Review of Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism?
Grudem has done helpful work in showing how the evangelical feminist controversies in our day, like all controversies, ultimately relate to one’s doctrine of scripture. He might have even gone a step further and showed that one’s doctrine of scripture relates to one’s heart condition. Jesus’ sheep must and will heed his word because they are his sheep (John 10.3-5). If people will not hear and believe, it is proof that they are not of Christ’s flock (John 10.26-27). If you refuse to listen to Jesus' word then you have -- not just an interpretive dilemma -- but a heart dilemma. You must be born again; then, you'll hear just fine.
This to say, there's a problem with Grudem's break down of the impact of liberalism. In chapter 2, Grudem shows how women’s ordination is intertwined with the ‘conservative versus liberal battle’ of the last century. Yet, his argument shows that liberalism precedes women’s ordination. Women’s ordination is not so much the path to liberalism, but the fruit of liberalism. Thus, maybe the title should be modified, Evangelical Feminism: Proof of Liberalism.
I, like Grudem, fear any path to liberalism (or, conservatism, for that matter). Yet, his discussion of liberalism is perplexing. Grudem equates liberalism with a rejection of the Word. Thus, liberalism 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 (15).” Why is this problematic? First, the term liberal is used in a way variety of contexts: political, social, cultural, theological. So, which realm is Grudem referring too? The problem is that this term is so plastic as to be almost useless as a label. Not to mention, most evangelical feminists would reject being labelled with this term. All this means that Grudem has a narrow arrow and a gigantic moving target.
Another note on the terminology of the title "... A New Path to Liberalism?" The word ‘liberalism’ carries a lot of historical baggage. In the Christian’s mind, it is a word connected with the theological battles of the last century. It is, thus, rife with emotional je ne sais pas. Such a title elicits an immediate response. Those who substantially agree with Grudem (as I do), will have a sensation of fear based on the conservative ‘battle for the Bible’ in the 20th century. Those who disagree will have a sensation of repulsion at being named a liberal. Either way, such a title introduces us to the topic with an emotive appeal that right away draws up battle lines. It would be better to draw the lines, and then make the emotive appeal. When the emotive appeal comes first the reader is likely to either discredit (if they disagree with us) – or give too much credit (if they agree with us) – to our logic.
I agree with the substance of Grudem’s argument: role distinction in the Church, with men in leadership, is an issue of Biblical authority (Part II). Evangelical feminists implicitly undermine the authority of scripture. Grudem gives compelling examples of how evangelical feminists twist scripture to validate the ordination of women (Part II and III). Then, he helpfully answers the arguments point for point. This book is, thus, a helpful exegetical resource on disputed passages.
I also appreciate his reasoned defense of particular scripture passages. The scholarship and honest research in this book are a great aid to the Church when countering strange scholarly tactics like changing the meaning of words (see Chapter 26, Strange Meanings For “Authority.”). His defense of ‘head’ as ‘authority’ is, for me, his great contribution to this whole debate (Chapter 25). This contribution alone makes him one of the ‘mighty men’ in this battle.
Grudem rightly surmises that compromise on gender roles will have tragic consequences. He is especially concerned about that evangelical feminism is the road to ‘liberalism (Introduction, pg. 15-16, and Chapter 2),’ denominational decay (Chapter 2), and great sin – especially homosexuality (Chapter 32). I agree that evangelical feminism leads to disaster. I also agree that liberalism, denominational decay, and homosexuality are in the offing whenever we see feminism of any kind on the rise. But I’d add that these 3 things are, to some degree, already present in the position. They are not so much different and separate stops along the same road; they are the same road. In addition, the roots of ‘liberalism’ are much deeper than evangelical feminism, or even the issue of the inerrancy of scripture – which Grudem lists first in the causal chain (28). Evangelical feminism is not only the beginning of decay, but a sign of decay. It is one of the first fruits of a corrupt tree.
Furthermore, it would be a mistake to interpret Grudem’s scketch of ‘the road to liberalism as a historical necessity based on a strict causal chain of events. This excludes the possibility of a sanctifying (for Christians) or regenerating (for unbelievers) work of God. This would also imply that we can ‘see’ the future. We can’t (James 4.13-17).
I also have a concern about interpreting this sketch as strictly causal (A causes B, and then B causes C, and then C causes D) without reference to the sovereignty of God. Grudem states the argument in strictly causal terms (pg. 15-16 and 28). This will lead us into the fallacy of false cause unless we tread carefully, “The fallacy of a false cause occurs whenever the link between premise and conclusion depends on some imagined causal connection that probably does not exist (Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic, 135)." Grudem refers to the “predictable sequence” that leads to liberalism (28). Again, unless we are careful, this becomes the ‘slippery slope’ argument, which is, “a variety of the false cause fallacy (Hurley, 138).” The problem here is that the path to liberalism is presented in ‘snapshot’ form. I have no problem saying that one sin causes another, or leads to another as long as we have the wider view of God’s sovereign judgments. The ‘first’ sin in any causal chain is the failure to acknowledge God (Romans 1.21). This is what leads to sin. The judgment for the sin of idolatry is more sin (Romans 1.24, 26, 28). And the reality of the human condition is that we are slaves to sin. Thus, I do not believe that any of the proponents of ‘evangelical feminism’ can, out of themselves, repent. Repentance is a gift of God.
I also fear that Grudem undercuts his own arguments by taking an ‘everything but’ position on women in the Church (page 11, 19, 22, and 133). That is, women can/should do ‘everything but’ be pastors and elders: including missionaries. Women are indeed distinct from men in their created-ness, and this should have more practical implications than, ‘everything but’ the pastorate. What we do, as men or women, is based on who we are. We give up the only ground that matters when we move away from this basic assertion: men and women are created distinctly, for different temporal ends (the ultimate end being the glory of God). I fear that Grudem’s position, while basically faithful to the Bible, still accommodates too much (19, “I agree...). In this way, he makes a similar mistake as Neville Chamberlain: ‘give ‘em
so we can have peace in our time.’ Then, and now, giving ground invites larger
conquest. It is, at some times with some people, impossible to have peace (2
Grudem’s book would have been even more helpful if it had devoted more time to positive assertions about who men and women actually are, and how this is to play out in life. This book is basically negative; its purpose is to dismantle false arguments. He spends the whole book dismissing false claims. Yet, too often these false claims are not addressed with positive biblical counsel. It is not enough to show people where they are wrong. We also need to show them the more excellent way.
I have another concern about a ‘negative book’ like this. Grudem has spent a lot, a whole lot, of time on this one issue (see Preface). As a friend, I would counsel Grudem to ‘get some fresh air’ on something more positive for the next phase of his ministry. It’s not healthy to be constantly in battle over one issue. There is a danger in arguing with a madman; it makes you mad (in both senses of the word).
Grudem condemns ‘experience’ as a mark of a call to the pastorate (119ff). Yet, he himself uses the argument from experience, “...there is a connection between women being ordained and exercising leadership as pastors and tragic results in their personal lives (124).” He warns against the loss of the protection of God, and points to Aimee Simple McPherson and Judy Brown as examples. The problem with this kind of reasoning is that evangelical feminists could produce dozens of women as contrary examples. Then, we end up going back and forth with arguments from experience. Experience is, then, irrelevant. There is only one question: what does the Word of God say? Grudem himself acknowledges this in conclusion of this section (129).
In addition, Grudem’s argument from experience sounds like a scare tactic – an emotional argument to strong arm people who will not be moved. We are ‘sinking to the level’ of the opposition when we do this kind of thing. The Lord’s work must be done in the Lord’s way. The goal is not to simply force people to do the right thing, whatever the tactic. There may be times when we preach the truth boldly, and still, people will not listen. In such circumstances, we are not to stay around and try everything possible to convince them against their will. We are to wipe the dust off our feet as we leave (Mk. 6.11). We are not to waste our time on hard-hearted people.
My last concern is: I am not sure what good this book with do. The book begins with this plea, “...to all of my egalitarian friends, I ask you to consider carefully the arguments and the pattern of arguments that I discuss in this book... Please consider what I say in these pages. I hope you will be persuaded, and will perhaps even change your mind on some of the arguments you have used, or even on the conclusions you have drawn (20-21).” If Grudem’s audience is ‘egalitarian friends,’ I fear he is wasting his time with the arguments he advances. My guess is that not one of these people will be convinced by his arguments. Why? Because they are arguments. Arguments cannot prevail because they do not go deep enough. They cannot change the heart. This is like picking fruit off a tree and hoping, thereby, to change the fruit. You can pick a thousand apples off an apple tree; it will still be an apple tree. If the audience is ‘egalitarian friends,’ it would be more profitable to write a book that addresses presuppositions about scripture (authority, clarity, sufficiency), or the heart condition before God. If you make the tree good, the fruit will be good.
It would also be profitable to write a book for defenders of the truth to give them evidence and confidence (Luke 1.1-3).
In any case, based on our audience, we need to use different strategies. To the stubbornly resistant, we should have one message, “You must be born again.”