Christian Feminism? (XI)
The PCA in Urban, Egalitarian Environments:
I really had planned to start a new subject after the last installment, but something important was drawn to my attention so I thought it should be addressed and since it fits in with what I consider to be the baneful way that evangelicals talk about “Christian feminism” I thought it would be profitable to write about it.
A PCA pastor, Rev. Sam Downing, in Denver, CO has written an article entitled, “The PCA and Gospel Ministry in an Urban, Egalitarian Environment: Toward a Theologically Accurate, Culturally Appropriate Apologetic.” In his Introduction Rev. Downing reminds us that since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, “to deny a woman any position on the basis of her gender is considered bigoted, narrow-minded and a violation of her civil rights. Though the more rural and conservative regions of the United States have been slower to adopt this worldview (at least in the realm of religion) this is certainly the case in the major cities and urban areas” (p. 1).
This analysis is perhaps accurate, but Rev. Downing spends no time explaining the ideologies that now under gird this “worldview.” In the past ten issues I have been pointing out how Feminism, just to use one example, has played an integral role in developing this jaundiced view of women being able to do anything a man can do. Most understand either through reading or through experience—or both—that this is de facto the current situation.
It is also patently true, as Rev. Downing points out, that the lion’s share of the “mainline” denominations “have shifted to an ‘egalitarian’ perspective of ordaining women to church office” My initial response when I read that was: And your point is? But it’s better to allow Rev. Downing to make his own points.
As I read this, I couldn’t help but think that pretty soon the “But Monkey” was going to show up. Why would anyone take so much time to break down an open door? Was Rev. Downing merely attempting to remind us of what we already know? I didn’t think so. Before we pass on, I would add that the complementarian position as it is explained and defended by organizations such as the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and books like Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood have aptly defended this (relatively) new position, which, by the way, isn’t really new at all, but according to what Rev. Downing has previously explained is, in fact, the position of historic Christianity as well as the PCA, being a part of historic Christianity. So Rev. Downing has given us the descriptions so now we’re going to move on to the applications.
His next section is where the “But Monkey” makes his appearance: The PCA: Culture and Practice. The opening salvo reads: “Within the PCA there is no serious debate over the legitimacy of the complementarian position.” Really? Did I miss something at the outset of the birth of the PCA. When I graduated from Gordon-Conwell in 1975 I was PCUSA. I realized that there was no way that I was going to get ordained in the PCUSA due to my view on the ordination of women. I chose, rather, to go to the Free University of Amsterdam to work on my doctoral studies. I followed the discussions from across the ocean and it seemed to me that the PCA came to some solid, biblical conclusions at the outset of its existence. If since around the 1980s the term complementarian has been in use and its use has created no problems or confusion why do we need to have this discussion now?
Question: If the complementarian position is commensurate with the PCA’s interpretation of Scripture, which is also in line with the historic position of the Church catholic, what’s the point? I suppose it could be argued that it’s a good thing to re-think and re-consider your position from time to time, but I cannot help but wonder what new piece of biblical information or insight do we have now that we didn’t have previously? For example, when I talk to my Baptist brothers and sisters about Baptism, I’m more than willing to go back and look at all the texts another time. In my discussions, however, no one thus far has really brought forward anything new as far as the usual scriptural texts are concerned. For whatever reason, you either end up on the Baptist or paedo-baptist side of the coin.
Rev. Downing seems to be saying that we really should have a serious debate about what hasn’t been a source of consternation—by his reckonings—since the 1980s. Now recall that he is aiming at bringing the gospel to an urban, egalitarian environment. He acknowledges that rural and conservative regions of PCA-land have a different set of circumstances. Are we to assume then that all who are in favor of the complementarian position are PCA rednecks? Are we to assume that our biblical and confessional principles should operate on a sliding scale contingent upon where in the fruited plain we live? Let’s continue to listen. Rev. Downing believes that “Those who disagree with that position have generally either left the denomination of their own accord or have been forced to leave due to noncompliance with the BCO.” Well, that’s not entirely accurate, is it? Let me, as they say in Spanish, “esplain.” First, those who have left the PCA over “the women’s issue” have not left because they were not card-carrying members of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, who had drunk the “complementarian” Kool-Aid. Personally, I’m not aware of a large number of churches that fit Rev. Downing’s category here, but of the ones that have left the PCA I think it’s a stretch to assert that they left for purely complementarian reasons. They left because of the PCA’s interpretation of the pertinent biblical texts and because their views were not in keeping with the Westminster Standards and the BCO.
Second, each one of us is required at our ordination to answer this question in the affirmative: “…and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?” (BCO-21-5.2) As far as I know, no one has answered Yes at gunpoint. Freely and willingly we have given our word. What is another problem that Rev. Downing doesn’t touch on is when pastors do have a change of heart or of their views on women’s ordination and don’t inform their Presbytery. This is tantamount to breaking their word, which is a serious matter as well. I’m also not aware of people being forced to leave the PCA because of non-compliance to the BCO. It would seem that both conscience and reality would dictate that it’s time to move on. Why would you want to stay in a church with whom you disagreed on key issues? For example, if you became convinced that predestination was not true and that free will was, why would you want to stay PCA? Leaving by your own volition would seem the prudent thing to do. If, however, you insist on staying and teaching that which is contrary to the stated beliefs of that denomination, I really don’t see the problem with being asked to leave. In fact, in the history of Presbyterianism there have been clear times (for example, Charles Finney) when the dissenting party should have been asked to leave and if they had said no, then they should have been required to leave.
According to Rev. Downing “there is indeed a serious and growing debate surrounding the culture and practice of the PCA in regard to the role of women.” Yes, I believe he is correct. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with debate and discussion. I do want to ask those who are initiating this “serious and growing debate” if their views are true reflections of what they promised at their ordination. If they are not, then the requisite step before the debate begins is to go back to your respective Presbytery and explain your change of view. It is imperative that we are sticklers on this point. There is a need for ethical propriety and if someone has been in the “closet” on this matter, they need to do what they promised first and then we can have the debate.
So let’s see if we can unpack this. These “younger generations” seem to be assuming that the “older generations” did not have this fight before, which they did. They also seem to be assuming that the only kinds of thought that were given to the issue were of the stodgy, traditional sort, not the fresh, creative, insightful, and new perspectives of the younger generations. This is a perennial problem, but I would suggest to the younger generations who have not been in the trenches that they do not succumb to the Rehoboam Syndrome. Moreover, and more importantly, I’m not convinced that the younger generation agrees with some of the theology of the PCA. If, for example, the younger generations are moving in a more secular egalitarian way, then I contend that they are taking issue with the theology of Scripture.
It would also have been highly helpful if Rev. Downing would have explained to us precisely what the culture of the PCA might be, as he sees it and how, precisely, the PCA—across the board—is limiting a woman’s ability to use her spiritual gifts. I’ve been a PCA pastor for twelve years in southern California. Before that I was a Reformed pastor in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and before that I was a Reformed pastor in The Hague in Holland, which is next door to The Netherlands. As I read Rev. Downing’s assertion I kept asking myself what precisely he was talking about when he and the younger generations talk about limiting a woman’s ability to use her spiritual gifts. The kind of vagaries he’s using is not helpful. But we’ve had this dilemma before. I’ve asked both on my blog and in these issues for PCA people to give me specific examples of what they’re talking about and to date the response has been nil. In addition, one has to wonder what it means for a woman to use her spiritual gifts meaningfully. Clearly, this is not in opposition to her using her spiritual gifts meaninglessly. What exactly would constitute an act where it would appear that a PCA woman is usurping male leadership? If Rev. Downing is going to enlighten us and explicate what constitutes a theologically accurate, culturally appropriate apologetic for the gospel in an urban, egalitarian environment he should have done a much better job. As it stands, he has only clouded the issue with generalities and vagaries.
Undaunted, he continues: “One serious consequence of this is that the vast majority of PCA churches continue to be populated almost exclusively by politically conservative Anglos. Minorities and political liberals are noticeably absent.” I’m pondering to what the word “this” refers in the sentence. Does Rev. Downing mean that a serious consequence of the PCA not allowing women to use their gifts in a spiritually meaningful fashion is why the PCA is made up of politically conservative Anglos? Furthermore, political liberals (read: Socialists. Political liberals you can talk to, whereas what constitutes the far political Left today is more akin to Socialism) will, in all likelihood, not feel at home in a congregation that is outspokenly pro-life, anti-euthanasia, pro-death penalty, adverse to the deleterious effects of radical Feminism, and other such things will not and should not feel comfortable with biblical preaching when it comes to these issues. Of course, it’s possible to avoid preaching about such matters—for a time—but it would seem that eventually your colors will show either there or through casual conversation. I concur with Rev. Downing that a great many non-whites and political liberals need to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but this has been true down through the centuries.
Rev. Downing states that there are also “a growing number of evangelical Christians who are politically moderate-to-liberal (socialistic? RG) and are finding it increasingly difficult to find a church where they ‘fit.’” I can believe that, but maybe for different reasons. Barna has argued that there are evangelical Christians today who have trouble with absolute truth, cohabitation, homosexuality, cheating, fraud, adultery, divorce, and a number of other ethical, biblical issues. How does a biblical church that is trying to live a scripturally obedient life help such people “fit?” Shouldn’t they/we rather call them to repentance and obedience to the Lord? It is assumed that most of these moderate-to-liberal types are egalitarians (that’s easy enough to believe) who are not interested in fighting over women’s ordination, but here is the caveat: “…so long as the gifts and calling of women are taken seriously in the church and women are given meaningful (there’s that word again) opportunities to use their spiritual gifts.” So who ultimately determines when women are using their gifts in a meaningful manner? Is it the moderate-to-liberal misfits or is it the church leadership? How is all this determined? What are the biblical criteria by which this is judged? We are not told.
To Rev. Downing’s mind, “it is often not the theology of the PCA but the culture of the PCA which causes many people outside the traditional PCA demographic to look elsewhere for a church home” Maybe, but also maybe not. My own congregation is quite ethnically diverse, economically diverse, and age diverse—more so than many other PCA congregations. My findings are that when people come and “check us out” that it is not the culture of the PCA in Yorba Linda, CA that troubles them, because there is no one monolithic culture. Some people wear suits and some come in flip-flops. Some have children, some don’t. Some are Anglo/Gringos and others aren’t. By and large the reasons they leave are not cultural but theological, although we have quite a few Calvary Chapel burn-outs.
 Wayne Grudem & John Piper (eds.), Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, A Response to Evangelical Feminism, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991).
 Downing, UEE, 1. Italics mine.
 Ibid.. In footnote 1 of his paper, Rev. Downing has this to say about his assertion: “This assessment is based largely upon anecdotal evidence, yet is generally understood as being accurate.” (Emphasis mine.) If, when I was growing up, I had known the difference between anecdote and antidote, some of my friends would still be alive.
 Ibid., 2.