I took up William Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis as part of a challenge.That challenge was issued by a pastor friend after I made some comments on Facebook critical of Christian feminists and egalitarians. He suggested that rather than base my opinion on the popular treatments of the subject in books like A Year of Biblical Womanhood and Jesus Feminist, I read a more scholarly treatment of the subject.
Bottom line: I’m really glad I did.
Much ink (and probably blood) has been spilled over the topic of gender roles and Christian feminism. As such, Webb’s book has been widely referenced and reviewed (try THIS, THIS or THIS). Nevertheless, the book appears to have done little to bridge the complementarian / egalitarian divide. As I don’t have anything especially new to add to the debate, I’ll attempt to keep my comments to a minimum and cut to the chase.
While Webb’s treatment of the subject is thorough and very fair, it left me unconvinced as to the dismantling of traditional gender roles.
Webb spends considerable amount of time expounding upon an interpretive model for discussing this subject which he calls a “redemptive movement hermeneutic.” The method has to do with cultural analysis: Were biblical commands limited to a given culture or were the commands trans-cultural, applicable across all ages and societies? For instance, the Bible does not explicitly condemn slavery, a fact often pointed out by its critics. Instead, it establishes principles that, when applied, would inevitably lead to the dismantling of the institution of slavery. In other words, Christians apply a sort of “redemptive movement hermeneutic” when it comes to slavery. Webb suggest that certain texts have a “redemptive component” that moves the culture towards “a better ethic.” That there is, in fact, an “underlying spirit” to certain biblical commands.
I found this section of the book very helpful. It seems rather clear to me that, in Scripture, something is at work above the letter of the text, and that if we fail to recognize an over-arching redemptive movement to God’s dealings with mankind, we can potentially get stuck enforcing codes of conduct or societal norms that were not intended as trans-cultural.
However, this interpretive principle is not without its critics. In his review, Wayne Grudem calls Webb’s work,
…a deeply flawed book that fundamentally contradicts the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura because it nullifies in principle the moral authority of the entire NT and replaces it with the moral authority of a “better ethic,” an ethic that Webb claims to be able to discover through a complex hermeneutical process entirely foreign to the way God intended the Bible to be read, understood, believed, and obeyed.
It’s a very fair caution. Super-imposing another ideal over Scripture potentially guts the Bible of authority. After all, on whose authority do we define a “better ethic”?
Having constructed an elaborate system of 18 criteria by which to judge major social questions, Webb proceeds to hammer out this hermeneutic as it relates to three classes of people: slaves, women, and homosexuals. Why were certain biblical commands instituted regarding these groups? What were the cultural forces at work which precipitated such commands? Were the commands cultural or trans-cultural? Were the commands rooted in the creation narrative or the fall / curse narrative?
The major text the author concentrates on regarding women is 1 Tim 2:12-15.
11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
While conceding that verse 13 may be trans-cultural, Webb asserts that verse 14 is definitely cultural, citing modern evidences to debunk the idea that women are more easily deceived than men. (For the record, I’ve always felt the argument for patriarchy that relies on the point that “the woman was deceived” overlooks a more crucial inference: that the Man willfully disobeyed.)
After using his 18 criteria, Webb’s conclusion is that most of the male rule in both the Old and New Testament is based on cultural, rather than trans-cultural values. As part of the dismantling of such rule, women should be allowed to teach in the church. (Concerning the issue of homosexuality, which is somewhat peripheral in this volume, the author concludes that there is no redemptive hermeneutical movement that should lead to an acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle in the church.)
As much as I liked this book, I still find myself in a rather uncomfortable middle regarding the complementarian / egalitarian debate. While I have no problem with women teaching men (the primary qualification for teaching in the church is not gender, but gifting), Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals offers no compelling reasons to abandon male-centered leadership in the home and the church.
One reason is Webb’s concession that I Tim. 2:13 — “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” – may be trans-cultural. In other words, male hierarchy could be rooted in pre-Fall creation order. This admission is important on Webb’s part, I think, because that principle is one of the most persuasive for a patriarchal model. (As I’ve said elsewhere, this is also one of the reasons I believe many egalitarians also embrace a non-literal view of Genesis 1-11. By mythologizing the creation account, especially Eve being made FROM Adam to serve as his “helpmeet,” subsequent teachings on gender roles can be stripped of trans-cultural clout. )
The idea of male hierarchy based on creation order, rather than just social construct, is proffered often by the apostle Paul. For instance:
22Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. — Eph. 5:22-24
So there is an intrinsic connection between Christ’s relationship with His church and the husband’s relationship with his wife. On what grounds can we affirm Christ’s loving leadership of His Bride while deconstructing the husband’s loving leadership of his bride? It is precisely the divine hierarchy that this text seems to be paralleling.
I Corinthians 11:3 appeals to a similar order:
But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
Here, another chain is added to the hierarchy:
- God is the head of Christ
- Christ is the head of the Church
- Christ is the head of the man
- The man is the head of the woman
Again, the inference is clear as to a created order; that the role of men and women, husbands and wives, Christ and His church, are intertwined as part of a larger universal creation order. In other words, these roles transcend culture.
Which is why the Bible can both command us to “submit to one another” (Eph. 5:21) and still delineate societal / household / ecclesiastical roles:
- Citizens submit to governing authorities — Rom. 13:1
- Church members submit to spiritual leaders — Heb. 13:7
- Slaves obey masters — I Pet. 2:18, Eph. 6:5
- Children submit to parents — Eph. 6:1
- Wives submit to husbands — Eph. 5:22
In no case is submission to authority translated as superiority or inferiority, which is a common charge of egalitarian proponents — that submission implies one is a lesser person. On the contrary, citizens are called to submit to their governing authorities not because those authorities are better, but because such submission is part of a larger order. Church members are called to submit to their spiritual leaders not because those leaders are better, but because such submission is part of a larger order. I see the same principle at work in the gender debate.
OK. So much for keeping it brief and pointed.
Either way, I do not see this issue as a hill worth dying on. I have no problem fellowshipping with brothers and sisters in Christ who believe otherwise. I would, however, have difficulty attending a church led by a woman pastor. But I can’t deny that God has, and still does, call some women to lead men. (Especially in those places where men are not rising to their roles or a woman is exceptionally gifted.) Whatever the case, we need more grace in this conversation and I think Webb’s book does that. It’s a very fair treatment of the subject, good-natured and civil. I would definitely recommend it to those seeking to further their knowledge of this important issue.