Discovering Biblical Equality

Like so many trips into the library, my recent excursion had me leaving with books I did not intend to find. In this case, I stumbled upon Gordon Fee’s Listening to the Spirit in the Text (review below). My real reason for perusing the BS 680 section of our beloved library was to find Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy. Edited by Biola’s own Ronald Pierce and (not Biola’s) Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, this collection of essays is intended to be a positive explication of “biblical equality” (a biased term) that counteracts the CBMW’s own massive tome.

Discovering Biblical Equality (hereafter DBE) attempts to maintain a healthy balance between liberal feminist understandings of Christianity (those that attempt to change divine language to Mother/Father God, etc.) and strict patriarchal (or as they term them, hierarchical) understandings of Scripture. It attempts to distance egalitarianism from theories of feminism that lead to homosexuality and abortion (and seems successful in doing so). However, as a whole, the work is rather disappointing. As an encyclopedia of “egalitarian” viewpoints, it is immensely helpful. As a contribution to the gender discussion, it seems to fail to add anything noteworthy or new.

That said, I will follow the format of my last review and highlight several interesting points and articles in the book, only I will follow these with more substantial critical analysis. There is much in DBE that I agree with, and yet I think as a whole it suffers from an inadequate hermeneutic (more below) and from some conceptual difficulties that I will underscore in my specific critiques. The substance of these critiques will ignore DBE’s actual exegesis of the 10 or so “problem texts.”

  1. One of the most balanced and helpful articles is Ronald Pierce’s “From Old Testament Law to New Testament Gospel.” Pierce points out that many of the problem areas of the Old Testament Law (i.e. it’s acceptance of polygamy) actually had beneficial effects on women in Old Testament society. Additionally, in the case of suspected infidelity, husbands were required to test their women in a trial–they could not execute punishment without confirmation. Furthermore, restrictions on divorce protected women from whimsical or capricious abuses by men. In his summary, Pierce writes: “Thus it can be argued that the law neither created nor perpetuated patriarchy but rather reflected a progressive and protective attitude toward women. It was beneficial to women in its time, bringing order to the society in which they lived.” This pattern of improving conditions for women (as we’ll see later) is repeated in the New Testament. Many of the articles are concerned with demonstrating that women had leadership roles in Scripture, that they were able to pray and prophecy in the assembly (NT), and that Jesus’ attitudes toward women treat them with dignity and respect. I have nothing but cheers for this!
  2. Additionally, though more controversially, numerous authors appeal to “gifting” as the basis for ministry, not “office.” Fee (“The Priority of Spirit Gifting for Church Ministry”) is the main advocate for this position, and is (of course) quite persuasive in arguing for it. Combined with the (obvious) availability of spiritual gifts (including leadership?) to women, it serves well with opening up church leadership positions to women.
  3. However, I register strong disagreement with Fee regarding his interpretation of Galatians (“Male and Female in the New Creation). Fee argues that the issue in Galatians is more sociological than soteriological. It is about “the people of God”–who they are and how they are composed–rather than “justification by faith.” As a result, “new creation” is a new (social) order that God inaugarated with the giving of the Spirit that destroys the values (if any) of sociological status–men/women, slave/free, Jew/Gentile. “New creation” as a Pauline motif has much more to do with anthropology than sociology–hence Paul’s earlier autobiographical emphasis on being crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:19-20). Additionally, Paul’s retort to those who are troubling the Galatians is decidedly anthropological–he is not seeking man’s approval, but God’s (1:10). This point parallels the boasting language in 2 Corinthians 5:12-15, which comes directly before 2:5-17–”If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Fee’s thesis regarding Galatians 3:26-29, then, is that it sounds a “death knell to the old order, even though its structures remained in the surrounding culture.”
  4. The book suffers from repeatedly lumping patriarchy with slavery and consequently treating patriarchy as simply a social institution, rather than a theological position. For instance, William Webb (and on this point Fee is equally guilty) argues that we should employ a “redemptive hermeneutic” to Scripture. The X-Y-Z principle that Webb argues for is fairly simple. In the original culture, the words of Scripture are redemptive. One thinks of Paul raising the status of slaves in Greek culture by destroying the significance of the institution. However, we look back at the “concrete words” in the text and see them as regressive. Consequently, we should find the “redemptive spirit” in the text and treat that as the meaning. However, while this answers many problems, it is fundamentally misguided. An intended social effect is not a meaning to a text, but rather a goal that an author hopes to accomplish. To use speech-act theory, it is to confuse the illocutionary act with the perlocutionary act. Hence, Webb’s argument that the same sort of effect is at work in male/female roles rests on a misguided hermeneutical principle. Additionally, his lumping of homosexuality and male/female roles is also misguided, for reasons I give below.
  5. To broaden my critiques to the work in general, it is on this that the whole question turns. Throughout the book, the appeal to the distinction between “descriptive” and “prescriptive” claims is made. The distinction is valid—however, DBE reduces the hermeneutics of gender to simply prescriptive claims. It seems there is agreement throughout the book that (a) men and women are actually different, (b) the Bible assumes patriarchy and consequently, but (c) does not prescribe patriarchy. In fact, the ethics of gender relations becomes the entire issue for DBE. Two chapters deal with anthropology—“Equality With and Without Innocence—Genesis 1-3” and “God, Gender and Biblical Metaphor”—and the rest are concerned with hermeneutical method, ecclesiastical or social life, and marital life. In this way, it seems DBE are doing sociological work, rather than theological. This becomes obvious in Judy Brown’s “God, Gender and Biblical Metaphor,” who argues that God is “beyond gender” (including metaphysical gender) and that our metaphors about God is culturally bound construct. She avoids referring to God as “Father-Mother God” (though somewhat wistfully remarks that the arguments in favor of this “could be” compelling), but her reasons are wholly unsatisfying—the possibility of the rise of fertility cults and the fact that “Throughout Scripture God has reserved the right to name himself and to reveal his names.” However, to treat the language of Scripture as simply sociologically constructed is to miss Scripture. We do not call God “Father” because we have human fathers—rather, we have human fathers because God is Father—see Ephesians 3:15. Theology is a discipline separate from sociology, and the meaning in the Scriptures is theological, not sociological. This, however, raises questions about whether egalitarianism without changing the language about God is even possible.
  6. For this reason, it is possible that the NT can abolish the significance of slavery (and abolish it from existence) and yet abolish the significance of male/female social status without abolishing masculinity and femininity themselves. To treat masculinity and femininity as being in the same category as slavery is to make a category error—slavery is not an intrinsic property of being human. Yet the preponderance of Scripture suggests that patriarchy is an intrinsic property of humankind—hence the fact that DSB only deals with those problem prescriptive texts and not with the fact that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The “redemptive spirit” in Scripture is not to redeem society from patriarchy, but from its abuses.
  7. And this leads to my final critique, which is more of a sense than anything. From the beginning, it seems DBE responds more to a misguided, overemphasized notion of patriarchy than anything else. If Scripture is true, then the patriarchy it demands is one that is submissive (see Christ on earth) and loving (see God’s pouring out of Himself in Christ). This doesn’t entail egalitarianism—it just means patriarchy has not yet been perfectly manifested. The Kingdom is already and not yet. It also means that DBE is right about many of the “problem texts.” They are not prescriptive norms, but rather norms given in response to particular situations. However, this doesn’t entail that the NT authors would be as comfortable doing away with patriarchy as they would be with slavery, as the writers of DBE continually postulate.

Careful explication of patriarchy treats it as anthropological—built into the very structure of man. This can be argued from the creation narrative, the language regarding God, or the structure of grammar (in Scripture, but also in every other culture—the masculine pronoun has been treated as inclusive in almost every language group). By focusing on sociological concerns, DBE fails to provide a careful alternative. Some social institutions are more easily adapted to Christianity than others—feminism is not one such institution. Sociology depends upon anthropology, and anthropology is a derivative of theology (even moreso after the Incarnation). The question is theological, not sociological, and DBE’s attempt to revise our sociology without revising our theology is ultimately incoherent.

DBE is an excellent compendium of fair, balanced scholarship. It has changed my mind on several issues—most notably, it argues quite persuasively that the “equal in being, different in role” description is problematic when applied to the Trinity. Yet it does not persuade, for in the areas that touch the whole witness of Scripture and not simply the problem texts, it is found badly wanting.