Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Challenge to Complementarians

Last night my New Testament class studied Paul's "pastoral epistles": his letters to Timothy and Titus. Overall, I'd say these are very practical, less theological letters chock-full of wisdom that has been teased out into practical, contextualized application for some early church leaders. This study included a protracted but unsurprising discourse on some of the verses many Christians would most like to remove from their Bibles, 1 Timothy 2:11-15:
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
It's easy to see how this instruction could rub people the wrong way today. What does one do with this verse and others like it in Paul's epistles like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and Ephesians 5:22-24? Some simply denounce Paul as a misogynist. For those unwilling to write off scripture in such a away, Paul's remarks on women have become increasingly problematic to interpret and apply as our culture has drifted farther and farther away from them.

The point was then raised that for the Christian, there are two basic ways to respond to 1 Timothy 2:11-15: say it's culturally contextualized and no longer applies to us today and then square that with his statement that "all scripture is God-breathed and useful" in 2 Timothy 3:16, or believe that it does still apply today and try to figure out what on earth that application might be.

"It does apply"

I'll focus on the second option first; that is, holding that Paul's statements on male-female relations, difficult as they may seem, can and should still be applied in some way to the church today. This is roughly equivalent to the line of thinking known as complementarianism, which is basically summed up as saying that men and women were made by God with different giftings and abilities and to have different roles in the church and in the home, even though they are of equal value in God's sight. This view is behind restrictions in many denominations on women being pastors or elders (or priests), as well as the view on marriage advanced by Mars Hill Church in Seattle and many others. It is mainly contrasted today with egalitarianism, the view that men and women can serve equally in the church, if not in the home.

I'd like to make more of a term I read in Brian McLaren's book A New Kind of Christianity that may be my favorite word of the year: "orthopathy", from the roots "orthos", meaning right or correct, and "pathos", meaning feeling or passion. It clearly parallels "orthodoxy", or "right belief". When I read that word, it clicked in my mind as if to fill a hole in my thinking I hadn't known was there. Merely having that word as a counterpoint, I realized how much effort Christianity has historically put into orthodoxy (enough to wage wars over it) and how relatively little it's put into orthopathy, even though the number-one command placed on Christians is to love (Matthew 22:34-40) Romans 13:8-10), not to believe the right things. Or maybe we just don't notice orthopathy because, when done right, it leads to harmony and health and never controversy and division.

And so, though a healthy desire to let the Bible speak as God's word and take seriously what it has to say is very good and essential for those who seek to apply 1 Timothy 2:11-15, it isn't enough. This application must be done in love, and as an expression of love for God, for His church, and for one's fellow believers. (See 1 Corinthians 13:1-3) This turns out to be very difficult. Whatever we say about men and women being equal in God's sight despite their different roles, it can be very hard for women barred from ministry for theological reasons to see it as an expression of love and not discrimination--especially because Paul never states any comparable restrictions on the roles men can occupy (childbearing is off-limits to men for more pragmatic reasons). This testimony on Jonathan Martin's blog shows how complementarianism can be deeply hurtful rather than loving.

I'll admit my biases: my mother is an elder, a role for which I believe she is very much qualified, at the church I grew up in, which also has a female pastor for whom I have great respect. These facts make it impossible for me to make a blanket statement that women are never supposed to hold positions of leadership in the church, much less claim that egalitarian churches are false churches populated by false Christians or demand that my mom step down and switch churches. I can't say there is nothing to the complementarian view because God obviously has made men and women different, but as in all things, love, even more than sound doctrine, must be the driving force. Combining these two goals in the area of gender is a difficult and thorny but necessary task that, as a single 23-year-old blogger with a severe tendency to shoot his mouth off, I am in no way qualified for.

"It doesn't apply"

Meanwhile, for those who would assert that though this passage was a binding command to Timothy, it was based on cultural factors specific to his time and place (like the fact that women had been barred from temple worship and hadn't received any theological instruction that wasn't filtered through their husbands and so were ill-equipped to teach or lead men, or simply the prevailing roles assigned to men and women in the first century which have since drastically changed) so it doesn't necessarily apply today have two main things to explain:
  • The aforementioned 2 Timothy 3:16, which states that "all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness," which seems to preclude "contextualizing away" difficult passages in this way.
  • Paul doesn't justify his instruction here with any cultural or pragmatic explanations, but with the order of creation, which seems pretty timeless.
The usage of 2 Timothy 3:16 here to argue that this passage can and does still speak to our culture means interpreting the verse so as to say, "All commands in scripture retain some relevance or weight for readers in every context, even though it might change over time and place". So in other words, 1 Timothy 2:11-15, being scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16), is therefore useful (in some way) for teaching, rebuking, correcting, or training, so we must find a way to hold to it and can't simply set it aside as no longer relevant.

In the next chapter of his second letter, Paul tells Timothy to "bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments" (4:13). This was a command when it was written, but has not been relevant as a command for over 1900 years. (Though, surprisingly, it can still be useful for preaching and teaching, as this sermon by John Piper shows) So though 4:13 does still have something to offer as a window into Paul's life, its original relevance as a command is completely lost. A similar point could be made for Paul's requests to greet certain people at the end of his letters.

Therefore, in the presence of such a counterexample it seems unjustifiable to interpret 3:16 in such a universal way (such that one counterexample, which we have found, invalidates it). With 4:13 as a precedent, I conclude--with fear and trembling--that it is possible for certain commands in scripture to pass out of relevance for believers today. If 1 Timothy 2:11-15 has not, it will take a different argument than using 3:16 in such a blanket fashion to explain why.

After his instruction to women, Paul writes, "for Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner". The common-in-Paul conjunction "for" indicates that this, an appeal to Genesis 2 and 3, is the reason or substantiation he's giving for his previous instruction.

I don't think it's a stretch to say that Paul's reasoning in this instruction is at least a bit foreign to modern readers. Who, after reading the account of Genesis 1-3, would conclude from the order of creation and sin that women should never teach men? It's one example of a fact that Peter Enns likes to point out: Paul uses scripture in ways that would make modern interpreters cringe. He rips parts of the Old Testament out of their original context and meaning to relate to Christ (2 Corinthians 6:2, Galatians 3:11 and 16) and even changes the original text (Romans 11:26-27) to serve his point.

Modern interpreters who tried these kinds of tricks would quickly lose their credibility. Does Paul get a free pass because he's Paul and he was writing scripture (even though he didn't know it at the time)? Are we supposed to do as Paul says, not as he does in regard to hermeneutics, even as he sets himself up as an example for other believers in his letters (1 Corinthians 4;16, 2 Thessalonians 3:9)? It seems to be the case that Paul interpreted his Bible (well, Old Testament) by a different set of rules (shared by other writers inside and outside the canon) than we do today. In his book Inspiration and Incarnation Peter Enns wrestles with the tension between Paul's methods and the ones we consider "correct" today. To summarize extremely, he denies that there is just one correct "method" for interpreting scripture; Paul's hermeneutic is as contextualized as ours is, but they must both have in common the new reality of Christ as their center.

I think Paul is doing something similar in backing up his instruction in 2:11 with the creation order and Fall. To give his words more weight, he seems to be taking Genesis 2 and 3 and interpreting them in a novel (but credible, for his time) way so as to resolve a practical issue Timothy is having. His use of Genesis seems much more like a rhetorical device than an unbreakable chain of logic.

We affirm that the Bible speaks the true words of God, but the simple word "truth" can carry a surprising number of associations, not all of them correct. I think when we say that the Bible contains God's "truth", we tend to think of truth in a Platonic sense--eternal, immutable, and pure. (Because, after all, this is what God is like, right?) And certainly some Biblical truth, like the very nature of God, is like this, even as the way in which we handle and approach it may change.

But I don't think practical instructions, like 1 Timothy 2:11-15 belong in this category. Is it possible that  Paul's directive for women to be silent in church is not in itself eternally true, but the result of applying an unchanging need (harmony and sound teaching in the body of Christ) to a specific situation Timothy was facing (women having a different social status and less education than men)? And that our application of the same need, our situation being very different, will therefore look different? In this sense, 1 Timothy 2:11-15 has not, in fact, passed out of relevance for us today, only Paul's situation-specific application.

A Challenge

By now you've probably realized which way I'm leaning in regard to interpreting 1 Timothy 2:11-15. But please don't hear this post as simply, "I'm right and complementarianism is wrong". The fact that I had to delve deeper into the mind of Paul than I had any right to go in order to reconcile his command with what I consider to be Christlike love troubles me and shakes my confidence. To any complementarians reading this who would say that women still shouldn't hold positions of authority in church, I'm not telling you to drop your view, but I would challenge you to do two things:
  • Simply acknowledge the very real tension that exists between following Paul literally here and loving our sisters in Christ who have a desire for ministry. Simply saying, "Paul said it, Paul is scripture, so we'd better do it that way" treats the Bible like a simple instruction manual when it is really much, much more than this.
  • Consider that you could, at least in theory, be wrong in applying Paul this way, and what the implications of this would be.


  1. John Piper made a great sermon point from 2 Timothy 4:13 Closeness to God at the end of your life does not remove the need or the desire to read and be spiritually nourished.