Complementarians are selective too


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I don’t have a problem with complementarians interpreting the Bible differently than I do. When millions of people over thousands of years read the same text, that’s going to happen, and in a lot of ways it’s good for the Church. It certainly keeps things interesting. 

What concerns me is when complementarians insist that only egalitarians are selective in their hermeneutic and that complementarians alone  honor the authority of Scripture by refusing to “pick and choose.” 

In the complementarian manifesto, the Danvers Statement, egalitarians are accused of “accepting hermeneutical oddities devised to reinterpret apparently plain meanings of biblical texts,” resulting in a “threat to Biblical authority as the clarity of Scripture is jeopardized and the accessibility of its  meaning to ordinary people is withdrawn into the restricted realm of technical ingenuity.” This is “accommodation,” the statement concludes, and “dangerous.”

On the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood Web Site, Wayne Grudem warns that if Christians accept egalitarianism, “we will begin to have whole churches who no longer ‘tremble’ at the Word of God (Isaiah 66:2), and who no longer live by ‘every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4:4), but who pick and choose the things they like and the things they don’t like in the Bible.”

So Grudem claims that any selectivity whatsoever represents an arbitrary “pick-and-choose” approach to Scripture and a threat to biblical authority. 

Unfortunately, his colleague and co-founder of the CBMW John Piper recently made a statement that reveals the fact that complementarians are also selective with the biblical text.

Last week, John Piper was asked by a man, “Is it wrong for me to listen to Beth Moore?” 

The man was likely referring to 1 Timothy 2:12 , in which the apostle  Paul states “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet,”  or possibly to 1 Corinthians 14:34, in which he says, “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission.” 

These two verses are quoted often in complementarian literature. In fact, 1Timothy 2 appear in a list of “key texts” on the CBMW site and is commonly cited as biblical justification for limiting the roles of women in church leadership. 

And so Piper’s response to the question might surprise you. 

Is it wrong for Christian men to listen to women teachers? 

“No,” Piper said. “Unless you begin to become dependent on her as your shepherd-pastor. This is the way I feel about women speaking occasionally in Sunday school. We don't need to be picky on this. The Bible is clear that women shouldn't teach and have authority over men. In context, I think this means that women shouldn't be the authoritative teachers of the church-they shouldn't be elders.” He went on to say that women like Beth Moore and Elisabeth Elliot should be free to speak, to write, and to teach. 

So Piper cites the first half of 1 Timothy 2:12 (“a woman should not have authority”) as universally applicable, but disregards the second half (“she must be quiet”) by encouraging women like Moore to continue speaking.  If the first half of 1 Timothy 2 is so crucial to the complementarian hierarchal construct, why is the second half, (along with the silence command in 1 Corinthians 14:34)  essentially ignored?  Why is that complementarian women are forbidden from assuming leadership in churches, and yet permitted to speak? Nowhere does the Bible spell out this distinction between teaching and speaking or between leader and "shepherd-pastor." Does Piper’s response not “reinterpret apparently plain meanings of biblical texts” and rely on a bit of “technical ingenuity”? 

I am reminded of Scot McKnight’s observation in The Blue Parakeet that “anyone who thinks it is wrong for a woman to teach in church can be consistent with that point of view only if they refuse to read and learn from women scholars. This means not reading their books lest they become teachers.” 

Complementarians often say that what’s at stake in this debate is the authority of Scripture, an authority that is compromised whenever Christians fail to live by “every word” of the Bible. But Piper’s response reveals that not even complementarians live by every word of the Bible.Complementarians do not require women to cover their heads in prayer (1 Corinthians 11:5) or  to abide by the Levitical Purity Laws that make them ceremonially unclean during their periods. 

We need to get to a point in this debate where we can start with the presupposition that 1) both Christian complementarians and Christian egalitarians respect the authority of Scripture, and 2) both complementarians and egalitarians are selective in their application of Scripture. We don’t disagree on the value of Scripture; we disagree on exactly how to apply it. 

This is not mere “picking and choosing.” Our rationales for selectivity are often thoughtful and reasoned. I think most complementarians would agree that Christians don’t need to live by “every word” of the Bible, that there are things to consider like Old Law vs. New Law, universal commands vs. culturally specific commands. We are all selective, so let’s stop accusing those who select differently than we do of usurping the authority of Scripture. It’s hypocritical and it’s a straw man. 

I believe Piper’s selective interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 reveals the fact that the true ethos of the complementarian movement is not an effort to apply the Bible to the letter, but an effort to preserve a male-to-female hierarchy. In actuality, it’s less about preserving the authority of Scripture and more about preserving the authority of men. 

[To restate this: Complementarians want to frame the debate as being between those who support the authority of Scripture and those who reject the authority of Scripture. But it seems to me that the actual debate is between those who believe that Scripture most consistently presents hierarchy as the ideal and those who believe that Scripture most consistently presents hierarchy as less than ideal. This leaves BOTH sides with some explaining to do...because neither position is air-tight.]

So the real question is not, should “every word” of the Bible be applied literally? The real question is, are the hierarchies presented in the epistles of Peter and Paul culturally specific or universally ideal? 

I believe that they are culturally specific for a few reasons:

1. In nearly every case, the New Testament admonition for wives to submit to their husbands is either preceded or followed by the admonition for slaves to obey their masters. In fact, phrases like “likewise” or “in the same way” are used to link the two. So to say that the hierarchal structures presented in these passages are divinely instituted and inherently holy, raises some troubling questions about God’s view of slavery. 

2. In other places in Scripture we see women teaching and having authority over men. (See Deborah, Huldah, Junia, Priscilla, and many others.) So perhaps male-only authority is not a universal ideal. 

3. Jesus consistently taught his disciples to turn hierarchy on its head. “The last will be first and the first will be last,” he said (Matthew 20:16). “Whoever is considered greatest among you must become like a servant,” he said (Matthew 23:11). Jesus himself did  not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped but humbled himself to the point of death, and asked his followers to humble themselves in the same way too (Philippians 2:6).

Of course this position is up for debate, and we can get into more details about it later.

My main point is that pointing our fingers at one another and shouting “You pick and choose! You pick and choose!” is getting us nowhere. 

 Instead let’s start by saying. “Okay, we all pick and choose. We are all selective when it comes to biblical application. Now let’s talk about why we pick and choose the way that we do.” 

Because that’s where the debate gets clean, and that’s where the debate gets interesting.

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