Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why I Am an Egalitarian

My posts on Mark Driscoll have created some side conversations on the egalitarian/complementarian issue. An egalitarian is someone who believes that women can play any role in the church or home that men do. A complementarian believes that there are certain God-ordained roles for men and women in either the home or the church.

My denomination affirms that God calls women to all roles of ministry, including the highest leadership, and is most naturally an egalitarian denomination. Nevertheless, there are some in my church who combine a sense of complementarianism in the home with a belief that woman can be ministers. In 1 Corinthians 11, for example, the wife in part wears a veil so that she can prophesy to other men while not shaming her husband-head.

So we are a denomination that affirms women in ministry but allows for its members to be complementarians. In this post, I want to share why I believe God is an egalitarian.

1. It fits the Spirit of Scripture.
If you look at the way Jesus and Paul applied Scripture, they were not fundamentalists in the slightest. For example, if you look at how Jesus "fulfilled the Law," he shook some things up. The Law says, "eye for an eye" and he says don't do that part (Matt. 5:38-42). The Law fully allows for divorce but he says that wasn't ever God's best intention for marriage (Matt. 5:31-32). He makes exceptions to pretty significant rules, like not eating temple bread (Mark 2:25-26).  And the Parable of the Good Samaritan builds off of two individuals whose OT job is to keep purity rules--and who won't make an exception to save a life.

Paul is the same. Whether he keeps much of the OT Law depends on who he is ministering to (1 Cor. 9:19-23). "The letter kills, the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6).

American fundamentalism, however, is a culture of the letter and stands on the side of the biblical Pharisee and the Judaizer.  What are the signs of a letteral religion? There are three hermeneutical tasks in applying the Bible: 1) interpreting the meanings of the words, 2) fitting the various passages with each other, and 2) applying the words to today. Fundamentalism fails at all three: 1) it limits meaning to the letter (and then often fails), 2) it reads individual passages without processing them in light of the whole, 3) it applies individual passages directly to today without a sense of what they meant in their own time.

By contrast, the spiritual use of Scripture 1) can hear the Spirit dance with individual texts, 2) sees the big picture of Scripture and locates individual Scriptures in that light, and 3) is mindful that not all texts are for all times and situations.

That's all groundwork. On this issue, the fundamentalist runs aground on certain individual verses, like the household codes of Colossians or 1 Peter. It does not think about how these passages fit in a patriarchal world or how they would have given a good witness at that time. There is nothing uniquely Christian about telling a wife to submit to her husband in that world--back then it said that Christians were orderly, good people.

Is subordination a good witness today? Not in the slightest because in our time, everyone knows that women are not less intelligent than men. A woman can be as good a leader as a man. A woman can know how to fix a car better than a man. A woman can be stronger than a man.

In our world, to say a woman can only do certain things comes across as irrational. The complementarian can only say, "That's just the way God wants it." There's no sense to be made of it. In our world, it restricts in a way it did not in the biblical world.  Indeed, it tells God, "Sorry, God, you can't call a woman to do this." Or worse yet, "Wife, you know your husband is an idiot on this decision, but it's God's will that you let him lose all the family's money because he's the head of the home."

Several of my other points are peeking out but I wanted to address the Scripture one first because it is really the only argument for complementarianism.  The complementarian has to argue that this is just God's will, even though it doesn't make any sense whatsoever in our world. It reflects a defective use of Scripture, even if one all too common in our world. It reflects a letteral use of Scripture, rather than the spiritual one that Jesus and Paul used.

2. Subordination is a Fall thing.
For a minute, let's play the fundamentalist game.  If we are to play the rabbinic game, Genesis 3 clearly places the subordination of the wife as a consequence of Eve's sin.  "Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you" (Gen. 3:16). She is created as a helper earlier (Gen. 2:18). Important to recognize that this same word is used of God as our helper (e.g., Ps. 33:20), so the word in itself does not imply subordination.  The Genesis text points to Eve's sin as the cause of subordination, not the created order of things. Indeed, in Genesis 1:27, both men and women are commanded to rule the earth.

Since Jesus undid the curse of the Fall, we are on flimsy ground to insist Christian women fall into place with subordination on these grounds. Indeed, this is one of the very strange aspects of 1 Timothy 2:14-15, which seems to use Eve's sin as an argument for the wife's continued subordination to her husband.

The tension between "Christ's death atones for all sins, including the sins of Eve" and "Eve's sin has put wives in a state of transgression from which childbearing saves them" is so striking that it is the height of foolishness to think that 1 Timothy 2 gives us anything like the ground zero of a theology of wives and women.  Any real sense of what 1 Timothy 2 seems to be saying makes it fantastically bizarre that anyone would think these are the "clear" verses on this topic!!!

No, we believe, along with the fully developed theology of Hebrews, that Christ has atoned for ALL sins, including the sins of Eve. To unnecessarily perpetuate the curse of Eve in a time when it is actually a good witness to empower wives and women fully--as they will be in the kingdom of God--is perversity.  It is to say that we know what God's ultimate will is but we choose to hold off on it just because... well, I'm not sure why we are holding off on it.

3. Subordination and patriarchal culture.
Again, most people don't have much experience with other cultures and think that the meaning of certain structures or actions are self-evident. But the meaning of husband-headship in ancient Corinth is completely different from husband-headship in modern America.  In Paul's world, his empowerment of women must have been striking, to have a Priscilla as a coworker or a Phoebe as a deacon. There was nothing uniquely Christian about saying the husband is the head of the wife--Aristotle says the same basic thing in his Politics.

What was distinctly Christian about Paul's writings was thus when he said things like, "In Christ there is not male and female."  Notice the odd wording.  After two "neither-nors" in Greek, he switches to "not male and female."  Could he be alluding to the wording of Genesis 1:27 and saying that Christ in some way undoes the distinction between the genders?

In our world, husband-headship actually works against the trajectory of the gospel.  It requires us to disempower rather than empower women. And it is a hindrance to the gospel rather than an asset.

4. It is a common sense thing.
I believe Christians, including myself, often make God look bad, and this issue is a potential biggie for it. Why would we insist that a particular person take the lead on the basis of their genitalia rather than on the basis of... whether they are the best leader in a particular instance? The male organ, after all, is not particularly known either for its godliness or sound wisdom.

"Someone needs to make the final decision." That's such a flimsy cop-out it's embarrassing. If you have to designate one person as the leader, why not pick the one who is... the more gifted leader?  Duh.

In a proper relationship, husband and wife would submit to each other (Eph. 5:21). Each would be willing to sacrifice for the other. They would want to surrender individual happiness in preference to the other. Each would give and take and recognize that in some instances the wife has a better sense of what to do and in others the husband does.

In a proper relationship, each would yield to the other egolessly when it is clear that one or the other has the best insight, regardless of gender. When conflict ensues, you negotiate the way any two people negotiate when they disagree. If the two can't work out disagreement, that indicates a much deeper marital problem than gender.

This is the way my parents operated before the "husband is the head" movement arose in the seventies and eighties. On any given choice, my Dad would generally sacrifice his own desires in preference to mother's preferences. She is not a strong personality that pushed him to do so in any way. Anyone who knows my mother knows that's the wrong interpretation. He did it completely from his own love of her.

And she felt fully free to share her opinion of what they should do. There was never a sense that her opinion was inferior to his in any way. I never remembering hearing this: "Dad is the head of this house." That rhetoric didn't become popular until I was out of the home and it became part of current American Christian culture in reaction (intimidation?) to the empowerment of women in American society.

Some in my circles like to distinguish the secular feminist movement of the 50s from the feminism of my Wesleyan roots in the 1800s and no doubt there are distinctions.  But there is usually an undertone, as if the "feminism" of the 50s was obviously evil. I challenge you to show what was any worse about women sticking up for their rights than blacks standing up for their rights in that same period. This continued blight on the drive for women to have equal rights is as myopic as those in my circles who criticized those black "law breakers" who refused to use the right water fountain.

A show like Mad Men reminds us that such individuals are on the wrong side of history. We have forgotten how sexist American society actually was back then. We have selective memory. The "husband headship" movement today has made all the concessions it must, given how common sense has changed, but it holds the same historically wrong position as its forebears.

I've used this example before.  If I'm on a plane that's about to crash and we need a pilot, I don't want them to pick me because I have male genitalia.  I want them to pick the best pilot. And if there's a woman on the plane who knows how to fly a plane, I want her flying the plane.

Anything else doesn't make any sense to me at all!


Susan Moore said...

The word, “submission” sticks in our human throats, doesn’t it? I sense confusion around the concept of submission, and what it means to submit to one’s husband. It was explained to me this way: A column or tower supports, or submits, to the bridge above it. If the tower were to fail, the bridge would also fail, and all who relied on the bridge (and therefore the tower) would not get to where they needed to go. Likewise, when a wife submits to her husband’s authority in the family, she upholds his authority, she does not cower under him. Because of this, a family is enabled to function healthfully and get where they need to grow.
In a loving relationship both parties have no interest in abusing or exploiting the other. Both seek the counsel of each other and draw from each other’s strengths. A wife who submits to her husband would no more knowingly allow him to make stupid financial decisions that would ruin the household than Abigail did in 1 Samuel 25. Furthermore, a husband who accepts the authority and accountability as head of the family would avoid making stupid financial decisions whenever possible. Sacrificially loving others means that we allow ourselves to assume less cultural importance, and others more, and God most. A husband and wife are to love one another like that. In fact, we are all called to love one another that way.
We have to constantly remind ourselves that the quality of the relationships with Him and with each other are what take precedence in God’s mind, competitiveness and dissensions are not part of His re-made world. Within a loving relationship submission brings validation of each other’s worth, as well as peacefulness and order to the household.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Marriages are like color. No two are alike. There are shades and tones to a relationship and any two people because of personalities, experiences and personal value/goals have to work out that relationship between themselves. It is no one else's business. And why should it be, if the two of them are consenting adults?
Often people love definitions so that they can judge others with lines that were never supposed to be drawn in the first place. Let people alone to pursue their happiness as they see fit. If it doesn't interefere with your life, then, is it really your business?
Egalitarianism is an attitude of granting another the right to self-governance. Self-governance in marriage is fidelity to the contract, and sensitivity to one's spouse. It is genderless.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Outcome based egalitarianism undermines justice. Justice is granting each his just desserts. Egalitarianism undermines initiative, incentive, competition and many other traits that have given America prosperity. One's color, just as one's gender should not be a basis for discrimination. Reverse discrimination is the outcome of quotas overseen and demanded by government.

So egalitarianism is similar to liberalism, what do you mean by it?

Kelvin Jones said...

I find using the "God is not stupid" truism as a hermeneutic troubling and subject to misuse by cultural fads. I am an egalitarian based upon Acts 2:17,18. But I believe the headship passages need to be taken more seriously. While salvation is working against the effects of the fall, it will not finish its work until we see Jesus. God works within this tension even if we find it logically uncomfortable.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Egalitarianism just as liberalism has to be defined, as you mentioned in your post on Conservatives and Liberals.

Egalitarianism could be argued as a minority right. The individual being the smallest minority. This was the basis of our Bill of Rights. And the basis of 'human rights".

Christians have used Tradition to justify "natural law" as underwriting "human rights". But, they have also used Scripture to justify "human rights". "Human Rights" is an ideal, which Christian theology is useful for. But, just as much is Christian theology an apology for "God" or an ideal about a metaphysical reality. These arguments are not based on reality in the real world, but ideals of correspondence to an idea of or about "God" and the world. These are orthodox or fundamentalist positions toward "faith" and life.

Pragmatic realities are hard facts that we have to deal with, not explain away. And, many Christians think that this is what "real faith" is about. It is more about orthopraxy, than orthodoxy.

The only practical and pragmatic understanding of reality are the secular conservatives that understand that "human rights" and "humanity" is an ideal that dissolve boundaries, which would limit and undermine "idealistic" hopes about the future.

Ken Schenck said...

Kelvin, I consider that a good word. I hope everyone knows that I did not call God or the household codes stupid. God is ingenious in the way he moves his people along, patiently, steadily. I do believe it is a bad sign if the church as a whole does not intuitively sense that hierarchy in the home does not really fit with the Spirit of Christ. I believe most Christians do. There are also many good hearted Christians whom the household codes confuse and who are looking for clarity. There are many women, for example, who are conflicted because they feel called but have other people using passages such as these to argue that they are mistaken.

Joel Byer said...

Ken, I always enjoy reading your blog. I have a question...how does the egalitarian model fit in with various Scriptures that seem to support a complementarian view of the Trinity? (eg. I Cor. 11:3) I noticed that you talked about Gruden's views on subordinationism in the Trinity as suspect. Thus, if you're looking for what to write in a new blog post :-), I would be interested in your thoughts on how the Trinity fits the egalitarian model.

Ken Schenck said...

The Athanasian creed says that Jesus is "Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood." Similarly, it says, "In this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another." Grudem thus seems wrong on history, although he can make his argument biblically.

My personal take is that I do not see a necessary connection between the Trinity and the structure of the home. So is Jesus God's wife and the Spirit their love child?

Martin LaBar said...

I know this was Old Testament, not new, but the story of Manoah and his wife, Judges 13, indicates that, even in a patriarchal culture, and in a family where the husband was a believer (he prayed, and God answered his prayer) a woman could be the spiritual leader.

There's also the case of Moses and Zipporah and the circumcision of the children of Moses. She took the spiritual lead.

Thanks to you and all the commenters.