Egalitarianism is the view that all offices of church ministry and leadership should be open to both genders. By contrast, complementarianism insists that some offices of ministry and leadership should be restricted to males. I am an egalitarian and yesterday I posted this tweet expressing my concern that complementarianism is not just wrong, but potentially sexist as well:
Here's one way to put my concern that Christian complementarianism is sexist:
If the pre-1978 Mormon policy of excluding black people from the priesthood was racist, then why isn't the traditional Christian policy of excluding women from church leadership sexist?
— Tentative Apologist (@RandalRauser) April 13, 2018
Not surprisingly, a couple people responded by pointing out that (in their estimation), the Bible teaches complementarianism. Arguably, the most explicit passage to this point is found in the letter of 1 Timothy chapter 2:
11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.
Interpretive Control Texts
Since I accept plenary inspiration, I am committed to the view that all Scripture is inspired and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. But that doesn’t mean scripture is easy to interpret and apply, and this is an excellent example. Egalitarians have extensive discussions of this and other complementarian passages. And they also have a set of prima facie egalitarian texts that they would bring to bear as interpretive guides for the difficult complementarian passages like 1 Timothy 2.
Let me hasten to add that every Christian follows a similar procedure — whether they recognize it or not — of choosing one set of biblical texts as the interpretive control for another set of texts. If you’re a Calvinist, you have a set of texts that frame your interpretation of prima facie Arminian texts; if you’re pedobaptist, you have a set of texts that frame your interpretation of prima facie believer’s baptist texts; if you’re annihilationist, you have a set of texts that frame your interpretation of prima facie eternal conscious torment texts, and so on. This practice of interpretive controls involves an application of the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture.
Posing the Question
In my response to my Twitter interlocutors, I wanted to back up the wagon to a previous step. And so, I asked one of them, Samuel, whether he believed that slaves and children should be beaten. And I then provided a link to my review of William Webb’s book Corporal Punishment in the Bible. At this point, Rick interjected:
“Randal, maybe you could clarify. It sounds like your [sic] dismissing Sam’s cited verses by saying there’s [sic] other difficult verses. So does that mean we don’t trust the Bible? Or where are you going with this?”
Great question! No, my point was not that there are other difficult verses, a response which would be the equivalent of dangling a shiny object. And I’m not much for dangling shiny objects.
Nor am I aiming to argue that we ought not to trust the Bible. Rather, the point is that we need to question a complementarian interpretation of the Bible. And this brings me to the dilemma…
Setting Up the Dilemma
The point of my tweeted response was to challenge my complementarian interlocutors’ tacit assumption that any time a biblical author makes a theological, moral, or prudential claim, that claim must be inerrant. Webb’s work on corporal punishment provides a precise analogue to the complementarian issue. And that results in what I call the complementarian dilemma.
In the book, Webb recalls that he tried for years to follow the biblical teaching on corporal punishment by physically hitting his child. But eventually, he concluded that this teaching was both morally wrong (it conflicted with his moral intuition) and ineffectual (it was not an effective means to enforce prosocial compliance). And so, Webb found that he simply disagreed with the consistent biblical teaching on child (and slave) discipline.
Webb is in good company. The overwhelming consensus of child developmental psychologists is that corporal punishment is wrong and harmful. And legislation in developed nations recognizes that fact. Follow the biblical directives to beat children in many jurisdictions and you’ll soon end up in jail. And Christians likewise recognize this fact. As Webb points out, even conservative Christians who attempt to retain corporal punishment as a putative biblical teaching end up endorsing a practice that is very different from the biblical mandates. Like the unhappy compromise of the NKJV, they end up with the worst of both sides: distorting the actual teaching of biblical authors whilst adopting harmful parental disciplinary strategies.
So it turns out that pretty much everyone disagrees with the directives of the biblical authors on the matter of corporal punishment. We must not lose the significance of this fact, for it follows that the tacitly held principle that any time a biblical author makes a theological, moral, or prudential claim, that claim must be inerrant has been abandoned. Precisely nobody is actually following that principle.
Presumably many folks prefer to delude themselves into thinking they do retain that principle because they assume it is required by the belief that the Bible is plenarily inspired and so useful to teach, rebuke, correct, and train in righteousness. But that doesn’t follow. If it turns out that biblical corporal punishment does not accomplish these useful ends, then the Christian need only conclude that the Bible does not actually commend child beating, even if some biblical authors did. The reasoning works like this:
(1) Everything the Bible teaches is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.
(2) X is not useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, or training in righteousness.
(3) Therefore, the Bible does not teach X.
And thus, if child beating is not useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, or training in righteousness, it follows that the Bible does not teach it, even if some biblical authors did (appear to) teach or commend it.
Concluding with the Complementarian Dilemma
And this brings us to the complementarian dilemma. I’ll state it succinctly as follows:
If the evidence justifies a rejection of the pro-corporal punishment commendations in Bible, could the evidence likewise suggest a rejection of the pro-complementarian reading of the Bible?
It is at this point that one can proceed to all those egalitarian control texts. In addition, as with the debate over corporal punishment, one should consider the general evidence for/against the complementarian claim. Historically, complementarianism has been defended with the claim that women are less rational and more emotionally unstable than men (an argument that many have seen in 1 Timothy 2). Needless to say, the publicly available evidence does not support this claim.