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A Note on My View of Egalitarianism

A Note on My View of Egalitarianism

Speaking of equality, I want to write a brief note on egalitarianism as I see it. As with all labels, the boundaries are often a problem. Back in early science classes, I learned to distinguish vegetable, animal, and mineral. At certain levels, those distinctions become pretty muddy. It’s not just in social science.

What I mean by egalitarianism is that all activities and offices should be available to men and women based on their gifts, not on their gender. If a woman has pastoral gifts, she should pastor. I’m actually less concerned with the office of pastor than with the exercise of the gifts of a pastor, but since I believe that offices should follow gifts, the two would generally go together. I do not mean that there must be an equal number of men and women in pastoral roles. I do not comment on how many women or men might be gifted for those roles. I don’t know. I suspect that there may be more women gifted for those roles in the church at the moment. I also believe that authority follows gifts in the same way as an office does; the greatest behaves as a servant.

I’m not going to try to define complementarianism here, though I previously objected to a definition of complementarian which was alleged to include my own position. This is because I don’t believe that men and women are the same. They are not. I simply believe that either a man or a woman may have any set of gifts, and if they do, they should make use of those gifts as God’s servants. I’m stating this in church terms, but I hold the same view in society in general. The issue for me is not how many of what hold what position or job; rather, the issue is whether a person who has certain gifts can fully exercise those gifts.

Now specifically in the church I think there should be less difference between the practice of the complementarian and egalitarian positions than there is, assuming we both take the same view of authority that Jesus did. “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11 NRSV). In the church, this issue should not be one of seeking power. I think God, through Jesus Christ, has set the goal, which is leading with grace. That means that Christian leadership, no matter who exercises it, should be based in service. Those who follow leaders in the church should be doing so because they respond to that grace, demonstrated in being the servant of all. To whatever extent the battle over gender equality in the church is a struggle for supremacy, rather than for servanthood, it’s on the wrong track.

I don’t mean by this that those who are suppressed or oppressed in churches by leaders who seek power should just roll over. What they should do is either follow servant leaders or become servant leaders themselves. Move on to where you can do that! Let those who seek power exercise it over empty buildings if they must. Let’s live as servants in the world and be a servant church.

Ephesians 2: The Radical Nature of the Gospel

Ephesians 2: The Radical Nature of the Gospel

As I’ve been reading this passage repeatedly this week, I have been repeatedly struck by the radical nature of what Paul is saying here. I’m surprised we don’t spend more time on it, because it seems to me to clarify many things that are left unclear in Galatians and Romans.

Of course, considering the discussion of authorship, if one thinks Paul did not write the letter, one would hardly go there for a clear statement of Paul’s view. I think a similar corrective would be provided if one added the undoubtedly genuine 1 & 2 Corinthians to the mix when one wants to determine Paul’s theology.

In the meantime, however, Ephesians 2 remains radical. There are two ways in which this impressed me.

1) Contrary to what many modern readers imagine, the gospel message of grace received through faith does not treat works negatively, provided they are in their proper place. If I walk a couple of miles a day with a view to reaching Australia, I will likely be disappointed. There’s an ocean between here and there, and I keep winding up at my starting point. If I do the same thing for exercise, however, it’s a good thing.

Works done to earn God’s favor are destined to fail. Since all that we do is by definition a result of God’s gift to us (of life, before salvation), we can’t actually create something that God needs in order to make God owe us something. But to fail to attempt good works, however imperfectly we may accomplish our mission, after we have received God’s grace, is not only ungrateful, it is a rejection of the gift. The gift of grace makes good works possible.

For by grace you are saved through faith. Yet this is not from you. It is God’s gift. It’s not from works, so nobody can boast. For his creation is what you are, created in Christ Jesus for good works, so you can walk in them (2:8-10).

I also note that the exclusion of boasting as a reason why works are not the source of our salvation also excludes an intellectual sense of achievement in grasping and accepting the gospel. We are also not saved through intellectually comprehending the theology of salvation. We are not better than the person who cannot comprehend the theology.

2) This radical gospel could not have been produced using a modern hermeneutic. It must add to, and in some cases transform, what came before. I do not mean to suggest that Judaism was a graceless religion. I think it was filled with grace. I think the transformation is rooted in the Torah and developed in its early stages by the prophets.

But that entire process required just that—a process. God’s message came at various times and at various places before God finally spoke to us through God’s Son (Hebrews 1:1-3). Is there a more profound way for God to speak than through the incarnation? I don’t think so. But there is the possibility that we will more and more deeply understand the implications of God’s message.

In the face of this radical gospel, our hermeneutic of God’s entire revelation is often not radical enough to let us hear God calling us ever deeper.

I apply this idea to my previous note on egalitarian and complementarian texts. Rather than seeking a filter for those commands that are eternal and those that are temporal (and I suggest that all commands are both eternal and temporal; always given for a time and place, always deriving their force from an eternal principle), we need to be asking how God’s revelation should continue transform our natures and attitudes, both individually and as Christ’s body.

I think this is the failure both of many of us (definitely including myself) and of much of  the 21st century American church.


Shades of Outrage but Comments Closed

Shades of Outrage but Comments Closed

I pointed earlier to a post by J. R. Daniel Kirk responding to the post at The Gospel Coalition by Jared Wilson. Wilson has now responded to some of the outrage generated by his original post. But generally his new post says we shouldn’t read his excerpt as saying what it actually says, but should understand it as saying something completely different. He then closes comments.

I have two issues here:

1) The minor one is that the effort to respond and then cut off public discussion. E-mail is an easy way to take on only those you want to, and not have your responses subject to public scrutiny.

2) This is not a good characterization of complementarians that I know. I’m egalitarian. I’m quite willing to argue the issue. But I believe most of those complementarians of my acquaintance would not be any more comfortable with this language than I am. It’s important to recognize nuances of one’s position. It’s easy to make all of our arguments based on what some position might lead to or what might be associated with it.

Wilson tries to maintain that his excerpt is saying nothing more than the ordinary complementarian position (he 4th pagaraph" href="">fourth paragraph), and then wonders why people are so perverse as to fail to realize this, especially after the author has said that he really, really didn’t mean what we read his words to say. But unfortunately if language means anything, that summary is inaccurate (the fourth paragraph), and Douglas Wilson’s denial is disingenuous.

Consider this paragraph, the second in the exerpt:

When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, [note that this is not said to be offensive to all decent people, but to egalitarians] and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed [in other words, authority and submission is appropriate to the marriage bed, and is suppressed] (bolding and bracketed comments are mine).

I vigorously reject this paragraph. Obviously I do so as an egalitarian. But I also reject it as a fundamental statement of complementarianism. Were I to accuse my many complementarian friends of holding such a position, they would justifiably accuse me of constructing a straw man.

Wilson accuses detractors of decontextualizing this post. Is this excerpt insufficient context? Let him tell us what context would suffice to make this acceptable. The only context I could imagine that would justify the paragraph would be one that made it the statement of a villain in some sort of theological novel.

(See also this post from Political Jesus regarding Douglas Wilson and a discussion of slavery.)

Responding to TGC on Sex and Power

Responding to TGC on Sex and Power

Well, I’m not responding. I found someone who wrote a better response than I could manage. That is J. R. Daniel Kirk. The payoff quote:

When Jesus came and showed us what Christian manhood was all about, he did not conquer, but allowed himself to be conquered; he did not pierce, but allowed himself to be pierced; he did not plant by scattering his seed forcibly, he planted by giving up his own life–the grain of wheat falling to the earth and dying that it might produce a crop 100-fold.

A certain number of the differences between egalitarians and complementarians might be resolved if we all took our concept of authority and power from Jesus and the way he loved. Not all the differences, but a good number. “As Christ loved the church.” It’s not about putting you or me in charge.

If Your Spouse is Abusing You, Get Out of There

If Your Spouse is Abusing You, Get Out of There

A video from John Piper is making the rounds (HT: Tim Ricchuiti).

I’m not going to comment directly on the video. Rather, I think it is worthwhile to give my answer to the question asked. What does a woman who is abused do? (Note also that I’m aware there are men who are abused, but the question was not framed in that way.)

My answer is simple: Get out of there and report it. But especially get out of there. Don’t give a physical abuser the opportunity to do more damage.

I am an egalitarian as I have stated on this blog any number of times, yet I won’t criticize complementarian philosophy as natural leading to abuse, as some have done. I treat this issue as a non-essential. Complementarianism is not abuse.

Violent abuse, on the other hand, is a crime and not just something to be dealt with in connection with the church. It remains a crime irrespective of the theological positions of the abuser. I think we’ve had enough cases of church cover-ups. I also cannot see any way in which abusing one’s spouse or one’s children can be justified, or that one ought to endure it. It should be reported.

Many women in such a situation would not feel comfortable taking their case before the church, especially with a husband who might be in a position of authority, or where the church leadership is all male. In such cases again, I would always emphasize getting out of reach of the abuser first, then reporting it either to the authorities or to someone trustworthy who will, in turn, report it to the authorities.

For me the key theological issue here is that abuse violates the divine mandate for marriage. For some it seems to be easy to hear “wives submit to your husbands” (Eph. 5:22) without also hearing “be subject one to another” (Eph. 5:21) and “love your wives as Christ loved the church” (Eph. 5:25). How was that again? “As Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

That’s the New Testament idea of having authority.

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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.

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.

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.

The Myth of the Absent Husband

The Myth of the Absent Husband

The story of the temptation and fall (Genesis 3:1-7) is one of the stories that sustains some complentarians and advocates of male leadership and authority. I use “myth” here in the partial technical sense of a story that explains and reinforces a cultural norm.

In particular, people point out that Eve was taken in by the snake because she didn’t as her husband or because he wasn’t with her. I’ve heard sermons based on these points. Don’t leave you husband! Follow his leadership! Look what happened to Eve! The same sorts of things can be said about consultation. But these views are not supported by the text itself. They are, I believe, examples of reading the white spaces.

The problem is that nowhere in the story is it specified that Adam was not present, nor is it stated that Adam did not discuss the matter with Eve. The story itself is typical of Hebrew narrative, especially in the Pentateuch. It is short and to the point, with no unneeded words.

When Eve does share the food with her husband, it says that she gave it to him “with her.” Now it’s interesting that when I was taught this very early, I remember being told that Eve went to look for her husband and then passed him the fruit, thus reinforcing her aloneness and leaving open the option that male leadership principles have been violated. In case you think I’m making this up, and since I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, let me quote Ellen White on the matter:

The angels had cautioned Eve to beware of separating herself from her husband while occupied in their daily labor in the garden; with him she would be in less danger from temptation than if she were alone. But absorbed in her pleasing task, she unconsciously wandered from his side. On perceiving that she was alone, she felt an apprehension of danger, but dismissed her fears, deciding that she had sufficient wisdom and strength to discern evil and to withstand it. . . . (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 53)

And again:

. . . And now, having herself transgressed, she became the agent of Satan in working the ruin of her husband. In a state of strange, unnatural excitement, with her hands filled with the forbidden fruit, she sought his presence, and related all that had occurred. (ibid, p. 56)

That is, of course, entirely gleaned from the white spaces. The text actually suggests that the two of them were together, and gives no indication that Adam objected, or was any more concerned than his wife. The idea that Adam was tempted by Eve comes not from the story of the actual temptation, but from Adam’s excuse.

Of Trees, Forests, and Bible Study

Of Trees, Forests, and Bible Study

I was impressed recently while reading several different blog entries about the importance of the way(s) in which we look at Bible passages. Now I certainly emphasize looking at the forest–at the broad sweep of Biblical themes. One way of looking at themes is in terms of trajectories–which way is the Bible story going.

For example, we know that as the Israelites leave Egypt, God doesn’t intend them to remain a nomadic band wandering in the desert. Slowly he gives them additional laws. Included in those laws are some that look forward to possession of the land. As Christians, we ultimately look at a trajectory that leads to Jesus Christ, and even through him to the church, which is to embody Jesus in the world.

Another way to look at themes is in terms of doctrinal statements or confessions. In this case we look at the doctrinal statement of our church, for example, and look at how scripture fits into this larger doctrinal whole, which is a light form of systematic theology. I think this is so important that when teaching interdenominational classes, I ask the students to be aware of their own church’s doctrinal statement as they study. This gives focus from the community of faith to which someone belongs.

But all of these elements can cause problems. When looking at trajectories, it’s quite easy to go off on a trajectory, and perhaps head for interstellar space without a guidance system. It’s quite possible for me to imagine that the intention of a Biblical writer is to go to some point that I prefer, while ignoring what the writer actually says, and where God’s people actually went. It’s quite possible for me to reinterpret scripture to support my preferred doctrinal statement, rather than going back to the source.

Recently, Molly Aley posted this article on the Complegalitarian blog dealing with the Hebrew word “ezer” in Genesis 2, and how it should apply to male-female relationships. Now I should make it clear that I’m egalitarian, so I have a bias here, but I think both sides have tended to be more concerned with hearing what they want to hear in Genesis 1 & 2 than they are in listening to what the text actually says.

Molly has broken out of that and pointed out what this text does and does not say specifically. Now can that answer tell us the answer to all debates about complementarianism vs egalitarianism? Hardly! What it does is get us one anchor point. How that unfolds in a broader theme requires further study.

The study of a forest has to move from the individual cells in the trees to the trees themselves, to the ecology of the forest as a whole, and also to the many beasties, including human beasties, who use the forest. There is a place for word by word dissection of a passage, and there is a place for broad, sweeping overviews. But they have to be tested against one another on a regular basis.

In terms of Bible study, this means that there is a place for reading the whole Bible, whole books, individual passages, individual verses, and even individual words. There is a place for spending hours, days, and weeks on a single word. But if we get unbalanced about it, we’re going to produce nonsense, and nonsense in the study of God’s word is a pretty dangerous thing. One important way to avoid nonsense is by sharing. A blog is one way of sharing. Commenters come by and point out your mistakes, or add pieces you never thought of to the puzzle.

The forest ecology, for Bible study, extends to the church fathers, to other commentators, to your pastor and fellow church members, to members of the academic community, and even to members of other faith communities. I have received great blessing from reading Jewish commentary along with the Hebrew scriptures.

Listen, read, change focus, change perspective, and then listen some more. It’s a great joy to find something new, or more importantly to find yourself in a new, growing relationship with the Word Giver as you do so.