Well, we’ve gone through some of my own journey and some of the ways this discussion goes, but the real meat of this discussion centers around a few key biblical texts. Various refutes and refutations’ refutes can be found with any easy Google search. I don’t necessarily want to re-hash the more widely-publicized textual minutiae of the issue, though some of that will be necessary.
In this post, I could easily just list the three primary offending texts and then talk about how my view differs from others’ views. But those other people’s views don’t come out of thin air. They are based in many more (and, epistemologically more important) assumptions and bigger issues that usually never get touched on.
And so, as I continue this series, today I just want to touch on the ways people go about using the Bible in this, and then defending how I feel like we should use the Bible here. After this post, beginning next week, I promise we’ll start getting into actual biblical texts. But we need to do this first.
Because, as anyone that has studied theology begins to realize, everything comes back to your chosen interpretive method and filters–what’s usually referred to as a “hermeneutic”.
context, trajectory, or “plain meaning”?
Most of the arguments in this discussion center around one of three approaches to the Bible. Conservatives usually appeal to the “clear” and “plain” meaning of these texts, and scoff at any attempts to “twist” or “muddy-up” otherwise clear and direct teaching. Of course, these “plain meanings” are based on particular, problematic, traditional, and hardly agreed-upon English translations of very difficult texts. (Don’t worry, we’ll get there–in time.)
Egalitarians, on the other hand, usually take one of two approaches. Some (more “liberal”, I’d say–if we must use those therms) say that from Genesis to Jesus to Paul, you see a developed “trajectory” of increasing inclusion and participation of women in the church. And so, while Paul himself was still a little steeped in patriarchy, and women weren’t really doing much in the early church, the stage was set for us, generations later, to take this trajectory that had been put in motion and take it to its (they would say) obvious conclusion: full participation of women in offices of leadership in the church. In essence this is theological “progressivism”.
In my opinion, this whole “trajectory hermeneutic” is so dangerous. There are no limits to it, and it can seemingly be used to justify anything the theologian wants. Of the more widely-appealed-to hermeneutical techniques, this is the one, I feel, that has the least amount of safeguards from abuse.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that there has certainly been (and continues to be) theological “advancement” in the history of the church. But I don’t know how that this should be seen as “trajectories” that take us beyond the Bible, as much as new applications (or “re-applications”) and understandings of historical theological principles and beliefs.
As I’ve written before, even when Jesus seems to offer us “new teaching” on divorce that contradicts Moses, he roots his reasoning in the opening chapters of Genesis, something even older than Moses. He could have appealed to a “trajectory” set by Moses and the Prophets, but instead he goes all the way to the beginning.
The other way egalitarians see fit to explain their conviction is by an incessant appeal to “the original context” of the passages in question. They offer historical explanations of phrases and words, and talk about the culture and history of the time and how these texts would have been received by the original audience.
Sometimes, they can seem like they are disregarding the text. In essence, saying, “yeah yeah yeah, I know what the Bible says, but if you only knew what I knew, you’d see that the Bible isn’t saying what it’s saying.” I’ve watched conservatives belittle this historical work, looking with pity at those who espouse it, in essence saying, “it’s cute how many hoops you’ve had to jump through to come to the conclusion you wanted, but no one should have to work this hard to understand what seems like an otherwise clear and unambiguous set of texts. But nice try.”
In defense of context
I get why conservatives feel this way, but I’d argue that these feelings are not only unjustified, but based in the same things they accuse the “liberals” of doing. In ignoring these very real contextual concerns that really do change how one looks at the texts, they are engaging in a different kind (but just as vigorous a set) of mental gymnastics to justify what they think.
But still, it does seem like a lot of work has to go into “explaining” these texts properly.
But here’s what I’d say: this is only the case because the evangelical cultural burden of proof, currently, is falling on the egalitarians, and not the conservatives.
People forget that many of our key Christian doctrines cannot be and were not arrived at from any “plain” reading of biblical texts, but rather, our (generally) universal Christian belief in them was the result of generations of theologians going through this same “look at the context” stuff.
Without understanding the context of Jewish views on worship of God and how the original audience would have received various statements and actions of Jesus, his divinity can’t be defended. Without looking at the philosophical beliefs of the day, the idea of a Trinity cannot be arrived at. Without understanding genre-calibration, source-criticism, and 1st-century beliefs on death and resurrection, the physicality, and historicity of Jesus’ resurrection cannot be clearly established, and people could simply believe that it was a symbolic and poetic recounting. Without knowing 1st-century Jewish messianic hopes, the Cross makes no sense.
Those arguments were had for years and years, with the same vigor as this women in ministry discussion, until a consensus was reached. And now we take that for granted, because we Christians agree on all these things (or should).
Many might see this post as both unnecessary and wordy–a waste of time and space that stalls the discussion where it need not be stalled. But as I’ve watched and listened to more and more conservatives defend complementarianism, the more I think this is important.
You see, in the resources I keep finding, there is this distrust of real historical and cultural work that might challenge our beliefs about these texts. It’s either seen as mental “gymnastics” to justify bad theology or some sort-of elevation of culture and history as more of an authority than the Bible itself.
It is neither.
I will spend much of my time in this series using historical and textual context to defend what I believe to be the most faithful reading of the Bible on this issue. And as I do, I don’t want to seem like I’m twisting things or fitting them into a pre-conceived box or desired goal. Nor do I want to seem like I don’t think the Bible is “enough” for our theology. The Bible is “enough”, but our minds, on their own, are not. Looking at history and culture is not a damage to or demeaning of the text. It’s a light to see it’s meaning more clearly.
A quick note on “perspicuity“, the doctrine of the “clarity of Scripture”: the Bible is “sufficient” and “clear” enough for the essential things of theology, and not every thing of theology. The Gospel, in its most basic and essential contours, is clear enough to be believed, but it takes time with Christ’s Spirit and in Christ’s Body to be more fully applied to various other parts of life. (Even Peter says Paul’s writings are hard to understand!)
As controversial as it (sadly) might be, I find “perspicuity” to be more a principle of how the Holy Spirit moves in Scripture, more than some magical quality of the text itself. Because, as any real reader of Scripture can tell you, there’s nothing inherently clear about that particular arrangement of those particular words. The Bible is not a magic book; it itself is not divine, but it is the primary sacramental mediator between God and His People.
As we press on and delve into both text and context, I want us to respect those things and allow them to challenge our views on women in ministry (even mine).
Next week: The Biblical things that ultimately swayed me on this issue, and why, in the History of the Church, you don’t find more people disagreeing with the widely-held restrictions on women in places of church leadership.