It is too infrequently acknowledged that prejudice doesn’t have to involve malice, hatred, slurs or conflict. One doesn’t only get the kind of racism that is expressed in segregation or restricted opportunity or specific incidents of racial hatred. Racism can be friendly. Systemic racism or sexism tends rather to be expressed through an imbalance in who is trusted; whose voice is given the most value.
I have started my last post in the series on women’s ministry in this way, because my motivation for writing this series was that I observed attitudes towards women from Christian men that seemed to me to be sexist. I set out to investigate what the Bible says and to test our arguments for the place of women in the church in order to exhort us to treat women with the dignity that the Bible gives them.
To be clear, my motivation was not that I began to think that complementarianism is sexist. While it is a position that explicitly discriminates against women in terms of the roles they are allowed to exercise, certain kinds of discrimination are benign. It is not meant to be a statement of the relative value of men and women—rather, male headship is seen as a creational responsibility given to men much as child-bearing is a responsibility given to women. I began writing because of incidents that did imply a lesser value for women, or that denied them roles that the Bible never forbids. The church may love its women and see them as precious and important and yet still treat them as lesser people. Sexism can be friendly.
A Christian leader recently summed up his aim in a way that captures my original goal too. If you’re complementarian, be complementarian, not hierarchical or patriarchal. Complementarian theology commits men to viewing and treating women as equals. It commits men to recognising that women have gifts that are complementary to ours—i.e. we need them and their wisdom if ours is not to be deficient. It commits men to lead sacrificially, not to place women in servitude of male interests.
If we eradicated the male prejudices that involve ongoing put-downs of women and ongoing elevation of the importance of male ministry—if male headship truly served women sacrificially like it is supposed to—it would probably be less of an issue whether or not women may preach.
Am I complementarian?
Many of my posts cast doubt on the theological foundations on which complementarianism is based. As a result, I have twice been asked how I could still identify as complementarian in some of my posts.
The short answer is that I called myself complementarian because I always have been; I didn’t begin writing this series because I had changed my view, and on principle I don’t wish to change position without a fight. The foundation of complementarianism is uncertain, not disproved, and still in its favour is a reasonable biblical case that male headship is in some sense foundational. Changing position is difficult too, because while the positions may be uncertain, we have to choose a definite practice: we either let women preach or we don’t.
But the truth is I don’t want either of these labels as part of my identity. For reasons I will explain in more detail below, I no longer want to be called complementarian because it is impossible to avoid being associated with teaching under that banner that is unbiblical and abhorrent to me. I would also rather avoid being called egalitarian because it means that many will associate me with the brand of liberalism that is fluid on gender—even though that movement is unrelated to evangelical egalitarianism.
I’m for better Bible handling and for an end to prejudice against women in the church. That’s it.
The Death of Complementarianism
Complementarians often lay claim to good Bible handling as a distinctive. After all, the textbook is called Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood—it claims to be a return to the Bible in response to the ‘evangelical feminists’ who are allegedly behind the push for a more egalitarian model. What has killed complementarianism for me over the last month has been the poor Bible-handling used in its defence, and some of its nastier results.
1. Man is the head of the church?
A benign example to start with: in a recent talk, the speaker was explaining the biblical foundations of complementarianism using Eph. 5. In that text, Paul makes this analogy:
Point: the husband is head of the wife
Analogy: as Christ is head of the church
The speaker used this analogy to say that this picture of marriage therefore (in some ways) carries over into the role and function of women in the church. The trouble is: this is not how analogies work. The fact that God compares himself to such creatures as lions and chickens in no way makes him animalistic or these creatures divine. The point that Paul is making is that the man is the head of the wife in marriage. That’s it. There is absolutely no exegetical warrant in this text for making man the head of the church. You can argue that the pattern in marriage ought to carry over into the church (I don’t), but the text gives no hint that this is a valid move.
2. Forcing gender characteristics out of unrelated texts
As I said above, complementarianism commits men to recognising that women have gifts that are complementary to theirs. This is not, as far as I am aware, taught anywhere in Scripture, but seems to be based on the observation that Eve was created ‘helper’, that men and women are different, and that they seem to occupy different roles in marriage and society in the Bible.
Male and female differences—beyond those that have to do with reproductive biology—are hard to describe with confidence because they are general tendencies. As I have argued before, trying to universalise these tendencies as real manhood or womanhood is foolish because it can do real damage to those who find themselves outside of the ‘definition’. More importantly, the Bible makes no effort to sketch portraits of manhood and womanhood at any point. This is an obvious problem for those whose theology needs there to be such portraits.
As a result, many complementarians seem to feel obliged to extract universal male and female characteristics from the Bible regardless of whether or not good Bible-handling allows them to.
In a recent talk, the speaker was advocating for women to be involved in women’s ministry. Because so few texts speak directly to women, she felt compelled to deal with Titus 2:3-5, which does so. While Paul is addressing a specific community with specific problems, the speaker took these problems to be characteristic of women universally: women are prone to gossip, women should be pure and not try to manipulate men with their bodies, etc.
She went on to claim that women need to be taught differently to men, on the grounds that Jesus dealt differently with Martha when rebuking her than he did with Peter. This, she said, is because men and women are different by design. Jesus spoke gently to Martha when she was angry at getting no help from Mary because women are relational. Jesus called Peter ‘Satan’ because men are tougher and care about truth. The fact that Jesus would have to be a monster to call Martha ‘Satan’ for doing an objectively nice thing seemed lost on the speaker.
The issue is that none of these texts is attempting to tell us what men and women are. It is an abuse of logic to make a universal claim (or even a generalisation) on the basis of a sample size of one. More importantly, it is an abuse of Scripture to try and claim divine sanction for it too.
This same error is taken to stratospheric heights by Doug Wilson, a prominent pastor and contributor to TGC and desiringgod.org. Returning to Ephesians 5, he takes the instruction that wives must submit to their husbands and that husbands must love their wives to be a statement of ontology:
“The command [in Ephesians 5] reveals something about the needs of the recipient… When husbands are told to love their wives, we can infer from this that wives need to be loved. When wives are told to respect their husbands, we can infer from this that husbands need to be respected. Think of it as two kinds of car that run on different kinds of fuel —diesel and regular, say. Men run on respect, and wives run on love.” (Doug Wilson, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/love-and-respect)
That he sees this as a matter of male-and-female ‘wiring’ can be seen elsewhere in his thinking. Here are two more quotes:
“Men and women are different, and they are different all the way down. Men and women relate to God differently, they relate to one another differently, and they relate to the world differently.”
[In sex] “A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.”
This is not too far from the views of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, but there remains no evidence in Eph 5 that this text is intended to be what characterises manhood and womanhood. When it is taken this way, it becomes a Trojan horse for views that smell an awful lot like misogyny. Wilson’s first quote above continues as follows:
“Men and women are different, and they are different all the way down. Men and women relate to God differently, they relate to one another differently, and they relate to the world differently…
But here are some different examples… Why, if a woman sleeps with a hundred men, is she slut-shamed, but if a man sleeps with a hundred women, he can get away with bragging about his “conquests”? Well, consider this factor. A key that opens a hundred locks can claim to be a master key. A lock that opens to a hundred keys can only claim to be pretty much worthless… The point is not that his sin is praiseworthy and the immoral woman’s is not, but rather that their sins are radically different because they are radically different…” (https://dougwils.com/books-and-culture/s7-engaging-the-culture/so-you-married-a-feminist.html)
I am not sure how the ‘factor’ that he mentions—one that makes a womanising male the possessor of a ‘master key’ and the woman worthless—isn’t at least a tacit endorsement of the perverse verdict that society used to levy against such people (when sexism was still ok). I see him claiming that he isn’t endorsing it, but he is the one raising the key-lock analogy, and I’ve tried, but I can’t see how it doesn’t contradict him.
His second quote is part of an explanation for why rape is so prevalent:
“A final aspect of rape that should be briefly mentioned is perhaps closer to home. Because we have forgotten the biblical concepts of true authority and submission, or more accurately, have rebelled against them, we have created a climate in which caricatures of authority and submission intrude upon our lives with violence.
When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts…
True authority and true submission are therefore an erotic necessity. When authority is honored according to the word of God it serves and protects—and gives enormous pleasure. When it is denied, the result is not ‘no authority,’ but an authority which devours.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2012/07/marital-rape-doug-wilson-on-dominance-and-submission-in-the-marriage-bed.html)
In other words, because Wilson needs a biblical portrait of manhood and womanhood that isn’t forthcoming from the pages of Scripture, he has extrapolated one from Ephesians 5 and universalised it to the position of our created identity. On that basis, he blames rape on egalitarians because men ought to have sexual authority and women need men to dominate them. When we don’t, those needs allegedly express themselves sinfully.
Bear in mind that Paul urges slaves and children to express their submission to order in obedience, but the wife is not told to obey; a wife’s submission is put in parallel with respect (5:33). Having respect for one’s partner is a far cry from being a creature who by nature is fulfilled by being dominated.
One might say that Wilson is an intentionally controversial figure and not representative of the mainstream, but as I pointed out last time, even Piper says that women must be responders not leaders in the bedroom, that egalitarian theology is a cause of sexual sins in society, and that women cannot lead even in civic roles because they would be in authority over men. Wilson might be a particularly revolting proponent of this theology, but Piper is most certainly the complementarian mainstream.
To reiterate my complaint, the Bible never attempts a description of the characteristics of manhood and womanhood, but rather talks about general Christian character and about gifts that the Spirit distributes as he wills. There is no biblical portrait of manhood. (There arguably is one of a woman in Prov. 31, but she seems more like the complementarian portrait of a man.)
Dragging ontological characteristics of men and women out of texts such as Eph. 5 is an abuse of Scripture and the knock-on effect of the application of such exegesis has the potential to be deeply harmful.
If being labelled complementarian commits me to share an umbrella with Wilson and his ilk, then I can’t be complementarian.
Should women preach?
If I am not complementarian or egalitarian, then where do I stand concerning whether women should preach in church or not?
I said in my last post, perhaps unfairly, that complementarians end up being either arbitrary or inconsistent when they claim that 1 Timothy 2 should be understood as a universal prohibition against women teaching men. Douglas Moo (RBMW, pp. 185-186) claims that ‘teaching’ in this passage is probably in the pattern of Jewish exposition of Scripture, and therefore is probably limited to the teaching of the Bible or of doctrine in church or in training institutions, but it doesn’t necessarily prevent leading a Bible study, and certainly isn’t relevant to evangelism etc.
This is an argument that is plausible and it allows one to escape the charges of inconsistency. However, it is a guess. The word ‘to teach’ is used generally of instruction, for example also describing Jesus’ use of parables (e.g. Mark 4:2) or the Holy Spirit teaching one what to say when in the witness box (Luke 12:12) or nature teaching us about the impropriety of long hair (1 Cor. 11:14). To claim that it is a technical term for a certain mode of instruction is a useful solution to the conflict that this text introduces, but far from obvious from the language.
Whatever one believes, it should give us serious pause that the evidence that women should not preach to men (as distinct from holding headship) amounts to a single verse—a verse that can also very persuasively be read as context-bound and not universal.
In favour of women teaching, I must underline the awkward fact that Paul says that women can prophesy in church. In 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, Paul ranks prophecy among the teaching gifts and as one rung down from apostleship, but above teaching. I am not persuaded by the attempts to redefine prophecy as something other than an authoritative teaching role. It clearly was that in the Old Testament, and women such as Deborah and Huldah held that position.
We all have a rule against one passage being read in conflict with another when harmonious readings exist. Unfortunately, in this case, either side has a tension to solve. It seems to me that reading 1 Tim. 2 as universally applicable involves more disharmony than reading it as context-bound. It is after all the same Paul who says that in Christ there is no male and female.
There is a strong emphasis in the New Testament upon behaving in ways that do not bring the gospel into disrepute. Submitting even to evil and corrupt governing authorities (rather than acting in rebellion against law) and refusing to eat meat if it causes others to stumble are examples of this emphasis.
If this is so, perhaps the fact that social orders now require submission to female prime ministers, law-keepers, judges, bosses etc., and given that male domination of any field is disreputable in most Western societies, following Paul’s example of sparing us from reputational harm on non-gospel issues would mean that we work hard to offer as much equality as possible.
On the other hand, Jesus himself pushed the boundaries of his culture, seemingly without concern for personal disrepute that might accrue. He was willing to challenge his culture when it came to issues that threatened the gospel, particularly pharisaic behaviour and the tendency to ostracise the unclean. He was not scared to be associated with sinners, including disreputable women. He opened the kingdom to all, allowing women to occupy roles as disciples and to learn at his feet. God even chose women to be the first witnesses of his resurrection even though the testimony of a woman tended to be disregarded. Jesus was eager to treat outsiders and outcasts with full dignity and to offer them the kingdom, and he risked offending the religious order of his day to do so.
It seems to me that we should avoid offending with non-essentials in a way that makes the gospel appear disreputable, but we should absolutely be willing to offend if it is the gospel itself doing the offending.
Given how much biblical support there is for women in ministry and how dubious the texts are that oppose it, perhaps it falls into the former category as something that should not be a source of disrepute. Perhaps we should err on the side of too much equality rather than too much hierarchy. Whatever one believes about women preaching, it certainly should provoke us to insist on equality and dignity for women in the church in every other respect.