Last month, a podcast on the issues of race and gender received a lot of attention. Some of the concerns were overblown, but some of the concerns were valid. Unfortunately, many of the valid concerns were lost among rude comments and the ensuing charges of racism and misogyny by those defending the podcast. I am not here to defend everything that was said or written in response to the podcast. A good bit of it is indefensible. But I would like to gently address a couple of items from the original podcast, namely the accusations of racism and misogyny in particularly in the PCA.
First off, I’d like to say that there are genuine reasons to discuss racism and misogyny in the Reformed world, and even in the PCA. Some churches in our denomination have bad histories regarding racism. Other churches have bad track records in how they have treated women.
We are all sinners, and as such, no doubt there are individuals, church leaders, sessions, churches, and even presbyteries that may need to address specific examples of racist or misogynist beliefs and actions. I am thankful that there are individuals, leaders, sessions, and churches addressing some of these concerns and many more who appear willing to consider how racism or misogyny might need to be addressed.
However, I do think that there are a couple of cautions that should be raised. As believers, we should address all sin patterns in our lives. However, not all believers will agree on the best course of action when it comes to how these issues should be addressed, especially when it comes to political action or to particular organizational approaches. It’s also worth noting that different believers will have different callings and no one person can possibly be active in the fight for or against everything.
For example, we should all be supportive of adoption, but not all believers can adopt children. We should all be pro-life, but not all believers can devote time to promote pro-life legislation or actions. We should all care about the needs of those around us, but not all can volunteer at food banks and shelters. We should all be against racism, but not all of us will devote our time to advance that issue. We may also not all agree about the best ways to address these issues. And that’s ok. The diversity of callings within the church allow for us as believers to work towards many good things. We should be careful about doubting the faith of our brothers and sisters because they disagree with us or don’t share our passion for a particular issue.
The other important caution is that we need to be careful in our zeal for our causes that we don’t lose sight of the gospel. As Paul wrote
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, NASB)
The gospel is the good news that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected and that because of his death and resurrection, we can be at peace with God. There is no better news than this. And no matter what good things we work towards in this life, no matter what we achieve that benefits others if we don’t trust in Jesus alone for our salvation, it’s ultimately meaningless. If we don’t share the good news of salvation with others, no amount of good things we do here will be of eternal good for them.
To be clear, I am not accusing any of the podcast speakers of having forgotten the gospel. I’m not questioning their faith. I am reminding all of us that we are good at forgetting what’s most important, and I am pleading with us all to remember the primacy of the gospel.
Along these lines, I think it’s important for us to be careful to disagree without accusing others of sinful motivations. Not everyone who disagreed with portions of the podcast did so for racist or misogynist reasons. Not everyone who has the same skin color, the same background, or the same gender is going to agree or think uniformly on any given issue.
There were thoughtful responses to the podcast both from women and from men/women of color who disagreed with aspects of the original podcast. It seems odd to suggest that all those who disagreed, regardless of racial background, were racist and equally odd to determine that all those who agreed, regardless of racial background, were innocent of racism.
The sin of partiality is something that everyone of all skin colors and backgrounds and nations must recognize and fight. As James wrote:
My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? (James 2:1-7, NASB)
Moses wrote in Exodus that the partiality can come not only in favoring the rich but also the poor:
You shall not follow the masses in doing evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after a multitude in order to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his dispute. (Exodus 23: 2-3, NASB)
We are always going to be tempted to show partiality towards others for many reasons. Not everyone will struggle with this to the same degree. But we should all be open to considering the ways in which we show sinful partiality to others in our lives. And we should be careful in making accusations of partiality.
Moving on to the charge of misogyny in the PCA, as I said at the beginning, I know there is misogyny in Reformed churches. However, some of the examples being given are not actually misogyny. Two main ones that have been referenced recently are using masculine pronouns or names for God and male-only ordination. While there are certainly misogynists who hold to or teach these ideas, I do not believe that either of these is necessarily misogynistic.
First, let’s start with the use of masculine pronouns and names for God. There are a couple of things to remember in this discussion. As the catechism teaches, “God is a Spirit, and does not have a body like men.” This means that God does not have a sex. However, God has chosen to relate to us in the following ways. He is God the Father. He is God the Son. He is God the Holy Spirit. The pronouns used in the Bible for God are masculine. When God the Son was incarnate, He was born as a male. The names Father, Son, and Jesus are all rightly used with masculine pronouns.
The question that comes up is what to do about the Holy Spirit. The Hebrew word for spirit is ruach, and it’s usually feminine. The Greek word for spirit is pneuma, and it’s gender neutral. In English, masculine and feminine words really throw us for a loop because we don’t use them. Other languages use them all the time. In Spanish, a table is feminine, but a pen is masculine. Mouth is feminine, and eyes are masculine. But both men and women have mouths and eyes, so the gender of the word doesn’t affect the gender of the person.
The same is true with ruach and pneuma. All people who have the breath of life in them are said to have ruach/pneuma. For example, Genesis 45:27 says that Jacob’s spirit revived. Jacob, a man, has a ruach, a feminine word. But that doesn’t make him feminine.
As for the Holy Spirit, the pronouns Jesus used in John 14, 15, and 16 are uniformly masculine. Jesus had no problems with correcting faulty beliefs about God, but He did not choose to use feminine pronouns for the Holy Spirit. He also didn’t use gender neutral pronouns for the Holy Spirit when He could have.
The Holy Spirit is not “she” nor “it.” He is the third person of the Trinity. Given the Biblical usage of masculine pronouns for the Spirit, it is not misogyny to call the Spirit “He.” It’s consistent with what the Bible says.
Back to the point about God being a spirit and not having a body or a sex. It’s important to emphasize that when God made man (humanity) in His image, He did so by making both male and female. Women are as much made in the image of God as men. Men are not more in the image of God by virtue of their masculinity. This is often forgotten in the emphasis on the masculinity of God.
We should also remember that God’s actions are often described using feminine imagery. This doesn’t mean God is a woman or “she,” but it does mean that both men and women can relate to God and that both men and women reflect aspects of God’s character. Here’s a list of feminine characteristics or attributes from Scripture:
God comforts his people like a mother comforts her child (Isaiah 66:13)
Like a woman would never forget her nursing child, God will not forget his children (Isaiah 49:15)
God is like a mother eagle hovering over her young (Deuteronomy 32:11)
God seeks the lost like a housekeeper, trying to find her lost coin (Luke 15:8-10)
God cares for his people like a midwife that cares for the child she just delivered (Ps 22:9-10, Ps 71:6, Isa 66:9)
God experiences the fury of a mother bear robbed of her cubs (Hosea 13:8)
Jesus longed for the people of Jerusalem, like a mother hen longs to gather her chicks under her wings (Luke 13:34)
These are a good reminder for us not to only focus on the masculine attributes or characteristics of God. We should not make women believe they are worth less because of their sex. It’s also worth remembering that all of the imagery of the church is feminine. It’s not that men always represent Christ and women always represent the church. We are all, male and female, the bride of Christ.
A second example given regarding misogyny is that we only ordain men. The ordination of qualified men to elder and deacon is a practice I believe is Biblical. I am aware that many Christians disagree on this issue and that both sides are convinced on the basis of Scripture. We disagree on the interpretation and application of the pertinent Biblical passages, much like paedobaptists and credobaptists do, or Arminians and Calvinists. I’m not minimizing the seriousness of the differences. But the truth is believers disagree on this and will continue to disagree.
Because both sides claim Scripture and because both sides are certain that they are the ones correctly interpreting Scripture, it would be wrong of us to attempt to force each other to hold a position contrary to our convictions. “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” Each of us is responsible to God for his or her beliefs. Out of respect for each other, we should stand firmly for our beliefs, but we should not force others to accept a position they cannot in good conscience affirm.
Thankfully, there are any number of denominations out there that already affirm every possible set of beliefs on this issue. If you are not comfortable with the PCA’s position on male ordination, there are many denominations that ordain women which might be a better fit. Which is not to say I want anyone to leave the PCA. I just think it is for the best for everyone to be in a church home where they won’t be forced to affirm things they disagree with. If the PCA were to change its position on ordination, then I would be looking for a new church home myself.
Beyond the issue of ordination, it is reasonable to address churches that do not utilize women and their gifts as well as they should. This is a conversation that I believe needs to continue. While affirming the important role that our ordained leaders play in our churches, especially in the leading of worship, administering of the sacraments, and preaching the Word, we should also look for ways to include lay men and women in the life of the church. It is important to ask how we can encourage women in the church to use their gifts in a way that supports the work of the church and doesn’t diminish the vital roles of elders and deacons.
I really hope that this article is received in the gentle spirit of encouragement and critique in which it is intended. My goal is the peace and purity of the church. I do believe that there are areas in the Reformed world and in the PCA, in particular, that should be addressed with reference to racism and misogyny. But I hope that we can also be careful when we are tempted to attribute sinful motivations to the actions of our brothers and sisters in Christ.