- Unjust Signifying Practices:Submission and Subordination among Christian Fundamentalists
In contemplating the importance of the continued commitment of feminist biblical scholars to issues of justice while grappling with the problem of becoming “disciplined,” one example from recent research demonstrates its importance. At Grace Community Church, an evangelical, fundamentalist mega-church pastored by John MacArthur Jr., in Sun Valley, California, a women’s Bible study entitled Every Woman’s Grace occurs on a regular basis. After examining the transcripts from the Bible study, I was troubled by their signifying practices involving the reiteration of a more than one-hundred-year-old dispensationalist theology that promotes the subordination of women.
Margaret Lamberts Bendroth’s history of American fundamentalism and gender has shown that at the turn of the twentieth century, fundamentalists began turning away from perfectionist theology and began adopting dispensationalism, which promoted the subordination of women: “Dispensational premillennialism embedded the principle of masculine leadership and feminine subordination in salvation history itself and, perhaps more important, uplifted order as the highest principle of Christian life and thought.”1 Unlike perfectionists, who believed that one had the power to resist and overcome sin, dispensationalists taught that original sin was irreversible.2 Dispensationalists believed that original sin brought about seven edicts of “Adamic dispensation”: “a curse on the deceiving serpent; the promise of Christ as the future redeemer of humanity; a curse on the earth; inevitable sorrow; burdensome labor; physical death; and a ‘changed state of woman’ to include ‘multiplied conception,’ ‘motherhood linked with sorrow,’ and male headship made necessary by the entrance of sin, ‘which is disorder.’”3 Dispensationalists claimed that these curses could not be lifted within human time, and thus feminine subordination was considered as unavoidable as death itself. In other words, female subordination was traced to the Fall, which confirmed women’s weak nature and legitimized their subordination.
Throughout fundamentalism’s history in the United States, such dispensationalist tenets have been preserved and reinscribed through the writings of fundamentalist authors, evangelists, and ministers, such as John MacArthur Jr. In 1994, MacArthur published a book advocating female subordination entitled Different by Design: Discovering God’s Will for Today’s Man and Woman, which [End Page 154] was later republished in 2006 under the title Divine Design: God’s Complementary Roles for Men and Women.
The inclusion of “different” in the original title is reminiscent of fundamentalist literature published in the 1950s, when centers of fundamentalism, such as Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Theological Seminary, produced a flood of books on the correct order of the household and on women’s roles based on the “differences between the sexes.”4 For example, P. B. Fitzwater, a professor of theology at the Moody Bible Institute, published Woman: Her Mission, Position, and Ministry, which argued that “men and women are differently organized, both physically and psychically.”5 According to Fitzwater, “Man is organized to operate in the affairs of science, commerce, and the state. The woman is organized to regulate the home and family.”6 He further emphasized that the “differences of sex are not to be toned down and obliterated, but to be accentuated and brought into moral harmony.”7 Sally Gallagher observes that beginning in the 1980s, a shift occurred from the use of language of difference to language of complementarity.8 The name change of MacArthur’s book, although rather late, reflects this shift.
However, the terminology “divine design” is not novel but very similar to Larry Christenson’s use of “divine order” and Elisabeth Elliot’s use of “God’s design,” roughly thirty years earlier. In The Christian Family, Larry Christenson disputed evangelical feminists’ claim that difference and hierarchy are merely social constructions, arguing that difference and hierarchy are a reflection of “divine order.”9 In Let Me Be a Woman, Elliot supported Christenson’s argument that the difference between the sexes was God’s divine order while employing the terminology “God’s design”:
One thing that makes a marriage work is the acceptance of a divine order. Either there is an order or there is not, and if there is one which is violated disorder is the result—disorder on the deepest level of the personality...