“In a lawsuit, the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.”Proverbs 18:17
Proverbs 18:17 is convicting. It’s a court room maxim reminding those listening to the witnesses of a crime to not always believe the first things they hear. The first side of a story is always going to sound right, but if we don’t allow ourselves to hear the second side, we may never know the actual truth. Of course, this proverb can be applied to much more than the court room. It can even be applied to the way we approach biblical interpretation. And in this second post on the topic of women in ministry leadership, that’s exactly what I’d like to do.
I recommend that you read the first entry before this one if you haven’t already done so. It can be found here: What About Junia?
Nijay Gupta, New Testament scholar and professor at Northern Seminary, remarked that when it comes to being either complementarian (women are to submit to male headship in the home and church) or egalitarian (women are free participate in all levels of leadership in the church and home), we can only be about 80 percent sure that we are right. Scriptural interpretation is complicated. There are godly scholars on both sides of this argument. And often, there are biases we bring to the table that will paint our understanding of a text before we even begin to do the tough work of exegesis and application. I think that learning how to see our biases is an important part of “hearing the other side of the story” as Proverbs 18:17 calls us to do.
That is the topic I’d like to explore here.
One of the biggest factors that kept me from initially adopting an egalitarian position of ministry leadership was assuming that all ambitions to do so came from contemporary culture. That is, I felt like those motivated to accept women as pastors and leaders did so on the grounds of societal progress: since society has progressed in a way that has made women equal, shouldn’t the Church catch up?
This, obviously, is a backwards way of thinking about the Bible. The Church should not be swayed by cultural movements. We should conform ourselves to God’s word and not contemporary trends.
Yet, there have been instances in scripture where God used self-interested forces to accomplish His divine purposes. The Lord used Pharoah’s meddling to display His power to both the world and to discouraged Israel (Exodus 9:16, Romans 9:17). The Lord used the exile to provide the land a sabbath rest (2 Chronicles 36:21). The Lord used the courage of a Gentile Centurion to help motivate Peter to share the gospel with those outside of Judaism (Acts 10:1-48). So, while we absolutely shouldn’t change our views about women in ministry leadership on the basis of cultural pressure, isn’t it true that God sometimes uses outside pressure to open the eyes of His people to what the scriptures have been saying all along?
My daughter has to wear braces to assist her in walking. She is able to walk on her own, and she will eventually grow out of needing them, but these braces give her the posture support she needs to walk correctly without falling. Before we learned that my daughter had some mobility challenges, I was relatively unaware of mobility disabilities. But now, I have heightened insights about stairs, steps, and types of shoes with side-zippers that can actually fit foot-braces within them. I am also much more interested in biblical texts that contain people with disabilities than I ever was before. Because of my daughter’s experiences, I am now more cognizant of the struggle certain characters in scripture must have faced. This has enhanced my understanding of these passages.
Modern insights can be beneficial. They can teach us to study the Bible in new ways. Societal movements and trends should not be that which force us to throw away or dismiss that what the Bible contains, but they can be helpful in training us to ask new questions of the text.
Another area that I struggled with when initially embarking on the study of women in ministry leadership had to do with exegetical method.
There is no denying that there is scripture in both the Old and New Testament that calls for the subordination of women to men. There is also no denying that there is scripture in both the Old and New Testament that subverts expectations of gender subordination by giving women more freedom than was found in other areas of the book’s surrounding culture. How we understand all of these texts together seems to determine where we fall on the egalitarian-complementarian spectrum.
If we begin with passages that subvert cultural gender roles, stories of women in leadership, and scripture that seems to point toward openness in mixed gender ministry, we will inadvertently use these passages as a lens to view the parts of the Bible that command women to be subordinate to men. Yet if we begin with passages like 1 Timothy 2:11-15, 1 Corinthians 11:2-3, and 1 Corinthians 14:34, we might conclude that passages which contain women in leadership are outliers and don’t represent the ideal.
That is, we are likely to first seek out passages that confirm what we already believe to be true. We will then use these passages that confirm our bias as a rule to judge others that don’t.
However, don’t forget that if we are going to commit to understanding the Bible on its own terms, we need to look at both sides of the story. Resisting confirmation bias is a big part of that process.
I think that, deep down, most of us fear rejection. We don’t want to disappoint our friends. We don’t want to upset our pastors or ministry leaders. We don’t want to shake the apple cart by admitting to believing something contrary to what others in our group may think.
This isn’t something new. In fact, this fear is exhibited in John’s gospel by the parents of the man born blind. After Jesus heals their son’s eyesight, his parents are questioned by some synagogue leaders. However, and despite knowing exactly who healed him, they pretend that they don’t. They were afraid that their admission would lead to their expulsion from the synagogue:
“We know this is our son and that he was born blind,” his parents answered. “But we don’t know how he now sees, and we don’t know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he’s of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said these things because they were afraid of the Jews, since the Jews had already agreed that if anyone confessed him as the Messiah, he would be banned from the synagogue.” – John 9:20-22
Because I grew up in a very conservative church, admitting that I had doubts about the interpretation of male headship passages would have put me in a similar position. I wouldn’t have been kicked out of my church, but I definitely would have been considered someone that was drifting down a “slippery slope.” The fear of rejection this caused led me to impartiality. I didn’t give egalitarian interpretations the same weight I did to complementarian ones out of fear of accidently believing differently than my friends.
This is actually a pretty common defense mechanism that we subconsciously use all of the time. It’s called belief persistence. When we hear a convincing argument for the side of a position we, or our in-group, disagree with, we often feel an overwhelming desire to rationalize away this threat to our current understanding. We may dismiss the claims outright. We may assume that those arguing for the opposite side are doing so for ulterior reasons. We may even try to block this new information out by reading or paying attention to only that which confirms our current understanding, like I was.
But this, of course, is unhelpful. And it’s especially unhelpful when it comes to biblical interpretation. Our aim in studying scripture should be to further understand God and His word, not to attempt to shield God and His word from something we think might be a threat.
What, then, can be done to fight these types of things?
Here are two suggestions:
1. Read and Consider Both Sides of the Issue
We should strive to give equal opportunity to the arguments of both egalitarians and complementarians. Don’t just dismiss one or the other as heretical without actually understanding the position. Read Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by Piper and Grudem alongside Discovering Biblical Equality by Pierce and Westfall.
It’s best to try to remain as objective as possible when studying texts or weighing theological beliefs. It’s hard to do this when we really only know one side of the position.
2. Interpret Texts within a Diverse Community
The best way to fight our in-group bias is to expose ourselves to others who don’t think like we do. If you only speak of these issues with others who agree with you, you will not change your mind. However, if you commit to reading and interpreting text in a diverse community, you have the opportunity to learn from others who have cultural, or even theological, insights that you may be currently unaware of or blind to.
3. Pray and ask God to Help Reveal Blind Spots
If you truly desire to learn and explore the biblical text, it’s best to ask the divine Author of the text for assistance. Pray, and ask that the Spirit help illuminate the pages of scripture in a way that might reveal to you your blind spots. We all have them. Or, at least I definitely do.
 See: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/cruxsola/2019/05/why-i-believe-in-women-in-ministry-part-2-gupta/