Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62
I’m about to write about what the Bible says about men, women, and the church, and I do so with a sense of weariness at what might follow.
I have come to truly, truly hate the conversation among Christians about what the Bible says about the sexes and their roles (or lack of specific roles) in the church. I don’t say that about many conversations. People put their hand to the plow of biblical exegesis and then look back. Actually that’s possibly too kind – people put their hand to the plow of biblical exegesis as a gesture because they know that Christians are supposed to do biblical exegesis, but they are looking back the whole time. They are looking over their shoulder, away from the text and at the values they already hold. They are looking away from the text and at the world, fearful that they will look backwards or insufficiently progressive in the eyes of others. They cannot, at least as far as I can tell, make any distinction between “this is what I, a Christian person with my values, believe and is important to me” and “this is what this piece of text, external to me and written by somebody else, means.”
The Bible might convey things that you find offensive.
As an individual Christian person with your own beliefs, values and priorities, you must be willing and able – not just with your lips but with your actions – to reconcile yourself to the fact that when you are interpreting a piece of text, even a piece of text in the Bible, you might not agree with it. The Bible might convey things that you find offensive. You need to be willing and able to shut up, keep your voice out of it, and let the text speak even when it violently rides roughshod over what you would have said if you had been the author. Even when it sounds bigoted in your opinion. Even when it’s embarrassing. Shut up and listen.
Pretty much everyone who reads an admonition like that thinks it only applies to other people (or else they admit that it applies to them but act like it doesn’t). That would be nice, but it’s not true.
Specifically when it comes to this subject: You need to accept the possibility that when you read a piece of text in the Bible, it will say things about the sexes that is truly offensive to you and does not agree with what you believe.
We want God’s stamp of approval on our existing beliefs.
That’s a really hard thing to do when we’re talking about the Bible. Christians think the Bible is special, that it conveys not merely human opinion but God’s opinion – however we explain that process. So we’re deeply invested in the conclusions we find there. We don’t want to find an opinion expressed there that clashes violently with what we value, because that means God doesn’t share our values. We want our values to be right. We want God’s stamp of approval on our existing beliefs, and we have apologetic concerns. We don’t want our God to look bad in the eyes of our cultural peers. We don’t want another avenue for the world to mock or deride our faith.
When we say “the Bible says X,” this is not the same as saying “I believe X.”
Believing that the Bible is special in this way can therefore be an impediment to interpreting it. It can make us less honest – even innocently so (keeping ourselves in check is sometimes hard and we do not intentionally lie about what the text says). The solution is not just to abandon our conviction that God speaks through Scripture. That would be a shockingly bad inference. The solution is to realise that when we say “the Bible says X,” this is not the same as saying “I believe X.” Reconciling yourself to X and believing it is a further step, something you may or may not do.
That brings me to the point. In the next few blog posts, I am going to be writing about what the Bible says about the sexes in regard to roles within the church. Note carefully what I said there: I am going to be talking about what the Bible says about it. That means I’m talking about what the authors of the Bible said. I am not talking about what I believe about the subject of “women in ministry,” as it has become labelled. I am going to try pretty hard not to talk about what I believe at all – other than when it comes to what I believe some specific passages of the Bible say.
If you cannot make that distinction, then this discussion is not for you. Don’t contribute. If you think it’s appropriate to call people sexist because of what they think a piece of text says, then you’re not ready to have this conversation, and you need to seek help with your behavioural problem. Let me be as clear as I can possibly be:
- I don’t care what you think about the role of men and women in the church.
- I don’t care what you think works or doesn’t work.
- I don’t care what you think has been successful in history.
- I don’t care what you think is loving.
- I don’t care what you think is liberating.
- I don’t care what you think respects people’s dignity.
- I don’t care whether or not you believe in equality.
- I don’t care what you think equality requires.
- I don’t care (at least not for my present purposes) if you’ve been hurt by people who use the Bible to harm women.
- I don’t care that it’s 2017.
- I don’t care whether or not you think people’s gifts are being utilised or wasted.
- I don’t care what you find sexist. If you find a piece of writing sexist, that in no way changes what it says.
- I don’t care what you think God has told you or anyone else.
Whatever merit there may be in discussing those things, I do not care about them as I write the next few blog posts. If you raise any criticisms that boil down to concerns about any of these issues or others like them, your comment may be removed, or if it is borderline it will probably be ignored. It is concerns like these that stop the conversation from being useful. “The conversation” of which I am speaking here is the conversation about what the text of the Bible means. As in, what it literally means and what it meant to the writer and the first audience. Not what it “says” to you. This is going to be an exercise in textual interpretation. Leave any other concerns at the door.
Are we clear?
Buckle up, here we go.