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Topic: Feminism

Virginia Mollenkott, Feminist Author and Activist, Dies at 88: A Reminder That Reimagining the Creation Order Leads to Reimagining the Creator

October 29, 2020

Editor’s Note: The following article is excerpted from the October 29, 2020 episode of The Briefing, a daily worldview podcast hosted by Dr. Albert Mohler. Republished with permission.

Even as almost all the mainstream media and most of the cultural conversation is attuned to the 2020 presidential election — and frankly, little else — today on The Briefing we’re going to look at some ongoing issues of Christian concern that are also reflected in contemporary headlines that should have our attention.

The first comes from Tuesday’s print edition of The New York Times. It’s an obituary. The headline, “Virginia Mollenkott, Who Rooted Her Feminism in the Bible Dies at 88.” Now, for anyone who has been for the last several decades following the trajectory of American feminism, add to that the interaction between American feminism and American religion, add to that the LGBTQ revolution, well, the name of Virginia Mollenkott or Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, as she has also been known, it would be extremely well known.

And of course, something has to explain why The New York Times would give almost a half page in the print edition of Tuesday’s newspaper to someone who was considered a feminist biblical scholar or theologian. Why was she important? Well, she was important because she was herself a symbol of the great moral revolution and the great revolution in biblical interpretation and the interaction with feminism that emerged in the last half century.

Let’s just consider one of the first paragraphs in the obituary,

“Raised in an evangelical household that disavowed her lesbianism, Dr. Mollenkott became a scholar of the Bible whose books on feminist and gay spirituality offered an expansive, inclusive theology that embraced not only women as equals to men, but gay, bisexual, and transgender people too.”

Now that’s a very interesting paragraph in and of itself, but the paragraph actually is an understatement of what would follow. Consider the very next paragraph, speaking of the late professor Mollenkott,

“She pointed out that Adam, for instance, was male and female before he got lonely. She noted biblical passages that argued for the eradication of all sorts of categories like race, class, and gender. And she wrote about how gay people could use the experience of oppression to find compassion and empathy for those who might be hostile toward them.”

Now, Virginia Mollenkott is indeed one of those names that jumps out at us from recent American Christian history and in particular from recent American evangelical history, because she in herself became a test case for evangelical identity, and at the very same time that many American evangelicals were trying to wrestle with the questions that were posed to us by the emergence of second-wave feminism. But when it comes to Virginia Mollenkott, she was way past second-wave feminism.

She eventually would argue for the elimination of gender as a meaningful category. But looking at how the mainstream media covers the story, let’s go back to that sentence where we’re told that Virginia Mollenkott had “pointed out that Adam, for instance, was male and female before he got lonely.” I’ll just pause there to say, that’s not actually what the biblical text says. In fact, the biblical text emphatically does not tell us that Adam was not male or for that matter, as it is put here, was both male and female before the creation of Eve, before he got lonely, as the passage says.

But actually, looking to the Scripture, the Scripture tells us something very different. As a matter of fact, looking at Genesis 2, after we are told that God made human beings in his image, male and female, we are told that Adam went through the exercise assigned to him by the Creator in naming the animals. And he named them. And the animals came by two-by-two — wouldn’t be the last time, by the way. The same two-by-two pattern will show up in the history of Noah and the ark. But going back to Adam and the naming, Adam gave all the creatures their name, and whatever name he gave that creature, that was its name.

And then the Bible tells us there was no complement, there was no helper found that was fitting for Adam. That tells us that he was male, but there was yet no woman. And then the biblical passage in Genesis 2 tells us that God put Adam into a deep sleep and, out of Adam, he formed woman. And then Adam made the declaration when he saw Eve and was fully conscious, he declared, “This is now flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones. She shall be called woman because she came out of man.” And thus Genesis 2 tells us exactly how God, having already created Adam, then created Eve, and they were created male and female.

Adam did not become male only with the creation of Eve, the female. He was male from the very beginning. But of course it didn’t have a great deal of meaning until the entire meaning of the human species was completed with the creation of Eve, with the woman. Thus then you had Adam and Eve in the garden, and of course they were naked and not ashamed. There was no shame because, after all, this was God’s perfect intention.

But then you’ll notice also, as The New York Times summarizes Mollenkott’s narrative, “She pointed out that Adam, for instance, was male and female before he got lonely.” But the Bible doesn’t say actually in Genesis 2 that Adam was lonely. It’s kind of implied. But the actual fact is that the Bible tells us that God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Adam didn’t say, “I’m lonely. Give me a wife.” It was God who said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” The Bible points to the fact that it is God who is sovereign throughout. It is not even Adam who asks for a wife. It is God who nonetheless provides him with one.

The obituary in The New York Times tells us that Virginia Mollenkott died on September the 25th at her home in Pompton Plains, New Jersey. She was 88. Deborah Morrison, a long time friend and former partner, said the cause was respiratory failure and pneumonia. Dr. Mollenkott, The Times tells us, had already made a name for herself in evangelical circles in the 1970s as the author of five books about feminist theology when her sixth, entitled Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? Another Christian View, appeared in 1978.

The Times then tells us, “It quickly changed the conversation around gay people and evangelicals, and helped usher in a new era of gay spirituality.” Well, that’s pretty much the way The New York Times would like to see the story, but the backstory is this. By the time you get to the 1960s and the 1970s, American Christians in general and American evangelicals in particular are struggling with some of the questions presented by the larger society. And the society was struggling with the questions of feminism.

Now, there were at this point the arguments of what’s been called second-wave feminism associated with authors such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. This was the argument that all of society needed to be restructured because of the inherent oppression of women and the denial of absolute equality between women and men. Now, here’s where the Christian worldview reminds us that, yes, there is absolute equality as we are both made in the image of God between males and females, boys and girls, men and women. But the Bible makes clear that even as we are both equally created in the image of God, there are different roles that are assigned to us. And there is a different pattern that is assigned to us when it comes to men and women in the family, in the home, and in the church with larger ramifications throughout the society.

What is most clear in Scripture is the pattern of complementarity that is of the relatedness between men and women that is revealed very clearly in Scripture, first of all, in the home, and then secondly, in the church. But Virginia Mollenkott, and others like her, believe that this was nothing less than an expression of patriarchy and oppression.

And of course, she rooted this in the entire biblical worldview. She became an exemplar of the kind of so-called biblical interpretation that began with the idea that the biblical text is a fallible testimony to human religious strivings, first amongst Israel, and then amongst the Christians, and that where there was evidence of any kind of inequality in Scripture, those passages had to be redefined or largely eradicated, corrected in terms of a new interpretation.

But what emerged very quickly from that is that if you are going to argue that the passages that restrict women in any way are thus illegitimately interpreted and need to be reinterpreted so that they no longer are binding on the church, then very quickly you face the fact that the very same argument, the very same hermeneutic — that’s the theological word for the interpretation of Scripture — the very same interpretive pattern that would lead to the feminist conclusion also leads to the LGBTQ conclusion.

There was actually no clearer representation of that than Virginia Ramey Mollenkott herself. She was born to a very clearly conservative evangelical family; but as Penelope Green, the obituary writer for The New York Times tells us, “When she was 11, Virginia fell in love with a 21-year-old woman, and when her mother discovered the relationship, she sent her daughter to a Christian boarding school near Orlando, Florida.” This school also, like Virginia Mollenkott’s mother, did not accept lesbianism as a biblical option, but the student then went on to Bob Jones University. At Bob Jones University, she met a young man whom she married, Fred Mollenkott; thus the name Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. She wasn’t married to him for long because she came to the conclusion that she wasn’t heterosexual. But she was also teaching at Bob Jones University at that time as an instructor in English.

According to The New York Times, it was Virginia Mollenkott’s graduate work at the PhD level at New York University that led her to her eventual method of interpreting the Bible. She did her PhD, writing her dissertation on John Milton, the 17th century English poet. He’s most famous, of course, for writing Paradise Lost. According to the Times,

“Her deep dive into Milton’s work liberated her thinking about the Bible. She began to read it more critically as a literary as well as a sacred text. In studying Milton’s writings about love and marriage, and about divorce over incompatibility, she found the resolve to divorce Mr. Mollenkott in 1973.”

Now at this point, it’s already clear that by 1973, Virginia Mollenkott’s liberalism, her feminism, and her lesbianism set her in contrast to and in contradiction to not only her mother and the Christian school to which she had been sent, but also to Bob Jones University and eventually to marriage, leading to the divorce from her husband.

Now, that was 1973 — keep that in mind. By 1975, Virginia Molenkott and several others feminists who at that point did identify as kind of a liberal evangelical tradition, they formed what was known as the Evangelical Women’s Caucus. The first Evangelical Women’s Caucus conference was held in Washington DC in late November of 1975.

Let’s just do the math. That’s 45 years ago. So 45 years ago, evangelical Christianity in the United States was presented with a pretty stark decision. It was either going to hold to a traditional biblical understanding of sexuality and of gender — what it means to be male and female — or it was going to capitulate; that’s probably the best word for it, or to surrender to a liberal method of biblical interpretation and theology that was already taking over mainline Protestantism, leading of course not only to the ordination of women as pastors, but to a basic embrace of the entire LGBTQ revolution and eventually to demands to reimagine God in terms of gender.

A press release from that first Evangelical Women’s Caucus conference in 1975 said that it brought together 360 women “who are both feminists and conservative Christians.” Well, as it turned out — and you can predict this — there was basically a decision to be made between feminist and conservative Christian. But there was something else working in the background, and that was the LGBTQ issue, as we would now call it.

By the 1980s, the Evangelical Women’s Caucus would actually split over the question of lesbianism. The Evangelical Women’s Caucus, which I’m going to argue was not legitimately evangelical at all, eventually became not just the EWC for Evangelical Women’s Caucus. But the EEWC for Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus — emphasis upon ecumenical, not evangelical — the group that wanted to support the basic feminist and egalitarian aims of the EWC that withdrew from the organization over the issue of lesbianism became known as CBE, or Christians for Biblical Equality.

The Evangelical Women’s Caucus would go on first to affirm civil rights as they were defined for LGBT persons, but then would go on basically to affirm the entire array of issues related to LGBTQ, including transgender. The book written by Virginia Mollenkott along with Letha Scanzoni entitled, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? Another Christian View, sought to offer a revisionist interpretation of scripture, which would turn the plain meaning of Scripture upside down on issues of homosexuality.

The obituary in The New York Times points to Virginia Mollenkott and says, “She was the author of 13 books all written in long hand on a yellow legal pad on social justice and feminist theology, as well as on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues.” She also lectured, we are told, and led retreats. The next paragraph tells us,

“In 1999, Dr. Mollenkott received a lifetime achievement award from Sage, a nonprofit group that supports older LGBTQ people for,” in the words of the organization, “Challenging homophobia in Christian institutions.”

In the year 2001, she received a Lambda Literary Award for the best book in the transgender category. That book was entitled Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach, which explored, we’re told, “non-binary experiences in Christian and other religious traditions in early biblical texts.” I’ll just tell you that book is one of the strangest books I have ever read in my life, but I did read it in preparation for my own 2017 book entitled, We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, and the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong.

In dealing with the transgender revolution, I wanted people, especially evangelical Christians, to understand what is actually at stake. I think many conservative Christians in the United States simply don’t understand how basic is the rejection of the creation order when it comes to the transgender revolution.

About 20 years ago, having written the book Omnigender, Virginia Mollenkott was arguing that boys and girls should be raised without any reference to their anatomy. And of course you also have the fact that there had to be a leveling, there had to be absolute equality. And so what did that mean even for men and women, but also for boys and girls? It meant bathrooms that were exactly the same. Virginia Mollenkott decided that the urinal, a piece of plumbing, was itself a clear example of male privilege. It had to be done away with.

Virginia Mollenkott, by that point, was calling for a new future that would guarantee an individual the right to control and change one’s own body by means of everything from cosmetic surgery to hormonal treatments to complete gender reassignment surgery. But of course, she’s arguing both for the renovation of the bathroom and the renovation of the human being.

The death of any human being has to come with a sense of sadness, and especially, especially in the case where there is the kind of theological despair we must have when it comes to someone such as Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. By the time she had concluded her work, she was really not just repudiating what she considered to be a conservative Christian tradition, she was really repudiating the very doctrine of God as revealed in Scripture. But her obituary also reminds us of the fact that many of the issues confronting evangelical Christianity today are not new.

Her book Omnigender is about 20 years old. Her book that she wrote with Letha Scanzoni now goes back about 45 years. The emergence of what was then known as the Evangelical Women’s Caucus is a reminder of the fact that these issues have now confronted us, and this is why denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention had to establish very clearly a commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture and to the pattern that is revealed in Scripture concerning humanity by God’s design for God’s glory, making us as male and female. This is why a commitment to what is known as biblical complementarianism is, I believe, essential to a genuine evangelical consistency.

But there’s also another point, an even more fundamental point of the Christian worldview, a principle of thinking that Christians should think about and should affirm very clearly, and that is that if you allow yourself to, let’s just say, reimagine the creation order, eventually you will be reimagining the Creator. And that is exactly, right down to the words about reimagining God, the affirmation that Virginia Ramey Mollenkott made.

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