Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Question of Consistency: Part 2

Both the “moderate” Christians and the ultra-patriarchs (which I discussed in Part 1) have been expressing their concerns about what they see as inconsistency in the mainstream patriarchal-complementarian (PC) organizations, which are willing to accept a woman as U.S. Vice President or President, but never as a church pastor. Permitting one sphere of leadership yet not another seems unwarranted to both the ultra-patriarchs, who believe a woman should have no leadership in any sphere, and the “moderate” Christians, such as David Gushee, who believe that if a woman is permitted to lead a nation, she should be allowed to pastor a church.

If nothing else, the controversy stirred up by Sarah Palin’s nomination clarifies that the crux of the issue in the evangelical gender debate today is, precisely, spiritual authority and not just authority in general.

Despite the cries of inconsistency (or the earlier cries of hypocrisy), many evangelicals are recognizing that it is not necessarily inconsistent to claim that it is biblically permissible for a woman to serve in a position of secular authority but not in a position of religious authority. After all, the world and the church are two different kingdoms, and it is conceivable that there could be different criteria for each kingdom. This is the essence of the CBMW-SBC argument, and if this argument is false, it is not because it is inconsistent. Early on in this debate, N.T. Wright wrote on the “On Faith” blog that, “There might well be perfectly coherent guidelines as to why a woman might lead in one area and not in another. It isn’t hypocritical [or inconsistent], after all, to think that the church is not just ‘another human organization’ or a society like any other; it’s Christian common sense.” Wright continues, “I happen to believe that women can and should exercise leadership at all levels in the church, but I would argue the point, not on the grounds that ‘that’s what happens in society,’ but on the grounds that from the resurrection onwards women were involved at the very heart of the apostolic ministry, telling the world the good news that Jesus was and is alive.” Whether or not this is the most compelling grounds on which to argue for women’s equal ecclesiastical authority is not the point. The point rather is that if women are called to lead in the church then it must be because the Bible permits it, not because the world permits it.

However, there would need to be a logical and biblically based reason for the different leadership standards between the two kingdoms. I can think of two logical (but not necessarily biblical) possibilities:

First possibility: The rationale currently being propounded for women’s exclusion from church leadership is that leadership in the kingdom of God requires a higher moral standard than leadership in the kingdom of this world; although women are well able to meet the standard of worldly leadership, they are not qualified to meet the standard of spiritual leadership. The CBMW-SBC rationale accepts the first clause and rejects the second. But the first clause logically entails the second. If women are inherently equal to men in worldly leadership but are inherently unequal to men in spiritual leadership, then women are simply spiritually inferior to men in that they cannot meet certain spiritual requirements that are crucial to spiritual leadership. If certain men are able to meet the high moral standard of spiritual leadership, but no woman is able to meet this standard, then woman qua woman lacks a crucial spiritual quality that men have or are able to acquire. Yet PC defenders recently have employed again and again the “higher moral standard” explanation for why they believe a woman can rule a nation but not a church congregation—all the while maintaining their claim that men and women are equal in being. Here we do not have inconsistency; we have incoherence.

The PC rationale for woman’s spiritual subordination is based on the doctrine that from the beginning, God created women to submit and men to lead. God endowed men with spiritual leadership but did not so endow women. Because this doctrine leads to the conclusion that women are inherently inferior to men, a number of PC advocates in recent decades have insisted that women do have a comparable capacity to lead, but it simply is not the “role” that God has given them. But this account of women’s subordination requires that God created not only male and female humans, but also male and female roles. The female human was created equal to the male human but the female role was created inferior to the male role. Thus, the roles and the humans must be deemed separate entities and, so, separate creative acts. That is, when God created humans he also created roles. But this is sheer fabrication. For that matter, the whole idea that the creation story speaks of man’s inherent authority over woman is made up of suppositions and “hints” in the Genesis text.

Second possibility: Woman’s subordination to man’s spiritual authority derives from the fall, not from creation. This view has been out of fashion for nearly a century, but it does have the advantage of being based in the biblical text, which explicitly states that after sin entered the world the woman would be under the rule of the man. This is the account of female submission that predominated prior to the mid-20th century. The hugely popular Scofield Reference Bible laid it all out clearly. “The entrance of sin, which is disorder, makes necessary a headship, and it is vested in man,” Scofield opined in his notes on Genesis 3:14-19. Proponents of this view—and this view has not disappeared altogether even today—differ on why, exactly, "headship” is necessary (most hold to the general notion that the advent of sin requires the rule of “order”); but they do not differ on the point that it is the man and not the woman who is to order things aright as the “head.”

So then, how biblically plausible are either of these two views of woman’s subordination to man, and how well might either view account for the specifically spiritual subordination of woman to man, such that a woman is fit to lead in the kingdom of this world but not in the kingdom of God?

Note that the “God created man to rule and woman to submit” doctrine fails to provide for a difference in female authority between the world and the church. The view that woman was subordinate to man from the beginning of her creation in the Garden points to a comprehensive creational subordination. How then may we conclude that at the time of woman’s creation God ordained that she be subordinate only (or primarily) in arenas related to the church, where specifically spiritual subordination is in view? The church did not even exist in the Garden! If it is God’s divine design for men to rule and women to submit to male rule, such that this is a creation axiom, then God’s creational decree against female leadership must pertain in all of God’s creation. That is, given the PC claim of such a creational mandate (not to be confused with the creational mandate that actually appears in Scripture in Genesis 1:27-28), there can be no tenable distinction between world and church, since both are God’s creation.

The mainstream PC view claims that woman’s subordination to man’s spiritual authority is firmly grounded in creation norms, while woman’s subordination to male rule in culture at large is evidently optional or merely advisable. Yet there also seems to be some sense in which male rule is deemed normative in all of culture (perhaps it is only lightly grounded in creation norms?).

However, if male authority is grounded in creation, and if there are two spheres of authority--namely, the spiritual and the cultural (or, alternately, the ecclesiastical and the civil)--it would seem that the cultural or civil realm would most readily be regarded as grounded in God's original creation. Culture was instituted in the Garden, but God did not establish religious institutions until after the fall.

On the PC account, the woman’s creational subordination to man’s spiritual leadership obtains not only in the church but also in marriage. Yet there is no mention or indication of such in Genesis 2. Moreover, Adam and Eve evinced no sense of obligation that the man should take the lead while the woman submits to his decisions. Quite the opposite, given how the man and woman interacted with the serpent just prior to the fall. Moreover, nothing in the NT stipulates that a man must have spiritual authority over his wife, as the PC view advocates today.

While the surrounding culture was patriarchal in NT times, the church was not bound to male authority in spiritual matters. The apostle Peter actually commended Christian women who refused to submit to their husbands’ false spiritual beliefs, yet at the same time he urged these women to be submissive to the social roles of the time (1 Pet 3:1-6). The submission Peter asks of wives is not submission to the husband’s spiritual authority. Peter approved of women who rejected their husbands’ false religious beliefs (such women were his primary audience in this text). The wifely submission Peter asked of women was cultural, not spiritual, and was based on the principle of submitting to the authority structures of the time so as not to bring reproach on the cause of Christ, but rather to reflect Christ’s humility (see the preceding text, 2:11-25). The PC view today inverts the NT situation by advocating, in essence, an inequality in spiritual rights and responsibilities for women in a cultural context in which women generally experience equality in the larger society.

But what about the internal consistency of the earlier, more historical, fall-based account of woman’s subordination? Here we again find no rationale for why woman should be subordinate in the spiritual sphere but not in the worldly sphere. If female subordination to male rule became necessary because of sin, then it is necessary wherever there are human beings—which, of course, includes both the world and the church.

The mainstream PC dogma on the purpose and parameters of “male headship” appears to be derived by plucking selected texts from Scripture, interpreting them according to a particular agenda, and then arranging them into a system of conduct.

This, then, is where the inconsistency lies. Not in claiming that there are higher standards for spiritual leadership than for civil leadership, for that is, indeed, correct. Nor in claiming that different standards for leadership can conceivably warrant an a priori disqualification of certain people for spiritual leadership, for that is likewise a logical claim.

No, the inconsistency lies in the fact that there is no biblical account of either the creation or the fall that allows for a clear and distinct separation between spiritual authority and creational authority. For, indeed, God created both realms. Moreover, God gave equally to both man and woman dominion and authority over all the earth, and there is no reason to conclude that the dominion of church (which did not exist in the Garden) and the dominion of marriage (which did) were somehow exempted from that broad and unqualified mandate by the Creator God.

For a discussion of why the PC view entails woman's inferiority, see chapter 18 in Discovering Biblical Equality.


Gem said...

If a woman's gifts of leadership are only to be exercised in the world, would that mean that she has no spiritual gift of leadership but only a natural talent? And according the the "First Possibility" you covered: though in the natural world she is equal, she must be considered to be spiritually unequal to men. So, women and men are only equal "in the flesh," while in the Spirit they are unequal? To me, that seems to turn a lot of scripture on its head and attempt to usurp God's authority by a a rejection of HIS chosen vessels- if they happen to be female.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for posting your well-worded analysis. As a complementarian (showing my cards), my question is whether or not you believe it is possible for there to be "economical" distinctions between men and women without there being "ontological" distinctions between men and women. In other words, if the Bible says, "women shall not have authority over men" in the context of the church, I am not sure how this must mean women are inferior.

It is my understanding that the Son happily submits to His Father without there being any ontological distinction between the two.

I am an amateur thinker when it comes to these things so please forgive me if you have already addressed this in your post.

Jamin Hubner said...

She has addressed the ontological issue on her website and in chapter 18 of Discovering Biblical Equality, if I remember correctly.
Read it here:

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis said...

GEM: Yes indeed. Very well put. Thanks for the comment.

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis said...


Yes, there can be—and there are—economic differences between men and women. I stated a number of them in my post, “The Question of Consistency, Part 1.” This post also noted ontological distinctions between men and women, namely, the different reproductive systems of men and women. These distinctions are definitive of the difference between men and women. Yet even these ontological differences do not entail that one is superior to the other. The male has capacities that the female does not and the female has capacities that the male does not, and neither capacity is ontologically superior to the other capacity. However, the PC understanding of gender difference goes way beyond these clearly evident distinctions. Here we have the male gender defined in terms of its uniquely masculine quality of authority—the power of decision-making—and the female gender defined precisely by its lack of authority (whether lack of ability or lack of divine permission). Four points make this PC doctrine something more than just a “difference” or “distinction” between men and women. 1) The power to make rational decisions is a uniquely human, God-given ability. 2) Authority entails a raft of distinctively human qualities—that is, qualities that define humanity, which set humans apart from the lower creatures. 3) Per the PC perspective, the exercise of authority—especially spiritual authority—is deemed definitive of masculinity, while submission to male authority is deemed definitive of womanhood. Thus manhood and womanhood are defined in terms of man possessing authority and woman lacking—to an unspecified degree—the authority that man possesses. 4) What really sinks the ship, in terms of the PC insistence that all this is only an “economic” difference between men and women, is that this authority inequity is deemed ordained by God from the beginning of creation. The reigning PC perspective is grounded in God’s creating man to rule and creating woman to submit to man’s rule (or, more precisely, creating man to exercise spiritual authority and woman to submit to man’s spiritual authority). Thus teleology necessarily follows ontology. (Ontology speaks of the substance or inherent nature of a thing; teleology speaks of the creational, intended purpose or destiny of a thing.) All of this being grounded in unfallen creation necessarily puts male authority and female lack-of-authority in categories of being, of ontology. To call this kind of difference merely a difference in roles is a fundamental category error.

I have a fairly thorough treatment of this in chapter 18 of *Discovering Biblical Equality.* I have put a link to this chapter at the end of the above post.

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis said...


At the end of chapter 18 in *DBE* there is also a discussion of the subordination of the Son to the Father.