Engendering Harmony

Posted on 29 March 2008

Evangel 12:3 (Autumn 1994)

Engendering Harmony
Evangel 12:3 (Autumn 1994)

The present issue of Evangel is almost wholly devoted to the issue of gender. Starting from two recent major evangelical works on the subject which approach the issue from two quite different perspectives, the two books are first described in detail before four reviewers interact with different sections of each book. I hope this makes for a stimulating insight into current thinking among evangelicals on the issues raised concerning gender.

  In this editorial I would like to make several general observations as to the nature and form of evangelical discussion on gender issues, especially as exemplified in these two volumes.
 
  The first point to be made is that it is vitally important to define terms carefully and having done so not to allow them to be coloured by other illegitimate factors. The word ‘feminism’ is used in a variety of ways, not least by evangelicals. However, not infrequently in debate, the word is left undefined and used as a perjoritive epithet and other believers are castigated for views which they do not hold! Piper and Grudem (in ‘Recovering Manhood and Womanhood’, the first of the books) try to avoid falling into this trap. However, several of the contributors to the volume edited by them slip from discussing the views of careful, responsible bible students into condemning them in terms of radical feminism. This only muddies debate and fails to answer the questions being asked.
 
  This leads to another issue; the need actually to listen to what the other person is saying and not to make assumptions as to what the other person thinks. In my view both of these volumes fail at this point. On the one hand the Grudem/Piper volume frequently offers its own opinion as to what motivates the biblical feminist. On the other hand, the other book ‘After Eden’, which is edited by Mary Stewart van Leeuwen, assumes, in its discussion of dress, a ‘male hegemony’ with which few men (certainly thinking Christian men) would feel they identify.
 
  Lying back of this is an unwillingness to accept the integrity of others. The assumption seems to be, ‘If they disagree with me, they must have a hidden and unbiblical agenda.‘ Of course, this is often a sort of defence mechanism. Too much is at stake for us willingly to abandon a cherished position. But we simply cannot short-circuit debate by impugning the integrity of others. This is not a Christian option.
 
  Another vital issue, perhaps the fundamental one, is the question of hermeneutics. It is interesting to note, for example, the fundamentally different approach to hermeneutical method that seems to underlie the two books. ‘After Eden’ looks for global biblical principles and then logically extrapolates them. ‘Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’ starts at the other end; exegeting specific texts. The difference is, perhaps, encapsulated in the fact that one approach is characteristically the methodology of dogmatics and the other of biblical studies. The effect is that the latter book seems unable, at times, to see the wood for the trees while the former hasn’t noticed that there are any trees in the wood!
 
  A comprehensive hermeneutic is required that adequately tackles specific texts within a framework that is sympathetic to wider issues and principles and where the framework itself interacts and modifies itself in the light of textual data. Until this is done, the two sides will simply talk past one another. Piper and Grudem’s book does, in fact, try to respond to some who have sought to undertake detailed exegesis and come up with a different conclusion; one nearer to that adopted by ‘After Eden’. However, the argument is frequently flawed by some of the other issues raised above.
 
  A further difficulty in the debate is the frequent failure of the contributors to recognize the culturally conditioned pre-understanding they have. ‘Recovering Manhood and Womanhood’ describes biblical womanhood in terms that are culturally specific to middle class America. For the working class, immigrant community with whom 1 have worked for the majority of my ministry the descriptions offered of ‘womanhood’ are ‘pie in the sky’, with no point of contact with the painful realities women in such communities daily experience. There seems little awareness of the sub-culturally and historically specific character of the description offered.
 
  But ‘After Eden’, for all its protestations, is not free of such a charge. Discussions of the need for inclusive gender terminology fail to note (as modern linguistics recognizes) that language does not necessarily reproduce mentality and that in most languages it would be impossible to escape into gender-neutral terms for women and men without inventing a new language (as Bray points out elsewhere in the present journal)! Moreover, the danger with such preoccupations is that important points can be submerged beneath discussions which others will view as tangential, if not rather absurd. 1 remember the occasion when golliwogs were banned in the local nursery schools in the area I worked. Visits to the homes of members of the black community revealed, however, black children playing happily and with parental blessing with such dolls! For them golliwogs did not demean blacks. It is at least questionable whether the use of words like ‘men’ in a generic sense and referring to the human race need be a problem. Underlying attitudes are far more important and these are not changed simply by a new vocabulary. One is bound to ask whether being drawn into discussion about ‘words’ is not one of the ways in which (as ‘After Eden’ argues on other issues) ‘male hegemony’ can accommodate itself to the feminist challenge while remaining fundamentally unchanged.
 
  One is struck by the wider relevance of these observations. It is not just on the issue of the feminist challenge that evangelicals have resorted to talking past one another, failing to listen and denying the integrity of those who disagree. It is not only on this issue that Scripture is used and abused by an inadequately holistic hermeneutic. There are other issues where our ‘biblical’ answers sound more like our own sub-culture speaking back to us than truly scriptural. And we too, can so easily be deflected from the central to the peripheral!
 
  So there is much to reflect on as we engage with the feminist challenge as evangelicals   and some major changes of attitude and practices between the sexes that all the contributors to these two books agree on!

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