Last week a couple people emailed me with questions about something I published, and it has set my mind bunnies hopping down some trails, so I thought I’d cut and paste some of what I wrote to them and see if anyone here wants to weigh in on the things I have been thinking about. (Sorry in advance that this is kind of long for an OP)
There are certain Bible passages that Christians have traditionally seen as communicating some kind of universal truth about about how men and women should relate in marriage or in the church. They are often put out there as proof of “God’s design” for X (men or masculinity, women or femininity, marriage, the Christian family, leadership, the pastorate, etc) Examples of these kinds of passages would be the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, the New Testament household codes (the parts of epistles with instructions to husbands, wives, children, and slaves), and the New Testament lists of qualifications for church leadership and instructions for orderly worship.
A big problem for me, as someone who studies culture, anthropology, and cognition in addition to Bible interpretation is the tendency I see in most teachers of “biblical” gender or social roles is the assumption that providing us with gender or social roles is something that the Bible actually intends to do or can do.
Clearly there is a lot going on when it comes to a question like “What do we do with 1 Timothy 2:12?” ( “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent”) It’s not as straightforward as simply figuring out which translation of the Greek or interpretation of what the Greek means is “best,” because different interpreters are coming to the passage with some wildly different assumptions about some fundamental things like how language works as a vehicle of divine communication and what the inspiration and authority of Scripture imply and entail.
How much does God have to accommodate the cultural frames and conventional reasoning and inferences and mental models of the biblical language/audience in order to communicate with them in their language in the first place? How are we supposed to get divine truth out of that accommodated message for them and put it in our own language and then interpret that communication in a way that applies to our different culture and context?
These are huge and messy questions and I don’t think most people who work in Bible scholarship have really wrestled to much degree at all with these kinds of questions. You can read a good deal of Evangelical scholarship that tries to reconstruct the cognitive environment of the ancient Near East for understanding the Adam and Eve account or of first century Ephesus for understanding those hard passages in 1 Timothy. We can try to figure out what false teachings might have been circulating and how different pagan origin stories that were part of the cult of Artemis might have been syncretistically taught alongside the Adam and Eve origin story or how ancient ideas about reproduction and sexuality related to head coverings and all of this can help as we are trying to guess what implicit information was being used to interpret some of these more difficult passages in their original communicative context and that can all be helpful for figuring out “what it meant to them.”
But at the end of the day we always bump up against what strikes me as the central issue with debates about “biblical” gender roles or “biblical” roles for men and women in churches. Both the “complementarian” construct for how gender roles should impact marriage/family and church and the “egalitarian” construct for how gender roles should impact marriage/family and church start with modern Western/American social/cultural constructs and then try to see how Scripture challenges and instructs those social/cultural constructs.
The Bible does not “teach” complementarian gender roles or egalitarian gender roles. The Bible presumes the gender roles its audience had in their culture, just like it presumes their ancient cosmology and ancient medicine. We get our gender roles and our ideas about how community organizations like churches should be run from our culture and socialization, just like the OT Hebrews did and just like Jesus’ Jewish disciples did, and just like the early church in its various locations and
differing Jewish/Gentile contexts did.
Then the gospel (like the Torah for Israel before) challenges those gender and social roles and asks us how we are going to live them out in Christ-like Spirit-filled ways as transformed humans whose primary identity is now aligned with God’s family and God’s Kingdom. The gospel will transform our gender and social roles and the way we function in them, but it won’t just wholesale replace the gender and social roles we have internalized as encultured embodied humans in our societies.
The ministry of Jesus and the letters of the New Testament were received in a patriarchal culture. The household codes and the directions to the churches were given into a context where people had pre-existing ideas about what made people good men, women, teachers, leaders, etc. They had pre-existing ideas about male authority and female decency.
In many ways Jesus challenged some of their ideas and elevated the role of women and other socially marginalized people in pretty radical ways. So did Paul with his inclusion of women as co-laborers in gospel work and the way he subverts the expected gender roles in his letters.
Even with the Ephesians household code that we have been discussing lately, it’s a gospel subversion of the culture’s accepted norms. Household codes in that time and place normally followed the structure “Man of the house, exercise authority, Make sure wives do X, Make sure children do X, Make sure slaves do X.” The entire code was usually directed at the head of the household and what he needed to do to ensure order. It was a super hierarchical, patriarchal format.
Paul is kind of radical when he says here’s a Christian household code. Everyone put other people in your household first, because that’s how Jesus taught us to live. Wives do X, Husbands do X, Children do X, Fathers do X, Slaves do X, Masters do X. Now instead of all the commands being directed at the man in authority, the commands are directed at everyone living together and responsible for everyone else. The women, the children, and the slaves are seen as people with agency and worth and they are addressed directly. The men are given mutual responsibility in all of those relationships and their role and responsibility is expanded far beyond simply ensuring obedience to their commands.
So I think when we are interpreting that passage, it should be super important to us to try to understand what were their givens, and what was being challenged by the gospel, and what was being transformed, and whether our own implicit ideas about men/women/family/social structures need to be challenged in a similar way or a different way. I don’t think we should be trying to discern some kind of “God’s design” for gender roles or social structure from their situation and then imposing that back on our own context as if we can just replace our own enculturation that easily.
It seems to me the reason “complementarianism” generally fails in many parts of the US or other Western societies right now, especially with younger people is anthropological, not religious. It’s not starting with the gender roles and social structures that are endemic to the context where the gospel is working.
We have an egalitarian cultural context where most couples expect equality in their relationships and women have (theoretically at least) equal access to social opportunities in the wider society. So when we impose different gender and social roles on Christian marriages and churches, it causes friction and feels foreign. The gospel should be making us ask how we transform our enculturation toward love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control, not how we adopt a different culture’s way of setting up homes and churches. Some areas of the country and some American subcultures (and many influential old white males with pulpits) like complementarianism because it fits their existing enculturation and preferences, not because it’s God’s design.
I work in an Indigenous community. When we work with the church at Bible interpretation, we don’t “teach egalitarianism,” we teach the fruit of the Spirit and the gospel of love and reconciliation and unity between all the people in God’s family. They have patriarchal gender and social roles that are challenged by the gospel, but they aren’t replaced with new egalitarian constructs or new “biblical” constructs. The gospel has challenged men selling daughters into marriage like property for a bride price, and men having more than one wife, and young men kidnapping and raping a girl to avoid paying a bride price and marry her cheaply, all things that used to be culturally acceptable under the prevailing gender and social norms.
Christian men now make alliances with other Christian families to marry off their sons and daughters in an honorable way after they finish their educations, because that is how they understand the gospel to challenge their existing roles as fathers and husbands. Christian men don’t beat their wives or kids like fathers and husbands are culturally entitled to, but they are still considered the boss of the home by their wives and children, because that is how they are encultured.
It’s kind of funny to me that the church has decided that good Christian men must give all their money to their wives, because 1 Timothy says women are to manage the home. Within their cultural gender roles women are considered more selfless and frugal and naturally concerned with everyone else and and men are considered naturally selfish and wasteful. So they teach in church that a man should not spend money without his wife’s permission, because he’ll probably just be selfish and it’s a woman’s job to take care of the family with what the husband provides because by nature she’ll just be more wise about it. It’s interesting to me that that’s the way they have heard the gospel challenge their gender roles, but they didn’t get those gender roles “from the Bible” even though they think of them as “biblical.”
Anyway, all that to say, we are always trying to apply truth from the Bible to our constructs of marriage, family, and social life, we aren’t getting are constructs from the Bible in the first place. We go wrong when we pretend we do.
So I think instead of asking questions like “Should women teach in church?” like we can get some kind of absolute gender role or church role from the Bible, we should be asking, “Given how this church in the Bible was challenged in this way, for these reasons, and given how things are in our culture and our church and how the gospel is challenging us to walk in love, peace, and justice, should a woman teach in our church?”
I think the answer depends on how people have been encultured and how far the gospel (or other social factors) has already pushed their culture toward egalitarian constructs. It doesn’t depend one bit on Adam being created first or giving Eve her name or God presenting Eve to Adam as his helper. None of that gives our culture its gender roles. Our goal should be for Christians to be seen as virtuous and loving and just people by our unchurched neighbors within the frames of our own culture.