Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Logic of a Woman Leading the Church

A man in my church championed me (without my knowledge) the other day.

He was at a Bible study (I don’t know where: he didn’t tell me and I didn’t ask).  The person leading the study (on 1 Corinthians) read the relevant passage and declared (or so my friend heard – I think his hearing is pretty good) that women cannot be preachers.

My buddy was so offended that he stood up to say how wrong that was.  He didn’t name me, but said that his pastor is a woman and that shouldn’t a pastor be one who is called and who can and does teach the word of God?

I so appreciate his defense and his calling to tell me, but here’s the thing that’s stayed with me the most – the teacher’s reply: well, that’s my opinion.



The gentleman in question had just been teaching and proclaiming from the word of God, couching his statements in biblical authority – until – until someone disagreed.

Then he retreated into what I fear is the disease of discourse in these United States: the belief that my opinion is the last and best bastion of defense to anything and everything we think and say.  We have, I fear, confused the 1st Amendment’s protection against governmental interference in our expression of our views with an imprimatur that those views have some inherent worth merely because they are ours.

It makes us stupid, as in not sensible or logical.  Merriam-Webster


So it is with interest that I read today’s blog post from Dr. Marc Cortez on Complementarianism versus Gender Essentialism, essentially arguing that one can dispose of ‘Gender Essentialism’ (the argument that there are fundamental or essential differences between the genders) as the basis for God’s [claimed] requirement that certain role(s) in the church be peopled only by men (Complementarianism).

Dr. Cortez’s point is that Complementarianism (that idea that only men can be elders and hence preachers) neither rises nor falls logically on Gender Essentialism; that is to say, there are many possibilities as to why God may have required only men to serve in such ways that might have nothing at all to do with gender differences.

I beg to differ with Dr. Cortez's logic.  Here’s why: as articulated and lived (and we live our scripture much more than we read it), Complementarianism inherently holds that there is a gender difference in the very rule itself.

To be more clear, the very fact that there’s a (claimed) rule that men can lead the church and women cannot, is, in and of itself, a gender difference that is innate to the genders.  God’s motive in announcing the difference, as complementarianists claim, is beside the point: the rule establishes the difference and it is understood to be innate simply because gender itself is innate.

Putting it into another context may be helpful: an African American friend and fellow seminary student at the time pointed out something to me that had never occurred (but should have): a church cannot claim diversity simply by having folks of color in the pews.  If there is no diversity in the leadership of the church, there is no diversity; there’s simply some folk of color who go to that white church.

If logic is to be the sole repose for our conversation (I’m not saying it should be; that’s simply how Dr. Cortez has framed his post on this particular point), we have to begin not with the process of logic (the drawing of inferences and conclusions from a set of statements or propositions), but with the statements or propositions themselves.

It’s always most telling when it comes to logic what statements or propositions we choose as our entry point in the discussion.  Dr. Cortez references Genesis, but a particular passage in Genesis, as a straw man (that which one puts up to tear down), but even in the straw man exercise, the choice is telling: that Adam was made first.

This overlooks the very clear texts, which give two narratives.  In one, Adam is said to have been created ‘first’.  In the other, it is said man and woman were created in the image of God – an indication of simultaneous creation.

For his argument to continue, Dr. Cortez asserts that folks of my point of view (whom he calls egalitarians) must concede that there is exegetical warrant for the proposition that women may not serve in the leadership of the church.

No, Dr. Cortez, we do not.

As you yourself point out, that something has been historically so makes it neither logical nor biblically warranted.

But perhaps I digress.

Here’s my main problem with the logic of the exercise, and that is what this is – an exercise – in seeking to separate the view that women are ‘different’ than (which at least implicitly Dr. Cortez recognizes to mean ‘less than’) men from the position that women may not serve in the leadership of the church, Dr. Cortez overlooks the fact that even in logic, thoughts, feelings and actions are not linear.  They are, as best I can describe just now, interdependent.  Thus the proposition that women may not lead in the church inevitably leads (witness that it has led) at least some to the conclusion that women are less than, not only in church, but in every sphere of life.  Complementarianism may not need Gender Essentialism to survive, but we must not overlook the fact that complementarianism has led to, if not caused, the very idea of gender essentialism in the first place.

Human dynamics seldom, if ever, flow all in one direction.  Whether logical or not, it is observable phenomena and thus, whether it has to be true or not, it is true (which is where we come to the limits of logic).

In terms of statements or propositions, the most telling are usually the unspoken ones – the givens.  In even addressing this article, for example, are unspoken assumptions that those being communicated to can (a) read and (b) read English.  That’s a pretty simple one.  More complex are the set of worldviews brought to the table that are so ingrained in the individual bringing them that not only are they not named, but often cannot be named, because so ingrained are they that they're taken to be as self evident as air.

Among these (unspoken assumptions) in this case are (1) the assumption that the reader shares a common belief with the author (implied) that Complementarianism is a valid point of view in enacting the realities of excluding women from serving in the leadership of the church (this is not the same as deciding ‘what the Bible says’ – this is about what we, as living, breathing, acting human beings actually do with what we understand the Bible to say); (2) that it is appropriate for a member of one group (men) to decide what is or is not appropriate for members of another group (women) to do or not do; (3) that the Bible is a singularity – that it is one book rather than many and has one coherent voice, at least on this subject; (4) that Complementarianism is worth ‘fighting’ for or adhering to; and (5) that scripture may be approached without a particular hermeneutic, so that universal understanding is possible and even desirable.

(1) doctrine is not what we say we believe so much as what we enact in our day-to-day lives.  Thus have I heard a preacher proclaim with utter good faith that women should not work outside the home while I, his lawyer at the time and a woman – married with children and working outside the home – sat in the congregation one Mother’s Day.  It would be easy to dismiss him as a hypocrite.  But it’s more complex than that: what he said he believed was X while what he lived as his belief was Y and they are opposites.  The problem isn’t with what we do so much as with what we think we should do.  For the simple fact is that when it came to choosing a lawyer, this man decided based on who would do a good job for him that was someone he could trust.  That that person was someone who should not be doing this, according to his worldview, mattered not at all.  Nor should it have.  Because I work outside the home, I’m probably not a good candidate to be married to this man, but that has nothing to do with whether I was a good lawyer for his needs at the time.  All of this is to say that when we begin a discussion founded on ‘logic’ when it comes to things of faith and living out that faith, what is of more import is not what we say we believe but what we do.  Good concrete example: were I a complementarianist, I would hold that women cannot lead in the church.  I would base that on biblical passages that say just that while also saying such things as (I paraphrase) women should remain silent in church and if women have questions, they should wait until they get home and ask their husbands.  While adopting the no-leadership rule, in every church with which I am familiar in the United States, I cannot name one that prohibits women from singing in worship and trust me when I tell you, singing is not a silent activity.  And while there might be some pastors that tell the women of the congregation to ask their husbands their questions when they get home, there aren’t many (they wouldn’t last long in our time, would they)?  Dr. Cortez may believe he does a service to the ‘cause’ of complementarianism, but I’m wondering why it’s a cause worth serving.  And logic is not the foundation upon which to rest: (1) we follow a scandal to logic – just ask St. Paul; and (2) there is no logic where there’s no exploration of underlying assumptions.

(2) It is not flip to wonder about men telling women what to do and calling it biblical.  When regulations about Wall Street are considered by the government, Wall Street representatives are actually included in the conversation, for the simple reason that they’re the ones to be most directly affected (I picked an unpopular example deliberately).  Whenever I speak about what a people group not my own should be doing or not doing, a great deal of humility is called for (in logical parlance, we’d call that, drawing upon the legal paradigm, a statement of self-interest, hearsay, meaning inherently unreliable, not trustworthy to be considered as evidence of anything).  The reasons should be obvious: (1) whenever I’m telling you that I get to do something and you don’t, the bias in my favor immediately renders my judgment on the matter suspect (and it should); (2) there are thousands of preaching examples of people learning an entirely new way to see, read and understand a biblical passage merely by listening to someone not of their own people group.  Slavery is an easy example.  Poverty another (particularly apropos today as St. Francis’ words on capitalism are responded to with violent verbiage even by practicing Catholics in the United States who are people of wealth and means).  A silly, perhaps, example from my own life experience: I always heard Jesus’ admonition about leaving certain folk behind like shaking the dust from our shoes as just that – leave them behind and get on with the real work, the good work, with people who will listen.  Maybe that is what he meant, but I no longer know for sure, for the simple reason that I’ve now spent time in the Middle East, walking the kinds of terrain Jesus probably walked and I learned quickly that it is impossible to shake the dust off your shoes, which is why folk in the Middle East never wear their shoes in the house – the stuff just will not come off.  So now I’m thinking that maybe Jesus meant something entirely different than what I had been taught – maybe he meant that whether we leave them or not, we will always carry these folk and our concerns for them with us wherever we go.  The point simply is this: I must recognize the fact that I am not a man and that makes a difference to my understanding whenever I interpret anything the Bible has to say about men.  As a woman, I would ask the same of men.  It’s only logical to acknowledge the limits of our abilities and understandings and presumptions.

(3) the Bible is not a singularity.  It’s a library composed of over 60 books written over thousands of years.  It has different voices speaking to different people in differing circumstances at different times.  Women should not lead, yet Deborah was a judge (a leader by definition).  Hagar is the first person to name God.  Huldah was a prophetess.  So too Miriam and Anna and Mary and unnamed women referred to by Paul.  Junia was an apostle.  Lydia was the leader of the house church in her home.  Priscilla was a leader of a church.  Esther was the savior of her people.  Mary Magdalene was the first proclaimer of the risen Lord.  There are more.  Some were in the church.  Some were in the temple.  Some were leading from home and some from the battle field.  Sometimes biblical witnesses feared foreign women and ordered the men to divorce them or proclaimed that God killed those married to them.  Other times the biblical witness honors foreign wives, including them in the genealogy of Jesus himself.  Some rules in the Bible are for all time and others are merely for a particular time.  The inherent danger of doctrine is that it makes an idol of one understanding of a myriad of witnesses.  Failure to at least acknowledge the provisional nature of any doctrine, including complementarianism, is to abandon logic before even beginning.

(4) it may seem obvious, but it’s important to acknowledge from the outset that Dr. Cortez’s piece presupposes that complementarianism is a view or doctrine worth defending and worthy to stand on its own.  Stating ones givens is the first step in any exercise of logic.  I have to recognize that I am probably not the intended audience for the piece.  It is, however, cold comfort to me to recognize that Dr. Cortez is probably trying to persuade its adherents that they don’t have to argue the difference (read inferiority) of women in order to adhere to their belief that only men may lead.  In spite of what may be coming from a good place, I think they’re more right than Dr. Cortez: to say that women may not lead in the church is to say that we are inferior.

(5) Our hermeneutics matter.  I have a sufficiently logical mind to strive for universality as much as Dr. Cortez.  But I have lived long enough to, most days, surrender my logical mind’s efforts at cohesion and recognize that universality of understanding ain’t always all it’s cracked up to be.  Line dancing, the waltz, or mosh pits – it’s all dancing.  So I’ll grant you the freedom to conclude that my kind may not serve in your churches.  I won’t try to convert you.  For good or for ill, I’ll just exist and let that be my witness.

Why this matters: a personal account: I don’t talk much about what it’s like to be a woman who has spent her entire adult life serving in traditionally men’s work, as a lawyer then a preacher.  But maybe now’s a time to share just a little bit to give you an idea of the cost of the ideals and doctrines about what women can and cannot do.

As a pastor, I have been told that I was not some folks' choice because I am a woman.  That one didn’t hurt too much because I’d already heard it a lot when a lawyer.  But it is a reminder that in the eyes of at least some, I’ve got something to prove that my brethren do not.

On one side of my family, although a pastor, I am first and foremost a woman, and so may not say grace at family gatherings.  5-year-old boys may say grace, but I cannot.  And in an ironic twist, sometimes those closest to me get mad at me because I will not make an issue of it with my family.

In one multi-church gathering, I alone among my colleagues was not allowed to offer prayer or read scripture, let alone proclaim the word.  I thought I was strong enough to simply be present and offer my own silent witness.  I was wrong.  It was one of the most wounding experiences of my life, all the worse for the lack of recognition of the wounding by people I know to be kind and loving and godly.


Doctrine matters not because it matters whether we get ‘it’ right, but because what we believe to be true affects how we behave towards others, towards ourselves, towards God.

Our presuppositions, our givens, matter, because they, more than anything else, including the Bible, shape our doctrine.

The Word we’ll be judged by will be the Word we proclaimed with our lives.

May it be always and ever be a worthy Word.


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