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Reason is all over Bible Study

In a post on Complegalitarian, Molly Alley discusses how reasonable it is to hold a doctrine that assumes that women will never mature, as in men where once boys who needed the guidance of a parent, but eventually they become mature and are considered ready for leadership. But what about women?

Of course, as an egalitarian, I think the idea that women can’t be in leadership is nonsense, and I want to focus on that word, nonsense, and the phrase good common sense in Molly’s concluding question that I quote below, along with the related term reasonable.

Molly says:

In other words, why does female subjection not seem to make good common sense (to me, anyways) when so many of the other commands do?

Now there’s a lively discussion of Molly’s actual point on that blog, and it’s one I’m not going to get into. What I’m going to discuss here takes off at a sharp angle from the topic, but it may explain why I find it next to impossible to get into these debates.

For many people that I encounter the idea that one uses reason or what is reasonable as part of one’s interpretation of scripture is somewhere between irritating and blasphemous, and it’s weighted toward blasphemous. Obviously God is wiser than we are, and he could ask us to do things that don’t seem reasonable to us, but that are reasonable from his perspective. Of course the question remains (and I discuss it in my book When People Speak for God), of just one decides whether one is doing something that is really stupid, or whether one is using divine wisdom.

The fact is that we all use reason when we read, interpret, and apply the scriptures. There’s no way out. Our reason is what we use to process information. We can hope it’s reason guided by the Holy Spirit, but that doesn’t make it any less a matter of reason. So the question is not whether reason will be involved. The question is just how well one’s reason will function when it is involved.

Let’s consider Molly’s question. There are several perspectives from which I can ask the question whether a command, such as the command not to let women speak in church, is reasonable.

  1. I can look from my own perspective. Does this look reasonable in my context? If I am as objective about this as possible, I will look at the potential harm and benefit to see whether a specific command works where I live. A good question is this: Does the command have the effect in my environment that it would have had when it was first given? The only reason I use the original context here is that it is helpful to have some anchor point when discussing the impact of a particular policy. This is largely a question of application and applicability.
  2. You can ask about the perspective of the original author. Does this command look reasonable as you interpret it in the world of that author? Does it appear reasonable that the command would have the effect that is clearly intended? What is that effect? (You can then check that effect with point #1.)
  3. What about God’s perspective? Since none of us have even a prayer of a God’s eye view, what I mean here is to ask just how universally the command could reasonably be expected to be in application. Does it look like the sort of thing that should be universal? As an example, “you shall not commit murder” is uttered and presented in a way that looks like it is intended universally. “Hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith” looks like it’s intended very specifically. But there will likely be a whole range of commands and statements between that will not be nearly so obvious.
  4. Does the command make sense theologically? Most of us have theological baggage. Some consider it an ideal to jettison all of that and come at the text anew. For exegesis, I think that can be helpful, but when it comes down to application, it has to fit into a system. Many of the Biblical commands that we no longer follow are regarded as inapplicable because of our existing theology. For example, the command to bring an animal to the tabernacle and sacrifice it instantly registers as “no applicable to me” because my theology says that one has passed away.
  5. Is there another reasonable way to understand the text? Many people struggle with texts believing they have to accept a certain interpretation when the solution might lie in rechecking the exegesis and application.

Reason is not merely useful, it’s essential in applying the Bible to our lives. Molly has asked a good question. Even when we do something that appears weird because we believe God has commanded it, some combination of revelation, reason, and experience has brought us to the conclusion that, despite popular opinion, our course of action is reasonable. Thus I think Molly’s question is a good one, and could be applied to many aspects of this situation.

As a sort of postscript, let me note that I do not find a modern application of the various texts that indicate that women shouldn’t preach or enjoy leadership roles to be reasonable at all. There are a number of reasons for this, certainly including the evidence that women carried out those roles in the earliest stages of the church. One of the best indications that a command is not universal is that you find exceptions in the very literature in which the command is contained.

Thus I tire of detailed exegetical arguments about these texts on both sides, even though I understand my more conservative brothers and sisters feel the need to go that way. Paul speaks pastorally to his situation. It should be no shock that he doesn’t overturn every aspect of the culture–he’s overturning enough already. But my situation in the modern world is so much different, that I find it extremely unreasonable to try to apply Paul’s pastoral advice in unadjusted form to the modern church. Thus when Paul says “husband of one wife” in my application I think “monogamous.” When Paul argues based on Adam being created first, I think, “I bet that made sense to Paul and that audience and got them on board, but it doesn’t make any sense to me.

But then I guess I’m a dangerous liberal (per my accusers) or passionate moderate (by my own confession) and I’m just intent on ignoring the Bible. Well, no, not actually. I think the Bible is a gold mine of principles, and more importantly it guides me in hearing God speak to my situation today. I’m glad that God continues to speak, and today he does so both through women and men.

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One Comment

  1. Molly says:

    Henry, I am late noticing this link and your words but wanted to say, “Yeah!” I think what I said about “common sense” didn’t really make sense to some, but you got it, exactly. I am aware that human reason can only go so far, but I at least think it’s fair to suggest that we slow down when our doctrines don’t make much sense in our world—-slow down enough to do a little digging and make sure we are hearing God correctly.

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