What the Bible really says about men and women; a 10 point critique of complementarism (5)

This is 4/10 of a 10 point critique of complementarianism in dialogue with Claire Smith and Howard Marshall’s interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:8-15. 

And in outlining these objections, 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.

4. A faulty hermeneutic

1 Timothy 2:8-15 is the keystone of the ‘complementarian’ view. Without the interpretation of a ‘creation ordinance’ from this text, pretty well the entire argument for men-only preaching, leading and teaching loses coherence. Yes there are other texts of debate in 1 Corinthians (also with exceptionally difficult elements and disputed exegesis), but 1 Timothy is the most important. And this is precisely the problem. For it shows a hermeneutic at work that prioritises and absolutises this text ‘I do not permit a woman’ becomes the lens through which the rest of the NT teaching on women is viewed.

A larger biblical theology moves from Genesis, through the OT, is centered on Jesus and his radical attitudes to women, then on to Paul and the rest of the NT with its remarkable inclusion of women and with female teachers, leaders and at least one apostle (Junia, Roms 16:7), climaxing with the estchatological hope of a new creation and the perfect image of God in man and woman restored completely and the curse of the Fall overcome.

In contrast, a narrow and restrictive ban ill fits the liberating thrust of this overall narrative and lacks a coherent rationale. Prioritising a highly questionable exegesis from one exceptionally disputed text that has unusually difficult aspects (saved through childbirth for example) is not a reliable or safe hermeneutic.

It is much better to interpret the difficult text against the larger witness of Scripture. For example, I am often struck in this whole debate by how the complementarian-hierarchical view minimises Jesus and the evidence from the Gospels. Claire Smith’s book is a good example. Jesus’ actions and words regarding women are hardly mentioned, despite the revolutionary way he includes, affirms, welcomes as disciples, and is even supported by, women. Much more could be said here, but the point is how a narrow interpretation of ‘law’ is then imposed on the wider whole. Any contradictory evidence within Scripture is downplayed or ignored (the remarkable attempts to ‘silence’ Junia for example).

A Specific Example: Women and Slaves

Kevin Giles illustrates this point with regard to women and slaves. How are Paul’s commands to women, slaves and children to be subordinate to apply today?

Egalitarians will argue that these commands must be interpreted within cultural norms of Greco-Roman culture. Paul is exhorting believers to fit within the culture, not to cause unnecessary offence, and to commend the gospel by their model behaviour. In other words, this is primarily missional advice, not permanently binding ‘law’ for all cultures and all times.

Paul’s advice to slaves to be subordinate is not an affirmation of slavery. Indeed, reading Paul more widely, the radical boundary breaking nature of the gospel fatally undermines slavery – and it was this sort of hermeneutic which led Christians like Wilberforce to fight and eventually overturn the idea that slavery was sanctioned by God and morally unproblematic.

Complementarian-hierarchialists are faced with a difficulty here. No-one wants to say God endorses slavery. The whole wider thrust of Scripture, from Genesis 1:27 to Galatians 3:28 and hundreds of places in between, speak of the unique value, dignity, equality and worth of every human life. Within the revolutionary makeup of the body of Christ, racial, sexual, economic and religious distinctions have no spiritual significance. While the NT does not outrightly condemn slavery, it undermines and confronts the injustice, inequality and exploitation of one person by another.

All this means that the ‘complementarian’ position on Paul’s commands for slaves to be subordinate pretty well mirrors that of egalitarians – they are wise words of advice in a specific cultural context and are not to be taken as supportive of ongoing subordination of slaves to their masters today.

You might think then that the same hermeneutic might apply to women, but no.

Within a complementarian hermeneutic governed by 1 Timothy, in complete contrast to the temporary words of missional advice to slaves, virtually identical words to women become permanent, unbreakable words of law for all women in all cultures for all time since they are based on the ‘creation ordinance’.

Exegetically there is no hint of such a contrast between the commands to slaves and to women in the texts. Galatians 3:28 explicitly parallels women and slaves. Giles concludes no-one has argued for such a contrast in the history of the church prior to about 1975.

Study of exhortations to members of the household in texts like Colossians 3:18-4:1 and Ephesians 5:22-6:9 show they fit within the cultural context of Greco-Roman ‘household codes’. Three paired groups appear: masters and slaves, husbands and wives, and fathers and children. None of these exhortations are based on a Creation Ordinance’  from Genesis. All make better sense read as Paul doing what he did best – being a flexible missionary who was ‘all things to all men’ while seeking not to be any obstacle in the way of the gospel.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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