Saturday, March 3, 2012

Turning the Tables

I don't know how many times I have seen, on Christian websites that promote the full, functional equality of women in the church and home, rebuttal comments along these lines:

Why do you women want to be just like men? You can have babies, and men can't. You don't see men saying, "Unfair! We should be able to have babies just like women!" God has given women and men different roles in life, as is made apparent by our biological and emotional differences. Women are more nurturing, so men are given the role of spiritual leaders, to protect women from having to face the conflicts that come from speaking hard spiritual truths. You should be content with the caregiving which you are so well suited for, embrace your different role and stop wanting men and women to be exactly alike.

What is being compared here is a physical ability and a spiritual ability. Women have a certain physical ability men don't, so women shouldn't mind if men receive a certain spiritual ability that women don't. But what if we turned the comparison the other way? Suppose we lived in a world where women were traditionally in power. Here's what they might say to men:

Why do you men want to be just like women? You have the upper-body physical strength that enables you to lift and pull heavier loads than women can. You don't see women saying, "Unfair! We should be able to lift and pull just as heavy loads as men!" God has given men and women different roles in life, as is made apparent by our biological and emotional differences. Men are more aggressive, so women are given the role of spiritual leaders, to protect the men from the conflicts their competitiveness and posturing can cause in the church and home. You should be content with the physical labor which you are so well suited for, embrace your different role and stop wanting women and men to be exactly alike.

In each of these scenarios, the disempowered group is given a physical difference as justification for spiritual restrictions. In each scenario, the disempowered group is shamed for wanting something they "shouldn't" have, with God's will invoked to drive the point home. In each scenario, a bait-and-switch has occurred. A straw man has been set up that desiring spiritual equality is the same as wishing there were no physical differences. Since the physical differences are undeniable, the assertion is made that the argued spiritual differences are undeniable too. Each scenario also asserts an emotional difference which appears to make the group in power more suited for leadership.

My point? That the second argument-- that men should not be spiritual leaders but should leave that to the women-- uses the same type of reasoning as the first. They are the same basic arguments, based on the same categories of fact, so can we say that the first is logical while the second is nonsense? And yet only one of them is held forth on blog after blog as a sensible justification for the commenter's position.

The only difference in why the first argument is made in real life, while the second is just conjecture, is which group holds traditional power which the other group would like to share.

Turning the tables shows exactly how strong the argument is. And it's really not.

Someone might say here, "But none of this addresses the Scriptures!" So here's another way to turn the tables. The main argument people make against women's full, functional equality in the church and home is, "the Scriptures are clear that men are to be in authority, and not women. Why do you go against the clear mandate of God?" And then they will quote a verse or two out of 1 Peter 2, or Ephesians 5, or 1 Timothy 2, or 1 Corinthians 14.

But what if we were to quote from Galatians 3, 2 Corinthians 5 and Romans 16, and say, "The Bible also quite clearly says that in Christ there is not male and female. It also says that we are to view no one any longer according to their physical natures. Besides, Paul honored women leaders and told the church to help them in whatever they needed. Why do you go against the clear mandate of God?"

The Proverbs say that one person's testimony will seem right until another cross examines him, and that for him who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him. And there really are two sides to the witness of Scripture on the male-female issue. If we take each passage at absolute face value, they contradict one another. So each side of the argument works to figure out how the two messages interact. One view says that the message "men are to be in authority, and not women" should not be read for mere face value, and the other view says that "there is not male and female, and we are to stop regarding people according to their physical natures" should not be read for mere face value.

The fact is that in order to take the "clear" face-value meaning of one set of passages you must refuse the "clear" face-value meaning of the other. The only other option is to decide that the Bible contradicts itself and shouldn't be taken seriously in the first place. So why is it that only one side of the argument-- the male-authority side-- sets itself out as having the moral high ground in "just reading the Bible for what it says"?

Turning the tables shows that both sides interpret and nuance the messages of the Bible, not just reading each passage at face value-- and that it is impossible to do otherwise if we take the Bible seriously. The issue, then, is not that one group is playing fast and loose with the Scriptures, and the other is just honestly reading it for everything it says.

The issue is not which group is interpreting and which is not. The issue is which interpretation makes more sense. I've spent a lot of time, and probably will spend even more, to show why I think the female-equality ones make more sense. But the idea that we who see male-female mutualism, not hierarchy, in the Bible are just finding excuses not to read the Bible for what it says, really doesn't hold water.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I've never commented on your blog before although I've read several posts. I've always thought it was ridiculous to argue that 'women have childbirth' while 'men have leadership'. You may as well argue that 'women have superior peripheral vision' - both are physical abilities. The notion that men have leadership and women have childbirth is just a continuation of the classical notion that women are bodily, physical, "lower" beings while men are "higher",more spiritual and logical beings. It's just an ancient sexism re-packaged for Christians.

Kristen said...

Quite right, Annonymous; it's all part of the "Great Chain of Being" thinking which Aristotle started and the medieval/Elisabethan church ran with. Thanks so much for commenting, and please keep reading!