Calvinism and Women

Calvinism and Women May 9, 2011

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 new 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.

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