Skip to main content

Features

Dangerous first step

Scholar Wayne Grudem on how "evangelical feminism" undermines Scripture and leads to theological liberalism

Dangerous first step

Wayne Grudem, Research Professor of Bible and Theology at Phoenix Seminary in Scottsdale, Ariz., is the author of books including Systematic Theology and Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. His latest is Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism? (Crossway, 2006).

WORLD: Why do many churches feel pressured to deny male leadership in the home and in the church?

GRUDEM: The culture! Ask any pastor if he likes to preach on male headship in marriage and you'll get a sense of how strong the cultural pressures are against the Bible's teaching. In every generation, the culture always pushes the church toward denying the Bible in various ways, and thus there is a constant pressure to move toward liberalism. Today evangelical feminism is pushing the church toward liberalism.

WORLD: What do you mean by "evangelical feminism" and "liberalism"?

GRUDEM: Evangelical feminism is a movement that claims that there are no unique leadership roles for men in marriage or in the church. I call it evangelical feminism because these writers accept the Bible as the Word of God. But theological liberalism is in conflict with that because it is a system of thinking that denies the complete truthfulness of the Bible as the Word of God and denies the unique and absolute authority of the Bible in our lives.

WORLD: Do you really think you can prove that evangelical feminism moves churches and denominations toward liberalism?

GRUDEM: Absolutely. Some people don't move toward liberalism (such as several friends that I name in the book), but their arguments regularly undermine or deny the authority of Scripture, and the next generation moves quickly toward liberalism.

Many Christians think that the disputes over men's and women's roles are just another doctrinal difference that doesn't matter much, like the differences over predictions of the end times. But my research found at least 25 well-documented arguments, widely used by evangelical feminists, that undermine or deny the authority of Scripture. Once people give in to these feminist arguments, they accept methods of interpretation that lead them down the path toward liberalism.

People sometimes wonder how churches that used to believe the Bible have become liberal in their views of Scriptures, and I show in this book that we are seeing it happen before our very eyes, with evangelical feminism as the common path they follow.

WORLD: You show in your book that all theologically liberal denominations have adopted feminism and have women at all leadership levels. Could this be because denominations suddenly become better interpreters of the Bible passages on women in the church when they become more liberal?

GRUDEM: No, definitely not! By conviction liberal groups undermine and deny the authority of Scripture. They don't interpret the Bible better, but they invent sophisticated academic arguments to show why women should be pastors in spite of what the Bible says about this. And now several of the same arguments used by liberals to justify ordaining women 50 years ago are being adopted by evangelical feminists today.

I trace a trend toward liberalism in several denominations in this book, and in every case when a denomination abandons the inerrancy of the Bible it moves quickly to approve women as pastors and elders. But I also show historically that the strongest resistance to ordaining women comes from the several denominations that hold firmly to the inerrancy of Scripture (for example, the Southern Baptists, the Presbyterian Church in America, and the Missouri Synod Lutherans).

WORLD: How do evangelical feminists deal with the clear teachings of 1 Timothy 2:12 and 3:2, or Titus 1:6?

GRUDEM: They have a lot of different ways to evade the force of these verses, and most of them undermine Scripture. Some appeal to a "trajectory" of thought, saying that Paul and other New Testament authors had not reached a mature understanding of doctrine and ethics, but we can see the direction they were heading and we can go beyond the New Testament to find an "ultimate ethic" that is better for us today than what we read in the New Testament. William Webb of Heritage Theological Seminary (Ontario) holds that view, for example, as does New Testament scholar R.T. France of England. But that view means that our authority is not the New Testament but our idea of the goal it was "moving toward."

Other evangelical feminists say that Paul was wrong about women in the church, or that Genesis does not record actual history when it says Adam was created before Eve. Another evasion of the authority of these verses is to dismiss them by saying they are "disputed" and "hard to understand," which turns out to be a neat way to get rid of any verses that you cannot explain but you do not want to obey.

Surprisingly, some evangelicals say that a pastor can override the force of these verses by giving a woman permission to preach "under his authority." But if the Bible says that a woman should not "teach or . . . exercise authority over a man" (in the setting of the assembled church), then how can a pastor give a woman permission to disobey that Scripture? Would we say that pastors can give us authority to disobey the command "you shall not steal" as well? This is just another way of undermining the authority of Scripture.

WORLD: What should be the evangelical response to the teaching in these verses?

GRUDEM: Obey them. 1 Timothy 2:12, speaking about the Bible teaching that is done in an assembled group of Christians, specifies that men are to do the Bible teaching: "I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man." How hard is that to understand?

WORLD: But we both know of mature, godly women who seem to have preaching and teaching ability-and some may even feel "called" to ministry. On what basis do you turn them down?

GRUDEM: The key here is to decide that experience is not going to trump Scripture. Our task is to obey what God's Word says, and subjective experiences of "calling" or "blessing" should not lead us to disobey it. Putting experience above Scripture is a direct path to theological liberalism. On the other hand, many women have outstanding knowledge of the Bible and outstanding Bible teaching gifts. I would encourage them to use these gifts to teach women's groups, both small and large (as many godly women do).

WORLD: Maybe Paul's teaching that women should not speak in church came because uneducated women in Corinth or Ephesus were being disruptive or teaching false doctrines . . .

GRUDEM: Another way to undermine the authority of Scripture is to invent a unique historical situation (such as uneducated women in the ancient world) and then to say that we are not in the same situation so we do not have to obey this passage of Scripture. But this historical situation in fact has been constructed out of the interpreter's own imagination, for the Bible doesn't say anything about women being uneducated in the first century. In fact, many women followed Jesus and learned from Him, and women like Pricilla (Acts 18:26) were apparently very knowledgeable about the Bible. In 1 Timothy 2:11 Paul commands, "Let a woman learn quietly," which means that women as well as men learned the Bible.

In addition, I point out in my book how archeological research demonstrates evidence of at least 48 women who served as the "superintendent of schools" (Greek, gymnasiarchos) in various cities in Asia Minor, the area to which Paul wrote 1 Timothy. In many cities women were leading the educational system.

The other idea, that women were being disruptive or teaching false doctrine, also won't hold up to historical investigation-it's just a product of the interpreter's imagination, trying to construct a situation that is unlike ours today, and thereby get a reason for disobeying Scripture. When there is no hard evidence to prove these imaginative speculations, should we disobey Scripture on the basis of something that is speculative and unproven, instead of simply obeying the Word of God which is specific, clear, and always true?

WORLD: What troubling further steps occur once churches succumb to feminist pressures?

GRUDEM: There is a slippery slope that is predictable and it has happened in denomination after denomination, as I outline in this book: (1) abandoning Biblical inerrancy, (2) endorsing the ordination of women as pastors, (3) abandoning the Bible's teaching on male headship in marriage, (4) excluding clergy who are opposed to women's ordination, (5) approving homosexual conduct as morally valid in some cases, (6) approving homosexual ordination, (7) ordaining homosexuals to high leadership positions in the denomination. (Only the Episcopal Church has gone as far as step seven, but others are moving in that direction.)

WORLD: How has evangelical feminism contributed to the battles of the past decade over Bible translation?

GRUDEM: My research shows that one early mark of a church moving to endorse evangelical feminism is to deny that there are any uniquely masculine characteristics (apart from obvious physical differences). Part of that trend has been seen in the strong push for "gender-neutral language" in our culture. Bibles such as the TNIV, the New Living Translation, and the New Revised Standard Version remove thousands of examples of the male-oriented words man, father, son, brother, and he/him/his, and change them to the gender-neutral terms person, parent, child, friend, and they, in places where the original Hebrew or Greek referred to a specific male human being or used a masculine singular pronoun (equivalent to English he) to state a general truth.

These versions have "muted the masculinity" of many passages of Scripture and, in doing so, have contributed to the feminist goal of denying anything uniquely masculine. The TNIV in particular has changed the translation of many of the key passages regarding women in the church, and I would find it almost impossible to teach a biblical "complementarian" view of the role of women in the church from the TNIV. It has gone further in supporting an evangelical feminist position than any other translation, as far as I know. Of course it is no surprise that the TNIV has been very popular among egalitarian groups such as the Willow Creek Association.

WORLD: In what ways do church critics of feminism sometimes end up helping evangelical feminists?

GRUDEM: We can do so if we become angry or harsh, or fail to remember that these people we differ with are our friends and fellow Christians. Paul reminds us, "The Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness" (2 Timothy 2:24-25). I am seeking to follow that in this book, even as I attempt to warn the church that evangelical feminism is taking us down a very dangerous path.

WORLD: What are rightful ways for gifted women-some of whom are business, governmental, or nonprofit leaders-to serve in the church and in society generally?

GRUDEM: The Bible only restricts leadership to men in the home and in the church. It does not make similar restrictions in regard to government or business or other areas of life. The principle here is the sufficiency of Scripture: We need to remain true to everything that the Bible teaches, but not require more than the Bible teaches and not try to become "more conservative" than Scripture itself. We have the principles of male headship in the home and the church, but the Bible also has the principle of equality in the image of God. As men and women we both bear God's image equally (Genesis 1:27), and that means we have equal value and importance and dignity before God and with each other. That principle gives us great freedom to have both men and women lead according to gifts and abilities and callings in areas such as government and business and nonprofit organizations. (As for para-church organizations, that depends on whether they are carrying out the functions that Paul restricts to men in 1 Timothy 2.)

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.