A recent post by a friend about the new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans sparked a lively debate concerning the relationship of evangelicalism to the feminist movement. After a lengthy discussion we have decided it best to move the conversation to a different forum. This series of posts is meant to organize the ideas touched on in the debate into a more logical presentation before we delve into areas of further discussion. Today’s post continues some of the themes from yesterday and moves into a discussion of theological hermeneutics. For more of an introduction to this debate, the participants, and the various viewpoints in evangelicalism concerning this issue, see the introductory post to this series.
Alex: Luke and Austin, I really like the idea of progression in biblical revelation. I find that idea very compelling in fact, in a lot of ways. But the question I want to pose is why the progression stops where it stops, particularly in terms of our interpretations of the biblical teachings. In particular, I’m thinking of the difference between the way we view New Testament teaching on slavery today and the way we view its teaching on the role of women in church/marriage/society. In our post-abolitionist movement age we are happy to say that Paul’s teachings on slavery were culturally conditioned. But not his teachings on women in a post-feminist movement age. Why are we holding onto that in the way that we do? To draw out the point even more starkly, slavery does still exist in the contemporary world in the form of human trafficking. Would you be willing to tell someone enslaved in such a situation that Paul’s admonition “slaves, obey your masters” applied to them? If not, why does that get a different hermeneutical treatment than “women should be silent in church” or “women should not be permitted to teach men” does in today’s world?
Austin: My comments of slavery will likely not satisfy every question posed. There are some analogous areas between current human trafficking and first century slavery but there are some radical discontinuities as well. Slavery in the first century was not racially motivated; most times slaves were POWs, people in debt to another (even doctors), those convicted of a capital crime, etc. Many times children were sold into slavery or the parents didn’t have money to feed the child so they just left their children on the roads and someone would come by, pick them up, and place them into slavery. It varied from owner to owner how the slaves were treated; some were treated harshly (whipping, beatings, raping, etc.) yet some masters were very nice and treated the slaves as part of the family. So, some slavery in the 1st century was merely indentured servitude and others were not. I would likely offer Paul’s admonishment to the “slave” within the situation.
Paul addressed the indentured servants in 1 Corinthians 7. The issue in chapter seven has relevance to your question. Paul digresses from the marital topic to enunciate a position that should govern how the Corinthian congregations approach marital issues. Unless there are righteous reasons to the contrary, a Christian should be satisfied in whatever marital status they happened to be called to at the point of conversion. These verses affirm that all Christians belong to God and He does not show favoritism. Whatever state you are in, remain as such. The apostle states to “remain as you are” three times (7:17, 20, 24), drawing parallels with circumcision and uncircumcision (vv. 18-19), and then freedom and slavery (vv. 21-23). Paul’s point here is this: don’t worry about it. If you are a slave, you’re called as a slave for the sake of the Gospel. God doesn’t look at you as a lesser Christian. If the opportunity arises that you are able to be free, take it! His words have relevance for the slave in their given situation. Furthermore, despite not outrightly abolishing it with explicit commandments such as “the Gospel requires absolute freeing of all cultural-instituted practices such as slavery,” Paul and other apostles created a ticking time bomb for the practice of slavery with the express commandments given to both slaves and masters. The gospel changes the relationship between the parties thus changing the institution from the inside out (e.g. letter of Philemon).
CLARIFICATION: No, I would not read those texts to someone within the jaws of the Satanic human trafficking system. But, if the NT statements made towards household slavery are aimed at indentured servants then I totally would. There were abuses in that institution that Paul sought to correct and regulate. New Testament slavery does not automatically equal antebellum slavery or human trafficking. Sorry for my unclearness.
The move to make slavery akin to biblical viewpoints concerning women in ministry or marital roles just doesn’t work. Pastor-scholar Sam Storms, president of Enjoying God ministries asks: Is not the argument for why wives should submit to husbands the same as the argument for why slaves should submit to masters? If we insist on the abolition of the latter, should we not also insist on the abolition of the former? Again, the answer is No.
There are several reasons why we can insist on the abolition of slavery while retaining the submission of wives to their husbands.
1. Scripture is known to regulate undesirable relationships without condoning them as permanent ideals ( see Mt. 19:8; 1 Cor. 6:1-8). Paul’s recommendations for how slaves and masters relate to each other do not assume the goodness of the institution.
2. The institution of slavery is not grounded in creation but is a distortion resulting from the fall. Marriage and male headship, on the other hand, are part of the original created order that antedates the fall.
3. On several occasions the seeds for the dissolution of slavery are sown. See Philemon 16; Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1-2. Nothing in the NT, however, suggests that the same was envisioned for the relationship between husbands and wives.
4. If the argument from slavery is used to invalidate a wife’s submission to her husband, would it not also invalidate a child’s submission to his/her parents? Observe how the relationship between husbands and wives, parents and children, and bondservants and masters are all addressed by Paul in Eph. 5-6.
5. No permanent moral command or moral absolute is used with reference to slavery in Paul’s instructions to slaves.
6. Paul explicitly envisions and endorses the possibility of a slave obtaining freedom (1 Cor. 7:21). He never says anything comparable to this with regard to wives and submission to their husbands.
From the many conversations I’ve had with egalitarian proponents, this is an issue of “I feel God’s calling in this area” and I now need a theological rationale as to what to do with those commands that seem to contradict outright my internal calling. I would agree with Reinke that those egalitarians who do “theology” and “doctrinal formation” likely know they’re on shaky ground. I’ll forego any other comments because I do not want to delve deeply into the politics of victimization associated with this area of discussion, which, it would seem, make it so that what the text teaches is moot as long as we can show someone feels put out or wounded within the debate. A wound then becomes more important than the Word. I don’t like that and want no part in it.
Alex: So I think we’ve hit a point of major methodological disagreement which might explain a lot: You talk about the difference between someone’s feeling of “call” and proper exegesis or between a perceived “wound” and “what the text actually teaches.” What I am sensing in this contrast is a perception that we can objectively know the actual meaning of a text and then compare that meaning against someone (particularly someone who disagrees with us) else’s exegesis of it. I think that kind of objectivity is impossible. My proof is to ask you to find any two exegetes (doing their own scholarly work and not one piggy-backing off the other) who agree on every detail of exegesis. It simply does not happen because, I believe, we all bring our own biases and perspectives to the text to some degree or another. I want to be careful to make sure I don’t say that this discredits biblical exegesis as being foundational for theology. I certainly believe that our theology should be in conversation with biblical studies. But I think we have to be honest in saying that our preconceived notions about theology also influence our study of the Bible and therefore claims to an objective standard of the exegesis of a text which can then be the gold-standard of the sturdiness of our theology are extremely suspect.
We could take as a demonstration of this methodological disagreement my assessment of your six reasons why the New Testament treatment of slavery and of the role of women in church/family/society are not analogous. The quick summary is that I would dispute every one of those points except the first one (and the last, which is simply a factual statement about Paul’s writings, it is unclear to me what movement it makes in terms of an argument). I would argue (in response to your points):
2. There is no evidence (aside from a selective interpretation of the ending of Genesis 2) for anything resembling headship and submission before the curse of the fall. In fact, there is more explicit evidence, in the declaration that both men and women are created in the image of God, for the egalitarian position being the norm before the fall.
3. There are ample stories from the gospels that suggest that Jesus was elevating the women he came in contact with to be on the same (if not higher) footing than even his disciples. Further, there is Paul’s statement that in Christ male and female are the same. Those may not be explicitly related to “submission of wives” but they are certainly relevant.
4. I think your argument works more in my favor here than in yours. If Ephesians four puts submission and slavery in parallel to one another, then I think saying one no longer applies but the other does is very exegetically problematic. The only way to get out of that, I think, is to suggest that they aren’t as intertwined as you are suggesting, but then there is no problem for the question of children obeying their parents standing (exegetically) on its own.
5. If Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, and 1 Peter 2:18 are not considered the language of “moral absolutes” or “moral commands” then neither is anything in the New Testament about the role of women in society/church/family.
The point here is not to necessarily get into an exegetical debate but to demonstrate that in each instance the conclusion we arrive at in our exegesis is dictated by which details in the text we pay attention to or ignore and that, in large part, is derived from our already acting theology. Your already formed conclusions about the role of women leads you to exegete the text one way, my pre-formed beliefs on the subject lead me to exegete it another.
Which then brings us back to the earlier question about “progressive revelation” and where progressions stops. If we have progressed to the point of recognizing slavery as a moral evil, and therefore reinterpreting the New Testament teachings about slavery as culturally bound and conditioned, why can the same conclusion not be made about the New Testament’s teaching about the role of women in church/family/society? Especially when we consider that the current “complementarian” position is infinitely more progressive than the traditional interpretation of these passages (take even Luther and Calvin’s statements about women, which are often remarkably chauvinistic by today’s standards), suggesting that there may be, even within complementarian theology, a strong movement toward moderating these statements with the recognition of their cultural boundedness. Why has Evans gone too far in her interpretation of these passages, whereas Thomas Schreiner’s interpretation (if I remember it right from the “two views” book we read for Theo 4 at Southeastern) that Paul restricts women from the role of “senior pastor,” a position that doesn’t exist in the New Testament language or world, does not cross the line?
Austin: On the issue of exegetical objectivity, your comments remind of Christian Smith’s most recent book The Bible Made Impossible and his creation of the term “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” Within it, he questions the perspicuity of Scripture because so many interpreters fail to agree on most things. Scripture cannot be objectively clear because so many people disagree on what it teaches. I think he and maybe you misunderstand what evangelicals believe about the clarity of Scripture. For Scripture to be clear means that it is composed in such a way that we can understand its teachings concerning all that is necessary for faith with God’s help and a willing heart (Deut. 6:6-8; Psa. 19:7, 119: 130). Those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture says the The Westminster Confession of Faith. The clarity or perspicuity of Scripture does not deny the fact that some biblical passages are difficult to understand (2 Pet. 3:15-16) or that the dullness of peoples’ hearts can hinder right understandings of the words of scripture.
Furthermore, just because one cannot have complete 100% objectivity does not mean that he or she cannot, through the use of the original languages, extensive background information, the Holy Spirit’s help, and a host of assistance from more learned teachers in the Church, understand and decipher the meaning of a text (I’m glad we both agree it has a meaning intended by the author). One’s presuppositions and biases, if recognized, can be kept in check. I understand that I come to the text as a white, American male from the West but that does not wholly negate my ability to not let those biases hinder the text’s voice and intention to me as a reader. Instead of viewing one’s own cultural, familial, and philosophical biases and presuppositions as completely blinding the text’s meaning, I view it as merely affecting the vision. The vision of the text can be made clear via using the right contacts or glasses e.g. original languages, background information, etc. Your biases may create a limp but I do believe that God wants his people to know Him as he has seen fit to sovereignly reveal himself through a text. We may have a limp but with help we may still be able to run the race. Our worldview and biases make us like Oscar Pistorius, not FDR. As a facetious slight, how can you make an objective claim that we cannot make objective claims about the meaning of the text? Did you not have any cultural biases at the moment you wrote that statement?
Though you do not want to get in an exegetical discussion, this is impossible to avoid. You disagreed to some of those points and to be quite humorous, I object to your objections.
2- There does seem to be some evidence from Genesis 1-2 that Adam had different responsibilities and roles than Eve pre-Fall. Thomas Schreiner lists six of them: God created Adam first, and then created Eve (1), God gave Adam the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2), God created Eve to be a helper to Adam (3), Adam exercised his leadership by naming the creature God formed out of Adam’s rib “woman” (4), the Serpent subverted God’s pattern of leadership by tempting Eve rather than Adam (5), and God approached Adam first after the couple had sinned, even though Eve sinned first (6). Each one of these actions contains great symbolism that has moral implications concerning the relationship between men and women. Again, the Fall did not make Adam and Eve unequal (which may be implied by your statement). Having a different role does not make one unequal. It seems that each person of the Trinity has a specific role or function within salvation history. Having a specific role does not make any one person of the Trinity any less competent or any less fully God. That does not logically follow. Also, if the cross negated the effects of the Fall (which according to you would include specific gender and ministry roles and responsibilities), why do we find commandments of specific gender and ministry roles in the new covenant at all? Why was it never made explicit that the cross reversed all of that? One ends up with specific gender roles and responsibilities that have existed since the beginning from cover to cover.
3- I fully agree that Jesus was tender and respectful to women which was radically different from other 1st century rabbis. From the Second Temple period, women were not allowed to testify in court trials. They could not go out in public, or talk to strangers. When outside of their homes, they were to be doubly veiled. “They had become second-class Jews, excluded from the worship and teaching of God, with status scarcely above that of slaves” (The Oxford Companion to the Bible). Rabbi Eliezer wrote in the 1st century, “Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman…Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her obscenity.” Jesus was a different kind of rabbi! Jesus talked to women, taught women, fellowshipped with women, respected women, loved women, included women, and used women. But still, he did not include women in the role of apostles. He did not reverse all gender-specific institutions made in Creation though he critiqued actively misconceptions and misinterpretations from chauvinist fellow Rabbis. He dignified women but did not destroy the nature of womanhood altogether.
Concerning Galatians 3:28, this text in no way does away with other commands concerning gender and ministry roles. In fact, that’s not even remotely the context. Paul is discussing membership in God’s new redeemed humanity within Galatians 3. The issue is justification. Even Dr. Wright says,
But once we have grasped this point we must take a step back and reflect on what Paul has not done as well as what he has done. In regard to the Jew/Gentile distinction, Paul’s fierce and uncompromising insistence on equality in Christ does not at all mean that we need pay no attention to the distinctives between those of different cultural backgrounds when it comes to living together in the church. Romans 14 and 15 are the best example of this, but we can see it as well throughout Galatians itself, as Paul regularly speaks of ‘we’ meaning Jewish Christians and ‘you’ or ‘they’ meaning Gentile Christians. They have come to an identical destination but they have come by very different routes and retain very different cultural memories and imaginations. the differences between them are not obliterated, and pastoral practice needs to take note of this; they are merely irrelevant when it comes to belonging to Abraham’s family. And this applies, I suggest, mutatis mutandis, to Paul’s treatment of men and women within the Christian family. The difference is irrelevant for membership status and membership badges. But it is still to be taken note of when it comes to pastoral practice. We do not become hermaphrodites or for that matter genderless, sexless beings when we are baptized.
4- I think they still apply for the indentured servant (though we do not have those in the West; they exist in some places in the East and Africa. I met some in Swaziland) as-well-as for the wife, husband, children, etc. My question would be, if the command for wives to submit does not count anymore because that was a culturally-conditioned command that’s no longer relevant because the cross did away with it, does the command for me to love my future wife as Christ loved the Church still apply? If it does not, I’m going to need some pretty sound logic for why you can do away with some and not others. Egalitarians have attempted to give criteria for that type of selective reading but it has failed (here is an example). I’m also going to push back again for how you can have any objectivity in knowing which parts of Scripture we do not have to obey anymore if we cannot even know the objective meaning of the text because of our biases and presuppositions?
Areas for Further Discussion:
- Specific exegetical issues
- Issue of objectivity/subjectivity in our hermeneutics
- Meaning of the clarity of scripture