Ideas Have Consequences: The Theological Roots of the Nineteenth-Century Women’s Movement
by J. G. Brown
The brouhaha over Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape” has been especially virulent in the Saint Louis, Missouri area. It dominated our media for weeks. Akin received a degree from Covenant Theological Seminary in Saint Louis and attends a church associated with that seminary (Presbyterian Church of America). The media frenzy compelled Covenant Theological Seminary to issue an official statement denouncing rape as a violent and heinous crime.
But whether or not Todd’s church promotes an “anti-woman” culture is a question not readily settled by public pronouncements. There is a certain irony in all this, in that Akin’s church is a part of the broader evangelical tradition, a tradition that was largely responsible for the emancipation of women in the early nineteenth century. I have spent a considerable amount of time studying this evangelical conundrum, in an attempt to understand its relationship to culture, then and now.
The Presbyterian Church in America and Covenant Theological Seminary have a well articulated position on the role of women in the church. The PCA believes that men and women have equal value in the eyes of God but different roles or functions within the life of the church. Women, for instance, are barred from being deacons and elders. Church polity concerning women is based largely on I Timothy 2:11–14, a biblical passage that prohibits women from teaching or exercising authority over men. The PCA believes that male spiritual headship/female subordination is grounded in the created order, an order that Christianity redeems but does not alter. The English Standard Version Study Bible (2008) explains what is called the complementarian view on the I Timothy passage.
The commentators support the view that gender roles in the church are rooted in the created order. They also remark that this passage does not have “in view the role of women in leadership outside the church (e.g., business or government).”1 The PCA/ complementarians claim that they are upholding the historic Protestant interpretation of this passage. This may be an assertion easily made by theologians, but can it be substantiated by historians? New research on early Protestant beliefs concerning natural law and the spiritual and temporal kingdoms brings the complementarian claim into serious question. It also provides new insights into the significant role evangelicalism played in the emancipation of women.
The early Protestant reformers held to a two-kingdom view that was in some ways similar to their medieval forebears. This is especially clear in the writings of both Luther and Calvin. They both defend the moral goodness of the sword-bearing state and the Christian’s participation in that state. They believe Christians are citizens of two kingdoms, both ordained by God. These two kingdoms, however, operate for different ends and under very different rules.
The spiritual kingdom is expressed on earth in the church, which has a redemptive and eschatological purpose. It does not bear the sword and submits to the redemptive ethic of Scripture as revealed in Jesus Christ. The temporal kingdom, on the other hand, can use the sword and is based in natural law. Natural law, for the Reformers, is that law imprinted on the consciences of humankind (Romans 2:14-15) and found in the moral principles underlying the Mosaic law. Natural law also finds its origin in creation ordinances.2 Consistent with Protestant convictions, both Luther and Calvin believed that sin has marred human ability to fully discern natural law outside of God’s special revelation and regenerating grace; nevertheless, through the remnants of natural law, God graciously restrains the consequences of sin in this world.
After doing extensive research, I have concluded that most prominent theologians in the English-speaking world, prior to the mid-nineteenth century, held something similar to a natural law/two-kingdom view. For them, natural law/creation ordinances mandated the subordination of women to men in the temporal kingdom. The church, on the other hand, was animated by egalitarian principles, such as the priesthood of all believers. The church might honor “the order preserved by the world” (as Luther expressed it), but the principle of male headship/female subordination was not organic to the church.
This is spelled out clearly in Luther’s exegesis of Galatians 3:28: “In the world, and according to the sinful nature, there is a great inequality of persons, and this must be observed carefully . . . . But in Christ there is no law, nor difference of persons, there is only one body, one spirit, one hope one gospel.”3 Protestant exegetes, up to the nineteenth century, believed social hierarchy, including male headship and female subordination, was a necessary component of temporal social order, established by God at creation. In this respect they were conservative, re-enforcing traditional cultural norms. However, contrary to today’s conservative theologians, they did not make creation ordinances organic to life in the church.
A survey of commentaries written before the mid- nineteenth century, dealing with pivotal passages, such as I Timothy 2:11-14, I Corinthians 11:3 and I Corinthians 14:34-35 confirms a natural law/two kingdom view. For instance, John Calvin believes that, in I Corinthians 11:3, man is placed in an intermediate position between Christ and the woman. Yet, at the same time, in Galatians 3:28, Paul says, “in Christ there is neither male nor female.” Calvin resolves this dilemma as follows: “When he [Paul] says there is no difference between the man and the woman, he is treating of Christ’s spiritual kingdom, in which external qualities are not regarded or made any account of.”
This spiritual kingdom has its present expression in the church, and, in fact, it is this spiritual liberty and equality that underlie the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. However, in this world, our spiritual liberty and equality in Christ always should respect social order and decorum. Therefore Calvin goes on to qualify his position:
In the meantime, however, he [Paul] does not disturb civil order and honorary distinctions, which cannot be dispensed with in ordinary life. Here [I Corinthians 11:3], on the other hand, he reasons respecting outward propriety and decorum—which is part of ecclesiastical polity.”4
Calvin later again affirms this principle that male headship reflects “external arrangement and political decorum.”5 He would regard today’s complementarian assignation to men of “spiritual headship” as a strange co-mingling of spiritual and temporal kingdom principles. In accordance with basic Protestant doctrine, Calvin says that the spiritual head of woman is Christ only; however, in the kingdom of this world, she is subject to man. Later theologians follow a similar line of thought.
Puritan Matthew Poole argues that the headship of man over women, referred to in I Corinthians 11:3 is strictly “political or economical.” He also believes that when Paul says that the “head of every man is Christ,” he is referring to all church members, male and female, since Christ is the spiritual head of men and women alike. Baptist theologian John Gill writes that natural law/creation ordinances establish the subordination of women in the civil realm. (Consequently, female subordination is also observed in the church.) Evangelical Anglican exegete, Thomas Scott, says nothing of male spiritual headship and restricts female subordination to “this lower world.”6
Consistent with their understanding of the different principles that govern the civil and spiritual kingdoms, most early theologians also recognized the possibility of something contra mundum in the life of the church. Luther writes in his exegesis of I Timothy 2 that “if the Lord were to raise up a woman for us to listen to, we would allow her to rule like Huldah.”7 Calvin acknowledged the possibility of women with an extraordinary call, as did Matthew Poole, Matthew Henry, Thomas Scott, John Wesley, and Adam Clarke. In fact, Methodist theologian Adam Clarke even reprimanded women who failed to act/speak under the prompting of the Holy Spirit.8 Today’s complementarians either reject or ignore the idea of the extraordinary call.
Theologians who were part of the Magisterial Reformation often gave the temporal kingdom an expansive authority — and sometimes distinctions between the two kingdoms were a bit muddled. However, none made creation ordinances foundational to the spiritual kingdom/church, and most recognized the possibility of women with an extraordinary call. No wonder it was in the church or during religious revivals that the voices of women were first heard in American history.
This was a phenomena that was indeed something new under the sun. The egalitarian theology of the spiritual kingdom does much to explain why there were female preachers, evangelists, and exhorters long before there were female politicians, business leaders, and academicians. In 1827, Harriet Livermore preached before the U.S. Congress (and twice again thereafter), long before that august body would countenance a woman sitting among their ranks.9
Lillian O’Connor’s study of the rhetorical styles of women involved in the ante-bellum reform movement found that almost all the early women orators spoke in what was called “pulpit style.” This was because these women had first presented their thoughts publicly inside a church, often from a pulpit.10 Catherine Brekus’s painstaking research on female preaching in America between 1740 and 1845 does much to re-discover the voices of women who others had long ago attempted to obliterate from the historical record. These women were motivated by spiritual kingdom theology —that in Christ there is neither male nor female. They answered an extraordinary call. The narrow path they blazed through the wilderness has become a broad highway of opportunity for women today. Theological ideas do have consequences, then and now.
 English Standard Version Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2328.
 For a full treatment of natural law and the two kingdoms see David VanDrunen’s book, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms : A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).
 Martin Luther, “Lectures on Galatians, 1535″ in Luther’s Works, Vol. 26 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1963), 356.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 20 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 354.
 For a detailed account of Poole, Gill, Scott, and other exegetes on this issue see J. G. Brown’s book, An Historian Looks at I Timothy 2:11–14, The Authentic Traditional Interpretation and Why It Disappeared (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2012), Chapter One.
 Martin Luther, “Lectures on I Timothy” in Luther’s Works, Vol. 28 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1973), 280.
 See An Historian Looks at I Timothy 2:11–14, Chapter One.
 Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims, Female Preaching in America, 1740–1845 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 1, 12.
 Lillian O’Connor, >Pioneer Women Orators: Rhetoric in the Ante-Bellum Reform Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954), 115–16.