Will the Feminists Win?
From the pulpit of New York City’s First Presbyterian Church on May 22, 1922, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick preached a sermon entitled, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” This sermon became a well-known part of the modernist-fundamentalist controversy of those days. Within the Presbyterian Church a great controversy was brewing, and certain leaders had written documents defending certain fundamental elements of the Christian faith. These were the infallibility of the Scriptures, the virgin birth of Christ, His substitutionary atonement, His bodily resurrection, and the miracles of Christ. While these writers were persuaded that the Reformed faith was much broader than these fundamentals and did not really appreciate the label “fundamentalists,” they nevertheless insisted that the historic Christian faith includes as essentials, these fundamental doctrines. Fosdick's sermon proclaimed toleration and magnanimity on all sides. Gracious but unenlightened souls who believed in the virgin birth and other miracles, and in a literal and visible return of Christ should be permitted to hold to their antiquated views of course, but in Fosdick's opinion, their views would soon pass away. The answer to his question, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” was clearly, “No,” and obviously he hoped they would not. In fact those who held to these views were clearly intolerant and were a threat to the unity of the church. Surely Jesus Himself would have nothing to do with such bigotry, or with these theories of atonement, with miracles, or with the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture!
How would Fosdick’s question apply to feminism? Will the feminists win? The heirs of the old liberals of the 1920s are the modern feminists whose views may range from those who advocate women’s ordination to goddess theology. Like the earlier “modernists,” today’s feminists do not deny the right of individual preachers and members to hold to the historic position of the church regarding the ordination of women, and regarding the use of feminine language for God in worship. They too plead for toleration of their viewpoint. But as soon as they obtain it, they refuse to tolerate those who hold to and defend the historic position of the church. Also like the Presbyterian fathers of the 1920s the feminists of today may be selective in accepting or rejecting specific doctrines and practices of feminism, but many defend the right to hold to a broad spectrum of views or may argue that the issues are not really that important. Within the Christian Reformed denomination, inclusive language for God has been largely rejected, and a synod has confirmed such a rejection. The ordination of women to all offices is another story.
Battles for truth continue in every age, but participants are not always dressed or equipped with the same armor. The church of Jesus Christ always has and always will face attacks on her precious store of the gospel—attempts to steal her pearl of great price and bury it. Often she is her own worst enemy, failing to offer gospel treasure to the world or failing to assist others in finding it. Conservatives too have to admit to a lack of zeal for evangelism, or to a lack of vision for the power of a sovereign God to bring the nations to Himself. Sometimes conservatives are subject to defeatism and division within their ranks. CRC members with wise and godly minds have left the ranks of those who would carry the truth within the church. They have chosen to carry on their task in other denominations or independent communions. This is a great loss for the CRC, for no longer do we benefit from the specific insight and strength of these brothers at classical and synodical gatherings. Of course their insight and contribution on matters of doctrine and practice is still available for the church as a whole, and we thank God for that. We ought to accept any help and insight these brothers might offer us. Oohn Stott’s comments on Ephesians 4:4–6 are relevant here: you can't really split the church any more than you can split the Holy Trinity.)
Still our ranks are depleted in the CRC, and we have a major gap in leadership. The contacts that were beginning to be made and that may have given organizational strength to the conservatives no longer exist as they once did—or could have. Yet our ultimate hope is not in organizational strength or in numbers.
Giving up or Continuing Battle?
Meanwhile the feminist-liberal agenda seems to be pressing on to full salvation and glory especially in mainline denominations, and to an extent in the CRC. Several churches have women pastors, and the seminary and synod offer women candidates for ministry to the church. Certain synodical delegates regularly attempt to disenfranchise delegates who object to women candidates out of principle, by proposing both male and female candidates be lumped into one vote. Objectors are advised that they may not vote against female candidates but may only abstain from voting. Now the 2000 Synod of the Christian Reformed church must gear up for its own Y2K issue: reconsidering the issue of female ordination. What's to consider? The liberal strategy has worked: the cow is out of the bam, and who will get her back in? (The CRC has met and continued status quo for 5 more years—Editors.) Should we give up and concede that women in office is a settled and dead issue? We are tired of fighting and constant debating. Are we going to quit the debate out of frustration and disappointment?
Great pressure exists to keep the peace. It's not nice for brothers to fight, the argument runs. The devil loves it when we fight each other and quit evangelizing, so let's just resign to reality and go on, trying to hold the line on homosexuality and the Reformed doctrine of worship. All this may sound right until you consider that advocates of a gay agenda are still promoting their new views on that issue. In addition many churches have fallen for the idea that Reformed doctrine has no noticeable impact on worship, and that it is all a matter of style or preference anyway. Conservatives would then be returning to the sidelines to watch the election returns year after year while “the present trend” continues. The night is getting late. Shall we just give up and go to bed?
Aiming for Conversion
Of course we need to speak carefully and accurately. Some of those who seem to have feminist-liberal leanings really are true believers in]esus Christ as Savior and Lord and fail to see the inconsistency of their position with the historic understanding of the authority of Scripture. Others simply think the debates will do no good and will end up hurting each other and our witness. Let’s not be arrogant—as those who don’t mind being called conservatives—denying the work of grace in the lives of fellow believers. But let’s not be naive either: if no one argues for the historic complementarian position in the debate, how will anyone be won with the truth? One problem is that often the debate is not centered on truth but on emotions or feelings or personal situations. One could argue that postmodernism appears in the strategies taken by the current brand of liberals who may deny that absolute truth in the teaching of Scripture on the issue of female ordination even exists. Older liberal interpretations of Scripture conceded that Paul was clearly against the ordination of women. These liberals openly admitted that they disagreed with Paul! Still we must ask: Do we care about winning the liberals for orthodox truth? Will the fruit of the Spirit be in evidence as we seek to persuade brothers of the truth of the historic position of the church?
Shall the feminist liberals win? NO WAY! Truth will always prevail in the end. An entire denomination, once solid in commitment to orthodox truth, may fall (often in the name of ortho-praxy). I pray the CRC will not be dragged any farther down that road by those who keep harping on the same tired issues. And it doesn’t have to be. But even if it is dragged farther from truth, God will preserve on the earth those who witness to the truth where they are. King Darius wondered whether God was able to shut the mouths of the lions! The two witnesses in Revelation 11 are left for dead, and the world celebrates, but in the end they are not defeated.
Consider the history: advocates of the new position on women simply don’t take no for an answer. For 25 years they persistently raised the issue and refused to let synod kill it. They published and wrote articles and got The Banner to support their cause. They wrote overtures, not merely supporting one strand of their argument, but literally flooding the synod with their arguments through overtures, visits to committees, intellectually reasoned arguments, and a good dose of sentimentalism. The feminist liberals took their case even farther. In defiance of the common agreement of the Church Order, they simply began doing what they desired. This strategy brought great psychological pressure on the church and on delegates to synod. Irrational but emotional arguments were employed: “I used to be opposed to women in office, but then I thought about my precious infant daughter, and wondered whether she would ever feel called to the ministry. And I changed my mind.” After hounding the church for 25 years, the feminist liberals were tired of not getting their way.
They began to insist: “But we’ve discussed this for twenty-five years, and it’s time to let it happen.” Never mind that this begs the question. Still another famous tactic was employed; liberals do not want a matter resolved until they win. The strategy was to keep the conversation going year after year until everyone was worn out. Finally what synod clearly aimed to settle in 1994 through a very clear understanding of Scripture was not accepted. Normally opposition to a synodical decision dies down, and the unity of the church is viewed as more important than lobbying for the new agenda. Not in this case. The Banner editor wailed and howled over the “unfair decision” of 1994. Others joined in. And in 1995 synod caved in to the new non-theological left.
The question is: Did synod cave in just in time for the feminist liberal agenda? 1995 may have been a window of opportunity for this agenda. Now that we have crawled through that window, it will be difficult to get everybody back in. But there are reports that younger members of the church, including pastors and seminary students are more conservative. When these begin to occupy positions of responsibility in the church, will the victory of the feminist-liberals be secure? Or—is there assurance that the Spirit of the Lord will not sweep the CRC—and other evangelicals—with the wind of truth?
Brilliant strategy and pressure has worked for the feminist liberal promoters. But this is nothing compared to prayer—and the power of the Spirit. When He opens hearts to the truth, who will stand against Him? Can even the bureaucracy of the mainline liberal churches keep Him out?
The essential unity of the church has been damaged by the promotion of the feminist liberal agenda. It has been weakened by an attitude of compromise that is democratic but not ecclesiastical. Indeed love is required, but so is truth. Compromise is not the most loving response to an issue.
The Importance of the Issue
But is this question of women’s ordination important? Shouldn’t we major in more important matters like baptism? If this is not a salvation issue, should we be fighting it? In no way should infant baptism be sacrificed. By itself the issue is not as important as the deity of Christ. But the claim that this is not a salvation issue is irrelevant. Most Reformed believers would not deny that an Arminian might be saved by grace despite his poor theology. Yet biblical Christians must defend and do defend the teachings of grace and the sovereignty of God outlined so beautifully and clearly in our confessions. The women in office question is a matter of obedience. Old liberals conceded that Paul and the New Testament were against women’s ordination, but then they politely chose to disagree with Paul. Feminist liberals have tried in our day to make Paul say the opposite of what he actually says, or to make Paul unclear in order to justify the practice. But have they not brought to Scripture pre-judgment instead of deducing from the Word of God a conclusion fairly made—and consistent with the historic teaching of the holy catholic church?
The Christian Reformed Church has been influenced by liberal feminism. all are radically feminist (for example, some who believe in women’s ordination do not believe in feminizing language for God), but the influence of this movement has affected us. Many who are influenced by feminism sincerely believe they are somehow able to reconcile their new position with Scripture. But here we have to back up to ask whether the facts bear it out. Those of us who judge that the facts do not support women in office must be prepared to defend the truth and to explain it clearly without unduly antagonizing. The women in office issue is only part of a larger picture: rejection of western culture and ways, accommodation to feminism, a new way of reading Scripture, a powerful pressure to deny the existence of absolute truth and of propositional revelation.
Will the feminist liberal approach win? I am firmly persuaded it will not because it ignores a most significant reality: Scripture clearly teaches that women may not be ordained. One cannot ignore Paul’s writings to Timothy and to the Corinthians. Scripture directly confronts the gods of this age. Scripture is the voice of the Holy Spirit, and He will have the last word!
The Spirit may have appeared to by-pass the old liberals: not much is left even of the shell of their theology. The liberal feminists are ruminating in the dry and barren husks of that theology which was popular in the 1920s. If they do finally lead the CRC farther and farther from where the people are in their thinking and faith, the glory will indeed have departed, and the Lord may work elsewhere. But this is our hope and confidence: He will keep working! However shallow confessional believers may see the “conservatives” in liberal denominations, the Lord may still renew them. And He may renew the weakened CRe. I pray He will. But returning to our question: Will the liberal feminists win? No. And they ought to be running scared. For God is the Ruler yet. The Lord of Sabbath has a way of overturning tyranny and untruth. And He surely will!
This is no call for a quietism that lets conservatives sit back and let God take care of it. We must use the means available. We need to write overtures, prepare for debate carefully, patiently answer questions, do our best—and engage in earnest prayer that God will:
1) lead the church to use the gifts of women appropriately and within the guidelines of Scripture, recognizing the implications of male headship in the church;
2) lead the church to reject anything that contradicts biblical teaching on women in office, and to affirm that God Himself has so organized His church that women may not take upon themselves the offices of elder and minister, nor mayan ecclesiastical organization confer upon women such obligations. This is prayer that the Spirit may so convict the church that it will decide on the basis of true exegesis of Scripture and not on the basis of emotion or willful disobedience;
3) lead the church to a renewed commitment and zeal for her confessions and thus to the marrow and meat of Holy Scripture.
Will the feminist liberals win? Though it may appear so for a time, there is no doubt that the Word of the living God will prevail. I am praying—along with many others that we will see it personally in our own lifetime. But even if we do not see it with our own eyes, the liberal feminists will finally lose the battle for the unrealistic procedure they have already initiated. Again, the answer to the question at the head of this article is a resounding NO!
Rev. Christoffels is the pastor of the Worthington Christian Reformed Church in Worthington, Minnesota.