Not Talking Past

I first encountered the egalitarianism/complementarianism discussion when I was in college. I’ve been away from the conversation for nearly 20 years–having way too much fun enjoying my rich relationships to waste time theorizing about them–but of late it’s come up again. Naturally I have many friends who call themselves feminists, others who don’t prefer that label but will cop to ‘egalitarian,’ and a stolid few who know what a complementarian is, and admit to being one.

I’ve noticed that in these complementarian/egalitarian/feminist conversations — as is common with any highly charged issue — the two (or more) sides are regularly talking past each other. Here are a few key starting points that I’ve found to be helpful.

1. Ask “Was Paul right to give that instruction to that particular audience in that particular time and place, or was he wrong?” This question accomplishes two purposes. The first is to tell you what sort of discussion you are in. The “Paul was right, but he wasn’t speaking to our culture” conversation and the “Paul was wrong” conversation are two entirely different discussions. The former is an exegetical and pastoral conversation among Christians. The latter is an apologetic conversation between Christians and moderns who happen to take inspiration from parts of the Bible — entirely different religions, as Machen pointed out a while back. In the latter case, it’s a much wider discussion about epistemology and authority — there’s really not much sense in talking about the specifics of Ephesians 5 until the more foundational issues are settled.
The second purpose of this question is to regulate the exegetical conversation. Many (not all) proposed schemes for understanding the passages under discussion would imply that Paul made a mistake, if the principles were applied consistently (not that they will be…yet). If we are seeking to obey the Scriptures, rather than simply avoid parts of them that we don’t like, then it’s not enough to propose an interpretation/application that yields the results we’re hoping for, like medical researchers that work for tobacco companies. For the proposal to be viable, it has to address what we should be doing now, but it also has to account for what Paul told the original recipients to do then. (For example, a number of complementarian schemes for evading uncomfortable applications like head coverings fail to meet this standard.)

2. If you’re in an exegetical/pastoral discussion, talk about a specific passage, not about “those passages.” When we lump passages from 1 Timothy, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians and other books together, we are assuming that they all have the same basic things going on exegetically. That is a conclusion to be demonstrated, not a bit of groundwork to be assumed. Papering over the differences between specific books, passages and audiences is no way to exegete. Deal with the specifics of each passage; “those passages” may have less in common than you think. Or more—but you don’t find that out by assuming.

3. Meet serious exegetical discussion with serious exegetical discussion, and rhetorical tricks with rhetorical tricks. A serious wrestling with the application of that rough passage in 1 Timothy should be treated with respect. An attempt to dodge the Son’s submission to the Father through appeals to the immanent vs. economic trinity ought to be met with a proposal of immanent vs. economic gender relations. Likewise, a serious consideration of how to map NT categories onto present-day pastoral ordination (which has no obvious NT parallel) is well worth discussing, but a knee-jerk rejection of ordaining women under any circumstances ought to be met with a challenge to demonstrate that we should ordain anyone to the position of pastor, as we presently define it. There’s not much point being serious with people who refuse to be serious…might as well have some fun.

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