What the Bible really says about men and women. A 10 point critique of complementarianism (2)

This is number 1 of 10 reasons why I find the complementarian argument unconvincing – with particular dialogue with Claire Smith’s and Howard Marshall’s interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:8-15.

And in outlining these objections, it’s worth repeating that I’m trying to imagine a robust debate with people I know and respect who don’t agree with me, not a war with enemies.

For Christians from both sides can agree on a lot: men and women are different(!); they are equal, both created in the image of God; both sexes are gifted by the Spirit for ministry; and no-one, whether male or female, has any ‘right’ to leadership. Leadership is a gift and calling of God to a life of loving and serving others under the shadow of the cross.

That said, this is not a trivial issue. It fundamentally touches upon understandings of leadership, ministry, Bible interpretation, the dignity and value of women, and whether half of the global church is permanently barred from serving the Lord using their gifts of leading, preaching and pastoring simply because of their gender.

1.     Issues of interpretation

First a general point. Claire Smith never (unless I missed it) uses the word ‘interpretation’ in regard to her treatment of the 1 Timothy text (or any other texts in entire book). I think this is quite deliberate. Several times she asserts her approach is simply to take the texts at face value and then see what they say  – she is simply ‘explaining’ the obvious and straightforward meaning of the Bible.

But of course despite this she then offers a very particular interpretation that has all sorts of assumptions and decisions built into it. I’ve said already how much I dislike this sleight of hand – to be blunt, it lacks integrity and transparency.

Creation Ordinance’?

More specifically to interpretation, the universal ban on women teaching men arises out of Paul’s use of the creation narrative in 1 Timothy 2. What Smith and other male-only leadership interpreters do here is to make a huge ‘exegetical jump’ from the text to ‘creation ordinance’ to a permanent universal pattern of male ‘headship’.

However, it makes far more sense, and is more consistent, to see Genesis being used as a corrective illustration to point out that Eve was deceived and fallible and therefore the Ephesian women should learn a lesson in humility rather than domineer and teach error. This is consistent with Genesis account’s focus on the deception of the woman. Smith’s universal application of the ban fits neither with the context of Timothy nor of Genesis which is emphatically not about male / female hierarchy.

Selective application of commands

There are a number of explicit commands in the Timothy text. To take just three:

i. ‘Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.’ It is interesting that for Claire Smith a principle (no anger or disputation) rather than a command for all men for all time is taken from this text. She acknowledges that this command is directed at some men acting in an improper way at this particular time. In other words, it is correcting a local and temporary problem, hence it is not a universal command for all men in all times and circumstances.

ii. ‘I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes’. Similarly, the command that women are not to wear flashy clothes, jewellery or have fancy hairdos is interpreted as a principle for propriety in dress sense not a ban on all expensive bling and expensive visits to hair salons. Again the context is obvious that some women are being addressed – not every women had such wealth.

iii. ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.’ But when it comes to this command, it is, for Smith and others, ‘obviously’ setting in place a universal ban on all women teaching in all contexts for all time rather than some women teaching in an improper way in a particular context.

This sort of selective approach is forced, inconsistent and unpersuasive.

The meaning of authentein

Smith summarily dismisses debates about the use of this unique NT word by asserting that evidence that it is referring to a wrong use of authority are ‘widely discredited’. She gives no support for this assertion. Both context and wider evidence point to a deliberate use of this word rather than exousia – indicating a corrective to a misuse of authority in the particular context of Ephesus.

Comments, as ever, welcome.


3 thoughts on “What the Bible really says about men and women. A 10 point critique of complementarianism (2)

  1. I’ll be following along and appreciate this series! I wrote a brief paper for a class that focused on the Timothy text, and also carefully looked at Genesis. The C-H’s impose things on Genesis that are simply NOT there in order to have a so called “creation order” for their views. Looking forward to the rest of your posts. I’ve read much on this issue already, but like to keep reading b/c different people can bring fresh perspective! Here is my paper in case anyone is interested: http://lightenough.wordpress.com/2012/07/17/what-women-can-and-cannot-do-relative-to-teaching-the-bible/

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