Saturday, January 25, 2014

This Isn't the Way to Debate an Issue

Professor Denny Burk, on his well-known blog espousing a hierarchical view of male-female relations in Christianity, recently wrote a rebuttal of a post by Sarah Bessey (author of Jesus Feminist) in which she pushed back against the view of marriage that says "the husband is head of the home."  Here is a series of quotes from Burk's article that highlights the general stance he took:
The unblushing error of this statement is breathtaking. It is a stark denial of the straightforward teaching of scripture. . . I simply want to point out that egalitarian hermeneutics are not benign. They cater to the egalitarian spirit of the age by suppressing what the Bible actually teaches. . . We are not playing games here. The hermeneutics of egalitarianism are serious error and are harmful.
Retha at Biblical Personhood and Greg at That's It on a Cracker! have done a great job of responding to Burk's actual arguments.  But I would like to talk about something else.

Here are some of the things Sarah Bessey said in the post Burk was writing about, to voice her disagreement with Candace Cameron Bure's new book:
I believe that Candace Cameron Bure is wrong here. . . This method or strategy may well be how her marriage works – and if so, lovely – but it’s not necessarily biblical. . . Not only is the idea that wives alone are to submit to their husbands poor exegesis, it is damaging. It is damaging to the image of God carried in women and in men.
Notice what Burk does that Bessey does not.  Bessey voices in no uncertain terms that she disagrees with the hierarchical (aka "complementarian") way of reading the Bible when it comes to men and women. She states unequivocably that she believes the hierarchical view is "wrong" and "damaging." But what she does not do is attack the moral integrity of the person she is disagreeing with.  She says she believes Bure is in error; she does not call that error "unblushing."  She does not accuse Bure of being in "stark denial" of what the Bible absolutely says. She does not imply that Bure's Christian faith is somehow compromised by "catering to the spirit of the age."

The problem is not that Burk disagrees with Bessey.  The problem is that Burk couches his opponent’s arguments in such terms as “unblushing error” and “stark denial,” indicating that the opposing view isn't just disagreement or even error, but moral failing. And Burk is not the only one to use this method of debate. It starts by assuming there is only one possible way to understand Scripture unless one is actually being morally dishonest– and then uses words of righteous shock at the immorality of those who read the same Scriptures but understand them differently.  This puts the argument on a false footing from the start. The reader is encouraged not to simply examine each argument on its own merit, but to take one side because to do otherwise is sin.

Here are a few other examples, taken at random from various comments on blogs I frequent:
Paul is very clear in his writings about the role of women.Twisting his writings and trusting in feelings is unbiblical.
[The egalitarian author] has let surrounding culture influence her view rather than the bible. Falling away takes many forms and this article is one of them.
And another article that blatantly distorts the issue that the Bible clearly states that women are not (repeat: NOT) to be pastors in the churches.
You ladies have really twisted scripture to fool yourselves that women can preach/teach in an official church setting. . .
This is actually a logical fallacy known as prejudicial language, which is defined as "loaded or emotive terms used to attach value or moral goodness to believing the proposition."  Words such as "twisting scripture" or "blatantly distorts" turn the simple fact of a disagreement on the meaning of a text into a moral crime.

Now of course egalitarian Christians do sometimes also use prejudicial language.  They might say a hierarchical Christian is "throwing his weight around" or "ranting" about authority and submission, for example. But it is hierarchical Christians who seem to be particularly inclined to language that implies or even states outright that those who disagree with them are in rebellion against God or the Bible or are even leaving the faith.  This may have to do with a particular approach to the Bible which theologian Roger E. Olson identifies as Christian fundamentalism (which is the position hierarchical Christians most often adhere to):
To fundamentalists, there can only be one right “biblical” belief about every given important issue of Christian life and thought. The Bible is viewed as a comprehensive source book of revealed doctrines (and ethical rules). Thus, when two Christians disagree about the Bible’s meaning as it pertains to a doctrinal or theological issue, the fundamentalist believes one of them (or both) must necessarily be misinterpreting and even perhaps dishonoring the Bible.
As I have said before, I think this way of looking at the Bible is a foundational misunderstanding of what kind of divinely inspired text the Bible actually is: that it is actually a narrative about God's redemption of mankind, inviting us to become part of the truth of that story by entering that redemption through Christ.  When we look at it that way, we become free to allow differences in belief and practice, because what really matters is Christ's redemption.  As the Bible itself says:  "Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. . . [but] neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation." (Gal. 6:12-15.)

To be fair, there are hierarchical Christians who do allow differences and don't resort to prejudicial language; see for example Kathleen Nielson of the Gospel Coalition addressing "My Egalitarian Friends."  Her willingness to admit that egalitarian Christians are simply "different voices . . . affirming love for the Lord and his inspired Word, as well as a desire to see that Word proclaimed with gospel faithfulness to the ends of the earth" makes her continued adherence to complementarianism look stronger than it would if she buttressed her own view by taking verbal pot-shots at the other side.

I myself believe that egalitarianism is a justice issue-- that placing men in a permanent hierarchy above women is fundamentally unjust, and I make no apology for that.  But I will admit that many Christians don't see it that way, and that many of them are sincerely trying to be as faithful to what they believe the Bible teaches as I am trying to be faithful to what I believe the Bible teaches.

The point is that if we truly believe our point of view is right, we should be able to trust it enough to let it argue for itself.  If someone feels the need to make opposing views look immoral and sinful, it can actually make their own view appear weak.

I'm hoping that many complementarians can agree with me (and with their own Kathleen Nielson) about this.  We can, as my grandmother used to say, "disagree without being disagreeable."

In the end we're all disciples of Christ, doing our best to follow Him, right? So let's not bite and devour one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in this: "you shall love your neighbor as yourself." Gal. 5:14-15.

Let's permanently lose terms like "unblushing error" and "twisting scripture."  They're not doing any of us any good.


Donald Johnson said...

"Twisting Scripture" is a reference to Scripture (I think you know this).

2Pe 3:15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him,
2Pe 3:16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

So Peter was willing to say that some people "twisted Paul's writings, which are Scripture".

My take is the comp paradigm is buttressed by fear and those fears are very real for its adherents, which is why such arguments tend to keep the comp tribe comp and since they work, they get used.

Kristen said...

Don - thanks for your comment! But I'm not sure what you're getting at. Do you think that Peter was not making a statement about the moral status of the people he described as "twisting" Paul's words? I think he was. I think he was saying that the "ignorant and unstable" were actually actively doing something to Paul's words beyond merely misunderstanding or misinterpreting them-- something that made them morally culpable. The word "twist" connotes a deliberate action to turn something out of its normal shape. Peter said this was "to their destruction," not simply that they were confused.

The Bible often makes statements about the moral status of people. It doesn't follow that we as Christians should use such language about one another, particularly when it's a matter of a secondary, non-essential teaching. I would be willing to use a phrase like "twisting Scripture" towards someone who was, as Paul put it, "preaching another gospel" in terms of the essentials of the faith-- but just because Peter used the word in a certain context doesn't mean we should use the word when debating a secondary issue on which Christians should be allowing for disagreement. "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty, in all things, charity."

Gina Draker STUDIO said...

It is certainly apparent that such prejudicial language is being used by those in favor of male hierarchy. Just today I reread an article by Sharon James in The Apologetics Study Bible (2007,Holman Bible Publishers) in which she states as one of her points:"Feminist scholars who reject the authority of Scripture simply say that the Bible is wrong on this issue."
There are arguably many such references within this one article, (as well as I find overall in this particular translation).
In my opinion, however, the debate between egals and comps unfortunately will continue to rage when such blatant bias and obvious misrepresentation is used.