A few days ago, Arts & Letters Daily linked to a 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.”