On Being Evangelical and Ecumenical
by Anne Eggebroten
Last February at the end of a wonderful two-day sing-along with Carolyn McDade, called “Sacred Emerging: A Gathering for Women,” I was discussing with a fellow EEWC member, Karen Kidd, the location of EEWC’s next conference. Or rather the lack of location — no local group had yet taken on the task of planning Conference 2004.
“Why not Claremont?” Karen then said to me, and I was taken aback. Council members in emails had combed the country for possible sites, but southern California had not been considered because we don’t have an active chapter — not enough members to pull it off. Karen, however, a Ph.D. candidate at the Claremont Graduate School (CGS), felt she could get Scripps College as a conference site. She pointed out that Karen Torjesen, dean of religion at CGS, would be a resource. Our friend Ann Ownbey, also having been drawn to the singing event with Carolyn McDade, was standing nearby as we spoke, another potential conference planner.
It came down to the words of a song Kathryn Christian had taught us at past EEWC conferences: When God calls, “Who am I to say no?”
But more than six months into planning the conference, Karen Kidd, Ann Ownbey, and I, along with another committee member, Margaret Shelton Meier, are finding ourselves deep into issues that lie at the core of EEWC’s existence. We have become aware that each conference, like EEWC Update and the website, represents EEWC publicly and involves all kinds of political issues.
The main issues that keep emerging as we select speakers, musicians, and workshop leaders are how to keep the conference recognizably evangelical but also ecumenical and definitely feminist.
By evangelical, we mean Bible-based. We want a conference that is rooted in Scripture, respects the authority of the Bible, and offers opportunity to get sound feminist exegesis, something many of us don’t get in our churches. Those of us who are not theologians or pastors depend on EEWC to provide us with this kind of feeding. Reta Halteman Finger’s plenary talks on passages from the Book of Acts during the 2000 conference in Chicago and on I Peter 1:3 — 3:7 at the Indianapolis conference are excellent examples of this kind of Bible teaching (CDs available from the EEWC office). When we say we want the conference to be evangelical, we also mean that we want it to reflect orthodox Christian beliefs. EEWC’s statement of faith includes the concept of the Trinity and of a personal relationship with God, shattered by sin but restored by Jesus Christ.
We also want the conference to be evangelical in the sense of bringing the good news of God’s salvation to those who haven’t heard it — helping people to discover God’s love and experience a personal relationship with God through Jesus of Nazareth, God’s anointed one. EEWC’s mission statement says, “EEWC is evangelical because our formation was rooted in the belief that the gospel is good news for all persons.” Good news–from the Greek, eu-angelion. As many speakers have pointed out, some expressions of Christianity over the centuries have not been good news for women. But EEWC exists to proclaim the good news that God did not intend nor approve the oppression women have experienced within the church — oppression that continues in many churches today. Women who are “saved” but still oppressed in evangelical churches need to hear this news — and women who have turned their backs on Christianity as repressive and unliberating need to hear this news. In other words, we want this conference to reach out to both churched and unchurched women.
“But Are They Really Evangelical?”
Despite our best intentions, some people may look at the final line-up of conference speakers and conclude that EEWC is “not evangelical.” Their logic goes like this:
No evangelical organization would invite a speaker whose view of the Bible (or the virgin birth or some other fundamental doctrine) is less than orthodox.
EEWC invited X or Y speaker, who is not evangelical or orthodox in all points of her or his theology.
Therefore, EEWC is not evangelical — or not evangelical enough.
As conference planners, we have decided not to worry about this kind of criticism. We will simply do the best we can to provide current Bible teaching and prophetic cultural analysis from a biblical feminist perspective. The respected Bible scholar Phyllis Trible will open the conference on Thursday evening, and over the next three days registrants will spend seven hours in one of six areas of interest — music & dance, prayer & healing, Scripture, history, social justice, or an open-ended option. Reta Finger will lead the Scripture option with three segments: “How to Read the Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament and Apocrypha,” “Jesus as Sophia in the New Testament,” and “A Usable Wisdom Theology for Christian Feminists.” Reta, who identifies as an Anabaptist (Mennonite) feminist, teaches New Testament at Messiah College (Brethren in Christ) in Grantham, Pennsylvania, and was the editor ofDaughters of Sarah for twenty years.
People who are judging EEWC should also look at the individual Christian commitments of the conference planners, the executive council members, and the dedicated women and men who make up EEWC’s membership. Some limit use of the word evangelical and call themselves “biblical feminists” or “Christian feminists,” as did the women who published Daughters of Sarah. Three of us currently on the planning committee are “born-again” Christians. That is, we can point to a definite time (now thirty or forty years ago) when we made a commitment to Jesus as our personal Savior. Karen and I both became Christians in First Presbyterian Church, Bakersfield, California, during our high school years, so we have a pretty good grasp of born-again Christianity. Margaret met Jesus Christ through a friend, Carolyn Willis, who had been led to discipleship by Letha Dawson (later Scanzoni) at the Eastman School of Music. On the other hand, Ann Ownbey, another member of the committee, is a Presbyterian who connects with EEWC through the term ecumenical — but not evangelical with its current sociopolitical implications. She is a woman of faith, deeply committed to her church and her weekly Bible study. She says, “A church to me is where I go to ask the questions, and EEWC has been a place to dance with those questions — not only to ask them but to embrace them.”
Daring to Ask Questions
It is true that some people are attracted to a church, an organization, or a conference not because it provides answers but because it is a safe place to ask questions. This contradicts the first premise of the syllogism above — that an evangelical organization or conference should provide orthodoxy above all else. I find that the typical EEWC member is very secure in her Christian faith and not threatened by hearing a speaker or workshop leader present ideas that seem very far out. We were once taught that Christianity and feminism were antithetical, but we learned that wasn’t true. As a result, we are more skeptical about the social pronouncements of our churches — especially those that profess to have the whole truth about God and to know God’s will in all matters. We are more able to listen to various viewpoints. We can hear a speaker’s ideas and sort out those we agree with, neither absorbing everything we hear nor condemning a speaker because of a few unorthodox ideas.
In reality, as we plan this conference, cost and availability are two factors that can trump all other considerations. Some of the presenters have agreed to speak or lead without asking for an honorarium or travel expenses — either because of their long-term commitment to EEWC or because they live near Claremont. As planners, we aren’t going to miss the opportunity to hear exciting, nationally known speakers for a good price — and we aren’t going to do an evangelical litmus test on them. We are comfortable being outside of mainstream evangelicalism. Prophets are never mainstream — they are way out there ahead, calling the church to change and sometimes getting stoned or burned for their efforts. Was Martin Luther widely approved by the church of his day? Not exactly.
As planners we are also concerned to make sure the conference is ecumenical — that speakers and workshop leaders include Catholics as well as Protestants, charismatics as well as Baptists, Foursquare Gospel people as well as Presbyterians and Episcopalians. But actually, just trying to get various kinds of evangelicals to work together (not to mention working with others outside evangelicalism) can be like trying to herd cats. We grew up with very dualistic thinking — the saved and the unsaved, right vs. wrong, Christian choices vs. worldly, sound doctrine vs. unsound. Including others who don’t completely agree with us was not part of our training, but EWC set out to do just this kind of inclusion when we added “ecumenical” to our name in 1990 . Being ecumenical as well as evangelical is a big stretch. There’s a basic spirit of tolerance and inclusiveness in being ecumenical that is culturally distant from the evangelical milieu.
Being Inclusive in Other Ways
Then there are the usual concerns to try to make the conference inclusive across racial and class lines, to have some Canadians and other international people, men as well as women, people with a high school education as well as Ph.D.s and authors. In fact, there are so many criteria to meet that the planning committee has already conceded that we can’t possibly do it all. We will do the best we can and leave it up to the planners of Conference 2006 to provide diversity in areas that we miss.
Even geographic location is an issue — travel costs a lot of money and is a little more dangerous since September 11, 2001. Some members in the Midwest and on the East Coast may not be able to get to California, but for West Coasters, this is the first easily accessible conference since the San Francisco gathering in 1992.
In addition to the usual ecumenical and inclusive issues, the theme we have chosen for this conference invites an even greater dialogue: Where Wisdom Calls: Crossroads & Open Gates. It’s taken from Proverbs 8:1-6, 35. “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town….For the one who finds me finds life and obtains favor from God.” Because this passage comes from the Hebrew Scriptures and is also respected within Islam, we want to get a Jewish and a Muslim perspective on Wisdom/Hokhmah/Ishtahad as well as hearing from Christian scholars. We hope to have a panel to bring in these perspectives.
Another sine qua non for the conference is that the speakers and music and other elements must be feminist. In EEWC’s statement of mission, being Christian feminists includes believing 1) “that the Bible supports the equality of the sexes,” 2) “that our society and churches have irresponsibly encouraged men to domination and women to passivity,” 3) that mutuality is God’s will, not hierarchy based on gender, 4) that images and language for God should be inclusive, and 5) that “ordination of women and full expression of women’s leadership and spiritual gifts” are God’s will.
In the years that have passed since our founding in 1974, many but not all evangelical pastors and church members have come to agree with us on equality between men and women, women’s ordination, and even mutual submission within Christian marriage. These issues have become respectable, as demonstrated by the widespread acceptance of EWC’s offshoot, Christians for Biblical Equality.
But in many evangelical circles the use of inclusive images and language for God has become a polarized issue, a red herring that suggests heresy, paganism and perhaps witchcraft. Even the word Sophia is now suspect, though it occurs in Proverbs 8 in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures and in the letters of Paul (I Corinthians 1:23-24, 30 and 2:6-8), among other places. In fact, in I Corinthians 1:24, Paul calls Christ “the dynamin of God and the sophia of God” (the power and the wisdom). Sophia was translated wisdom in the King James Version, losing the feminine gender it had for thousands of years. Today, however, if Christian women use Paul’s wordsophia, they suddenly seem dangerous. “Reimagining” ways to think and speak about God has become forbidden.
EEWC members affirm, “We believe God is the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all,” but other evangelicals continue to use language like, “Father, we just ask that you would be here with us, Father….” Even the Episcopal Church in the US, which recently approved the election of a gay bishop, sticks to “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” when it comes to prayer and liturgy. Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, author of She Who Is, notes in her preface to the tenth anniversary edition of this book that the forces opposed to imagery for God do not “float abstractly in the air.” In fact they are rooted in “an awareness that such enrichment of our language entails a political change in the status of women in church and society in the direction of equality and mutuality.”
Polarization on language makes it hard for conference planners to include evangelical speakers and musicians in our conferences. These people may be with us on many issues, but if they don’t feel comfortable using feminine or gender-neutral nouns and pronouns for God, most EEWC members would not feel comfortable listening to them. For example, we conference planners want to have a local charismatic group sing for Conference 2004, but their songs speak of God only in masculine terms: “The joy of the Lord is my strength; / He is my strength, He’s my rock, yes, He is.” EEWC would like to shout these words with joy but without the exclusively masculine gender. Another typical line of a praise song, “He is worthy to be praised, King of kings, Lord of lords,” would raise both gender and power issues. Is emphasizing divine transcendence and power in terms of earthly political power, especially in the masculine, healthy for women at our conference?
There’s a tremendous cultural gap here. EEWC’s imagery for God and the typical imagery of evangelical music are too far apart, even in cases where the performers and the conference planners are very close in their theology. We could ask a performer to sing different nouns and pronouns (or avoid pronouns altogether), just for us, but it may not be feasible. The other alternative is to ask women at the conference to tolerate the masculine language in order to enjoy some good old-fashioned gospel music.
Thus even selecting music for the conference gets complicated. So far we have decided to invite two musicians who will give us female imagery and language for God but are not evangelical Christians — Carolyn McDade and Linda Allen. Carolyn could perhaps be described as a spiritual ecofeminist. At the 2002 conference we sang her song “There Is a Time” with the chorus “For blessed are our lives, blessed our love, and blessed the promise gathered now.”Linda is also a feminist with strong spiritual roots; she will complete her Doctor of Ministry degree from Matthew Fox’s University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland in 2004.
The 2002 conference planners also invited musicians for their talent, spirituality, and God-language — not necessarily their theology. The Indianapolis Women’s Chorus and Sophia’s Portico were balanced by Kathryn Christian, abona fide biblical feminist rooted in the Roman Catholic tradition. The chorus identified itself as “women of all races, faiths, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender expressions.” Sophia’s Portico, a women’s spirituality center in Fort Wayne, included both a drumming group and chanters “happy to be here celebrating the feminine image of God with all of you.” Their director explained, “Our music celebrates life and Mother Earth and all her seasons and feminine power itself.” This specifically feminine God is not part of EEWC’s theology, but we enjoyed celebrating in song with these women. Perhaps it’s a measure of our spiritual hunger to see a side of God that has been denied to us. What great music we heard in those four days — a height that no conference will reach for years to come. I especially liked the chorus performing Bobby McFerrin’s version of Psalm 23, closing with “Glory be to our Mother — and Daughter — and to the Holy of Holies; as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
In conclusion, EEWC is definitely the kind of group that makes mainstream evangelicals nervous. We call upon a wide variety of speakers, orthodox and unorthodox. We celebrate in music a God beyond the confines of gender who can even be seen in female imagery. We welcome members of various faith backgrounds, gender expressions, and sexual orientations. And yet we refuse to give up the name evangelical. We respect the Bible and insist on spreading the good news of God’s liberating work in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. We continue on our way, praising Sophia God, laughing and scrambling to put together yet another conference — this time marking the thirtieth anniversary of our founding.
Anne Eggebroten, is a long-term member of EEWC and a research scholar with the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA. She is presently one of EEWC’s Southwest representatives in addition to serving as co-coordinator (with Karen Kidd) for the 2004 EEWC Conference.
© 2003 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, EEWC UPdate, volume 27, number 2, Summer (July-September) 2003
Response from Alena Amato Ruggerio
What a delight it was to read Anne’s Council Column! It took time, thought, and love to articulate these vital issues so beautifully.
I found the article richly provocative for several related reasons: first, because it reveals the painstaking care with which the 2004 conference is being planned; second, because the conference serves as the frame through which Anne engages the questions of who we really are after nearly thirty years of biblical feminism; and finally, because when we are in dialogue about what we stand for, this organization is taking steps toward the kind of activism that will move us into the future.
The Conference that Almost Wasn’t
I am going to be grateful for next summer’s conference not just because of the provocative speakers, or the creative “path” explorations, or the stirring music. I plan to savor every minute of the 2004 gathering because I know how close it came to not happening at all.
As the Indianapolis gang went to press with the 2002 conference program book, we wanted to include an invitation to the 2004 conference, but we could not because no one had felt the call to volunteer yet. The ensuing year has taught me much about the grinding exhaustion of overcommitment so many of us feel, so I wasn’t surprised when months after the Indianapolis conference, still no one had been able to pledge to lead a committee for 2004. A few Council members discussed planning the 2004 conference by spanning our cross-country locations through e-mail and conference calls. Unfortunately, even given the wonders of technology, we knew the task would be extremely difficult. It was at this point where we pick up with Anne’s story of the Spirit singing in the souls of the Los Angeles-area women, and I thrilled to see all the logistical details clicking into place once their commitment had been made to the Divine. Anne, Karen, Ann, and Margaret, when you are struggling with how to satisfy all your dreams for the next conference, please don’t forget that anything you bring forth is already miraculous.
As Anne points out in her column, the issues raised by the details of the 2004 conference at Scripps College are actually manifestations of deeper identity questions. When it comes to Christianity and feminism, EEWC has triumphed at maintaining a both/and position, rather than an either/or position. We approach evangelical and ecumenical in the same way, refusing to accept an organizational identity that is forced into one side of a false dichotomy.
Anne’s deeper question, then, seems to be, “When this sophisticated position — both Christian and feminist, both evangelical and ecumenical — is put into practice at our biennial conference, what should it actually look like?” I cannot wait for each member of EEWC to add her or his own answer to the conversation. In part, I’m eager to see where this self-reflexive discussion takes us because it might help to answer a related question I’ve been pondering this year as I’ve served as Coordinator: “When this sophisticated position — both Christian and feminist, both evangelical and ecumenical — is put into practice in political advocacy, what should it actually look like?”
EEWC has done a wonderful job creating a community of welcome and inclusivity. But in the handful of years I’ve been a part of Council, I’ve also wanted to see our circle of sisterhood speak out for more issues informed by biblical feminism, but outside our immediate community.
Our journalism professors teach their students that when they are preparing a news report on a controversial topic, they should include quotations from representative spokespersons on at least two sides of the issue. When the Southern Baptist Convention codified their theological statement on the submission of women, for instance, conservative Christian groups like Focus on the Family were quoted in support of the decision. But who was quoted as a representative of progressive feminist Christianity? Journalists create a “media rolodex” of experts they can contact for viewpoints on current events, and I believe it is imperative that we in the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus add ourselves to the list so that we can reach more people with our perspectives on news items germane to biblical feminism.
Naturally, politico-theological sound bites have their dangers. It would be difficult to explain the intricacies of biblical exegesis on The Today Show! Yet, I believe that one strategy to attract young women to EEWC is to reach them through the television programs and websites that define their reality. It is true that keeping a higher public profile would also open us to new rounds of criticism from our complementarian opponents. But if even one woman, smothered under patriarchal religion, were led by the controversy to check out our website or pick up a copy of EEWC Update, then it is my opinion that the only bad press is no press.
I should emphasize the word “opinion.” Council has been emphatic that no single person determines the direction of EEWC, and Anne’s article and these printed replies are meant to be invitations to an organization-wide dialogue. I especially hope the conversation continues on the Forum section of the EEWC website.
Does our both/and identity lead directly to social justice activism? Is there any recently newsworthy issue we all agree is worth standing up for? Anne writes persuasively about preserving the diversity within our organization. We all come to biblical feminism from different backgrounds, and our dedication to tolerance means that EEWC does not have any official lines to toe on divisive topics like pornography, abortion, and warfare. But I am looking forward to our finding together the next social justice cause that seems to flow naturally from the statement of faith we already accept — Christian and feminist, evangelical and ecumenical. I am filled with hope that the Divine could use our collective advocacy to draw new people into this passionate community of biblical feminists.
EEWC Council member Alena Amato Ruggerio is EEWC’s Coordinator (2003). She is an assistant professor of communication and a Women’s Studies Associate at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon.
Response from Jeanne Hanson, EEWC Central Office Manager
Thank you, Anne, for this wonderful article. I am rather speechless to express how important and helpful it is. It is an excellent example/application/representation of who we are — open, honest, vulnerable, intelligent, loving, learning, inclusive, stretching — and all the while with our feet on the ground and our eyes focused on our purpose and mission!
Response from Linda Bieze
Anne Eggebroten has given us a thorough introduction to how the “evangelical” aspect of EEWC resembles and, notably, differs from the broader world of evangelicalism. By telling us about all the considerations that go into planning a biennial conference for EEWC, she has illustrated the difficult path that evangelical feminists must walk to be true to both parts of the name “evangelical feminist.”
As a feminist and Christian in the Reformed tradition, I have never been comfortable with the name “evangelical.” Churches in the Reformed tradition follow the teachings of such theologians as John Calvin and John Knox. They include Presbyterian churches, the Reformed Church in America, and the Christian Reformed Church in North America, of which I am a member. I became active in EEWC soon after it added “ecumenical” to its name because that name change assured me that the group did not share the narrow focus I had come to identify with evangelicalism — what Anne describes as the third trait of an evangelical EEWC conference, “bringing the good news of God’s salvation to those who haven’t heard it.”
Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe that every child of God is called to bring God’s good news to others. But as a Reformed believer, I understand that such evangelism is only a part of the believer’s calling. Yes, people must be born again. But all of God’s creation must also be born again and liberated through the good news of God’s inclusive love. That is the Reformed view that I hold, and I think it places me closer to the “ecumenical” side of EEWC.
I have loved every EEWC conference I have attended, for at each one I hear again the “old, old story” of Jesus’ inclusive love for people. But I long to see EEWC take more action to redeem and transform all of God’s creation. Where were EEWC sisters and brothers during the protests last year of the pending unilateral U.S. war on Iraq? Where were we when thousands of Roman Catholics needed words and acts of healing after a handful of clergy had abused them? Where are we when the Episcopal Church in the U.S. is torn apart by the appointment of an openly gay bishop? Where are we at the sad and ironic moment when a “pro-life” murderer is put to death in Florida? Where are we when thousands of working poor in America cannot afford decent housing and health care? Where are we while AIDS kills thousands in Africa, and U.S. drug companies refuse to provide the medication that can save them at a price they can afford?
Thirty years ago, the Evangelical Women’s Caucus was born at a meeting of a group called Evangelicals for Social Action. In the intervening decades, though, evangelicals seem to have exchanged social action for generally conservative political action. And wishing to distance itself from this, perhaps, EEWC seems to have lost sight of our call to social action. Jesus’ own brother James had to remind the early Church that they, too, were called to actionas well as to telling others about God’s good news. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters,” he wrote, “if you say you have faith but do not have good works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2: 14-16, NRSV).
The Reformed tradition that I follow tries to answer this call to action, as well as the call to proclaim the good news of God’s salvation. I would like to see EEWC become more “Reformed” in this sense in order to redeem all of God’s creation through acts of God’s inclusive love.
Linda Bieze, who is Coordinator Emerita of EEWC, recently moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works as an editor for Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Response from Nancy Hardesty
The 2004 Conference Committee is putting together an exciting time for us all. For the past thirty years EEWC conferences have inspired, nourished, and challenged us time and again. This next meeting is guaranteed to do the same.
But from the beginning, we have wrestled with issues of identity and theology. At the very first EWC conference in Washington, D.C., even before I gave my presentation, I was asked: “Please define ‘evangelical’ for us.”
We began as the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (EWC) because we emerged as an interest group within Evangelicals for Social Action. And some of us do have evangelical roots. I have been saved, sanctified, and baptized twice (the second by immersion, of course). I spent my teen years in the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Every day in high school I carried my red Youth for Christ Bible atop my books. I have a degree from Wheaton College (Illinois) I have lectured at Gordon and Fuller seminaries, Wheaton College, and a number of other fine evangelical schools.
EWC never left evangelicalism, but even as we began, evangelicalism was leaving us. Leaders of ESA and other “evangelical” organizations began to deny women authority over their own bodies. They denied human rights to gay people. They continue to resist religious freedom for those of other faiths. For most Americans these days “evangelicalism” has been defined by people who in the dark of night install granite monuments to their own religion in courthouses and pray for Divine removal of Supreme Court judges with whom they disagree. Far too often evangelicalism appears to be simply a clique of the self-righteous.
Within EEWC some of us also have ecumenical roots, coming from a range of denominations and theological traditions, both mainline and beyond. For nearly thirty years I was a faithful Episcopalian (I was initially drawn by the denomination’s positive work in the civil rights movement and after their recent actions I am seriously thinking of returning). For about fifteen years I was a devoted member of a Metropolitan Community Church. I teach World Religions and participate in the local interfaith organization.
In far too many cases, those who cling to the label “evangelical” do so simply to assert spiritual superiority over others, taking blatant pride in some mistaken perception that they are holier than others, their theology the only orthodoxy. From a historical perspective this is absurd. Virtually none of what “evangelicals” preach or practice would be recognizable to the 2000-year-old truly Orthodox Church. Indeed, virtually none of what they preach and practice would be recognizable to any Christian before 1800. Revivalism (the idea that one can and should “make a decision” for Christ and that preaching should be focused on persuading people to do that) was invented in the 1830s by Charles Grandison Finney. Dispensational premillennialism with its “any-moment Rapture” was invented in the 1840s by John Nelson Darby. The plenary verbal inspiration of the Bible and the notion that the Bible is “inerrant in the original autographs” were invented by Princeton theologians around 1880. The “substitutionary” view of the atonement is only one of about a half-dozen theories about its meaning that theologians down through the centuries have proposed. Neglect of the sacraments would appall most of history’s Christians.
Besides, “evangelicalism,” as the term is commonly understood today, is largely a media-created mishmash of organizations that historically have had quite distinct and conflicting viewpoints: Holiness people, Pentecostals, fundamentalists, neo-fundamentalists, neo-evangelicals, and charismatics. Each of these groups differ significantly in their theological definitions of Christianity.
Personally, I am content to affirm that I am a Christian, one who subscribes to the Nicene Creed, recognizing that even that describes only the beliefs of most but not all Christians. “I believe in God,” Yahweh, El Shaddai, Pantocrator, the Almighty. I affirm the Trinity, not as a biblical doctrine, but as the faith of the Christian church. I affirm the church’s definition of Christ as fully human and fully divine. For me, the specifics of theology are far less important than the core of the Jewish tradition that Jesus reaffirmed, the first and second Great Commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10: 27; see Mark 12:29-31; Matt. 22:37-38; Deut. 6:4-5; Lev. 19:18).
I find guidance for living out those commands in Scripture. Having taught New Testament to college students for more than a decade now, I still believe (as Letha and I believed when we wrote and revised All We’re Meant to Be) that a close and faithful reading of the biblical text does reveal good news for women. And despite the clarity so many people seem to find in English texts presumably condemning homosexuality, I still find a more positive message in God’s word. I continually remind my students to read the text. I find that most of the people who loudly proclaim that they take the Bible literally only take literally their own biased interpretations of the English text. They don’t explore the whole Bible, and they are totally uncritical of their own modern cultural perspectives.
EEWC remains one of those rare places where women of all faith perspectives can come together and explore these issues together. It is also a place where we can sing and dance, weep and rage, laugh and play, and support one another in our struggles to grow in God’s grace.
A coordinator emerita of EEWC, Nancy Hardesty is professor of religion at Clemson University in Clemson, SC. She has just finished a book for Hendrickson Publishers titled Faith Cure: Divine Healing in the Early Holiness and Pentecostal Movements. She will be speaking on Saturday night during next June’s conference. Among her other books are Inclusive Language in the Church; Women Called to Witness; and, with Letha Dawson Scanzoni, All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today.
© 2003 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 27 number 2, Summer (July-September) 2003
Editorial: Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Headed
by Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Recently, I listened to Speaking of Faith, a program devoted to personal religious experience, distributed by Public Radio International and also available via the Internet. [The name of the program was later changed to “On Being.”] A featured interviewee on the September 4, 2003 program, “The Power of Fundamentalism,” was Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary. Like many of us, Mouw could recount both positive and negative aspects of his background in Christian fundamentalism, But one sentence especially struck me: “It was a good place to begin.” he said. “It just wasn’t a good place to end up.”
Mouw differentiated between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, however, and this distinction is also important in understanding EEWC’s history.
Although “fundamentalism” and “evangelicalism” were once used interchangeably (and still are in the media and elsewhere), some people from this tradition began dissociating themselves from the anti-intellectualism, rigidity, and legalism that had come to define fundamentalism. They increasingly preferred to be called evangelicals or sometimes “neo- or “new evangelicals.” These neo-evangelicals retained the core doctrinal emphases of fundamentalism but placed more emphasis on higher education, including an openness to contemporary biblical scholarship. They were also concerned about social issues, such as race, poverty, and the environment. (Historians in the new evangelical movement pointed out that such social concern and activism were not really new, however, calling attention to the role a number of evangelicals had played in nineteenth century social movements, such as abolition.)
It was out of the socially-conscious new evangelical movement that the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (EWC) emerged. Most of us who were there from its beginning had either grown up in the fundamentalist/evangelical tradition or had embraced it by choice as the logical follow-up to a personal conversion experience. But we had started to question and disagree with some its teachings — especially what it taught about women’s “place” in the church, in marriage and family, and in society in general — and that’s what brought us together to form EWC.
In spite of such divergence, many of us could still echo Mouw’s observation and agree that our traditional evangelical experience had provided us with a “good place to begin.” Years ago, I was one of several women and men asked to contribute personal reflections for a special feature in the December 1982 issue of the religious satire magazine The Wittenburg Door (title misspelling intentional; the name was later changed to The Door Magazine) The feature was called, “I was a Teenage Fundamentalist,” with the subtitle: “Reflections from a Few Who Spent Their Youth among Religious Conservatives and Lived to Tell about It.”
In my Door piece about fundamentalism’s impact in my own life, I made a distinction between its doctrinal belief system and the mind-set that is so often associated with it. I wrote that, for me, “Fundamentalism’s positive contribution relates to its doctrinal teaching on two points in particular: first, its emphasis on a personal relationship with God through Christ, and second, its stress on the importance of Bible study, which motivated me to search the Scriptures and find out for myself what the Bible does and doesn’t say” (p. 20).
But I went on to say that fundamentalism’s negative impact on my life emanated from its mind-set and narrow cultural focus. I grieved over the pain caused by the arrogance, judgmentalism, authoritarianism, anti-intellectualism, and lack of compassion among many in that tradition. I spoke of the separatism and self-righteousness that splits Christians into an elitist “we” versus “them,” dividing the Body of Christ. I spoke of the selective categories of “sins” that were condemned and the preoccupation with sexual behaviors, while greed, backbiting, economic exploitation, racism, and other such violations of biblical teachings often went unmentioned. “And I am angered,” I wrote, “by the way [fundamentalism] stifles creativity by assuming all the answers are already in, leading many young persons (and older ones, too) to feel false guilt because they have doubts or questions, see ambiguities, and dare to think for themselves in contradiction to some of the teachings they have heard so dogmatically emphasized” (p.20).
For many people, it is these negative characteristics that come to mind when they hear the word evangelical. They have only heard about the fundamentalist type of evangelical and specifically a mind-set which they understand to be synonymous with the reactionary religious right. Clearly, EEWC isn’t at all like that. For us, as Nancy Hardesty points out in her response to Anne’s Eggebroten’s article in this issue, the “evangelical” part of our name comes from our origin as a working caucus formed at a gathering of Evangelicals for Social Action, which was part of the new evangelical movement in the early 1970s. Our name also derives, as Anne points out, from the root meaning ofevangel — “good news.”
But many of us found that what had been “a good place to begin” was for us, as for Mouw, “not a good place to end up.” Not that the beginning point was somehow “bad,” but rather it was just that — a beginning point. There were new questions to explore, new challenges calling for our response.
Thus, as what had been EWC increasingly attracted more members from other religious traditions, including many Roman Catholics, and because many people had only a media-influenced negative connotation for the wordevangelical, the membership voted to add another E to our name. It would better describe who we are and express the inclusive vision we stand for. We therefore became the Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus.
Numerous critics and supporters alike have wondered what this change signifies. To some people, our broadening vision signifies apostasy, a departure from the “faith once delivered.” To others, it signifies a breath of fresh air — the Wind of the Spirit blowing as She wills, filling our sails, and moving us forward on sometimes uncharted waters.
Perhaps it might be useful to contrast two other metaphors: the “slippery slope” and the “firm foundation.”
Slippery slope reasoning sees EEWC as having started on a high level of faithfulness to God and the truth revealed in Scripture and then gradually descending from that high point, increasingly gaining momentum as we slide farther down the slope, tossing aside the most basic Christian beliefs along the way.
On the other hand, the firm foundation metaphor sees EEWC as a construction project. It is not abandoning its strong foundation, as shown in our statement of faith, or even its foundation in evangelicalism (in the best sense of that word). But it has not stopped with the foundation. EEWC has been building upon that foundation with new understandings of our experiences with God and with each other as persons created in God’s image, new insights through an openness to the Spirit, new callings as we see God at work in the world, and a fresh look at Scripture, seeking answers to new questions. As these new “rooms” are added to the structure, we find, like any truly loving family, that we have lots of space for the diversity of interests and viewpoints among our members. But the foundation, as shown in our statement of faith, is secure.
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is editor of EEWC’s quarterly newsletter, EEWC Update, and content editor for the EEWC website. She is the author or coauthor of eight books, including All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today (with Nancy Hardesty) and Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response (with Virginia Ramey Mollenkott).
© 2003 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, EEWC Update, volume 27, number 2, Summer (July-September) 2003