Why Are Women Forsaking Their Homes?
Nathan R. Pope, Feminism: Understanding and Balancing Its Impact on Marriage, Family, and Church (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2003)
These background facts do not, however, predict what the book says. And that is what makes it a remarkable book.
Feminism: Understanding and Balancing Its Impact on Marriage, Family, and Church is a truly remarkable book—not only because of what it says, but also because of who says it, and because of its intended audience. It is written by Nathan R. Pope, a pastor serving the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. It is published by the synod’s press, Northwestern Publishing House, which generally has a reputation for producing conservative theological works consistent with the Lutheran Confessions of the sixteenth century. Conservative Lutherans from a variety of synods rely upon NPH for spiritual enrichment. These background facts do not, however, predict what the book says. And that is what makes it a remarkable book.
A Troubling Approach
Pope begins by telling his readers that in preparation for writing about feminism he avoided reading from Christian authors and commentaries. He was hoping to evaluate the subject of feminism with an open mind. The only authors he permitted himself to read, for the first year and a half of his research, were secular feminists (v). While a thorough investigation of feminism must include a direct analysis of the pertinent sources, Christian wisdom surely would caution against Pope’s planned avoidance of biblical insight, especially for so long a time.
Oops, better scratch that line—that’ll get me in trouble.
Pope next introduces his readers to a panel of four women whom he consulted throughout the project. He suggested that every female reader should be able to identify with at least one of them. Oddly, however, all four women worked outside the home and none had more than three children (xii-xv). True, it is worth considering a broad range of concerns, but who would speak up for the homeschooling, quiverfull homemaker? No such woman was included on his panel. Meanwhile, notes Pope, “not a page of composition went by without these conscious thoughts in my head: What would Patty [his wife] or Shelley or Sue or Patty [another woman with that name] think of that? Oops, better scratch that line—that’ll get me in trouble” (xi). Due consideration of the intended audience surely has a place in the writing process, but Pope’s methodology irretrievably slipped into a relativistic interpretation of Holy Scripture, customized for four particular women who already had, in varying degrees, succumbed to feminism.
The Many Faces of Feminism
Feminism comes in a variety of flavors—“not all of it is bad, and not all of it is good,” writes Pope (xvi). One promising section of his book outlines four basic forms (career feminism, radical feminism, liberal feminism, and socialist feminism) followed by “Seventeen More Types of Feminism” (the title of chapter 2). Pope does well to distance himself from those varieties which most explicitly oppose Christian doctrine—such as “goddess feminism.” Along the way, he admits to not realizing, until he wrote the book, how many other feminist positions he himself endorses (4).
Pope is self-consciously a male feminist. Throughout his book he presents manhood primarily as something to be apologized for. Pope writes that when it comes down to relationship problems between the sexes, whether within or outside of marriage, in most cases, the problems can be traced back to the men (129). To be sure, a husband and father ultimately must bear the responsibility for what is going on under his roof, but to say that most problems are caused by men is simply a sexist statement. No one would tolerate such a statement being said by a man about a woman.
Pope ... regards ‘helper’ and ‘mother’ in opposition to one other, portraying childbearing as a woman’s choice ‘to give up her independence.’
More alarming than Pope’s low view of manhood is his diminished appreciation for a woman’s capacity to bear and nurture children. When Pope reads in Genesis 3:20 that Adam named Eve the “mother of all the living,” he insists that this was Adam’s name for her, not necessarily God’s intention. God, argues Pope, wanted Eve to be a helper primarily, and not necessarily a mother first. “Unlike the Papacy, the Lutheran Church has never taught women that their main purpose in life is to have children” (143). What he fails to say, however, is that Martin Luther, John H. C. Fritz, Paul Kretzmann, Francis Pieper, and other stalwarts of Lutheran orthodoxy repeatedly extolled the virtues of motherhood, identifying that vocation as a central way in which a wife ordinarily serves as her husband’s helper.
Pope, by contrast, regards “helper” and “mother” in opposition to one other, portraying childbearing as a woman’s choice “to give up her independence” (143). This framework must have come from the feminist literature in which he immersed himself, for it is foreign to both Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. The Augsburg Confession, for example, summarized the marital vocations of biblical manhood and womanhood thus: “that a husband should labor to support his wife and children and bring them up in the fear of God, that a wife should bear children and care for them” (Art. XXVI, 10).
An Endorsement of Career Feminism
Surprisingly, Pope makes almost no mention of feminism’s assault on motherhood—despite the fact that the thwarting of fertility has been a central tenet of twentieth-century feminism.
Surprisingly, Pope makes almost no mention of feminism’s assault on motherhood—despite the fact that the thwarting of fertility has been a central tenet of twentieth-century feminism. He focuses more attention on the assault against fatherhood (e.g., by lesbian co-parents) and the expansion of women’s roles in the workforce. Pope finds “refreshing” the idea that businesses would give mothers more leeway in their jobs by giving them the schedules they need so that they can participate as parents while keeping their jobs (171). He does not, however, ask the more fundamental questions: Should women be dividing their time between work and family at all? How can a Christian husband best lead his family amid social pressures that would pull not only him, but also his wife, away from their children?
When commenting on the “virtuous woman” of Proverbs 31, Pope calls her a “working mom ... self-employed ... entrepreneur ... capitalist ... and a businesswoman twice over” (261). Theologians over the centuries have interpreted these verses to mean that her place was within the home, caring for husband and children, and selling her surplus domestic products on the side. But now, Pope attempts to shed new light on these verses, assuring his panel of four working women that Proverbs 31 endorses “career feminism.” He explains, “The woman of noble character today may discover herself in a different setting … a classroom, at a corporate desk, or in front of a computer” (262).
Pope’s thesis cannot be mistaken. “A Christian woman, for example, may have an outlook on life that puts her squarely within the fold of career feminism” (157). Pope earlier defined “career feminism” as a form of feminism that “emphasizes personal empowerment. This means that a woman should be what a woman wants to be. ... Women must learn their potential; they must also learn to act assertively. ... Career feminism essentially concerns itself with workplace equality for women” (15). Having interpreted Proverbs 31 as a celebration of career feminism, Pope then concludes his book by hailing the “woman’s movements of modern times” for restoring the ideal expressed long ago in Proverbs 31. Restoring it? Well, apparently the traditional gender roles practiced under English common law were not merely as biblical as the more androgynous roles promoted by twentieth-century feminist reforms (263).
An Enduring Truth?
No, this is not your grandmother’s NPH commentary. Pope has written a remarkable book that departs significantly from the received wisdom of our Lutheran fathers. It will be a strain to read his work and Titus 2:4-5 in the same sitting: “admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed.” Had Pope only kept those words in mind when reading secular feminist literature, he would have written a different—and better—book.
A better book would turn attention away from things women can do to ‘empower themselves’ and focus instead on God’s equipping of women for the unique vocations of wife and mother (cf. 1 Timothy 2:15).
What would that look like? For starters, a better book would turn attention away from things women can do to “empower themselves” and focus instead on God’s equipping of women for the unique vocations of wife and mother (cf. 1 Timothy 2:15). It would be organized around the key Bible passages that speak of distinctions between men and women, such as the creation account (Genesis 1:26-28, 2:18-25) and the tables of duties (Ephesians 5:21-33; Colossians 3:18-21; Titus 2:2-8; 1 Peter 3:1-7). A book offering a biblical critique of feminism also should celebrate the Christian virtues of modesty, humility, and contentment. In such a book, we should recognize that Christ Himself provided not only the greatest model for those virtues, but also the atoning substitute through whom women as well as men receive forgiveness for their own failings. Such a book may not impress the culture around us, but it would adorn women with feminine beauty as the Scriptures envision it—“the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:4).
Ethan Bolstad lives in rural Wisconsin, where he and his wife Deb nurture their children daily in the Word of God.