I have written extensively on this blog about why "But the Bible clearly says" isn't necessarily a very good defense for certain traditionalist positions. I've written a lot of posts that analyze certain texts which are supposedly "clear," but which maybe weren't intended by the original writers (or understood by the original audiences) to mean what seems so "clear" to us today.
This isn't one of those posts. Today I just want to write a few things from my heart.
I came across another Internet discussion this week that was all too familiar. A Christian writer said some general things about why having women in all areas of church leadership was a good idea. He talked about how women's perspectives, women's voices, are part of the myriad wisdom of God, and how the church is unbalanced when the only voices it listens to on Sunday mornings are male ones. How women's leadership might be the key to societal and world-wide healing and change in areas that most affect women, such as sex trafficking and spousal abuse. How Paul praised women leaders in his epistles and valued their labors for the gospel.
And as is so often the case, the responses of women who thanked the writer for empowering them were nearly overwhelmed by the voices, both male and female, insisting that this was all against God's clear commands in the Bible that amount to "Women can't and must not."
Women must not.
Exactly how much, and in what ways, women are to be restricted is never agreed upon by these voices. It's a song where some sing verses that say, "Complete silence. Keep her head covered and don't let her even pray or read scripture aloud." And others sing verses that say, "No, she can speak and even teach, as long as she only teaches children or other women." And others sing, "Just keep her from saying anything while standing behind the pulpit. Let her speak from the floor, not the podium."
But on the chorus they all join in. They don't agree on how much, they don't agree on where or when or which-- but "Restrict her! Keep her under male authority!" they sing in unison.
And the reason is always the same. "We have to uphold what the Bible clearly says, no matter what."
But what does it actually mean, that a woman must be restricted, under male authority? Why must she be?
"Because she's more easily deceived," some say. "Because Adam was created first, woman second-- and therefore he was created to lead and she to follow," say others. And others simply say, "Neither of these, but it doesn't matter. Who are we to question God?"
But if God designed things from the beginning of creation so that woman must be restricted, kept under male authority, then one of two things is going on.
Either women are not equal to men, because God created them with a certain lack of authority over themselves, or ability to lead others, that men do not lack. And this lack is intrinsic to womanhood, while any lack a particular man may have in the area of leadership, is simply an individual characteristic, not intrinsic to his manhood. This makes women, in their essence as women, inferior to men.
Or women are equal to men, but God simply decided that women, because they are women, despite lacking nothing that He gave men for authority over themselves or leadership of others, may not use that authority or leadership. In other words, they are to be under male authority even though God did not design them or create them to be suited for being under male authority. This makes God, in His essence, arbitrary and unjust. He makes rules without good reasons.
But those who restrict women today don't generally ask why. They don't think about what it means, that women should be restricted. They don't believe women are inferior, and they don't believe God is arbitrary. "The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it," is enough for them.
And this is the sad thing. That we'd rather live with cognitive dissonance, believing that women are somehow equal but yet somehow lesser-- or that they are to be restricted for no reason, but that God is still just-- than to believe it's possible we're misreading our Bibles.
We'd rather restrict women and have the Bible be "clear" than admit that we just might be wrong.
Certainty is more important than female humanity.
Because here's the thing. To consider women lesser is harmful to women. It exposes them to ways of being treated that are only appropriate for inferiors. It leaves them perpetually in a state of dependence from which they can never escape. In a very real sense, it renders them less human than men.
But to restrict women even though they are not lesser, is to restrict them without good reason. And this, too, is harmful to women. It says, "It doesn't matter how skilled or gifted you are. It doesn't matter if you'd be better at this task than 99% of all the men in your church. You are forbidden anyway." And this leaves women in a perpetual state of living with injustice and arbitrary, senseless rules.
Jesus said, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." He said, "And you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free." And He said, "If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father." And these words, most will agree, represent the overarching message of the New Covenant.
Surely, if a text pulled from the Bible to support a certain doctrine, results in something contradictory to these truths, there is something wrong with the way we're reading that proof-text?
Even if it seems completely "clear"?
How much of a "truth" can it be if it does to a woman what a man would not wish done to him? If it puts her in bondage rather than setting her free? Or if it makes the Father look totally unlike the Jesus who championed the woman caught in adultery, who spoke as an equal to the Samaritan woman at the well, who told Martha that her sister's choice to join the men in training for discipleship was a better thing than women's traditional labors? The Jesus who, resurrected, appeared first to women and sent them to preach to the men?
In Matthew 23:23 Jesus found fault with a myopic view of the Bible that focuses on "tithing mint, dill and cumin" but neglects "justice, mercy and faith." It's true that Jesus didn't tell the teachers of the law to stop tithing-- but what might He have said if tithing, as practiced, were actually against justice, mercy or faith? Should the practice of a "clear" passage of scripture result in active violation of justice or mercy?
And yet isn't this what "Women can't, women must not" actually does?
This is why sometimes I want to cry when groups of commenters on the Internet rush to uphold "the Bible," when what they're really upholding is, "what the Bible looks to me like it's saying, and I know I can't be wrong."
I want to cry because it's easier to say, "women can't, women must not" than "maybe we've missed it."
I know that those who believe the Bible restricts women usually don't think about it this way. In their minds, it's God's will, and if it's God's will, it must be good. I know it's hard to question what looks like clear scripture. And I know there's pressure from other Christians not to question, so as not to come under suspicion of not being "one of us."
And I know some women don't mind being restricted. I know some women are happy to be under male authority and to live with "I can't; I must not." But I can't help wondering if they'd be even happier if they ever came to truly believe they could follow Jesus and love God without these requirements. That they are free to let men lead if and when that works for them (and for the men), but there is no law telling them this is the only way.
But the way I see it, there's something wrong with the way we look at the Bible, when we read a small set of texts in ways that jar with its overarching truths. There's something wrong with holding the nature or treatment of women, or the character of God, hostage to a verse.
There's something wrong with righteously standing on obedience to the Bible while treating fellow human beings less than righteously.
And there's something wrong with clinging to the confidence that we're so very right in doing wrong.