Calvinism and Women

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard a thousand times. Calvinism is a hierarchical system of thought and it is hierarchical in marriage and it is hierarchical in churches. The more one emphasizes God’s sovereignty the more one can emphasize male sovereignty. Therefore, Calvinism is inherently complementarian and that means it will — for those who aren’t complementarian or who think women should be leaders in churches and pastors etc — suppress women in churches.

If you think this, you need to read Ken Stewart’s book, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition , because he has a whole chapter on that examines the myth that Calvinism rejects gender equality. Got your attention? Read on friends.

What is your experience with Calvinism and women (in the home, at work, ministry)?

“It is hard,” he says to open the chp, “to imagine that anyone would point to the movement in which John Calvin holds such a prominent place and suggest that it had helped to pioneer the advancement of women” (219). And concludes the chp with these words: “The evidence supports the conviction that he [Calvin] encouraged an enlarged role for believing women in society (on behalf of the church) and in the ministries of the church itself” (235). But… but…

… “it is necessary for us now to recognize that portions of the Reformed world today fall well behind Calvin’s own demonstrated sixteenth-century readiness to capitalize on the then-expanding influence of women in kingdom work” (235).

Two probings then suggest to Ken Stewart that Calvin was more open than many of his followers, and that means that those today who think the NeoReformed (or perhaps even better NeoPuritan) groups who are so intent on raising complementarianism in home and church to the front of beliefs and practices may not be continuing the movement Calvin himself began. Here are some elements to consider:

First, Calvin was responding to a medieval world that confined women and to a Renaissance that was clearly showing shifts toward women, including their inclusion in the educational systems in a few places. Shifts, then, were in the air.

Second, the Reformation laid the groundwork for serious changes in its commitment to the priesthood of all believers, an emphasis on the sacredness of Christian vocations, a robust sense of a Christian marriage, and the overall greater freedom that was beginning to become the norm. Marriage was more about love and companionship, for instance.

Third, women figured more prominently in the European locations that favored the Swiss Reformation. In education the Swiss reformers began to develop education for girls. Oddly enough, the Swiss Reformers found greater freedom for divorce because it became more “principled” (225). Calvin himself favored divorce by women who were wronged. There were plenty of women martyrs due to their faith. And there were good examples of spontaneous ministries developed by women, including women like Katharina Schütz Zell and Marie Dentière.

Fourth, Stewart thinks Calvin was a progressive for his time. Here’s why: (1) Calvin rejected the view that women were defective males and believed both men and women were made in God’s image, though he clearly was complementarian in marriage and church speaking. (2) He encouraged the development of women deacons (distribution of charity). (3) Of more emphasis by Stewart was the correspondence of Calvin with women of political influence who could aid in the development of the Swiss Reformation.

Fifth, Stewart sketches the Reformed movement after Calvin, showing how it backtracked and then moved forward (say in Scotland and in the USA). He admits that some see an arsenal of weapons against the progress for women.

Sixth, the critical factor is the evangelical missionary movement where it was proven what women could do if given the freedom to exercise their gifts: not just as wives but as teachers and gospelers.

So, the issues are these: Calvin was in some ways more open than many Calvinists today; Calvinists have plenty to learn from the missionaries; Calvinists need to see if what women do is biblical or a reflection of cultural trends.

A repost.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.facebook.com/glenn.sunshine Glenn Sunshine

    Before he died, Bob Kingdon told me that recent research was beginning to find that Calvin was also far more friendly to Anabaptists than had been thought. I think it’s about time for a reassessment of a lot of aspects of Calvin’s career.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gail.sanseverinopeterson Gail R Sanseverino Peterson

    If one holds Paul’s NT writings in high esteem, one can’t ignore his appreciation and respect for the women of his own time who were leaders, instrumental to leading others to Christ, supporting the church and advancing the kingdom. Women are used by God just like men, each one with their own gifts, including the gifts of leadership, and like men, they need to be under the authority, leadership and accountability of other men leaders, preferrably a group of men who sincerely seek God’s will for the ministry at hand. God’s been using women in ministry for centuries. I for one have many strong gifts and passions. I live with a radical mission to serve God with my whole life. As a woman I’m challenged to channel this in ways that are within the restrictions of gender roles but challenged does not restrict my use of these gifts. If I were a man, without blinking an eye I’d be a pastor today, but as a woman, I’m finding my own ways to use these gifts to bless others and point people to the arms of our loving Savior!

  • Jeff Weddle

    Of all the people Calvin killed, none of them were women, so that has to mean something.

    That was a joke, but probably not funny, so I’ll just apologize now.

  • scotmcknight

    More, Glenn, more.

  • Jim Dekker

    Here Here! Let the historic John Calvin speak louder than the arrogant Calvinist of today.

  • Rachel Heston-Davis

    This is quite an important topic! A lot of the words used here to describe the atmosphere of the Reformation are actually somewhat at odds with how some NeoReformed Calvinists behave today. That’s worrying and frustrating.

    I’m not a Calvinist myself, but I have respect for that tradition. In the interest of keeping it healthy, I do think it’s time for people within that theological camp to reevaluate what Calvin himself was all about. Today, the worst stories of church abuse are most likely to come from Calvinist denominations (everything from alleged mishandling of authority at Mars Hill to the alleged child sex scandal that SGM is currently embroiled in). It saddens me that one branch of the church has become so known for unhealthy hierarchical operations, when its founder may not have been on that boat at all!

  • NorrinRadd

    This is interesting to hear, Scot. I’ve had *many* online interactions on the issue of hierarchy vs. equality of “roles” on the basis of sex. I don’t think I have *ever* encountered a “Reformed” or “Calvinist” poster who was not “Complementarian” — often quite confrontationally so.

  • http://www.facebook.com/priscilla.hammond Priscilla Bray Hammond

    I love that you are using your gifts, but I’m saddened at your statement, “If I were a man, without blinking an eye I’d be a pastor today, but as a woman, I’m finding my own ways to use these gifts…”

    In The Wesleyan Church (& othet denominations), you can be a woman and a pastor. Women should not have to enter the back door of service.

  • NorrinRadd

    I wonder how much Nympha blinked at pastoring her house-church.

  • Tom F.

    Interestingly, I ran across a book that talked about how Calvin was fine with the Queens of his day. Also, he does appear to have believed that they were inferior in ability. I’m not sure how he squared these two. I think it is only fair to say that Calvin had a complicated perspective on women. In some ways, he likely opened up opportunities for them, but I wonder if he also put some aspects of discrimination against them on seemingly stronger biblical ground, specifically noting what has already been said in your post regarding his clear complementarianism in mariage.

  • Nancy Janisch

    Poor John Calvin. I suspect what passes as “calvinism” today would be quite foreign to Calvin. If you want to know what Calvin thought, read Calvin, not calvinists.(We do need to read Calvin as a person of his time and place and not expect him to be a 21st century person) BTW it is possible to be reformed and support the full equality of women both within and outside of the church.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Jonathan.M.Corbett Jon Corbett

    While it may be true that he did not actively persecute or drown anabaptists he definitely wrote enough against them, including both the ‘Psychopannychia’ and ‘Brieve instruction pour armer tous bons fidelees contra les erreurs de la secte commune des anabaptistes’. So, you can only go so far within the historical constraints of Calvin’s own writings. As someone who is not in a Calvinist tradition nor a ‘Calvinist’, but someone who has studied historically and agrees theologically with Calvin for the most part, I’m a little confused about both this comment and really this entire topic. I must admit, I see the development of ‘Calvinism’ whatever that is, as in many ways different than the figure of Calvin and what I read. Yet at the same time, I am seeing huge anachronisms (as large as Calvinists make) placed back on Calvin just to argue with Calvinists.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I thought it funny. That Calvin is alluded to as an ‘authority’ is frightening . . the man used his theology to justify completely morally abhorrent actions.

  • http://1t412.wordpress.com/ Christina

    I suspect that modern Calvinists take their cues on women more from Knox’s First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women than from Calvin himself. Although, Knox wasn’t totally unique among Calvinists. Marie Dentiere and Katharina Schutz Zell both took considerable flak from their coreligionists for daring to be outspoken women.

  • LHD

    All women are born that they may acknowledge themselves as inferior to the male – John Calvin

  • bethagrace

    It said there was a church in her house, not that she led it, which could easily (and likely) mean that she just had the best house for that. Or that she was one of the first believers in the area and so the teachers started their meetings there out of convenience.

  • Kristen Rosser

    Odd, in that case, that Paul would greet only the owner of the house and not the leader of the church who met there.

  • NorrinRadd

    Hi Beth. Thanks for engaging.

    Yes, it could “easily” be that she provided the venue, but did not preside. Whether that is “likely” is questionable. I’m sure there are NT scholars who hold that opinion. Witherington in his commentary on Colossians seems to think it likely she was the leader. Keener in his “Bible Background Commentary” seems to regard it as self-evident. Belleville in one of the chapters she contributed to “Discovering Biblical Equality” asserts that in Greco-Roman society, asserts that patronage is an authoritative role, and so householders were automatically in charge of, and responsible for, any meetings they hosted in their homes.

    But let’s set aside “expert” opinions. Let’s look only at the text. As Kristen notes, it seems odd that Paul would explicitly greet the homeowner, but not the leader(s), if indeed they are distinct persons. It’s always challenging to set aside preconceptions and personal experience, but often an interesting and useful exercise. Try reading the passage as if you had never been taught that women are not to be “pastors” or “overseers” or whatever term you prefer, and that you have no personal experience coloring your view. Does the wording suggest Nympha was in charge, or do you really find it neutral on the matter?

  • Thursday1
  • Matthew Denney

    This post forgets one thing: modern-day Complementarians embrace all of those things. They are pro-women–in education, in the workplace, in politics, in the church, and in the home (just not in roles forbidden in Scripture). They agree with Calvin on theology, and they too are seeking to create opportunities for women to use their gifts for the glory of God. Look at Phil Ryken and Tim Keller and how they are mobilizing women to maximize their abilities to have an impact. Maybe the thing we should learn from Calvin’s pro-women stance is that Complementarianism in its purest form is continuing this emphasis. After all, Calvin was a prototypical Complementarian.

  • bethagrace

    Yes, I absolutely find it natural if I read it without any coloring. Without any bias toward or against women pastors, it simply says that a certain woman has a church in her house.

    Certainly she might be responsible for the meeting in her house according to Roman standards. Being responsible for it doesn’t mean she got up to preach.

    I’m not saying she *didn’t*, but I am saying we don’t know.


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