Submissive wife and president of the United States—an oxymoron, if you ask many journalists analyzing the faith of 2012 hopeful Michele Bachmann. In a recent GOP debate, responding to the question of whether she as president would submit to her husband, Bachmann said, "I'm in love with [Marcus]. I'm so proud of him. What submission means to us, it means respect. I respect my husband. He's a wonderful godly man and great father." Journalists have spent days analyzing her response, seemingly baffled that a modern woman could take the words of an ancient text so seriously.
Yet evangelicals have taken the Bible's words about men and women very seriously—enough to write tomes on what Paul meant when he told wives to submit to their husbands, when he said he did not allow women to assume authority over a man in church, and when he said women would be saved through childbearing. Inter-evangelical debates have traditionally centered on whether Paul's injunctions forbid women from leadership in ministry, and whether male-female complementarity describes a work-home delegation of "roles" between husband and wife. Today and tomorrow on Her.meneutics, we'll hear from two prominent theologians who have carefully thought through these and other passages. The first, William J. Webb, is an egalitarian New Testament scholar noted for his "redemptive-movement" approach to the Bible. The second, Russell D. Moore, is dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as a pastor, writer, and blogger, and complementarian. First we hear from Webb.
Many evangelicals would be uncomfortable attending a church pastored by a woman, even though they would vote for Bachmann or Sarah Palin as U.S. Commander in Chief. Is there a contradiction here?
Absolutely. I see a glaring inconsistency in the way that hierarchalists (I consider "complementarian" a misleading name) understand and apply Scripture. If one sees the Bible teaching restricted leadership—it speaks to issues of leadership in all three domains—home, church, and society. Not just home and church.
Many evangelicals think that you can't take the Bible seriously and be comfortable with women in the pulpit. But you do, and you are! How do you read 1 Timothy 2:12?
The prohibition of 1 Timothy 2:12 has both cultural and transcultural components embedded within it. The rationale that women are "more easily deceived" (2:13) was true of women in the ancient world. But today, this isn't so: women share equal knowledge in university, college, trade school and seminary education. And primogeniture—the idea that Adam has authority by virtue of being created first (2:14)—dominated the ancient world. But this isn't as prominent or persuasive a rationale in our times. We don't leave a "double inheritance" for the first born (as Scripture instructs) within an egalitarian society. We should apply the transcultural teaching within 1 Tim 2:12-14—the ultimate ethical application implied within the culturally bound concrete text—by doing the following: put into leadership/teaching positions only those, either men or women, who are not easily deceived and who are respected within the Christian community.
Many complementarians believe that an egalitarian reading of the Bible owes more to our own cultural prejudices than to a faithful reading of Scripture. What's your answer to them?
I think this question betrays two incorrect assumptions. First, it wrongly assumes that hierarchicalists or patriarchalists do not have their own cultural and subcultural prejudices that impact their reading of Scripture. Second, it wrongly assumes that Scripture itself has not been impacted in its own formation with cultural components and a fallen-world context that shapes its social ethics. One would do well to read Mark Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis to see how communities dominate how we read Scripture (many preachers used Scripture to defend slavery). Did ancient culture impact the biblical ethics of slavery but not that of women?
What would be an example of something in the Bible that most North American Christians ignore, but that is as clearly (or more clearly) mandated than "do not permit a woman to teach"?
In a new book, Corporal Punishment in the Bible, I outline seven ways that pro-spankers have gone beyond the Bible. By not doing what the text explicitly teaches (and by doing something different, something ethically progressive), Christians fulfill the underlying redemptive spirit of Scripture better. One of the seven examples that I raise is the clear teaching of Scripture about the virtue of beatings that leave welts, wounds and bruises. Even pro-spankers like James Dobson (and the broader Focus on the Family movement) would call this kind of physical beating abusive. In seven ways they're not really doing what the Bible instructs. We need to stop a selective reading of the text and embrace a hermeneutic (interpretive method) that is able to incorporate (not ignore!) texts that are ethically problematic.
The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood claims that evangelical feminism has caused a "tragic loss of the beauty of manhood and womanhood as created by God." What's your response to that? And what does the church miss out on when it keeps women out of leadership/teaching roles? What does it gain by having women in those roles?
I call my own position "complementary egalitarianism." I believe that women and men complement each other sexually, reproductively, and in other ways, too. Fathers provide something different in families than mothers do; men and women are certainly not wired in identical ways. The real question, however, is whether or not hierarchy (unilateral submission) has to be one of the necessary or biblically required components or not. I believe in complementarity without hierarchy. Or, better put: mutual deference and shared leadership. Do we lose something here? No. We gain something incredibly valuable while maintaining male-female complementarity.
How passionate are you about this conviction?
Passionate enough to be willing to lose my job over it. After 20 years with a particular seminary in southern Ontario, I was terminated because of my complementary egalitarian views and writings. I'm now an adjunct professor with Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Canada's largest evangelical seminary. My journey has been painful, but I wouldn't have done things differently. I'm excited to be at Tyndale and would much rather be there as an adjunct (despite the obvious demotion) than full time at a seminary where I'd be required to wear the badge of patriarchy under the complementarian label. Am I passionate about an egalitarian understanding of Scripture? I think so.
Thank you, Dr. Webb.
Look for the second part of this series, in which we'll hear from complementarian theologian Russell Moore.