In 1 Women in the Church , Carroll Osburn reviews the literature on the role of women in the church and states that the positions of the authors may be summarized in four categories (I really have to apologize for the hard to pronounce — and hard to type! — words):
1. Radical feminism
4. Complementarianism or evangelical hierarchalism.
The radical feminist considers his views on women as overriding any contrary scriptures. Such feminists are liberal in the true sense of the word. Many would consider 1 Timothy as uninspired and not truly written by Paul purely on the evidence of Paul’s command that women not teach or exercise authority over men in 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Some would question Paul’s inspiration in general, arguing that no inspired man could have so demeaned women.
We need not spend much time with this approach to the Bible. I devoutly believe in the inspiration of scripture and am writing this book for the benefit of those with the same conviction. The radical feminists are not invited to this discussion.
We must be careful, however, not to confuse those feminists who challenge the inspiration of scripture with those non-radical interpreters who find equal rights for the sexes in the scriptures. It is easy for those who believe that women are subordinate to men to ridicule the views of those who find equal rights in the Bible by treating all egalitarians the same. There is, of course, a very large difference between those who accept the Bible as inspired and those who accept only those parts of the Bible that happen to suit their biases.
Paternalism is a view of women that is equally as wrong as radical feminism. A paternalist not only believes that women should be subject to men, but a paternalist often feels free to legislate rules in addition to those found in the Bible to assure that the church will operate as he wishes. It is, of course, just as wrong to add rules to the Bible as to take rules away. Thus, the paternalist is just as wrong as any true liberal.
Osburn cites F. Lagard Smith as an example of those writing with a paternalistic view. In Smith’s Men of Strength for Women of God, Smith struggles to bring his traditional views on women to a practical conclusion:
I don’t mean to cop out on this point, but it is the main principle about which I am most concerned.
Smith then mentions the difficulty in finding any verse or biblical principle that would condemn allowing women to serve communion in a silent role or to hand out church bulletins. He then concludes,
Somewhere along the line, the biblically mandated principle of male spiritual leadership is eroded. And somewhere along the line, the participation of women in the life of the church is contrary to God’s way … . This is why women participating even in relatively neutral activities, such as passing the communion or leading the singing or reading the Scripture, is dangerous — even if they do not lead ultimately to headship roles. … Crack the door open in biblically neutral areas of service, and we will soon find it to be a threshold to the biblically ordained leadership roles themselves.
It is hard to imagine how one can seriously argue that it is wrong to allow women to perform “biblically neutral” roles. You and I might well disagree over what is biblically neutral, but surely we can agree that no one has the right to legislate against women taking on a role that the Bible itself does not deny them.
One of the fundamental principles on which the Restoration Movement — and, indeed, the Protestant Reformation — is based is the All-Sufficiency of Scripture. (Sola scriptura is the famous Latin slogan used by the Reformers for this principle.) It is simply the idea that the Bible is all that we need and that it is wrong to invent rules in addition to the Bible itself.
This is much of what we mean when we say that we are to be “silent where the Bible is silent.” We readily criticize the Catholic Church for seeking to bind rules imposed by popes and church councils, but we are every bit as wrong when we state that — even if the Bible does not condemn the practice — women cannot silently pass communion or hand out church bulletins!
Another characteristic common to paternalists is a tendency to demean both women and men. For example, Smith also writes,
On the plus side, women are more open to the supernatural and spiritual realm — more willing to trust in the mystical and miraculous. On the minus side, many women go too far and succumb to fraudulent spiritual leaders and emotionally appealing but spiritually deceptive ideas.
… On the plus side, men are ideally suited to be in positions of spiritual “authority.” They provide a rational, cautious stability which, if sometimes overly entrenched, prevents spiritualism from running unbridled to its own destruction.
This kind of argument is not only insulting to many women; it is also downright silly. After all, the “fraudulent spiritual leaders” that women are supposedly inclined to follow are men. How does this make men better qualified to lead?
Some men are rational and cautious. Some are foolish and impetuous. Some elders are very emotional. Others very studious. Do congregations that have no male leadership characteristically run unbridled to their own destruction? I’ve seen some of our congregations do exactly that. They were all headed by an exclusively male eldership.
Why does being “overly entrenched” make men “ideally suited” for authority? Isn’t this plainly self-contradictory?
Burton Coffman, who is normally a very sensible commentator, in a note captioned “On the Deceivableness of Women,” states,
It is a gross mistake to view the natural capacity of women for being deceived as in any manner whatever a reflection upon womankind. It is positively her most adorable characteristic. …
But are there not historical examples of strong-willed, powerful women, impossible to deceive, who now and again have held the rod of empire or the affairs of state with great ability? Yes, indeed! But exceptions do not make the rule. Wherever such leadership exists in women, it is still a masculine trait. … Nature produces a two-headed calf now and then, but that is not the rule.
Also consider F. Lagard Smith’s analysis:
Far from men being spiritually superior to women, and therefore exclusively entitled to occupy positions of spiritual leadership in the home and the church, I believe the reason is just the opposite. I suggest that men may be put in positions of functional leadership because they are less inclined to be spiritual than women, because they are not naturally as spiritually oriented as women. Therefore God thrusts them into leadership roles so that they may maintain spiritual strength through the ongoing exercise of spiritual responsibility.
Excuse me? Smith is saying that God wants men to be elders because they aren’t very spiritual, but by being elders maybe they’ll catch up with the women. If Smith’s opinion of men is close to true, we can only pray that we will have women elders soon!
How can we justify appointing the least qualified to positions of authority? Does this comport with God’s teachings on the use of our talents and gifts? And how can Smith simultaneously contend that men are ideally suited for church leadership and that men are less inclined to be spiritual than women?
Such views of men and women insult both sexes. Whatever God’s will for men and women may be, it is not based on such a misunderstanding of the human condition.
The paternalistic views of men and women being published today would not have made much sense in the 1950’s, and are absurd in light of recent experience. Who would call Margaret Thatcher, Sandra Day O’Connor, Golda Meir, Elizabeth Dole, Condoleezza Rice, or Indira Gandhi “gullible” or incapable of leadership — not to mention Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great? Are we to dismiss all such women as “two-headed calves” and freaks of nature, or does God have a place in His Kingdom for women with the gift of leadership? Certainly any view of the Bible that leads to demeaning God’s creations is wrong.
Paternalists are further characterized by the following errors (none of which are universal, I should add):
1. Paternalists are often insensitive to the influence of culture on their own thinking and would even vigorously deny that such a thing could be possible. Thus, paternalists do not consider the possibility that the only reason they oppose women passing out church bulletins (while gladly permitting women to supervise the church nursery) is that they are used to seeing women in some roles and not in others — and not based on any disciplined approach to scripture.
2. Paternalists overly rely on “proof-texting” scripture. Rather than analyzing what Paul or Peter wrote in the context of the entire Bible, the historical setting, and the particular purpose of the letter, paternalists insist on interpreting out of context verses that suit their biases.
3. Paternalists often have a legalistic view of grace, and thus see any deviation from traditional lines as “apostasy,” that is, falling away from salvation. They thereby make agreement on every minute detail of the role of women a test of salvation and fellowship. (Certainly there are many paternalists who have a fairly broad view of grace — F. Lagard Smith would be an example.)
4. While never so intended by its adherents, paternalism results in serious cases of abuse of wives and children. Far too many men find in this school of thought a rationale to dominate their wives to the point of abuse. The abuse is often psychological rather than physical, and often the only scars are a loss of the woman’s self-esteem and personhood. And yet the problem is real — ask any experienced Christian counselor.
Being in a college town, my congregation often has to deal with emotional scars left on the daughters of church members who found in this mode of thinking a ready excuse to emotionally ruin their children. I assure the reader that the percentage of daughters of church members who arrive at college with serious emotional problems resulting from physically or emotionally abusive homes is far higher than most would imagine. While the men who teach this view of scripture never intend that their view be distorted in this manner, the fruit of the tree is apparent to the counselors and therapists.
Subtler but just as troubling is the lack of self-esteem that many of our older women suffer from. The older women in church beg to hear lessons on self-worth over and over again, and yet cannot persuade themselves that they have value in the eyes of God. No one ever preached that women have no value — not as such — and yet very many of our older women have learned that they are unimportant.
This is why I am unimpressed by the assertion of many authors who state that their paternalistic views are supported by many of the older women in their home congregation. While I don’t doubt for a minute that many older women would strongly avow that the paternalistic view of the world is their own view and the view that they are happiest with, these same women will often have very deep emotional scars from a lack of self-esteem.
The problem is real and cannot be rationalized away. Denial is easy, but denial only condemns our daughters and wives to continuation of a serious and severe problem. Neither can the problem be solved by telling men not to abuse their wives and children. Too often the men think that they are not being abusive at all, but are simply insisting on God’s plan for female submission. And too often our daughters leave home and arrive at college either taking the notion of submission to men far too literally or fleeing the church to escape this notion altogether. There must be a better approach.
And yet the Bible repeatedly teaches submission. Nothing that I’ve said or experienced changes that. But we are not teaching the true, biblical view of submission. If we were, our mothers, wives, and daughters would be far better adjusted and happier, and far freer of emotional scarring.
Finally, I must add that not all who agree with the paternalists are guilty of these errors. Many have been influenced by these teachings without having independently considered their merits. Thus, I do not intend to characterize all who believe this way. Rather, I am speaking only of the intellectual champions of this school of thought that has had such a great influence over the Church’s practices.
This leaves for consideration the “moderate approaches”: hierarchalism and egalitarianism. The two views differ markedly in some areas but also find much common ground.
Some refer to hierchalism as “complementarianism.” I don’t think that’s quite right, because my own view is that wives are to be complements to their husbands. Rather, reject the hierarchic aspects of this school of thought. Hence, I use “hierchalism” (or “hierarchicalism,” which I find nearly unpronounceable).
The school of thought is difficult to summarize, because there are many gradations of opinion. John Mark Hicks’ definition is likely as good as could be found,
Complementarianism: asserts the principle of male “headship” (or, male spiritual leadership) but maintains that many traditional practices are oppressive and deny women the freedom that God permits and encourages. This group is open to more significant and visible participation by women in church life and the assembly though they wish to maintain the principle of male “headship” in the church and family.
The hierarchalist school of thought finds that God’s creation of Eve as Adam’s “helpmeet” (KJV, Gen. 2:18) or “suitable helper” (NIV) denies to women any role as leaders of any men in the church or the home. However, typically in this school of thought male headship is not insisted on in the workplace.
Hierarchalists point to numerous New Testament passages as affirming the subordinate role of women while simultaneously teaching that the subordination of women does not make women in any way inferior.Rather, the viewpoint is that God has different roles for men and women, neither of which is inferior to the other.
While not universally the case, many hierarchalists consider 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 as applying only in the cultural situation in which it was written, but nearly all consider the prohibitions on women teaching or having authority over men in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as still binding.
Thus, some hierarchalists (not all) would permit women to take on any role, even limited public speaking, that is not a “headship” role (see 1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23). Thus, some hold that women may publicly read scripture or give testimony but may not teach, preach, or be elders.
Now, I’m personally more in sympathy with the egalitarian school of thought, although I hate the term. I’d rather call myself a “complementarian,” as I see wives as called by God to be complements to their husbands. In fact, I find this a key principle underlying much of Paul’s teaching on women.
But the term has been taken over by those of the hierarchal persuasion, and so I must make do with something less accurate.
You see, “egalitarian” means,
Affirming, promoting, or characterized by belief in equal political, economic, social, and civil rights for all people.
And that’s not really the New Testament’s approach. It’s really more about being equally free to serve Jesus, using the gifts he’s given us.
The egalitarian school of thought finds that the Bible teaches that in Christ “there is neither … male nor female” (Gal. 3:28), such that, although men and women are not the same, those passages that limit the role of women in the church should be understood as speaking only to the cultural circumstances to which they were written.
Thus, these passages are no more binding today than the commands to greet one another with the Holy Kiss, to wash one another’s feet (John 13:1-11; 1 Tim. 5:10), to forsake the wearing of jewelry (1 Tim. 2:9), to lift holy hands in prayer (1 Tim. 2:8), or to maintain a list of widows over the age of 60 to serve as church officials (1 Tim. 5:9-10).
Hierarchalists and egalitarians
Common to both moderate views is a strongly held belief in the inspiration and authority of scripture. While some falsely accuse the egalitarians of rejecting scripture, in fact, unlike the radical feminists, egalitarians insist on holding to the authority and inspiration of scripture — although they refuse to be bound by traditional interpretations of scripture.
Both views express a high opinion of women and deny that women are inferior to men.
Also common to both is a tendency to bring their own biases to the consideration of scripture. As is true of all four positions, it is easy to assume that the Bible supports a particular view without seriously and objectively considering the text of the Bible in textual and historical context. It is easy to find blatant examples of this error in all schools of thought.
Thus, we must all carefully discipline ourselves to avoid this error. And we cannot reject a school of thought by pointing to the errors of some of its adherents. All schools of thought have made bad arguments and false accusations at some time or other.