A Christian Women’s Declaration
On Coalitions & Biblical Orthodoxy
A Critique by S. M. Hutchens
Comments by James M. Kushiner and Mary Podles
Responses by Mary Ellen Bork, Donna F. G. Hailson, Diane Knippers, Frederica Mathewes-Green, and Joy Moore
In the fall of 1997, the Washington-based Ecumenical Coalition on Women and Society issued a “Christian Women’s Declaration,” which was published in First Things in 1998. Touchstone Senior Editor S. M. Hutchens later that year wrote a critique of the declaration. After additional comments on the declaration were written by James M. Kushiner and Mary Podles, we invited several of the original signers of the declaration to write responses to the critique and comments.
Papering Over a Rift
Critique by S. M. Hutchens
Many years before we peevish and inscrutable fundamentalists began to fuss about it, in the days when it could still be written about whimsically, when the ordination of women was still only a gleam in the eye of a few dotty radicals, C. S. Lewis wrote his little essay “Priestesses in the Church?” With Jane Austen’s Bingley he observed that just as a ball would not really seem a ball without dancing, so a church with priestesses would not really seem a church. The point of the piece was that women presbyters and the sexual egalitarianism from which they arise are not Christian institutions. In our own day his words are grimly prescient:
Now, a church whose pastor is not thought a priest might say that this does not apply, but Lewis is using the Anglican situation merely to illustrate his main point, that the ministries of men and women in the Christian Church cannot be “equal” because the male, simply because he is male, represents the Lord of the Church in a way a woman cannot. “It is painful,” he says, “being a man, to have to assert the privilege, or the burden, which Christianity lays on my own sex. I am crushingly aware of how inadequate most of us are. . . . But it is an old saying in the army that you salute the uniform not the wearer.”
Lewis writes here so offhandedly and with such good humor—a luxury, I think, of a day when lady ministers were still confined to the sectarian fringe—that the dreadfulness of what he is saying is easy to pass over: When women are ordained, it will open a fundamental rift between those who accept the practice and those who do not.
If Lewis is right, then egalitarians for whom the ordination of women is no problem, of whom there are many among professedly orthodox Christians, have set themselves up against not, as they typically think, a weak and obsolescent tradition, a cultural incarnation of the ministry appropriate to the first century that is an impediment in our own, but against no less than the Christian doctrine of God, man, and the Church.
What, then, can we say of a document, signed by women who are known to be on both sides of the egalitarian divide, a divide most of us at Touchstone think every bit as large as Lewis thought it was, that purports to be a manifesto of cooperation in the renewal of church and society? As remarkable as it may seem, such a thing has indeed appeared, and may be found in the February 1998 issue of that excellent journal First Things.
“Women of Renewal,” a statement originally promulgated in 1997 by the Ecumenical Coalition of Women and Society of the Institute on Religion and Democracy as “A Christian Women’s Declaration,” outlines a reforming agenda terminating in a “Corporate Pledge of Action.” Its signatories identify themselves and the character of their authority with supreme confidence, as “women of faith and principle whose Christianity is founded not on human invention but divinely revealed truth.” The affirmation of this truth includes belief in the triune God, who is neither male nor female, but whom we are privileged to address by the name Father in emulation of Christ; the authority of Scripture; the natural, created order; human sinfulness, personal as well as structural; obedience to God as the pathway to fulfillment as women; and liberty that comes from the reconciling truth we have received in Christ.
The signers are grieved by the “disrespect, the abuse, the personal prejudice and institutional oppression by which humans so often dishonor the image of God in their fellow humans,” particularly women, who have so often been “the targets of such disrespect, abuse, prejudice and oppression.” While the abuse and oppression are denounced, recent advances for women are gratefully acknowledged. They pledge themselves in this statement “to stand in solidarity with all who have been denied justice, freedom, and opportunity.”
Challenges faced by these women as forces for change and renewal include detrimental cultural trends such as epistemological and moral relativism, elevation of individual rights over personal responsibility, excessive state power and the utopianism that is so often behind it, materialism, and hedonism. They reject the radical feminism that “rather than liberating women by providing them with equal opportunity to develop to the fullest their God-given talents, abilities, and potential,” leads them to deny biological realities and to define equality not in terms of equal opportunity but of artificially contrived quotas, or that presents women merely as victims of oppressive patriarchies. They deplore the idea that women are innately superior to, or radically different in ability from men, and they reject abortion on demand.
Against these ideas and trends the signers pledge to live holy lives in allegiance to the lordship of Christ, to develop strong families, to embrace their calling to authentic service to others and the Church, to be good citizens, to fulfill their worldwide obligations as promoters of freedom, peace, and justice, and to build the Church. Their corporate pledge of action is to work together to reverse detrimental cultural trends, affirming democracy, despite its manifest flaws, as the type of government that holds the most promise for the just and good ordering of society. They will provide leadership in public life, seeking “to serve as moral agents to build rightly ordered and just societies respecting the dignity of all persons.” They will expose the faulty assumptions of the radical feminist agenda, particularly its declarations of absolute autonomy and denials of a transcendent God, “in whose image male and female are made, that insures the dignity and equality of women and men.”
Finally, they will press for a renewal of biblical orthodoxy in the Church and a more central role for faith in society, uniting with “women of faith who will agree to press for reform and renewal of our churches.” The selected endorsements listed in First Things include Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant women, many of whom are prominent in renewal movements within their own churches. Many of the Protestants listed in First Things have been ordained to the pastorate in various denominations; others are affiliated with such organizations as Focus on the Family, Presbyterians Pro-Life, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Women for Faith and Family, the World Evangelical Fellowship, and this journal. Also included are women connected with seminaries such as Gordon-Conwell, Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, and Union Theological Seminary of Virginia.
Despite the probability of being considered knaves or louts for criticizing these women who stand for so many good things, some of whom have paid dearly for their opposition to radical feminism, I, along with the other senior editors of Touchstone, must observe that a small but important detail has been missed in this call to arms: the radical incompatibility of the ultimate aims of the campaigners, something that is bound to complicate—in fact, quickly frustrate—cooperation on the means employed. The leveling grammar and substantive vagueness of this document effectively promote an egalitarianism we believe to be inimical to Christianity, papering over the gaping philosophical and theological rift of which Lewis spoke, the rift at which mere maleness stands as an indispensable signal of Christian and, indeed, human order, and to which the ordination of women—an inconceivably radical and ecumenically destructive change—is, with “inclusive language,” one of the principal challenges to the Church in our day.
A Muslim and a Christian may deplore the spread of pornography together, a Trinitarian and a Unitarian may agree on sound fiscal policy, an egalitarian and an orthodox Christian can feed the poor together in Christ’s name. But when the latter confront together the issue of what needs to be done to “renew” church and society along Christian lines, their agreement on the most basic issues will be limited, superficial, and rarely susceptible to programmatic implementation as a joint project. This is particularly true of attempts to renew the Church, for, if Lewis is right—and we think he is, since we are watching it happen—an egalitarian reformation will soon give rise to something that does not look like the Church at all, that is not in fact Christian. While the two parties will agree that the Kingdom will be founded on justice, equity, truth, fidelity to the Word of God, and the like—they will define these terms differently from the beginning.
Where, in the most critical issues that face the world and the Church, can an egalitarian and a Christian agree? The family is in crisis, but the solution of the traditional Christian will involve the re-establishment and renewal of responsible male headship, while the other resists this on principle.
The churches are in crisis, but the traditional response will be along the lines of restitution of the ancient landmarks, while the egalitarian will continue to press for more of the devastating symbolic changes that are presently being made in the conceptualization of God and mankind, the language of Scripture and worship, and the ministry, changes that make ecumenical activity, always difficult, now nearly impossible. (Do churches, for example, that have convictions that only men should be priests or ministers wish their youth to go on retreats where there are women present who preach, administer the Lord’s Supper, and expect to be addressed as “Reverend,” as mild and as decent as they may otherwise be?)
The seminaries are in crisis, but much of the current disruption centers around their dominance by doctrinaire feminism, which mere egalitarianism is insufficient to oppose, for they together deny or evade the Scripture and tradition of the only effective alternative to the present state of affairs: recognition of the pastoral headship of the man over the woman in the Church.
The world to which the Church addresses itself is in crisis, the most terrible symbol of which is the mass abortion of its children. The signers of the Declaration have agreed together to oppose abortion on demand, but how much practical cooperation on abortion can there be between women who regard it as a criminal act and a mortal sin, and those who can only agree so far as to oppose “abortion on demand”?
One might also ask if they refer to the same things when they complain of “disrespect, abuse, personal prejudice and institutional oppression,” and precisely what they are going to strive together to achieve in the advance of their “fullest God-given talents, abilities, and potential.” Do the Orthodox and Roman Catholic women, for example, and those who represent conservative Evangelical organizations like Focus on the Family, or magazines like Touchstone, join other signatories who are on record elsewhere as believing that the history of abuse and oppression includes keeping women from developing their God-given abilities as priests, pastors, and partners to egalitarian marriages?
What of the pledge to oppose radical feminism together? To be sure, all reasonable citizens should join the attempt to curb the political and social influence of radical feminism and its attendant homosexualism, which are manifestly perverse and genocidal. But the point of Lewis’s “Priestesses” is that egalitarianism, as fair and innocent as it may seem to the unreflective, is as dangerous a solvent to the apostolic constitution of the Church as sexual radicalism is to that of the polis, and the church’s message to its crumbling society must include its traditional teachings about men and women if it is to be like the Church at all. Senior Editor Leon Podles, upon reading a draft of this piece, pointed out that the primary problem in society is convincing men to act as husbands and fathers—that patriarchy, even of the oppressive sort, would improve the lives of women in the ghetto. This is why many blacks are turning to Islam.
The egalitarianism expressed and implied in documents like the Christian Women’s Declaration, with its habitual tendency to dodge St. Paul, reduce male headship to mutual submission and creative tension, equivocate on the masculinity of God and the maleness of Jesus, neuter language, and separate the man from his proper office as head of church and family, is far more threatening to Christianity than the feminism of the more radical and unattractive sort that the signers have agreed to oppose. Few serious believers are influenced by the ravings of a Catherine Mackinnon or Mary Daly. Egalitarian feminism, however, which in the far more subtle and tempting mode of a classical heresy, asserts one truth (the equal worth and dignity of the sexes) to the harm of another (the divine order of male headship in family and church) is another matter entirely.
The Declaration appears a victory for egalitarians who now have the signatures of known traditionalists on a rhetorically intense but substantively vague declaration of common intent and purpose. It presents itself as a bridge to a better and more Christian future, but we think the voice with which it speaks is distorted and not very much like the Church. Either the collaborations—certainly the church-renewing collaborations—toward which it looks will collapse because there is insufficient agreement on the shape of Truth, or one side will win the other over, either to Christianity for Christian work, or to egalitarianism, to continue the work of destruction in the name of equality.
As we have said so many times in these pages, agreeing on this with the more radical (and clear-sighted) feminists: the Christian faith, if one defines it by its Scriptures and history, is not egalitarian. Among Christians rule is given to the man, who is to lay down his life for the woman, who for her part is to submit to him. As Lewis realized, anything that teaches otherwise is not Christianity, and must, with due process, be removed from the Church. Lack of clarity on these matters will only prolong the pain of the inevitable separation.
A Fragile Coalition
Comment by James M. Kushiner
Two of the signers of the Christian Women’s Declaration critiqued by S. M. Hutchens are contributing editors to Touchstone. Some of the other signers are women with whom I have collaborated for several years in the Association for Church Renewal, an association of renewal group executives from mainline denominations. Knowing these women as I do, I can read the document as a reasonable attempt to build a coalition against what it calls “radical feminism.”
Coalitions can be useful. There are a number of things upon which the signers of the Declaration can stand together—for example, the defense of marriage as a marital union only between a man and a woman.
Still, coalitions are not stable compounds and can only bear so much weight. The commitment of the signers to “Press for a Renewal of Biblical Orthodoxy in the Church” is one this coalition cannot fulfill since the signers disagree on the ordination of women. It is erroneous to think that the issue of ordaining women can be bracketed and ignored in any discussion of what is biblical orthodoxy. Just ask the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), which favors traditional views of male headship, and the opposing Council on Biblical Equality (CBE), which advocates Christian egalitarianism. For both, biblical orthodoxy is very much the question, one that is increasingly dividing evangelicalism.
Perhaps bona fide radical feminists such as Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), have figured out that the coalition is vulnerable on women’s ordination. Not long after the Declaration was released, Ireland challenged religious women, particularly Roman Catholics and Orthodox, to press for the ordination of women. NOW literature pushes the point: “Ordain Women, or Stop Baptizing Them.”
The signers of the Declaration are not merely prevented by their internal disagreement from corporately endorsing either CBMW or CBE; they also can offer no response to the challenge of radical feminists such as Ireland. Thus their stated opposition to radical feminism and their press toward biblical orthodoxy is hamstrung from the outset.
Furthermore, the radical feminism the signers are united against is not the real problem. Egalitarianism is the radical and destructive ideology, and it underlies both radical feminism and women’s ordination. Feminists may be more extreme and explicit in their rejection of sexual differences, but the same rejection lies behind women’s ordination, however moderately expressed.
The acceptance of women’s ordination by some of the signers, coupled with the willingness of the others to sign a statement that implicitly treats this issue as relatively unimportant, makes the Declaration coalition vulnerable, both theoretically and politically. Hutchens’s probing observations on this point are not pleasant because they have accurately identified a sensitive nerve.
Now, it is possible, but dangerous, to live on top of major fault lines. Some institutions or coalitions straddling them can do much good, but only until sufficient pressure comes along to produce a quake.
The Touchstone project itself depends in part on coalitions. But since coalitions for renewal in the Church must promote biblical orthodoxy, any such coalition will be weakened if there is internal disagreement over something as basic as egalitarianism. It is not possible to build an enduring church—or to renew one—over what has proven to be such a major fault line as the ordination of women. Renewal of the Church as Church can only come about through adherence to the truths upon which it was founded—and egalitarianism is simply not one of them.
The Missing Words
Comment by Mary Podles
At first blush, there is much to admire in A Christian Women’s Declaration. A group of women of firm Christian principles seek to identify a common ground, single out the most pressing issues facing today’s Church and society, and resolve upon a common action. They call for an affirmation of traditional biblical teaching, for personal sanctification, and the exercise of responsibility in a spirit of service to the world: who could object?
It is of course unfair to criticize an author for what he does not say, and yet, in this case, that which is missing is also that which is most needed to meet the authors’ goals, to combat the evils they perceive as most pernicious. Some of the omissions seem to be unconscious. For example, while rejecting the perils of radical feminism, the Ecumenical Coalition on Women and Society apparently embraces the notion of women as victims, and repeatedly singles out oppressed women as a particular concern. Don’t get me wrong: I recognize that women are often oppressed, and it grieves me too. I do not think that women should be oppressed or children victimized; no one does.
I do think, however, that the facts need to be examined a little more closely. Most women, in both Christian and non-Christian societies, have mechanisms to protect them, for with the woman lies the future of the race. Most if not all of these protective mechanisms involve men. When women and children are put in a vulnerable position, it generally means that something worse has happened to their men: they have been imprisoned, conscripted, removed, rendered incapable of doing their proper job, or killed. Should we not address ourselves also to the deeper ills that cripple men? Of course it is terrible when the weak suffer unwillingly; is it not equally heartrending when the strong suffer willingly for them? Are women really dealt the harder lot? Are men less deserving of compassion and less in need of apostolate?
Here then is the underlying omission in the statement, the 90 percent of the iceberg that it fails to address. What Christian women and society at large need is a Christian anthropology that formulates the proper roles of men and women in the modern world. A revolution has taken place in the role of women in the last century that this statement does not address: childbearing has been made optional, and, beyond a bare minimum, most First World women have opted out.
More than any other factor, contraception has changed the nature of the woman’s role, the nature of marriage, and the whole relationship between the sexes. Contraception makes possible all of the radical feminist premises the Statement deplores. It essentially removes the element of sacrifice for others from a woman’s life. If women will no longer accept their given sacrificial role, why should men?
It is no wonder the protective mechanisms have broken down and the fabric of society unraveled. Yet beyond a nod to the natural created order (“we celebrate the . . . covenant of marriage between one man and one woman prepared to bear and rear each succeeding generation of children”), the Declaration signers treat the issue as if it does not exist. They actively denounce abortion, they decry sexual license and deplore hedonism, but the contraceptive mentality underlying those evils is apparently a taboo subject.
Dr. John Haas wrote an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe explaining that the Church opposes homosexual practices because they are harmful: spiritually, psychologically, medically, societally, they are bad for you. It is time for Christians to face the same fact about contraception. However good it may feel, however easy it may make your life, however much freedom it may give you, it is not good for you. Any affirmation of biblical teaching has to include a complete generosity towards all life; without that, we cannot hope to provide a convincing counterculture within the world at large. I wish the Christian Women’s Declaration had not stopped so short of the mark.
A Modest Declaration
Response from Mary Ellen Bork
The goal of the signers of the Declaration was to find grounds for agreement among Christian women concerned about the erosion of true faith in the Christian Church. The question of the ordination of women was not a point on which we agreed. The Touchstone critique rightly points out that ordination of women is important to any discussion of church renewal. But we focused on the corrosive effects of the dominant culture on the Church, which affect not only the question of ministry but also the content of belief about God and Christ.
As a Catholic I met with representatives from Christian churches to talk about the state of renewal in their churches and what women can do to counteract some of the radical practices they are experiencing other than ordination. Renewing the Church in a hostile culture has drawn many women together across church lines. Most Christian women are not ordained, although the feminization of Protestant denominations is a reality; about 80 denominations have women leaders.
The Women’s Declaration is not a theological work but a statement of intent about the truths a group of Christian women are willing to defend. I learned a great deal about the situations facing the various denominations and felt pained at the deep fractures in so many communities. I think there is value in ecumenical conversations even when there is no agreement on some fundamental issues. We can learn the actual teachings of each church as well as the differences in doctrine and practice. That we cannot agree on ordination should not stop the conversation.
If we had discussed the ordination question, I would have proposed that the argument against women’s ordination is a positive statement about the identity of the Church and not an anti-woman statement. The Church, as we have received it, rests on a theological understanding of authority and equality coexisting together not as warring contradictory principles but as the foundation of the authentic Christian Church. Priesthood is not a function of power but a service to the Church to help her grow in holiness. The relation of man and woman in the Christian dispensation is symbolic of the relation of Christ and his Church. Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is the bride. A male priesthood preserves the meaning of this symbolism and all of its implications. Christ’s choice of male priests was not arbitrary.
The churches that have allowed women’s ordination have created a problem for the Church at a time when the culture is redefining gender and reveling in godlessness. It is more difficult for these churches to give an ecclesial witness to the person of Christ without political tensions tearing up the community.
It was good that we could agree on some basic truths. It is disturbing that the question that touches on the identity of the Church was necessarily beyond our grasp. But I think it important that we agreed on other matters essential to Christian faith.
Focusing on the Gospel
Response from Donna F. G. Hailson
In his critique of the Christian Women’s Declaration, S. M. Hutchens implies that those who hold to an “egalitarian” position are promoting—in lockstep formation—mother language for God, neutering language for Jesus, and radically inclusive language that distorts the original intent of the biblical writers. These same egalitarians, he avers, also “tend to dodge St. Paul, reduce male headship to mutual submission and creative tension, and equivocate on the masculinity of God. . . .” He cites the ordination of women and the use of inclusive language as the principal challenges to the Church today. This is the egalitarianism that he claims is “expressed and implied in documents like the Christian Women’s Declaration.” And it is this egalitarianism that, he insists, has set itself up “against not, as they typically think, a weak and obsolescent tradition . . . but against no less than the Christian doctrine of God, man, and the Church.” In essence, he declares the writers and endorsers of the Christian Women’s Declaration heretics.
I write, I suppose, as a representative—as if that were possible—of the most vilified “group” in Hutchens’s catalogue: a woman ordained to the pastorate (through the American Baptist Churches USA). Hutchens insists that women cannot be “priests” because they “cannot represent God as a priest does” but, with other Baptists, I look to the “priesthood of all believers” (see 1 Pet. 2:5; Rev. 5:10) and do not see pastors of individual congregations as standing in the place of or as representing (uniquely from other believers) the Lord of the Church. Baptists do believe that the Holy Spirit may grant specific gifts to individuals that equip them for leadership in the Church. But these individuals are not held up as superior in any way to the congregations they serve. Each member of the local church is viewed as a minister of God, and each is equipped by the Spirit with a gift or gifts that are to be used for the building up of the Church.
I would identify myself as a conservative evangelical and, with Hutchens, would deplore androgynous mother/father God language, neutering language for Jesus, and the use of radically inclusive language that distorts the original intent of the biblical writers.
I believe the Bible is the inspired, infallible Word of God and assert that there is one God triune (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). I believe in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, his sinless life, his death on the cross for the forgiveness of sins, his bodily resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into heaven. I believe that all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. I believe that there is only one means of reconciliation with God: faith in Jesus Christ. I believe in the justification, regeneration, sanctification, and glorification of the believer and look to the visible Second Coming of the Lord and life eternal in the presence of God. These are, in my view, the non-negotiables of the Christian faith.
There are, however, other doctrines on which Christians disagree. As a Baptist, I may differ with those in other expressions of the Christian faith on such matters as eschatology, ecclesiology, hagiology, and sacramental versus nonsacramental theology. And while we may still challenge one another on these issues, they should not be permitted to take center stage.
Those of us who are involved in the renewal and reform effort—especially within the mainline denominations—realize that we must set aside some of our differences to concentrate on the more important points of agreement: the non-negotiables. We have millions around the world who are dying apart from Christ and need to hear the message of salvation. Many of the women who signed the Christian Women’s Declaration, for example, are trying to reach out to radical revisionists in the Church who are embracing the goddess and working to re-imagine the Bible and all the non-negotiables of the faith. I believe the Lord is now raising up faithful Christian women leaders to respond to these radical feminists. With the other signers of the Christian Women’s Declaration, I affirm my belief that “the Bible is the most effective force in history for lifting women to higher levels of respect, dignity, and freedom.” I am determined—as empowered and enabled by the Holy Spirit—to stand for the faith and for my Lord and Savior.
Hutchens asserts that “among Christians, rule is given to the man, who is to lay down his life for the woman, who for her part is to submit to the man.” Hutchens fails to note in this that the Bible also records the Lord’s words: “Let us make man (adamah, ‘humankind’) in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule . . . God created man in his own image . . . male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26,27). He also fails to note that we are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).
While Hutchens claims that “egalitarians” assert “one truth (the equal worth and dignity of the sexes) to the harm of another (the divine order of male headship in family and church),” I would suggest that Hutchens asserts certain biblical passages to the exclusion of others. His arguments against the leadership of women in the Church fail to take into account leaders in the Church whom Paul lauds as cherished coworkers: women like Phoebe, Junia, Lydia, and Priscilla.
Finally, Hutchens claims that the voice of the women speaking through the Christian Women’s Declaration is “not very much like the Church.” And isn’t that finally the crux of his argument? It appears that if Hutchens had his way, women would have no voice—as members of the Church—at all.
Egalitarianism Misses the Mark
Response from Diane Knippers
Reading these criticisms of our Christian Women’s Declaration reminded me of the first time my husband and I visited Calvin College about 25 years ago. Ed and I had come from a conservative Wesleyan Holiness background, so we experienced culture shock when we saw all of those presumably upright Christians smoking and drinking. I was aghast. But it got worse. Slowly, I realized that no matter how nice and friendly everyone was to us, many of our hosts really and truly thought that we were heretics because we were, gasp, Arminians.
More recently, conservative friends of mine who sign joint Evangelical and Catholic statements have been pilloried for their compromise of essentials of the faith. Through these and other experiences I’ve learned a lesson: Those who would build Christian unity must live with the fact that one man’s fundamentalism is another man’s apostasy.
Yes, we intentionally avoided the issue of women’s ordination in drafting the Christian Women’s Declaration because we knew that we were deeply divided on that important question. Indeed, while Kushiner and Hutchens have misgivings because ordained women and their supporters could sign the Declaration, some evangelical women refused to sign it because we did not endorse women’s ordination.
Truthfully, we have prior and even more serious divisions—on the nature of ordination in particular and our ecclesiology in general. Are individuals ordained as priests, or pastors, or preachers? All of the above? None of the above? Is the very concept of the priest as representative of Christ at the heart of Christian orthodoxy—or an extra-biblical aberration?
Could a woman officer in the Salvation Army and an Orthodox or Catholic woman sign a common statement on ordination? Not in my lifetime, I suspect. But could we still come together in a coalition to address some urgent problems in society and even in the Church? I am convinced we can.
I’m unapologetic in asserting that Christian women can work together to fight abortion on demand, even if we don’t agree on contraception. That we can struggle to reverse horrifying rates of divorce and extramarital sex, even if we don’t interpret headship and submission in the same ways. That we can oppose goddess worship and Wiccan ceremonies, even if we can’t share the Eucharist. And that we can be apologists for the faith of Nicea, even if we don’t agree on women’s ordination.
I was a bit nonplussed that our document was accused of being egalitarian. I do think equality, properly understood, is an important political ideal—as in “equal opportunity” or “equal before the law”—that is consistent with biblical teaching. But the Christian Women’s Declaration explicitly opposes some egalitarian excesses, such as defining “equality” as “identical.” Therefore, we oppose quotas aiming at 50-50 representation of men and women in all walks of life. The only other reference to equality that I can find in our document is the phrase noting that “the grace of God is extended equally to women.” Surely that is theologically unobjectionable.
Nevertheless, my own view is that egalitarianism is not a particularly helpful concept within the family and the Church. When I’m looking for principles by which to live, my concordance lists scores of references to justice, righteousness, holiness, calling, covenant, discipline, faithfulness, forgiveness, honor, love, obedience, service, sacrifice, and trust. All of these are more helpful than “equality” in building godly homes and churches. Indeed, when I am tempted to demand my own “equal rights,” I’m quickly brought short by the example of Christ, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. . . .” (Phil. 2:6).
Kushiner and Hutchens appear to assume that egalitarianism is the only reason to support women’s ordination. That’s no more fair than to argue that all opposition to women’s ordination is rooted in prejudice. If we are going to “achieve disagreement,” we need to be clear about one another’s arguments. My husband’s grandmother’s ordination in the Evangelical Methodist Church early in this century had nothing to do with egalitarianism. Her church found that Scripture and the record of the early Church are not unambiguous regarding the role of women, and they concluded that they could not limit the Holy Spirit in whom he called and ordained.
Nor is it any longer true that egalitarianism is a major force in feminism, particularly in the Church. Feminist theology holds that patriarchy or men are the oppressors. It is impossible that women’s savior can be male, so women must look to themselves for salvation. They don’t want equality, they want autonomy.
Finally, to those unwilling to sign the Christian Women’s Declaration, either because we neglected to condemn women’s ordination or because we refused to espouse it, let me nevertheless invite you to participate in our activities. You might discover that, like me, you are blessed by Mary Ellen Bork’s Catholic spirituality, or enlightened by Rev. Donna Hailson’s articulate critique of neo-paganism, or challenged by Baroness Caroline Cox’s passionate defense of the persecuted Church. You’ll certainly find women willing to hear you with respect and engage you forthrightly. You might even change some minds.
A Limited Plan
Response from Frederica Mathewes-Green
I am sorry I don’t have time to contribute in depth to this conversation. Briefly, it seems that critics are saying that the women who signed the Statement will not be able to work together to achieve any practical or programmatic goals because we have ignored certain fundamental issues that divide us and that, in some cases, are essential to resolving the problems we address. This is true. The point of the Declaration was to make a Declaration, and we agreed to what we could agree to. As far as I know, there is no plan for this group of women to work together on anything further. Those working independently may well choose different or even opposing tacks in fighting what is perceived as a common enemy.
A Statement to Be Embraced
Response from Joy Moore
When I was asked to review the Christian Women’s Declaration, I feared I would read yet another document that would again argue the validity of women’s rights and an egalitarian posture. I expected the Christian preface would diminish a vicious tone, but the women’s declaration would hint of angry women intent on male bashing, restructuring the family, and crying victim. How encouraged I was to read a unified voice pledging to live holy lives in allegiance to the lordship of Christ.
The Declaration is a response to the muck of immorality and the confusion of cultural relativism espoused by nonscriptural ideologies. For too long the strident voice of feminist ideology has been uncontested in its proclamation of the radical opinions of a vocal minority. Challenged to move beyond agendas of equality and issues of personal experience, Christian women must distinguish themselves from those who share their concerns for justice but not their conviction to proclaim Jesus Christ. The time has come for women to call to accountability the duplicity of radical feminist thought. It is here that the lines must be drawn.
We who have the label “Evangelical” must frame the arguments of society, rather than only within our Christian community. The evangelical Church seems powerless to transform the public arena. At issue are not the divisions within evangelical Christianity, but the chasm of cultural chaos resulting from relativism, universalism, and secularism. Evangelicals are lost in managing tradition rather than leading with the power of God to transform this culture. In the tsunami of immorality, we cannot drown in the legalism of the representative priest. On the wake of heresy, we must not meander in the maze of denominational distinctions.
I decline the thought that Christians cannot speak in a unified voice because we don’t yet fully agree on what is faithful as the exercise of institutional leadership. For generations past, orthodoxy referred to belief in the scriptural witness of Jesus Christ as Son, Savior, and Lord. Can it be said today that Christians would be silent with the gospel message in order to invalidate the testimony of women called clergy speaking in this coalition against the menaces of society?
The moral insensitivity of the culture is overshadowed by a pharisaic legalism that deprives the Christian voice of the capacity to influence society. Our society is in a crisis of cultural authority, and we who are to witness to Christ choose to silence each other rather than band together with a message of the sovereignty of Christ, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, and the ethical boundaries of the Church.
An appeal for tradition cannot overshadow the call to contend for the faith entrusted to us to guard and cherish. While we may disagree on who can witness to this faith, the Declaration reflects an agreement on what can result if we view the world through the lens of Scripture. As women of faith, we desire to live as a countercultural people, proclaiming biblical values and impacting the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Renewal has always come about as the people of God trust that God can never be limited by human understanding, trapped by denominational disagreement, changed by legislated lawlessness, or stopped by theological arguments. God’s poured-out Spirit is evident as women focus on the responsibilities of the faithful.
The Declaration is neither a prelude nor a postlude to a treaty on women’s ordination. That can be argued in a different arena. We are convinced of the unique divine inspiration, entire trustworthiness, contemporary relevance, and authority of the Bible. Women can embrace this statement across denominational lines, because its foundation acknowledges the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the work of transforming society.
Mary Podles, a Roman Catholic, lives in Naples, Florida, with her husband Leon, a Touchstone Senior Editor. They have six children. She is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland.
Mary Ellen Bork, a Catholic writer and lecturer living in Washington, D.C., is also on the board of Catholic Campaign for America.
Donna F. G. Hailson is a researcher, writer, and speaker on contemporary culture, new religious movements, Christian apologetics and church renewal. A visiting lecturer in missions and evangelism at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, she has edited, authored, or coauthored several works, including The Goddess Revival and From Truth to Myth (forthcoming from Bristol House). She serves on the board of directors of the American Baptist Evangelicals.
Diane Knippers is President of the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Democracy. An Episcopal laywoman, she serves on the boards of the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Anglican Council, and Five Talents, a micro-enterprise initiative in the Anglican Communion. She is an Advisory Editor for Christianity Today. She is married to Ed Knippers, a painter and print-maker.
Joy Moore is Director of Student Life at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. She is a clergymember of the West Michigan Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and holds a Master of Divinity degree from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois.
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“A Christian Women’s Declaration” first appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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