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How clear is the Bible on gender roles?

I love it when the Bible is clear. “Jesus is the Son of God.” Nice.

It’s a little more frustrating when the Bible is not clear: the nature of communion, precise forms of church government, whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. But, at least when it’s not clear, I can admit that there’s plenty of room for disagreement. If the Bible’s not clear, let’s talk.

But, what if I’m not clear about whether or not the Bible is clear?

This came up recently in a discussion on the question of gender roles in the church. According one perspective, the Bible is really clear on this issue: the role of elder/pastor is for men only. Since the Bible is clear, we simply need to affirm what it says regardless of our personal or cultural perspectives. And, given the Bible’s clarity, those who chose to have women serve as elders/pastors are being either intentionally or unintentionally disobedient to scripture.

The other perspective in the discussion actually agreed with the complementation position, but disagreed with respect to the Bible’s clarity on this issue. According to this view, there is enough ambiguity in the biblical texts that faithful, biblical Christians can legitimately come to different conclusions. So, interestingly, the resulting discussion wasn’t about the question of gender roles itself – everyone agreed on that – but on the clarity of the Bible at this point and what that means for how we assess contrary perspectives.

And, lest you think that this is just a complementarian thing, I’ve had exactly the same discussion with egalitarians – some of whom argue that the Bible clearly supports their view and see complementarians as being disobedience to Scripture, and others who disagree with complementarianism but still see the issue through the lens of legitimate diversity.

So, the issue really comes down to a question of how you determine when you think the Bible speaks with sufficient clarity on an issue for you to take a clear stance in opposition to other perspectives, or when you think that the Bible is ambiguous enough to leave room for legitimately different perspectives.

I’d be very curious to hear what you all think about this. Whether you’re a complementation or an egalitarian, where does this fall on your scale of biblical clarity? Is it something that you think is clear and that Christians can and should take a stand on? Or is it something that you think is rather opaque – you may have personal convictions, but you’re not troubled when other evangelicals disagree?

Just to be clear, I’m not looking for a debate on complementarianism/egalitarianism itself. But, I would like to hear how you rate the debate itself. Is it central and clear, or somewhat peripheral and murky?

Reviewing Half the Church (Todd Miles)

This is a guest post by Todd Miles, Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary. Todd has a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and now serves as an elder at Hinson Church in Portland, OR.

Many thanks to Zondervan for providing a review copy of Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women by Carolyn Custis James (2011).

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Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, by Carolyn Custis James, is a book written by a woman for women, calling them to bless the church and ultimately the world through the exercise of their gifts. As a man, a good case could be made that I have no business reading the book, let alone reviewing it. However, I was asked to review the book from a complementarian perspective. It is a book of significance in the evangelical church, so it needs to be evaluated.

Summary

First, a summary of the contents: The book is driven by two issues that are of chief concern to James. First, she grieves the loss to the church and to men when half the church effectively disappears through Anorexic spiritual diet or stymied roles (19). Second, James is dismayed over the plight of women in other countries and is outraged that the church is not the loudest voice decrying the atrocities committed against women around the world (21). These two issues lead to three significant questions whose answers comprise the rest of the book. She wants to know what message the church has for women of the 21st century, what will the church do about the rampant suffering of the world, and what messages are we sending to the world in the way that we mobilize and treat our own daughters (41). It is her desire to write a book that takes seriously the plight of women who live in states of horrific oppression, while simultaneously calling women of the evangelical church to Kingdom action. In so doing, she urges women to participate in the full-orbed gospel of both gospel proclamation and mercy/social justice (25).

Much of the book is given to alerting the reader to atrocities committed against women around the world, such as abuse, sex-trafficing, torture, and various kinds of murder (e.g., female infanticide and so-called honor killings). But James is concerned that the evangelical Church is sending the wrong message to the watching world and to those women who are suffering. Though the time is right for “believers to embody a gospel culture where both halves of the church are thriving because following Jesus produces a climate of honor, value, and love, and we are serving God together as he intended from the beginning. Yet instead of casting a powerful gospel vision that both validates and mobilizes women, the church’s message for women is mixed at best; guarded, negative, and small at worst. Everywhere we go, a line has been drawn establishing parameters for how much or how little we are permitted to do within the church (48).

To remedy this, James correctly turns to the Bible. First, from Genesis 1, she teaches that men and women are fully and equally created imago Dei (57-72). James rightly notes the glory of being an image bearer, along with the awesome responsibility that the doctrine entails. From the creation of man and woman in the image of God, she contends that Adam and Eve were born into conflict and resistance (before the fall) where both are called to be leaders in the tasks presented to them by God (73-78). James finds evidence for female leadership in the narrative of Ruth and Naomi (80-98).

Second, James turns to Genesis 2, where it is written that Eve was created as a helper fit (ezer kenegdo) for Adam. James notes that there are many places in Scripture where God is described as an ezer, often with military connotations. James then concludes that God created his daughters to be ezer-warriors with our brothers (113). She then unpacks the paradigm shifting implications (for both women and men) of women being ezer-warriors (111-118, 123-133), particularly given the dangers in our current cultural context of magnifying submissiveness, surrender, and meekness as important attributes for women (120-123).

Third, James turns to what she calls the blessed alliance that the Bible presents as the model for male and female roles and relationships (135-143). Examples of the blessed alliance are found in Esther and Mordecai, and then in Mary and Joseph (143-150).

Having turned to the Bible for instruction and examples of how women and men are to relate in the mission of the Kingdom, James then explains where we ought not to turn in the Bible for such instruction: the passages over which complementarians and egalitarians debate (153-61). James believes that biblical texts such as 1 Tim 2:11-15 are so difficult to understand that it would be wise to turn to clearer texts that are not the subject of debate for guidance on the issue of men’s and women’s roles in the Church and home. It is frustrating to James that the Church quarrels over these texts while women in the world are suffering injustice and atrocities (161-165). Turning to the example of Jesus, James suggests that Evangelicals should be less concerned with issues of authority and more concerned with issues of justice (166-173).

Finally, James concludes her book with a call to women to rise up and actively participate in the mission of the Kingdom, proclaiming the gospel and advocating for women around the world who are suffering (175-194). The Church must empower and utilize its other half by mobilizing an army of ezer-warriors.

Areas of Agreement

Let me begin my critique of the book by highlighting four areas of agreement with James. First, it is evident that Carolyn Custis James is a sister in Christ who cares deeply about the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Despite our differences, we are co-laborers in the Kingdom of Christ. Second, in Half the Church, James calls attention to the atrocities committed against women in other nations. She rightly rebukes the church for its ignorance and silence concerning the horrific plight of far too many around the world. Third, James correctly calls for the church to engage in both the word and deed of the Kingdom, commanded by Jesus, and then modeled by Jesus and his apostles. Too often the church swings from the extremes of proclamation only to mercy/social justice only. Such is a distortion of the Kingdom and the gospel that announces it. Finally, James is right to want to get every woman involved in the ministry of the gospel. She appropriately grieves over the anorexic spiritual diet of many Christian women.

Areas of Critique

As an elder in a local church, I can deeply appreciate these emphases. Unfortunately, the book is flawed at too many levels for me to endorse it. Hermeneutical errors, biblical-theological errors, exegetical errors, and logical errors abound. These errors are not peripheral to her main points but in every case exist precisely where her arguments are being made. For the reasons outlined below, I could not in good conscience recommend the book to anybody.

James understands Adam and Eve to be co-laborers in a context of conflict and resistance even before the fall, necessitating a strong co-leader for Adam. But Scripture attributes the conflict of the biblical drama to sin, narrated in the account of the fall in Genesis 3. There is no hint in the narrative or in subsequent biblical testimony to the kind of conflict that would necessitate a co-leader and warrior for Adam. Adam is alone, so God creates one who is like him, but is not the same as him, as a “helper suitable for him,” and in so doing creates the institution of marriage. James ignores the biblical-theological categories of fall and redemption, attributing that which the Scriptures blame on the sinful rebellion of Adam and Eve to creation itself. Contrary to James’s analysis, Adam was called to “work and keep” the garden before the creation of Eve (Gen 2:15), and this is language more in keeping with a biblical priest than a biblical warrior. Further, even if the mandate to work and keep were passed on to Eve (which I suspect it was), does this entail that their respective roles in working and keeping were identical?

James’s evaluation of the Hebrew word ezer is more problematic. Recall that James established that God had created a warrior-ezer for Adam because other biblical uses of the word ezer carry military implications. But words have meaning in specific contexts and to find a meaning of a word in one text and then transfer that meaning in wholesale fashion to another text is illegitimate. By the time James is done, her call for an army of warriors with ezer-spirit permeates the book. Gone, all in the name of a word study, is any notion of marriage in the understanding of a helper fit for him, even though the context of that specific text (Gen 2:18) is marriage itself. Gone is the important and faith-filled reality that Adam named his wife Eve (contra James’s assertion in 100-101), “the mother of all living” (Gen 3:20), his statement of faith that God would save them one day through the offspring of his wife (Gen 3:15).

James calls for a blessed alliance between women and men. But she refuses to interact with the biblical texts that speak directly to how men and women are to relate in the context of the church and marriage (in fact, James implies that the Bible does not contain instructions for building a blessed alliance in our churches and homes [146]). She simply dismisses those texts as too difficult to understand, claiming that doctrines should be based on clear texts, not disputed texts. That sounds a bit like cooking the books to me. If one eliminates all the many biblical texts that speak to differentiation of roles in the church and home, then of course there would be no call or reason for wives to submit to their husbands, or for the office of elder to be reserved for men. But are those texts too difficult to understand? Is “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” or “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” impossible to interpret? I will grant that application will take wisdom and discernment. But disliking the implications of a verse is not the same thing as not being able to interpret the verse. If dispute over meaning were grounds for eliminating biblical texts, we would have no word from God at all. Further, dismissing the debate by arguing that while the church quarrels “millions of little girls are being sold as sex slaves in vast regions of the Majority Word . . . and human trafficking is happening locally, right under our noses” (161) is both a red herring and an appeal to emotion, and is neither suitable nor helpful for real Christian discourse, nor does it help those being victimized.

On the same topic, James feels that the egalitarian world is repelled over the debates concerning men’s and women’s roles in the church and home, because women who have experienced great gains in the academy and workforce are called to submit in the church (48-49, 159). But what kind of argument is this? Of course our fallen world will look at the church, which calls for women to submit to the sacrificial leadership of their husbands, as hopelessly bizarre. Acceptance or rejection by the world is not an argument in any way for the legitimacy of a doctrine.

One last significant hermeneutical flaw: James believes that a key to understanding the Ancient Near East and Greco Roman contexts in which the Bible was written is to look at today’s Middle East (32). They do share commonality in that they could each be described as patriarchal, but is it legitimate to compare the contemporary Muslim culture of the Middle East with the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures of the Old and New Testaments? For example, did Mary really face the threat of an honor killing? The biblical texts do not indicate so. When such erroneous cultural assumptions are made, the result in Half the Church is a distortion of the biblical narratives. Honestly, as I read James’s retelling of the stories, I almost came to dislike Joseph and Boaz for being dangerous patriarchalists. Never mind that the biblical texts describe Joseph and Boaz as just and worthy, respectively. In general, James’s interpretation of the biblical narratives, particularly when she seeks to find examples of female leadership over men (e.g., Ruth and Naomi over Boaz, Mary over Joseph, Esther over Mordecai), are creative, but faithful to neither the immediate context nor the biblical-theological storyline.

Finally, as a husband, father of a daughter (and five sons), and elder over a church at least half-full of women, I must comment on the tone of the book. The language throughout is prejudicial against those who see marriage and motherhood as of the essence of femininity, and against those who see submissiveness as a legitimate biblical virtue to be sought after. For example, women who lovingly submit to the sacrificial and loving leadership of their husbands are described as bringing less of themselves to the task at hand, not bringing their full selves to the partnership (158). Parents who teach their daughters to submit in this day and age might be setting them up for physical abuse (120-122). Perhaps most frustrating were claims that differentiation of men’s and women’s roles in the church and home are not qualitatively different than, and could lead to, the atrocities of violence and abuse committed against women in the world. These claims were explicitly made (e.g., 110). They were perhaps more effectively implicitly made on the numerous occasions when chapters that expressed concern for women in the church began and ended with stories of horrific abuse from around the world. This is an effective literary strategy, but it is irresponsible, logically flawed, and misleading.

James is right to call attention to the plight of victimized women around the world, but her biblical arguments are so poor that she has done little to rectify the meager spiritual diet she so decries. The women of the church need better than this.

When half the church holds back…

I grieve the loss to the church when so many Christian women believe it’s possible to subsist on an anorexic spiritual diet. I grieve that far too many women and girls are living with small visions of themselves and their purpose. I grieve the loss to our brothers who are shouldering burdens we were created to share and are doing kingdom work without us when God means for us to build his kingdom together.

When half the church holds back – whether by choice or because we have no choice – everybody loses and our mission suffers setbacks. Tragically, we are squandering the opportunity to display to an embattled world a gospel that causes both men and women to flourish and unites us in a Blessed Alliance that only the presence of Jesus can explain.

That’s from the introduction to Carolyn Custis James’ Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women.  Over the next couple of days, we’ll be posting two reviews of the book from people with different perspectives on the role of women in the church. Brad Harper from Multnomah University will start things off tomorrow, and Todd Miles from Western Seminary will follow. I’d encourage you to track both reviews and get two different looks at the book.

And, don’t forget that Zondervan has also give us a copy of the book to give away. We’ll be giving the book away on Friday, so you still have a few days to enter if you’re interested.

Are we silencing half the church?

My wife is a gifted woman. She has a passion for discipleship and a desire to see God’s word taught clearly and transformatively. My oldest daughter is creative, sharp as a tack, and has a Master’s in communication. My youngest daughters are both gifted in so many areas that I can’t even keep track. I am surrounded by amazing women and girls.

Are we silencing them?

I will never forget one experience that I had while visiting a church. We had just moved back from Scotland and we were really hoping that this church would be our new home.

After one service, I already had some questions. There were no women involved in visible ministry anywhere. Greeters, ushers, worship leader, preacher, even the person who gave announcements…all men.

Now, that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. There could be lots of reasons for what was going on that Sunday. I’m certainly not going to judge a church on that basis alone.

Then we talked to the pastor.

It was painful. Through the entire conversation – it lasted about five minutes – the pastor never addressed my wife. Not once. Every time he spoke, he spoke to me. She was standing right next to me, but her presence didn’t seem to matter. For whatever reason, she barely registered on his radar.

But wait, it gets worse. My wife was the one asking all the questions. During the entire conversation, I actually said very little. He would turn to her while she asked the question, and then look straight at me while answering it. Every single time. He never spoke to her.

Message received. We haven’t been back.

Maybe it wasn’t fair. Maybe we rushed to judgment. Maybe we should have given it another chance. I don’t know. But, what we saw was enough to raise serious questions about whether this church was fully committed to supporting the giftedness of the whole people of God – not just the male half.

Are we silencing half the church?

That’s a question that we should all be concerned about. And, it’s the question that Carolyn Curtis James wants us to think through in her new book Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Vision for Women. And, even more, she wants us to recognize the whole range of issues (cultural, global, social, and economic) that often contribute to silencing half the church. According to the publisher’s description,

The Bible contains the highest possible view of women and invests women’s lives with cosmic significance regardless of their age, stage of life, social status, or culture. Carolyn Custis James unpacks three transformative themes the Bible presents to women that raise the bar for women and calls them to join their brothers in advancing God’s gracious kingdom on earth. These new images of what can be in Christ free women to embrace the life God gives them, no matter what happens. Carolyn encourages readers with a positive, kingdom approach to the changes, challenges, and opportunities facing women throughout the world today.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be reflecting on some of these ideas to consider whether we really are silencing half the church. To that end, we’ll be hosting a couple of reviews on Half the Church from different perspectives. Todd Miles, Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary, will offer a review of the book from a complementarian perspective. And Brad Harper, Professor of Theology at Multnomah University, will engage the book from a more egalitarian perspective. Along the way, I’m hoping that we will all gain a better appreciation for how we can all, regardless of theological perspective, strive to encourage and support the ministries of all God’s people.

Stay tuned for more information and discussions on this subject.

Are men inherently better leaders?

Many people are going to read the title to this post and dismiss the question as absurd. Of course not. But, I often encounter people who assume that the answer to this question must be “yes” based on their conviction that God has ordained men to be leaders in the church. I’d like to address this latter group.

The question, then, is this: If you are a complementarian – i.e. if you believe that God has ordained men to particular leadership roles in the church – do you need to believe that men are inherently better leaders?

Let me make this easy….no.

The logic that seems to convince complementarians otherwise runs (loosely)  like this:

  1. Being a leader entails having certain qualities/attributes.
  2. God ordained men to be leaders in the church.
  3. God wouldn’t ordain men to be leaders unless he had given them the requisite qualities/attributes.
  4. Therefore, men have the requisite qualities/attributes for being leaders in the church.
  5. God wouldn’t limit these leadership roles to men unless they possessed the necessary qualities/attributes of leadership in unique ways.
  6. Therefore, men inherently possess at least some of the necessary qualities/attributes in a way or to a degree that women do not.
  7. And, therefore, men are inherently better leaders (at least in the church).

This argument, though, has a number of key problems, and several of them arise with the very first statement: “Being a leader entails having certain qualities/attributes.” Right away you’re faced with a number of challenging difficulties:

  • There is no agreed upon set of qualities/attributes necessary for being a leader. Just read the literature. Everyone who studies the question seems to have their own definition of what it means to be a leader.
  • There is no research to support the conclusion that men disproportionately manifest the qualities of being an effective leader (whatever those are). Here you realize that even if you manage to identify the qualities necessary for being a leader, you simply have no evidence for concluding that men possess these qualities any more than women do.
  • Even if you could find research to support the conclusion that men exhibit some leadership quality disproportionately more than women, you would still need to determine why that is the case. For example, let’s say that a study concluded that men are more decisive in decision-making than women. (I’m not aware of any such study, but let’s pretend.) That still would not prove your case because it’s entirely possible that the difference comes from societal expectations of how boys and girls should behave, how they should be raised, the kinds of decisions they should be involved in, etc. So, even a statistical variance would be a far cry from proving your case.
  • Descriptions of “leadership” are often driven more by culture than theology. If we change the picture and focus on the qualities that Jesus exhibited during his earthy ministry – for example, compassion, patient suffering, gratitude, humility, gentleness, nurturing, etc. – would we still be trying to argue that men exhibit these qualities disproportionately more than women? Good luck with that.

I could probably add other arguments, but these seem sufficient to establish that the first step in this argument faces some significant difficulties.

Skipping past the second assertion since I’m only focusing on people who believe this to be true, there are also significant problems with the third assertion: “God wouldn’t ordain men to be leaders unless he had given them the requisite qualities/attributes.”

Really? What would lead us to believe that this is necessarily the case? Throughout the Bible God apparently delights in calling people into positions of leadership who seem obviously unqualified for the position: Moses, David, Saul, etc. These were deeply flawed individuals who often serve as better examples of how to sin effectively than how to lead appropriately. Indeed, God’s grace is often displayed better by accomplishing his plans and purposes through the outcast, the lowly, and the ungifted. Viewed from this perspective, then, wouldn’t it be more appropriate for the complementarian to assume that men may actually be less gifted in leadership than women, but that God has called them into leadership anyway and that he will graciously empower them for and support them in this calling? Why presume that people must be gifted before God calls them to a particular task? Did the donkey have the gift of speech before God called it to speak to Balaam? (Yes, I did just compare Christian men to a talking donkey.)

And, once you’ve called into question the first and third assertions, the argument really has nowhere to go. (You could also pick on the fifth assertion if you really felt the need to destroy this argument a bit more.)

Now again, none of this has anything to do with whether it is correct to believe that God has ordained men to specific leadership roles in the church. That is a completely separate issue. I just want to point out that there is no necessary connection between complementarianism and the belief that men inherently possess some quality or qualities that make them better leaders. Leadership is a function, not an attribute. The real question is not whether you have the essential/inherent qualities necessary for being a good leader, as though God depended on our capacities and abilities to accomplish his purposes. The real question is whether God in his grace has called you to be a leader in his church and how you will do so as faithfully as possible with everything that he has given you.

Flotsam and jetsam (11/24)

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

More than ever before the issue of gender has become bound up with one’s own personal identity. Since the zeitgeist emphasises the freedom of the individual to self-create, especially over against any prefabricated notion of ‘roles’, the discussion of ‘headship’ is always going to jar with our wider cultural sensibilities.

If marriage is a foretaste of the relationship between Christ and the church, and sex likewise a foretaste of our ultimate and intimate union with God, Ambrose deduced that devoted virginity simply dispenses with the appetizers and skips on to the main course.

  • Perspectives in translation is discussing how best to translate ‘hilasterion’ in Romans 3:25, with Mike Bird arguing that it refers to a sacrifice that appeases divine wrath (propitiation) and Darrell Bock arguing that it refers to the place in which th sacrifice takes place (mercy seat).

Flotsam and jetsam (11/15)

One cannot underestimate the importance of 1 Timothy 2:12 in the intra-evangelical debate over gender roles and women in ministry. There is a reason why countless articles and even an entire book have been written on the interpretation of this single verse. In many ways, this verse is the most disputed text in the debate. It is clear that Paul is prohibiting something, but just what he prohibits has been fiercely contested.

The women’s ministry paradigm has been undergoing a subtle but important shift over the last few years. Many evangelical women are now discussing and operating according to an alternative to the emotional, therapeutic, and pretty-in-pink cliché that has dominated for so long, encouraging women to think beyond the contours of the current paradigm and develop a vision for women’s ministry that more actively and intentionally involves the life of the mind. They are identifying and rejecting the experience-driven model as insufficient because without theological substance any impact is merely temporary.

The solution, as I see it, is what I call  “Kevlar theology,” that our theology should be as unbreakable and as elastic as a bulletproof vest.

Sacramentality is the concept that the outward and visible can convey the inward and spiritual. Physical matters and actions can become transparent vehicles of divine activity and presence. In short, sacraments can be God’s love made visible.

  • And, Roger Olson is working at reclaiming Pietism (part 1 and part 2).

Flotsam and jetsam (7/19)

  • William Black has a nice post on why he doesn’t think 1 Tim. 2:12 is as clear as many complementarians (esp. Al Mohler) want to believe. There’s nothing really new in his argument, but he does a good job summarizing why this is such a challenging verse.
  • Christopher Benson offers a whole list of new and upcoming books that he thinks are worth keeping an eye on. If you’re looking for something good to read, this is worth checking out.
  • Jason Stellman pushes back on the idea that we should all just “get along” and minimize our theological differences. Instead, he contends that unless we’re willing to be liberals or Catholics, we need to acknowledge our theological differences and give up empty appeals to “unity.”
  • Reformed Forum has an interview with Darryl Hart on understanding the Presbyterian family tree. The interview itself was interesting, though he misunderstood (misrepresented?) the situation here in Portland at one point (see Pat’s comments in the post).
  • Several bibliobloggers having posted recently on problems they’ve had with commenters (see Larry Hurtado, Nick Norelli, and Brian LePort). We don’t have those kinds of problems here because I sprinkle magic pixie dust on my computer every morning.
  • And, if you’ve been enjoying the Old Spice Guy videos that have been so popular lately, Mashable has put together their 10 favorite.

Flotsam and jetsam (7/14)

Flotsam and jetsam (6/24)