Hermeneutics and the Gospel

If you follow the Complementarian and Egalitarian debate you may have come across an article written by Derek Flood. He makes the claim that this issue is much deeper than gender roles – it goes all the way to how we read our Bibles. I couldn’t agree with that more, and I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to explore the different kinds of Bible reading that lie at the heart of this debate.

The Background

The article, “Gender Equality: Why the Gospel Coalition Misses the Gospel,” was written by Flood as a critique of The Gospel Coalition’s (TGC) focus on a doctrine called complementarianism (if you need a refresher on that term you can go to one of these posts: A Mean Marriage, or Criticizing Complementarianism). The point of his article is that the men leading TGC read the Bible wrongly and it has actually caused them to miss the gospel altogether.

But Flood’s not the only one suggesting that reading the Bible wrongly can distort or destroy the gospel. In the same video that Flood is criticizing,  Tim Keller (joined by Don Carson and John Piper) explained that though egalitarianism doesn’t directly affect the gospel, it “indirectly affects the way we understand Scripture and thus the way we understand the gospel.”

So how do the groups read the Bible and what does Bible reading have to do with the gospel? Though I ultimately disagree with Flood’s conclusions, perhaps it is easiest to start the conversation by looking at his argument.

The Testing Grounds: The Issue of Slavery
Derek Flood leads his critique of TGC with an example of why he believes the TGC guys are bad Bible readers.

The problem with this is that if folks at TGC really want to read their Bibles in that way, then they would need to support the institution of slavery, because in the same way that the New Testament affirms traditional gender roles that were a part of the dominate culture of the time, it likewise affirms the assumption of the institution of slavery. So if you want to make a biblical argument for traditional gender roles, you also need to be pro-slavery. Otherwise, as Keller puts it, you are being “loose” with the text.

Instead of addressing whether Flood’s criticism is valid, I want to look at what he teaches us about how we should read the Bible. Perhaps the most important lesson is that everyone agrees about at least one thing – you need to read the Bible consistently. 

The TGC Hermeneutic
Flood deserves credit, it seems that he does understand how the TGC guys read the Bible. They claim that the Bible is God’s word and it is free from errors. The TGC guys believe that everything it says is trustworthy and right and it is the reader’s responsibility to obey its message in every way.

This way of reading really does present a challenge for the TGC guys. When they come to passages like the one’s Flood is referencing (Ephesians 6:5-8 for example), they either have to show that the passage is not an endorsement for slavery or they have to endorse slavery in the same way the passage does. The culture’s view of slavery must remain completely irrelevant to their Bible reading. The TGC method of Bible reading can only seek to understand what God was saying in his word and then follow it without question. To do any less is to be inconsistent and being consistent is the cardinal rule.

Is There Another Way?
Of course, Flood suggests that there is a better way to read the Bible. He explains,

As you might have guessed, I think this way of reading the Bible is completely wrong. In fact, I would argue that this way of reading the Bible misses the entire point of the New Testament. Jesus is anything but the defender of traditional values. He is someone who continually turned traditional values on its head, and was so subversive to authoritarian religion that it got him killed. People who argue otherwise clearly are not paying attention to the narrative of the Gospels. Why was Jesus opposed to these traditional values? Because they hurt people, and ignored those who are oppressed and marginalized.

While Flood doesn’t label how he reads the Bible, his language seems to reflect two of the most common models of Bible reading among the egalitarian movement: ideological hermeneutics and trajectory hermeneutics. Though there are differences between the systems, both methods suggest that the Bible does indeed affirm slavery (or hierarchalism when refering to the gender roles debate), yet suggests that the reader need not follow that teaching to remain consistent. While I suspect that Flood would identify more closely with the later option, I will review both systems just to be on the safe side.

Ideological Hermeneutics
The key to reading the Bible “ideologically” is something called “pre-understanding.” The idea is that as a member of an oppressed group (Latin-American, black, feminine, homosexual, etc.), you can read the Bible as a sort of commentary on liberation from your own form of oppression. Yet, people who espouse this reading style recognize that not every passage is equally liberating, so their goal is to identify the liberating texts and remove or ignore the “texts of terror.”

Robin Perry offers an example of how feminist theologians sometimes use this method of Bible reading:

They will identify liberating strands within the Bible (e.g. freedom for the slaves, all humanity in God’s image) that feed into their liberating theology. At the same time “toxic texts” (racist, sexist, homophobic ones, etc.) will be identified and stripped of their authority. For instance:

  1. The teaching that all humans are equally in God’s image (Gen. 1:26) is a liberating text that undermines any theology or practice denying the full humanity and equality of women.
  2. Paul’s teaching that man is the image and glory of God while woman is the glory of man (1 Cor. 11:7) is patriarchal and must be rejected.
  3. Traditional Christian teachings of the equality of men and women are patriarchal and oppressive because “equal but different” in practice means “not equal.”
    (quoted from “Ideological Criticism” in The Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible)

In this way, the feminist reading of the Bible avoids charges of inconsistency. They do not have to be consistent with the original intentions of the author, they simply need to be consistent with their own pre-understanding to determine which passages are useful and which are harmful.

The obvious problem with reading the Bible this way is that it strips the Bible of its authority. On the other hand, if you think of authority as oppressive, that’s the whole point.

Trajectory Hermeneutics
A heavy handed emphasis on Jesus’ rejection of tradition and the suggestion that this is what led to His crucifixion (as opposed to the claim that He is God), are signs that Flood may be coming from an ideological approach. However, the surprising charge that his opponents haven’t paid attention to the narrative of the Bible suggests that he may be endorsing a trajectory hermeneutic (I say surprising because Don Carson is in the video he critiques and has written detailed, scholarly commentaries on both Matthew and John). The two views have their similarities, but there are some important distinctions.

Reading the Bible according to its trajectory is a sort of middle way between the TGC method and the ideological approach. It avoids the problematic pick-and-choose methodology without forcing the reader to accept anything that seems barbaric to modern sensibilities. One of the leading proponents for this way of reading the Bible is William Webb, but he uses the term Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutics.” In an explanation of the slavery issue he says,

When the Bible’s slavery texts are read against their contexts, redemptive movement becomes increasingly clear. These biblical modifications to the existing social norms brought greater protection and dignity for the slave. This improvement in the conditions of slaves relative to the original culture was clearly redemptive action on the part of Scripture. Admittedly, it was not redemptive in any absolute sense. Scripture only moved the cultural “scrimmage markers” so far. Yet that movement was sufficient to signal a clear direction in terms of further improvements for later generations.
(quoted from “Slavery” in The Dictionary for the Theological Interpretation of the Bible)

In other words, Webb is suggesting that the general direction of the Bible is to make things better. However, the Bible only gets the ball rolling. Jesus and His followers challenged the status quo, and made improvements – but only incremental improvements. It is the reader’s responsibility to do even better than Jesus and His followers.

This seems to be how Flood avoids the problem of contradiction. He makes it very clear by stating:

Once we catch the subversive spirit of what Jesus and the rest of the New Testament is doing here, we can then see the direction that the New Testament is moving in, and recognize that this is a trajectory that eventually lead to the abolition of slavery, and likewise towards valuing men and women equally.

He doesn’t have to demonstrate that that Bible was right, only that it was on the right track. Sure, Jesus and his followers may have endorsed slavery or gender roles back in the day, but given enough time they surely would have progressed beyond those primitive ideas.

Bible Reading and the Gospel
It is not hard to understand why Derek Flood would suggest that the TGC method of Bible reading can distort the gospel. For Flood, the gospel is a message of hope to the oppressed that comes through subverting any authority that could enable oppression. As long as the Bible speaks positively of authority, not to mention that it is itself an authority, final freedom from oppression seems impossible. And thus, the gospel is destroyed.

The TGC understanding of the gospel really is radically different from Flood’s. Rather than a subversive spirit, the TGC gospel is calling for a spirit of submission. The gospel according to a TGC hermeneutic comes by faith – a faith that is characterized by complete and total submission to the authority of God.

As I read the narrative of Scripture, as Flood suggests we should do, I am convinced that the true mark of a believer is not subversion, but submission to the word of God. Perhaps no greater example is given than Abraham, whose act of submission is repeatedly acknowledged as the mark of his faith. Consider Hebrews 11:17-19:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

I cannot imagine how hard it was for Abraham to trust God when faced with a command to kill his own son. If ever there was a time that an ideological hermeneutic would have been nice, it was then. I am sure Abraham was tempted to say, “sorry God, that sounds like a ‘text of terror.'” Or perhaps a trajectory hermeneutic would have been sufficient. He could have simply said, “God, one day you will realize a better way.” But neither of those responses seem congruent with the type of faith that the gospel requires. Instead, Abraham choose unmitigated surrender, and it was this faith that was credited to him as righteousness.

If submission truly is a mark of the gospel, TGC is correct in asserting that the predominant methods of egalitarian Bible reading can distort or destroy the gospel. If the words of God are subject to our dismissal or to our improvement then we cannot, in any true sense, be submissive to them. The gospel requires a word from God that is higher, better, and more authoritative than the people whom the word seeks to save.

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A Mean Marriage

Looking at an image in 2D just isn’t as good as looking at it in 3D. That extra dimension provides a lot of information. I realized this a few months ago when Kanon’s cousin sent a copy of the 3D sonogram of her baby boy. It is amazing what a little extra perspective can add.

I think that the same is true in ethics. When we talk about virtues we often limit ourselves to 2 dimensions, and much confusion ensues. However, long ago, Aristotle claimed that much of this confusion can be resolved simply by adding a third dimension. In ethics, as well as in pictures, it is amazing what a little perspective can add.

One of the more hotly debated topics in the Christian world, especially last week, is the egalitarian and complementarian debate (I’ll define these terms below). However, I think one of the problems is that we typically only look at it in 2D. When we apply Aristotle’s thinking and add a little more perspective, the issue seems much more clear.

Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Means
Aristotle was a philosopher who asked a lot of questions. Perhaps one of his more important lines of questioning dealt with the nature of virtue. He wanted to establish both what made a person virtuous as well as what virtues people should pursue. (Actually reading Aristotle can be a bit tough, but consider picking up J. Budziszewski’s Written on the Heart, it provides the best succinct treatment of this idea that I know of).

His complaint was that people often thought of virtues and vices in pairs. For instance:

Cowardice ———- Courage
Stinginess ———- Generosity
Grouchiness ——– Friendliness
Boorishness ——— Wittiness
Intolerance ——— Tolerance

However, he argued that virtue and vice wasn’t a 2 dimensional issue, but a 3 dimensional issue. That is, every virtue was surrounded by a pair of vices. Rather than the above list, he would have preferred the following:

Cowardice ——- Courage ———– Rashness
Stinginess ——– Generosity ——- Extravagance
Grouchiness —– Friendliness —— Obsequiousness
Boorishness —— Wittiness ——— Buffoonery
Narrow-minded Repressiveness —- Tolerance —- Soft-headed Indulgence

The “Doctrine of the Means,” as Aristotle called it, suggested that a virtue always lies between two vices. The virtue is the middle road.

Budziszewski points out that there are several misconceptions that can arise when people talk about the doctrine of the means. I believe one of these is particularly important for this conversation. Budziszewski explains:

Aristotle does not think it is possible to have too much courage but that courage lies between too much and too little fearlessness. In the same way, he does not think it is possible to have too much generosity; but generosity lies between too much and too little willingness to part with one’s wealth.

With this in mind, as we move to a discussion of authority vs. equality within marriage, the goal will be to identify the virtuous middle ground and pursue it with reckless abandon.

Applying the Doctrine of the Means to the Gender Roles in Marriage
Typically speaking there are two sides to the debate: complementarianism and egalitarianism. Complementarians believe that there is a distinction between genders expressed in the Bible. Though these genders are equal in value, they are designed to perform some distinct roles. Part of these distinctions deal with the issue of authority (male) and submission (female). Egalitarianism believes that there is no legitimate distinction between genders. Not only are they equal in value, they are also equal in function. In fact, many egalitarians say any distinction between male and female, including anatomical and physical distinctions, are purely social constructions and have no basis in God’s original design. Thus issues of authority and submission are not legitimate distinguishing parts of gender identity.

If we were to draw this out as above, it would look like this:

Authority/Submission —— Equality

Complementarians would assert that the first category, authority and submission, is virtuous within marriage. Egalitarians would suggest that it is a vice, and equality is the true virtue.

However, consider if we apply Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Means to this equation. That is, what happens when we try to view this equation in 3D rather than 2D. Then the equation looks quite different.

Domineering Authority/Becoming a Doormat — Loving Authority/Loving Submission — Rejection of Authority/ Refusal to Submit

With this new 3D representation, the complementarian and egalitarian debate looks quite different. The virtuous position is clear because it mediates between two extremes, or two vices.

Vices Have Consequences
It is not hard to imagine the consequences that the vice of domineering authority would bring to a marriage. Intimidation through physical or emotional abuse is legitimately damaging, not only to the marriage, but to the victim of the abuse. For that reason, our government has rightly sought to defend people, especially women, from domestic violence.

However, our government takes few steps to prevent the other vice. There is no law preventing husbands from refusing to accept their rightful positions of authority and responsibility and no laws requiring women to lovingly submit to their husbands.Yet, while it may be true that the government shouldn’t intervene in these instances, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that the consequences of this vice is any less severe. In fact, the most vicious consequence of either vice is the same – it distorts our understanding of God.

The Bible makes clear that authority within relationships is one of the key tools God uses to teach us about Himself. There are several examples of this, but one of the most clear is in Ephesians 5:25-6:9. Paul, in verse 24, called all believers to submit to one another out of reverence for Jesus Christ. Then, he lists three examples to show what this looks like. Husbands and wives, parents and children, and slaves and their masters, are three examples of relationships where mutual submission can happen in a context where authority still exists. Paul’s goal is not to eliminate authority and submission, but to shape it by love so that it reflects the way Christ exercised his authority over us.

Because authority and submission are God’s tools to teach us about himself, it is of vast importance that we act virtuously in this regard. When we fail to be virtuous by practicing the vice of domineering authority, we distort the picture God has given us to know him. We paint a picture of God that is harsh and unloving. Likewise, when we fail to be virtuous by practicing the vice of denying authority and refusing to submit, we distort the picture that God is giving us. By refusing to recognize legitimate authority we are refusing to even look at the picture God is offering us. Either way, we are distorting or denying ourselves one of the key tools that God has provided us to know Him.

Because of this, I find the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate to be insufficient. We have to understand that the fight isn’t simply to have authority, but to exercise authority in a way that correctly teaches ourselves and the world what Christ is like. We must recognize that a man can fail by exercising authority in a harsh, domineering way and by refusing to accept authority and responsibility within marriage. Likewise, a woman can fail by becoming a doormat, rather than loving engaging her husband, as well as by refusing to allow her husband to loving lead her and their family.

The “Doctrine of the Means” suggests that the virtuous path is a narrow one. It is not always easy to recognize the how to lead or how to submit. Yet, there is much at stake. If we desire to know God, we must pursue a loving authority and loving submission with all our hearts.

How We Failed Sarah Moon… and ourselves

A couple of weeks ago I started my series on how I felt that we (complementarian men) have failed women (see “For the Love of Women” for the beginning of the series). Since then I began following a couple of blogs from women who would describe themselves as feminists. My thoughts were that perhaps listening to people with a different perspective could help me think through the issues a bit more thoroughly. In the process I have begun to realize that the problem may be even more severe than I had realized. 

Sarah Moon’s Important Point
One blog in particular really caught my attention. Sarah Moon, whom I have never met, wrote a thought provoking critique of the language we use to criticize modern Christianity. In her post titled, “What The Effeminate Christianity Crisis Says About Women,” she refers to Tim Challies’ blog post titled “Soft, Effeminate, Christianity.” Though I have never met Tim Challies, I have generally appreciated his sharp mind and helpful insights. However, in this case I think Sarah did an excellent job of demonstrating a significant error in his language and his thinking.

Sarah quotes Challies’ post, which is predominately a quotation of the famous hymn writer Horatius Bonar. The quote began like this:

For there is some danger of falling into a soft and effeminate Christianity, under the plea of a lofty and ethereal theology. Christianity was born for endurance… It walks with firm step and erect frame; it is kindly, but firm; it is gentle, but honest; it is calm, but not facile; obliging, but not imbecile; decided, but not churlish.

Sarah points out that there is a real problem with labeling the bad kind of Christianity as effeminate. It suggests that women are all the things a Christian shouldn’t be. It suggests that women aren’t able to endure. They lack firmness and honesty. They are facile (simplistic or superficial), imbecile (stupid), and churlish (boorish or rude).

This leaves Sarah with no choice but to conclude:

So what’s a woman to do? It’s a lose-lose situation for us, according to the CBMW. If we aren’t “manly,” by CBMW’s definition, we’re betraying our faith and can’t “taste that the Lord is gracious.” If we are “manly,” we pervert God’s “perfect design” for the sexes. We already know that evangelicals certainly don’t want us doing the latter, so what we’re left with is the final implication that women are not really Christians.

To be fair, I don’t believe that Challies would actually suggest that these things are true of women. I think it is unlikely that he realized the implications that Sarah is bringing out. However, he does demonstrate that the church is guilty of communicating to women that this is how we think of them. We (complementarian men) have, perhaps unintentionally, told women and the world, that they are too weak and stupid to be true Christians. 

Avoiding a Dangerous Response
The way we have insulted and discouraged women is certainly a major problem. It is something that we must realize, and repent of. However, I am concerned that it is only a symptom of a deeper problem. The problem lies beneath the surface of this entire debate. The problem is that by presenting Christianity as a religion for the strong or macho we have distorted the very nature of the gospel. We have suggested that Christianity is for the strong rather than for the weak. We have encouraged people like Sarah to prove their strength rather than to boast in their weakness.

There seems to be different streams of the feminist movement. The good thing about Sarah is that she represents a stream of feminism that has not walked away from Christ, His Church, and His Word. Instead of walking away from Christianity, Sarah has chosen to fight for a seat at the table. She challenges women to follow her lead saying,

Women, let’s show the church how wrong he is. The church needs to hear our stories of strength and endurance. Stories that display our capacity for intelligence and discernment and leadership. Stories that prove we can stand strong.

Or in another post titled “Tell Us We’re Not Strong Enough. But You’re Wrong.

A few weeks ago, I put out a call for all women to challenge the mainstream definition of a “feminized” church.  To share our stories and show our intelligence and our strength and our importance in the body of Christ. I did that because I know a lot about women.  I know we are strong.

It seems that Sarah, offended with the idea that women are not strong enough, has bought into the lie that Christianity has something to do with strength. She is representative of a feminist Christianity that has entered into a competition to prove their strength, when the Bible suggests that Christians should be doing the opposite.

Consider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31

For consider your calling brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many of you were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it was written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.

A Christian’s pride should never be in his or her own strength, or his or her right to be at the table. We are the weak and the foolish of the world. Our seat at the table comes from God’s grace and power, not our own. Consider, for instance, Paul’s reflection on his own physical weakness in 2 Corinthians 12:8-10

Three time I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am contented with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

In the world, places such as business, politics, sports etc., a woman’s weakness, be it real or simply perceived, may be seen as a hindrance. But not in the church. In the church, our weakness is our boast. Our pride is not that we are strong, but that Christ is strong. It doesn’t take strength to taste that the Lord is gracious, it takes weakness. If there is any competition, it shouldn’t be over who is stronger, but who is weaker. Consider Paul again in Philippians 2:1-10

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others as more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interest of others. Have this mind among yourselves which is also in Christ Jesus, who though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name…

My fear is that we have failed women like Sarah by telling her that strength and power has something to do with being a Christian. If this is true, we have pushed women to pursue the very things that keep them from experiencing the grace and goodness of God. We have told them in order to do something good for Christ, they must be strong, when God says My strength is made complete in your weakness. We have told them that to get a place at our table they need to prove their worth, when God says humble yourself and I will exalt you. 

Finding the Root of the Problem.

If we are willing to probe just a little deeper, we may realize that we haven’t only failed Sarah and the women she represents, we have failed ourselves. Women have seized on the quest for strength because we truly believe that it matters. Even aside from our foolish and insensitive critiques of women, we show this mindset in our propensity to praise the strong and ignore the weak. We exalt pastors for their celebrity status, not for their humility. We target our church planting and evangelism efforts toward young leaders, not the “least of these.” We have become convinced that God needs our strength. We have forgotten that God seeks to show his power in our weakness.

We have created a culture in our church and in our world where being considered weak is an affront. Power and influence are the new mark of a genuine believer. A woman’s desire to assert her strength is evidence that we have exalted our own. The unfortunate consequence is that as we engage in our battle for strength and influence, we are continually moving away from the true source of both. We fight over the position of influence, yet in so doing, we put ourselves in danger of an eternal humiliation.

Perhaps it is best to end this argument with Christ’s parable from Luke 14:7-11.

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Who Brought Sexy Back?

In 2006 Justin Timberlake’s “I’m bringing sexy back” topped the charts for seven weeks. I’m not sure where sexy had gone, but its back with a vengeance and the church seems to have embraced it wholesale. The past several years, and this year especially, sex has moved from a taboo subject in the church to one of our most talked about issues (and we are talking about it in some strange ways). The problem is, we don’t always seem to take our cues from the Bible.

Our views of sex, and what is sexy, is my third complaint regarding how some complementarians have missed the mark and revealed that we are failing to love women the way we should. If you need to get caught up, read the first post in the series, “For the Love of Women.” Remember, I am a complementarian, at the same I time I believe that many of us have allowed our thoughts on sex, and on our wives, to be informed by our culture, rather than Scripture. We have told our wives that it is their duty to be sexy and we have allowed our culture to tell us what sexy is. In so doing, we have failed to love women rightly.

Let me give an example. I recently purchased Mark Driscoll’s new book “Real Marriage.” Mark Driscoll is a complementarian who reminds us that sex is an important part of marriage and Biblical manhood and womanhood. However, I think there are times where he unintentionally reveals that, as complementarians, many of us have wrongly imported the world’s view of sexiness into the Christian view of sexuality. For instance, in the first chapter he says:

In this season we shifted into ministry-and-family mode, neglecting our intimacy and failing to work through our issues. This became apparent to me when my pregnant wife came home from a hair appointment with her previously long hair (that I loved) chopped off and replaced with a short, mommish haircut. She asked what I thought, and could tell from the look on my face. She had put a mom’s need for convenience before being a wife. She wept.

This paragraph seems to suggest that both Mark and Grace Driscoll thought she had a duty to look a certain way. That is, she had a responsibility to keep her hair, and presumably the rest of her, in a condition that would sexually attract him. Unfortunately, she didn’t fulfill her duty. One bad haircut and he was disappointed, and she wept.

My concern is that this responsibility was never legitimate in the first place. We (men) have traded what should attract us for a cheap substitute. Even worse, rather than putting the burden on ourselves to lift our eyes to true beauty, we have shifted the responsibility asking women to mimic the cheap substitute. And then, when the cheap substitute fails to satisfy, we somehow convince ourselves, and the women we claim to love, that its their fault. If we have any desire to love women well, and secure satisfaction for both them and us, we must raise our standards of beauty.

Bringing Beauty Back
When Justin Timberlake brought sexy back, everyone lost. The reason is that sexy is only a cheap imitation of the real thing. Sexy takes what is beautiful and diminishes and distorts it, leaving only a hollow shell behind. However, this is not to say that we simply need the opposite of sexy. Too many Christians have tried to swing the pendulum in the other direction but have far outswung their target. Mark Liederbach explains:

In the quiet moments of honesty even the most Christian men will confess that these commercials are a “turn on.” Why is this? Could it be that these commercials have tapped into something that is actually “sexy?” Or have men in our culture been trained to buy these ideas through massive exposure, shifting moral values and the sad reality that the church is offering no better ideas about what is truly sexy?

I believe the answer is “both.”

… The unfortunate thing is that instead of building on a biblical theology that embraces the goodness of the body and sex when expressed correctly, Christians try to define “sexy” with impotent ideas that deny physicality and emphasize only the “spiritual nature” or the “heart” of the person. (“What is Sexy? It’s Not Miller Time!”, article found in Marriage and Family class notes, Fall 2004)

Liederbach, in that article, tries to salvage the term “sexy.” While the task is noble, I think it is easier to simply bring beauty back. The question that follows then is; what is beauty? The answer has to do with somethings known as form. Thomas Aquinas explains:

Beauty and goodness in a thing are identical fundamentally; for they are based upon the same thing, namely, the form; and consequently goodness is praised as beauty.

By form, he doesn’t mean womanly dimensions, instead, form is the universal pattern by which God designed women to bear his image. Form is what God created women to be. Form is what sets women apart from anything else in God’s creation. The woman form is the way God specially designed her to bear his image (Gen 1:27). Form is good because it is a very specific reflection of the God who made women. Beauty is what demonstrates that good for the world to see, and thereby draws us back to the creator, who is perfectly good.

There is no reason to doubt that a woman’s body is a very important part of how God designed her. That is why Liederbach rightly observes that sexy commercials which highlight a woman’s body, and even her sexual nature, have “tapped into something that is actually sexy.” The problem is that they only show a diminished and distorted version, bidding us to be satisfied with way less than true beauty. They diminish the woman’s beauty by suggesting that it is only physical and only sexual. They distort it by providing a picture that isn’t really feminine at all. Using tools such as Photoshop and models who have shaped their bodies in unnatural and unhealthy ways they paint a picture that is no longer realistic. Further, they have women act in sexually aggressive, promiscuous, and perverse ways that further distort our understanding of womanhood. All along we sit, passively allowing our culture to redefine our view beauty to something that it was never meant to be.

It becomes clear that we have fallen prey to our culture’s exchange of beauty for sexy when we criticize a woman for being “mommish.” At this point there is no discernible difference between our understanding of beauty and  a SNL skit that proclaims, “Your not a woman anymore, you’re a mom.” But motherhood is an important part of womanhood. Motherhood is one of the distinctions that sets women apart from all of the rest of creation. Motherhood is one of the ways that women reflect the image of God. When we suggest that “mommish” isn’t beautiful, we suggest that the way God made women isn’t beautiful, good, or able to satisfy. It’s equivalent to suggesting that the forbidden fruit would be more satisfying that the one God gave us.

http://www.nbc.com/assets/video/widget/widget.html?vid=229048

It is important to realize that our acceptance of our culture’s definition of sexy is sin. We are encouraging women to accept a diminished and distorted form of what they were created to be. Additionally, we are falling for the lie that what God has given us won’t be as satisfying as this diminished and distorted form. We are, in essence, saying that the forbidden fruit would be more satisfying than the fruit that God has provided. Rather than finding attraction in true beauty, sexy bids us toward the “forbidden woman” full of “smooth words” described Proverbs 2:16-19. And like fools, confusing sexy for beautiful, we encourage our wife to look less like a beautiful woman created in the image of God and more like a forbidden, sexy woman as defined by our culture. And though we believe this will bring satisfaction, “in the end she is as bitter as wormwood” (Proverbs 5:3-4)

A Beauty that Endures
The other problem with sexy is that it has no staying power. If our desire for our wives is based primarily on their physical appearance, it’s no wonder they cry. One bad haircut could catapult them toward undesirableness. Even if she finds the best stylist in the world, time will forever be her enemy. It will always be in her mind that soon her hair will start falling out, and her teeth may soon follow. Physical beauty is fleeting (Proverbs 31:30). Sexy offers no hope for aging and dying. Men that expect their wives to continually meet that standard are condemning her to live in fear of the future.

This is why the Bible encourages women to seek a more full understanding of beauty, and not to invest heavily in the perishable beauty but the imperishable. 1st Peter 3:3-4 reminds women, “Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, the putting on of clothing – but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”

Aquinas understood beauty to be the things that make us long to know and apprehend the good. Every part of a woman is designed to make us desire her, and by extension to desire her creator. A woman’s physical beauty is a part of that and is not to be overlooked. However, it is just a part of how women point us to their creator. And though physical beauty may diminish over time, other characteristics of women can continue to point us toward the ultimate good throughout their entire lives.

By exchanging beauty for sexiness, we have diminished and distorted the way God seeks to communicate himself to us through women. By asking women to embrace a charade, we not only diminish their beauty, but we also prevent them from developing the kind of beauty that the Bible describes as imperishable. The crime is great and causes long term damage. We must be careful to make sure that though we celebrate the beauty of the woman’s body, we do not elevate the perishing beauty over the imperishing.

In Defense of Driscoll, In Attack of Men
I used Mark Driscoll as an illustration because I believe he made a mistake that many guys make when they think about women. He seems to have suggested that his wife’s attractiveness to him was based in large part on her physical appeal. I do not think that Driscoll is alone in this. In fact, I would guess that most guys struggle with this on some level because we are a product of a culture that sells sexy, not beauty.

Further, I do not think Driscoll’s book, Real Marriage, as a whole seeks to portray this type of thinking. I have not finished the book, but I have been encouraged by his desire to encourage friendship between husband and wife. This seems to be an effort to move away from the objectification of women that is so common in our culture.

At the same time, we must take every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5). This means analyzing everything we say to determine if it is contrary to a proper knowledge of God and His creation. I believe that our culture’s view of sexy is very damaging both to men and women. It fuels doubt and insecurity in women. Further, it diminishes the nature of womanhood, preventing women and men from seeing God’s image in the way he designed. For these reasons we must be diligent to neither hold women to the world’s standard of sexy nor communicate in a way to suggest that they should hold themselves to that standard.

Pants Aren’t Loving

As I said, I’m a complementarian, but I don’t always like the way complementarian’s talk. If you don’t know what I am talking about, start back with my first post in this series, “For The Love of Women.” If you are ready for the second example, let me turn to a phrase that I feel men use too lightly. It is a phrase that makes me nervous and, worse than that, distorts the parts of the Bible that we quote to defend complementarianism.

The phrase that makes me cringe is, “I wear the pants in this relationship.” It’s not that I have anything against pants, in fact, I love pants. The problem I have is the apparent need we have to assert our authority as men. To be honest, I’m not really even against the notion that men have some sort of authority in marriage (though I am not 100% that the term “authority” is the best word to use). My concern is that our preoccupation with asserting our authority suggests that we have completely forgotten what Christian leadership is all about.

You may ask yourself, why in the world would a man even suggest he has authority over a woman, especially in this day and age? A good complementarian has his answer ready. He will tell you to look at Ephesians 5:22-24. That’s were Paul explains that a husband is the head of wife, just like Christ is the head of the church. However, the way we work that out reminds me of one of Alan Knox’s “Scripture… As We Live It” examples. I think the way many of us talk about the passage reveals we read (and live) it a little more like this.

For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body and is himself its savior a CEO is the head of a business (Ephesians 5:23 remix).

So what’s the difference? How is the way Christ shows headship different than the typical CEO? I think the difference is that Christ views headship as the chief servant, not the chief decision maker. Just read how Paul describes Christ’s leadership in the verses that follow.

Husbands, love you wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, so she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25-27)

While there is no doubt that Christ has authority over us, and that we should always obey him, that is not the way Paul explains Jesus’ authority over the church. Jesus shows that he is head of the church by dying for her. He isn’t interested in establishing his authority over the church, he wants to serve her, and make her clean and beautiful. For Jesus leading the church means serving the church.

To make Jesus’ idea of leadership and authority even more clear we can turn to Paul’s letter to the Philippians. There is no doubt that Paul recognizes that Jesus is the chief authority. He explains that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. But that is not the astonishing thing. The astonishing thing is exactly how Christ secured that authority.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

Few passages are quite as a breath-taking. Jesus Christ, who was equal in every way to God, including glory and authority, sought to demonstrate it, not through asserting his authority, but by becoming a servant. And I am not talking about one of those fancy “Downton Abbey” servants. Jesus’ service was that he gave up all his honor and dignity to die a painful and humiliating death on the cross. This is the kind of service that makes Jesus worthy of all our praise.

Complementarians make a big mistake when they read about a woman’s duty to submit and infer a need to assert their authority. Alan Knox points out

In several passages of Scripture, followers of Jesus are instructed to submit in various contexts (i.e. Ephesians 5:21, Ephesians 5:22, Hebrews 13:17). But, there are no contexts in which one believer is instructed to “exercise authority” over another believer or over a group of believers. Instead, the idea of authority is usually inferred from the idea of submission.

It seems to me that the reason for this is clear. Christ desires his church to excel at service, not leadership. He wants us to be known for our love, not our authority.

No matter how I look at it, I can’t see how saying, “I wear the pants in this relationship,” shows the kind of love and service that Jesus shows his church. I can’t understand how asserting our authority has anything to do with the kind of headship that Jesus demonstrated. If we, as men, have any desire to lead in the way Christ did, we must let go of our “right” to have the last word or to make the final decision. Instead let’s show the world, and our wives, that we are complementarians by the way we consistently and radically serve.

Teaching Teaches Teachers

As promised, here is my first example of how I think complementarians have failed to love women well. If you need a refresher on what I am talking about, check out “For the Love of Women,” where I introduced this series. But without further adieu… I believe we have failed to love women because we have not given them opportunities to teach in the local church.

The Example
A couple of years ago our youth pastor gave me an entire semester to teach our youth group how to share the “4 Spiritual Laws.” I was thrilled about the opportunity because this little tract was such a major part of my own spiritual growth while I was a student at Virginia Tech. However, on the first day of class I noticed my favorite professor from seminary was sitting in the room with us. And this wasn’t just any professor, it was Dr. Liederbach, a veteran with Campus Crusade who was the Campus Director at JMU. I immediately knew I was way out of my league. The only logical thing to do would be to hand over the class to the master.

The amazing thing is, he didn’t want to teach the class. He seemed perfectly happy to let me teach. Week after week he came back to a class that he should have been teaching. He listened patiently as I butchered the examples and stuttered my way through the material. Then, after class, he would come up to encourage me (and give me a few pointers). Only one time did he take over to save me from my woeful performance (he actually led someone to Christ right then and there in front of our whole class). I know now that the reason he didn’t take over is because he knew that being a good teacher meant that he had to teach me to teach. He wasn’t content to simply be a great lecturer (even though he is one of the best I know), he wanted multiply teachers. He wanted as many people to become good teachers of the gospel as possible, even if that meant helping me struggle through something he could have done much better.

The logic is clear. The more people who can clearly teach another person how to “Know God Personally” or how to “obey all that [Christ] has commanded” (Matthew 28:18-20), the more people we will reach with the gospel. While we probably agree with the logic, if we are honest, many of us guys probably have a glaring inconsistency that we’d rather not face. Many of us seem want as many men to be good teachers as possible.

If you balked at that last sentence, ask yourself a question. If you walked into a Bible study and saw a woman teaching it, what would be your first response? If you are like me you would immediately feel nervous. You might think, what is she doing up there? Why is she leading? Were there no qualified men? Forget qualified, were there no willing men? If I walked into a Bible study with a guy leader, I wouldn’t think twice, but with a girl leading, everything seems different.

I personally don’t think the difference is biblical. I think it is that I am a chauvinist. Chances are, if you are a man, you are too. We have been trained to be that way. And don’t start with any of those, “men are better teachers” excuses. We’re not. And even if we were, that’s not the point. The point is that a good teacher wants to multiply teachers. A good teacher isn’t concerned with making students, he (or she) wants to make good teachers, be they men or women.

What I want to suggest is that our failure to find a way to allow women to teach and to develop their skills as a teacher is a failure to love women well and could have long term consequences on the health of the church.

But What About the Bible?
You may be asking a very important question right now; “Doesn’t the Bible say women shouldn’t teach?” In the interest of fairness I should admit that some people think so, and they are attempting to obey Scripture. I fully recognize that they are not acting maliciously and I am not accusing them of hating women or of being misogynists. Regardless, I think they are making a mistake that has rather serious consequences.

The Bible passage that leads many to restrict women from having teaching roles in the church is the notoriously difficult 1 Timothy 2:11-15:

A woman should learn in silence with full submission. I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead she is to be silent. For Adam was created first and then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and transgressed. But she will be saved through childbearing, if she continues in faith love and holiness with good sense.

I recognize that is a hard passage. It is understandable that someone may struggle with it. Perhaps John Hammett’s reflections from “A Theology of the Church” will help:

It seems clear from elsewhere in Scripture that this is not a blanket prohibition. For example, believers are commanded to teach and admonish one another (Col. 3:16), and Paul gives instructions concerning the praying and prophesying of women (1 Cor. 11:2-16). Context seems to indicate that the type of teaching and authority Paul has in mind is that of an elder, for the qualifications for that office is the topic Paul turns to in 1 Timothy 3, and the duties of an elder include authoritative teaching and leading. Thus, 1 Timothy 2:11-15 prohibits women from serving in the role of elder or pastor… Beyond that, the application of this verse is difficult, for it is difficult to match Paul’s understanding of teaching and exercising authority to contemporary situations.

If Hammett is right, and I think he is, the Bible isn’t establishing an all out moratorium on women teaching, it is simply limiting the role of elder (a sort of head teacher) to men. What I want to assert is that if men want to be great teachers, and in so doing truly love women, they need to actively look for ways to let women teach in the local church. I will list three reasons why I think it is such a big deal.

Teaching Produces Clarity
Anyone who has ever taught knows that we learn a lot better when we teach. We often think we know a topic, but when we are forced to communicate it to others we find that our thoughts aren’t as clear as we would like. Teaching requires that we get our thoughts in order and try to predict what objections someone might have. That’s why any good teacher knows that teaching teaches the teacher.

One of the best teachers I’ve ever had was my Bible study leader in Campus Crusade for Christ. My  leader would corral me from my dorm room twice a week to get me to go around campus asking people if I could talk with them about Jesus. I always felt weird and nervous but I learned a lot. Even though I was already a Christian and I thought I knew the gospel, the first time I had to share the gospel with someone I realized that I hadn’t thought it through very well at all. But, being a great teacher, he kept forcing me to go out and try again. The more I taught people the gospel the more I understood it myself. Even if no one had ever responded positively to the message, the task of teaching was incredibly beneficial to me because it helped me learn the message for myself.

This is why writing papers can be such a good teaching tool. Teachers use papers to allow students to become teachers. A good teacher isn’t content with simply delivering great lectures. He wants his students to be able to take that information, internalize it, and then be able to repeat it to someone else. If men want to teach women they need to let women teach. Teaching is one of the best teachers.

Teaching Prevents Apathy
Do you ever wonder why schools give grades? Perhaps you think it is to tell everyone how well the student knows the material. Honestly, that’s not the main reason. If it were, quizzes, participation grades, attendance grades, and the like wouldn’t make much sense. Good teachers know that every student needs motivation to learn. They have to think that learning the material matters. While we may hope that an inspiring lecture will be enough motivation, good teachers throw a few quizzes in there as some extra motivation.

Teaching actually provides a similar motivation. While we all know that we should study and learn the Bible, as long as we are convinced that we won’t actually have to explain it to anyone it becomes easy to be lazy. However, as soon as we know that we are going to have to get up in front of people and explain something, things change. When we feel responsible for not only presenting the right message but doing it in a winsome way, we typically find ourselves highly motivated. A good teacher allows the student to teach in order to help the student develop a sense of passion for the subject. If men want women to care about theology or the Bible, they need to give them an opportunity to teach theology and the Bible.

Teaching Teaches Teachers
Good teachers think that what they teach matters, but they also believe that who they are teaching matters. As a PhD student I took two elective classes with a professor (Dr. Liederbach again) who is not in my field. The main reason I signed up for his class is because I knew that he was not only concerned with the material, but he was also concerned with whether or not I mastered it. He required that each student be a teacher by presenting a paper to the rest of the class. It wasn’t enough for him to simply let us stand and read the paper. All semester he gave us little pointers on teaching. Then as time to present our papers drew near, he made us first submit them to him. The way I knew he cared about me becoming a good teacher was that he returned my papers covered in red ink, and then made me keep resubmitting it until it was a good paper.

Consider on the other hand if he only lectured and never tried to get any real assessment of whether or not I was keeping up. Or if, instead of taking the time to read and correct my work, he simply gave me credit for showing up and reading the paper. It wouldn’t take long for me to begin thinking that my work didn’t really matter to him, and if it doesn’t matter to him, it might not matter very much to me either.

If men want women to care about being good teachers then they need to let them teach. Not only that, they need to guide and instruct women in the process so that they become better teachers.

Is It Really A Big Deal?
I think love should drive us to care about women being good teachers. The previous three points were my attempt to show that if we really love women we should let them teach. Most teachers agree that being a teacher often benefits them more than they benefit the students. Loving women should cause us to want them to share in that experience.

In addition to our obligation to love women, we may want to let women teach because it has other important benefits. For instance, even if you think that a woman should only teach her children, your love for your children should be enough motivation to let women teach. Loving our children should prevent us from sending a mother into the home with no teaching experience. John F. Kennedy hit on a similar problem when he said, “Modern cynics and skeptics see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.” We share the same inconsistencies when we expect women to teach our children well even though they are under-appreciated and under-trained.

If our children are taught by teachers who haven’t had the opportunity to develop clear thinking and who haven’t been encouraged to develop a passion for the Bible and theology, do we expect they will stay in church as they get older? Would you? So if love for women and love for our children isn’t enough motivation, perhaps love for the church will be. If we want our church to remain healthy generation after generation we need to let women teach.

I do recognize that not all women, nor all men for that matter, will want to teach. Also I recognize that not every believer will have the spiritual gift of teaching. However, as Alan Knox points out, we are all called to teach (Matthew 28:19-20), and those who are gifted teachers have the responsibility of teaching teachers (Ephesians 4:11-13). I am convinced that if we want to encourage growth in women that will be passed on to our children and to future generations of our church, we must actively be looking for ways to help them grow as a communicators and teachers of God’s word. We must let women teach.

For the Love of Women – Criticizing Complementarianism

In case you are a normal person, the kind who has never heard the word complementarianism before, this post may need a little introduction. In the world of Christianity there is some debate as to exactly how men and women are to interact, particularly within marriage and the church. One side calls themselves egalitarian. Their basic claim is that men and women are equal in every way but their plumbing. Egalitarians assert that there is no reason that women or men should be expected to assume, or be kept from assuming, any distinct roles. Complementarians, on the other hand, state that while men and women are equally valuable, they are created to serve different roles in the family and in the church.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am complementarian. I think that nature suggests that men and women have different roles, and if that weren’t enough, I think the Bible makes it explicit. I say that nature suggests it because men are dads and women are moms, and I think moms and dads are different. Equally valuable, but different. The Bible is even more explicit. Ephesians 5 explains that marriage is designed to be a sort of living analogy. I won’t go into this here because I have already written about it in my post “The Gender Metaphor,” but I believe the Bible teaches that husbands and wives serve as two distinct parts of one overall picture. It is in this sense that they compliment each other.

The problem I have isn’t with complementarianism as a theory, its the way we complementarians often talk and act. I am concerned that in a misguided attempt to preserve this doctrine we have allowed ourselves to break the second greatest commandment. In our attempts to recognize our differences, we have forgotten to be loving toward women. One blogger seems to think that “forgetting to love” is way too soft, instead he prefers terms like chauvinist and misogynist (one who hates women).

To explain my concerns with the complementarian message I am going to share three examples. However, if this post becomes a book, no one will read it. To solve that problem I will just give each example its own post and thereby trick you into reading more. Stay tuned for “Teaching Teaches Teachers,” “Pants Aren’t Loving,” and “Who Brought Sexy Back?” Until then, hopefully Justin Braun will be satisfied that I am finally writing on the topic that we spent many nights debating.

However, before I begin this little series, let me ask a question. What if I’m right? What if Christians really haven’t done a good job of loving women. Even worse, what if we find that the church’s leaders are misogynists (hypothetically, I am not saying this is really the case)? How should we respond?

    1. First, it makes no sense to reject the message of Christianity simply because of the behavior of Christians. That would be like my grandfather refusing to take his heart medicine because his doctor was mean to him. There is no sense in teaching the doctor a lesson by having a heart attack. In the same way, it makes no sense rejecting Christ and the salvation that he offers simply because people who follow him don’t always act like him. Feel free to tell the messengers to be nice, but don’t reject the message just because they aren’t.
  • Second, it makes no sense to respond to meanness with meanness, cruelty with cruelty, or hate with hate. On what world would it make sense to teach someone to be more loving by insulting them? As illogical as it is, this seems to be the strategy of so many of us.

I bring this up because of the recent response to Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage. I have seen several reviews calling Driscoll a chauvinist and misogynist, and describing his book as hate speech or worse. There are several problems with this. First, even if Driscoll’s book is way off base, it is unlikely that name calling will encourage a more loving spirit from him or anyone who agrees with him. Second is that it reveals a complete unwillingness to engage in charitable reading. I am confident that Driscoll has no desire to increase hatred between husband and wife, in fact the suggestion seems quite ludicrous.

  • Third, we have to take seriously the possibility that “they” aren’t the only ones failing to rightly love women, or anyone else for that matter. I remember hearing in elementary school the motto “when you point a finger at someone you have three pointing back at you.” I always hated that saying. At the same time, there is some truth in it.

I believe that it is quite possible that Mark Driscoll, as well as the people in the examples I am planning to give, have failed to demonstrate the type of loving spirit toward women that should be expected from Christians. I do not, however, think it is likely that this is intentional or conscious. I do not say this to excuse the behavior but to highlight the likelihood that I may be guilty of some very similar faults and not even realize it. With this in mind we should take Christ’s admonition to us very seriously.

For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matt 7:2-5)

    This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t desire and encourage better thinking and behavior from our Christian brothers. What it does mean is that our rebuke should be marked by a sense of grace and humility.