A few months back, a gentleman on Twitter, in the course of an argument with an egalitarian, posited with a note of accusation that, essentially, egalitarians wouldn’t approach the doctrine of the Trinity with the same flippancy towards the plain words of scripture as they do with the passages relating to gender roles. That buzzed in my head for awhile, and I was unable to put my finger on what was off about that statement, and the argument had turned down a different path anyway, without resolution.
Now I find it an interesting argument for a number of reasons, but first off, on the surface, I can’t help but chuckle a bit, simply because the word “Trinity” doesn’t even appear in the Bible to begin with. It’s an inclusive term which we use to attempt to sum up a bunch of individual statements scattered all through the text. It’s hardly plain, or the real thing, but we do our best to make sense of the seemingly incomprehensible picture we’re given. It’s also amusing because we’re not a monolith–we’re not marching lock-step with some egalitarian pope or council of sorts—we come from a wide variety of theological traditions. But be that as it may, even if that was a poor example on the individual’s part, perhaps the root of the argument has merit. I’m shedding light on this incident because it falls under a larger narrative that tends to define egalitarians or Christian feminists as playing fast and loose with Scripture, and specifically here, the gentleman was accusing us of putting Scripture through all kinds of contortions to get out of seemingly plain commands, while taking other doctrines like the Trinity at face value. Not to mention the cardinal sin of going contrary to many of the church fathers and their views on gender roles in the church. So, does this accusation hit home? Let’s look at it.
Let’s ditch the Trinity example because as I demonstrated previously, I believe it’s a poor representation of his own argument, and we’ll look at something that is dealt with and defined much more extensively in the Bible, Old Testament and New: Love.
We have an entire chapter recorded for us that defines it, in 1 Cor 13. Possibly the most famous verse in the bible defines what God’s love looked like: John 3:16 quantifies it as God coming into the world (and ultimately dying) for us. Numerous passages command love, use it as a measuring stick of faith, give dire warnings on the lack of it, tell us what it looks like in practical ways, gives examples, and much more. I’m not saying love is a list of things, or that we can measure it, but certainly we have enough to go on that we know it when we see it, and can try to live it. We don’t lack revelation here, let’s say. “God is love”, John says, and He seems fairly insistent that we get the picture.
With that in mind, think about gender roles. How much prescriptive instruction, comparatively, do we get in this topic? How many positive examples of female submission do we find? How many warnings or curses are pronounced in response to failings of male leadership? Sure, most authority figures recorded in scripture are male (“patriarchy is the backdrop, not the message of the bible”) and get the heat accordingly, but that’s not the same thing as judgment for failing to lead *women*.
Barak doesn’t get heat for “weak leadership”, nor do we find Israel judged for having a woman as a judge. Josiah and Israel aren’t criticized for having a woman prophetess show them up, but they rend their clothes because they’ve neglected the Law and relationship with God. Abigail isn’t criticized for going around her husband to take care of David and his men. Jezebel is judged because she was a murderous abuser of power and influence, not for being a woman leading Ahab. The Jezebel of Revelation is judged for not repenting of immorality and using a claim of authority to lead people astray – as with the rest of these examples, you have to read specific gender-role judgment into all of them – that women will prophesy is in itself a biblical prophecy and promise. To judge her specifically as a *woman* claiming to be a prophet is an absurdity, and one that makes God’s own word in conflict with itself, unnecessarily.
Aside: how many examples of “submission gone wrong” would we have, if we applied a gender-role slant to a few stories? Consider Ananias and Sapphira, or Abraham and Sarah’s sister/wife fiascos, for instance.
Is this one big argument from silence, essentially? It could be. I don’t believe so. Put differently, here’s another metric by which I believe my thoughts hold weight: We are often told to care about the things God cares about, love what he loves, hate what He hates, follow in His steps. We are told the Bible is our final authority, all we need in matters of faith and its practice. Yet, our practical examples or cautionary tales are almost completely conflicting and unsupportive at best of the “plain” view of gender roles I was taught – almost as if God is less interested that we adhere to some arbitrary social order based on a few passages than He is in hitting the reset button, as it were, on our ideas of love. I suppose this is one reason why it’s so important to some theologians that Jesus be eternally subordinate to the Father: it gives the appearance of substance and order to the bare cupboard which is our comprehensive knowledge of so-called gender roles. I find it hard to believe that, on a matter of such intimate relational importance and one so supposedly vital for church order, God would have left us such a vague picture with so few hard lines or principles to hold onto. For instance, from 1 Tim 2:12, when exactly is a woman “teaching” a man? Does she need an official position of authority over him? Is it merely her attitude in correction? Can she never correct him at all? How silent should she be? What of “passive” teaching, by example? When is he a man, and can she teach or correct boys? Is this just for “church”? What is or isn’t church – where does “church” stop and life begin? And so on. This is just one example. We have an apparently clear command, and yet it raises more questions than any author in the Bible bothers to answer. That fact alone makes me think.
What I’ve touched on here is by no means the whole picture, and there’s much more to my beliefs as an egalitarian, but I believe this is all worth a thought, and a good start on a journey towards understanding God’s redemptive purpose for His creation. Our beliefs have to do more than tie a passage up neatly: we need to also ask the question, “Where, how, and why does this fit in in the big picture?” I am where I am because I want to take the Bible and God’s redemptive plan seriously – seriously enough to try to make sense of it all together, and care about what God cares about.
So, in conclusion, no, I do not believe the gentleman’s argument holds weight. I would suggest instead that folks who insist on gender roles to the point of judgment and division are making a huge issue about something which does not remotely seem to be a focus of Scripture as a whole (even if their interpretation is correct), while they quench the Holy Spirit in half the church if they’re wrong. I think, given the theological support for equality I’ve come to find over the past few years, I’m more than happy to take my chances with the interpretation that doesn’t quench the Holy Spirit.