This is part of a series on biblical interpretation and egalitarian thought. The purpose is not to debate, but to promote understanding. Read the introduction here.
Like most Good Christian Girls, I learned a *lot* of Bible verses growing up. I was awarded with candy in Sunday school, tiny plastic crowns in Awana, and good grades at the mission school I attended in Liberia. In middle school, too old for Awana and back in the melee of the American public school system, my memorization took an evangelical turn–I could rattle off the Romans Road in my sleep, and used my concordance to look up responses to my non-Christian friends’ questions and comments. By the time I was in high school, I could cleverly slide a Bible verse into just about any discussion–in King James, no less, because while I had cut my teeth on the NIV, many of the people I was “sharing with” (debating) accepted nothing else as authoritative.
I knew a lot about the Bible. And since I had a relationship with Jesus, and tended to read the Bible in large chunks, I had a good sense of the Spirit behind the printed words, too. But I knew next to nothing about the historical context of what I was reading, and my knee-jerk reaction to any question about doctrine, theology, and pretty much anything else was the Bible verse some editor had printed next to that issue in the concordance in the back of my Bible.
Perhaps this is why I agonized about gender issues all through my teens and twenties. I was called and gifted, but as a women had few ministry models beyond single missionaries and pious homemakers. The verses my concordance listed about women and their roles, and the books used for women’s Bible studies at church, felt heavy and oppressive, in contrast to the freedom, passion and delight I found in my relationship with Jesus. The dichotomy between what I believed with all my heart to be true about God and myself, and what I was taught to be true about women’s place in in the home and church, could easily have pulled me apart, if Jesus hadn’t held me together.
I know now that I really didn’t need to be so freaked out. Some answers can’t be found in the concordance. Some questions are best considered by looking at the entire biblical canon, through the lens of the person of Jesus, who not only saved us, but showed us by example what human beings are supposed to be, and how they are supposed to relate to one another.
And that brings me to what some people call “The Whole Counsel of the Word of God.”
While some complementarians have strong feelings about the symbolic nature of gender and role differences, most base their beliefs and practices on a couple passages in the epistles, and perhaps Genesis 2 and 3 (we’ll talk about Genesis in the next post). Their biggest argument with egalitarians is that they seem to ignore passages that limit women’s roles. Sure, being modern, enlightened folk, we’d all like to overlook passages that grate on our conscience and common sense like fingernails on a chalkboard. But how can you support women teaching or being in positions of authority over men when 1 Timothy 2:12 clearly says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”?
Egalitarians would respond that this is proof-texting, and that it is wrong to build theology on a handful of passages, especially if it has significant social ramifications. How can you say women must not have authority over men when God clearly placed Deborah in a position of spiritual and civic authority over an entire nation? How can you insist that Paul wants women to remain silent when elsewhere he urges them to wear the traditional head coverings when they are prophesying (speaking the word of God) and praying in church? If Paul was so opposed to women doing what he told the Ephesian women not to do in 1 Timothy 2:12, why does he brag on teachers like Priscilla, deacons like Phoebe, apostles like Junia, and dozens of other female leaders and co-workers? What are we to make of the fact that Paul’s writings and view of women were radically feminist for his day–the man was, after all, credited with writing the first egalitarian statement in history, Galatians 3:28–but are viewed as oppressive in modern society, and used to limit the ministry of intelligent, well-educated, sold-out Christian women?
I am convinced poor Paul would roll over in his grave.
I would contend that most American evangelicals learned theology the way I did–from Sunday School lessons and thirty-minute sermons, from simple, informative tracts and pamphlets, from concordances and maybe commentaries if we were really committed. We were taught the Right Answers to the Common Questions, so we could get stars in Sunday School and win debates with our unbelieving friends.
If we sometimes lacked nuance or historical insight, or failed to take all of the Bible into consideration, well, you don’t know what you don’t know, until you know it.
Like I said in my last post, taking the whole counsel of the word of God into account is not an egalitarian or complementarian trait–anyone will do so if they are studying the Bible conscientiously, and may honestly come to different conclusions about a wide variety of issues. But understanding the importance of context, both biblical and historical, is crucial to understanding why egalitarians don’t swallow the Sunday School answers about gender roles that most evangelicals were brought up with.
There is so much more that could and should be said, but this post is getting long, and others have said it better than I could. I’ll post some resources for further study.
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, is an evangelical classic, and an excellent guide to reading, understanding, and interpreting the Bible. The two chapters on studying the epistles are invaluable to understanding what I’ve been talking about in this article. Read it!
The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight is another book that belongs on your bedside table. How are we to understand those troubling passages that don’t seem to be consistent with the rest of the Bible, much less morality and common sense? McKnight’s analysis is readable and helpful.
If you want to hear an egalitarian response to verses that seem to limit women, Christians for Biblical Equality has posted a number of Short Answers to Challenging Texts, and scads of other free, online articles.
This article by Ray Ciampa on what the Bible has to say about the relationship between husbands and wives does a great job of explaining the importance of understanding historical and cultural context of the Bible.