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Answering a Question on Egalitarianism

Answering a Question on Egalitarianism

I already responded to one post by Michael Patton on this topic (Am I a Complementarian?), but he followed this up with a question. I have been so busy with the release of my latest book (co-authored with Geoffrey Lentz) that I have fallen well behind the progress of this topic, but I still want to respond, though briefly.

I would note that I don’t agree with the common statement that there are no stupid questions, even though I use that in classes. “The only stupid question is one you don’t ask,” I intone. But then I contradict myself by teaching that often we get the wrong answer because we ask the wrong question. I’ll dodge that one by noting that “wrong” and “stupid” are not synonymous. So I’m not going to call Dr. Patton’s question stupid, but I think it’s the wrong one.

My egalitarianism, or more simply belief in equal rights, is not based on a view of just what women are as a group. This applies both in church and in society as a whole. I do not advocate that women be permitted to compete for and take roles because I think they are the same, but rather because I think that the opportunities should be kept similar. I do believe that some women and some men will be found amply qualified for certain non-traditional roles, and in fact I think that we will find that the determinative differences are few, but that will be demonstrated, in my view, by what those people actually accomplish.

So when Dr. Patton asks:

Here is my question(s):

* Is there any way for us to train boys to be “men”?
* Is there any way for us to train up girls to be “women”?

If so, what does that look like for each?

* What does it uniquely look like to be a “man”?
* What does it uniquely look like to be a “woman”?

My response would be: What do those questions have to do with anything?

Well, I can see the value of a negative response. If men and women are essentially different, why is it that you think you have to train them to be different?

My suggestion? Just as I said with ministry, train and use people according to their gifts. Then if you find that God has not gifted any women (or men) to do a particular task, we can surmise that we are dealing with some kind of fundamental difference.

How would I train a boy to be a boy or a girl to be a girl? I’d look at their individual personalities and gifts and flow with that.

Bottom line? My egalitarianism does not require me to assume some artificial sameness of men and women, nor some arbitrary distinctions. I view each person as an individual, and I believe that is the best way to do it. If no woman qualifies as a pastor, then no woman should be a pastor. If God calls no woman as a pastor, then no woman should be a pastor.

I will emphasize, however, that I do believe there are women who are called and gifted to be pastors, and I know some of them personally. I think there are many more. Too frequently I encounter a woman who is serving at less than her potential because someone told her that women can’t be pastors, or women can’t be theology teachers.

Follow the gifts; follow the call. That’s my approach.

PS: Scot McKnight has a letter on his blog today from a woman in seminary. I find its contents both saddening and quite realistic.

Am I a Complementarian?

Am I a Complementarian?

Michael Patton has taken it upon himself to define both complementarianism and egalitarianism and I think he gets it almost completely wrong. Now I must note that I really like reading Michael Patton’s blog posts and I think he writes with an irenic tone that promotes Christian unity, and in the end he does that even in this post.

What I disagree with are his basic definitions. As I read it, he says that egalitarians deny essential differences between men and women, while complementarians affirm such differences. To quote:

The belief that God has created men and women equal in all things. Men and women are ontologically and functionally equal. The way the sexes function in the church, society, and the family is determined by individual giftedness, not role distinctions according to the sexes. Therefore, each person should be judged individually when being placed in a particular position. We should exemplify this reality by overcoming the stereotypical placement that has traditionally been a part of societies in human history, thereby giving freedom to individuals to follow the path that God has uniquely created them for, whatever that may be. In doing so, we should no longer educate or indoctrinate according to any of the former stereotypes, including those of basic masculinity and femininity. [Emphasis mine, indicating my strongest disagreement; I disagree with the rest to varying extents.]

And of course, complentarians are just the opposite on those key points. He continues to argue that to be consistent, egalitarians need to deny pretty much all differences that are essential and imply that men and women are pretty much the same, except for the plumbing.

I don’t know whether there are complementarians that fit Dr. Patton’s description of them. I know very few egalitarians who fully fit his definition of them. I certainly do not. To me, it looks like an attempt at reductio ad absurdum on the egalitarian position.

In fact, I would state my own essential position quite differently. It is simply that every person, irrespective of gender, should be permitted to serve in the church as they are called and gifted by God. My egalitarian position says nothing whatsoever about how many men or women will or will not possess what gifts and what calling. That is precisely what I reject. I do not think they are ontologically and functionally equal. I just don’t believe that the offices of the church are necessarily tied to such function and ontology, nor do I think that each man and each woman can be defined solely as “man” or “woman.” There are an abundance of other differences.

By implication I am claiming that both men and women may possess those gifts, and indeed that some of each will. My position would be pretty silly if there were no women so gifted, or no men.

What I would ask would be that the simple fact of one’s gender not be the basis of determination. I would think complementarians should be able to work with this quite well. If they are right about essential differences (and here I rely on Dr. Patton’s definition of complementarianism), then one should be able to point to the absence of certain appropriate gifts or character traits that would exclude each and every woman from the position of teaching or being in a position of authority over men.

I am quite capable to declaring that a woman is not called to the ministry, nor gifted for it. I have been in the position of having to say so both to a candidate face to face and to the people who were considering her. (I would never say this to the committee if I was unwilling to say it to the candidate’s face.) But I have encountered even more men who were not qualified, and in my opinion neither gifted nor called. I believe the church needs to be able to make such a decision through whatever mechanisms are available.

I neither know nor do I care what the proportion there is between men and women who are gifted for ministry and called to various church offices. I simply assert that there are some of each and when they are gifted and called the church should admit it and let them serve. Their pastoral and/or teaching roles might even be quite different from one another, and that is good as well.

A further implication of Dr. Patton’s definition, at least as I see it, is that no essentially feminine characteristics would be appropriate to the pastoral role. I would again disagree. I don’t think that a calling to pastoral ministry would mean that a woman must have some collection of masculine characteristics. In fact, one of the benefits to ministry would be the use of some of the characteristics that are often seen as feminine.

In answer to the question in the title, I don’t think I am, but following the definition Dr Patton used, I might be one of those really odd complementarians who accepts differences between men and women, but doesn’t believe those differences mean no woman can be a pastor.

Besides, don’t we all have a measure of submission to at least one man–Jesus Christ?

And on that, I’m pretty sure Dr. Patton and I agree. We further agree that we are not dealing with an essential of the faith. It is an issue on which I have a strongly held and deeply felt position, but not one on which we must divide the body of Christ.

How Not to Make Your Point

How Not to Make Your Point

In his post next time, don’t invite the baptists, Bruce Alderman provides a link to a very unfortunate case in which a Lutheran pastor is put down by a local Baptist church because she is a woman.

Let me note here that I am personally acquainted with Baptists who oppose women in pastoral ministry and are quite courteous. They have no problem recognizing what’s essential for interdenominational fellowship and what is not, nor do they have a problem conveying their views in a Christlike manner. So this isn’t about Baptists in general.

Nonetheless, this particular church takes a different view. Go read it for yourself. I’m thinking this may not live up to Paul’s little suggestion:

18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. – Romans 12:18 (NRSV)

If they believe they cannot in good conscience be present at the installation, perhaps they should stay home quietly. I have to doubt the positive effect of rudeness.

Ben Witherington on Women in Ministry

Ben Witherington on Women in Ministry

Ben Witherington is taking on Biblical arguments against women in ministry in an article titles Why Arguments against Women in Ministry Aren’t Biblical. (HT: Dr. Platypus.)

I personally find his first and second arguments quite good, while I tend to be less convinced by his arguments regarding the specific texts. It seems to me that if, as he notes at the beginning of the argument, the New Testament is moving away from patriarchy, that is the overarching argument. Witherington says:

… As I have argued at length, the patriarchal family was the existing reality in the NT world, and what you discover when you compare what is in the NT and what is outside the NT, is that Paul and others are working hard to change the existing structures in a more Christian direction….

Thus I would regard his point #2 as the controlling factor in reading the texts cited in #3. The exegesis seems a bit too tortured for me, even when I want to agree with the conclusion. I’d prefer to say that these instructions were correct for the churches and the times to which they were addressed, and did mean that Paul did not permit women to teach at those places and times. I think Witherington’s argument in point #2 suggests that those commands do not apply universally, as the trajectory is toward more rather than less equality.

I’m glad to see someone of Dr. Witherington’s stature address this issue. Too often those of us who are in churches that accept women in ministry as a matter of course don’t bother to even examine the Biblical arguments. As long as this is not discussed, we have no way to build unity with those of our brothers and sisters who disagree.

Series on Chauvinistic Passages in the Bible

Series on Chauvinistic Passages in the Bible

Christopher Smith has written a three part series on chauvinistic passages in the Bible. The passages are:

In general I agree with what he writes, though I think the balance of evidence is slightly in favor of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. I tended the other way on that passage before reading Gordon Fee in his The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICOT) pp. 699-708. Despite accepting Fee’s arguments on that passage, however, I cannot agree that Paul was essentially egalitarian. I think he points an arrow in that way, but I don’t think he ever brought it to pass, and other passages cited in the series indicate this as well.

I would add I believe that a Biblical writer and/or church leader may be right for his time and place and yet be wrong for another.

I commend the entire series to you to read, as well as the discussion I’m having with Jeremy Pierce in the comments to this post, in which Jeremy says I’m being unfair, and I’ve said a few less than complimentary things about what he has to say. I find Jeremy extremely worthwhile to read, even when he’s annoying me. Read and judge–or enjoy–or both.

Interpreting the Bible II: Excursus on the Plain Sense

Interpreting the Bible II: Excursus on the Plain Sense

I want to tie up a few loose ends in my first post on this series as well as point out some things on which I will need to comment further. In particular, I read this post by John Hobbins that references a post by Wayne Leman regarding complementarianism and the “plain sense” of scripture. I want to distinguish what I mean by “obvious exegesis” from the idea of “plain sense” and define what I would mean by either one. One should note, of course, that what I mean by those terms may differ from the way others use similar terms.

One might ask why I would bring in a second controversial topic when I started with evolution. Here, at least, there is a method to my madness. I think it’s very important to check out methods of interpretation by applying them to other texts and other topics. Very often we change our approach to interpretation when the topic or text changes–always a bad sign.

I recall one online discussion about plain text of scripture in which the texts were limited to the Sermon on the Mount. The individual with whom I was discussing started with Matthew 5:33-37. He told me I was in violation because I said I would take an oath as a juror, or in the unlikely event I took a public office.

No discussion worked, even to the point of getting him to understand the possibility that someone else might understand the application of the text differently. He appealed to the “plain sense,” and after several rounds of discussion defined this as the way an average American high school student would understand the text.

So I pointed him to Matthew 5:29-30 in which Jesus says to pluck out your right eye if it offends, or to cut off your hand. How would the average high school student understand that command? Now he had a very complex explanation which involved fulfillment of the command through the willingness to face martyrdom for one’s faith–a much more allegorical explanation than my view that 33-37 is a hyperbolic way of saying “Just tell the truth!”

One point here is that the “plain sense,” however defined, is very often not all that plain, and the way in which one comes to a “plain sense” in one text may differ substantially from the way in which one discovers it in another.

But further, the idea of plain sense is not the same as what I mean here by “obvious exegesis.” People have very little patience for distinguishing between the historical meaning of a text and it’s application, but the distinction is important. These terms are not always used consistently, but I’m using “exegesis” to refer to that historical meaning, or more precisely the meaning of the original author to his or her audience.

That historical meaning is much easier to discern than is the application, but even so, one of the main points of this series is that it is not only difficult to define, such as whether one goes into the prehistory of a redacted text, but difficult to achieve once you’ve chosen the precise target. It simply isn’t always all that obvious what an ancient text means.

Application, which is usually in view when one hears “plain sense,” is even more complex than is the historical meaning. The fact is that one cannot keep all the commands in scripture. Many of them are obviously intended for particular times, but even amongst the rest there are many commands that do not work well together, or which we would even regard as evil, such as the death penalty for sabbath breaking.

This isn’t exactly a new problem, invented by modernist or liberal Christians (perhaps like me?) who want to avoid following the Bible, but don’t want to admit it. Acts 15 describes an early church conference at which the discussion was precisely about what commands would apply to what people, particularly gentiles. In 1 Corinthians, starting with chapter 8, Paul expresses a somewhat different theology on the issue. The arguments all around might be very similar to modern ones. One side might well have relied on the plain sense of scripture, while the other relied more on theological nuances.

Now the topic of John Hobbins’ and Wayne Leman’s posts, the complementarian vs egalitarian debate, is a good test case. Let me limit myself to Paul as an illustration.

There are egalitarians who believe Paul was actually an egalitarian, and that there are good explanations for all of his comments that make them consistent with egalitarianism. There are those who believe that Paul personally had a problem with women, but that egalitarianism is nonetheless the correct theological position today.

Complementarians generally would regard Paul as supportive of their position, but this depends to large extent on the idea that we today should do the same thing as Paul did in this particular case.

When I discussed my own position (very egalitarian), I cited Galatians 3:28, “no more . . . male or female” in support of my position. Do I think Paul intends here to support an egalitarian position? If so, why does he elsewhere forbid women to teach?

The fact is that I don’t think Paul is an egalitarian, or that he intends to support egalitarianism here. I think he got pretty close to erasing the Jew or Greek boundary, and probably anticipated seeing slave or free become equal in practice. I doubt he thought of a day when women would be pastors on an equal basis with men.

So how can I be egalitarian and also claim to give any authority to the Bible? Well, there are certainly many things that I think were appropriate for a particular time or place, but are not appropriate for others. What Paul taught in his pastoral messages to his churches is not good advice for he 21st century.

So I’m arrogant enough to put myself above Paul? Well, yes, in the sense that I live in the 21st century, and he most definitely didn’t. I get to look at my situation and my time and try to apply the principles that come from the gospel to what I find here.

I think Paul glimpsed this, and points to it in passages such as Galatians 3:28 or Romans 16:7 when he calls Junia as apostle. But the path to that application is nothing like direct, and nothing that I think anyone would define as the “plain sense.”

I believe it permits me to express the historical meaning without having to bend it to modern practice, while at the same time letting the gospel guide me beyond the word to a more appropriate application today.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that my point here is not to provide a substantial support for any particular position but rather to show that Biblical interpretation, from historical meaning to current application is much more complex in practice than most people believe, and that this complexity is not something new.

In later posts I will provide further examples of cases in which multiple and perhaps odd interpretations of scripture have been made within scripture itself and in the history of the church. I also want to discuss both the definition of inerrancy and its application in interpretation.

Two Steps Back, and Proof Texts Too

Two Steps Back, and Proof Texts Too

Via Aristotle’s Feminist Subject, I found the story of the “True Woman” movement. See their manifesto as well.

Earlier today, John Hobbins was calling for “respectful dialogue” as the “need of the hour.” I like John Hobbins, and he displays great wisdom. Respectful dialogue is both needed and rarely to be had.

Unfortunately, with respect to the issue of women in leadership, I have a hard time complying with that request. It’s not the nature of the logical arguments involved. I do regard the complementarian position to be an egregious misapplication of scripture, using a collection of particulars to overcome the force of the overarching and underlying narrative. It uses a few comments by Paul to transform the incarnation into some sort of petty power play.

But that’s not why I’m emotional about this, despite my fairly heavy language in the last paragraph. I read, hear, and speak this issue in the shadow of the many women I know whom God gifted for leadership, and whose behavior these women would call ungodly.

It’s not that they want to raise children. Many of the women of whom I speak raised families as well, and I do not intend to speak ill of those women–or men–who make a choice to be homemakers. It’s a praiseworthy choice. It’s not so praiseworthy, however, when one pretends that choice makes one spiritually superior, or makes efforts to restrict the choices for other women who may feel somewhat differently.

At the emotional level I know women who are definitely gifted, ranging from Lucille Knapp, the gifted woman who taught me my first two years of Greek to Dr. Leona Running who taught me such languages as Syriac, Akkadian, and Middle Egyptian, to my wife Jody Neufeld who is a gifted teacher capable of taking spiritual concepts and bringing them down to daily life.

The problem, you see, is that when I hear someone say that a woman can’t speak or lead in a church, it’s not some abstract thing. I see those women and the myriad of others like them, being told that it doesn’t matter how God has gifted them–they better shut up, go away, and make that other choice.

Egalitarians can, and should, celebrate women who choose to make their ministry in their home. But complementarians will find it impossible to celebrate those women who choose to exercise their God-given gifts of leadership in the church, or those men who choose to be homemakers.

And that leaves me with a strongly, even emotionally, held position.

Christianity Today Blog for Women in Leadership

Christianity Today Blog for Women in Leadership

I’m a consistent advocate for women in church leadership, i.e. unrestricted in following God’s call and using their gifts.

Thus, when reading my Church Laughs today (this one didn’t tickle me that much-some of them are hilarious), I was happy to find an add for a “new” blog, Gifted for Leadership, for women in ministry. I did see one post authored by a man, however, so perhaps it’s not an all-women zone! In addition, it’s not that new. It’s been there since early 2007.

So for those of my readers who are involved in ministry, either women in ministry or those who wish to understand the issues and needs better, I thought I’d provide a link. I haven’t thoroughly studied it, but it does look constructive and helpful.

Idolatry of Theology and Liturgy

Idolatry of Theology and Liturgy

  • In a recent comment on my video Why I Hate the KJV, I received a comment that began thus: “You were saved by the KJV. . . .”
  • A young man visited my home and discussed with me for more than an hour. At the end, he said he was concerned for my salvation because of various details in the way I understand salvation by grace through faith.
  • A student asked me just what set of beliefs he needed to convey to someone and convince them to believe before he could be sure they had been saved.
  • A church member quits attending worship because he can’t stand the drums, the organ, the people raising their hands, the people not raising their hands, the way the pastor prays, ad nauseum.

All of these points do have something in common, I believe. There’s the theory of salvation by grace through faith (God does it), the theory of salvation by works (get working and earn it), and the wonderfully western theory of salvation by intellectual assent to correct theology. I would suggest, however, that this intellectual assent version falls afoul of Paul’s note “not of works lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:9, emphasis mine). I think that could justifiably be paraphrased “not of intellectual assent (or prowess) lest any man should boast.”

But no, there’s a substantial group of Christians who hold implicitly, if not explicitly, that without getting certain parts of their theology right, people cannot be saved. No thieves hanging on crosses need apply! One wonders just how many facts about atonement the thief on the cross grasped in the moment that he said “Lord, remember me”? Did he even know what “Lord” meant in that context?

Now I’m told that I put too much weight on the story of the thief on the cross, but I think it’s a tremendously important counter-example. That thief hangs there athwart the path of all those who want to make salvation difficult by requiring amounts of time, training, works, or even understanding. There’s nothing there but a cry for help and grace extended.

People frequently paint pictures of God from the theological prose of the Bible that contradict the God who appears in the stories. Personally I think this is reversed. As the thief on the cross hangs athwart the path of those who require intellectual understanding, so do Deborah (Judges 4 & 5) and Junia (Romans 16:7) stand in the way of those who want to claim that God can’t use women as leaders. At a minimum, those two examples should make one look carefully at each individual woman one meets in ministry and ask, “Is she one for whom God has made an exception?” Of course I think there are better theological reasons for rejecting gender exclusion in ministry, but that’s another post.

But what does all of this have to do with the last example I gave, a liturgical one, and with the title of the post which refers to idolatry? Quoth Paul again, “Much, in every way!” I use the basic definition for idolatry I got from reading Tillich: “Treating as ultimate anything that is not ultimate.”

  • The commenter on my YouTube video has made the KJV the ultimate thing, replacing God and Jesus as the agent of salvation, and replacing it with a book, a translation made by human hands.
  • The young man who questioned my salvation based on his theological propositions has made those theological propositions into his god. They are the idol of God before which he worships. I would note here, however, that in my view grace is sufficient for gossips and murderers, and yes, even idolaters!
  • The student who asked about what must be believed was a very sincere person who was nonetheless distressed by the idea that he might not present the right pieces of the puzzle and thus not reach someone. He was being tempted by idolatry.
  • The church member who quits over liturgy, well . . . see below.

I suspect that liturgy is the part of theology which tempts us most to idolatry. Many people ignore the atonement debates and simply believe that Jesus died for them. The idolatry is more frequently one of church leaders than church members. But everyone knows whether you raise your hands or don’t. Everyone knows what kind of music they like. Everyone knows whether they like a fixed order or a more spontaneous service.

Preferences aren’t the problem. In fact, it’s not a problem to seek to understand and believe correct theology. That is, until what you say about God and how you worship becomes more important than God. Worship is about experiencing and worshiping God in community with one’s fellow believers, the body of Christ. When you let your personal preferences keep you from corporate worship, at least some elements of that are lost. In fact, I would suggest that if you are in no sense giving up something to others in worship, you may not be fully experiencing corporate worship.

And when you let those individual preferences keep you from worship, then that becomes idolatry as well. Something that is not ultimate–the form of the worship service–has become ultimate for you instead of God.

Should pastors, church leaders, and liturgists not strive for a good worship service? Absolutely they should do their best in this area. I am not advocating sloppiness either in theology or in liturgy. I am advocating the correct priority. When a pastor presents the Eucharist carelessly and thoughtlessly, for example, it may make it harder for people to experience the presence of Christ in their midst. I very much enjoy the Eucharist. There have been times, however, when I have had to work to experience the presence of Christ because it was so clear that the pastor was not experiencing it, and didn’t care.

On another occasion I recall a minister who I thought might ascend from before the altar at any moment because he was so thoroughly engaged in the liturgy he presented. The simple fact that his worship was so completely directed at God, and so engaged his entire being, made it easy for the worshipers to join him.

It is not good liturgy and good theology that I’m challenging here. Good liturgy and good theology help bring one to God. But no liturgy or theological proposition that stands between God and the person can be truly good.

A tree is a good thing, but when one bows down and worships it, it becomes an idol. It is the same in our theology. A good doctrine, a good worship service, or a good deed, placed above the one in whose service they should stand, has become an idol.

Friends, keep yourselves from idols. Amen! — 1 John 5:21