August 19, 2004
Pamela D. H. Cochran
A recent Sightings essay by Dr. Alena Amato Ruggerio described an incident in which an ad placed by the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women's Caucus (EEWC) was pulled from Christianity Today after having been accepted and run. She suggested external pressure; those who regularly follow Sightings learned, in a subsequent correction, that the ad was pulled by the editors without external coercion. Dr. Ruggerio suggested that the conflict was centrally about the stifling of progress in American evangelicalism. I would suggest, however, that the groups who applauded Christianity Today's decision were gratified because they do not view themselves and the EEWC as being part of the same movement. The decision, thus, goes to the heart of a core issue in evangelicalism, the struggle over how to define and understand authority.
As Dr. Ruggerio indicated, the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women's Caucus was founded in 1974 as the Evangelical Women's Caucus (EWC). In 1986, the EWC membership split over a resolution that recognized a lesbian minority in the organization. Those who split from the EWC felt that the resolution signaled to the evangelical community that the organization condoned homosexuality as consistent with an evangelical interpretation of scripture. As a result, they felt that the EWC would no longer be able to fulfill its mission to promote the biblical message of women's equality in the home, church, and society in evangelical churches. These members left the EWC and formed a second biblical feminist organization, Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE), whose singular purpose was to promote egalitarianism within evangelicalism. In a short time, the EWC became a more socially and theologically inclusive organization and, hence, in 1990, changed its name from the Evangelical Women's Caucus to the Ecumenical and Evangelical Women's Caucus.
A key question then becomes: Is homosexuality consistent with an evangelical interpretation of scripture? Dr. Ruggerio is correct that books such as Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (Letha Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, 1978) address the scriptural basis for acceptance of homosexual persons and relationships in the Christian church. Several other books also make similar arguments. However, to this point in time, none of these books have been widely accepted within the evangelical community. Specifically, the arguments made by Scanzoni and Mollenkott are seen by many in the evangelical community as elevating reason, science, and personal revelation and experience to the same level as God's revealed Word, thereby denying the inerrancy of God's word, a concept that has been central to evangelical boundary debates since the 1970s.
Thus, although the EEWC wants to remain a part of the evangelical community and individual members remain within evangelical churches and institutions, the organization itself has not been recognized as being truly evangelical by the community at large. Why? Members of the EEWC base their feminist beliefs in the Bible and read the scripture to guide them in their daily lives and interactions with others. However, as Paul J. Griffiths has argued in his book Religious Reading (1999), relating to scripture as authoritative also involves "the presence of some acknowledged constraints upon what and how religious readers should read ... as well as (by entailment) upon the kinds of conclusions that can properly be drawn and taught from this reading." As such, it must take place within a community that establishes the constraints. And the broader evangelical community has concluded that the EEWC has transgressed its social and theological boundaries.
For the conservatives who applauded the pulling of EEWC's advertisement from Christianity Today, the issue, then, is not one of "progress," but of maintaining the purity of their movement. The battle over recognition as "evangelical" is, in reality, a struggle to transform or maintain conservative American Protestantism.
Dr. Pamela D. H. Cochran is a Lecturer of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, Communications Director at the Center on Religion and Democracy, and author of Evangelical Feminism: A History (New York University Press, 2005).