Saturday, June 1, 2013

"You're Not Arguing With Us But With God"

A fellow member of Equality Central Forum (a forum for Christians who believe in full male-female equality in society, church and home) recently shared the answer she (her first name is Helen) received from a well-known ministry in response to a letter she wrote them.  Helen has given me permission to reprint and comment here on part of the letter she received.

This ministry (I'll give it a generic name: "Bible Preaching") promotes, among other things, the authority and leadership of males in all aspects of Christian life.   I quote here a few paragraphs of their response to Helen's letter:  

God’s Word and His law is the reason why women should not be in positions of authority over the man. You do not have a complaint against [Bible Preaching] as to this point, you have a complaint against God. For the Bible clearly states that wives are to be subject unto their own husbands, Colossians 3:18, (as opposed to any other man). If she is to be subject under his authority, how than can she rule over others? In Exodus 18:21 we see that it is MEN who fear God, that should be set over the people to rule. . .

You claim that you are a Christian and that you believe in the Bible as much as we do, and yet you have asked us to “focus on John 3:16 and not 1 Timothy 2:12.” Do you despise the command of 1 Timothy 2:12? It is a verse in the Bible which you claim to believe in, and yet you encourage us to disregard a part of it. This is wrong of you to do. You cannot choose which principles and commands that you are going to follow. . .  Please, I ask you, to repent of this mindset, to subject yourself unto God, and to desist from disregarding the verses in Scripture which do not correlate with your chosen lifestyle. Ultimately, as I have said, you are not angry with us for our beliefs and practices, you are angry at God. And from this, you must repent. (Emphasis in original.)

Notice what is being said here.  Helen is accused of "disregarding" 1 Timothy 2:12 simply because she says it should not be focused on in the same way John 3:16 is.  John 3:16 is one of the key verses in which Christ describes the nature of salvation:  "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believed in Him should not perish but have eternal life."  1 Timothy 2:12, on the other hand, is not about salvation, but is where Paul talks about his own policy with regards to a certain aspect of male-female relations, stating (in the ESV version that Bible Preaching prefers) "I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet." 

According to Bible Preaching, simply by stating that 1 Timothy 2:12 should not be as much of a focus as John 3:16, Helen is going so far as to "despise" 1 Timothy 2:12.  Are these really the same?  I hardly think so.  What I think is that the "privileging one's position" silencing technique is being used here:  in essence, "you-can't-disagree-because-GOD!" 

In other words, the Bible Preaching writer equates Bible Preaching's position with God's own position, using God's authority to render that position unassailable.  "You're not angry with us, but with God."  But what assumptions are implicit in such a statement?  Three at least: 

1.  "We are not interpreting the Bible, but just telling you exactly what it means."  

The problem with this is that the nature of reading anything not written by ourselves is interpretation.  Anyone who conveys a message to anyone else must encode the message in language and then speak or write it to the listener or reader, who, finally, decodes the message in his or her own mind.  Since pure-thought communication is impossible, the encoding/decoding process of language is the best way we have to convey thoughts to one another, but it is not perfect.   "I didn't mean that the way you took it!' can happen even between two close friends chatting over coffee.  How much more can it happen when the original message must be translated out of its original ancient language and conveyed into an entirely different modern language?

David A. deSilva, in his book Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, puts it this way:

The readers of the New Testament shared certain values. . . and ways of ordering the world. . . Modern readers, too, are fully enculturated into a set of values, ways of relating and so forth.  Without taking some care to recover the culture of the first-century Greco-Roman writers and addressees, we will simply read the texts from the perspective of our cultural norms and codes. . . This task is essential as a check against our imposition of our own cultural, theological and social contexts onto the text. (p. 18, emphasis added.)

It's a mistake to think that we ourselves have no social/cultural perspective through which we decode the messages of the New Testament.  As theologian and minister N. T. Wright says in his essay How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?"  :

"There is, indeed, an evangelical assumption, common in some circles, that evangelicals do not have any tradition. We simply open the scripture, read what it says, and take it as applying to ourselves: there the matter ends, and we do not have any ‘tradition’. This is rather like the frequent Anglican assumption (being an Anglican myself I rather cherish this) that Anglicans have no doctrine peculiar to themselves: it is merely that if something is true the Church of England believes it. This, though not itself a refutation of the claim not to have any ‘tradition’, is for the moment sufficient indication of the inherent unlikeliness of the claim’s truth, and I am confident that most people, facing the question explicitly, will not wish that the claim be pressed. But I still find two things to be the case, both of which give me some cause for concern. First, there is an implied, and quite unwarranted, positivism: we imagine that we are ‘reading the text, straight’, and that if somebody disagrees with us it must be because they, unlike we ourselves, are secretly using ‘presuppositions’ of this or that sort. This is simply naïve, and actually astonishingly arrogant and dangerous. It fuels the second point, which is that evangelicals often use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant, theology, since the assumption is made that we (evangelicals, or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying. And, though there is more than a grain of truth in such claims, they are by no means the whole truth, and to imagine that they are is to move from theology to ideology. If we are not careful, the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ can, by such routes, come to mean simply ‘the authority of evangelical tradition, as opposed to Catholic or rationalist ones.’" (Emphasis added.)

To decide that we are not interpreting the Bible, but just "reading it straight," as Wright puts it, is to close our eyes to the nature of our own humanity.  It is to assume for ourselves an objectivity that we are actually incapable of holding or sustaining.  In fact, it is a kind of blindness, a "log" in our own eye that we have no way of seeing past in order to remove the "speck" from the eye of another (Matthew 7:5).

Bible Preaching's letter writer thinks he (or she) sees a speck in Helen's eye.  But in asserting that he or she is not interpreting the text being used to find the speck, the letter writer is unaware of the log that must be removed from his own eye before the presence of any actual speck in Helen's eye can be verified. 

2.  "Disagreeing with us is sin against God."

Notice how much shaming is going on in Bible Preaching's statements above.  Helen is accused of not subjecting herself to God, of disregarding God's commands, and of being angry with God.  And she is told-- twice! -- that she needs to repent. 

The writer of the Bible Preaching letter has taken it upon him- or herself to determine Helen's spiritual state, and then has set himself up as her spiritual authority by telling her she "must" repent.  This, in fact, is spiritually abusive behavior:

When religion, God or the Bible are used to uphold a person or movement's real or perceived authority in ways that control or coerce, bringing shame, harm or misery to those perceived to be under that authority, this is spiritual abuse.

The Bible Preaching writer answering Helen's letter actually has no authority over Helen of any kind.  But the letter assumes authority* and then uses it in an attempt to shame and silence.  And this leads us to the third and most damaging assumption of all:

3.  "We are God's spokesman; we know God's mind and speak with God's voice."

Perhaps Bible Preaching's writer didn't intend this implication.  But to say "You are not arguing with us but with God, and you need to repent," does in fact imply that Bible Preaching is God's spokesman on earth.  It implies, "We could not possibly be wrong about what we believe God is saying in this text.  We know what God meant, and we have the right to take it upon ourselves to enforce that meaning."  The Old Testament prophets spoke for God, but Hebrews 1:1-2 says:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

There are no Old-Testament-style prophets in the New-Covenant kingdom which Jesus came to bring.  Instead, Jesus said, "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth." (John 16:13, emphasis added.)   All believers have the Holy Spirit.  Bible Preaching is not the final arbiter of God's truth or God's message in the Scriptures.   Jesus's life, words and actions are God's ultimate message to us-- and the Holy Spirit is our ultimate Teacher of that message.

This is why Helen said that John 3:16 should be given greater focus than 1 Timothy 2:12.  She was doing nothing more than placing the emphasis of Scripture where Scripture itself places it.   This is not disregarding 1 Timothy 2:12, but seeking to put it in its proper place within the overarching message.  And that overarching message really doesn't have much to do with women being silent or not having authority.  Instead, it's about what Christ has done in and for His people, setting them all -- men and women alike-- free from bondage to become a "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9).

God did not, to put it in schoolyard vernacular, "die and leave Bible Preaching in charge."  God sent His Son with this message:

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him."

If Christ did not come to condemn, who are we to communicate shame and condemnation to our brothers or sisters in Christ?  We Christians should bow in humility before the Son and His message, not turn ourselves into policemen to enforce what we think the message is about, on everyone else.

Particularly when the message is coming across as more about restricting women than about setting human beings free.

*Assuming and then abusing authority is probably actually much closer to what Paul meant in 1 Timothy 2:12 when he used the Greek word "authentein" to describe what he didn't want a woman to do to a man.  When Paul said it shouldn't be done to a man, did he mean it was ok to do it to a woman?  Is Bible Preaching's insistence on the letter of 1 Timothy 2:12 actually a violation of its spirit?


danandstephinsf said...

"If she is to be subject under his authority, how then can she rule over others?"

If the authors of this quote truly believe this (and I hope they do) then it also mean that men have no authority either, nor does any government. Christ was given "ALL authority over heaven and earth." If that is the case then no one has just authority other than Christ, and I like that.

- @danandstephinsf

Anonymous said...

Gag. What he said. Great post. What you said. Shane Claiborne's book, The Red Letter Revolution, also makes a great Biblical argument for true equality. :)
Really, equality is where is at, the Bible tells me so.

Donald Johnson said...

Using your terms, Anna was also a "Old-Testament-style" prophet, so you might want to update your article.

Helen said...

KR, thanks for posting. I'll admit I might not have been as Christlike as I should have been, but Jesus had very harsh words for Pharisees.

Kristen said...

Danaandstephensf, I agree. All authority used by Christians is merely acting in Christ's authority-- and we are to see ourselves as servants.

Myfullemptynest, thanks! And I'll have to have a look at that book sometime.

Don-- you're probably right, but I need to keep my main point from being diffused by the question of who is an Old Testament prophet in the New Testament and who isn't. I'm going to edit the post to simply say there are no Old Testament-style prophets in the New Covenant kingdom that Christ brought.

I should do a post about Anna sometime. :)

Kristen said...

Helen-- thanks for reading! I don't think whether you were Christlike enough or not is the issue here. They were spiritually abusive towards you. No matter what you said, they had no business saying what they did, in the way they did. To put any of the responsibility for that back on you would be victim-blaming.

Helen said...

KR a post about Anna would be great! She pretty much defies all of their narrow views of womanhood-- she was a prophet and single.

'Bible preaching' seems to have very odd advice for unmarried women And we'll leave it at that.

Judy said...

Great post KR! :) Interesting thoughts from some others, even not as extreme as VF who try the whole, "you're not arguing with me, but God" line.

The arrogance that their understanding is the only possible Biblical viewpoint is astounding.

Olga Evans said...

Okay, I believa in male authority, but this is terrible.

Kristen said...

Olga, thanks for stopping by! I do think that those who believe in male authority and those who don't, can find common ground together against spiritual abuse. I'm glad you agree!

Anonymous said...

Good post!

And I wonder what patriarchal ideologues make of Matthew chapter 15, verses 22-28 which relates Jesus' interaction with the woman of Canaan who came to Him to deliver her daughter "grievously vexed with a devil."

At first, Jesus didn't answer her, and when His disciples asked him to do something because she persisted, He responded, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

The woman, however, didn't stop.

Jesus still argued with her, responding, "it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to the dogs."

(And here is why I love both Jesus and this woman):she persisted--again--in spite of her "minority status," as it were, with regard to religion, race, and gender! AND JESUS NOT ONLY DID WHAT SHE ASKED, HE PRAISED HER FOR HER FAITH!

My point: not only did this woman, who was under far more restrictions culturally and "religiously" in that era, approach Jesus, pressing past the disciples who clearly thought she should shut up, SHE ARGUED HER POINT WITH HIM. And JESUS LISTENED AND ANSWERED HER PRAYER. He, Who did the Father's will at all times, recognized her, her need, and his mandate to respond to it.

And here's the best part: He did so because of her faith. Not her gender, not her status, not her heritage, not because of her husband, not for any other reason.

Methinks were Jesus a member of Bible Preaching church, given just ONE of the strikes against her arguing with a (male) disciple, that being her gender, Bible Preaching's version of Jesus would have not only chastised her for arguing with Him (an elder! a male! not even her husband, which would have been bad enough!), He probably would not have paid her any mind to begin with, given what the other "male elders" were telling Him.

Now, some might say, "but this is a metaphor describing God's plan for Gentiles to come into the church as well," but, of course, then, why isn't everything else a metaphor? What Paul said about women, for example?

Love it. Love Jesus. And someday, I want to meet that woman. She ROCKED it!

Cheers, and keep up the good work and the Good Word!

P.S. and if anybody can tell me what damage it does to a man who listens to a woman preaching and/or teaching, bring it! Or is it just about restricting/punishing women because of, well, whatever Jesus left out of the atonement, for, what else could this be about when you really think about it? Or when He said, "it is finished," did He really mean it, once and for all?

VelvetVoice said...

Wordgazer, good comments. I especially love the part about putting scripture into its proper focus with the rest of scripture. It makes authoritative men so uncomfortable!

Pnissila, I forgot about the Gentile woman, what a good story to relate about prayer and petition. I have to be careful to draw my stories from scripture when I talk to certain people.

Kristen said...

Thanks, VelvetVoice! Phyllis, I appreciate your insights! I wonder if you've ever read my own take on the story of Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman:

"Even the Dogs Eat the Crumbs"

Headless Unicorn Guy said...

"We are God's spokesman; we know God's mind and speak with God's voice."
-- Jim Jones?
-- Ayatollah Khomeini?
-- Fred Phelps?
-- Mullah Omar?
-- Tomas de Torquemada?
-- Cee Jay Mahaney?

Anonymous said...

Using the logic of Bible Preaching within the context of the Biblical world, do women then not have authority over male slaves? Just curious.....

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

I'm sure no one at Bible Preaching has ever been to Red Lobster. ;-)

Helen said...

Headless Unicorn Guy--

Yes. I see no difference between Bible preaching and people like the medieval Inquisition or extremist Muslims except that Bible preaching lives in the 21st century as opposed to the 15th and in the US as opposed to Iran.

I'd like to see them answer that one. Some groups like this do think blacks as slaves was ok, I'm not joking.
Mike aka Monolith
Funniest thing I've heard all day!

Don D said...

Kristen I agree with almost all that you say here, but I wonder if I would be in your cross hairs in one particular case. For months I have been reading, off and on, about Gays claiming to be Bible believing Christians, not just as celibates who struggle with same sex attraction, but people who believe in full equality, that anyone in the LGBT community should be considered as having divine approval upon their same sex relationship/s. (I added the "s" as I suppose that someone who is "bi" will feel it legitimate to have at least one sexual partner of both genders.) Now, I have tried to be open and fair minded and listen carefully to how one might understand that Christian Theology has had it wrong for close to 2000 years and that the Church (I use capital C for the Church Universal.) must accept gays as full members...but it still does not line up with what I see in the Bible.
People who believe that the Church must become inclusive and so support equal rights, tell me that they think that eventually the Church will have to change on this issue.
Now, if I tell someone that I believe that the Bible teaches against homsexuality in this way, am I being someone who controls or coerces and brings shame, harm and misery?
This is a hypothetical situation now, but it is not hard for me to foresee a time when this exact scenario would be a reality for me.
Could you comment on this, please, Kristen (and readers). Thanks.

Kristen said...

Don, I don't think having a strong belief that the Bible is "clear" on something is necessarily the same as telling anyone who disagrees, "You're not arguing with me but with God." Nothing I have said precludes anyone from doing their best to understand what the Bible teaches on any subject and forming a strong opinion on that subject. For instance, I strongly believe the Bible teaches that God intended women to become fully, functionally equal in society, church and home. But I don't think I have the right to tell a person who believes in permanent (rather than cultural) male headship, "You're not arguing with me but with God." No matter how strongly I believe the Bible teaches a particular thing, that doesn't make me anyone else's Holy Spirit.

What I am saying is that while neither you nor any congregation is obligated to admit LGBT people who are not celibate as members of your church, you also don't really have the right to decide for them what they have to believe about what the Bible teaches on this matter. I think you can say, "I don't believe the Bible teaches you can practice same-sex sexual intercourse and be in God's will." I don't think you can say, "If you disagree with what I believe the Bible says about same-sex partnerships, you're not arguing with me, but with God."

Kristen said...

Continuing from above: So to put this in practical terms, I think that congregations have the right to decide for themselves who they will fellowship with and who they will admit as members-- but that doesn't give them the right to tell other congregations what they can believe and who they can admit as members.

I think individual Christians can say, "I believe the Bible is clear on this" to other Christians. What they shouldn't say is, "My understanding of these verses is absolutely what God meant by them, end of story, you are in rebellion against God if you disagree."

I also do have some differences with you about the things you have said about LGBT people who believe they are following Christ. I know of no LGBT people who believe they are following Christ who would say "anyone in the LGBT community should be considered as having divine approval upon their same sex relationship/s" -- including multiple partners, one-night-stands, orgies, sexual promiscuity, etc. LGBT Christians, to the best of my knowledge, believe in committed, monagamous, long-term partnerships. I think that what you're saying reflects certain stereotypes and prejudices against LGBT people, and that it would be good to actually get to know and talk to some LGBT people who believe in good faith that they are following Christ, to hear their stories and come to understand them as real people for whom Christ died. Even if you never come to believe that you can or should fellowship with them as brothers or sisters in Christ, love for them as human beings should permit you to allow them to believe what they believe and to let Christ take care of the rest.

Kristen said...

One more little clarification: To say "I believe the Bible is clear on this" is a statement of a strongly held position. But to say "The Bible IS clear on this (there's only one thing it could possibly mean)" is privileging your position and thus silencing all dissent. "You-gotta-agree-because-GOD" is a silencing technique. "You-gotta-agree-because-GOD-and-shame-on-you" is stepping into spiritual abuse.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Glad I could give you a laugh, Helen. ;-)

Helen said...

Honestly, whenever I read anything from 'Bible Preaching' about men and women, this song immediately pops into my head

wickedqueenofmean said...

Hi Kristen,
I've been really enjoying bouncing around your blog. Lots of great stuff here. I had to share this post with a spiritually abusive preacher my partner grew up with. I'm including the link to the post just in case you want to have a look. I really couldn't make my case any better than you do. So, I hope you don't mind me sending him here. I don't really know if he will even read this wonderfully written post but I hope he will. I wouldn't normally bother to go the distance with this guy. But, it bothers me so much to know that there are people he is ministering to and being abused by him. Who may need some comfort instead of abuse and judgment. Anyway My Name is Toni Bissell Legates and my Partners name is Juanita Venable McGinty. Don't let the wickedqueenofmean throw you. Its an old joke. I really need to change my nickname. Anyway. Here is the link where I posted your article.

Kristen said...

Juanita, I don't mind your username at all! I went and looked at the Facebook conversation and saw that the guy at least read what I wrote-- but really, someone that deeply convinced that God is the source of their own position is not going to be very likely to listen to a differing one. I will only note that putting labels on a position and actually considering it on its merits, are two different things.

Juanita, if this guy is saying things that hurt you, the best thing to do, I honestly believe, is just to leave him alone. Hugs to you.

wickedqueenofmean said...

Oh no Kristen he hasn't hurt me. As I mentioned. It's more about giving a voice to those he has abused. My name is Toni by the way and my partner's name is Juanita. She knew this guy from her childhood. She got pretty upset at him on my behalf because one of his followers told me I should be ashamed of myself for what I said to him. She's spent a great deal of time trying to reach him but most especially those he ministers to who may be watching him beat people up with Jesus. I think she may be reaching the end of her exchanges with him. I was pretty shocked that he actually read your post. You never know when and where the light might shine for him. Anyway, Kristen as I said. I really enjoy your blog.
Toni Legates.

Kristen said...

Toni, I apologize-- I misread your post and thought you were Juanita! Thank you for your kind words. I had read some of what Juanita wrote on the Facebook page and still believe that it would be better for not to continue to engage the guy if it results in emotional harm to herself. God's love may someday constrain him to better gentleness and humility, but for now he found a way to simply dismiss and silence my words (on his page, at least) by giving me several silencing labels. See my post "Silencing Techniques" and you'll see what I mean.

wickedqueenofmean said...

Girlfriend, I've already beat you to it. I loved your post on silencing techniques. It was spiritual gold!