How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sophia?

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Jem. Some quick remarks in response, followed by some reflections on Sophiology:

  1. The sort of figure that Wisdom represents is a matter of considerable debate. Is Wisdom an actual entity or a sort of personification (prosopopoeia)? This could be compared to the question of the ontological status of the woman of Revelation 12. If it is an actual entity, is it personal or quasi-personal? Is it a divine entity or being? Is it a hypostatization of an attribute of God? Is it one of the persons of the Trinity? If it is a personification, what reality justifies the personification? I think that it is important that we take these questions seriously, rather than short-circuiting such study to a straightforward identification of Wisdom with the Second Person of the Trinity.
  1. The identification of the figure of Wisdom with the Second Person of the Trinity is a widespread position, well within the boundaries of orthodoxy, albeit definitely not a complete consensus (Irenaeus, for instance, identifies Wisdom with the Spirit—Against Heresies, 4.20.3). However, such identification does not legitimize the interchangeability of pronouns or conflation of representations (Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s Sophia-christology runs into problems here, I think), not without considerable further argumentation. One could argue, for instance, that the Apostle Paul is the mother labouring in birth in Galatians 4:19 or the nursing mother in 1 Thessalonians 1:7. Even if one could imagine extensive speech-in-character (prosopopoeia) of such a figure, it wouldn’t be appropriate to start using masculine and feminine pronouns interchangeably of Paul as a result.
  1. Imagery has its own logic and grammar, perhaps gendered imagery especially. Scripture personifies Israel in various ways: as a son, as a bride/daughter, as a mother, as an animal, etc. It can be tempting for modern readers to believe that this justifies an à la carte approach to biblical imagery. However, each element of imagery is part of a broader picture and each family of imagery meshes together in a larger symbolic network: you can’t appropriate imagery piecemeal or abstract them from the larger network without tearing the larger fabric. Once again, a crucial aspect of this is that male and female consistently stand for different things, because men and women are fundamentally different in their symbolic potential in Scripture: gendering isn’t a matter of indifference.
  1. The image of Wisdom (Sophia) in Proverbs and elsewhere needs to be understood in terms of the broader picture within she occurs. The entire book of Proverbs is about the relationship between the royal son and wisdom, framed in terms of the quest for a good wife. The book juxtaposes the way of folly, of the foolish woman who leads to destruction, with Lady Wisdom and the noble wife, who should be desired and sought. The book ends with the portrait of the noble wife, Lady Wisdom as royal consort. The prince’s relationship with Wisdom is presented as erotic in character, comparable to the relationship between a man and wife (a theme even more pronounced in Wisdom 8:2ff.). The work of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 is framed by the creational initiative of YHWH, the transcendent God, who is presented as grammatically masculine.

So, what is to be done with Sophia? Wisdom appears to be a sort of mediating figure, an immanent principle of divine operation or divine Person, present and active within the creation. Wisdom is that by which God created and that through which humanity seeks God. Wisdom is represented as a woman to be sought by the royal son. Wisdom is presented as the immanent agent of God’s great works and presence (e.g. Wisdom 1011). Themes associated with Wisdom are explored in 1 Corinthians, for instance, where Paul possibly alludes to such things as Wisdom of Solomon’s account of Wisdom’s role in the Exodus and speaks of Christ in terms of the wisdom (Wisdom?) of God (1:24, 30).

Although identifying Christ as/with Wisdom is attractive, I believe it is mistaken. I believe Wisdom is far more appropriately associated with the Holy Spirit (e.g. Isaiah 11:2; Acts 6:3, 10; 1 Corinthians 2; Wisdom 1:6; 7:7, 22; 9:17), not least on account of the way that they are described. Of course, Christ is anointed with the Spirit without measure, and the Holy Spirit is his Spirit, so a close relationship between Christ and Wisdom is to be expected. Christ is the royal Son who receives Wisdom. In the feminine figure of the Church, formed in union with the Son by the Spirit/Wisdom, I suspect that we see a fuller flowering of the nuptial themes of the wisdom literature. In the union between Christ and his bride in the Holy Spirit, the book of Proverbs arrives at a greater fulfilment.

Approached carefully within such a broader biblical framework, I believe that there is plenty of latitude for and much to be gained from exploring the imagery of Wisdom, not least its gendered dimensions.

Gendering God

I’ve appreciated reading everyone’s thoughts on this subject. At risk of moving our conversation a little off its original course, the following are a few reflections on Hannah Malcolm’s remarks on ‘(re)gendering’ the Trinity, specifically addressing the issue of how gendered language is used in relation to God.

  1. There is a widespread assumption that sex and gender are accidental features of biblical names and imagery: ‘Father’ could be replaced by ‘Parent’ or switched for ‘Mother’ without loss or change of meaning. However, fathers and mothers have different forms of relationship to their children, irrespective of their personalities or traits. These different forms of relation arise from their sexual differences, but aren’t reducible to them. A mother bears her child in and feeds the child from her own body; there is a material bodily continuity between her and her offspring that characterizes their personal relation. A father, by contrast, does not have the same direct material connection to his offspring. He fathers children by an act of love by which they are conceived and gestated outside of his being. He is materially ‘other’ from his offspring and stands over against them in a way that a mother does not. Switching masculine pronouns and male imagery for feminine pronouns and female imagery can have unhelpful implications for our understanding of the Creator-creature distinction and relation. It is not accidental that biblical and cultural images for sovereignty and transcendence are overwhelmingly masculine. This most definitely doesn’t mean that feminine images shouldn’t be explored or developed (quite the opposite, in fact: carefully deployed feminine images and themes highlight that, despite the priority of transcendence, God’s relationship to his creation is also characterized by immanence of presence). Rather, it means that they must be governed by the logic of revelation and deployed with care and precision. We can’t merely project a God in our chosen image or use feminine and masculine imagery interchangeably.
  1. God’s particular personal identity—revealed in the Tetragrammaton (his personal proper name, YHWH)—is consistently referred to in grammatically masculine ways in Scripture (God isn’t a man or a male). This consistency of usage reflects the fact that God’s self-designation is not just another human metaphor or title for God, but functions as a self-revealed personal proper name. It doesn’t compare God to any human entity, but simply refers to him. The consistent use of masculine pronouns corresponds to the fixity in reference of a personal proper name in contrast to a cloud of metaphors. The consistent use of masculine pronouns relates, I believe, to the biblical precedent for such consistent usage and to the fact that such masculine personal pronouns are the most apt to express the transcendence of the One to whom we refer. It also has to do a resistance to relativizing God’s self-revelation as ‘Father, Son, and Spirit’ in Jesus Christ. We share in the Sonship of Christ in relation to his Father.
  1. Introducing feminine personal pronouns for the Spirit creates a discontinuity within the Trinity, risking pushing us in the direction of conceiving of God in terms of three distinct centres of self-consciousness. The likely use of masculine pronouns for the Spirit in places such as John 16:13 maintains the use of the same pronoun to refer to the one Triune God.
  1. With such caveats in place, however, it is important that we recognize that, within, the linguistic discipline established by the Tetragrammaton and the revelation of Father, Son, and Spirit in the gospel, there is considerable room for the exploration of feminine imagery and themes within the pneumatological form of naming identified by R. Kendall Soulen. While God is identified using masculine pronouns, any identification of God as male is constantly unsettled by biblical revelation, which frequently yet subtly brings feminine imagery into play. This makes clear that, although God can analogically and truly reveal himself in the language and reality of gender, God is beyond gender.
  1. Here it is appropriate to recognize the intense association of the Spirit with the feminine, as this is part of divine revelation. The Spirit and the Bride are associated in several ways (e.g. Revelation 22:17). Both descend from heaven to Christ. The Spirit’s association with love and the dove is also significant here. The Spirit forms communion, fills, gives life, the future, (re)generation, glory, groans within us with the birth pangs of new creation, is associated with conception in the womb of Mary, etc. all things that are associated with women in Scripture. The Spirit is the Spirit of Wisdom (personified as feminine in Proverbs 8 and elsewhere in Scripture), God’s Glory, and God’s immanent presence within his creation. Women represent dimensions of God’s divine activity (especially that of days 4-6) in ways that men cannot.

As such language functions in Scripture and most of the tradition, men and women are not interchangeable, but are different ‘genres’ of human persons, who symbolize and relate in manners peculiar to their gender. Many modern attempts to advance feminine language and imagery for God want to recover biblical and traditional examples of such language while rejecting the more established structural understanding of gender that informed them. Gendered language in such contexts is informed, I believe, not by a notion of gender as ‘hierarchy’, but by a notion of gender as mutually constitutive difference in relation and of such difference as symbolically meaningful.

The benefit of such an understanding is found, I believe, in: 1) its refusal to map human gender onto God, while appreciating the revelatory potential of gendered language in a theological context in an analogical manner; 2) its close attention to the biblical witness and to its ‘grammar’ of gendered language; 3) its refusal to reduce gender difference to indifference and interchangeability or to frame it in terms of hierarchy, privileging man over woman or vice versa. Rather, significance is given to the difference in relation itself, both men and women being valued for their peculiar symbolic and relational potential, a potential created by God and apt for expressing and reflecting his creative rule in the world.

The Eternal Subordination of the Son, Social Trinitarianism, and Christian Orthodoxy

Steve Holmes has a post worth reading, reflecting upon the recent book, One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life. The book in question seeks to defend the ‘eternal submission of the Son to the Father,’ a controversial theological position that nonetheless plays an important role in many contemporary defences of complementarianism. The book presents an assortment of theological, exegetical, and historical arguments for the position, from a number of writers who advocate various—and occasionally opposing—forms of the doctrine.

Holmes is fairly scathing in his treatment of the book, not merely on account of his principled opposition to complementarianism, but also on account of his theological concerns as a leading Trinitarian scholar (I recommend that anyone interested in Holmes’ perspective on the current state of Trinitarian theology read his book The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity). He concludes that the arguments—even the chastened ones—advanced in support of the eternal submission of the Son fail beyond recovery. He wonders why the eternal submission of the Son argument has passed through so many iterations, when it has been disproved every time; one would presume that after a few versions the doctrine itself would have been condemned as beyond salvage. I won’t summarize his arguments here: I suggest that you read his post yourself.

I have also written a lengthy post on my own blog, within which I unpack some of the issues that I believe are at play in this discussion, most particularly the issue of social Trinitarianism. I observe within it that this is a debate that raises challenges that cut across familiar complementarian/egalitarian divides, creating some surprising allies and antagonists.

Based upon my post on my blog, I would like to raise a few possible questions here.

  1. Should we abandon social Trinitarianism, despite the prominent role that it has played in both complementarian and egalitarian theologies?
  2. Can our doctrine of the Trinity illuminate and inform our accounts of society or gender relations?
  3. Is any connection between the relations of the Trinity and gender relations necessarily ‘projectionist’?
  4. How should we handle verses such as 1 Corinthians 11:3?
  5. How do we relate the earthly obedience of Christ to his Father’s command to the life of the Trinity?
  6. Can a doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son be theologically justified or squared with the orthodox tradition of Trinitarian theology?
  7. Do the shifting and varying theological arguments for a complementarian position suggest that rationalization rather than honest and principled theological reasoning is taking place?

Choose the questions that you would like to answer or suggest your own!

‘Priestly’ and ‘Prophetic’ Forms of Ministry

I want to join April and Graham in welcoming Jem to the discussion! I’ve followed Jem’s blog for a couple of years and, although I come from quite a different perspective in these debates, I have found him to be an incredibly stimulating and worthwhile person to listen to. I look forward to hearing from him as the conversation develops here.

Hannah mentions the way the distinction between church and parachurch featured within the discussion following Jen Michel’s post. I believe this distinction is a crucial one to reflect upon, especially as it relates to evangelicalism’s identity. Evangelicalism has, I would suggest, always tended to find its centre of gravity in the parachurch, in the wider world of revivals, missions, movements, and faithful sodalities, and the way that individual faith draws from these sources.

It is easy to forget, for instance, that the Methodist movement was originally intended to exist alongside the ministry of the established Anglican church. It exercised a more expansive, footloose, and informal ministry that supplemented the more rooted and priestly sacramental ministry of the local Church of England parish.

I have compared the distinction here to the distinction between ‘priestly’ and ‘prophetic’ ministries within Israel. The former ministry was a ministry of ritually ordained persons, which exercised a highly representative and ‘official’ role and focused upon highly ritualized worship and authoritative community oversight. By contrast, the latter was a gift-driven ministry that included and addressed God’s word more generally both to Israel and to nations beyond it. While priestly ministry was highly ‘institutional’ and official ministry, prophetic ministry was in many respects more analogous to what we would class as parachurch ministry.

Evangelicalism’s history is, I believe, characterized by a forgetfulness of the priestly character of pastoral ministry and a tendency to universalize the logic of prophetic ministry. That which was once intended to supplement the liturgical worship of an assembled congregation under priestly oversight started to supplant it. Within this logic, the pastor is seen primarily as a preacher, a prophet-like figure, much less as a ‘priestly’ guardian of the holiness of the community, the symbol and enforcer of the authority of Christ within a specific congregation, and the officiator within the divine service of the corporate liturgy in the sanctuary.

There has been a forgetfulness of the contrasting logic of two forms of Christian ‘space’—the space of the priestly ministry and the space of the prophetic ministry. This is reflected in shallow ecclesiologies and in a failure to distinguish sharply between the more particular realm of the church and the more general realm of the parachurch.

The lack of a clear distinction here also characterizes evangelicalism’s attitude to the gender debates. Without a strong sense of the priest/pastor as a figure whose significance is chiefly defined by the symbolic and governmental position that he occupies within a defined congregation, the priest/pastor starts to be defined solely by gifts (e.g. teaching ability) and generalized duties (e.g. preaching). One result of this is that, for complementarians, any gendered restriction will tend to bleed into all sorts of other areas. Recalling this distinction will, I suspect, allow complementarians a much more accommodating theology for women’s ministry, especially in the area of the parachurch and, consequently, much greater latitude for cooperation with those who take an egalitarian approach to pastoral ministry.

Now to Hannah’s questions:

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you are?

What the accommodation of diverse practice looks like will vary from context to context. I think that there is lots of room for diverse practice in a parachurch context, somewhat less in a single denomination, and considerably less in a specific congregation. In the parachurch and denomination contexts in particular, I can tolerate considerable differences, while engaging in respectful dialogue aimed at breaking differences down in size, facilitating principled cooperation, and seeking to persuade those who differ.

Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake?

I have been both a member of a denomination and a member of a congregation with female clergy. Being a church leader in such contexts would present different challenges, though.

What is more important to you personally—differences in application or differences in core beliefs?

It really depends. I think that it is important to bear in mind that the level of an obstacle that a belief or practice presents to Christian fellowship or cooperation isn’t always proportional to its significance in the larger scheme of Christian doctrine and faithful practice. Also, our problems often tend to lie more at the level of irreconcilable practices than contrasting beliefs (Steve Holmes has some helpful thoughts here).

Understanding Nature

Thanks for starting us off, Hannah. I want to focus particularly on your first question, as I fear you conflate some things that might need more careful distinction.

First, ‘nature’ isn’t the same as ‘biology’, nor is ‘nature’ simply creation as it appears to a narrowly scientific method. While biological processes are an integral part of nature, nature isn’t reducible to them. As a natural reality, for instance, sexual relations are more than just a biological fact.

Second, there seems to be some equivocation here over the meaning of ‘nature’. ‘Nature’ as it functions in discussions of natural law, for instance, is not simply what can be observed to exist or occur in the natural world (let me introduce you all to the homosexual necrophiliac duck), nor does it just refer to the typical form that things take (e.g. people being right-handed), or to our personal desires, instincts, and interests divorced from a wider reality and moral order.

‘Nature’, as it functions within most forms of natural law, has directivity as an integral element and not just something appended in the form of positive command or personal volition or determination. For instance, in saying that the eye is an organ of sight, we are saying that it is natural for the eye to be able to see and that an eye that cannot see is not a good eye, even though blind eyes can readily be found within the world.

As human beings, we are person-bodies embedded in a larger natural world and moral order in which we participate. We have both forces at work within us that are greater than us and natural orientations towards expression of, participation in, and realization of realities that exceed ourselves. The natural order beckons to us from both within and without. Living according to natural law is more of an art than a matter of speculative science. It involves deepening our acquaintance with and honing the directivity of the natural order that is already incipient within and operative upon us, through the feedback loop of participation in and reception of a natural reality that exceeds us. It also involves recognizing that we are not just brute creatures of instinct and need to act in accord with the personal and moral character of human nature (for example, recognizing that as we are personal beings, we cannot approach sexual relations in a purely animal fashion without morally injuring ourselves). In such a manner we pursue the flourishing of our nature in unity with other persons and the created order more generally.

Nature—as a force that is other and greater than ourselves, yet which is at work within us and which places constraints and demands upon our behaviour—is threatening for many. We may wish to cut ourselves off from its operations, exercise control over it, and autonomy over against it (C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man is worth reading on this, especially the third chapter). The only nature that will be acknowledged is the ‘nature’ that surfaces in our private desire. And, as we are living in a world that hasn’t been perfected and which is broken and sinful—where persons can experience an unchosen predilection for the most wicked acts, for instance—our own natures viewed in such detachment are hardly a reliable source of moral norms.

Finally, I think you might be eliding explanation, description, and prescription. Natural description would readily seem to support the notion men are the physically stronger sex and that, despite overlap in the bell curves of male and female strength, sex is easily one of the most crucial variables underlying strength differences in humans. Evolutionary psychology is one discipline that seeks to provide us with explanations for this fact (whatever their merits might be). Neither, however, provide us with the prescription that men must be stronger, although their observations and explanations may inform our moral and social practice.

I think Jem’s piece on evolutionary psychology misrepresents academic forms of it (the first comment beneath it raises important objections, I think). Evolution’s mechanism of natural selection centres the importance of processes surrounding reproduction—mate selection, successful mating, the bearing of offspring, the rate of offspring survival, their reproductive success in particular environments, etc.—as an explanatory tool for the different forms of species. Men and women are implicated in these processes in very different ways. As in other species, we should expect sexually divergent forms, behavioural tendencies, and social outcomes to accompany the contrasting parts that men and women play in the central species task of bringing other human beings into the world. Maleness and femaleness is a primary example of the way that we are confronted by a natural order that exceeds us, an otherness operative and present in our most intimate selves, an otherness with which disciplines such as evolutionary psychology seek to acquaint us.

The Deception of Eve

The exegesis of 1 Timothy 2 that Graham mentions in his follow-up post is really a question that deserves its own treatment, so I won’t fully address it here (especially as we are in danger of straying into a different discussion entirely), just to the degree that it bears upon my point. The main concern of my earlier comments was to challenge the common reading of Paul’s argument that Luke Timothy Johnson seems to adopt, as I believe that Paul’s logic is different.

A key observation here is that the deception of Eve did not arise from the fact that she was a woman (as I noted at the end of my last post, the rest of the Scripture has numerous instances of women proving themselves wiser than serpents), but from the fact that she lacked the first-hand knowledge that Adam had, so could be confused and deceived by the serpent.

Adam’s sin is seen to differ from Eve’s in a number of respects that are relevant here.

Adam is not described as having been deceived, while Eve is declared to have been deceived in both Old and New Testament. How was the woman deceived? The commandment concerning the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was in implicit tension with the granting of the right to eat of any tree in Genesis 1:29 and the serpent played the two off against each other. He cast doubt upon the reliability of the commandment given to her through Adam (the serpent’s question could even be read as ‘was it really God who said?’). At this point, Eve should have questioned Adam and sought more reliable information, but she doesn’t. Adam’s silence and failure to intervene—notice that when Eve takes from the tree, she gives of its fruit to Adam too, suggesting that he had been standing silently by—compounded her confusion and uncertainty. Had Adam misreported the commandment? Had she misunderstood it? Had he been deceiving her? Whom should she trust?

Adam wasn’t in a position to be deceived: unlike Eve, he knew exactly what God had said and didn’t have to determine between the mixed messages of two witnesses. He sinned ‘with a high hand’. He wasn’t deceived concerning God’s word, but just distrusted and rejected it. Nor does 2 Corinthians 11:3 blame Adam’s sin on Eve (I disagree with Graham here). Adam was the one who was the particular priest/teacher in Eden, charged with upholding the authority of God, teaching and enforcing the commandment and guarding and serving the Garden sanctuary. We principally fall in Adam, rather than in Adam and Eve. Adam failed to protect Eve from and prepare her to withstand the false teaching of the serpent (an aspect of his guarding work), choosing to use her as a guinea pig for sin instead. In this respect, Adam’s sin lies behind Eve’s.

I strongly agree with Graham that Paul’s argument doesn’t hinge upon a claim that ‘women are universally like Eve in being deceivable.’ Also that Adam’s sin is the one emphasized in Scripture, contrary to much subsequent popular theology. However, I disagree with his claim that Adam was deceived like Eve: the deception of Eve is rather different from the distrust of Adam. We can recognize this difference between their sins without suggesting anything about their relative intelligence. In short, I believe that: 1) Paul’s condensed summary in 1 Timothy 2 is perfectly in line with the Genesis narrative and almost certainly arises from a fairly attentive reading of that text; 2) contrary to many readings, 1 Timothy 2 presents us with no biblical basis for the belief that women are by their nature less reliable or more susceptible to deception.

Realms and Manners of Experience / Deceiving Tyrants

Hannah Malcolm posed some helpful questions in response to my opening post in this discussion. A few comments in response:

First, there are areas where realms of experience are completely non-overlapping. For instance, I have no experience whatsoever in what it feels like to have a menstrual cycle and have no reason not to take a woman’s word for it. By contrast, I have extensive experience and knowledge of my male friends. On the basis of this experience and knowledge, I have a plausibility framework for their actions. If a woman comes to me with an accusation about one of them, I am unlikely just to trust her without asking several questions first. While a woman can experience interactions with my friends that I cannot, I am unlikely to allow her experience to override my experience without closer investigation. And this is not necessarily a bad thing: even though they need to be open to change and adjustment, it is healthy not to abandon our plausibility structures on the mere basis of another person’s say-so. Both of us have limited vantage points and experience: we need to triangulate between these to get a clearer sense of the character of the friend.

Second, this issue is exacerbated when women make claims about things that lie outside of their direct experience on the basis of that experience. For instance, in the post around which our first discussion here was built, Jen Wilkin wrote about the frustrating interactions that women can experience with male leaders in the Church. However, she did so by speaking about the way in which men perceive women. Clearly, Jen has no immediate experience of this, while I have had extensive experience of interacting with women as a man and am well acquainted with some of the difficulties that can exist on the other end of such interactions. On the basis of this experience (coupled with my close acquaintance with many pastors), I question certain of her suggestions about the perceptions that drive men’s treatment of women. I do this without needing to question her account of how it feels to be on the receiving end of such treatment, or the need of addressing it. The difference between trusting someone’s account of the facts of an interaction and trusting their interpretation of that interaction also can be immensely important here.

Third, the trust that Young’s article focuses upon is trust of women’s feelings. This goes deeper than trust of women’s reporting of events. It is rather about trusting a particular manner of experiencing, perceiving, processing, and responding to the world. It is less about the content of experience than it is about the form. Differences between the sexes can often play out on this most fundamental of levels, as our differing biochemistry and differing bodies give rise to differing tendencies in manners of being in the world (this radio show is an interesting series of accounts of how testosterone can play into this most basic character of experience), differences that can be exacerbated by gendered modes of socialization. While there is always much more that men and women share in common than what they do not, we are often insufficiently cognizant of the significance of such differences. The closest analogy here might be that of trusting neuroatypical persons’ accounts of their experience. While men and women can relate to much about the manners of experience of persons of the other sex (and, no, there isn’t one single sexed manner of experience for men and women, but there are, I believe, sexually-weighted tendencies), there will often be dimensions that will appear rather unusual to us, making it more likely that we will reserve judgment or find it difficult to trust perceptions on certain matters. This isn’t easily resolved, not least because not all manners of experiencing, perceiving, processing, and responding to the world are equally reliable in each and every context.

Finally, a note in response to Graham’s post, on the exegesis of Genesis 1-3 and 1 Timothy 2. I don’t believe Paul is misreading Genesis, although the proper application of it is a question for another day. A key to the Eden story is that, although both Adam and Eve came under it, only Adam directly received the commandment concerning the tree, before Eve was created (2:16-17). Note that when God refers to the commandment later, he addresses Adam alone and uses the singular ‘you’ throughout (3:11, 17). Eve could be deceived because the serpent played off information that the text suggests she received directly from God (3:1-2; cf. 1:29) against information that she only had second-hand from God through Adam (as with Hebrew reported speech more generally, Eve’s reporting of the commandment in 3:3, where the plural ‘you’ is used, should not just be presumed to be a de dicto rendering of God’s words: here it seems rather to be a declaration of God’s commandment for them revealed through the words spoken to Adam alone). Adam appears to have been close by while Eve was tempted (3:6), without intervening, increasing her confusion and the likelihood of her deception. Adam alone committed the trespass because he alone knowingly went against what God had said.

It should be noted that the deception of Eve by the serpent—and Adam!—introduces a theme of poetic justice that runs throughout the biblical text, where tyrants and unfaithful men are deceived by faithful women. Sarai deceives Pharaoh (Genesis 12:10-20) and Abimelech (Genesis 20). Rebekah deceives Abimelech (Genesis 26:1-11) and Isaac, who was about to go against God’s will and bless the wrong son (Genesis 27:1-29). Rachel deceives Laban (Genesis 31:19-35). The Hebrew midwives deceive Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15-22) and Moses’ mother, sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter all play a part in deceiving Pharaoh to secure Moses’ safety (Exodus 2:1-10). Rahab deceives the men of Jericho (Joshua 2). Jael deceives Sisera (Judges 4:17-22). Michal deceives Saul (1 Samuel 19:11-17). Esther deceives Haman (Esther 5-8).

Why Do Men Fail To Trust Women?

In a recent article on the Huffington Post website, Damon Young asks why men don’t trust women. He argues that, even though we may trust women’s character, promises, and opinions on many matters, we don’t trust their feelings. When a woman comes to us annoyed about something, our instinctive assumption is that they are overreacting, even though we may go along with them. While this failure to trust women’s feelings is a problem, Young believes that it gives rise to far more serious issues. In particular, the belief that women characteristically overreact causes men to distrust their testimony on far more serious matters. Young writes:

But, this distrust can be pervasive, spreading to a general skepticism about the truthfulness of their own accounts of their own experiences. If women’s feelings aren’t really to be trusted, then naturally their recollections of certain things that have happened to them aren’t really to be trusted either.

This is part of the reason why it took an entire high school football team full of women for some of us to finally just consider that Bill Cosby might not be Cliff Huxtable. It’s how, despite hearing complaints about it from girlfriends, homegirls, cousins, wives, and classmates, so many of us refused to believe how serious street harassment can be until we saw it with our own eyes. It’s why we needed to see actual video evidence before believing the things women had been saying for years about R. Kelly.

You should read the full article: it raises some important issues, many of which I won’t get into here. Rather, I would like to identify a few factors that I suspect are often involved in men’s failure to trust women. I would be interested to hear others’ thoughts.

At the outset, I think Young’s emphasis upon men’s failure to trust women’s feelings is an unhelpful narrowing of our focus. For one, even when feelings don’t seem to be part of the picture, women will still often find themselves unfairly distrusted by men. Another problem is that feelings are often untrustworthy: they can lead us to react, rather than respond; they can distort perceptions; they can overwhelm our powers of reason; they will often lack a sense of proportion. It is one thing to take feelings seriously (we really should be doing this); it is quite another to trust feelings (we really shouldn’t be doing that).

A more fundamental issue here, however, is that men don’t give much weight to their own feelings. Throughout our upbringing we are taught to develop greater distance from our feelings—’man up’, ‘take it like a man’, ‘he didn’t cry, like a brave little soldier’, ‘grow a pair’, ‘don’t be a sissy’, ‘don’t be so sensitive’, ‘can’t you take a joke?’, etc., etc. Emotional continence—but perhaps even more often emotional constipation—is something that we tend to develop as a result. The rougher interactions that typically come with male socialization require thicker skins. Even if we presume for the sake of argument that no natural tendencies are at work here, women seldom have the same degree of socialization out of emotionality. The result is that men and women will frequently have very different processes of subjectively perceiving and experiencing the world. This, I believe, is the first obstacle to men’s trust of women: to trust women we will often need to trust persons with a form of perception, experience, and processing of the world that is rather different from our own. This can require a considerable—but necessary—exertion of sympathetic imagination. We might even learn something about the value of our own feelings in the process…

A second obstacle to trust is the fact that women have realms of experience that do not overlap with our own. They see and experience things that we don’t. It is very easy to forget how our vantage point can obscure our vision of certain realities. For instance, we typically overestimate how representative our friends and acquaintances can be of the general population and make very poor judgments about the general population as a result. The men that I know may overwhelmingly be upstanding and moral individuals, but in many respects they are a highly unrepresentative sample of the population. And even here women will often know things about these men’s characters that I may never discover. When women have spoken to me of experiences of sexual abuse or of experiences of street harassment, I have sought to keep these facts at the forefront of my mind. We need to be much more aware of the extreme limitations and parochial character of our vantage points.

A third obstacle that can exacerbate the previous obstacle is that of the confidence gap. On account of the confidence gap, men are frequently over-confident in their perspective, while women are under-confident in theirs. The result can be that a more assertive and confident—yet wrong—male perspective is more convincing to the public than a female perspective that is more hesitant in its expression, though right in its perception.

A fourth obstacle to trust in cases of abuse is that some of the psychological and behavioural effects of abuse can make victims appear untrustworthy. Compared to her abuser, a survivor may lack social standing, seem dysfunctional (drinking to excess, being openly promiscuous, taking drugs, etc.), emotionally imbalanced, have unreliable memories and testimony, and behave in ways that lowers their credibility in the eyes of the public (not reporting the abuse to the police immediately, remaining in an abusive relationship, etc.). In such cases it is worth asking ourselves where the psychological and behavioural effects came from: rather than weighing against the credibility of the victim, they may be the smoking gun of the abuse.

A fifth obstacle to trust in cases of abuse is that we have a profound disincentive to believe certain people are abusers. Upton Sinclair once observed that ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.’ The same principle holds when it comes to the survival of your self-image, marriage, family, or church, the reputation of a friend or family member, hero, or idol, favourite TV show, etc. One of the basic reasons why people found it so hard to believe that Bill Cosby was a serial rapist is because they didn’t want to live in a world where Cosby wasn’t Huxtable.

A sixth obstacle in such cases is that even when people have no choice but to acknowledge that the abuse took place, they can stubbornly refuse to accept that the obvious consequences should follow, seeking to give the perpetrator some special pass. It ‘wasn’t rape-rape’. ‘It was a different time’. ‘He clearly regrets it’. ‘Freedom to fracas’. ‘We shouldn’t allow the world to be robbed of this talent’. And so on. David Cameron’s statements about Jeremy Clarkson are a good example of this perverse dynamic in effect. The survivor, on the other hand, can be deeply resented. There is an instinctive sense that, in bringing the abuse to light, they have violently attacked something that was valuable to us. For instance, the woman who reports pastoral sexual abuse is instinctively felt to be responsible for the implosion of the church that follows. The resentment of victims is increased by the fact that they seem like nobodies compared to the people who brought about their own downfall by abusing them. The victim is treated as the perpetrator.

I think that it is important to mention a seventh and final set of obstacles here, even though they aren’t as primary as the others. Victims of abuse can be distrusted because the people advocating for them have often not been trustworthy and, in their well-intentioned desire to emphasize the genuine importance of the issue, have spread misinformation, provoking unnecessary resistance and ideological polarization. The principle of ‘just believing the victim’ has broken down in prominent cases where the stories of supposed victims—which put the safety, careers, and freedom of innocent persons in jeopardy—have been proved false in critical respects under analysis. The huge initial prominence of a number of these cases has been driven by advocates for rape victims operating on this principle (a lower standard of taking all rape accusations with extreme seriousness wouldn’t create such a problem). False rape accusations are exceedingly rare, but the desire to make the problem of rape appear as great as possible will lead people to focus upon extreme cases, the very cases that are most likely to fall apart under critical examination. A similar desire to magnify real problems has led many to circulate unreliable statistics that grossly exaggerate their scale or to make bold claims that most of the evidence points clearly against (e.g. ‘the growing epidemic of violence against women’). There are several statistics that are popular among feminists and women’s advocates, precisely because they make a problem seem huge. When even a moment’s thought could reveal the falsehood of popular claims (e.g.) that have been rattling around for decades in various unsourced iterations (another problem), the credibility of those bringing forward the claims is thrown into question, as is that of those they represent. Similar problems can be caused by an ideological drive to hyperbolize, project extreme pathology, and malign intentionality in a manner that will produce resistance from persons who could otherwise be friendly to the cause. Some of the more extreme forms of language and analysis surrounding the discussion of ‘rape culture’ might be an example here. In addition to often being more accurate, a softer case will probably win more over. A dogged and conspicuous commitment to truth will make our advocacy much more powerfully credible.

I would be interested to hear everyone’s thoughts on these. Here are a few questions that I think arise:

  1. Can you think of any additional reasons why men fail to trust women?
  2. What are some of the ways that men can change their behaviour and attitudes in order to trust women more?
  3. What are some systemic and institutional changes that will encourage a greater trust of women, especially in instances of abuse?
  4. How can we be the best advocates for survivors of abuse and raise the profile of these issues in an effective and principled way?

How the Unmarried can Reveal the Vocational Character of Marriage

April’s second point—about the way that marriage features in our cultural scripts about adulthood—is an important one. Within such scripts, perhaps especially in evangelical Christian circles, marriage is a matter of course. The question is not if but to whom you should be married. We all steadily pair off and settle into suburban lifestyles with a couple of children. Those who don’t marry are like the sorry kids left unchosen for a class team. We try to extend sympathy to them and to dull their disappointment. We speak about God’s purpose for ‘singleness’ as if it were a sort of consolation prize.

Yet the New Testament treats the unmarried state as one that Christians can purposefully pursue and one that is even preferable in certain instances, allowing one to devote oneself to the service of the kingdom of God in a fuller manner (e.g. Matthew 19:11-12; 1 Corinthians 7:6-9; 25-40). One of the things that this does is to disrupt the cultural script of marriage as a matter of course. Marriage ceases to be something that we just do because that is what everyone is expected to do and becomes something that we need to think about as a particular Christian vocation among other vocations.

In 1954, my grandfather, a missionary in Nigeria, read a book on the Christian family. This book made such an impression upon him that, although he had previously been strongly inclined not to marry, he was convinced that he needed to find a wife. After prayer for guidance, God put my grandmother on his heart. My grandmother, for her part, had felt that the verse ‘For your Maker is your husband’ (Isaiah 54:5) had been given to her by God. She resolved herself to remain unmarried in God’s service, packed up, left the UK, and went out to serve God in Africa. It required struggle on both of their parts to come around to the idea of marriage. The following pictured prayer letter describes the way that they finally did so.


Marriage is typically treated as a matter of course, yet Jesus’ teaching on marriage led his disciples to wonder ‘if such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry’ (Matthew 19:10). As someone who, like my grandparents, has given serious thought to lifelong celibacy—even when marriage was an option—marriage has always appeared as one particular—albeit naturally the most common—mode of Christian vocation, rather than just the presumed script. Once this is recognized, rather than where I will enjoy the greatest happiness in my personal lifestyle, the primary consideration becomes the form of life in which God would have me serve him.

Viewing marriage primarily as one possible mode of Christian discipleship, rather than the presumed script that merely awaits my finding the ‘right person’ has led me, like my grandparents, to reflect at length upon the particular character and significance of these modes of discipleship. It has led me, like my grandfather, to a very pronounced sense of the immense importance of Christian marriage as a form of vocation and to a similar sense about various vocations that exist for the unmarried. It has also led me to a strong realization of marriage’s character as a project and institution that exceeds and places limits upon the ends and desires of the couples entering into it. Marriage does not principally exist to serve our personal self-realization, but brings two people together as one to serve God and their neighbour, most notably in the next generation.

When the Church and society becomes forgetful of unmarried vocations, it risks losing sight of marriage itself. People walk blindly into marriage in pursuit of personal satisfaction or because everyone is expected to get married, without ever being prompted to reflect deeply upon just how awesome a vocation they have committed themselves to. The pause that a strong doctrine of unmarried vocations can give us—is it ‘better not to marry’ or what reason do we have to believe that God would have us marry?—may help people to understand marriage in a way that they never would have done otherwise.

Assorted Thoughts on the Unmarried State from One Still in It

Thoughts on Graham’s post, in no particular order.

  1. God’s statement that it was not good for the man to be alone is often misread, I believe. Rather than the emphasis being upon Adam’s supposed loneliness, where many Christians place it, aloneness describes a much broader issue. The aloneness of Adam is a problem because alone, Adam cannot fulfil the purpose for which God has created him. He needs a commissioned counterpart for his purpose to be realized, not just a personal companion. Read this way, the point of Genesis 2 is not that every man needs a woman, but that the human male is quite insufficient to fulfil God’s creational purpose for humankind without the assistance of the human female: the male and femaleness of humanity is integral to the purpose for which God created us. While marriage expresses this truth in nuce and has an iconic significance as a result, it is far from the only way that this truth can be lived out and expressed in human life and society. Also, it is important to recognize that some of the loneliest people in the world are married.
  2. While ‘singleness’ may be an appropriate way of speaking about the behaviour of the culture, is it helpful Christian terminology? While in our culture we are tempted to go through life as ‘singles’—even to approach marriage as ‘singles’ (concerned with maximizing individual life satisfaction, sex life, etc.)—the Church should be a place where no one is ‘single’, but where we are all caught up in a rich web of relationships in the body of Christ.
  3. The welcoming of the unmarried in the early Church was radical, but perhaps not in quite the same ways that it will be in our society. The radical step in the early Church was forgoing offspring and the social place accorded by family role. Those who took this step trusted that their posterity would be secured in the kingdom of God and that it was within that family that they found their place. In our society it will typically be sexual relations and personal lifestyle fulfilment that we forgo (both of which we idolize). Both steps can be practical declarations of eschatological imminence, that a new creation is at hand and that this creation and its orders will pass away. This has a lesson for the married among us too.
  4. As our society has ceased to be a robust familial culture, the Church has often set itself up as a site for the defence of ‘family values’ (the privileging of families within the Church often contrasts with the way that the wider society can privilege ‘singles’). While such defence is important, this can make the Church forgetful of its distinct calling and identity as a new family formed of peoples of all backgrounds and can trap it within the parochialism of the nuclear family (which no longer is even connected to an extended family or to a larger ‘household’). The Church takes on the weaker character of a sort of social club for families and assorted others, rather than a family in its own right. The unmarried will always tend to be marginalized in this order.
  5. Can a biblical foundation for honouring the unmarried state be made? About ten years ago, I attempted to make one (part 1, part 2, part 3). I would change several things were I to write that today, but I still roughly agree with the ten years younger version of myself. Barry Danylak’s Redeeming Singleness—which I review here—is also well worth a read on this.
  6. Many of us who are unmarried aren’t the slightest bit angst-ridden about our state, nor are we lonely. Being verbally ‘affirmed’ or assured that we ‘belong’ is of little interest to us. What we would appreciate is avenues for service and a Church that thought more seriously about the sort of society it is called to be.
  7. There is definitely a bias towards married clergy with children in my experience.
  8. There are also differences between men and women’s experience of singleness in the Church, I believe. The widespread gender imbalance in churches is a big issue for many women, I suspect. As an unmarried guy (though now in a relationship), I have faced accusations of not stepping up and doing my bit to address this problem and have also encountered more than my fair share of well-meaning but unhelpful matchmakers!