Mistrust and the problem of “overgenderizing”

When we first moved to England for my husband’s sabbatical, we began watching a new miniseries on the BBC called, The Honourable Woman, a fitting name for the subject at hand. Every episode began with The Honourable Woman, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, saying, “Who do you trust?”

The questions being asked here are who do you mistrust and on what basis? On gender alone?

First, When it comes to men not trusting women I think we’ve hit on an anthropological problem of sin that affects all types of relations. After Adam and Eve sin, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent. Then in the next chapter Cain murders his brother from a place of jealousy and mistrust. We see this continue to manifest itself between races, nationalities, socioeconomic statuses, ages, religions, gender, etc. Simply put, we mistrust each other. To be sure, there’s a mistrust of women by men, as has been discussed, but I don’t think we should have the conversation without acknowledging an equal mistrust of men by women. I say this because I don’t want us to “overgenderize” (if I am allowed to make up my own word) this issue.

A danger of overgenderizing is reducing an issue such as mistrust to gender alone and thereby raising up a gender over another. Do all women deserve to be trusted simply because they are female? My answer is a firm, No. In the same way I don’t believe women should not be trusted simply because they are female. Being female (or male) doesn’t make us more or less trustworthy than the other. In fact, because of my view of sin and humanity, I find us all pretty untrustworthy. Yet, when I decide whether or not to trust someone or to believe what they say, it is not based on gender alone but on the person’s character. If there is a woman who is gossiper and liar, they will lose believability. If a male pastor has an affair, he will lose my trust. There are women who do not trust any man because they have been abused by men. There are men who do not trust any woman because they have been cheated on by women. And, of course, as already discussed, there are those who are very biased and allow gender to be a cause of mistrust more than character or behavior.

A second point that follows is that I don’t believe that the passages mentioned by Bronwyn and Graham are much to blame for a general mistrust of women among men. I think the issue, going back to the first point, is a result of sin and, as Alastair mentioned, partly influenced by how we are raised and other outside factors. But I don’t believe 1 Timothy 1 or 1 Peter 3 has had much influence (if any) on the general male population. For example, I don’t believe that every male mechanic to whom I have ever taken my car and has not believed me when I have said that my car is making a funny noise (not to mention that it never makes the noise when I take it to them!) is using 1 Timothy 1 as their reason. As it relates to mistrust of women, I believe the place where these passages of Scripture often come into play is within the ecclesial context where women might not be trusted as senior pastors or as preachers or teachers.

I liked what Bronwyn said in her piece, but I would clarify it a little further. She wrote,

“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.”

I would say that Jesus didn’t trust the women at the cross simply because they were women. Rather, Jesus entrusted the message of his resurrection to the women, without regard to their gender, because he chose them and because they were there. Obviously these women were just as capable as men to take the gospel, but not because there was something in their gender that made them that way but because God chose to redeem and to use both sexes. The emphasis, then, is placed not on gender but on God.

To be honest, knowing my heart the way that I do and how prone I am to wander, I am surprised that God would entrust his gospel message to me at all. I sure don’t deserve it. But by his grace he does, and we must recognize God’s grace at work in others when he entrusts the same message to them that God has entrusted to us.

In response to Graham’s post, it seems that Paul was on trial in regards to his intentions (“Did Paul bring patriarchal bias into the composition?”) and in regards to inspiration (“Luke Timothy Johnson takes Paul to task for his poor exegesis.”). If one doesn’t take the “plain reading” of the text, then there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. Rather, instead of raising a level of suspicion of Paul, I think a better and more helpful approach is to show from Scripture, tools of hermeneutics, cultural background, etc, how we have been misreading Paul. What Paul has written is the Word of God, but we have been misinterpreting or misreading him. This would be a better approach, in my opinion. I am uncomfortable with the other approach. A helpful book here that charges us to not read anachronistically is William Webb’s book, “Slaves, Women & Homosexuals.”

Secondly, in regards to the comment about Paul doing “poor exegesis” of Genesis 2, I think a better explanation of what we find in 1 Timothy 1 is Paul making an application of Genesis 2. He is not exegeting Genesis 2 as such, but rather he is using Genesis 2 to explain what is happening in Ephesus with the women. I personally understand Paul here to say that wherever women are being deceived like Eve and spreading false teaching, they need to shut up. And to that I say a hearty, Amen.

“Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes” by Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien would be a helpful read also.

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.

“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.

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).

“Those clanging words”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really? Are you sure he meant it that way?”

Alastair’s response to this article was particularly helpful in teasing out the reasons behind a lack of trust being formed – especially with an article that relies heavily on generalizations as to male and female behaviour. One thing I’d like to draw out further is the concept of different ‘realms of experience’ for men and women.

Can we gender space and perception in this way, and does it explain a male lack of trust? Clearly, there are ‘gendered’ experiences – otherwise large parts of this conversation would not be necessary. But is it right to say that it is partly a lack of shared experience which leads to male disbelief, or does that simply cover up a deeper problem?

As subjective beings, all of us perceive life differently, and will be confronted with different experiences which other people will not be able to relate to, regardless of their gender. For instance, I don’t know what it’s like to be married, be physically disabled, have a parent die, be bilingual, be African-American, etc etc. And yet if someone tells me what that is like, or what his or her personal experience has been, my inclination has to be to trust it, because I don’t have any personal knowledge that could counteract what he or she says. And I imagine that goes for men hearing from men, too –if it is a man who shares a different experience, particularly one of being poorly treated, he might be taken more seriously.

In all this there are of course other factors which touch on much broader issues of social privilege and trust – the lower down any kind of social ladder you are, the less likely your complaints are to be taken seriously (see this article for an interesting perspective on whether our desire to view the world as ‘fair’ has anything to do with this) but I suppose I’d like to ask whether we can really put male disbelief of female experiences down to a lack of knowledge, or whether it is a case of finding it easier to believe that such problems don’t exist – particularly if you are of the ‘not all men’/’I would never do that’ camp. Or, worse, a much more deep-rooted/historical lack of trust in female witness, which is much more difficult to break – thanks to Bronwyn for drawing attention to that in reference to Easter Sunday!

If, however, it is the case that a lack of shared experience leads to a lack of trust, then surely we need to seriously challenge our own empathetic abilities. We should not have to rely on trying to draw male experience into female oppression in order to provoke sympathy (e.g. that is someone’s daughter/wife/sister) but learn to have true compassion, sorrowing in another human’s experience without needing to reference our own.

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.

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?