“Those clanging words”

Alastair’s post to begin this topic was really helpful, and identified the key issues regarding trust. He concluded with a set of questions. The one I want to speak to is the second question: “What are some of the ways that men can change their behaviour and attitudes in order to trust women more?”

In her response (which got picked up by the Huffington Post), Bronwyn, I think, hit the nail on the head, referring to the biblical texts which cause so many problems for gender discussions:

1 Peter 3 refers to wives as “weaker vessels” than their husbands, and then there are those clanging words of 1 Timothy 2:14 where we are reminded that it wasn’t Adam who was deceived, it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. (And, I am struck by the fact that Adam is named as an individual-not-blamed, while Eve-as-individual is not named… it the more generic “the woman” who was deceived… as if Adam as an autonomous agent is an exception, but all women are innately deceivable.) Are these not hints, then, that even in God’s economy, women are less able to act, less able to discern, just…. less able? In other words, are there theological reasons for women to be considered less trustworthy?

I haven’t met many willing to own this statement outright, but it seems to me that it lies as an undercurrent beneath some of the discussions about women in leadership in the church. Being prone to being busy bodies and gossips as they are (1 Timothy 5), and being deceivable and weaker (the Bible says so) – surely then women should remain silent?

The hermeneutical challenges of these passages (and other passages often cited and used as “clobber texts”, like Eph. 5:22ff, 1 Cor. 14:34-35) are immense, and hard to cover in a single post (so I won’t even try). Several questions swirl in my mind when I read these texts. Most egalitarians will immediately go to historical context, and suggest a greater level of cultural influence than complementarians are comfortable with. These are canonical texts, accepted by the Church as inspired (what that means in terms of infallibility/inerrancy is far beyond the discussion at hand). We assume that the authors were guided by God in the composition of these words. Did Paul (or whoever wrote Ephesians & 1 Timothy in Paul’s name, depending on your slant on this topic- also beyond our scope right now) bring some still persistent patriarchal bias into the composition? In Romans and Galatians we don’t see anything like what we see in 1 Timothy. So, was there something unique about the behaviour of the women in Ephesus and Corinth? Did Paul have a lack of trust for all women, or just the specific women in these particular places/congregations? Given the praise he heaps on the women mentioned in Romans 16, can we identify a tension in Paul’s own mind which the Spirit is coming up against?

Without getting to deep into the exegesis of these passages, I just want to work out some things we can take away from them in response to Alastair’s question. A surface reading of these texts can easily reinforce male mistrust of women. As Bronwyn noted, it could be read to mean women in general follow after Eve and are deceivable, weaker, and as such, untrustworthy as witnesses. Yet, as Bronwyn helpfully pointed out, Jesus was certainly willing to trust women. So why were Paul and Peter seemingly reluctant to do the same, even with the Holy Spirit guiding and inspiring? Do we have to reread Jesus? Paul & Peter? All of the above?

Several commentators make helpful observations about meanings of words, like the fact that “weaker” can mean something more lack lacking access to resources, or simply that it refers to physical size making women vulnerable. So, in a patriarchal culture, weaker vessels is not a comment on women’s abilities generally but a statement about cultural assumptions and the treatment of women; i.e. Christian men must act as advocates because of the restrictions and dangers Greco-Roman social structures place on women.

Interestingly, on 1 Timothy, Luke Timothy Johnson takes Paul to task for his poor exegesis of Genesis 1-3. He states that “the warrant for the injunction [excluding women from leadership] is, in fact, a faulty reading of Torah.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy [The Anchor Yale Bible]. New Haven: Yale, 2001. p. 211). More could be said on how Paul reads the Genesis accounts and what he’s trying to demonstrate. But I will simply say that the ease with which Eve was deceived is certainly matched by Adam, and in Romans and the Corinthian letters, responsibility for sin is placed exclusively on Adam.

Obviously we can dig deeper and deeper into the exegesis of these texts, but don’t have space right now. But, in terms of Alastair’s question about what man can do to alter their behaviour to reduce the mistrust against women, one important answer is to read with greater nuance. One of the phrases that I read from rigid complementarian writings in “plain reading of Scripture”. If we read more critically (both in reading the texts, and ourselves, noting our inherent biases) we see far more at play than simply reinforced patriarchy. Egalitarians still have to wrestle with this too of course, and not simply dismiss 1 Timothy as not authentically Pauline and therefore not authoritative (even if it is pseudonymous, it’s still accepted as canonical) or chalk it up to cultural influence or situation specifics and ignore it. I’d love to pretend certain passages aren’t there. But I always have to ask myself, even if this is specific to Ephesus in the 1st century, what does it mean for me in 21st century Canada? I live in culture with significant immigration from places where patriarchy and low views of women’s value and trustworthiness are alive and well. Even among Westerners, the problem is still there. How do I do ministry in an environment with a plurality of views on gender?

My own behaviour as a pastor with egalitarian views speaks volumes to the culture I am in. But do I keep silent, and hold these views as private, and non-binding on others? How much of my understanding of the trustworthiness of women related to my egalitarian views? If I claim I trust women, how do I influence others and demonstrate this trust in a way which proves to be a positive influence on others, even if the others continue to hold to certain patriarchal or “hard” complementarian views? Can patriarchy still endorse trusting women’s testimony or do the underlying assumptions inevitably undercut any stated level of trust?

I am under no illusion that only egalitarian men trust women. That would be rubbish to even suggest. But is there a connection between what Paul seems to say about Eve and assumed gender roles and a lack of trust shown to women? Given the Genesis declaration that male and female are both fully and equally in the image and likeness of God, what makes males assume men are more trustworthy than women? Do we tend to overemphasize generalized differences between the genders, to such an extent that the shared likeness is downplayed? Isn’t a mistrust of females a mistrust of humanity?