Christian Liberty in the Gender Debate: A Case Study

Before starting into my thoughts on Hannah’s post, welcome Jem Bloomfield to the discussion. Looking forward to your participation.

Now, on to the topic at hand; Hannah A has brought up some thoughts which hit at the heart of what we’re up to here (in my own thinking and desire for PTSS at least). She asks about how far do/should we extend liberty on differences of opinion on gender. In other words, to what extent can people of differing views continue in partnership. I am glad Hannah brought this up, because at present some within my own “tribe” are asking this very question (or at least a very similar one); can complementarians and egalitarians function together in a missional body. I am part of the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec (CBOQ). CBOQ approved the opening of ordination to women at our Annual General Meeting in 1947. It was not unanimous, and even now, the differences of opinion persist. There are some (I don’t really now what the numbers are like) pastors, laity, and congregations which believe ordination ought to be restricted to men only. These people/congregations continue to function within CBOQ, even though they disagree with this position. A “live and let live” approach has typically been the norm. But periodically the question pops up again.

So the question which Hannah asks “Where do women belong in complementarian organizations?” can also be expanded to say “Where do egalitarians belong in complementarian organizations?” and also tweeked a bit to ask “Where do complementarians belong in egalitarian organizations?”. In other words, yes, complementarians need to wrestle with the question of what freedoms women have to use their gifts, and whether they can function within organizations which have policies which are contrary to their convictions. And egalitarians need to ask similar questions. One Complementarian pastor recently spoke out in a blog post about what the lines in the sand for his continued affiliation with CBOQ are. One of them was if CBOQ declines to ordain someone because they hold to complementarian convictions. Of course, CBOQ has never done so, but our official policy is that women are free (and encouraged) to pursue ordination if they are convinced of a calling. I am not sure how complementarians process this tension, since they are part of a body which encourages something which they find to be contrary to Scripture. When I try to reverse the situation- in other words, if I, as an egalitarian, were part of a complementarian body- I struggle to see how I would continue to remain within that voluntary association.

PTSS is an experiment in such thinking. Can egalitarians and complementarians (with varying gradations within those two broad groups) discuss in Christian unity and grace the implications of our views? So far, I think the answer has been yes. This gives me a great deal of hope. But this is an online project. What happens when we move this to body like TGC or CBOQ? As of right now, a complementarian view of gender is a line in the sand for TGC, but a difference bridged by Christian liberty within CBOQ (although this isn’t always done well).

I think Hannah has captured the tendency well, saying “For many complementarians, egalitarians have been reduced to “liberals” and for egalitarians, complementarians are oppressive chauvinists.” This is the big issue. Can complementarians and egalitarians drop the labels and assumptions they’ve built about the folks on the other side of the conversation? Can we become people who graciously disagree? In denominational bodies where ordinations are overseen and performed, the issue comes into sharp conversation. But in non-denominational or inter-denominational parachurch bodies, this seems more like a possibility.

One nitpicky item to note, Hannah writes “The current debate between egalitarians and complementarians began when feminist theology started making inroads into evangelicalism in the 1970s.” This is only partially true. In some cases, in was after the new wave of feminism in the late 60s/early 70s which saw big shifts, in other cases, it was much, much earlier when egalitarian views began to gain real traction (like for e.g. CBOQ who began a conversation much earlier which culminated in the decision to ordain women in 1947.

But in answer to Hannah’s questions:

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you are? I certainly aspire to this as best I can. I have complementarian colleagues who I continue to interact with, continue to pray for and with, and continue to break bread with. I have no intention to change this.

Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake? I can’t say for sure. This is the part I am wrestling with. A pastor friend of mine from another denomination asked me to apply for a Sr. Pastor job at his church. I declined because a) I am currently planted in a call, and haven’t felt the conviction that it’s time to leave and b) I would inevitably run into problems because I have trouble keeping silent on the issue (the church in question allows women in all positions except Sr. Pastor and Elders, and the denomination does not ordain women). Would I speak at a TGC conference if invited? Probably (of course, I doubt they’d invite me for various reasons). Would I join? No (for various reasons). Would I join another organization that I agreed with on every front but this issue? There’s where things get tricky, and in all honesty I can’t answer right now. Luckily, I am quite comfortable with tensions and “I don’t know”s.


“Those Clanging Words” cont’d

Just some thoughts in response to Alastair’s comments to my earlier comments. I wrote:

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.

To which Alastair replied:

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 thetrespass because he alone knowingly went against what God had said.

Just to clarify what I was referring to, I’ll expand what I was echoing Luke Timothy Johnson on. Alastair and I, for the most part, agree on this part of the exegesis of Gen. 3 (although Alastair elsewhere has drawn conclusions about gender which I wouldn’t from Gen. 1-3). But Adam’s earlier creation, and the creation of Eve after the command to not eat of the one particular tree are not precisely the issue I (and LTJ) are responding to. The issue is the fact that Paul seems to be drawing certain conclusions about women and men based on specific aspects of his reading of Genesis 3 which are not present in the text.

Let’s just look at Paul’s argument based on Genesis 3:

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. (1 Tim. 2:11-15, NRSV)

Paul’s argument is typically understood to be this: a woman should learn, and not teach or exercise authority over men, but must keep quiet in teaching times, because 1. Adam was formed first and 2. it was Eve who was deceived, not Adam. Thus, men are not culpable (or more likely less culpable) and women are in some sense disqualified because the original woman was created after the original man, and because their having been deceived demonstrates their inherent lack of ability to correctly handle the commands of God. The problem is two-fold:

First, Adam having been formed first shows little or nothing with regard to male headship or authority generally. On the surface it looks like Paul is arguing that the simply fact of Adam preceding Eve means only men can teach. Adam having been present for the command and not Eve is never shown to be binding on gendered humanity for all time. Adam taught that command because Eve was not present to receive God’s instructions, not because males are inherently designed to hold teaching authority. Once relayed, the command is equally binding on both, even though Eve has it second hand (in our case, all commands of God are taught to us through human teachers, whether we are male or female, so this dynamic needs to be flushed out more). Eve knew the command, and initially trusted Adam that it was from God. Beyond the first generation, no one was present for the giving of that command thus Adam’s creation before Eve is almost irrelevant for discussions of male exclusivity in authority to teach (I say almost because I’ll come back to that in a moment).


Second, Paul says “Adam was not deceived” but he in fact was deceived. Paul says “the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” but Adam also became a transgressor. In Romans and 1 & 2 Corinthians, it is through Adam that sin enters the world, and in Adam all are subject to death (although, 1 Cor. 11:3 does blame Adam’s sin on Eve, but Paul still asserts that it is Adam’s sin which brings death). Johnson’s argument is this:

Paul plays on the fact that the serpent deceived Eve rather than Adam. Presumably, this is to show that women are less capable of distinguishing truth from error, or are too driven by the appetites to be reliable teachers and leaders. But the logic is flawed. The woman, after all, was deceived by “the most subtle creature that the Lord God had made” (Gen. 3:1), but all the woman had to do was offer the fruit to the man and he ate it (3:6)! We can also note that in Gen. 3:17 it is not the woman who is blamed for eating the fruit, but the man.

He then continues:

Paul was not in this case engaging in sober exegesis of Genesis, but supporting his culturally conservative position on the basis of texts that in his eyes demonstrate the greater dignity and intelligence of men and, therefore, the need for women to be silent and subordinate to men.

Paul’s actual argument, based on Genesis 1-3, seems to be and has been traditionally understood to be that because of men having been made first, and women being deceived, holding the authority to teach is exclusive to males. To make such an argument is problematic, since the text of Genesis does not, in my opinion warrant such a conclusion. So, either Paul (or the person writing 1 Timothy) is misreading Genesis and using it to reinforce patriarchy and make an injunction excluding all women from the authority to teach, or we have to re-evaluate our reading of this particular passage in 1 Timothy. Johnson argues the former. I would argue both to some extent.

I do think Paul has made problematic assertions regarding Genesis. But I also think many readings of 1 Tim. have gone off in a problematic direction. Paul’s assertion that Adam was not deceived is problematic. The text of Genesis makes no such assertion. Why else would he eat of the fruit? The serpent has convinced Adam and Eve, since they were together at the time, that God’s statement “you must not touch it, or you will die” was not to be trusted. The way the text reads, in my opinion, is that they were both deceived, and Paul says Adam was not, and he then gives no account of Adam’s reason for partaking.

That said, I still think there is a real problem with reading 1 Timothy to say Paul’s argument is that women are universally like Eve in being deceivable, and also that Adam being created first means authority to teach is reserved exclusively for males. My own reading would be more like this: Adam was created before Eve, and the commandment came before Eve’s creation. This gave Adam the role of passing along what he knew, because Eve did not know, and needed to be given this instruction. The lesson then is not only males are permitted to teach and females must learn in submission, but that the untaught (in a 1st century context, women would fall here) should respect the authority of those who have already been taught (or have been taught to a greater extent). Eve was deceived because she failed to trust Adam’s teaching (hey look, we’re back to trust issues, but the other way around!). She believed the serpent and not Adam, and in turn, Adam believed the serpent and not God. Thus, Adam’s transgression is what produces death. Eve failed to trust her husband, Adam failed to trust his God.

Introduction: Hannah Malcolm

Photo on 23-09-2014 at 14.12 #2

I have a B.A. in Theology from the University of Cambridge and am currently studying towards an M.A.R. in ‘World Christianities’ at Yale Divinity School. Follow me on twitter at @hannahmmalcolm, and read my other musings at I talk too much.

I was born in London to evangelical Christian parents, who met at medical school and both came from Christian families. They were both ‘working’ parents, though their decision to have five children meant that my mother stopped working for a few years/went part-time. Both parents ‘led’ at home, and I never had the impression that either was making ‘final’ decisions (and if someone was, most days it was my mother, who is terrifyingly organized and efficient).

I promise this won’t be my entire life story. We’ll skip some bits.

In my teens, as a reaction against a secular school environment and a desire to explore what it would mean to fully express my faith, I began writing and blogging about being a Christian woman. At the time I called myself ‘complementarian’, believing that ‘equal but different’ meant what it sounded like – that men and women were actually equal, but that they were ‘different’ – and, from my teen perspective, I could see they were different. They looked different, they smelled different, and they thought differently about things. I never thought that women shouldn’t preach, but I did think there were bigger concerns. I did, however, react violently against the dating books, the language of ‘warrior princes’ and ‘pure princesses’ and the flowery skirts brigade that still infects many evangelical churches today. I would sit there in my trackies and jumper (and sometimes jeans if I were feeling really gracious toward my parents) and feel disgust at the guilt piled onto girls about their sexuality in particular. I understood wanting to dress modestly, but my frame of reference was the fact that, to me, most immodest or revealing clothing was just another patriarchal imposition – high heels, after all, are shoes designed to make it harder for women to run away. In church, teenage boys talked about their struggle with porn, teenage girls talked about their low self-esteem. I felt fine about the way I looked, and had definitely watched porn. Where was that conversation? Once, at university, I tried to bring that up in a flowery-skirted bible study, and was greeted with relieved I’m-not-the-only-one faces, but also silence.

At university I also discovered that many of my evangelical male friends were pleased that I described myself as ‘complementarian’, and I began to understand what that word really meant –men had the final say, women were ‘naturally’ submissive, and working mothers were, at best, a no-other-option choice – not a good model for raising a family. I had seen none of that in my parents’ own marriage, and began to think that maybe I didn’t belong in this camp. I was too brash, too outspoken, wanted to argue theology when that was a ‘male’ domain, and I began to resent my ‘female’-ness.

And so the word ‘complementarian’ slowly dropped out of my vocabulary, and I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the insidious male/female gender divides I saw in my (in other ways absolutely wonderful) evangelical church. Men went out for curry, beer, and theology, women had afternoon tea and craft days. Male students had male mentors in positions of church leadership, and there were no such leaders/elders amongst the female mentors. I had switched to the theology faculty for my final two years of study, and had several concerned conservative male friends suggest that it wasn’t a great idea. No women suggested that to me. In fact, I rarely heard evangelical female friends make theological assertions or discuss theological ideas at all, outside of the need for evangelism and personal Bible study. Like all of academia, Theology conferences were predominantly white and male, in both speakers and attendees.

I began reading more anthropology, and found that, as I did so, it was becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the sexes beyond the fact that women could birth and feed children and men had greater physical strength. There were no universal norms as to ability to lead, intelligence or subtlety of thought, fierceness of spirit, or preference for quiet, sitting down activities. In fact, the only true universal was that male physical strength led to male dominance, and that meant that male names were far more prevalent for both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ activities (e.g. the most famous sports people, warriors, chefs, artists, craftspeople, writers, politicians, teachers, doctors, etc. are, for most of history, male, even though assumptions still prevail that little boys will want to run around outside and poke insects and little girls will want to bake and paint and play teacher). The most genuine ‘difference’ seemed to be one of opportunity, not natural tendency. (No one calls Van Gogh ‘girly’, but Cleopatra led ‘like a man’, because it was the men who led.)

If nature doesn’t really support gendered norms, should the Church? Of course, the Church is not bound by society, or even by what humans find ‘natural’ – even if it were ‘natural’ for humans to want to seek out multiple sexual partners (and some scientists argue that this is the case) I would still support marriage and one person commitment as the model God wants. And so, the questions became –

1) How much Spirit, and how much culture, do I read into any given Bible passage?

2) How much do I take seriously the feeling of call to leadership that many women in the Church claim to experience?

And 3) Why is the Church so slow to cry out against the oppression of women in all walks of life?

So, this is where I begin – a gender structuralist, who wants to take scripture seriously. A proponent for women in leadership, but who also understands the perspective of those who do not want it. Someone who wants to increase space for women in theological conversations, not by reducing male voices, but by making the space even bigger – I know that there are many white male theologians who have taught me a great deal, and I would not want to lose that, but I also don’t want to be limited to that. It’s exciting to me that all of us are going find our theological limits challenged in the next generation. The Church no longer looks white, male and western. It’s time for all of us to catch up.