Adrian Warnock has signposted and discussed a post of Frank Viola’s which focuses on the counter-cultural attitude Jesus had to women. It’s a post which I can agree with, although as some people who have commented on Warnock’s post have said the interpretation of what those passages then authorise and empower women to do can be extended beyond the conclusions reached in the blog posts. (Note here I didn’t expect to be responding two days running to something Adrian had written, it just happens that I have looked somewhat at both themes academically and so they’re of interest to me and I hopefully have something useful/ interesting to say in response.)
It’s another example to me of the complex and somewhat contradictory relationship ‘traditional’ Evangelicals and Evangelical churches have had with women and with issues of social exclusion and of why we have to be careful when talking about ‘traditional’ Evangelical attitudes to women and gender. On the one hand, they have tended to place an emphasis on male leadership and headship, and the role of women as mothers. On the other hand, the emphasis in these churches on activism has seen, at various points in history, engagement in a range of campaigns intended to benefit women and families, taking on board the biblical precedent which Viola and Warnock refer to.
In his book The Death of Christian Briatin Callum Brown notes how this activist role was one in which women were identified within Evangelical churches as being particularly well suited to and were involved in, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The temperance campaigns are one historic example which we can point to within this. With the re-politicisation of Evangelicalism in the late twentieth century, which particularly focused on issues relating to the family, this activism may be argued to have re-emerged. The recent Coalition for Marriage may be seen as one example of this.
Yet the complexity and apparent contradiction goes beyond this. Warnock appears to be a moderate complementarian (using the definitions he has given in this post). This means that he believes in the concept of headship and that there are some leadership roles only open to men. However, he also believes that women can have leadership roles which are either jointly held with men, (normally their husbands), or only give them authority over other women. Thus these churches which are often said to be against women in leadership are in many cases producing strong women leaders who in certain spheres of hold great influence.
Egalitarians and biblical feminists would point to the same texts and use them to argue that patriarchy is something that has grown up out of tradition rather than scripture and that Jesus gives a feminist critique of the religious views of the time through his actions. They would say other parts of scripture have been misused or misinterpreted in order to maintain patriarchy. Rachel Held-Evans whose new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood is out on 30th October and which is being widely discussed has put on her site a set of posts about mutuality which provide a good outline of the arguments put forward by biblical feminists.
Kate Coleman’s excellent talk on women and leadership at Greenbelt this year exploring the text about the Samaritan women at the well and what we can learn about leadership from it is another example of how a deeper/ different exegesis can lead to more egalitarian conclusions. It is an excellent talk for everybody and is an excellent example of how mainstream Evangelicals use the bible from a biblical feminist perspective.
There is then general agreement on the content and original meaning of the texts and the positive way in which Jesus took a counter-cultural attitude towards women. Where the differences arise are firstly how we should interpret and apply those texts now and secondly what the interpretation of other texts and information in the gospels and elsewhere tells us about the way women should be treated. The priority given to these texts against others is sometimes a key issue.
The way that interpretation takes place is an important factor leading to the different and sometimes opposing conclusions reached regarding the application which should then follow. Some will seek to argue that they are only looking at scripture and seeking the Holy Spirit’s inspiration in doing so. Others will say that they will focus on also take tradition into account whilst others will add reason and/or experience to that interpretive framework.
My own view is that they are liberating texts and whilst I would agree with Warnock as far as he goes on this I believe that the interpretation and application of them leads to a wider set of roles and freedoms for women than those he indicates. My interpretive framework comes from use of the Methodist Quadrilateral. That is I look at the scripture and what it actually says and what it meant in the context of the time it was written. I then look at the way it has been interpreted and used over time taking into account the traditions of the church. Then I look at my own culture and context (experience) and how that speaks into the text. Finally I use my reason evaluating the (sometimes contradictory) evidence/ conclusions reached from the other three stages – as well as praying for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
In addition to Held Evans other articles and books I would recommend for those interested in exploring biblical feminism and the debates around it include:
What’s Right With Feminism by Elaine Storkey which whilst dated outlines well exactly how biblical feminism differs from other forms of Feminism. Storkey’s chapter on Evangelical Theology and Gender within The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology Edited by Timothy Larsen and Daniel J. Treier gives a useful overview of the topic and debates within Evangelicalism relating to gender.
Evangelical Identity and Gendered Family Life by Sally Gallagher again explores Evangelicalism and gender coming from a biblical feminist perspective
It Will Not Be Taken Away from Her by Fran Porter is a biblical feminist text focusing on the story of Mary and Martha
For those interested in the development of the relationship between early biblical feminists and first wave feminism Beverly Zink-Sawyer’s From Preachers to Suffragists is something I’d highly recommend.
What other reading would you suggest on the topic?