Yesterday Melinda and I made the drive down to Mars Hill to see our friend Rachel Held Evans. She was there to speak about Ruth and her Biblical Womanhood project [the podcast should be up soon here], and we had made plans to join her after the service for lunch.
The meal was quite good, and the conversation was excellent, but this morning I wanted to offer a couple reflections on her sermon.
Too often our conversations about “Biblical Womanhood” devolve into complementarians and egalitarians lining up their favorite verses in some sort of exegetical chess match.
What I appreciate about Rachel’s project is that she is questioning that entire approach.
Not because there are not relevant passages of Scripture, or because the Bible isn’t authoritative, but because the my-verses-beat-your-verses model makes a number of assumptions about what kind of book the Bible is, and tends to brush aside both historical and contemporary context.
For example, Rachel pointed out (rightly I think) that the current emphasis on complementarianism within many traditions is largely a response to the second-wave feminism of the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s. What that has often meant is that, intentionally or not, the image of womanhood that people are attempting to reclaim ends up looking quite a bit more like the early 1900’s than gender identity in the Ancient Near East.
Now inevitably the pushback from complementarians is that they are not striving for a return to the 50’s, but attempting to be faithful to the Bible. Most of the time, I think that’s true. I have no doubt that a desire for biblical faithfulness is an important motivation for those who advocate more traditional views of gender.
But the reality is more complicated than that, and in the end complementarians have a grid for picking and choosing which verses they take seriously, and which they sweep under the rug, just as much as any egalitarian. Even the most determined complementarians are not advocating that women should be forced to marry their rapist, be sold to pay off their family’s debts, cover their heads during prayer, or stay silent in the church; and yet those all appear in the text.
The problem, Rachel insists, is that we have been taught to approach the Bible like it is a blueprint for womanhood, or marriage, or finances, or how to choose the right college.
We assume that if we just figure out the puzzle then suddenly all the verses in the Bible that address womanhood will align into one unified vision. They don’t – because God didn’t give us a blueprint, and something like womanhood is far too varied and complex for a blueprint anyway – but both sides often work under that paradigm and are then left in the awkward position of pretending that the other side “picks and chooses” while they do not.
I have to agree with Rachel that the more interesting conversation is not “how can we avoid picking and choosing?” but “why do we pick and choose the way we do?” In other words the debate behind the debate is about interpretation, about hermeneutics.
We’ve been having that conversation for quite some time here, sparked by books like Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God and Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible. But I think a sermon like this drives home why the conversation matters – because it plays out in the daily-life issues like gender, and because it sits behind debates that often seem intractable within the rules of Biblicism.