recommended to the faculty that the so-called (so-called, by the way, by the Handbook) unauthorized inclusive language mandate statement be removed. Apparently by coincidence, or perhaps simply because committee work is often slow, it was not until the very year the Touchstone article appeared and the pastor publicized it in Free Church circles that the Educational Policies Committee finally got around to expunging the work of that wicked post graduate fellow. For more than three years, the amount of time it takes to earn a degree or two at Trinity, an unwilling faculty and administration had suffered under this abnormally powerful fellow’s imposition of his or her personal—shall we now call it a “mandate” again?—upon the Trinity community.
Apologies, therefore, are apparently due to the Trinity faculty and administration for encouraging people to “draw erroneous conclusions about TEDS and the EFCA” by pointing out this little problem that it undoubtedly would have eventually solved without my article and the pastor’s information campaign. Assuredly when it was discovered that the rogue fellow’s work—no less than an attempt to govern all public discourse at Trinity—had actually been printed and distributed in the faculty’s name and without its approval there was an immediate outcry from the wronged faculty and an official memorandum telling the community that this was an optional mandate. And surely no member of that faculty ever reproached or disciplined any student for failure to follow the so-called mandate, which was really no mandate at all.
The Dean informs us that the inclusive language statement itself remains, no longer now as a mandate, and no longer with the obnoxious list of forbidden words, but as a pledge “to encourage students, staff members and the wider Christian community to use language and illustrations which include women and men in our teaching, writing, witness, and worship.” For this Trinity surely deserves praise instead of censure, its inclusive language statement plainly being the result of a triumphant rediscovery of the doctrine of biblical equality, and of Evangelical leaders’ desire to enlighten churches at risk of forgetting that men and women are “of equal worth, value, and meaningfulness as persons.” After all, patriarchy, male dominion, and the like, is so strongly asserted these days in the major centers of culture, the government, the academy, the churches, and the media—in all places where the Christian message needs to be heard most urgently—that surely it is the duty of Christian leadership to exert a countervalent force, reminding everyone with all due vigor that men and women are unreservedly equal. In the face of all this I should be commending Trinity for its courageous and uncompromising willingness to swim against the stream.
But I wonder, since at Trinity the old rule imposed by the mysterious and terrible postgraduate fellow is no longer in force, whether one can now feel comfortable to include women by using, say, terms like “man” to designate the human race? If so, obviously no inclusive language manifesto is needed, since the older way of being inclusive is still perfectly acceptable. Or is Trinity’s preeminent concern here to assure up-to-date people that it does not condone “potentially offensive conventions of speech”? Ah yes, there’s the real question. Whom does Trinity wish to avoid offending? For whom does the statement itself remain? For the Free Church and its pastors? One rather doubts it. For students who would not come to Trinity if such a statement were lacking? Again, probably not. Clearly Trinity wishes to please those who would be bothered if what is called inclusive language were not the stated rule.
Now what, I ask the reader to consider, is normally meant by “inclusive language”? Isn’t it precisely not the language we used to use? Isn’t the “inclusive language” canon, whether explicated in word lists or not, the very one that outlaws “husband,” for the male spouse or “man” for the human race, requires that we count pronouns, say “girls and boys” for every time we say “boys and girls,” and the like? Aren’t its forbidden terms the very ones that appeared in the phantom postgraduate fellow’s now phantom bibliography and table of shibboleths? The call for inclusive language is very clearly a call not to offend the sort of person who does not like the way we used to talk, and who needs assurance that what is commonly meant by inclusive language is what is practiced at Trinity.
The Dean’s letter to Touchstone contains something for everyone, a ringing assurance that Trinity is one-hundred percent for inclusive language for those who want it to be, and firm guarantees for those who might be troubled by this that inclusive language is based on firmly biblical principles, that the Free Church doesn’t ordain women to the pastorate, and that there are Trinity faculty involved in conservative resistance organizations like the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. For those who might have been concerned that Trinity was veering off to the left or right, the Dean’s letter makes it clear that, on the contrary, the school is very unequivocally of two minds.
I would suggest that it become of one mind, divesting itself publicly, emphatically, and entirely of the inclusive language statement as a artifact of feminist influence that needs to be not only removed, but also repented of. In the context of this age, it is clearly a concession to an egalitarian movement that cannot and will not accept in any meaningful way the masculine headship of family and church taught by Scripture and the Christian tradition. That Trinity feels the necessity to change its governing documents by adding this statement is incontrovertible evidence that it is responding positively to the changes that are afoot in such matters in the world and in the churches.
The Trinity administration and faculty, in not actively resisting the feminism responsible for statements like this, shows itself to be unwilling or unable to assess carefully and openly the philosophy that produces and advances inclusive language statements, nor reflect on the recent histories of the churches for which mild and reasonable sounding documents like this, like clouds the size of a man’s hand, were the initial steps in the reformation of theology and practice that has swept all before it in the mainline Protestant churches and in much of the Roman Catholic world. It hasn’t the will or the courage to be offensive in the critical areas where it must offend in order to retain its orthodoxy in this age. It will not, as a united institution, join battle where the battle is presently being fought by more faithful brethren—which, I hasten to add, include a few of its own professors. Because it will not open its eyes to these things it is going blind, and quickly. It has come to the place where it cannot see that the Bible it calls the Word of God, the inerrant standard of Christian faith and practice, is not written in “inclusive language,” much less that the doctrines of God and man it contains are, as feminists have repeatedly observed, anti-egalitarian and anti-feminist beyond reformation.
I should emphasize that the problem is not peculiar to Trinity, whose faculty and administration are only typical of current Evangelical leadership, which is, following its nineteenth- and early twentieth-century mainline counterpart, losing the battle with “modernity” because it will not resist with sufficient vigor at the critical points, at the places where the real battle is actually being fought. George Marsden’s writings on the secularization of evangelical schools in the United States (I am thinking particularly now of Reforming Fundamentalism and The Soul of the American University) appear to confirm that each comes to a point where it makes a symbolically significant decision that sets it firmly on the road to becoming a representative of “established non-belief,” the importance of which for the metamorphosis of the institution becomes clear to the majority of observers only some years after the critical changes are actually made. Trinity, it appears, has recently made its own.
While Trinity is, on the whole, still a reasonably good place to get religious training, and I would still provisionally recommend it as much better than most seminaries, I do not see the necessary will or energy there to do what must be done to keep it from following, at its own pace and in its own way, the stream of religion whose ultimate arbiter is the modern academy (represented most intensely in Trinity’s life by its accreditors and the schools that grant Ph. D.s to the kind of teachers Trinity likes to hire) rather than an obedient and firmly grasped understanding of the shape and character of the historic Christian faith, a faith to which the innovations Trinity has already begun to institute are foreign and repulsive.
Schools that are closely dependent, as Trinity is, upon a donating constituency more conservative than the school itself, naturally decline more slowly than those having large endowments or manageable numbers of wealthy progressives as benefactors. But Trinity has pledged itself to train pastors for the Free Church who are concerned not to offend in matters of inclusive language, and these will, over time, change the denomination, softening its conviction and resolve so that it is no longer able to deal with doctrinal entropy at its seminary, even if it is not particularly happy with what is going on there.
Trinity, typically Evangelical in its desperate search for high status, will in all likelihood continue to seek and hire professors from the very best schools, schools where it is becoming impossible to earn doctorates apart from firm cooperation with feminist demands on language and thought. It will continue to look toward the university, the professional association, and the religious publishing media rather than the historic Church for its identity and evaluation of its worth, and it will continue to accommodate, since it hasn’t the will to take fiscally dangerous risks, the accreditation agencies whose insistence that religious schools institute egalitarian policies have become firmer and more insistent every year.
Trinity is probably too far gone to be saved. Of course, I would like to be proved wrong, but will not be until the marks of the cross begin to appear on my alma mater.
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Staying with the Lemmings” first appeared in the Summer 1996 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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