Biblical Scholar Warns of Unsuspecting Path to Theological Liberalism

Published Feb 09, 2007
Biblical Scholar Warns of Unsuspecting Path to Theological Liberalism

It's one thing when a scripture-quoting theologian/author gets your attention. It's quite another when he opens your eyes, revealing a failed step not only you but entire churches may have taken long ago -- one that is leading you, perhaps quite unwittingly or intentionally, down a road that ends in the denial of biblical authority and gender identity. 

That's what Wayne Grudem has done with his latest work, Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism? In it, Grudem, Research Professor of Bible & Theology at Phoenix Seminary, and author/editor of works regarding men's and women's roles in the home and church, as well as how churches might teach those roles, states his position plainly on page one: 

I am concerned that evangelical feminism (also called "egalitarianism") has become a new path by which evangelicals are being drawn into theological liberalism [defined as: "a system of thinking that denies the complete truthfulness of the Bible as the Word of God and denies the unique and absolute authority of the Bible in our lives"]. 

That's a lot at stake from a topic many of us may have thought we'd successfully swept under the rug, explained away socially, navigated around, or, perhaps worse, were completely ignorant of. Dr. Grudem recently sat down with Crosswalk Faith Editor Shawn McEvoy to discuss his book and the ramifications of his argument. 

Crosswalk: Dr. Grudem, why this book, and why now?

Wayne Grudem: This book is really an alarm to the church. It’s saying to evangelical Christians, “You may think that the controversy over men’s and women’s roles doesn’t make much difference to other things in your church life, but in fact, it makes a huge difference.” In this book Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism?, I examine and document 25 different kinds of arguments that are used by evangelical feminists to claim that there is no unique leadership role for men in the home or in the church. And in every case I argue that these arguments used by the evangelical feminists undermine or deny the authority of Scripture. So really what is at stake is whether we’ll be subject to and obedient to God’s Word or not.

Some of those arguments are: (1) saying that some parts of Genesis 1-2 are wrong, (2) saying that Paul was wrong in what he wrote about women in the church, (3) saying that some verses on women should not be part of the Bible, (4) saying that our standard for conduct today should not be what the Bible says but our idea of the direction in which we think the Bible was “developing” or changing, (5) saying that a pastor can give women preachers permission to disobey the Bible, (6) saying that personal experience of blessing from women preachers trumps the teaching of Scripture, and (7) making up some special situation that you say a Bible passage was talking about (such as uneducated or noisy women in the ancient world) and then saying the passage doesn’t apply today because we aren’t in that “special situation.” There are 25 such arguments from evangelical feminists that I document in my book. And they all undermine or deny the authority of the Bible.

CW: When you define evangelical feminism, you describe “a movement that claims there are no unique leadership roles for men in marriage or the church.” That’s interesting, in that this definition is obviously not something anti-female, but instead, questions more what we’ve done to male headship as God established it. Can you elaborate more on that idea – God establishing man as the head and woman as a sub-ordinate?

Grudem: That’s an interesting way of summarizing the book, and I think you’ve made a good point. The idea is that with regard to marriage, the Bible teaches that we – men and women – are equal in value in God’s sight. He created us both in His image, as it says in Genesis 1:26-27. But God also gave a leadership role to the husband in the marriage. So Paul can say in Ephesians 5:21-33 that wives are to be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, and husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. So there is a leadership role for men in marriage. And the whole Church throughout history has believed that except for the last 40  years or so.

In the church, the Bible values and encourages the use of spiritual gifts by men and women alike, and sees us both as equal in value in the church, but the governing and teaching roles that belong to a pastor or elder in a church are restricted to men, according to 1 Timothy 2, and 1 Timothy 3, and Titus 1 and other passages.

CW: Then, if subordination does not imply inferiority, why do we tend to think it does?

Grudem: Oh, it’s the culture. Our culture – at least since the 1960s – has had a strong bias against authority, whether it’s the authority of the government or the teacher in a school or the authority of parents, or the authority of God. And that, I think, has an influence on the discussions of authority within marriage (which belongs to a husband), and authority within the church (which belongs to the pastor and elders for the whole church). So that anti-authority trend in the culture is one thing. Another thing probably is the loss of a biblical view that God is the supreme authority over all of life, and all of us are subject – or should be subject – to His authority. That is not dehumanizing. It doesn’t degrade us; it just causes us to fill the role that God made us for.

We see that even in the relationship between the Father and the Son in the Trinity, where the Son is subject to the authority of the Father, but they’re both equally God! So, we really shouldn’t dislike being under authority – when it’s rightly used; I’m not talking about abuse of authority. Something  in our culture has taught us a lie that if you have power over others that’s good, and if you’re under other people’s authority that’s bad. And actually, both are found in the Bible, and when they’re not distorted by sinful patterns of behavior then both things are good, and we should find fulfillment wherever God has placed us.

CW: You are a co-founder of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. From that perspective, what have you observed to be evangelicalism’s most common treatment (or mis-treatment), or interpretation (or mis-interpretation) of verses regarding the role of women in the home or the church, such as those found in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40, 1 Timothy 2, and elsewhere?

Grudem: I think still that the most common interpretation is the correct one, and that is that 1 Timothy 2 restricts the role of Bible teaching or governing authority over the assembled church to men, while still – in that very passage – honoring women, and saying it’s right that women learn, as well as men, from the teaching of God’s Word.

And then, in 1 Corinthians 14, I think the growing consensus among many interpreters is that, when Paul says, “As in all the churches of the saints the women should keep silent in the churches (1 Cor. 14:34),” that we have to understand what he is talking about in the context, in the church at Corinth. People with the gift of prophecy were standing up and giving prophecies, and then others were evaluating them (1 Cor. 14:29),  and in that context Paul says that women should not stand up and give spoken judgments against a prophecy that was given, because that’s a governing and protecting role over the entire congregation that is reserved for men. That’s very consistent with 1 Timothy 2. But certainly Paul does not mean that women should be totally silent in that context, because just a bit earlier in 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul allows women to speak out loud in church to pray, or to give prophecies. Those are not teaching or governing over the whole congregation, but those are other kinds of speech activities, and they are certainly encouraged by Paul.


CW: Can you make an attempt to summarize the steps that believers and denominations take to get from even a well-intentioned egalitarianism to where they end up denying the authority of the Word of God? Can you complete the steps in that ladder for us?

Grudem: Yes. I trace that on page 28 of my book, where I point out that the liberal denominations in the United States – the ones that abandoned the complete authority of Scripture – started to ordain women in the 1950s, particularly the United Methodist Church in 1956, and the Presbyterian Church USA in 1956, and then others followed.

Well, what is surprising now is that evangelical churches are using the same kinds of arguments that were used by liberal churches to adopt a feminist viewpoint back in the 1950s and 1960s. And what happens is – we can see what happened to those liberal churches that adopted that viewpoint. I trace seven steps in the book that show this pattern in denomination after denomination: 

  • Number one, they abandon biblical inerrancy, and say the Bible has some mistakes in it and can’t always be trusted.  
  • Number two, they endorse the ordination of women as the pastor or the priests or as elders in churches.  
  • Number three, they abandon the Bible’s teachings on male headship in marriage, and say, “Oh well, leadership just is determined on gifts and agreements and preferences, not on who’s the husband and who’s the wife.”  
  • Number four, they exclude clergy who are opposed to women’s ordination. We’ve seen that in the Presbyterian Church USA, for instance, and in other denominations, where if someone says, “No, the Bible doesn’t want you to ordain women,” they’ll say, “Oh, let’s allow both views”… until they get into power. And then they say, “Oh, your view is harmful to women, and it’s making them feel hurt, and offended, and you can’t hold that view anymore.” So pretty soon they exclude people who are opposed to women’s ordination. We see that at Willow Creek Community Church, for instance. Their policies don’t allow anyone to hold the view that I am arguing for in this book, the historic view of the Church. Even to be a member of Willow Creek you have to agree to submit – joyfully submit – to the teaching of both men and women elders.  
  • Number five is approving homosexual conduct as morally valid in some cases (such as in committed homosexual relationship). And in the book I trace that some evangelical authors and groups now tending in that direction. Jack & Judith Balswick, authors at Fuller Seminary, in a book published by InterVarsity Press, come right up to the edge of approving that. The Christian Reformed Churches have some tendencies in that direction. For example, Calvin College now has Ribbon Week to give support to gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual students on campus, and the president said it’s just like, you know, as if we were to have Cerebral Palsy Week for some people who have that disease, implying that it’s not the moral responsibility of people who have homosexual tendencies or “orientation.”  
  • Number six is approving homosexual ordination. And then…  
  • Number seven is  ordaining homosexuals to high leadership positions in the denomination. And of course, the Episcopal Church has done this, where Bishop Eugene Robinson has been elected in New Hampshire, and caused great turmoil in the Episcopal Church.  

That’s the direction in which groups move,  and the United Methodist Church, for instance, has an ordained lesbian, and when the national leadership of the church had to deal with this, they said, “We still defend our standards that this shouldn’t happen, but we’re not going to do anything about this  for churches or regions that allow this.” So the resolution  has no force.

That’s a slippery slope; churches go in the direction that the dominant opinions of the culture are pushing them, and it all starts with an abandonment of the complete authority of the Bible. And the arguments used for endorsing women to high leadership positions in the Church then become the same kind of arguments that are used for endorsing homosexuals to high leadership positions in the Church. It’s a dangerous process.

CW: Standing on a literal interpretation of Scripture seems like a position of strength, but it doesn’t always make one very popular. What resistance or criticism have you encountered thus far, since Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism came out?

Grudem: Well actually,  many people have written me, and said essentially, “Wow. I didn’t realize that there were that many wrong arguments used to support women’s ordination or to support an egalitarian position.” In any case my goal wasn’t to be popular but to teach the Word of God faithfully, and warn the church. It seems to me many churches are slipping away from their commitment to the authority of Scripture through this path of endorsing evangelical feminism. And they’re not aware that these arguments they’re adopting are so dangerous, so disruptive in other areas of thought as well.

CW: In your book, you mention how before Francis Schaeffer passed away, he had begun – in The Great Evangelical Disaster – to talk about this trend. But over 20 years down the road now, how difficult is it going to be for the Church to reverse gears, now that we’ve come so far down the path?

Grudem: Well, there will be resistance, because people ordain women as elders or as pastors and then they say, “Oh, I like this person. She’s my friend, she loves the Lord, aren’t people blessed by her sermons?” So it all becomes based on experience and relationships at that point. And the question is: are we going to be faithful to the Word of God, even if it means taking actions that some friends disagree with, maybe actions that will cost us some friendships?  Then will we believe that God is faithful and that  He will bless faithfulness to His Word?

Paul encouraged Timothy, when he wrote to him, about difficulties in the church at Ephesus. In 1 Timothy 5:21: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without pre-judging, doing nothing from partiality.” In other words, the leaders who were doing wrong in the church were no doubt many of Timothy’s good friends. But when they were doing wrong, Paul told Timothy he had to rebuke them, and exercise discipline against them. Of course, that wasn’t going to make Timothy popular, but Paul is saying God is watching, and Jesus is watching, and the angels are watching, and you have to do this without partiality, without showing favoritism to the people who are your friends. You have to be faithful to God and His Word.


CW: I’ve heard the argument put that, “Oh, come on, you know that the Bible – and Paul in particular – talks about relationships between slaves and their masters. And obviously, socially, that dynamic has changed. So why can’t it have changed in regards to the role we have for women in the Church?” How would you respond?

Grudem: Well, people have to realize that what some Bible translations call “slavery” is very different from what we think of slavery when we have in our minds a picture of the terrible abuses of human dignity and justice that were found in 18th- and 19th-century United States and in the slave trade.  I think a good translation of that Greek word doulos is “bond-servant.” The New American Standard translates it that way, and the ESV footnote. Those bond-servants in the first century had immense responsibilities. In many cases they were doctors, or teachers, or shopkeepers, or foremen of farms or factories, or had other significant responsibilities. It was the most common employment situation in the first century. Bond-servants were far better off than the day laborers who had to go into the market each day and hope that someone would give them a job.

And in the parable of the talents, for instance, Jesus talks about a master who entrusted his bond-servants with one talent, or two or five. Well, five talents would be the modern equivalent of $2 million. Then the master went into a far country and left these bond-servants to manage and conduct business. These bond-servants in the Roman Empire of the first century could own their own property, there were special laws that protected them, and they could normally expect to purchase their freedom by about age 30 or so.

So it’s a mistake to think that the Bible approves slavery as we think of slavery. And the abolitionists who opposed – and eventually succeeded in outlawing – slavery in the 19th century in the United States, many of them used the Bible as their moral standard. The Bible says “You shall not steal.” Well, if it’s wrong to steal even one cent from a person, then how much greater an evil is it to steal a person’s entire life, and claim that you own him and can do whatever you want with him? That’s a monstrous evil. And of course, those people who said that the Bible opposes slavery won the argument. There’s no church or denomination today that argues that the Bible supports slavery, and I think that’s rightly understood – the Bible prohibits the horrible abuses of what we think when we hear the word “slavery.” But the situation of a bond-servant in the first century it doesn’t prohibit  outright because it was far different from what we think of as slavery.

In fact, being a bond-servant  was somewhat similar to military service today, where you’re in the military for a certain period of time and you can’t get out, and there are different kinds of laws that apply to you, but there is great protection as well – a legal system that protects you.

When it’s translated rightly, 1 Timothy 1:10 puts “enslavers” in the same context as murderers and sexually immoral people, and liars, showing that people who capture someone to sell them into slavery, or deal in slaves, or support forcible slavery are, again, seen to be morally wrong according to Scripture. That verse was, I think, not translated the best way in the King James version. I think it said, “men-stealers,” and therefore didn’t apply clearly to slavery, but the Greek word in that verse (andrapodistes) does have to do with forcible enslaving of people, and that is clearly wrong, and that is what was happening in the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States. I think people thought “men-stealers” had more to do with kidnapping, perhaps, or something like that, but it really does apply much more to people who capture or sell people into slavery.

To summarize: the Bible certainly does not encourage or support slavery, as we understand the word “slavery” today.  We don’t have to change the Bible teachings to something different for today, for the Bible itself shows the evil of what we call “slavery.”

CW: At Crosswalk, we see a lot of articles and studies come across our desks about how men are bored with church, find themselves feeling it’s been too feminized, without enough roles for men – that men aren’t attending in the same percentages women are. Is this one result of having traveled down this path of evangelical feminism?

Grudem: It may be; it depends on the church. There are maybe other reasons, but one sure-fire way of driving men away from church is to establish women in leadership positions. Over time, if more and more women have leadership positions, fewer and fewer men will attend. And you see that in the liberal denominations, which have disproportionate numbers of women as opposed to men. By contrast, churches that have clear male leadership, and that honor women as equally valuable in God’s sight and give many ministry opportunities to women as well as men -- those churches are often growing and very strong.

CW: In the book, you carry evangelical feminism through to conclusions including the denial of masculinity, the concept of God as “Mother,” and approval of homosexuality. If the Church does not change its present course, are these conclusions inevitable?

Grudem: Well, I don’t know if they’re inevitable in every church, because sometimes people see they’re going in the wrong direction, and they stop, but they don’t correct the mistake. I hope that trend toward liberalism is stopped and turned around more and more. That’s why I wrote this book.

On the other hand,  many churches will just continue their slide to liberalism through this issue. The egalitarian group Christians for Biblical Equality now promotes the idea that we should pray to God as Mother. That’s another one of the steps in the slippery slope toward complete liberalism that I outline in the book. I also think we’re going to see  more evangelical feminist churches toying with – and giving more and more attention to – the idea that perhaps homosexual conduct should be acceptable in certain situations where people are committed to each other over a long period of time, and they supposedly have these homosexual tendencies that they can’t rid themselves of. I document some  examples like that in this book, where some evangelical groups or authors are arguing that way. And I’m very worried about it. I hope that some of these evangelical feminist groups will turn back from this direction and return to faithfulness to Scripture.

I am thankful that Christians for Biblical Equality has stopped short of endorsing homosexuality as morally valid, and they say they will not change on that issue. Even though I disagree with them on the roles of men and women, I’m thankful for their stand on homosexuality.

CW: Dr. Grudem, is there any question you haven’t been asked about Evangelical Feminism that you’re hoping to answer?

Grudem: Just that I hope that churches who have begun to endorse evangelical feminist views will seriously consider this book and re-consider their decisions and come back to a position that is faithful to the Bible. And that they will do that with a confidence that when we are obedient to God’s Word then He does bring a blessing to our lives and our churches. 

Related Articles 

A New Path to Theological Liberalism? A review of Dr. Grudem's book by Albert Mohler

Feminism Pushing the Church, by Dr. Paul Dean



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