September 11, 2003
Male and female he created them

So last night I posted two views on women's ordination, but I didn't say what I thought about it all. I was still chewing on it, and the comments to that post gave me more to chew on.

The debate quickly turned to the subject of Biblical inerrancy. Basically, what we're seeing here are three different approaches that could apply to just about any Biblical issue. In one corner, we have David Heddle proceeding the idea, popular among fundamentalists, of the Bible as literal truth. In the other corner we have Allen Brill and Kynn Bartlett arguing that the Bible is the product of a sexist age, and should not be taken seriously on that point. And in the middle, you have Telford, whose position on the Bible is best summarized as "inerrant, but not literal." These positions also seem to echo the Sunday-school argument at Telford's church that started this.

Underlying all this is a debate about whether, and how much, Christianity accommodates change. I have been thinking about this subject a lot lately, especially as I've been visiting gay-friendly churches. Conservatives, of whatever denomination, feel that Christianity represents eternal truth, and to change with the times, especially in ways that seem to contradict the Gospel, is to "sell out." So since (for most Protestants, at least) there haven't been any new revelations in almost 2,000 years, we're pretty much permanently set in the mores of a 2,000-year-old society.

But I can't help but think of the Gospel reading at the Lutheran service I went to a couple weeks ago. It was one of the stronger anti-legalist passages in the Gospel, in which Jesus defends his followers' failure to ritually wash their hands. It ties with Jesus' general theme of basic principles overriding specific rules: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

This is, in my humble opinion, where the weakness in David Heddle's argument lies. It is really not clear to me how prohibiting women from leadership fits with that, and he doesn't address the question. Instead, he zooms in on 1 Timothy 2:12, because it involves the simple, clear laying-down of a rule: "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent." There is no wiggle room in that statement, as he says, so it must be taken as definitive.

This is the problem when you look at the Bible as a rule book: you start trawling through it for the most legalistic statements, which then assume outsized importance. I am more convinced by Telford's effort to look at the total picture of women in the New Testament. The fact that David's post quickly descends into nitpickery -- at what age is a guy too old for female authority? What about female theologians? -- seems to me a sign that this is headed in the wrong direction. That's what my gut tells me.

Telford also picks up on something that David misses: at the end of the passage, there is the implication that these harsh measures were undertaken for disciplinary purposes, and if people get their act together they might be delivered from them. But this, of course, makes part of the NT a provisional disciplinary action, rather like all those rules in Leviticus that Christians now ignore. To many conservatives, this is unacceptable.

Meanwhile on the other side, we have the argument Allen and Kynn are making: that Paul's words clearly come from his sexism, so we can ignore them. This is the usual argument employed by Biblical non-inerrantists: people in those days didn't realize what we know now, so we must accommodate the new. Bruce Bawer made the same argument a while ago in rejecting Paul's anti-homosexual remarks: "Of course the ancients, Paul included, didn't understand that there are some people for whom homosexuality is natural; he assumes the Gentiles to be people for whom heterosexuality is natural but who give themselves up to something which for them is unnatural."

I am sympathetic to this point of view, but I think there's a conservative objection to it that's hard to answer. Why did we only "discover" these things in the modern West? This isn't like discovering the existence of Pluto; these are facts of human nature that were presumably always with us. I can understand, though not endorse, conservatives who say that these facts weren't "discovered" but made up.

This has always vexed me especially with regard to sexism. When I was growing up in secular liberaldom, I was given the impression that patriarchy was just one possible social arrangement; societies could just as well be egalitarian or matriarchal, and such societies exist, somewhere out there. When I learned more about history and anthropology, however, those societies turned out to be speculative or mythical. Maybe someone can pull up an example that proves me wrong, but as far as I know, patriarchy is one of the few human universals. True, there is great variation in its degree, and more flexibility in gender roles than traditionalists realize. But much as it pains me, the line from Genesis 3:16 -- "Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you" -- is a pretty good description of female life.

I have my own theories, but I don't really have an answer to this dilemma. But probably what I like best about Telford's article is that he treats patriarchy as neither the divine order, nor as a cultural artifact, but as a fundamental aspect of fallenness. That seems about right to me. Where he loses me, though, is his portrayal of Ephesians 5 as the solution. The distastefulness of the passage, in my view, comes from more than the fact that men abuse it. It comes from the specific metaphors Paul uses.

What does it mean to be the body to a head? I don't know, but it makes it sound like I have no brain, and I value my brain. I like to think I'm smart, and I certainly know women who are brilliant, so I don't like the idea of ceding "the brains" to men.

One thing that occurred to me about this passage, though, is that it might be informed by cultural views of anatomy. Nowadays we know that the brain controls everything, and the body is just dumb flesh; but past theories didn't necessarily follow this. The figurative way we use "heart" to mean the seat of the emotions, reflects an older view that it really was the seat of the emotions. So if I were Telford's student, one question would be: what did it mean to Paul to be a head, and to be a body?

What really bothers me, though, is the comparison of husbands to God. Yes, he was speaking metaphorically, and yes, Christ was a leader who was also a servant; but still, God is God. The idea of a husband being as far above a wife as Christ is above men is ... alarming. I guess it depends partly on how far you think Christ is above men; judging by the church Telford and I both attended, his branch of Christianity is very big on the intimate-relationship school of spirituality. (The fact that Heddle is a Calvinist, and seems to see God as more "way up there" might be informing his view on this.) But still, I think Telford glosses over this point, and if I were his student who accused Paul of sexism I don't think that would mollify me.

So in the end I guess I'm not completely happy with anyone's position, which seems to be my usual stance in these intra-Christian debates. Nonetheless, quite an interesting discussion ...

Posted by Camassia at September 11, 2003 04:05 PM | TrackBack

A good summary and some good thoughts. Obviously the issues are not easy -- and I don't, in fact, just suggest "ignoring" Paul as much as understanding him. It's not a case of simply dismissing things you don't like, but rather attempting to understand why a man who has been so close to God in many ways in his writing might also write something which, by all ethics and morals I hold dear, seems so very wrong.

The path I've chosen seems at first glance to be the "easy" alternative, but in truth, it requires a lot of struggle and thought on my part. It's actually more fun to play the literalist game, because then it's a case of just fitting the pieces together. I've got it harder, because I've actually got to make my own choices and draw my own conclusions.

I am pointing this out lest people get the conclusion that mine is this easy way out -- I don't ignore anything in the bible, and I struggle daily to make sense of passages which seem outright unGodly.


Posted by: Kynn Bartlett on September 11, 2003 11:40 PM

I am sympathetic to this point of view, but I think there's a conservative objection to it that's hard to answer. Why did we only "discover" these things in the modern West? This isn't like discovering the existence of Pluto; these are facts of human nature that were presumably always with us. I can understand, though not endorse, conservatives who say that these facts weren't "discovered" but made up.

"Hard to answer?" Good grief. Why didn't they know about the nature of mental illness? Why didn't they know that women are not intellectually inferior to men? They didn't know that homosexuality is natural because they didn't have modern science. They didn't have psychology and psychiatry. They didn't have criteria for distinguishing normal functional variation from pathology. They didn't have twin studies. They didn't have studies of brain anatomy. They didn't have studies of homosexuality in animals. They didn't have any of it. That is why they didn't know. We need science to discover the facts of human nature just as we need science to discover the facts about every other aspect of the world. It is only in the past few decades that science has discovered that homosexuality is a normal variant of sexuality in human beings, and many other species.

Posted by: Marky on September 12, 2003 12:41 AM

Maybe someone can pull up an example that proves me wrong, but as far as I know, patriarchy is one of the few human universals. True, there is great variation in its degree, and more flexibility in gender roles than traditionalists realize. But much as it pains me, the line from Genesis 3:16 -- "Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you" -- is a pretty good description of female life.

The dominance of men in public and political life is a human universal. It follows from the biological facts that men are on average significantly bigger, stronger and more aggressive than women and that women alone carry the burden of pregnancy and childbirth. Without the technology to render those differences irrelevant or trivial, a division of status and labor between the sexes in which women are subordinated to men is virtually inevitable. But it doesn't have to be that way today, and our society is well on the way to true gender equality. We may never be able to completely compensate for the social effects of the biological differences between the sexes, but we can make them less and less important.

Posted by: Marky on September 12, 2003 01:01 AM

I stayed out of this until you associated me with fundamentalists because I believe in inerrancy. This is a false linkage. (I know you didn't say I was a fundamentalist, but it is a reasonable inference from your post.)

I am not a fundamentalist—although they do affirm inerrancy. I am Reformed—think John Calvin or Francis Schaeffer or Jonathan Edwards, not Jerry Falwell. Many "camps" (including the Roman Catholic Church) affirm inerrancy without being fundamentalists.

You are correct. Inerrancy is vital to me. Without it I have no hope. When people give up inerrancy, they always make God "nicer" than He is in the bible. But why? If the bible is fallible then why must God be nicer? Maybe he is actually mean and capricious. Maybe he is dead. If the bible is in error, then I have no faith that the parts I like, the parts about salvation and God’s promises, are true.

And once the bible is fallible, does it make sense to use one part of the bible to argue against another? What relevance is the "greatest commandment" in this argument when we are longer certain that the passage containing it is infallible and inspired? The greatest commandment may be an embellishment inserted by a second century scribe.

You also stated my post "descended into nitpickery" but I think a more accurate description would be that (yes) recognizing that women should not be in authority over men leads to the thorny question of what is the age limit, for which I admitted I did not know. Then I made some statements that applied only to me and my conscience.

Finally, in the comment section of that post I addressed female theologians, where I wrote, in response to a question on boundaries:

I don't know the exact boundaries--it is really a difficult subject.

I think there has to be agreement that the passage in 1 Tim 2:12 unambiguously places some kind of restriction.

I have been taught by and continue to learn from women--and children for that matter. This kind of teaching, including reading theology written by a woman, obviously cannot be prohibited, because it happens whether we want it to or not.

I always thought it crucial that the passage linked teaching and authority. To me, that means a rather narrow interpretation that women should not teach men "in an official capacity."

I have no problems with listening to women in a bible study, on the radio, or reading a book by a woman.

The bottom line is I don't really know. I think that all we can do is stake out two positions: This is what I believe, and this is my line in the sand. As long as your church doesn't violate the latter, maintain fellowship in all graciousness.

Hardly, I would say, the position of a fundamentalist.

Posted by: David Heddle on September 12, 2003 03:01 AM


By the way (and I don’t wont this to digress into the topic of homosexuality) those Christians who argue that homosexuals "learn" or "choose" to be gay do not understand science *or*, and this is much worse, basic Christian theology. Of course homosexuals (at least some, if not all) were born that way. No doubt science will continue to strengthen its case (the twin studies are persuasive but not conclusive).

The misunderstood doctrine is original sin. All parts of the world are totally corrupted by the fall. I have no doubt that God might have, indeed probably did encode the corruption into our DNA. We all are born to sin. In the sense that "natural man" means "fallen man", then for some homosexuality is indeed natural, and that is a biblically sound position that any conservative should believe.

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Ps. 51:5, NIV)

That fact that we all are born with sinful propensities, whatever they may be: lust, lying, anger, homosexuality, or the forgotten sin of covetousness, does not excuse them. The bible does not allow the excuse "I was born that way." It acknowledges yes indeed you were born that way, and the good news it provides is *here is the way out*.

Every time I here a Christian say homosexuals are not born that way I want to give him a (gracious) kick in the butt.

Posted by: David Heddle on September 12, 2003 04:36 AM

Yes, please, let's NOT turn this into a discussion about homosexuality. That's an interesting subject in its own right, but better dealt with separately. Those discussions tend to go on, and on...

I'll get to responding to the other comments later, I just wanted to put in that preemptive moderator note.

Posted by: Camassia on September 12, 2003 08:41 AM

David can correct me on this if I'm wrong, but I don't think you can fairly state his position on the Bible as "literalist." His posts on (for example) the young earth/old earth debate make that clear. That being said, however, you don't have to be a "literalist" to believe that women should not be ordained, etc.

Posted by: Jenny on September 12, 2003 09:47 AM

It's my opinion that something can be very, very true without being literally, or historically, true. Metaphors or fictions that rise to the level of myth contain hyper-, or meta-truths that can have more impact on the psyche that most documented "facts". Biblical passages can therefore be "inerrant" without being "literal". The myth of The Fall is probably the most basic example of this.
I also believe that anything that can be called "true" in this sense is an eternal truth and would be true at any time and in any place.
It's quite possible that in a perfect world men and women would have certain well-defined, gender-specific roles.

Posted by: Rob on September 12, 2003 12:03 PM

Jenny is correct. I am not a literalist.

The bible uses metaphor freely. It also frequently uses an apocalyptic style that is sort of poetic and should not be taken literally.

Jenny is also correct that one does not have to be a literalist to hold these positions, for the scripture in question is neither metaphorical nor apocalyptic.

Posted by: David Heddle on September 12, 2003 12:13 PM
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