“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.

What Easter Says About Trusting Women

Why do men fail to trust women? In his last post responding to Damon Young’s HuffPo piece, Alastair suggested a number of reasons men fail to trust women: including that men are taught not to trust their own (nor women’s) feelings, differences in perception and experience, a gendered confidence gap, and a number of salient issues that pertain to allegations of abuse and why the abused one (often, a woman) has a hard time being believed.

Here is one additional, glaring thing that I wanted to add: haven’t men always failed to trust women, because somehow there is an innate belief that women are less trustworthy? History is replete with examples of women’s testimonies in court not being believed, of women being considered hysterical witnesses, of women not being considered as able to participate in discussion, weigh opinions, to vote.

I am grateful to be a woman in the 21st century rather than in the 18th century, when I would not have been able to participate in both law school and seminary: both realms considered beyond the reach of women (a hat tip here to Hannah More, as one of the women who worked hard to change the world despite being an 18th century woman!) However, even as a woman in the 21st century, I am affected by this subterranean suspicion that women are somehow less trustworthy than men. And sadly, in the church, the Bible is often touted to support that view.

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?

This week before Easter gives me cause to pause and reflect.

In the hours before his death, Jesus charged John with the care of his mother. I take it he did this because, in His perfect way, He acknowledged her as a “weaker vessel”: not as less able, but as older, grieving, and socially, emotionally and economically vulnerable in a way that the younger male disciple was not.

But in the hours and days after his death, God in His sovereignty entrusted a group of women to be the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. Women, whose opinion counted for nothing in court. Women, who couldn’t vote. Women, who were regarded as less able, and innately less trustworthy.  But it was to these that the Angel first testified that Jesus had risen from the dead, and to these that Jesus first appeared and commissioned to bear witness to his resurrection.

Of course, the disciples didn’t believe their story. Of course they didn’t trust the women: “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11) Surely the women were mad? Or frightened? Or too full of feelings? And so wasting no time, the disciples ran to see for themselves.

That first Easter, nobody trusted the women.

But I’m reminded on Easter that Jesus did. He trusted the women.

And it tells me that somehow, when it comes to bearing witness to Him, He trusts me too.

The Perfect Storm

In the previous post, Alastair brought up an important point about how internal gender dynamics and levels of confidence play into the question of whether male leadership see women as “usurpers.”  I need a bit more time to weigh the veracity and significance of what he wrote, but I wanted to add this additional thought.

Just as men relate differently to each other in terms of authority and “cutting each other down to size” (to compensate for the tendency to overconfidence), women, in my experience, tend to affirm each other to compensate for the lack of confidence that we, as a group, suffer from. This makes for a perfect storm when men and women relate in context of authority and leadership. A woman will expect reception, affirmation, and encouragement because that is what she would naturally do herself. A man may be predisposed to do the exact opposite–to challenge her in order to force her (like he does other men) to prove the value of her ideas. This further exacerbates the problem of female lack of confidence.To my mind, both men and women share in resolving this, but the one in place of privilege (in this case greater authority) has the responsibility to compensate for it. The burden rests on the male pastor to make sure that a woman’s ideas are received; it is not her responsibility to fight to be heard, although she might find that she has to.

As an aside, I would tend to disagree that the conflict Wilkin’s describes is not related to where a man derives his sense of authority. Alastair may be right that men do not consciously identify their maleness as source of pastoral authority, but in a context that is heavily shaped by gender roles, it is inevitable that it will shape him sub-consciously. I have had many conversations with friends and co-congregants about the nature of authority in the church and too often the answer has come down to “Because I’m a man.”

Can Authority Be Taken Away?

Great conversation, everyone! I think the best place for me to start is with Bronwyn’s question.

Is it really possible in practice to ask questions about men, women and authority in the church and “banish the ghost of the Usurper”, when deep in your heart you believe that anything other than your position actually would amount to usurping?

This is an excellent question, and it gets right at the heart of Wilkin’s piece, I think, and at the heart of much of the struggle in the church with regards to women in ordained leadership. For many, the answer would be “No, you cannot banish the usurper.”

I disagree, and I think we not only can banish the usurper, but that it is our Christian imperative to do so, regardless of our beliefs surrounding the legitimacy of the ordination of women. My reasons for this are both rooted in Hannah A.’s question and in a first century worldview that has continued to impede the church.

Hannah A. asked:

It seems to me that the question under the question is this: Where does a man in pastoral leadership derive his sense of authority? Does he see it as stemming more from his maleness or from his office?

And it gets right to the heart of it, but I’d like to take it a step further. Pastoral authority comes neither from one’s gender, nor from one’s office, but ultimately from God. If God has given one authority, no one will be capable of usurping it. “The Usurper” is code language for anxiety about the relationship between men and women in the church, an anxiety rooted in the idea that women are capable of taking authority away from men in office. If we believe that God is the one who gives authority, we will not be afraid that others can take that authority away.

From my perspective, this anxiety is rooted in a first century worldview of “limited goods.” Basically, this worldview contends that there is a limited supply of authority, and if one person is given authority, someone else must have lost authority. I do not think authority is limited in this way since it is given by God, who does not operate within our human limitations.

Graham made an excellent point when he said:

But even if authority comes from the office regardless of gender, a challenge can still be threatening. In egalitarian congregations, laity, or educated/trained but non-ordained persons can still play the role of child, seductress or usurper.

And as Alastair stated in his response, often times there are power dynamics at play in conversations where “the Usurper” is present. But the hope in Wilkin’s piece (if I’m reading her correctly) is that we will not fall prey to the temptation of seeing men and women as enemies who are engaged in a battle for authority. If we believe that authority comes from God and cannot be taken away by others, we will effectively banish the usurper and begin working together as the body of Christ.

Taking it case-by-case

Is it really possible in practice to ask questions about men, women and authority in the church and “banish the ghost of the Usurper”, when deep in your heart you believe that anything other than your position actually would amount to usurping?

In answer to Bronwyn’s question, I do think we should aim to ask questions and address practical ways that the threat of usurption can be banished in male pastoral relationships with his women members. Alastair raises one question that places some responsibility on women and that is to consider ways in which one can treat their pastor and the pastoral office with respect even while disagreeing with him. I will list a couple more factors to consider below. Even though asking these kinds of questions and having this conversation will not ensure that the dynamics between a male pastor and the women in his congregation will change in every situation/context, I hope that it would in some.

This leads to a problem I see with Wilkin’s piece. The issue regarding the problems that exist between male pastoral leadership and women, specifically women in ministry, is reduced to three fears or “ghosts” that haunt men in position. To be sure, I do not doubt that there are men who allow, in part, these ghosts to dictate the way they interact with the women in their churches. However, I don’t think the issue is as simplistic as three ghosts.

Perhaps, as Alastair asks, the reason why male pastors act a certain way toward women is because a particular woman or women have treated him and/or his office in disrespectful ways. Perhaps his behavior toward women is influenced by his personality, past experiences, or a particular interpretation of Scripture, to name a few. Perhaps, like Hannah suggests, it is because his identity and authority stem from his gender and therefore the opposite gender will pose a threat simply because of the gender. Perhaps it is due in part to something that a particular woman has done to cause distrust in the relationship. Given the nature of our humanity, the reasons behind our behavior cannot be reduced to just one. Therefore, our response in addressing this issue will need to be formulated from a more complex perspective.

I think Wilkin’s piece is helpful in addressing possible fears felt by male pastors, and I hope that her piece causes male ministers who read it to do some serious self-examination. For these ghosts (or fears or attitudes) only can be changed through the grace of the Holy Spirit and self-examination.

Again going back to Bronwyn’s question, I sense an assumption (or should I call it a ghost) held by women (myself included!) that projects a certain belief onto the pastor, that is no matter what I say or do he will consider it usurption. Perhaps it is not a projection but a description of an experienced reality, or perhaps it is unfounded. However, it is good to remember that when there are strained relationships between a male pastor and a woman that it should be handled case-by-case, and the only way we can break down barriers will depend on prayer, the people involved and their willingness to come to the table to dialogue and self-examine in a spirit of humility and grace.

Which Authority?

I appreciate Alastair’s highlighting the question of authority and reminding us that we all–male and female–must relate to church leadership with deference to their positions. I’d like to take this insight and marry it to Brownyn’s original question of

Is it really possible in practice to ask questions about men, women and authority in the church and “banish the ghost of the Usurper”, when deep in your heart you believe that anything other than your position actually would amount to usurping?

It seems to me that the question under the question is this: Where does a man in pastoral leadership derive his sense of authority? Does he see it as stemming more from his maleness or from his office?

If the answer is the former, a pastor will, albeit unintentionally, engage the female members of his congregation differently from the way he engages the male members of his congregation, leading to the abuses that Wilkin notes. This will happen because he will need to protect the boundaries of gender as a means of protecting his own pastoral authority.

This problem will most likely occur, not in conservative denominations across the board, but in those that do not have a strong ecclesiastical framework for ordination and/or definition of pastoral office. If any man (as opposed to woman) can sense a “call” or put himself up for leadership without a rigorous process of examination of his pastoral gifts, the effect is that his maleness has become a major component of his qualification.  In such a context, authority has become deeply invested in gender rather than gender being one of many qualifications for a specific office that is itself endued with authority. And in such cases, women will be seen as an intrinsic threat to pastoral authority.

Respecting authority while disagreeing with those who hold it

Thanks for introducing this subject, Bronwyn!

You asked:

Is it really possible in practice to ask questions about men, women and authority in the church and “banish the ghost of the Usurper”, when deep in your heart you believe that anything other than your position actually would amount to usurping?

I think that it is important to remember that Wilkin’s remarks are particularly focused upon interactions with pastors and men in Church leadership. There is an asymmetry in such conversations that probably ought to be recognized at the outset: one party within the conversation has been formally charged with overseeing and giving account for the spiritual wellbeing of a congregation—a task for which the maintenance of orthodox teaching is a crucial dimension—while the other typically has not. The concern about usurpation primarily arises when this difference isn’t honoured in the way that questioning is handled.

In answering this question, perhaps we need to reflect more generally upon how we demonstrate respect for persons in authority over us and don’t undermine their office, while expressing disagreement with their positions.