Lame Complementarian and Egalitarian Biblical Arguments

6th post in a series.

This is going to be fun  🙂

If it was up for me to decide, I would favor “women in leadership” in the local church. Sounds good to me. I mean, why not?

Well…. I have a problem….

This is the kind of blog post that will send young children at school screaming home to their parents, cause federal governments to shutdown their services in an attempt to reach a settlement, or mystify people with shouts of, “What is with this guy?”

The problem is that as a Christian, I am obligated to follow Scripture, wherever it leads… and that is a good problem to have.

Scripture is the standard for the Christian. Not personal opinion. If Scripture supports “women in leadership” (whatever that means, and that is part of the problem), then I must submit to that. On the other hand, if Scripture does not support “women in leadership,” then I must submit to that.

In looking at the Bible, both sides have their arguments. I have heard some very thoughtful arguments supporting both positions, from the complementarian side, that typically argues that women should not serve as elders in a church, and from the egalitarian side, that typically argues that women should be eligible to serve as elders in a church.

At the same time, I have heard some rather lame arguments, from BOTH SIDES of the debate. So, in this blog post I want to highlight some of the most lame arguments I typically hear, from BOTH SIDES. Some arguments are more lame than others. The worst ones I will call “TOTALLY LAME.” Some arguments actually have some substance behind them, and so I could be wrong on this or that detail of the arguments. Nevertheless, I am not persuaded by them. I will call the arguments I am less sure of as “SEMI-LAME.”

I am going to get into trouble with both sides, as some will take me to task on what I call “LAME.”  But that is okay. I mainly want to get the lame stuff out of the way, before addressing more substantial arguments, in future posts. I am willing to defend, but I am also willing to learn, as I surely do not get everything right. So, if you think I need a mental “adjustment,” just leave your comments below, so that a conversation can be started. I am ready to listen.

Are you ready??

Are you sure??

Are you sitting down?

Good. Let’s do it.

Here we go….

TOTALLY LAME Complementarian Arguments.

(1) When we look at 1 Timothy 2:12-14, we read Paul saying that women should not teach or have authority over a man, because of the situation with Adam and Eve in the Garden. In verse 14, we read “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (ESV). This means that the fall of humanity was not Adam’s fault. Since Eve was deceived, that means that women are weaker emotionally,  and therefore, women are more easily deceived than men.

My response: This explanation is TOTALLY, TOTALLY, TOTALLY LAME. Yes, Eve was deceived in the garden. But what does that mean?

Where do we get the idea, that women in general, are somehow more susceptible to being deceived, than men? There could be a possibility of reading the text this way, but you have to front load such an interpretation with an assumption that is extremely difficult to prove.

Read the passage again. Paul is making an observation: “the woman was deceived.”  As far as we have it, Paul is simply describing the story of the Fall in summary, so the implications that the reader can draw from this about Eve’s character are not necessarily self-evident.

To insist that women, across the board, are somehow emotionally or morally weaker than men is rather lame, as it threatens to denigrate women as being made in the image of God. Nevertheless, this belief persists, since the more and more you hear it, over and over again, the more you are prone to believe it.

Here is some counter evidence, if you not believe me: When Paul was saying:  “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ,” (2 Corinthians 11:3 ESV), he was not targeting women alone. “Your thoughts.” Who was the “your?” Paul was including women AND men together, as being vulnerable to being led astray.

Men and women are different, so it might be fair to say that both men and women could be deceived in different ways. Fair enough. But we should be careful not to read in too quickly certain moral or emotional qualities, or dysfunctionalities, to one another, with respect to Eve’s deception, if the text does not adequately support it.

Technically, Eve’s deception was not her sin, though she used that as an excuse, by blaming the serpent (Genesis 3:13). Rather, her sin was in not doing a “fact check” on the serpent’s claims, when she could have consulted Adam and/or God for verification.

Why do I say this? Because this lame argument completely neglects the fact that Adam “was with her” (Genesis 3:6 ESV), namely Eve, in the garden, but he did nothing to intervene when the serpent came along. He just remained silent and let it all happen, as far as we know. Sure, we are told that Adam was not deceived. But that did not make him completely blameless, either.

Here we go, the demonic forces were attacking Eve, and she tried to handle the situation herself, without consulting Adam. But what was Adam doing, while forces of evil were raging?  Reading the newspaper? Fully absorbed in watching a basketball game on TV?

Afterwards, Adam sought to play the “blame game” by putting the responsibility on Eve (Genesis 3:11-12). But notice that God confronted Adam first, and not Eve, upon investigating the “FruitGate” incident (Genesis 3:8-13). In fact, in Romans 5:12-21, Paul puts the blame of sin on Adam, and does not even mention Eve at all!!

In other words, Eve sinned in her ignorance. Adam, on the other hand, sinned with full knowledge of what was going on.

Therefore, it is more reasonable to think that both Adam and Eve sinned. They just sinned in different ways. Why? Because men and women, though equal with one another, and made of the same “stuff,” are in fact, very different. What a profound mystery!

 

(2) Another interpretation of the same 1 Timothy 2:12-14 passage, suggests that because “the woman was deceived,” women lack the intellectual or spiritual capabilities to discern truth from error. This is the reason why women are not permitted to teach men.

Again, this is TOTALLY LAME. For if women lack the intellectual or spiritual capabilities to be able to teach, why does Paul encourage the older women to “train the young women” to grow in maturity in their faith (Titus 2:3-5 ESV)? If women are not doctrinally trustworthy, then they have no business training or teaching young women either! This interpretation is therefore completely absurd, because it forces the Bible to contradict itself.

Plus, I know of some women who are so clued into the Scriptures, that they can run circles around most of the other people, men and women, they encounter in their churches, who do not know how to find the various books of the Bible!

The point here, given this limited context, seems to be that women are not to teach men, NOT that they are not to teach in general. We will come back to this idea in a later blog post.

 

TOTALLY LAME Egalitarian Arguments.

(3) Egalitarians do not get off the hook for offering lame arguments. Some have suggested that, for example, if a church has 12 elders, 6 of them should be men, and 6 of them should be women. It is only fair. In other words, gender distribution in church leadership requires a quota system.

Lame. Lame. Lame.

As in, “EL LAME-O!”

Really? Where is that in the Bible? A quota system may work great in corporate America, but it is pretty lame to think that the Bible is trying to teach some type of quota system. We as humans do not get to decide what is “fair.” Plus, history shows that humans do not do a very good job when it comes to infallibly figuring out what is “fair.” True fairness is determined by God and God alone.

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!” (Romans 9:14 ESV). To assume we humans are able to competently judge “fairly,” the Bible counters with a different perspective, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5 ESV).

 

(4) The church is lagging behind secular society in giving equal opportunities for women leadership advancement. The church needs to get with the times.

I hear this reasoning a lot. But like the previous lame argument, this reasoning suffers from the same fault. There is no Scriptural precedent to support the argument. In fact, Scripture argues against this type of argument.

There are a lot of things the church does that are out of the step with the world around the church, but perhaps, that is the point. An illustration is valuable here: When I visit the Atlantic ocean beach near my Virginia home, the northerly moving current is so strong, that it can carry you away from where you started on the beach, without you realizing it. When I jump out into the waves, to try to surf them, I can be out there for 20 minutes before realizing that I have drifted hundreds of feet upstream away from where I first started.

The surrounding culture is like that underlying ocean current that keeps pulling at us, when we are largely unaware of it. Instead, we need to keep our sight fixed on Christ. Granted, the pull of patriarchy patterns of culture have pulled the church in the exact opposite direction, throughout the history of the church. Jesus’ message to women was quite liberating in first century Palestine, but you would be hard pressed to see this message in certain patriarchal, Christian subcultures, where the men routinely deny women the opportunities to obtain a level of higher education, or even in some cases, the opportunity to learn how to drive a car!!

In contrast, Romans 12:2 gives us the Scriptural perspective refuting this lame argument: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Following the drum beat of culture is not a good reason for doing anything. That is just lame.

 

SEMI-LAME Complementarian Arguments:

(5) Junia was not a woman, or if she was, she was not an apostle.

This argument comes under the category of semi-lame, because there is a lot of ambiguity here. The ESV renders the disputed verse in Romans 16:7, coming from the Apostle Paul, as follows: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.”

Nearly all modern translations (NIV 2011, ESV, NLT, CSB), and even the venerable KJV, translate the word “Junia,” which is a feminine name. There are older translations, like the NASB, that translate the name as “Junias,” which is masculine. The problem is that the best manuscripts we have available today show that Junia was, in fact, feminine. In other words, what the NASB translators did was in error (However, in defense of the NASB, more recent printings include the feminine, Junia, as a footnote).

Therefore, to continue to insist that “Junia” was really a man, is not only lame, it is most probably, just plain wrong.

The ESV confusingly cheats a bit by referring to Andronicus (male) and Junia (female) as both “kinsmen,” which some would imply to mean that both were male! But the Greek word behind “kinsmen” can refer to both male AND female relatives.

A more ambiguous part is found in the ESV rendering of Andronicus and Junia being “well known to the apostles.”

Compare that to the NASB which has the two persons being “outstanding among the apostles.” This would indicate that Junia was an apostle herself, as opposed to being well known to the apostles, as the ESV has it.

The Greek grammatical construction is difficult to tell with any high degree of certainty. So, technically, both translations are possible.

However, then we get to the difficulty of this term “apostles.” Would that mean that Junia was an apostle, like Paul was?

Once again, the problem here is that the evidence is ambiguous. It could indicate that Junia was “outstanding among the apostles,” within Paul’s circle. But the Greek word behind “apostle” could simply mean “among those who were sent,” kind of like a traveling missionary, a messenger, or even a church planter.

2 Corinthians 8:23 (ESV) is a good example of this more general usage of the term “apostles“: “As for Titus, he is my partner and fellow worker for your benefit. And as for our brothers, they are messengers of the churches, the glory of Christ.” In this verse, the “apostles” are “messengers,” and do not imply they held the apostolic authority that Paul had.

In other words, the idea that Junia was not a woman, and certainly not an “apostle” is not a slam-dunk for the complementarian side of the debate. But I list this as only “semi-lame” because it is not a slam-dunk for the egalitarian side of the debate, either. Romans 16:7 is too ambiguous by itself to decide the matter.1

 

(6) According to Genesis 3:16, the curse against Eve in the garden is that her “desire would be for her husband;” that is, she would wish to have dominance over him.

As I have written about before, Genesis 3:16 has been a very difficult verse to translate. It relates to the curse with respect to Eve, following Adam and Eve’s fall in the garden.

One long standing argument is the idea, that her “desire would be for her husband,” needs to be understood as that the woman will continue to look to the man for something that ultimately the man can never give to her. In God’s design, the woman should desire God more than anything else. But instead, as a result of the fall, the woman desires the man, wanting the man to meet her needs, and not God, which is a form of idolatry. Her “desire” is a misplaced longing for the man, instead of longing for God. Giving into this idolatry therefore allows the man to rule over her, “he will rule over you,” in a manner contrary to God’s intended purposes.

However, in the 1970s, a new interpretation was proposed, that teaches that the woman would desire to dominate, or rule over, the man. In other words, the problem posed by Eve’s fall is not idolatry, but rather, the battle between the sexes, and the woman’s desire to be in charge. Among many complementarians today, this interpretation has become standard. It is so popular, that many view it today as patently obvious, despite the fact that no one even considered this interpretation prior to the 1970s.

If I had a dime for every time a fellow Christian simply assumed this 1970s reading to be the most obvious interpretation, I would not be writing this blog post, while I am waiting for my other computer to reboot…. I’d be sailing the Bahamas in my nice new sailing yacht.

Now, this might be the correct interpretation (though I am not persuaded, as it adds words to the Bible that are not in the original text). But here is my point:

Complementarians have been very vocal to say that egalitarians keep introducing new interpretations, that no one ever thought of before, to advance their biblical arguments. They keep inventing new ways to “distort” the “clear teaching of Scripture,” even “adding words to Scripture,” in order to try to put women into the pulpit, so the logic goes. If that is case, why then do we have this novel way of reading Genesis 3:16, according to complementarians? So, it just seems disingenuous for complementarians themselves to then turn around and introduce a new interpretation, that was unknown to the church, prior to the 1970s.

That just seems pretty lame.2

 

SEMI-LAME Egalitarian Arguments:

(7) Lydia held church meetings in her house; therefore, she was the leader in that church.

Here is a case of semi-lame-ness, because the argument is based on an assumption, that while possible, is difficult to prove. In Acts 16:40, we read that Lydia did meet with Paul and Silas, and they most probably met her in her home. It is reasonable then to conclude that the church in Philippi began by meeting in her home.

But just because the church met in her home, it does not necessarily mean that Lydia was the leader of that church, serving as an “elder.” She could have been, but then, maybe not. When egalitarians cite the story of Lydia as proof that women were leading New Testament churches, they are making an assumption that may or may not hold water.

Similar arguments by egalitarians are often produced about other prominent women in the New Testament, like Priscilla (Acts 18). To insist on this type of argument as definitive “proof” is… well… rather lame.

 

(8) Martha’s sister, Mary, sat at the feet of Jesus to learn from him, just as a rabbi’s student would do in the first century; therefore, Mary was being trained to be a rabbi, or church leader, by Jesus.

Here is another case of making an argument based on an assumption, or set of assumptions, that are difficult to prove. According to Luke 10:38-42, Mary did seat at Jesus’ feet, to learn from him, while Martha was busy “with much serving.” Yes, we do know that rabbis in Jesus’ day did sit at the feet of their teachers, so that they themselves might become rabbis themselves, and then teach others.

Was she learning in a manner that had been traditionally excluded from women?  Why, yes. This was a radical move by Jesus, and profoundly liberating. She was being equipped to help others, to grow in faith, as would be expected of any disciple, male or female, whether they be “rabbi material” or not.

But does this necessarily mean that Mary was a rabbi-teacher in training? Possibly. Maybe. But it is quite a stretch to insist on this particular idea as definitive proof that women were teacher/leaders, with the spiritual authority of elders, in the New Testament church.

Once again, making an assumption, or set of assumptions, that are difficult to prove is not a sound basis for establishing any obligatory form of Christian doctrine. In fact, it is … rather lame.3

 

Why Consider LAME Biblical Interpretation Arguments Like These?

You may now go to the bus to pick up your crying children, stock up at the store since the government just went into shutdown mode, and call the insane asylum.

I have given you a lot to chew on. I know.

So, what is the point of enumerating these lame Scriptural interpretation arguments? I could be very wrong about any number of the above arguments (I would love to be corrected, if I am). But the point I am trying to make is that neither the complementarian nor the egalitarian side of the debate, at this level, is able to fully knock out the other side. Both sides can come up with some pretty lame arguments, that fail to convince.

Maybe we need to read Scripture a little deeper, and learn to be a little more gracious with one another, even if we end up favoring one side more than the other (as I actually do).

I suggest that both sides have a lot of things important for us to consider.

Stick around for the next few blog posts to find out….

 

Notes:

1. The discussions about Junia/Junias in Romans 16:7 are quite interesting. From an egalitarian perspective, here is Marg Mowczko. For a complementarian perspective, here is an article from Southwestern Baptist Seminary

2. Here is a link to the original paper, written by Susan Foh, in 1974, where she makes the now popular argument, that suggests that the woman will desire to rule over man, leading the man to rule over her, the “battle of the sexes” interpretation. The interpretation of Genesis 3:16 has become a dividing marker, not just between complementarians and egalitarians, but also between moderate complementarians and more traditional complementarians. Who knew???!!! My 2005 ESV Study Bible renders part of Genesis 3:16 as, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” However, in the 2016, supposedly “permanent” version of the ESV, that particular phrase was changed to read, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” So, what is the difference between desire “for your husband,” versus desire “contrary to your husband?” Actually, quite a lot. The more traditional “for your husband,” as championed by moderate complementarians, is explained here by Wendy Alsup. To summarize, Alsup believes that God never intended Adam to rule over Eve, from Creation’s beginning. Instead, Adam’s rule over Eve is a product of the Fall, due to Eve’s misdirected devotion away from God towards Adam. It is NOT the woman’s desire to rule over the man; i.e. Susan Foh’s “battle of the sexes” interpretation. Wendy Alsup explains here why the “new and improved” ESV translation is not as improved as the more traditional complementarians would teach it to be (DISCLAIMER: I personally find Wendy Alsup’s view to be the most convincing). Claire Smith defends the “new and improved” “traditional” view (now, is that an oxymoron???). Marg Mowczko offers an egalitarian view. Is your head spinning yet?????? 

3. New Testament theologian N. T. Wright, whom I highly respect, makes this observation about the incident involving Martha and Mary, with Mary learning at the feet of Jesus. While this is truly remarkable, and special thanks to Professor Wright for bringing this out, to use this as an argument against the received practice of the church, that of restricting eldership to men only, is quite a leap. Tentative or possible? Yes. But conclusive? No. 

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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