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The Deathmatch of Social Models

June 18, 2012
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I had intended not to write this article.  Instead, we should be starting with an overview of stories about women in the gospels.  However, I’ve realized that I need to write this article.  The reason I need to write this article is that a decent discussion cannot often be had on this subject.  The reason for this is that, as with many long-running debates, there are camps.  I suspect that for many of you, the minute you read my article on Deborah you pegged me as a liberal.  For some of you that was a “one of us” moment.  For others that was a “watch this man – he’s dangerous” moment.  However, I suspect that I’ve already been categorized by any person reading my women in the Bible series.  Unfortunately, those categorizations hinder dialog and scholarship.

The main problem with these camps is that their centers are not derived from the Bible.  This is a popular claim for each camp to make against the other – the complementarian1 camp likes to shout that the egalitarian camp is nothing but feminism ignoring the Bible while the egalitarians like to paint the complementarians as bigoted chauvinists ignoring the radical message of Jesus.  Now, this is certainly true for some individuals within both camps but it’s not the main focus of my critique.  Instead, the primary issue is that a wide field of potential options has been narrowed down to two main options that have been chosen by popular vote and not by scholarship.

The reason I say that these two have been chosen by popular vote is that they both conform to specific Western social models.  Obviously, there is a strong strain in Western society of equality and the egalitarian camp affirms this model.  Similarly, it still makes sense to say that the complementarian view affirms traditional roles for men and women which implies that this view remains in touch with a live tradition.  That tradition is a cultural model, an older one that is largely being replaced.  If you don’t believe me then think quickly about what specific roles women are barred from and which ones women are allowed into in this model.  Teaching?  Well, no, unless you mean teaching in a relaxed social environment like a Bible Study or teaching children or teaching foreigners as a missionary.  However, formal, recognized teaching is banned.  Oddly, what constitutes formal, recognized teaching is a matter of social constructs.  Why, for instance, can women teach men as they grow up in Sunday school but not teach men from the pulpit?  (Honestly, which will be more formative: the way you are raised or what you are taught later in life?)  While there is some attempt to argue for this formally, the answer seems relatively simple: because most people are following a social model whose most recent heyday was the 1950s.

Now, I wish to be clear that I say this is the center of each camp but not its full extent.  Both camps are primarily composed of ordinary people who make an ordinary decision to go with a familiar social model.  This does not mean that there are not smart and scholarly people within each camp.  It doesn’t even mean that the people who drifted into one or the other camp under the non-Biblical influence of a Western social model are bad.  People who belong to the equality model do so by and large because they genuinely want to lift up the oppressed.  People who belong to the traditional model generally do so because that model dates from a time that many people think of as simpler and more moral.  It’s easy to see why people might suspect that drifting away from the social frameworks of that time might be the cause for our current social ills (for instance, a high divorce rate and a rising number of births out of wedlock)2.  Obviously, addressing social ills is a good thing (provided one can do so without creating other ones).

Let me bolster my case that what we are really dealing with is social models and not good Bible-reading versus the crazies.  When we talk about the authority of women in the Bible there are two realms for that authority: the church and the home.  There isn’t actually any a priori reason to believe that these two are linked.  Now, many complementarians assert a model called “the federal headship of Adam”3 which ties the two together by asserting that there is something fundamentally leader-like about men and follower-like about women.  Similarly, many egalitarians hold to a model in which people are just people and it’s rather incidental whether they are female people or male people.  However, that’s to be expected.  People who believe that women have or lack authority in both domains will attempt to find an overarching model in which this makes sense.  But where are the people who think women have authority in the home but not in church or in church but not the home?  If people came to their social models through the Bible instead of coming to the Bible asking the question “which of these models is correct?” we should expect to find plenty of “mixed modelers”.  Instead, I know one or two.  There isn’t a Western social model where women have authority in one of these realms but not the other and so even though there’s no reason people shouldn’t land on one of these mixed models from reading the Bible, and land there in roughly even numbers with all the others places they land, almost nobody does.  They pick a social model they already know.

The effect of all of this is that we cannot listen to the Bible very well anymore.  Neither social model is very likely to conform to anything anyone said in the first century.  For instance, the idea that Paul probably thought men and women were identical except for incidental anatomy seems rather improbable but that’s part of the social model of one camp4.  It’s also highly unlikely that Paul ever meant to endorse a social structure that belongs to middle-class post-industrial society.  However, many of us now hear various comments by Paul as endorsing one or the other of these models.  The prevalence of these models makes it hard to realize that Paul might be endorsing something completely off our Western radar.  So when we hear Paul say something like, “The husband is the head of the wife,” we tend to say, “Ah, yes, I know how that works,” even though we actually don’t.  We know how it’s worked in America before but in Paul’s day very few people would have had households where Dad went to work for his employer and Mom stayed home and tended the kids.  Couples rich enough to have Mom stay home would have had the servants tend the kids and most families would have farmed, an enterprise in which every member of the family would have been involved.  Similarly, if we come to this verse with a different notion that maybe “head” doesn’t mean “boss” we’re likely to say, “I knew it!  Paul totally thinks men and women are the same and come together on a completely even footing!”  However, that’s also nowhere in the text.

This gets worse when we ask more nuanced questions.  For instance, to what extent does Paul (I realize we’re using a lot of Paul examples but most of the contested material is Pauline) think women should give the final decision to their husbands?  The two camps say (in accordance with their social models) “always” and “never”.  Both of these are unlikely.  I’ve argued elsewhere that Paul’s approach to authority doesn’t produce blind obedience to anyone but Christ.  Even when Paul claims that government is God-ordained he has no issue ignoring laws (and abusing the privileges of citizenship) for the sake of Christ.  There should be some point at which Paul must say, “No, that’s immoral, do not obey that, obey Christ.”  Paul is also not a radical individualist.  He believes that all believers should submit to one another.  He holds up the corrective power of good council in the Christian life.  It is similarly absurd to claim that Paul thinks women should never give the final decision to their husbands when he thinks all sorts of other Christian relationships of a less-intimate variety should involve accepting correction at least some of the time.  Both standard answers to the question are unlikely to be correct.

My point is this: we should not be coming to the Bible believing that we know it must be saying either X or Y.  When we come to the Bible we need to ask careful questions that try their best to upend any silly assumptions we might have.  For instance, to return briefly to our prior question, it is doubtless important to what Paul thinks about marriage to know what Paul thinks about the exercise of authority as a Christian, the limits of submission, and what it means to be a servant to others.  Some of the critical questions will be answered not from some specific male-female dynamic but from a larger sense of what the New Testament says about relationships.  Going forward I wish to really ask what the New Testament says without the constraints of popular social models.  Only if we recognize these hidden constraints are we likely to escape them.


1 If this word is unfamiliar to you then you may have actually stayed far enough away from these debates to make this article pointless for you.  However, the word refers to the idea that men and women have complementary roles in which men lead and women follow.

2 I happen to believe that what is really going on is that we live through our current social ills and so they loom larger than the past ones.  Most of us also have had an experience of life in which our lives began as uncomplicated experiences with clear rules and became more complex with fuzzier rules as we grew older.  This tends to cause us to see the time period of our childhood as being simpler and morally clearer overall.  However, I can’t fault people who disagree with me for attempting to regain something that, if it were real, would be good.

3 Which is not borne out by Genesis.

4 This strikes me as the product of a poor understanding of statistics.  It is perfectly possible to acknowledge that on average women are more X than men or vice versa without believing that all women are more X than all men.  This seems much more like what most people believe if you watch their actions instead of listening to their words.  Moreover, I find it implausible to believe that the sexes possess differing average levels of psychoactive hormones but that this produces no average difference between them.  It’s interesting to note that evolutionary biologists seem to assume that men and women will differ in some critical behavioral ways (as all other mammals do) but that social scientists tend to assume the opposite.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2012 10:24 pm

    On a related note, once I stopped assuming the traditional male-female social model (I’m a Baby Boomer with a conservative Christian background) and took a closer look at Ephesians, I discovered a whole new and much bigger picture. The entire letter is about unity in Christ and the “mystery” of God, which I believe to be the eventual oneness of mankind—not in a homogenous, everybody’s-the-same sense, but in the one-in-spirit-and-purpose sense.

    The joining of Jews and Gentiles is a first-century way of expressing the concept of a united mankind joined with God. This was Paul’s point whether his readers were husband-wife, parent-child, or master-slave. All are to practice and pursue mutual submission under divine authority; and I’ve written a few articles myself on the subject.

    But I used to think that, as a woman, I submit to my husband because he has strict God-ordained authority over me and, somehow, magically knows more about God. (I assume this stems from the federal headship of Adam school of thought.) My husband submits to me simply because he loves me and loves God, not because I have any authority.

    In other words, this “mutual” submission isn’t for the same reasons, and therefore isn’t very mutual—not in my view, anyway. One is mandatory while the other is subject to the whims of feelings (love). I think history bears this out.

    This model also fails to explain what Christian women, for example, should do with non-Christian husbands (other than pray). Teach and lead, or keep their mouths shut? At any rate, I’m happy to have “repented” of this social context that misses the bigger, more glorious picture of what God is doing with Adam and Eve, Jews and Gentiles—humanity.

    Thanks for another interesting article. I enjoyed it and am glad to see that intelligent people are finally saying, “Wait a minute…” I also like your focus on the Old Testament, something largely ignored by many, if not most, Christians. They’re missing out on some really rich, wonderful stuff!

    • June 19, 2012 10:31 am

      Yeah, I’ll get around to Ephesians eventually but I think your point about context is important. I don’t think the advice to husbands and wives can be separated from the advice to children and parents or masters and slaves and it can’t even be grammatically separated from “submit to one another” in most manuscripts.

      I notice that a lot of the random blog hits I get are on my Old Testament stuff, probably because there is so little out there. The New Testament women in the Bible stuff is pretty common, though, which is why I’m starting with some of the framework questions. Well, that and that I nearly always start with framework questions.

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  1. Women in Paul: Opening Remarks | The Jawbone Of an Ass

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