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Because the Bible Says So

A few days ago, Arts & Letters Daily linked to an book review called “Does God Hate Women” from The New Statesman. On one level, the book being reviewed seems fairly unremarkable.  It predictably and, in some cases justifiably, indicts religions for their historical subjugation of women and “exposes” God and his followers as being anti-women.  Those religious folks who have the audacity to claim that religion might have played any kind of emancipatory historical role for women are mocked and described as engaging in “theological contortions” that are untrue to the real nature of their religions (which, presumably, their atheist critics alone understand). 

The review ominously begins thus:

After all the arguments for subordinating women have been shown to be self-serving lies, what are misogynists left with? They have only one feeble argument that is still deferred to and shown undeserving respect across the world, even by people who should know better: “God told me to. I have to treat women as lesser beings, because it is inscribed in my Holy Book.”

Unfortunately, one does hear “because the Bible says so” in response to this or that doctrinal position often enough in Christian circles and it is especially prominent in debates regarding gender.  It is almost always an inadequate response.  According to John Stackhouse (in Finally Feminist), a legitimate question to ask of any commandment of God is this: how is this commandment of God (as I interpret it) both right/true and good.  He offers the following test with respect to the question of women in church leadership:

As a sort of dignostics test, then, perhaps we can consider these “sentence stems” to see whether they illuminate one or another interpretation of gender as good or bad:

  • It is better for church government to have only men and no women because…”
  • It is better to listen only to male preachers and never to female preachers because…”
  • It is better for all church meetings for men, not women, to lead in prayer, liturgy, music, and so on because…”
  • It is important to make sure that a woman who does participate in public worship has a man “over her” in some authoritative role because…”

Can these stems be completed patriarchally in any way that makes sense other than “because the Bible [as we interpret it] says so?”  I do not believe they can.

A few months ago, I was engaged in a discussion about gender on another forum with someone who was deeply committed to a patriarchal understanding of women’s role in the church.  This person had a comprehensive array of Bible verses that they were eager and quite competent to deploy.  They obviously had a deep respect for and love of the Bible and were committed to using it as the rule for faith and life.  In their opinion, biblical fidelity demanded the conclusion that women ought to be prohibited from positions of church leadership.  The Bible said so.

I decided to try a variation of Stackhouse’s diagnostic test by asking this person one simple question: Leaving aside the question of what the Bible says, how will the church suffer if women lead?  The response?  Silence.  Once the Bible was removed from the discussion, there was, apparently, nothing left to say.

I think Stackhouse’s “test” has application beyond questions of gender (although these are hugely important).  If what we believe the Bible says receives no confirmation from the domains of reason, tradition, or experience then we may simply be reading the Bible incorrectly.  “Because the Bible says so” is frequently trumpeted as the ultimate expression of obedience and devotion, but in fact often betrays a failure to think for oneself and to appreciate other important gifts God has given and has chosen to speak through.   If our position on this or that issue does not make any kind of sense (rational, moral, or otherwise) apart from the rejoinder “because the Bible says so,” perhaps it is time to rethink our understanding of “what the Bible says.”

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    The questions posed are the kind of questions people in the west have asked ever since the enlightenment. I don’t think they ultimately lead to an enhancement of theology, but rather to an abandonment of theology. It seems that the wisdom of the enlightenment is that faith is irrational – that enlightened people find that religion does not pass the test of reason.

    It is hard to counter the argument that the Bible is hard on women. In seminary one professor proposed eliminating at least 95% of the Bible on this basis – 95% does not pass the true and good test, at least as applied from a feminist perspective to the literal sense of the words.

    July 11, 2009
    • Do you mean that the questions Stackhouse asks lead to an abandonment of theology? How?

      I’m aware that the “wisdom” of the enlightenment perceives faith and religion as you have described. I would obviously have a differing perspective on both the nature of the question (is reason the ultimate standard to which everything must measure up?) and the answers given (I actually don’t think that reason and faith are mortal enemies).

      July 12, 2009
  2. Dale #

    AMEN!

    July 12, 2009
  3. Ken #

    What I mean is that historically the enlightenment has been associated with a loss of faith – nothing more than that. The Stackhouse questions sound like enlightenment questions.

    As much as the enlightenment has shaped my own mind and Western beliefs generally, it has let us down. Reason, as understood in the enlightenment, has encountered problems in the course of history – it has let down its disciples.

    July 12, 2009
    • I don’t think Stackhouse’s questions are enlightenment questions. I think they simply reflect the conviction that God does not command arbitrarily with no discernible purpose that can be comprehended by the other faculties he has given us. I think his questions are based on the theological convictions that God is good, that God wants what is good for us, and that God has made us to recognize and respond to his intentions for us and for the world.

      July 12, 2009
  4. Larry S #

    Hi Ryan – i like your blog 🙂

    Stackhouse’s questions remind me a bit of Web’s redemptive hermenutic Slave,Women & Homosexuals). Are you familiar with NT Wright’s analogy of the unfinished play (NTPG p.140ff 1992,Augsburg Fortress)? It seems like a nice addition to Stackhouse’s questions.

    I read recently someone writing about the gender debate something to the effect that ‘if one reads the bible through hierarchal lens you see subordination of women – there are other ways to read the texts.’

    if you are tracking the leadership/authority conversation on the denominational site and have time, I’d appreciate someone who is up on Wright’s unfinished play analogy showing up and waxing eloquent. I’m thinking a discussion about ways of knowing/interpretation (critical realism, positivism, etc,) would be useful. (That would be true for almost any of the discussions over there.)

    Anyway, regardless of your time/interest in my suggestion, I enjoy dropping by your blog once in awhile.

    Give James a hug from me.

    July 13, 2009
    • Hi Larry—thanks for the kind words. Yes, I am familiar with Wright’s analogy. I think it is an excellent one and it does seem to fit well with Stackhouse’s general argument in the book. Also, he actually footnotes Web’s book at one point and says flat out that he is operating with that kind of paradigm.

      I think you are right—the lenses through which we read Scripture are hugely important. I would add that how we understand the nature of Scripture is equally important. If we see it primarily as a compendium of doctrine or a repository of timeless truths, that will have a huge impact on how we read (culturally-conditioned) texts that seem to favour patriarchy. If we see Scripture as a narrative (as Wright does) that invites us to carry its redemptive trajectory forward, we may come to different conclusions. I think that how we understand the nature of Scripture is one of the most important issues we face as churches.

      I have been dropping in on the discussion you referred to from time to time, but not enough to have a good sense of the discussion. Maybe if I have time I’ll look at it again (although I’m not sure how “eloquent” I could wax about the topics you mention). I do agree that questions of epistemology and interpretation are hugely important. It seems to me that they are lurking behind almost every controversial issue Christians disagree about. To be honest, I don’t always have the time to follow these discussions properly. There are some very lengthy responses at times, and it’s not always easy to track who’s responding to whom, or which part of the discussion they are referring to. I do enjoy the brief visits I make though.

      I can’t promise I’ll give James a hug, but I will pass along your greetings :).

      July 13, 2009

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