public domain image of woman speaking at podiumA couple of my Facebook acquaintances seem to share most of what a certain Christian feminist/egalitarian (she self-identifies as both), Rachel Held Evans (hereafter, RHE), posts to her blog. (That’s what I get for attending a seminary where ordination-seeking women are plentiful, I suppose.) Having finally taken the time to read one of these link-shares, I decided to post some comments. In what follows, I will analyze aspects of one of RHE’s recent posts (“Will the real complementarians please stand up?”, accessed 15 October 2013), which concerns complementarian response, or lack of response, to a book she wrote, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

I haven’t read RHE’s book and don’t expect to (I haven’t even the funds for books I want to read), so this analysis is based solely on “Will the real complementarians please stand up?” and some earlier posts it references. Since RHE has been obsessing over this issue for an extended time (at least three years), and since my interest in (and so my study of) the issue is limited, I will not attempt a comprehensive refutation of RHE’s arguments. I will instead analyze her pattern of thinking in mostly broad terms, noting some of what I find most troubling in that pattern and, where I can, suggesting what I think may be a better, more pious, way of thinking. (Those interested in RHE’s book may learn a bit more in reviews by Kathy Keller, Trillia Newbell, and Aimee Byrd. Since these reviews contain helpful insights about RHE’s attitude toward and use of Scripture, they might also prove useful to persons not interested in the book.)

Before addressing some of RHE’s remarks, I should comment briefly on her and my use of terms. Though she in one place asserts that “complementarianism is not a word,” presumably meaning that the term has yet to find its way into dictionaries, she in another place describes the “complementarian movement” as “a broad group of evangelicals who often employ the terms ‘biblical manhood’ and ‘biblical womanhood’ in their literature,” and in a third place suggests that a characteristic of complementarian thought is the “notion that the Bible offers a single perspicuous blueprint for womanhood that renders femininity down to a list of rules and acceptable roles.” Her thesis, apparently, is that the diversity of such lists set forth by self-identified complementarians, which diversity her book seeks to put on display in a way she considers humorous, proves that this “perspicuous blueprint” idea is in error and that complementarianism is therefore false. Unlike RHE, whose definition of complementarianism likely merits a “straw man fallacy” label, I would define complementarianism less restrictively as belief that Scripture, a perspicuous (clear, lucid, intelligible) revelation, does provide some guidance on proper gender roles in the form of some clear general principles and even a few clear role-directives, and that these principles and directives do not portray the sexes as equally free to pursue all roles or equally at liberty to engage in all behaviors, but rather as complementary in the roles and behaviors open to them. Though some self-labeled complementarians may think they can find an exhaustive “blueprint,” it seems to me that one might well qualify as complementarian even if one believes that what Scripture has to say on gender roles is not so comprehensive. (On this definition, blueprint-finders are subsets of complementarians, one subset per blueprint.)

In light of this terminological clarification, it is possible to answer a few of RHE’s “Is this what complementarians believe?” queries. For instance, she asks if Mark Driscoll‘s assertion “that men who fail to be the exclusive providers for their families are a disgrace” is “what complementarians believe.” My response would be, “not necessarily; this is just what one complementarian believes.” Accepting that the Bible provides guidance on gender roles, pastor Driscoll has reached his own conclusions about “biblical manhood.” The same would have to be said of Owen Strachan‘s assertion that “stay-at-home fathers and men who take on domestic duties are ‘man fails.’” A survey of self-identified complementarians would probably find that most deem Strachan’s perspective more defensible than Driscoll’s, but one might qualify as complementarian even if one prefers to couch the issue of stay-at-home fathers and domestic-duty husbands in less extreme language, saying, for example, that such arrangements are just “unfortunate” (or “not ideal”) and perhaps emphasizing that such men should not feel shame or think themselves failures if economic and societal factors make such arrangements “the best they can do” to ensure the survival and thriving of their families.

Terminology aside, RHE complains that there “has been a general refusal among complementarian leaders to engage in conversation about what the Bible actually says” in response to her book and three years of blogging on the subject. After listing queries she has offered over these years (presumably those she finds most cogent in support of her feminist/egalitarian perspective), she states that “response by complementarians to these questions…has been mostly silence, even when I’ve specifically asked for engagement.” I have my own suspicions about why complementarians, if they are even reading her blog, see nothing to be gained by engaging RHE. Prior to sharing those suspicions, I’ll make my own attempt at very limited engagement on one of her queries.

That query reads as follows: “Why are Paul’s instructions regarding Corinthian women wearing head coverings dismissed as cultural and specific to a unique audience, while his instructions regarding Ephesian women teaching the Ephesian church considered universally and timelessly prescriptive?” For me, this is not a persuasive objection to complementarianism, since I would sooner endorse head coverings than I would attempt dismissing Paul’s clear, blanket statements in 1 Timothy 2:7-15 (I believe this is the passage RHE has in mind). As I’ve previously noted, clever and creative people can make a variety of readings of Scripture seem plausible; this is particularly true if they have access to good scholarly research databases or similar references. The question I keep coming back to when encountering such clever and creative readings-contrary-to-plain-sense is this: did God breath out the Bible so that, after those first few generations, it would mislead anyone without access to research databases (or the like)? Is the Bible a perspicuous revelation including within it the background data essential to its understanding, or is it just another “dated” ancient book that moderns can only hope to understand with the aid of scholars whose theoretical reconstructions of past cultures are always probable rather than certain, provisional rather than final? Though these reconstructions may often be quite probably correct, are we not still turning modern scholars into a new priestly class when we make their pronouncements prerequisite to correct understanding of Scripture?

(Aside: In another place [“For the sake of the gospel, let women speak,” accessed 17 October 2013], RHE suggests that, if they are to be consistent, complementarians must understand 1 Timothy 2:7-15’s “pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands” as mandating that one lift one’s hand when praying. It seems clear when I read the passage, however, that this is parallelism; that is, the phrase “lifting up holy hands” is not a description of how one should pray, but simply a restatement that one should pray. “Pray” and “lift up holy hands” are synonymous. Had standard practice at the time been to lie prone or to assume some other posture, Paul would have phrased this passage differently. In any case, were RHE correct, her point would argue for our starting to pray with hands raised, not for our ignoring or explaining away the rest of the passage because we’d rather keep our hands down.)

In suggesting that Scripture, taken in its entirety, must contain within it sufficient background information to make it understandable, I realize I am adopting a viewpoint neither evangelical feminists/egalitarians nor complementarians tend to favor. Scholars on both sides of the debate (insofar as I can judge from my limited reading) tend to take for granted that extra-biblical sources must be consulted if one is to accurately grasp what Scripture teaches. It is possible, perhaps, that some scholars actually believe that Scripture could be understood based solely upon close study of information contained within it, but find appeal to extra-biblical data helpful support for (and a handy shortcut to) such understanding. (This seems more plausible in the case of complementarians than egalitarians, since the latter must oppose the plain sense more often. This, at any rate, is my current impression.) I don’t mean to imply that extra-biblical data is unhelpful or that it does not enrich our understanding of Scripture; I am very uncomfortable, however, with proposals to overturn the plain sense of passages based on theories about ancient environments. Did God write Scripture to last, a perspicuous revelation “kept pure in all ages” so that his people could always be thoroughly equipped “for every good work”? Or did he write it so that at best a couple early generations could trust the plain sense of plain passages? Again: I don’t reject the value of extra-biblical data to supplement and enhance understanding; I am troubled when extra-biblical data is used to overturn the only readings that make sense when Scripture alone is consulted.

Concerning Paul’s epistles in general….Though it is certainly true, as all admit, that Paul’s letters were occasional, written to address specific issues on specific historical occasions, is it not also true that the God who breathed out those infallible words through Paul intended for the letters to form part of a unified written revelation to guide his people in perpetuity thereafter? Can a Bible-believer faithfully entertain interpretive maneuvers that work from the assumption that God has not provided sufficient contextual clues within Scripture, in the letters themselves and in the broader canonical context, to permit their proper understanding? Did God inspire Paul’s letters with the intent that later generations should inevitably misunderstand them? Feminism/egalitarianism, and much other contemporary hermeneutics, seems to answer in the affirmative. I think this should make Bible-believers very uncomfortable.

All that said, one question arising from RHE’s query is whether the analogy between Paul’s remarks on head coverings and his remarks on women teaching with authority in the church is even valid. Though Scripture throughout insists that men and women should not attire themselves as suits the opposite sex (Deut. 22:5), (so far as I recall) it nowhere (save in this late reference to head coverings) says exactly what articles of clothing are mandatory or forbidden for one sex or the other, either in general or (as here) in specific situations. Excepting this instance of head covering (which I assume church members asked Paul about), the Bible takes for granted that God’s people will be able to apply the principle to their changing contexts. It seems always to have been Scripture’s intention that men and women identify menswear and womenswear based on existing practice where they happen to be. Gender-appropriate dress, both in general and for specific situations, might also include such attire-like things as hair styles. (For the time in which he wrote, perhaps John R. Rice was not so far wrong about “bobbed hair” as the Amazon reviewers think. Possible?….Perhaps not.) Concerning the passage in question, 1 Corinthians 11, classic commentator Matthew Henry remarks, in complementarian (even patriarchal) fashion:

In this chapter the apostle blames, and endeavours to rectify, some great indecencies and manifest disorders in the church of Corinth; as, I. The misconduct of their women (some of whom seem to have been inspired) in the public assembly, who laid by their veils, the common token of subjection [“submission” would be the preferred current phrasing] to their husbands in that part of the world. This behaviour he reprehends, requires them to keep veiled, asserts the superiority [positionally, that is] of the husband, yet so as to remind the husband that both were made for mutual help and comfort.
Noteworthy in this passage is that even women who were apparently uttering direct messages from God (as was known to happen in the apostolic era before God wrapped up the canon) were still expected to attire themselves in a way indicating they were not in authority. They were not forbidden to participate in out loud group prayers, it seems, nor were they forbidden to share information provided to them by God (a first century equivalent of non-authoritative sharing of subject-matter expertise?), but they were forbidden to attire themselves in a way suggesting they were taking on the male-only role of teaching elders. This, at least, seems one potential (to me, cogent) reading of the passage. Adopting this reading, perhaps one could suggest that today’s equivalent of an uncovered head is not any literal item of clothing but instead a symbolic form of attire: ordination. On this understanding, so long as women do not seek appointment as teaching elders (ordained pastors), they may share their subject-matter expertise even in the church. Hmm.

Anyway….The varying-with-environment-from-the-beginning matter of attire, then, seems different in kind from statements about permissible roles within the church: whereas attire needs to be role-appropriate, what attire is appropriate to which roles varies. Teaching with authority is always teaching with authority, whether the token of such authority is that one may speak without a veil or wear or not wear some other articles of clothing. It may be relevant that God (unlike many churches) has never shown a willingness to allow broader cultural practices to influence what actions are permissible within his assembly. In the Old Testament, persons who, rather than limiting their actions to those explicitly sanctioned by God, attempted to worship God in the ways pagans worshiped their gods, suffered harsh consequences (Leviticus 10). Given this, when God inspires a text telling women not to take on church roles where they authoritatively teach men, would not women be well-advised to view with suspicion any “sense of calling” they “feel” to go ahead and take on such roles? No doubt Nadab and Abihu “felt called” to offer their strange fire to God, and doubtless they were capable practitioners of the craft of conducting worship rituals. Alas, subjective sense of calling and real ability are no substitute for obedience to the express will of God.

Undoubtedly, my feminist/egalitarian acquaintances (in the unlikely event they read this post) will not see this analogy between the “strange fire” episode and women teaching with authority in the church as valid. Whether it is valid or not, it seems to me clearly closer to being valid than the analogy between women preaching and women not wearing head coverings. Women who decide they are called to teach authoritatively in the church often are very capable people, often more educated and better speakers than many a male minister. (Whether I intend this statement as praise for capable women or condemnation of a sorry population of male ministers I leave the reader to decide.) Nothing that I know of anywhere in Scripture indicates that God’s will defers to the natural endowments and inclinations of mortals, however. The invariable pattern in Scripture, on the contrary, is for God to choose as leaders whom he cares to, whether qualified by worldly (or their own) standards or not.

Jesus once observed that it is exceedingly difficult for rich persons to enter heaven, since their tendency is to trust in their riches rather than in God (Matthew 19, Mark 10). The path to obedience is also difficult where one’s riches are in ability rather than finances. “I’m a better public speaker and know more Bible than any preacher I know,” says the able woman, “why shouldn’t I preach? Obviously,” she reasons, “Scripture can’t intend for capable people like me to not take on the leadership roles we’re clearly the best qualified for. Therefore, these ancient statements by Paul have to mean something other than what a ‘superficial’ reading indicates.” And thus begins the quest for a plausible reinterpretation. Though I think old earth- and evolution-compatible reinterpretations of the Genesis creation account more blatantly abuse Scripture than do some egalitarian maneuvers, both sets of reinterpretations fail to make humble acceptance of what Scripture says foundational to Christian thinking and hermeneutics.

Of course, as Newbell’s review notes, RHE is herself an evolutionist, and RHE does in at least one place (“For the sake of the gospel, let women speak”) cite Peter Enns approvingly. (Find a helpful related resource here.) This does not make me hopeful she will adopt a hermeneutical method that makes Scripture alone and in its entirety the axiomatic foundation of her thinking. I am relieved, however, that she seems to prefer arguments based on historical context over such more destructive egalitarian maneuvers as redemptive-movement hermeneutics. Or does she? At one point in her post, she links to another post (“Submission in Context: Christ and the Greco-Roman Household Codes,” accessed 17 October 2013) in which she argues against the complementarian understanding of Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, and 1 Peter 3. As I’ve already noted, it troubles me when interpreters of Scripture argue that God has not provided sufficient background information in the canon itself for understanding of the Bible’s contents. When inspiring Paul’s and Peter’s letters, God knew (even if the human writers did not) that he was crafting a scriptural canon for his people. Did he really mean for these letters to be impossible to rightly understand without access to specialist information about such historical matters as the broader culture’s household codes? Of course, this sort of appeal to extra-biblical information about historical context is generally permitted, so my misgivings are not quite mainstream. RHE’s essential argument is this:

The question modern readers have to ask is whether the Greco-Roman household codes reflected [better, improved upon] in Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter are in and of themselves holy and divinely instituted, or if their appearance in Scripture represents the early church’s attempt to blend Christianity and culture in such a way that it would preserve the dignity of adherents while honoring prevailing social and legal norms of the day. The Christian version of the household codes were clearly progressive for their time…, but does that mean they have the last word, that Christians in changing places and times cannot progress further? (Original emphasis removed; new emphasis added.)
So, then, there may be some redemptive-movement hermeneutics afoot here, after all. For those who haven’t run across it before, redemptive-movement hermeneutics asserts that Bible interpreters should (1) try to discern developmental trajectories in Scripture, such as the trajectory RHE discerns here, then (2) determine where that trajectory would lead if it continued in the same way past the closing of the canon and to our own day. One common analogy likens the completed canon to a long football pass on its way to a distant receiver: determining where the pass would come down and be caught is the responsibility of interpreters (receivers) in each new generation.

Those of us who believe God knew what he was doing when he closed the canon are naturally uncomfortable with this line of thinking. Where in Scripture is there any indication that uninspired interpreters of later generations have authority to “progress” beyond what God chose to reveal? Put another way: God closed the canon; by what authority does any modern interpreter reopen it? When considering these issues, we need to keep in mind that God “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11). It is not the case that when God wished to breath out (“inspire”) his written revelation, he had to “make do” with whatever culture humans “happened” to have developed at that point. Rather, he providentially prepared the cultural context into which he breathed out his revelation. God didn’t just inspire these improved expressions of the household codes, he providentially created the Greco-Roman codes upon which they are an improvement. This isn’t to say that the Greco-Roman codes were themselves divinely sanctioned; providence (expressing God’s decree) is not sanction (expressing God’s morality). It is to say that God set up an environment that had a household code upon which he could by inspiration improve to the extent he deemed necessary for proper completion of his full and perfect written revelation, the closed canon. As RHD grants, “the household codes found in the Bible’s epistles differ significantly from the household codes found in the pagan literature of the day” (original emphasis removed; new emphasis added). She may be comfortable concluding that God never got around to completing his improvements to the code; I am not. God has not given me authority to “go one better” on his infallible Book.

As for the matter of slavery—RHE believes one cannot maintain that what these passages say about gender still applies unless one grants that what they say about slavery also still applies—I’ll have to leave that debate to others for now. I would note that rejecting an argument because it has unpleasant implications is fallacious, unless one can offer some good argument that God’s truth must be pleasant to humans. Many who reject redemptive-movement maneuvers find a case against slavery implicit in the book of Philemon. Others make a point of taking into account all that Scripture says in relation to slavery during the course of redemptive history, also making a point of studying what sort of slavery exactly is in view in each case. It turns out there are a variety of different social arrangements called “slavery,” and that the sort of slavery once known in our own nation doesn’t quite match the slaveries discussed in Scripture. Samuel Hopkins, finally, found reason to abolish American slavery in a rigorous outworking of the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself (building upon his training under Jonathan Edwards).

So much for analysis of this first query. While it doesn’t seem to me RHE’s viewpoint comports with a Bible-believing mindset, I am not without empathy for persons tempted to alter their understanding of Scripture to conform with a subjective sense of calling. I let my own sense of calling lead me to rationalize some financially very irresponsible behavior, the consequences of which I may never undo absent a great deal of unmerited generosity from others. No sense of calling that requires one to conduct oneself in a manner at odds with any directive of Scripture (or any “good and necessary consequence” of all that Scripture says) can be treated as legitimate, no matter how strong it might be. Once one elects to violate this principle, once one determines to lean to one’s own understanding (Proverbs 3:5) or to (foolishly) follow one’s heart (Proverbs 28:26), one’s understanding of Scripture proves as flexible as one’s cleverness and creativity can make it. One reason feminists/egalitarians like RHE may not receive the sort of engagement from complementarians they say they want (and here is the suspicion I promised to share earlier) is because it has become evident to complementarians, as it has become evident to biblical creationists, that no argument is going to persuade those who do not, to quote my earlier wording, “make humble acceptance of what Scripture says foundational to [their] thinking and hermeneutics.” I realize that RHE and those who share her views are unlikely to credit the possibility that any such lack of humility or obedience lies behind their viewpoint. Most likely, they will find the suggestion offensive and irritating. Alas, when the source of disagreement among Christians is a foundational lack (or at least incompleteness) of submission to God’s revelation, this may be unavoidable, since this source of disagreement cannot be corrected by a multiplication of arguments but only by repentance.

Let’s look at one more of RHE’s queries before closing. As one might expect, RHE asks about such noteworthy Bible women as Deborah, Huldah, and Phoebe. The fact that one can find in Scripture examples of women teaching and leading in all sorts of contexts, albeit contexts that do not involve their teaching authoritatively within the church or assuming primary executive authority in the family, does suggest that nuance is required to take all the relevant scriptures into account. (Examples of female leadership from the book of Judges should perhaps be given least weight since the whole point of the book of Judges is that everything was wrong in Israel during this period. Though perhaps not necessary, it is quite plausible to understand such cases as that of Deborah as meant to show just how bad things had gotten: “Look, reader, our nation was so corrupt that a woman prophet was the closest thing we had to a king and the top male leader of the day was a coward who couldn’t do anything if she wasn’t there to hold his hand. Bad days indeed!”) John Piper‘s attempt to introduce some nuance by distinguishing between non-authoritative teaching (what I have called sharing of subject-matter expertise) and authoritative teaching in the official and ordained role of teaching elder (pastor) strikes me as meriting consideration. (Astute readers will have noticed, in fact, that I take validity of the distinction for granted in my above remarks.) RHE dismisses it, however, stating that “Nowhere does the Bible spell out this distinction between teaching and speaking or between leader and ‘shepherd-pastor.’” (“For the sake of the gospel, let women speak,”; also discussed in “Complementarians are selective too,” accessed 17 October 2013). Well, the Bible doesn’t exactly “spell out” the doctrine of the Trinity, either (even with 1 John 5:7-8), but Bible-believers find the doctrine the best way to harmonize all that Scripture says on the topic of God’s personal nature. Piper’s distinction is an attempt to harmonize a complex collection of verses relevant to what women who would be obedient to God should and should not feel free to do (without simply ignoring or “explaining away” some verses). Is Piper, or are other complementarians, perfect in their refusal to “pick and choose”? Probably not. (Perfection in humans thinking is pretty rare.) But this fact does not free up feminists/egalitarians to pick and choose as they wish; rather, it calls upon complementarians to strive even more diligently to built their system of doctrine on a harmonization of all relevant passages. RHE and other critics should therefore be thanked for pointing out remnant inconsistencies in complementarian thinking.

So, RHE’s posts may not be without value. For instance, there may be validity in her suggestion (in “For the sake of the gospel, let women speak”) that complementarians who remain elders after their own children apostatize violate Titus 1:6. (Then again, the passage may have in view only children and young adults still living in the elder’s home and so subject to his authority. This seems the more natural reading.) As well, though showing varying opinions among advocates of a broad viewpoint in fact proves nothing about the validity of the broad viewpoint or any of the variants (beyond the trivial fact that not every variant could be entirely correct), it may suggest that some complementarians have gone beyond what Scripture actually says, or by “good and necessary consequence” implies, about gender roles. Perhaps efforts to extend Paul’s prohibition on women teaching with authority in the church to realms beyond the church, such as to academic institutions like seminaries, is suspect. (As I reflect on my own seminary education, I am unable to recall any instructor, male or female, teaching with the sort of preacherly moral authority one expects from the pulpit. Sharing subject area expertise is a far cry from “thus saith the Lord” authoritative proclamation. Of course, in our sorry age, such proclamation is also rare among preachers, but that is another matter. Suffice it to say that if the pastoral messages at your church are of the here’s-some-handy-advice-for-living-replete-with-personal-anecdotes variety, the gender of your pastor may not matter since there is no authoritative teaching going on.) Perhaps we should question the idea that men must be judged failures if they cannot acquire the income to be “sole breadwinners” in their households. (I guess pastor Driscoll has an affluent congregation where one-income households can actually support themselves. Given that ability to earn money in the marketplace depends on what others are willing to pay you for, meaning in our culture that some of the least biblically praiseworthy people earn the most money, I confess that I’m skeptical of any effort to make ability to acquire wealth a metric of biblical manhood.) These potential overreaches of some complementarians do not change the reality that some verses identifying certain roles and responsibilities in the church and family as specifically assigned to males or females on the basis of gender alone seem very clear indeed and require a good deal of hermeneutical cropping to fit the feminist/egalitarian frame.

In her review of RHE’s book, Kathy Keller accepts RHE’s invitation to engagement by addressing her directly. Keller writes:

You tell readers they won’t ultimately be able to follow everything the Bible teaches, that they will have to choose some things and ignore others. But what will be their standard or means for doing so? Throughout your book, you have ignored or even hidden from readers the fundamental principles of scriptural interpretation—including the difference between narrative and didactic, as well as the importance of placing commands in their context within redemptive history.
You say your ultimate goal is not to determine what the biblical authors say, but to see in the Bible “what I am looking for.” You go on immediately to say, “Are you reading with the prejudice of love or…of judgment and power, self-interest and greed?” (296) So “love” is the reason you will reject some parts of the Bible and embrace others? But where do you get your definition of love if not from the Bible itself? If you say, “Parts of the Bible express love, and other parts express power interests,” you’ve clearly gotten your standard and definition of love from outside the Bible—specifically, from contemporary sensibilities—and these are your ultimate authority and norm.
Not being a long-term reader of RHE’s blog, I cannot say if the tendency evident from Keller’s quotations and summary is new or of long standing, but it seems that RHE is in the process of distancing herself from the concept of Scripture as a unified revelation to be accepted and obeyed in its entirety, requiring the difficult and complex work of comparing Scripture with Scripture to arrive at a unified, harmonious body of self-consistent doctrines. Bible-believers should find this trend worrisome, as should any of RHE’s friends who care for her soul. Being one’s own ultimate authority while finding much of Scripture personally inspirational and useful is a far cry from true faith and obedience to the entire counsel of God, but such self-as-authority autonomy is just where RHE’s thinking seems to be taking her. I pray my egalitarian acquaintances are not headed in the same direction.

“At its root,” concludes Trillia Newbell, “[RHE’s] book questions the validity of the Bible. And denying the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture is a denial that will ultimately erode the gospel of our Savior.” Indeed it will.