The sublime Jenell Paris has a column up this week at Generous Orthodoxy, commenting on this recent piece in Christianity Today: Young, Restless, Reformed. The CT article is about the resurgence of Calvinism in the American church, particularly its emergence in traditionally "Wesleyan-Arminian" churches.
For those of you who forgot your Protestantism 101, Calvinists are great believers in unmerited grace and the absence of free will. They generally promote the notion of God's total sovereignty, and pre-destination (the idea that some, and only some, are "elected" for salvation); the "Wesleyan-Arminian" crowd (where I usually find myself), tends to be much more optimistic about our ability to make choices and exercise free will. It's an old debate, the sort that gets young seminary students all worked up. I've taken part in those debates many a time, and I'm done with it. No more arguing about TULIP for me. My Jesus, He died for all. (No theological doctrine in the entire world makes me angrier than the one symbolized by the "L" in TULIP. If you don't know what it refers to, don't worry.)
Anyhoo, the article talks about why so many folks who grew up in Arminian traditions (like the Southern Baptists) have begun to embrace the colder and more cerebral world of Calvinism (also called the "Reformed" tradition with a capital "R"). It makes clear -- something Jenell draws upon in her commentary -- that at least some folks are attracted to what they see as Calvinism's particular concern for the "right ordering" of gender roles. The CT article quotes a young Laura Watkins, who was raised an evangelical who believed in free will, but who now embraces the Reformed understanding:
An enlarged view of God's authority changed the way she viewed evangelism, worship, and relationships. Watkins articulated how complementary roles for men and women go hand in hand with this type of Calvinism. "I believe God is sovereign and has ordered things in a particular way," she explained. Just as "he's chosen those who are going to know him before the foundations of the earth," she said, "I don't want to be rebelling against the way God ordered men and women to relate to one another."
Jenell's commentary is brilliant. She writes:
It seems to me that this type of Reformed theology helps gird up denominations such as Southern Baptist that have been under fire for their subordination of women. Reformed theology, broadly speaking, emphasizes God's foreknowledge and predestination, the glory and power of God, and salvation by grace alone, and honors Calvin's legacy. But, in addition, this particular branch of Reformed thought also entrenches the subordination of women with doctrine and Bible study...
In this situation, I think theology is masking a more insidious sociological practice - the sacrilizing and strengthening of the dehumanization of half the population.
Jenell's spot on, though in order to assess that, you need some familiarity with theology and with contemporary divisions in American evangelical Protestantism.
I don't think Calvinism is inherently hostile to egalitarianism. Many Reformed churches do ordain women, such as the splendid CRC. But the kind of Calvinism that I see ascendant today is not merely concerned with making a point about just how pickin' amazin' grace really is It's deeply concerned with the "right ordering" of society, and part of that right ordering is, as Jenell points out, a very strict understanding of gender roles as complementary. It's a "separate spheres" doctrine that limits expressions of overt power to men, and urges women to accept uncritically male "headship" of the family.
I've known many young men and women like Laura Watkins. Some are "cradle Christians", others are converts. They sometimes pass through the doors of places like All Saints and Pasadena Mennonite, two communities that are committed to the notion of egalitarianism and women's full participation in the life of the church. But they are too hungry for certainty to linger long in a place where ambiguity is acknowledged. They are too uncomfortable with flexible and shifting roles for men and women. They feel safer belonging to a community where their biology will be seen as integral to their destiny.
Too many young women today grow up with a conflicting set of messages. On the one hand, they are encouraged to be academically successful; they are encouraged to be interested in enduring careers; they are encouraged to prioritize personal ambition over developing domestic skills. On the other hand, the old messages about a "woman's place" are still with us; young women are still encouraged to prioritize their physical attractiveness, and still urged to marry and have kids "before it's too late." Even for the wise and the brave, it can be exhausting trying to please all of the competing constituencies that demand so much!
While egalitarian Christianity, informed by Scripture and secular feminism, asks us to rethink all of our sex roles in order to create new opportunities for both men and women, this resurgent Calvinism (with its tremendous emphasis on obedience and gratitude) urges both men and women to accept a traditional understanding of male-female relations. And for many young women, that kind of unilateral submission is immensely comforting because it appears to resolve the dissonance created by society's mixed messages. If after years and years of pressure to "be all that you can be", you suddenly accept that your one great role is to be a wife and a mother, that may be perceived as tremendously liberating! The liberation doesn't lie in gaining any actual freedom to, it comes in the form of a freedom from. A strict understanding of what it means to be men and women grants us freedom from the difficult and often overwhelming task of constructing new, healthier models for male and female relationship. It's like suddenly being told you don't have to write a long paper for a difficult class. All you have to do is grasp one single concept, and you get an A. The appeal is obvious.
Those of us who call ourselves both feminists and Christians must respond to the challenge posed by our brethren who preach the "separate spheres" teaching. We live in a time where the heresy of "muscular Christianity" is re-emerging. We've got to persist in offering the egalitarian alternative, one in which a relationship with Christ liberates both men and women to explore their full human potential, a potential unlimited by physiological differences. But as we do so, and do so joyfully and loudly,we've got to acknowledge the hard truth that our way is more difficult and more challenging for many people. Because we don't prescribe roles for men and women, the young and the uncertain will often feel lost and confused. They need mentoring and support, lest we lose them to other communities that promise the sweet certainties of headship and unilateral female submission.
We've got work to do, my sisters and my brothers!