Category Archives: women
Last night’s presidential debate opened with the Republican candidate for president apologizing for boasting about sexual assault, while in the same breath claiming that it was just words, mere “locker room talk.” “I’m very embarrassed by it,” he admitted, “but it’s locker room talk.”
That’s all. Nothing to worry about. This is just how men talk when they are together having fun. People just say these things.
That’s what Trump would have us believe.
I have heard much “locker room talk” over the years and I have never, ever, heard someone even come close to bragging about sexual assault without being called out on it by any man with any self-respect whatsoever.
I am well aware that many men say these sorts of things. Many men commit sexual assault too. Indeed, one out of every five women in America has been the victim of rape or attempted rape, and half – half – of women have experienced sexual assault.
And I wonder if you can find anyone who knows anything at all about Donald Trump who actually believes his claim that he has never sexually assaulted a woman. These are not random comments from a distant past.
Hillary Clinton put it quite well in last night’s debate:
Donald Trump is different. I said starting back in June that he was not fit to be president and commander-in-chief. And many Republicans and independents have said the same thing. What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women. And he has said that the video doesn’t represent who he is.
But I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is. Because we’ve seen this throughout the campaign. We have seen him insult women. We’ve seen him rate women on their appearance, ranking them from one to ten. We’ve seen him embarrass women on TV and on Twitter. We saw him after the first debate spend nearly a week denigrating a former Miss Universe in the harshest, most personal terms.
So, yes, this is who Donald Trump is. But it’s not only women, and it’s not only this video that raises questions about his fitness to be our president, because he has also targeted immigrants, African- Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, POWs, Muslims, and so many others.
So this is who Donald Trump is. And the question for us, the question our country must answer is that this is not who we are.
I get it. Politics is complicated. There are many people who loath just about everything about Donald Trump – who feel sick to their stomach by the sorts of things he has said and done – who will nevertheless vote for him because they fear Hillary Clinton even more. I suspect more Americans than not will hold their noses when they enter the voting booth this November. And many will vote for a third candidate, or not vote at all.
I am not a political scientist or a political activist. I am a moral theologian. And so I’m not going to tell anyone how to vote. But I will say this. Trump’s record of speech and action with respect to women is no sideshow to who he really is and who he will really be as the president of the United States. His track record is one of consistent misogyny. Voting for Trump is supporting a man who has publicly objectified women while boasting that he has long been able to assault them sexually – forcing himself on them, groping their genitals, and manipulating them for sex – with impunity.
Where does women’s dignity as human beings made in the image of God rank on your hierarchy of moral and political concerns? What about sexual assault?
Many of Donald Trump’s supporters claim that Christians should support him in order to protect religious liberty. But it was Hillary Clinton who was defending religious liberty in last night’s debate. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how associating the cause of religious liberty with the darkness that is Donald Trump will do anything but damage the cause.
The same could be said for the pro-life movement. Perhaps Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said it best:
The life issue can not flourish in a culture of misogyny and sexual degradation. The life issue can not flourish when you have people calling for the torture and murder of innocent non-combatants. The life issue can not flourish when you have people who have given up on the idea that character matters. If you lose an election you can live to fight another day and move on, but if you lose an election while giving up your very soul then you have really lost it all, and so I think the stakes are really high.
And I think the issue, particularly, when you have people who have said, and we have said, and I have said for twenty years the life issue matters, and the life issue is important… When you have someone who is standing up race baiting, racist speech, using immigrants and others in our communities in the most horrific ways and we say ‘that doesn’t matter’ and we are part of the global body of Christ simply for the sake of American politics, and we expect that we are going to be able to reach the nations for Christ? I don’t think so, and so I think we need to let our yes be yes and our no be no and our never be never.
Abortion is a horrific, deeply rooted moral problem. Terrorism and violence seem to claim more lives every day. But every two minutes in this country another woman – or a child – is sexually assaulted. These are our wives. These are our children. These are our neighbors. What else do we have to say? Who else are we going to throw under the bus while claiming that all of this somehow helps us save the lives of the unborn? And can we really say with a straight face that hitching our wagon to Donald Trump is good for the cause and credibility of religious liberty?
Even aside from the principle of it, common sense itself dictates this conclusion: If evangelicals publicly support Donald Trump, the chief result will not be the advance of the sanctity of life or of religious liberty, let alone of family values. The result will be the collapse of any evangelical credibility on moral issues whatsoever.
When I recently asked a class of undergraduates at Oglethorpe University if any of them thought there were “no meaningful differences between men and women,” two female students raised their hands. When I pointed to the obvious reproductive differences between males and females, which give young women the unique ability to conceive and bear children, they looked at me as if I had committed an act of hurtful bigotry. “It’s just not fair to put people in a box like that,” one of them offered. The other pointed out that not everyone has the unambiguous experience of feeling male or female. Gender, she observed, is complicated.
The context was a discussion of Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that early nineteenth-century Americans recognized that women and men are equal, but that they also believed that women and men naturally serve different gender roles. I was attempting to elicit from my students the obvious recognition that while we may not hold the same assumptions about gender roles as did Americans during the 1800s, even we in the twenty-first century recognize that there are some basic physical differences between women and men—differences that have important social implications for the way we order society.
This observation is still too radical for some. The problem is not that they fail to appreciate the facts about human genitalia, which any three-year-old could explain to them. The sticking point, rather, is in that word “meaningful.” There may be physical differences between males and females, they concede, but those differences are not universal, nor are they determinative of anything. Gender is entirely socially constructed. It is the product of nurture, not nature, and to associate biological sex differences with gender is merely to promote the systemic injustices of gender inequality.
In his well-known book Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, Robert P. Kraynak argues that Christianity is inherently illiberal and undemocratic. Nowhere does Scripture prescribe democracy or speak of human rights, Kraynak points out, let alone call for a separation of religion and politics. And while the Bible affirms the dignity of every single human being by virtue of her creation in the image of God, the image of God is conceived in primarily spiritual terms, in which obedience to God is more essential than liberty.
This spiritual view of the image of God, Kraynak argues, implies that human dignity is relative to degrees of human perfection. A more faithful person has more dignity – is higher in the hierarchy of value – than a less faithful person. Similarly, a man is naturally superior to a woman.
Herein lies the fundamental difference between the biblical and the contemporary understanding of human dignity. In the biblical view, dignity is hierarchical and comparative; in the modern, it is democratic and absolute. The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) promotes hierarchies because it understands reality in terms of the ‘image of God’ which is a type of reflected glory – a reflection of something more perfect in something less perfect. Hence, dignity exists in degrees of perfection rather than in abstract qualities. The dignity or glory possessed by something made in the image of a more perfect being carries moral claims of deference, reciprocal obligation, and duty rather than equality, freedom and rights. (60)
To be sure, Kraynak admits, the New Testament undermines all such hierarchies by asserting the fundamental equality of all persons in Christ, so relegating social and political hierarchies to secondary status. Still, this very relegation, this very separation between the spiritual and earthly cities, means such inequalities can be tolerated as long as spiritual equality is preserved. This is in sharp contrast to liberal democracy, which insists on social and political equality.
Kraynak thinks that the early Christian theological tradition only accentuated the Bible’s hierarchical tendencies insofar as it was infused with Platonic and Neoplatonic notions of the world. According to such Greek philosophical notions, the natural universe is “a hierarchy of beings, ascending from lower to higher substances in an order of rational perfection” (73). The understanding of the universe as a chain of being was integrated with Augustine’s orthodox doctrines of the two cities and of predestination to create a thoroughly hierarchical understanding of both church and society. Thus,
In general, traditional Christians were illiberal and undemocratic because they conceived of God’s created universe as a hierarchy of being and thought that institutions should promote rational and spiritual perfection. (73)
Kraynak admits that the Reformation undermined the church’s hierarchicalism and rejected systematic Neoplatonism, but he claims that in their doctrines of the two kingdoms and predestination Luther and Calvin maintained the theological commitments that lie at the heart of Christianity’s illiberalism. For Kraynak that is not a bad thing. Christianity is not inherently democratic, he maintains, and Christians have been wrong to imagine it so.
It is true, of course, that classic Christian political theology consistently distinguishes between the kingdom of God and earthly political structures (a distinction that has been variously labeled as the two cities, the two kingdoms, the two governments, the two jurisdictions, the two powers, the two swords, etc.). It is also true that this distinction makes Christian political theology a species of political realism. Politics is the art of the possible, not of the ideal. We must tolerate sin and injustice because only God can set things right. Our task is to maintain a general degree of peace, justice, and order.
But this doctrine does not make Christianity inherently illiberal. True, the toleration of the status quo has all too often meant the defense of oppressive gender relations, slavery, and tyranny, but this is hardly the thrust of the New Testament. In acknowledging the prophetic roles of women in the church, in maintaining the essential equality and consequent moral reciprocity between master and slave, in calling political authorities to submission to Christ, and in relativizing the spiritual priority of marriage and the family, the apostles set in motion an ethical trajectory that challenged all rigid conservative notions of the way things ought to be. (Paul called each person to be content with the situation in which he found himself, of course, but he also called slaves to seek their freedom, if possible, and he insisted that it is good for a Christian woman to devote herself to the service of Christ and the church rather than to marry and raise children.)
In my view, therefore, Christians have rightly identified equality, along with liberty, as an essential part of the gospel of Christ. This does not mean equality without difference, but it does suggest that Christians should aspire to forms of equality much more substantive than is implied by the bare minimum of political realism.
What about the doctrine of predestination? My friend and teacher Timothy P. Jackson insists that the doctrine of predestination leads Christians constantly to create distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, distinctions that fall all too easily into the oppression of or apathy toward the ‘other.’ The only way to overcome this temptation, he insists, is to eliminate any distinction between the saved and the damned.
The objection has to be taken seriously. No doubt Christians have used the distinction between the saved and the damned, the elect and the reprobate, in just such nefarious ways. But in my view such misuses of the doctrine of predestination actually rely on a caricature of it – one common enough that it is proclaimed by some Christians as the teaching of Scripture (thus rendering plausibility to Jackson’s objection). In this caricature God wills the judgment of the reprobate, and thus no matter what such persons do in their lives, they cannot escape it.
That is not the Christian doctrine of predestination as it has been articulated by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin. Christian theologians have generally distinguished between the revealed and normative will of God, on the one hand, and his divine sovereignty, which is hidden and mysterious, on the other.
The distinction amounts essentially to this. God desires that all people be saved just as he desires that all people act lovingly and justly. This is a genuine desire on God’s part. The one who is love does indeed love all persons made in his image, and he does good to the just and the unjust alike. It was out of love for the world that he sent his son to suffer as the lamb of God, the one who is the propitiation not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world.
But this does not deny the fact that as the sovereign Lord, God does, in some mysterious way, govern all that occurs. This governance does not take place on the ordinary plane of causality. Without dictating the actions of angels or human beings, God nevertheless governs them according to his sovereignty (or his decretive will). While hating evil and injustice, and while desiring the good for all people, he nevertheless ordains all things according to his purposes. This is not a doctrine that arises from philosophical logic but from faith. It is not a doctrine that we seek to explore to its depths, as Calvin pointed out, but one that we accept based on the recognition that God is entirely different from us, and cannot be measured by our notions of scientific or philosophical causality. Indeed, he cannot really be known or understood at all, apart from his revelation in Christ.
Christians are therefore called to conform to Christ in their attitudes towards all persons, laying down their lives in humility and service. Any other ethical use of the doctrine of predestination is ideological and self-serving.
None of this requires that Christianity is inherently liberal of course, let alone democratic. That would depend both on what is meant by liberalism and what is meant by democracy. But it does suggest that Christianity is not inherently illiberal or undemocratic. Perhaps we can agree on that.
I once attended a church in which a group of women decided to start a book club as a means of fostering Christian friendship among themselves. The women only saw one another at worship and were looking for further ways of connecting. This is not uncommon, of course. But the book club never got off the ground. The women had selected a book to read and were planning their first meeting when the pastor got wind of it. Without discussion or warning, he announced from the pulpit that the women would be reading a different book, one that he had selected. That sort of sucked the life out of the endeavor, turning what had been a bottom-up affair among women to one that came down from the man at the top. Yet I could not help but wondering, why did this pastor assume he had the authority to take control in this way? I eventually realized that this was not an isolated incident. The pastor was a man accustomed to being in control. He was willing to use his office as he felt necessary in order to accomplish his ‘pastoral’ objectives, without accountability.
Of course, there are few controversies in the church older than that of church government. In the New Testament the pastors of the church are interchangeably described as presbyters and bishops. Not long after the apostles passed from the scene, however, Christian churches began to rally around the authority of particular bishops (such as the bishop of Rome) as focal points of unity and standards of orthodoxy. Bishops took on a whole new array of governmental tasks, overseeing the deacons’ care for the poor and adjudicating conflicts among believers. The church’s emerging hierarchy was a clear imitation of the highly successful polity of the Roman Empire.
By the high middle ages the pope had won widespread recognition of his authority not only as the vicar of Peter, but the vicar of Christ. The pope’s authority in the church was embraced as having been instituted by Christ in his famous words to Peter,
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)
The canon lawyers of the medieval church recognized that Christ spoke similar words to the apostles as a group, not simply to Peter, and so they came to distinguish between two types of authority grounded in Jesus’ statement. On the one hand, they argued, Christ gave all the apostles, and hence all priests directly, the sacerdotal authority to administer the sacraments, including penance. On the other hand, Christ gave to Peter alone, and hence to the popes, supreme ‘jurisdiction’ and ‘administration’, the power to govern, to legislate, and to adjudicate specific disputes. In such matters the pope had the ‘fullness of power’; he could not violate articles of faith, but he did have full discretionary authority over the church’s temporal affairs, and – very significantly – that authority was backed up by the powers of excommunication.
The sharpest medieval critic of this view was Marsilius of Padua. Marsilius denied the divine origin of the papacy and insisted that the church is a purely spiritual institution concerned with otherworldly salvation. He vigorously rejected any coercive power on the part of the church, including excommunication, insisting that ecclesiastical affairs of jurisdiction and administration belong to civil government. Marsilius thus became the clear forerunner of the later Protestant theory known as “Erastianism,” in which civil magistrates are placed at the head of the church and the authority of the church’s ministers is limited to the word and sacraments.
The Marsilian or Erastian view became the default view of the early magisterial reformers. To varying degrees, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bullinger, and the Henrician reformers in England all not only relied on magisterial power as an emergency source of authority to launch the reformation, but embraced civil government as the rightful overseer of the church’s order and life. On the far extreme was the English Reformation, with Henry VIII’s claim to be the Head of the Church. Much more moderate was Martin Luther, who was always uncomfortable with civil authority in the church, but who struggled to find an alternative.
Most prominent in Reformed churches were the views of Zwingli and Bullinger, who equated the church and civil government as essentially one society with two kinds of power, that of pastors and that of civil magistrates. For Zwingli and Bullinger the tasks of excommunication and poor relief entrusted to the church in New Testament appropriately fell to civil magistrates in the era of Christendom. Now that such civil rulers had converted to the faith, there was no need for ecclesiastical ministers to maintain such functions independently of the city or commonwealth. Ecclesiastical control over discipline and poor relief was associated with the tyranny of the papists.
It was Calvin, finally, influenced by Martin Bucer, who began to navigate a way between the extreme claims of the papacy, on the one hand, and the Protestant Erastians (or Marsilians) on the other. Calvin insisted that as the spiritual kingdom of Christ, the church is called to administer specific spiritual functions without interference from political authorities. These functions do not only consist of the word and sacraments, but of discipline (including excommunication) and of care for the poor. Calvin thus insisted that the church has its own right of spiritual jurisdiction that must be sharply distinguished from the political jurisdiction of civil government.
How was this spiritual jurisdiction to be distinguished from the tyrannical claims of the papacy? Calvin maintained that the church’s jurisdiction is non-coercive. It simply consists in barring a person from the Eucharist and urging him to repent. Just as importantly, he stressed that the church’s right to excommunicate or discipline its members cannot be invoked with reference to any dispute or temporal matter whatsoever, as happened under the papacy, but only with reference to spiritual matters. To put it another way, the church could only discipline a person if she was in direct and clear violation of the moral law of God. Thus the church’s spiritual jurisdiction was not magisterial or discretionary, but ministerial. It was entirely bound up with the word such that church discipline could be said to be an extension or appendage of that word, an exercise of the spiritual sovereignty of Christ.
For Calvin even the church’s care for the poor, an expression of the communion described in Acts 4, is fundamentally spiritual rather than temporal. It is a direct manifestation of the restoration that the kingdom of Christ has begun in human beings.
But Calvin agreed with the other reformers that the outward and temporal matters of the church’s life are to be sharply distinguished from these spiritual matters, and are therefore subject to a different kind of government or polity. Such “indifferent” matters included the appropriate time and day of worship, the speech and attire of women, the forms and postures of liturgy, none of which, Calvin insisted, pertain to the conscience (which does not mean that scripture has nothing to say about them).
Calvin was not very clear about just who should regulate such indifferent things. Clearly he permitted civil government some control here. He submitted to the Geneva government’s decision concerning the frequency of the Eucharist, to its control of the procedures by which the ministers of the church were elected, and to its funding of the church’s ministries (and consequently its control over the church’s finances). Equally clearly, he insisted that civil government could not direct such matters according to its own whim and preference. All the affairs of church life are to be ordered consistent with scripture and for the edification and peace of the body.
Yet it is noteworthy that when Calvin described the offices of church government he did so with respect to the church’s spiritual functions rather than with respect to its temporal or indifferent affairs. For instance, Calvin was adamant in his preaching that the deacons of the Genevan church – which he said should include an order of women – were to be embraced as possessing a spiritual office like that of the pastors rather than that of the civil magistrates. Even more significantly, he always defined the office of elder with respect to the function of spiritual church discipline. He never characterized it as an office of general rule or jurisdiction in the church. In that sense Calvin was no Presbyterian. His office of elder, unlike that of later Reformed and Presbyterian churches, had one specific spiritual function – the function of church discipline. And it is only with respect to that specific function, he argued, that the elders can claim to administer the spiritual government of Christ’s church.
Why did the later Reformed tradition develop a much broader understanding of the office of elder? When Reformed churches were established in Catholic France, under the cross, it was obviously impossible to concede control of even indifferent ecclesiastical affairs to hostile civil magistrates. French churches therefore tended to turn such affairs over to the control of deacons and elders (in some cases the offices of elder and deacon even blended into one). But they were mindful that this was an outward or temporal authority, not a spiritual one. Evidence for this appears from the fact that they (ordinarily) dealt with matters of (spiritual) church discipline at separate meetings from those in which they handled the general affairs of church government.
A similar development, I believe, explains the evolution of church government in the Dutch Reformed Churches. To this day the elders in Dutch Reformed churches are supposed to distinguish their spiritual oversight of the congregation, with which they deal in meetings of the Consistory (pastors and elders), from the matters of general church government, with which they deal in meetings of the Council (pastors, elders, and deacons). Here the Dutch Reformed ‘Council’ (an office of the church) seems to have neatly taken the place of the Geneva ‘Council’ (the supreme authority of Geneva’s civil government) in governing the indifferent affairs of church life.
What worries me is that in some Reformed churches there seems to be little understanding of the difference between the spiritual government of the church, in which the pastors, elders, and deacons administer the kingship of Christ, and the church’s handling of indifferent affairs, in which they are merely representatives of the congregation. In short, I fear that too often elders and pastors think that when they are exercising their authority over indifferent matters they are exercising the authority of Christ! Perhaps that helps explain why many elders devote far more time to such mundane affairs than they do to the vital and spiritual function of church discipline.
Understanding the difference between spiritual and indifferent affairs also has implications for the involvement of the broader congregation in decisions concerning the latter. If Calvin and the other reformers were willing to cede significant authority over the indifferent affairs of church life to civil authorities (a willingness I think we should wholeheartedly reject) because such matters were simply to be conducted for the edification and peace of all believers, how much more should we yield authority over such matters to the very believers whose edification and peace is its objective? This doesn’t mean the church need always operate by majority vote. It does suggest that the general matters of church government might be appropriately handled at meetings and through procedures in which all faithful men and women, in addition to the officers of the church, can participate.
Such a conception of church government would have a twofold salutary advantage. First, it would make the church more sensitive to the gifts, wisdom, and consent of its full membership. Second, it would help people to distinguish the spiritual government of Christ administered by the church’s officers strictly according to the word from those indifferent matters of government appropriately subject to the primary concerns of love, edification, prudence, compromise, and peace. That in turn might help our fragmented churches achieve a greater measure of unity. I believe the Apostle Paul had something to say about that.
Jessica Rey’s “Evolution of the Swimsuit” video has been making its rounds on the Internet over the past couple weeks. It is an interesting video, worth watching if you have the time and are a woman, a husband, a father of daughters, or otherwise interested in the subject. I’m loath to write more on the modesty issue at this point (see here and here), but a piece of data Rey summarized – and the way she used it – caught my attention. Towards the end of the video, describing a neurological study of the male brain (the participants were Princeton University students), Rey states the following:
Brain scans revealed that when men are shown pictures of scantily clad women, the region of the brain associated with tools, such as screw drivers and hammers, lit up. Some men showed zero brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that lights up when one ponders another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
Rey’s argument was that since science shows that men respond to a woman in a bikini by viewing her as an object, women should not wear bikinis. The point, she argued, is not that the female body is problematic, but that a woman should dress in a way that graces her body with dignity and honor.
The latter point is, of course, true. And what follows is not a defense of the bikini, let alone a suggestion that women should wear bikinis. That question is a distraction from the real issues.
Two things bothered me about Rey’s presentation. First, I worry about the assumption that a woman’s dignity somehow depends on how she is viewed by a sexually charged male college student. Somehow I doubt that your average Princeton male would view women any less differently if they all suddenly started wearing one-piece swimsuits to the beach. As Christianity Today blogger Caryn Rivadeneira puts it,
Those who are “worried” about the male reaction to the female form need to remember that men will still find women in conservative, one-piece, adorable Jessica Rey swimsuits sexy, while not every woman in a bikini will be a turn-on. There’s no hard-and-fast-rule for how we guard our beach bods from the male gaze. And I’m not sure there should be.
As I’ve said before, one person will always find a “more modest” approach than the next. There’s a whole spectrum of opinions and positions out there, and imagining that we can find a place from which to be dogmatic merely introduces the ugly specter of legalism. This promotes just the sort of self-righteous moralism that inevitably obscures the gospel and alienates the kind of outsiders to whom we should be most sympathetic and who most desperately need our love and respect as they are.
More importantly, however, I found highly problematic Rey’s assumption that men are mere machines, unable to control the response of their brains to scantily clad women. Just as a woman is not a mere object, so a man is not a mere machine. The response of the brain to a particular image is not innate, but shaped by a person’s culture, context, and character. In an excellent set of responses to Rey’s video on Christianity Today’s her.meneutics blog, Sharon Hodde Miller writes of the study Rey cites,
These findings are significant, but they also beg an important question: Why do men perceive women’s bodies this way? Scientific findings show that the brain is essentially plastic. It can be shaped and formed and changed by our environments. This means that not all neurological responses are hardwired. Some are conditioned.
In the case of women’s bodies, it’s very possible that men have been conditioned by culture to have a Pavlovian response. Just as dogs grew conditioned to be stimulated by the ring of a bell, our culture has trained men to respond in certain ways to the sight of a female body. This conditioning becomes most apparent in comparison with non-Western cultures, where modesty standards differ….
Undoubtedly, Rey brought attention to important data. When men associate the female body with objects, not just theoretically but neurologically, we can be sure that our culture is sick. However, additional neurological research points to a societal dysfunction that runs far deeper than bikinis. When men associate the imago dei in women with an inanimate tool, then a more comprehensive restoration is in order, one that promotes theological correction, cultural healing, and renewed vision. To this end, we need to dig a bit deeper.
This is exactly right. I worry very much that in our obsession with what other people wear and what other people do, many Christians are entirely missing the fact that a gospel-centered, Christ-centered life is rooted in the virtues of the heart. Out of the heart come lust and sexual immorality, Jesus taught us, and it is the heart that must be changed.
Rey’s study certainly shows us that Christians should be counter-cultural. But the appropriate way to be counter-cultural is not to insist on a set of abstract, outward rules and regulations to which Christians conform, making them “different” from the world in a variety of arbitrary ways (let alone to shift men’s burdens to women, enforcing arbitrary restrictions on their dress that inevitably communicate their denigration rather than affirmation). The appropriate way to be counter-cultural is to conform, as a body of believers, to a new humanity (Jesus), characterized by new virtues (such as love, patience, self-control). Our starting point cannot be that since males lust after women as a matter of scientific fact, women must buck up and cover up or they are guilty of “causing” their male counterparts to sin. Our starting point, rather, must be that all human beings are created bodily in the image of God, and that in place of the temptation to lust after and use one another as objects, we need to learn to delight in and respect one another as embodied persons.
That’s why the New Testament does not give us a dress code, no matter how hard some conservatives try to find one in its pages. You’d be better off searching the rabbinic code of the Pharisees. The New Testament, in contrast, calls us not to attract attention to outward appearance with all sorts of adornment and apparel, but to focus on doing the sort of good works that reflect the virtues to which we are called (i.e., modesty) (1 Timothy 2:9-10). That’s why Paul, rather than commanding people to cover up and avoid interaction, writes,
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5)
What’s at stake in all of this is the gospel. Pluralism and secularization, with all the sins that come attached to them, are hitting the church like a tsunami right now. Conservative Christians are clinging to the instincts and intuitions they know best, seeking to justify them from Scripture, yet without necessarily letting Scripture shape their attitudes and practices. The danger of a new wave of inward-looking legalism is very real.
The only solution is to remember that the whole point of the Christian life is to conform to the image of Jesus, putting on the virtues of this new man and turning in service and self-sacrifice to our neighbors. Our actions and practices should prompt others to ask us for a reason for the hope that is within us. But when the world sees our fearful, defensive churches, will they see Pharisees, or will they see the Savior who was associated with prostitutes and sinners?
In their excellent book Modest, Tim Challies and R. W. Glenn note that when Christians argue over whether or not women should wear bikinis (an argument being waged on the electronic pages of the Aquila Report this week) they often confuse the real issues – and virtues – that are at stake. Challies and Glenn draw our attention to a statement by C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, distinguishing between chastity, modesty, and charity.
The Christian rule of chastity must not be confused with the social rule of ‘modesty’ (in one sense of that word); i.e., propriety, or decency. The social rule of propriety lays down how much of the human body should be displayed and what subjects can be referred to, and in what words, according to the customs of a given social circle. Thus, while the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes. A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally ‘modest,’ proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or unchaste)…. When people break the rule of propriety current in their own time and place, if they do so in order to excite lust in themselves or others, then they are offending against chastity. But if they break it through ignorance or carelessness they are guilty only of bad manners. When, as so often happens, they break it defiantly in order to shock or embarrass others, they are not necessarily being unchaste, but they are being uncharitable. (Mere Christianity, 83-84)
Those seeking clear and precise standards for modesty from Scripture are sure either to abuse and manipulate the text, or, if they are more careful, bound to be disappointed. Because modesty, even in Scripture, is a relative virtue. As Challies and Glenn define it, “Modesty is that virtue which is respectful of a culture’s rules for appropriate and inappropriate dress, speech, and behavior in a given situation.”
The argument that those who oppose bikinis need to be making is not that bikinis offend against modesty or chastity but that they offend against charity. In fact, the better arguments, such as that of Rachel Clark last week, do emphasize that the fundamental issue is one of charity. But even Clark confuses a woman’s self-sacrificial decision not to wear a bikini, out of love for the men who might be tempted when they see her, with the virtue of modesty itself.
Once, however, we grasp that the issue at hand is that of charity, rather than modesty, then it becomes important to ensure that we are acting charitably to the woman who decides to wear a bikini as well as to the man who wishes she didn’t. This means at least two things. First, a man seeking to be virtuous in his attitude towards women fails entirely if he only manages to avoid lust when such women are dressed according to his own demands. If that man is truly to conform to the image of Jesus, he must learn to love, and to act virtuously towards, a woman in a bikini. Second, those women who believe they demonstrate love for others by not wearing bikinis must make sure that they demonstrate equal love for others by respecting those who do choose to wear one. This is not exactly a matter on which Scripture has ruled decisively.
Yet in her essay Clark manages to make the case against women wearing bikinis only by first reducing women (by analogy) to the status of the objects of consumer desires. She writes,
Let’s try and put ourselves in a guy’s shoes. I think we can all agree that as girls, exercise is important to us. We want to stay healthy and are often working on getting fit. We work out and stay away from carbs or sweets. We use all of our willpower to not eat the chocolate cake on the counter! Now, let’s pretend that someone picked up that chocolate cake and followed us around all the time, 24/7. We can never get away from the chocolate, it’s always right there, tempting us and even smelling all ooey gooey and chocolate-y. Most of us, myself included, would find it easy to break down and eat the cake. And we would probably continue to break down and eat cake, because it would always be there. Our exercise goals would be long gone in no time.
This is how I imagine it is for guys.
If women are mere sex objects, this logic makes sense. But if women are human beings, made in the image of God, then the argument fails entirely. Because a man has no right to process a woman made in the image of God as he would an object for his appetite, sexual or otherwise. As Aimee Byrd puts it in her excellent response to Clark,
First of all, I am a woman made in the image of God, not a piece of cake. Isn’t that a huge part of the problem with our thinking about sexuality? I don’t want my daughters to think of themselves as some tantalizing dessert that needs to always be self-conscious that they look too good. Sure, I care very much about what they wear, and they would say that I am pretty strict, but I’m trying to send a healthy message about beauty and modesty.
Byrd drives the question home in a very helpful way:
Of course, this also begs the question, If a woman looks good in her bathing suit, is that being immodest? There’s also the question that I’ve asked before, Can a man admire a beautiful woman without sexually fantasizing about her?
If we come to the conclusion that some men cannot help but sin if they are confronted with a woman in a bikini, we must also come to the conclusion that those men are in deep, deep trouble. Because you cannot possibly function in our culture without being able to handle such images. You can’t drive down the highway. You can’t go to the airport. You can’t purchase bread at the grocery store. You might not even be able to put gas in your car. You certainly can’t have yahoo mail.
Nothing outside of a man can make him unclean, as Jesus said in Mark 7. Rather, sexual immorality stems from the heart. That’s why Jesus, in contrast to the Pharisees, places the burden of lust on men, as I argue in this sermon. If we allow men to think they should never be confronted with attractive women we are setting them up for massive failure.
It’s interesting. Both the world and fundamentalists agree that we live in a sex-saturated culture, and that it is very difficult for many men not to lust after women in such a culture. The response of the world, quite often (though not always), is to say, Just do it. Far too often the response of fundamentalists is little better: Just don’t do it. The world says look and lust. Fundamentalists say look away. But the gospel calls us to look with the eyes of Jesus, seeing not sex objects to be consumed or avoided at your choice, but seeing human beings made in the image of God. That’s the real issue. If we are serious about being conformed to the image of Christ, we need to be trained not to look away, or even not to look at all, but to look with the love of Christ.
It’s hard to claim that allowing a tiny percentage of gay men and women to marry will destroy an institution that already has little to do with what conservatives say they are trying to preserve.
Nearly half of births are to unwed mothers. Many more children grow up in households wrecked by divorce. Marriage is not in a meaningful sense a legally binding contract.
One of the reasons it’s plausible for so many people to think Christians oppose same-sex marriage because they are bigots is because on the whole Christians have shown themselves to be much more fired up about homosexuality than about problems like divorce, adultery, and what was once known as illegitimacy (problems with which Christians themselves are quite complicit). To be sure, many Christians opposed the liberalization of laws pertaining to divorce and adultery. But many others proved highly susceptible to the feminist claim that such radical liberalization was essential to the liberation of women, unable to distinguish between reforms that were necessary and those that went too far.
If social conservatives – most of whom are Christians – have any hope of recovering the institution of marriage as a meaningful factor in the procreation and raising of children in this country, they are going to have to get back to the basics. Set aside same-sex marriage for the moment. What should traditional marriage look like? The relevant audience that needs to do some hard thinking here is not simply the audience committed to gay marriage, but the audience committed to the rights of men, women, and children to have sex, get married, have sex with people married to other people, and get divorced at will.
How do we recover the binding legal character of marriage so that it will benefit children, men, and women without allowing that institution to be used for the exploitation of women as it so often was in the past? What might laws regarding adultery and divorce look like – laws with teeth – that protected and empowered women as much as they promoted the interests of men? Perhaps most important of all, how do we persuade a skeptical audience – in practice made up especially of those both at the top and the bottom of the socio-economic spectrum – not only that marriage matters, but that it is good? That, not the narrow issue of same-sex marriage, may be the vital social question of our time.
At his blog Bill Evans writes a follow up post to his earlier article on Presbyterian squabbling. Evans worries that Reformed pastors are losing the ability to distinguish between primary, secondary, and even tertiary issues. He also worries that some are coming to view the confessions as substitutes for (or as the source of) doctrinal consensus, rather than as expressions of genuine consensus grounded in Scripture, a phenomena he calls “confessional fundamentalism.”
On the way he makes a poignant argument about the way in which obsession with the culture wars contributes to a skewed view of theological priorities:
[T]he ever-present context of cultural conflict has become the lens through which many theological issues are viewed. Whether it be odd speculation about an “eternal subordination of the Son,” or the rise of the so-called “Biblical Patriarchy” recently and properly critiqued by Rachel Miller, or opposition to the ordination of women even to an office of service like the Presbyterian diaconate, a lot of conservative theology is being driven the desire not to give an inch to the feminists. Likewise, the recent trend in conservative Reformed circles toward literal six-day young-earth creationism is certainly not driven by any new exegetical insights into the meaning of Genesis 1 or any new scientific evidence, but rather by the desire to exclude Darwinism and its cultural implications a priori.
Unfortunately, what has emerged is theology that is often just as “political” as anything on the left, and from this political polarization flows an approach to theological controversy in which there is increasingly little room for complexity and interpretation. Nuance, judgments of charity, the recognition that reality is often more complex than we might wish, and necessary shades of gray have been replaced by the binary logic of black and white, truth and error, faithfulness and compromise. Little wonder, then, that the Balkanized conservative Reformed theological landscape looks more and more like an exercise in Manichaean politics. Little wonder that positions long regarded as acceptable are now suspect and even unwelcome in some presbyteries, or that a view almost extinct in 1960 (except among Seventh-Day Adventists) has become a touchstone of orthodoxy.
As I wrote in an earlier response to Evans, we need to learn that the conservative position is not necessarily the biblical, or Christian position. ‘Liberal’ is not a bad word, and as its usage by an older theologian like John Calvin demonstrates, orthodox Christians used to think of liberality as a virtue. Jesus and his apostles, like the reformers, were as liberal as they were conservative because they understood that their obligation was to the word of God, not to the status quo. Our allegiance is to Christ and his kingdom, not to the way things once were.
Read Evans’s whole post here.
What the law says on paper does not always reflect what goes on in practice. A government can recognize rights in theory that it does not genuinely respect in reality – or that it does not have the power to protect. An ethnic or religious community can claim legal deference to its internal courts, on the basis that all of its members yield voluntary allegiance to those courts, without the allegiance of such members being genuinely free.
Take the fictional example of a Muslim woman who has immigrated to the United States with her family from Bangladesh. The woman speaks virtually no English and all of her best friends and closest family (aside from her husband) remained in the mother country. In the United States only a few years, the woman’s husband begins to abuse her her in various ways, physically, emotionally, sexually. He manipulates her by reminding her that if she seeks to divorce him he will win custody over their children based on the Shari’a derived prenuptial marriage contract they established and that American law has agreed to recognize as valid. The woman, a devout Muslim, recognizes that if she abandons the Muslim community she will lose everything that is dear to her, everything that she knows, including possibly her salvation.
Hard-nosed critics will point out that everything is fine. This woman has all the same rights and freedoms as do any other Americans. She can flee the Muslim community and find refuge in the hands of secular courts whenever she wants. We should not lose any sleep over her plight, or the plight of potentially thousands of women and children like her.
At the First Thoughts blog Matthew Schmitz cordially responds to my worry that the situation in Islamic communities is still too complex, and the commitment of most Muslims to fundamental rights and freedoms still too weak, to merit the sort of deference to Shari’a courts that would make the above scenario possible. I’m grateful to Schmitz for his engagement of my post. As he puts it:
My response to this is simple: Laws often fall short of their aims, and if we’re worried they’re being ignored or going unenforced the trick is to actually enforce them, not impose new burdens.
Fair enough. One would think, then, that it makes sense to take the time to establish a mode of interaction between secular courts and Shari’a courts that is compatible with the enforcement of basic rights and freedoms and appropriate to the circumstances in most Islamic communities, right? As John Witte writes (in the paper Schmitz is worried about),
First, it takes time and practice for a secular legal system to adjust to the realities and needs of new religious groups and to make the necessary legal accommodations… Concessions and accommodations will come, but only with time, persistence, and patience.
Second, it takes flexibility and innovation on the part of the religious community to win accommodations from secular laws and cultures….
Third, religious communities, in turn, have to accommodate, or at least tolerate, the core values of their secular host nations if they expect to win concessions for their religious courts and other religious practices. No Western nation will long accommodate, perhaps not even tolerate, a religious community that cannot accept its core values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, or of human rights, democracy, and rule of law….
Finally, Muslim tribunals must become legally sophisticated and procedurally equitable to be both attractive to voluntary Muslim disputants and acceptable to secular state courts.
In other words, it takes time and care to get it right. Religious liberties do not trump other rights and freedoms that government is bound to protect, and if religious groups demand religious prerogatives, without credibly demonstrating that they will exercise those prerogatives consistent with a modicum of justice for the weak and vulnerable, the government should not readily yield to that demand.
Schmitz agrees that the law needs to be enforced, but is he open to the steps necessary to ensure that this will actually happen? He is focused on one objective, that of securing religious liberty. He understandably argues that religious liberty is so threatened in this country that we should take its side regardless of the group or practices in view, or of the dangers that might come with it. And I want to make it clear that I wholeheartedly agree with Schmitz in his skepticism about the anti-Shari’a laws passed in places like Oklahoma (and rejected by federal courts). I am not defending anti-Shari’a laws in this post. I do not think they are the way to go.
At the same time, I wonder of Schmitz is taking the dangers of accommodation to Shari’a law seriously enough. Just as importantly, I wonder if he is underestimating the threat that is posed to religious liberty itself if that liberty is widely used as a cloak for oppression and injustice. In short, if we don’t do the hard work of making sure Muslims use their religious liberty consistent with basic inalienable rights and freedoms, it is the cause of religious liberty itself that will suffer, not simply the persons who suffer because the law was not properly enforced.
To be clear, the point is not that Muslims are more guilty of certain crimes – such as spousal abuse – than are other religious groups. The point is not that Muslims are morally inferior at all. The point is rather that Islamic communities have to go through a process, a process through which Jewish, Catholic, and other communities have already passed, to ensure that accommodations can be granted and yet the laws protecting people’s basic rights and freedoms still be enforced. Many Islamic communities have not yet demonstrated the commitment to fundamental liberties, or to the procedures necessary to secure those liberties, to merit the sort of deference that is ideal.
Schmitz is right that religious freedom has special priority in this country. But that doesn’t mean it justifies irresponsible deference, deference that is blind to the necessity of preserving fundamental procedures of justice. I know Schmitz would not accept religious liberty as a justification for crimes like child sacrifice or the freedom of conscience when it comes to abortion. In that sense it is not a trump card that can be played against other rights like the right to life or to due process of law. And those rights need to be protected in reality, not just on paper.
Religious liberty is indeed “too fundamental and fragile an American principle to trifle with.” That’s why we need to get it right.
In an interesting article featured last week in the Aquila Report Rebecca VanDoodewaard argued that Christian business owners and churches should consider making an extra effort to hire male clerks to fulfill jobs often satisfied by female secretaries. VanDoodewaard clarified that she does not have a problem with women working. But, she says, “we can easily fall into the trap of going along unthinkingly with our culture because evaluation of a societal norm can be uncomfortable.”
She goes on to offer several reasons, a couple of which relate closely to the roles and interrelationships of men and women.
1. In this economy, the role of clerk would give men a job. I know that it is controversial to give a man job priority over a woman, but let’s face it: in spite all the feminism, men are still the primary breadwinners in families, and they should be (I Tim. 5:8). What about single women, you ask? As primary breadwinners, shouldn’t they have jobs, too? Of course. But there are women working as secretaries whose income supplements their husband’s. I’m not saying that they don’t need the money, I’m not saying they should not work. I’m saying that where a man could support himself and maybe a wife with the job that is simply supplementing a married woman’s household income, then the man should get the job, competence being equal. No, this is not politically correct. But it would enable more men to provide for themselves and their wives.
4. Replacing secretaries with clerks would also reduce the opportunity for work place adultery. Secretary jokes are standard in our world because people know it’s a reality. We know women whose husbands have left them for their secretaries. Think about it: having a woman who is not your wife helping you day in, day out opens up a huge avenue for emotional entanglements which often lead to physical ones. A clerk, while not removing the sin in your heart, will remove the opportunity, and that’s half the battle (Matt. 5:28-30).
I have written on this blog before about the danger of viewing the problem of lust and adultery as a problem that is to be solved by reducing the social interactions between men and women. And in an excellent response to VanDoodewaard’s article Rachel Miller points out that the ordinary workplace is already far too integrated for VanDoodewaard’s proposal to make much sense in most circumstances. But Miller also raises excellent questions about the level of paternalism required in VanDoodewaard’s approach.
I am greatly disturbed by Mrs. VanDoodewaard’s belief that women in secretarial jobs are “simply supplementing” the household income. She does note that the income may be needed, but she goes on to say that men should be hired preferentially, all other factors being equal…
How exactly should businesses go about determining if woman is working to “simply supplement” her husband’s income or working because without her income there wouldn’t be food on the table or a roof over their heads or clothes on their backs? …
While I’m sure there are women who are working for purely selfish reasons, the majority of women who work low-paying, secretarial jobs are working to help provide for their families. What does Mrs. VanDoodewaard suggest these women do instead? In the current economy, two incomes are often a necessity, not a luxury.
These are excellent points. Should employers be probing prospective employees about their marital status, relationships with their husbands, or their family finances? Rarely are two job candidates entirely equal. Just how high up the list of job criteria should gender and marital circumstances be?
I wholeheartedly affirm the importance of encouraging mothers to focus their best time and energy on raising and teaching their children (Titus 2:5; 1 Timothy 2:15). There is no doubt that children do best when both Dad and Mom are not distracted by full-time jobs that leave only the marginal hours for the family. And especially in the early years there is no question that a mother is capable of the kind of nurture that no one else can provide.
But I also think that the sorts of questions VanDoodewaard is raising are best answered by each particular woman and her husband rather than by the paternalistic second-guessing of prospective employers. It is somewhat denigrating of the dignity of a woman who has thought long and hard about whether to seek employment and come to a difficult decision on the matter only to have to answer to the probing of an employer who does not even know her. And who is he to think he is the judge?
Yet aside from the invasive and paternalistic nature of these sorts of questions VanDoodewaard’s argument comes up against a further obstacle that Christians need to take very seriously. Her proposals are not simply politically incorrect and counter-cultural; they seem to be illegal. According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:
It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer –
(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or
(2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Now Christians and business people might find this law unnecessarily obtrusive. Some might believe that the law goes beyond the proper authority of the federal government, or that it prevents them from using their employment opportunities to shape society as they desire – whether in terms of religion, race, gender, or whatever. But it does remain the law of the land, designed to secure a measure of justice in part for women who wish not to be subject to the sort of paternalism VanDoodewaard urges us to consider. Unless the law forces us to disobey the commandments of God, which is not the case in this situation, we need to obey it.