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.

What the Bible really says about men and women: a 10 point critique of complementarianism (4)

This is number 3 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.

3. Lack of rationale

Complementarian-hierarchialism faces a major struggle in finding some sort of rationale for the position being espoused.

Some argue that women are innately not suited to leadership (Thomas Schreiner used to say this but changed his mind). Others like Claire Smith say this is just what the Bible says. She grants it is not an issue of giftedness or ability – that many women are just as smart and able and potential leaders as many men. We can’t really understand why God wants it this way but that’s just the way it is.

She goes further to say that ‘the ability to do something does not come with the right to do it.’ And so just because a woman is a gifted Bible teacher (presumably gifted by the Spirit of God) does not mean she should preach. Not allowing her to lead and preach and teach is somehow God’s ‘good design’. How and why this is ‘good’ is unclear.

Then for good measure, Smith adds that such a woman should not feel envious of others (men) who can use their gifts to preach and lead. So not only can she not preach (even though she is gifted), to want to do so puts her on the path to envy. No wonder woman are hurt and silenced by this sort of argument.

Others, like John Piper and Wayne Grudem, try to root women’s limited roles in the very nature of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. Men (as a sex) are made by God to be more predisposed to lead. Women (as a sex) are made by God to be followers and submissive to men. It is in this sense that John Piper talked recently and controversially of Christianity having a “masculine feel”. Yet the Bible never talks in these terms.

What this actually feels like is subjective desperation to find some sort of rationale for male priority in preaching and teaching and leading. And if there is no rationale, what does this say about God? – who usually has very good reasons for what he does and what he commands his people to do. Might it be that the interpretation is askew?

Comments, as ever, welcome

What the Bible really says about men and women: a 10 point critique of complementarianism (3)

This is number 2 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.

2. Authority

Complementarian-hierarchialism raises questions of what sort of models of authority lie behind such deep concerns over women in leadership. Smith (and others) do not say women can never teach men in all circumstances but only when teaching is linked to positions of ‘authority’ within the local church. Marshall asks, “Why should pastoral counselling and oversight be understood as an exercise of authority and so unacceptable?”

This links back to authentein as a negative and domineering use of authority seeking to control others. This is exactly the sort of authority that Jesus warns his followers NOT to practice (Mk 10:42-3); rather they are to serve.

Smith and others of her opinion seem to place an extraordinary amount of importance in the question of who can exercise authority over others – and locate that authority in the person and in his teaching. It seems to me that this is the wrong focus and the wrong question. The right question that the cross calls believers to is ‘How can we put aside a desire to exercise authority over others so that we can be freed to serve self-sacrificially?’

Authority for ministry in the NT is derived from God. It does not reside in the person – whether male or female. The apostles were Christ’s commissioned witnesses and representatives (cf. Mt. 10:40; Jn. 17:18; 20:21; Acts 1:8; 2 Cor. 5:20). Their authority was derived from Jesus. Junia was an outstanding apostle in her faithful service of the Lord (Roms 16:7). Her gender was irrelevant.

Similarly, every generation of Christians is called to submit its own faith and life to Scripture – which is a record of the Apostle’s authoritative teaching – which originates in Jesus. It is through Scripture that Christ-given apostolic authority over the church has been made a permanent reality.

As Scripture is faithfully taught, God speaks through his word by the power of the Spirit. There is therefore no theological rationale to say a woman should not preach and teach. Men are not somehow ‘more authoritative’ than women. We’ll come back to lack of rationale for complementarianism later.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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.

What the Bible really says on men and women: A 10 point critique of ‘complementarianism’ (1)

OK, after outlining Claire Smith and Howard Marshall on 1 Timothy 2, I’m doing a series of posts on 10 reasons why I find the complementarian argument unconvincing. This one is a starter, 10 others will follow.

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.

‘Complementarianism’ is in fact a one-sided view where particular leadership roles are only open to men. There are no corresponding ‘roles’ that are only open to women. So it is more historically and theologically accurate to call ‘complementarianism’ what it is; a recent word for a patriarchal and hierarchical view of men and women in leadership and in marriage.

For this reason, I prefer to qualify the word ‘complementarianism’ with another word, ‘hierarchialist’, C-H for short. I’m using C-H because ‘complementarianism’ is a misleading term. It used to be called simply ‘the hierarchical view’ until somewhere around the last quarter of the 20th century. ‘Complementarian’ seems to have been coined to soften what is really been said here – that there is a divine hierarchical order to male-female relationships.

I’m not using those words in a derogatory way but arguing that they accurately describe the male-only leadership model. [And the specific language is very much an in-house evangelical / Protestant debate. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches have their own particular versions of hierarchical male-only leadership which are not directly being discussed here but are also implicitly rejected by an egalitarian perspective].

Most ‘complementarians’, if pushed, are ‘soft’ rather than ‘hard’ hierarchialists. They accepts a certain amount of cultural context to the Bible’s teaching about women and men, but insist that there is a divine hierarchical order to fixed gender roles. Her primary role is of submissive wife and mother (if there are children) and his as a loving sort of boss. She can minister actively in church, but leadership roles of pastoring, being an elder or teaching men are closed to her. Women are equal ontologically (in being) with men, they are not equal in role – such as authority, leadership, preaching.

Bottom line, I just don’t see hierarchical fixed gender relationships being endorsed as God’s ‘good design’ in the NT. Sure, some Christians may choose to structure their marriages this way and maybe that works well for them, I hope it does. But to extend this as a divine rule for all Christians in marriage and in church leadership in all cultures for all times is, for the following 10 reasons, in my view fatally flawed.

Comments, as ever, welcome.