Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Gender and Oppression.

I came across a review of Carolyn Custis James' book Half the Church at the Gospel Coalition website this afternoon through a friend's post on facebook. I have met with Mrs. James about her book (she is the wife of the provost at Gordon-Conwell where I recently graduated) and I am grateful that she highlights the ways in which women are ignored and ultimately oppressed within the global Church (though I do wish she would go a lot further in her critiques and solutions). Even though it is no secret that I am not a fan of the Gospel Coalition and their understanding of the Gospel, I was very troubled and disturbed by what the reviewer, Courtney Reissig, had to say. The review can be read here: http://tiny.cc/jkknx

Ms. Reissig starts the review by critiquing James' (supposed) views of marriage, submission, and ultimately the message of the Gospel. It is obvious that Reissig would identify herself as a "complimentarian" which maintains that even though women are ontologically equal with men, they have different roles and responsibilities within this world. To me, that is like saying minorities are equal but segregation is still justified. To offer a complimentarian position without believing that it is truly offensive and ultimately violent to the cause of women is simply dishonest to me. But that is for another day. Reissig then goes on to imply that she disagrees with James' interpretation of the Hebrew word "helper" in Genesis 2 when applied to Eve. I simply do not understand how it can be argued that the Hebrew word used in Genesis in relation to Eve can mean anything other than sharing complete authority and leadership since the same adjective is used to describe Godself in various points throughout the Hebrew Bible. When the word "helper" is used to describe the quintessential domestic housewife who stays home and takes care of her kids (please read: there is nothing wrong with doing such), it is a completely shallow misrepresentation of the Hebrew word and imports a tremendous amount of conservative evangelical American cultural baggage.

Moreover, I truly do not understand how the word submission, especially when it is used in a one-way fashion within marriage can be understood as anything less than inequality. We can say all day long that female submission to male headship does not mean oppression and inequality, but one need look no further than the lack of expectations for women within the average North American evangelical Church to see how women truly do not have a voice and a role within the Kingdom of God outside of domestic duties. The way that women are treated and talked about within these complimentarian circles gives one the impression that they are children and men are their parental figures rather than truly equal creatures before God.

But beyond all of these troubling understandings of gender, the line that most bothered me was when Ms. Reissing somehow believes it is acceptable to say that "oppressed women do not need autonomy and freedom from authority so much as a Savior who provides for them, protects them, and leads them to himself." First, I do not know what sort of atonement theory or understanding of the Gospel would lead someone to make such a strict dichotomy between freedom from oppression (and ultimately violence) and redemption. How does the Christian believe they understand the words and deeds of Jesus Christ if they believe that the only thing that matters for oppressed women in the world is to have a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" (which is what Reissing seems to be hinting at here with her language of a vertical imperative for women in relation to Jesus Christ). Besides the fact that language of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ rarely is fleshed out and usually does not make a lot of sense, I am troubled that anyone could think the plight of women who are oppressed by violence is not of essential importance for the Church. Has our conception of Jesus Christ and His ministry become so docetic that the only thing that matters any longer is personal piety and private devotional times? Does the message of Jesus Christ in the cross not demand us to fight and passionately pursue the way of justice and mercy for the oppressed and outcast in society?

For all of these reasons, I have become increasingly concerned at the direction that the evangelical Church in North America has taken in its own conception of the Gospel. The contents of this review are simply irresponsible and not acceptable for the Church that seeks to be faithful to the ministry of Jesus Christ in its words and deeds. If the Gospel ever means placing the cause against oppression and violence as second best, how can we say that we truly have any identification with the God who dwelled among His people in Jesus Christ in order to offer us new life and hope?


Anonymous said...

Wow. This kind of stuff is so blatantly abominable (that quote about oppressed women is chilling) it's hard for me to even engage. I'm always impressed by those who continue to press on in conservative evangelical circles. (By the by, HOW ARE WE STILL HAVING A CONVERSATION ABOUT EZER AFTER ALL THESE YEARS!? GAH!) While my theology is still very evangelical and orthodox engaging a culture that continues to cultivate this kind of rubbish is toxic to my soul. Keep up the good fight, Kait.

Rod said...

"First, I do not know what sort of atonement theory or understanding of the Gospel would lead someone to make such a strict dichotomy between freedom from oppression (and ultimately violence) and redemption"

It's called Penal Substitutionary Atonement, which I see as a Christian endorsement oppression.

Adam said...

I agree with your concerns, but I think that this is a particular segment of the American evangelical church, not a broad swath of it. I think that the view of women, while important and a particular problem for the Gospel Coalition and other believers with similar views, is actually just a symbol of the greater problem. The church as a whole has to be focused on the powerless within society. So believers that read Luke's version of the Sermon on the mount and spiritualize "Blessed are the poor" to mean poor in spirit and not economically poor (as the text actually says), remove the ramifications of the gospel. The Gospel Coalition is so concerned about preaching the gospel that the forget that the gospel is not the end. The gospel is the means by which God's kingdom is enacted on the earth. The gospel is not 'repent so you will be saved', the gospel is 'I have come..." If we forget that Christ has come to free the captives, give sight to the blind, etc., then we will forget that Christ has actually given us that role in his place.

I am not actually negative about the direction of the Gospel Coalition and other similar organization. I actually think that the creation of them are a sign that God is moving them toward the kingdom. The more they talk about the gospel, the more they will be changed by the gospel. The greatest problem in my mind, is when we forget that we are a part of the body of Christ. The independent movement of the church, separate gatherings apart from the body of Christ is more more concerning to me than a weak presentation the gospel. If you are a part of the body, then the Holy Spirit can transform you.

(Great review by the way, sorry for the rant. I have been thinking about similar things for a couple of days.)

Kait Dugan said...

Melissa - Thanks, and I have no idea how the word is even remotely argued about. It proves to me that a lot of the evangelical Church in North America is simply not interested in a commitment to truth but rather maintaining their own cultural agenda. I think I have come to the point where I need to detach myself from the evangelical world quite drastically (thank God for PTS in the fall), but I couldn't help but comment on a review which was so false and misguided.

Rod - I'm not so sure that penal substitution is a Christian endorsement of oppression. Moreover, I'm not so sure that those with such a docetic understanding of the Christian life fully grasp the theological realities of penal substitution. I fully admit that penal substitution is problematic on various levels, but I don't ever want to deny the essential priestly office of Christ. I think Bruce McCormack is doing great work in this area as shown through his Croall lectures at Edinburgh this year.

Adam - I liked your understanding of the Gospel of Luke as someone has recently been highlighting that to me and the neglect of its interpretation within the Church. You say that GC is so concerned about "preaching the gospel" but I think they miss the essential aspect of what the Gospel actually is. That is where we need to start. I'm not so sure that the Gospel is simply a personal relationship with Jesus and then the transformational aspects within society are strictly consequential. Moreover, I think the GC only represents a part of the Church (complimentarian, hyper reformed, inerrantists, white, privileged, upper middle class, suburban, etc.) with a demographic that in many ways contradicts the message of Christ and focuses on things that are not only non-essentials but ultimately wrong. Thanks for your comment.

Matt Frost said...

"Ms. Reissing somehow believes it is acceptable to say that "oppressed women do not need autonomy and freedom from authority so much as a Savior who provides for them, protects them, and leads them to himself.""

It's charitable of you to lean toward atonement theology. I'm not as charitable. What I hear her saying there has nothing to do with atonement, and everything to do with Jesus as the ideal, "good" husband. It's not just "personal relationship" spiritualism; it's the man Jesus as provider and protector. And looking at the paragraph and its context, on "submission," I wouldn't be surprised to hear that the fleshing out of the idea is to make the women better wives by their submission to Christ. 1 Cor. 11:3 and Eph. 5:23, as always.

What sort of Savior is that, for actual oppression? She had as well throw in Romans 13 for good measure. Isn't it always the goal to convince the victim that the higher authorities are on the side of the oppressor? That there is no escape? "Back to your husbands, ladies, and this time, behave yourselves."

Leaves a very bitter taste.

Anonymous said...

I've never heard of the Gospel Coalition and now I'm well warned away from them. Luke's Gospel definitely emphasizes Jesus'ministry to the poor and the oppressed. I should look up the beatitude, but I don't think Luke says "Blessed are the poor in spirit." That's from Matthew. Luke simply says, "Blessed are the poor." Each of the Gospel writers had his own emphasis, but Jesus deeds speak the loudest. His ministry was focused on the poor, the sick, the outcast.

Anonymous said...

Kait, what do you mean by "oppression of women" and to whom do you refer when you write about "the global Church"?


David T. said...

I am suprised that you seem suprised when you say:

"Has our conception of Jesus Christ and His ministry become so docetic that the only thing that matters any longer is personal piety and private devotional times?"

Such thinking is a sine qua non of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, and represents a wholesale rejection of what is considered a liberal social gospel.

And yes, PSA (Penal Substitutionary Atonement) is very much bound up in this view of the Christian life. This entire gospel construct that underlies evangelical and fundamentalist doctrine is increasingly abhorrent to me.

I find that New Perspective teachings are a welcome challenge to this way of thinking. But ultimately, here in America, I just don't know where to turn to find a group of Christians who are living the gospel in a different way, except maybe liberal mainline denoms. Even socially active non-demons are typically PSA-soaked evangelicals at their core.

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