This is a post in an on-going series on Women in the Church.
A while ago, I stumbled on a clearance copy of the book Countering the Claims of Evangelical Feminism by Wayne Grudem. Now, for those that don’t know, Grudem is one of those super-influential evangelical theologians that doesn’t get a lot of play in the wider culture. He’s not going to make any headlines like Mark Driscoll, and he’s not going say anything too outside the conservative box, like Rob Bell. He’s a quiet intellectual who writes and influences a lot.
Through college, I had a bunch of friends obsessed with his “Big Blue Book”, Systematic Theology, which is an accessible, clear introduction to what became the “New Calvinism” fad. In short, he’s sort of a Calvinistic Baptist that believes the Holy Spirit is still doing more outlandish sorts of things.
And yet, if you look at all of his publications, the vast majority of them are simply various versions and editions of just these two books (well, admittedly, the book I’m writing about today is an abbreviated version of this book). It’s quite easy to see that Grudem has devoted his life primarily to two things: Systematic Theology and Gender Roles in the Church. A lot of the arguments you’ll hear from complementarians–those that do not think Women should be allowed to exercise authority in Church or Home contexts–come straight from Grudem.
And so, in the interest of being fair in my Women and the Church series, I picked this book up to hear “the other side”. The book goes through 45 of (what Grudem feels are) the absolute best Egalitarian arguments. He lays out the individual argument, usually printing a paragraph-length quote from someone who has expressed that opinion. And then he offers responses (usually about 1 to 4) for each of these points. Each chapter is 2 to 5 pages long.
I went into the book with only minor curiosity, because I was raised with his perspective, was completely inundated with it in college, and pretty much felt I knew most of the arguments he would throw out there.
Well I was wrong.
In this book, I heard perspectives and argumentation against egalitarianism and for copmlementarianism that I had never encountered, and indeed never could have imagined. I found new ways of approaching the key texts. Grudem offered clear statements that covered every bit of ground one could think of. He calmly and with utmost confidence dispatched each and every single potential possible expressed argument there has ever been for egalitarianism.
And then I realized what was off; what felt so odd. And then, I started getting so frustrated by this book. (You didn’t think I’d change my mind that easily, did you?)
Have you ever had one of those experiences where you have heard a brilliant speaker expound on a topic and totally bought in to what they were saying while you’re there in the midst of hearing it, but then you walk away and maybe feel a little conned? That’s sort of how I felt with this book. Here were some of the things that left me unconvinced.
The first thing that got me suspicious was the absolute certainty that Grudem had in every chapter. He did indeed hit most (but not all) of the arguments that I would go to in this discussion. And some of his points were stronger than others, but even when his points were really weak, there was no acknowledgement of this. No ambiguity. No “yeah, I recognize this could go wither way”.
I’m not just saying this because we twentysomethings are obsessed with “tolerance” and offering validity even to those positions that warrant none. Even in the case where it’s genuinely ambiguous, Grudem seems incapable of ceding any ground whatsoever. For example, there’s a married couple in Acts who end up teaching Apollos “the way of God more accurately”. And he was one of the major leaders of the early church! This couple also hosts a church in their home (this also implied pastoral authority in the early church), and here’s the odd thing about them: in ministry contexts, the wife is always named first, even in this instance (which was really odd in the ancient world).
Grudem’s response? My paraphrase: “Well, of course! The Bible encourages everyone to talk about the Bible with each other! And either way, this was obviously private teaching, so it wasn’t ‘authoritative’ teaching.” What? Is there no room for “Yeah, that’s a tough one”?
Secondly, he inconsistently applies his own standards throughout the book. He says that the egalitarian argument that Timothy’s cultural context was filled with female-led Gnostic heresies is wrong because it is based on an idea of “proto-Gnosticism”. In other words, it uses the later, historically-documented belief of Gnosticism in Ephesus to assume there were seeds of it at the time of Timothy. And so, Grudem is accusing them of using later evidence to prove something in the Bible.
And yet, in Grudem’s discussion of the word translated “authority” in 1 Timothy, when it says “I do not allow a woman to hold authority over a man”, he does the same thing. When Egalitarians point out that “authority” is not a good translation for this, but it means something negative like “domineer” or “dominate”, Grudem appeals to much later linguistic evidence and ignores all of the contemporary and early translations of that word to try and say that it wasn’t a negative thing. And he never admits this.
Thirdly, he makes really compelling cases by leaving out important details and painting an alternate picture of the argument. Complementarians (including himself) constantly appeal to the “creation-order” of men and women in Genesis to justify male-exclusive authority. Even though Genesis itself does not make this argument, they point out that Paul uses this “man was created first” argument to justify women not having “authority” over a man. And yet, egalitarians point out that they are inconsistent because Paul also appeals to men being created first as the reason why women should wear head-coverings in church, and yet most complementarians don’t enforce that idea.
Grudem’s response? He says that they do enforce what head-coverings represent. In his case, he claims (without really presenting evidence, just a few random quotes from other conservative thinkers) that head-coverings were a symbol of being married, so he says that before women “prophesy” (which he oddly argues is something not authoritative) they should wear whatever is their culture’s symbol of marriage. Sounds pretty straightforward and makes sense, right? I think so. Men and women should wear their wedding rings while talking in church. Got it.
But wait. Grudem just took us off what we were talking about in the first place. Paul’s reasoning for wearing head-coverings is that women were created second to men. So…is Grudem saying that women are created to be married, that wifehood is “woven into the created order”, and that a symbol of marriage is a sign that she was created second? What about single women that prophesy? Why doesn’t Paul seem to make the same distinction as Grudem?
And lastly, he doesn’t seem to speak to any big picture of redemptive history or the the whole sweep of the Bible. Like the good ol’ fashioned systematic theologian he is, Truth seems to be based more on one’s interpretation and defense of a set of specific little nuggets of verses that exist in some “truth realm” outside of history and culture.
There’s no mention of his view, Complementarianism, having no historical basis in the Church until the 1980s. No talk of early female leaders in the first few hundred years of the church. No talk of how radical the shift was in the role of Women in Churches from the Old Testament to the New. Absolutely no understanding of this discussion outside of his few proof-texts, which are far from clear, open-and-shut cases.
In the end, I almost feel like I’m watching cable news when reading this book. There is a full narrative that is assumed as you watch the news network–liberal progressive idealism or conservative martyrdom and persecution, for example. And within this narrative, all the pundits seem to make sense. Their arguments “work” in the world in which they exist and speak. The perspectives that they have financial, vocational, and personal interests in defending at any cost whatsoever start sounding plausible in the echo chamber of like-minded voices.
But it’s not the full narrative of reality. The perspectives aren’t big or substantive enough within themselves to adequately hold and address the ambiguities and difficulties of real-life and truth itself. It has its go-to facts and statistics and cliche “come-backs” to arguments. But it doesn’t change anyone. It only further reinforces what everyone already believes.
And that’s how this book ruined me: the sheer seeming intractability of the discussion. It reminded me of just how futile this discussion feels sometimes. I have felt the same way over the evolution debate in the Church. It makes me wonder whether it’s worth it or not to talk about this stuff. Everyone (myself included) is just going to have their go-to arguments for believing what they want, right? And Grudem, I feel, represents a whole swath of people so desperate to maintain credibility and confidence that they really are “believing in Scripture” and therefore God is pleased with them.
Sometimes I wonder if these talks actually change anyone’s mind or at least inspire people to love “the other side” more. I fear I may just be one more voice in the echo chamber.
And in my opinion, that’s what the book is best for. Get it if you want. It really does force egalitarians to do a double-take and look at their evidence anew, touch base, and make sure this is the “side” they want to be on (or not). But honestly, I’ve yet to find a single argument in his book that doesn’t have at least some reasonable-sounding argument countering it. I just wish he saw that as well.
Have you ever read Grudems’ stuff on this topic? What were your thoughts? Were there any specific arguments you want to know if he addresses, or what an egalitarian response would be? Just let me know in the comments below.