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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.

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.



Wayne Leman, in a commendable effort to maintain a tighter focus on Better Bibles, has started a new group blog Complegalitarian, which he defines as “Adj. Pertaining to complementarianism and egalitarianism.” This would take the largest single topic not directly related to Bible translation off of the Better Bibles blog.

As I read it, discussion of translations related to such issues would still be welcome at Better Bibles, but discussions of the broader related issues of theology and how egalitarianism or complementarianism works in practice would be left for the new blog.

I think this could be an enjoyable new blogging option.

Which Paradigm to Check

Which Paradigm to Check

David Lang has written an interesting post at Better Bibles dealing with the complementarian/egalitarian debate. Readers of this blog will realize that I’m not terribly moderate on this particular issue–I’m passionately egalitarian.

David does make a good point about polarizing arguments, however:

. . . In the process of trying to persuade those who disagree with us, we often become even more polarized in our views. We get so frustrated with the other person for not agreeing with us and so flustered by their arguments, that we begin to shore up our own arguments and press the text to say something more clearly or explicitly than it really does. This is especially true when we see the stakes as being high. . . .

It’s quite true that overstating one’s case can both drive neutral parties away and alienate opponents so that dialog becomes much more difficult if not impossible. I would say on the other hand, speaking from personal experience, that one can be so careful not to overstate one’s position that it becomes unclear just what the position is.

People will then congratulate you for being a peacemaker, but the problem continues. You can spend so much time framing a debate, that the debate itself gets lost.

David’s comments are not without merit, however. And I will keep them in mind as I state things fairly forcefully. But perhaps I will restrain myself from time to time!

But the key point to which I wanted to respond is this:

As I’ve observed the gender role debate, I’ve seen this dynamic played out over and over again. There is a finite set of Biblical passages which the two camps must deal with. . . .

It’s a simple statement and is perhaps not David’s main point, but it becomes my main point. Why? Because I do not believe that this debate is a matter of dealing with a finite set of Biblical passages. We are warned to check presuppositions, so the presupposition I want to check is this very one.

To me, the issue is not a finite set of Biblical passages. I happen to believe, for example, that at least in some of his churches, Paul did not permit women to teach. I don’t think Paul would, in his context, have advocated ordination of women. The “finite set of passages” position seems to rest on the idea that the Bible is primarily a set of theological propositions, and if we can just straighten it out so that all of them say one thing, that is the theological answer.

I would suggest instead looking for the principles on which the various individual judgments were based. To me particular counter-examples to male leadership, such as Deborah in the Old Testament and Junia in the New are that much more significant because of the fact that they occurred in overwhelmingly male dominated societies. That is an interesting factor, whether or not there are particular texts that speak against women in leadership or not.

This leads me to believe that I don’t have to “deal with” all of these passages, at least in the sense of explaining that they really express an egalitarian ideal. What I’m looking for is what are truly the basic principles of the kingdom.

When I have found those I try to apply them to living in a modern society. What worked in Paul’s churches may not work in today’s churches and vice-versa. What I must be careful to do is to make sure that my behavior today is based on the same principles.

I take this a bit further, however. It is not merely Biblical passages that are involved, but also church traditions, and most importantly the present day guidance of the Holy Spirit. Now I don’t believe that the Holy Spirit will guide us into violating the principles that are expressed in scripture, but he certainly can guide us into seeing how those principles are to be applied in a modern context. All of this is accomplished using our reasoning powers–always under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, or so we’d all like to assume.

The paradigm that I would like to see shift is one that expects us to explain all of the texts one way or the other, and takes a look at the general trend of scripture–the trajectory, if you please–to see where God is leading us.

I do believe passionately that God is leading us to more equality in ministry. I believe this because I see it happening in scripture–some of the time. I believe it because women have stepped up throughout church history. I believe it because I see genuine calls and gifting amongst women in areas the complementarians would reject. But most importantly, I see anything less than equality in the church as unworthy of the incarnation. The Word becoming flesh dwarfs these kinds of human barriers.

Church Planting Body Count

Church Planting Body Count

I regularly find myself surprised at how surprised some folks are at the unsurprising. We should, after all, expect people to be the people they are, and Mark Driscoll is Mark Driscoll. Shocking, isn’t it?

Well, Mark Driscoll prepared a video for a conference on church planting in which he was very much himself, and some folks were shocked. They criticized the video, and they didn’t hand out copies as promised.

I first saw this video on Adrian Warnock’s blog. Adrian comments:

I am praying for him right now as I write this as I am sure this was the last thing he was expecting or wanting. Personally I love the video and I think he is right on with what he says. Well done Mark for standing for God and more power to your elbow!

Well, it should surprise nobody that I don’t particularly like the video, and I think there are substantial issues there beyond the exclusively man-oriented view of the world. Driscoll comments repeatedly on the things Jesus is not, and often in fairly derogatory terms. I particularly noted “tell the lady with the tambourine who shows up to church to park it” though I’m sure we’ve all been there with people who are doing things that we’d prefer they didn’t. So I disagree with the clearly male authority dominated approach.

But I’m more disturbed by the picture of Jesus that is presented. The picture of “gentle Jesus meek and mild” is not a terribly accurate one, and it does need to be balanced. But the rough, overbearing Jesus, the hunting buddy Jesus who despises people who drink herbal tea and aren’t masculine enough, is also a false and dangerous caricature. (Bias alert: I drink herbal tea. 🙂 )

There is also a good message hidden in there, though it has been buried under mounds of extraneous junk. Church planting isn’t easy. And despite almost disparaging remarks in the video about pastors of existing churches, pastoring isn’t all that easy either. (I sincerely hope that Driscoll didn’t intend to be a dismissive of the ordinary role of pastoring as he seemed to be. I think he was just very strongly focused on the church planters role, but I would suggest more care.) There will be people one cannot help, and there are people who need to be told to find another place to worship. Often that is to their benefit as well as to the benefit of the local church. But that is hidden by the shock value of the tone and of the setting for the video.

Nonetheless I would have told the leadership of the conference to have the video handed out. First, they should do so because they asked Mark Driscoll for a video, and they have some obligation not to make him spend money and then send his people home. Being people of their word should be important. Second, I don’t think moderate and liberal Christians should fear conservative ideas. That video provides me with more material to use in illustrating precisely what I don’t like about the complementarian approach and certain uses of the spiritual warfare metaphor.

I do have to ask my complementarian brethren, however, whether they would give equal time to a video presenting the egalitarian position. Is this about an open exchange of ideas, or are you just offended that a video espousing your view was not welcomed?