Feminist Traditionalism

by Douglas Wilson

Feminism has had far more influence on the church than we dare admit. But we sometimes assume that feminism has only made in-roads on the left wing of evangelicalism where mom has her career, and the kids are in the licensed hands of some professional caregiver. But feminist assumptions have surrounded us for over a century, and serious compromises have been made with this ideology among "traditionalists" as well. Of course, these compromises are not openly acknowledged - traditionalists certainly consider feminists to be with the enemy. Nevertheless, in a perverse way, one key tenet of feminism - that society has the right to define femininity - has somehow been enshrined as a traditional value.

In many cases "traditional family values" really only mean nineteenth-century Victorian values - the era which autonomously placed women on an unbiblical pedestal, and so the china-doll model of femininity gained popularity. Just imagine a Puritan housewife from an earlier era staring in amazement. Then society changed its mind, and women had to clamber up on another humanist pedestal, the one sponsored by Virginia Slims . Now in the fight for scriptural values, some Christians have mistakenly thought this means a return to the earlier pedestal. This is like a man who falls from a hundred-story building, now at the tenth floor, who wants to see a return to the fiftieth floor.

So what does feminist traditionalism look like? A neo-Amish sisterhood is starting to develop in some quarters of the conservative Christian community. It is a movement that certainly is touting the advantages of male leadership; but unfortunately, this movement is heavily matriarchal. Like the modern feminists, this movement, led by women, disparages the intellectual capacities of women. The feminists leading the modern "women's movement" arrogantly assumed that the rest of their sex were just a bunch of cows, waiting to be herded into liberation. In the same way, many traditionalists share the same low opinion, and have assumed that if a woman has picked a quart of huckleberries, she has somehow found her level.

According to Scripture, a married woman's focus and orientation is required to be towards her home. But while the Bible teaches that a woman's priority is the home (Tit. 2:11), the Bible most emphatically does not teach that a woman's place is limited to the home. Her place is in the home (1 Tim. 5:14), real estate (Prov. 31:16), agriculture (31:16), evangelism (Phil. 4:3), philanthropy (Prov. 31:20), logistical support for ministry (Rom. 16:1,6), explaining theology (Acts 18:26), and more. In all of this, the central responsibility is of course the home. This priority on the home is not threatened by geographical location; it is threatened only by sin and disobedience.

But if a woman's priority is the home, some might reason, then why should any Christians want to educate their daughters according to the world's expectations? The scriptural focus of a woman is to bear children to her husband (1 Tim. 2:15), and to assume, under her husband, a critical role in the education of those children. She is called to domesticity. Now in the education of young women, teaching them to sew sounds very "traditional and home-centered"and it is certainly scriptural (Prov. 31:21). Studying calculus does not have the same flavor for us, but as Christ taught us, we must learn to make right judgments. If a woman studies calculus so that she can leave her kids in daycare for a career in engineering, she and her husband have an obvious problem. But if she studies calculus so that she can help her husband teach his sons and daughters in a homeschool (for just one godly example), then her mathematical work should praise her in the gates.

Difficulty often arises from our refusal to understand the hierarchical, anti-egalitarian nature of all human society. The Bible does not teach that women are to submit to men; it teaches that a wife is to submit to her own husband. Far from requiring general submission of a woman to men, this is a prohibition of such general submission. A woman who submits to her husband will be protected, by definition, from any attempted exercise of authority by other men. Moreover, if her husband is a leader, she has incredible influence over other men through her relationship to her husband; whether for evil (1 Kings 21:5-7) or good (Est. 9:13).

The intellectual capacities of individual men differ widely. The same is true of women. This does not provide anyone with an occasion for boasting (1 Cor. 4:7), but it does present us with a social phenomenon which radically affects marriage and family. Now the Scripture teaches us that the woman was made for the man (1 Cor. 11:9). This means an educated and intelligent man is going to want educated and intelligent sons to stand with him when he contends with his enemies in the gate (Ps. 127:5). In order to accomplish this, he needs help from a woman; an educated and intelligent woman.

A man not gifted this way is not less important in the body of Christ (Gal. 3:28), but he does not need such an educated wife; indeed, she would be a grief to him. But all Christian women should be educated to their capacity, just as the men should be. And having received such an education, both men and women should marry wisely, and to the glory of God.

Reprinted from Credenda/Agenda Vol. 7, No. 3 by kind permission