In 2008, Christians were faced with the real prospect of a woman president (Hillary Clinton) or vice president (Sarah Palin). Some (though very few) complementarian Christians wondered whether this could be right, while critics of traditionalist interpretations wondered how consistent it was for Christians to elect a woman to national office when they wouldn’t vote for her to serve as pastor of a local church.
In light of Michele Bachmann’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, I found myself asked that question again in recent days in an interview with Christianity Today’s women’s blog “Her.Meneutics.” I think the question is a good one, and is more complicated than it first appears, to both sides.
Take the particular personalities off the table, whether Clinton, Palin, or Bachmann (who are all relatively polarizing for reasons, I think, other than gender). On the face of it, there is no contradiction since Scripture teaches that the church, not the world, is presently the outpost of the new creation. The state in this age doesn’t—and can’t—reflect God’s kingdom purposes in the way that the church or a family can.
I would gladly vote for someone to be my president who disagrees with me on whether or not infants can be baptized. I wouldn’t want that same person to be my pastor, because we will have to decide together who and how to baptize. The Kuyperian principle of “sphere sovereignty” is helpful here.
The best articulation of sphere sovereignty I’ve ever seen is in Richard Mouw’s new book on Abraham Kuyper. Mouw uses the example of a woman who is a college dean and an elder at her local church (I know, I know, but it’s his illustration, not mine). Her son works for her, and misuses college property for nefarious ends. Mouw shows how she must deal with him in different ways. As dean, she fires him. As elder, she seeks to restore him. As mother, she loves him unconditionally and gives him a place to stay.
There are other issues afoot here though. Although critics are wrong to say that Christians are inconsistent in applying different standards to church and public square, they are right to say that there’s something odd in Christian people celebrating the political warrior-princess motif.
Unfortunately, American evangelicals have too often longed for a secular authority to serve as a spiritual leader, and political professionals have been all too willing to exploit this by teaching candidates to parrot evangelical-sounding phrases and “testimonies.” In such cases, political leaders become totem-like for evangelicals. An attack on a candidate who identifies with “us” is an attack on “us” or, worse, on Jesus. That’s unhealthy, regardless of whether the politician is male or female.
In the case of evangelical over-identification with political partisanship, though, there can be a subtle shifting in what it means to define a woman’s life, or a man’s, as a “success.” There is quite a bit of inconsistency in evangelical complementarians talking about a “gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Pet. 3) while cheering Ann Coulter’s latest sarcastic barbs.
I’m not all that worried about the gender of our political candidates, precisely because, relatively speaking, the political arena just isn’t all that important when compared to the church. What is important is the way our political passions often shift the way we view the mission of the church, and even what we expect in our homes.