Women in the Church: Part 7

Women in the Church: Why I am an Egalitarian

Part 7: Redemptive Movement

In my last post, I argued that both the complementarian and egalitarian positions employ interpretive strategies when they appeal to the Bible to support and defend their views. It is important to grasp this, because anyone can easily amount a list of ‘proof texts’ in support of a given position.

The more difficult questions are: Does one’s interpretive strategy (or set of strategies) sufficiently integrate all of the relevant biblical texts? What about those that don’t easily lend support to one’s view or perhaps even seemingly contradict it? On what basis has one chosen and ranked controlling or central texts in relation to perceived peripheral texts or anomalies? We inevitably read certain texts in light of other texts that we regard as more central, but how is one even to distinguish what is central from what is peripheral? For example, should we read 1 Timothy 2:12 in light of Galatians 3:28 or vice-versa? More broadly, should we read the egalitarian proof texts as central and the complementarian proof texts as peripheral, or the other way around?

The point I am making is that one must make an interpretive choice. This is unavoidable. And, perhaps frustratingly for some, the Bible does not tell us in a straight forward manner how to make that choice. Simply citing more texts than the other position does not make one’s own view more persuasive. One must also offer a more convincing framework or paradigm within which all of the relevant texts fit coherently. Not that one can (or even should) eliminate all ambiguity, but a good interpretive strategy does aim to minimize perceived difficulties, contradictions, and incoherencies.

One paradigm that I have found helpful is the ‘redemptive-movement hermeneutic’ developed by William Webb (a ‘hermeneutic’ is a lens through which one reads Scripture). Webb argues that one cannot simply proceed directly from biblical texts to theological, ethical, political, or practical positions. Before we can do this, we need to know something about the ancient historical contexts in which the biblical were written and addressed. We also need to be aware of movement within the Bible on an issue in question, both within each testament and movement from the OT to the NT. Finally, we need to recognize that the Bible does not always give us the last word on a particular issue. Rather, what it often does is initiate a trajectory, a ‘redemptive movement,’ that must be developed theologically in order to posit an ultimate ethic. Here is a visual depiction of Webb’s approach, which I’ve reproduced from his website linked here.

XYZ-Principle-JPEGWebb has applied his redemptive-movement hermeneutic to several examples. One is slavery. Strictly speaking, the Bible does not advocate a fully developed abolitionist position, such as that advocated by William Wilberforce and the abolitionist movement. It also lacks a modern understanding of human rights, as set out for example in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. Paul assumes the givenness of slavery as a cultural institution and tells slaves to obey their masters (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22). He does say that if slaves can gain their freedom they should do so, and he does suggest to Philemon that he receive Onesimus back as a brother and not a slave, but nowhere does Paul declare outright that slavery is intrinsically evil, an affront to human dignity and a violation of basic human rights. Contemporary readers often assume that the Bible is simply against slavery, but that is because we read it in light of modern developments. We fail to appreciate that earlier interpreters did not find the Bible’s teaching on this matter to be so clear (during the time of the American civil war, for example, abolitionists had a very difficult time convincing their opponents that the Bible was against slavery).

What the Bible does do is set in motion a redemptive trajectory of liberation, which begins to subvert and openly question the institution of slavery. This movement begins in the Old Testament. Compared with other nations in the Ancient Near East, Israel’s treatment of slaves was more humane. The OT assumed slavery, but advocated for better treatment of slaves and sought to mitigate the abuse of slaves. The NT continues the movement began in the OT. Its primary focus is on spiritual freedom in Christ, but it applies this new spiritual freedom in Christ in ways that begin to undermine the very idea of slavery. To construct a fully abolitionist perspective, we need to recognize the redemptive movement found within Scripture and develop it theologically. Finally, we might even posit an ultimate ethic to move toward, which envisions the elimination of slavery across the globe, as well as improved working conditions, maximization of wages, and harmony, mutual respect, and unified purpose within organizations and economic structures.1 So, we begin with the seeds planted within Scripture and develop them theologically, ethically, politically, and socially.

We can observe the same kind of redemptive movement at work in the Bible’s stance toward women. Ancient cultures surrounding the people of God often advocated a strong patriarchy that included many abuses of women. In the OT, we find a moderate patriarchy with fewer abuses. In the NT we find a stronger endorsement of women’s equality (both in Jesus and in Paul). In our present culture, we find a significantly improved status for women and an emphasis on individual rights, autonomy, and self-fulfilment. Finally, on the basis of this received trajectory, we might posit an ultimate ethic, which envisions interdependence, mutuality, and a servant-like attitude in all relationships.2

Webb also applies his redemptive movement hermeneutic to other topics, including the Bible’s treatment of corporal punishment (spanking) and, most recently, the Bible’s perspective on violence, war, and peace (forthcoming book). His basic insights apply to many other issues as well, where the Bible gives us some initial cues and establishes a redemptive trajectory but does not yet establish a fully satisfying ethic. For example, the Bible does not assume a democratic form of government, or a free market system of economics, or universal health care provided by the state, or modern ethical concepts such as inalienable human rights in political ethics, informed consent in medical ethics, or the kinds of ethical checks and balances required by modern business and accounting practices. All of these modern ideas are developments of seeds, principles, and trajectories found within Scripture. Moreover, for each of them, an ultimate ethic still lies ahead and requires further theoretical development and practical realization.

To sum up, how does all of this help the egalitarian position? Well, Webb’s redemptive movement approach assumes that Scripture’s teaching about women in ministry and leadership will be mixed. How could it not be? Its authors were writing within the context of an ancient society that was thoroughly patriarchal. BUT, there is much evidence within Scripture to support the view that the biblical authors planted redemptive egalitarian seeds and initiated a subversive, redemptive movement toward the full equality of women and men in the church. We need to recognize this movement, cultivate those seeds, and develop them theologically in order to draw out their full implications for equality.

Was Paul an egalitarian in the modern sense? No, not quite. But given his patriarchal historical context, he did teach and model a way of life that was deeply subversive of his culture’s gender inequality. And he is part of a broader biblical movement (including the OT, Jesus, and other NT writers) that set in motion a trajectory that leads to an ultimate ethic of full equality for women in church and society. The egalitarian position fits within this paradigm very well.

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1 William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 37.
2 Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, 38.

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