Lee-Barnewall–Genesis and Ephesians on marriage

In Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian, Michelle Lee-Barnewall has two chapters on marriage. The complementarian-egalitarian battle in evangelical churches has been about both ecclesiastical roles and domestic roles for men and women. To engage with the domestic relations question, she deals with the Adam and Eve story and with the wives-be-submissive passage in Ephesians 5.

So first we have another rehashing of Genesis 2-3. Lee-Barnewall says the problem with much discussion of this passage is that people try to mine it for principles and rules when that is not what it is about. She finds a literary approach best. The principle conflict in the story is about whether Adam will obey the command of God. Eve is never given the command about what to eat but understands herself to be subject to it and susceptible to consequences of disobedience. Complementarians make too much of Adam’s primacy, but there is no reason to skirt to the differences in role between them. He is the caretaker of the garden and all that is in it, including her. She has a role as helper, companion, and partner.

As far as marriage is concerned, the story stresses oneness, intimacy, unity. The two are to be one flesh. The author sees a break in this when Adam tries to blame Eve for his disobedience. She is no longer united with him, but separated as “the woman you gave me.” This “objectification” of the woman is part of the fall from the ideal original state.

I agree with most of this, but would not put the idea of objectification in the Bible. Yes, the unity of the couple broke down, but objectification has modern connotations that I don’t think fit with biblical thought.

Lee-Barnewall’s repeated thought in this book is that the Bible does not use either equality or authority as its main standard for gender relations. The unity and oneness of God’s people is the concept that seems more prominent. For her, this is true in the story of Adam and Eve. The idea that men and women in marriage unite in oneness becomes the transcendent perspective for domestic life.

The second chapter on marriage deals with household rules in Ephesians 5:21-6:9. Actually she is mostly interested in just the idea in 5:23 that the husband is the head of the wife. What does that mean. Those who use this passage to support the husband as the authority and final decision-maker, see “head” as a synonym for “chief” or “ruler”. Egalitarians have sometimes tried to avoid this idea by seeing “head” as meaning “source”., as in the “head” of a river.

Lee-Barnewall goes into the use of “head” in Greek and Roman writings to show that neither of these approaches is quite right. In antiquity writers often used the metaphor of “head” to mean that part of the body that had an interest in the well-being of the whole. The head looked after the health and safety of the rest of the body. But there is no denying that “head” implied the part of the body that had the most importance and honor.

Then she applies the idea of “reversal” that she sees running strongly through, especially, the New Testament. In Greek and Roman society the person who was the head, such as a general or emperor could expect the members of the body under him to sacrifice themselves in his interest. So you would expect that if the husband is the head of the wife, the wife would be called upon to sacrifice herself for the husband.

But it is just the opposite. The husband, as head of his wife”, is commanded to use the love of Christ as his model and to give himself or sacrifice himself for his wife just as Christ did for the church.(Ephesians 5:25). This is a startling reversal and strikes at the heart of the macho ideas ingrained in Mediterranean gender distinctions. What would be shameful in the culture becomes honorable in the kingdom. This gives a completely different content to the idea of male headship.

In this context, when the wife is asked to submit to her husband’s headship, it is not in the interests of patriarchy, but of the loving unity of the relationship and the household.

I think this understanding of what Ephesians means is probably right. It is going to get a lot of push back today. I can hear critics saying that it still promotes male privilege.

We have a whole different world with women leading men in education and many careers. Some feminists are trying to put behind them their idea that marriage is slavery for women. With divorce at will and financial independence, women are empowered to insist on egalitarian marriages. The problem is that a lot of people do not find egalitarian relationships, where you must constantly and exhaustingly renegotiate everything, very attractive.

For these and other reasons marriage is in decline and relations between the genders– for younger people at least–have deteriorated.

This is not to say that Lee-Barnewall’s ideas, particularly her critique of individualism are not needed. It just seems to me that even in evangelical churches society is moving on to a new, and unsettling paradigm of gender relations to which marriage may not be relevant.

I say this as an old married guy who hopes to see his 50th anniversary in a few years. But I am pretty sure I would not marry in today’s climate. I am in a mainline church that accepts several different kinds of families and relationships–although I feel a little sorry for the confirmed bachelors in our midst. Many evangelical churches stress that they are “family churches”. But even many of them look the other way at cohabitation and other non-marital relationships.

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Lee-Barnewall–leaders as slaves

The claim of evangelical complementarians is that there is a special, God-authorized leadership role for men in the family and in the church. In a chapter of Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian about leadership, Michelle Lee-Barnewall refrains from challenging this. Instead she challenges the idea that leadership in the New Testament is a matter of authority and power.

Complementarians have more and more come to talk about servant leadership. But Lee-Barnewall is not sure many of them understand how radical the New Testament reversal in calling leaders servants is. She shows that the notion derives from slavery, not just from the idea of domestic help or some milder form of hierarchy. In Roman society slaves were at the bottom so far as rights or status were concerned.. There were other pyramids of authority with the emperor at the top. But a slave was at none of these levels. A slave had no individual freedom or rights.

Three New Testament passages stand out in her discussion.
First, is the passage in Matthew 20 where Jesus specifically talks about leadership. He says that there are levels of authority and chains of command among the pagans, but that “it shall not be so” with his disciples. They are not to “lord it over” one another. Whoever wants to be great must be the servant of the others. Whoever wants to be first must be slave of the others. (See Matthew 20:25-26).

I took a look at the Greek in verse 25. There are two words for how Gentile rulers acted. One of them is based on the word for lord and the other on the word for power. Jesus says his disciples should not have this kind of arrangement. Leadership among them must not be about lordship or exercising power. The church eventually developed a structure that contradicted this. In fact, the church eventually took its form of organization from the Roman power structure. So, no wonder we got so screwed up.

But it is more than that. In Matthew 20 Jesus is approaching his crucifixion. The implication is that he is modeling a new form of authority.

Paul picked up on that and saw leadership in the church derived from the cross.

In Philippians 2:5 ff. part of what he is dealing with seems to be conflict among some of the (female) leaders (4:2). In this context, he points to Jesus and says that the Philippians should have the same mind as Christ. Specifically, he points to how Jesus emptied himself and took the form of a slave when he endured the humiliation of the cross. Yet God “highly exalted” him. So this is the second passage.

But 1st Corinthians provides the largest treasure of material on this theme. The problem was definitely about leadership. Some were claiming allegiance to Paul, some to Apollos, and some to Cephas (Peter). Paul stressed that all these leaders were servants and that they all depended upon God for the effectiveness of their work. Leadership was not about human power and wisdom but about God who showed in Christ and his cross that there was a reversal so that human weakness and foolishness showed the authority of God. This is about the impression that in going to the cross Jesus was foolish and displayed weakness. Paul highlights the powerful reversal of the world’s standards that following a crucified Messiah implies. (see 1 Corinthians 1-2).

Lee-Barnewall gets from this that the New Testament sees true leadership in dependence upon God.

So she thinks that most complementarians have not gone far enough. In the New Testament context we have more than servant leadership.

In this context, “servant” would seem to more than qualify “leadership”. Instead it provides an essential component so that one must be a servant before one can be a leader…. Thus, rather than considering how servanthood modifies a type of leadership, it may be better to ask how servanthood forms a necessary basis for leadership, even authority, and how a kingdom perspective of reversal explains this paradoxical notion (p. 106).

So even if the New Testament gives men a special leadership role, what kind of leadership role would that be? The model of the crucifixion of Christ seems to mean it would be a sacrificial role. But what do leaders sacrifice? The category of slavery seems to point to a sacrifice of rights, status and power. In that case, what would leadership look like?

I think the author makes a number of excellent points here. “Reversal” is a fruitful category.

I hate church bureaucracy and hierarchy. Her idea that leadership is sacrificial and based on dependence upon God is very appealing.

So far, although she has mentioned that the persecution of the church in the pastoral letters and 1 Peter may have called for elders to lead with a stronger hand, she has not really grappled with the situations that led the church to feel a practical need for powerful leaders. Did Jesus really think that the church could go on and on with a free-wheeling, charismatic kind of leadership? Or was this an interim polity, not taking into account the delay of the Judgment Day?

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Lee-Barnewall–a transcendent perspective

Michelle Lee-Barnewall turns to the biblical basis for gender relations.  This is in her book, Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian

Her first category is the kingdom of God.  The issue here is whether the post-French Revolution idea of egalitarianism applies to the kingdom.  Most feminists will say that their movement is all about equality.  But the kingdom of God in the Bible is not necessarily about that.  Perhaps, though, the idea is not totally unbiblical.

Within the kingdom of God, she says, human relations are more about unity and corporate identity.  God has redeemed a people to be his own.  She sees the church as the fulfillment of the promises to Israel.  (I am not now going to get sidetracked by the issue of the supercessionism her argument implies.)  The church is now God’s holy nation (1 Peter 2:9).  Among human communities the church is supposed to stand out as different because of its unique identity as God’s own people.  People in the church are to love one another.  They are to maintain unity of purpose and devotion.

So for the church it cannot be about either male privileges or female rights. It has to be more about corporate unity and witness.

A second category is that of “reversals”.  In the Hebrew Bible there are a large number of reversals of expectations about social rights and privileges.  Younger children receive power in cases like that of David against the social expectations associated with birth order.  In the New Testament there is a reversal of expectations in regard to rich and poor.  In Hades Lazarus rather than the rich man receives blessing.  Women, rather than men, become the first witnesses to the resurrection.  These are just a few instances of the wide range of biblical reversals that show that God’s ways are not our ways.

In 1 Corinthians Paul offers something of a rational for such reversals in a dialogue about the power in weakness.  What matters in the kingdom is not human power but dependence upon God.  He sees in the cross of Jesus the ultimate reversal as weakness breaks through and attains a victory over human claims to power.

Jesus’ teaching that the first will be last and the last first fits with the theme of reversal in the kingdom and applies to leadership.  Lee-Barnewall concludes that in the church people’s identity does not come from position in a hierarchy but from dependence upon God.

So on the one hand, the kingdom is about corporate identity and self-denial in furtherance of the interests of a people and their God.  It is not about our equality as individuals.  On the other hand, reversals of social expectations call any rigid leadership structure into question.

For Lee-Barnewall this means that equality is not a very helpful notion.  She says that it means different things to different people, making it hard to define anyway.  A more helpful idea is that of inclusiveness.  According to Paul the basic mark of the church is not equality but oneness.  This oneness implies an inclusive community reaching across gender, racial and economic boundaries.

If equality means a lessening of the importance of such boundaries, then a kind of egalitarianism will be implied.  But for Paul and the New Testament in general, practice must be about mutual upbuilding.  There is a new relationship between Jews and gentiles, slaves and free people, and males and females.  But it is not about claiming rights or pushing individuality.

She calls this approach a “transcendent perspective”.  It is the beginning of her “third way” beyond complementarian and egalitarian.

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Lee-Barnewall–egalitarian usefulness

I am continuing to write about Michelle Lee- Barnewall’s Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian.

She talks about the women’s suffrage movement as one of the social reform movements that grew out of 19th century activism. However, she does not talk about how evangelical women related to that movement. I do not know. I may research it myself sometime.

What she does do is to say that at first suffrage was supported on the basis of women’s right to free expression as individuals. She says that argument failed to get political traction. What eventually succeeded was the argument that women had something to contribute to politics that men did not. The notion the women provided a voice that supported domesticity, the family, and even holiness counter to male worldliness was what prevailed.

Though I do not think she would agree with the idea that women are more holy than men, she does think men and women bring different gifts.

This sets up a fundamental distinction.  On the one side of the feminist movement has been the idea of female individuality and individual rights. On the other side has been a more integrative idea that women make a contribution to society in ways other than just asserting their rights.

The civil rights movement in the 1960s highlighted the need to oppose discrimination of all kinds. So there arose a women’s movement paralleling it. Evangelical women came on board as part of a less radical feminism that emerged in the 1970s.  In 1974 Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty published All We’re Meant to Be: a Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation. This became the catalyst for evangelical feminism. The book criticized evangelical women for “sitting on the sideline” of the women’s movement.

Feminism influenced these women. But much preaching, teaching and writing in the evangelical churches was against feminism. So the evangelical women’s movement went to the Bible to ask again the questions about the place of women in family and church.

Lee-Barnewall makes the interesting point that the thinking of Charles Finney (1792-1875), the American lawyer turned revivalist, played an important part in evangelical egalitarianism. Finney was pretty pragmatic and a key concept for him was usefulness. Women should play whatever role in carrying out God’s project was most useful. And if their usefulness to the kingdom extended beyond the home, so be it.

It does not take much to see that a concept of usefulness stands over against what Lee-Barnewall calls the “hyper-individualism” of second-wave feminism. Also the idea of usefulness merges into the biblical idea of servanthood.

So there is a big difference between an ideology that is mostly concerned with individual self fulfillment and one that sees women and men as servants called to be useful.

But the evangelical women’s movement also owed much to secular feminism. It adopted the concept of patriarchy, the belief that the problem was not just about some unequal laws or practices but a cultural structure that led to discrimination against women. Just as black Americans needed more than legal rights, so women needed society to have a fundamental cultural change in attitude and outlook.

There was push back. She doesn’t go into it but some of it was nasty, like Pat Robertson’s blanket condemnation of feminism:

Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.

But beyond the polarization and unpleasant accusations she sees that as egalitarians and complementarians have debated each other’s points, there has been some progress.

In recent years there have been modifications on both sides, indicating dissatisfaction with the status quo. Terminology has changed, with “complementarian” generally replacing the use of “traditionalist” or “hierarchical,” and evangelical feminism more often referred to as “egalitarianism” or “biblical equality.” Complementarians began to emphasize the concept of “servant leadership” to refer to male leadership in the home and the church. Some complementarians qualified their position by agreeing that women can have leadership roles, with the exception of the “highest” ones, such as elder or senior pastor. As a result the argument that women can have leadership roles is not a distinctly egalitarian position. Egalitarians have also modified their position by insisting that they too were “complementarian” in that they believed in differences between the sexes that went beyond physical traits. However, complementarity did not necessitate hierarchy (p. 65).

This is how Lee-Barnewall sees the current state of the debate. Her book is about a possible way to move beyond it.

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Lee-Barnewall–historical reflections on gender and evangelicalism

I am reading Michelle Lee-Barnewall’s Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian.

She talks about the late 19th century as a time when the idea that a woman’s place was in the home became dominant. Before men went to factories and offices to work, their place was in the home too. Farmers and craftsmen worked from home. But industrialization and urbanization changed this. The world was divided into a domestic sphere and a worldly sphere. The domestic sphere belonged to women and the worldly sphere belonged to men.

This, I think, oversimplifies a bit. The older model still exists. I grew up in the 20th century with the older model of family, because I grew up on a ranch. We still have farms and mom-and-pop businesses. But the shift from an agrarian economy was the general rule and did change gender relations.

The interesting thing about this to me was the way it promoted a women-good-men-bad view of gender. Notice that the sphere of men was worldly. To the evangelical mind set this tainted men. There came to be a general idea that the domestic sphere watched over by women was the sphere of purity and righteousness. Women were the upholders of the national virtue.

This led to an unexpected result. Women began to promote national purity beyond the home by engaging in moral crusades and mission work. This started before the Civil War in America with women very prominent in the movement to abolish slavery. A number of women were public speakers for this cause. There was some debate about whether or not this was “unseemly”.

But the 19th century was a crusading age. A theological reason behind this was the postmillenial eschatology that saw mission work and social reform as ushering in the kingdom of God. For evangelicals it was an activist era. For practical reasons, women became the pushers behind many of these efforts. Some prominent evangelicals brushed aside objections. Jesus said the workers for the harvest are few. Men alone were inadequate for the task. There was a great work to be done and if women had the inclination and ability to participate, practical thinkers felt that this was an advantage not a problem. The famous evangelist, Dwight Moody, was one who accepted women as preachers and leaders.

There arose a number of women’s missionary societies. Women also vocally supported many of the social reform movements of the era.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the most famous of these was the temperance movement. Evangelical women were major crusaders for the prohibition of liquor. This was an example of the attempt to enforce domestic virtue in the worldly sphere that corrupted men. The displacements of the industrial age probably drove some men to drink. This tended to make these men irresponsible husbands and fathers. So women had a primary interest in doing something about it.

Lee-Barnewall doesn’t mention the xenophobic aspect of the temperance movement. It was immigrants like the Irish with their whiskey, the Germans with their beer, and Italians with their wine who were targets of prohibition. So these women were partly acting out of fear of foreign influence.

The author shows how it was the period after World War II that brought about new limits on women’s leadership and activism on the part of evangelicals. It was the dawn of the atomic age and the fear of Communism. So the Cold War generated a deep desire for security among Americans. Evangelicals responded by holding up the home and family as a bulwark of security.

There was a sense that the natural order had been disrupted by the war. Men got torn away from their families. Women got recruited into the factories and offices. Now in the 40s, 50s, and 60s the need was to rebuild the family. Energy in the churches that had been focused on supporting the war effort and helping society cope with that challenge now turned to fulfilling the responsibility of the church to support strong families.

Evangelical churches encouraged women and girls to devote themselves to the nurture of families. The idea of having a career outside the home was a something that detracted from their real duty. Evangelical churches restricted the role of women. Leaders began to teach that it was wrong for a woman to lead in any way in public worship. At the same time, preaching began to call for husbands to be the heads of families. The ideal was no longer using women in mission and outreach but maintaining the proper order in the church. Order required male leadership and female submission.

This all set the stage for the 1970s and the emerging emphasis on women’s rights and a backlash against that.

My take on this is that, although Lee-Barnewall mentions industrialization, she doesn’t really take up the very important role of technology in the changes. One of my daughters in law asked at a family gathering over the holidays what invention had most changed the world. There were several answers that focused on digital technology. But I maintained that it was birth control. As far as women’s position is concerned there are a whole range of other things as well. There are the advances in care that have made death in childbirth rare. There are labor-saving devices that have made domestic chores easier. There is infant formula. There is the availability of fast food and day care.

What these things together have done is to make it so that even if for biblical or evolutionary reasons you think women’s main role is child rearing and domestic support, you have to cope with the reality that those things aren’t so all consuming anymore. So what is a woman supposed to do with the rest of her life?

The 70s and the impact of feminism will be the next topic.

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Lee-Barnewall–a third way

Michelle Lee-Barnewall in her Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian starts by succinctly describing the two polarized positions on gender in the evangelical world.

First there are those who say that both at home and in the Christian community there are biblically set roles for how men and women relate to each other.  These include male leadership in both spheres.  These roles are not cultural, but are permanent realities of creation.

The other view is that the Bible gives us an ideal of equality between men and women and that when you work that ideal out it means that both at home and in the church men and women should have equal opportunities and share equal authority.

The complementarian advocate focuses on the issue of power and authority.  The egalitarian advocate focuses on equality and women’s rights.

Lee-Barnewall says this debate has had the benefit of driving us to look again at the ancient sources, but that it has also limited us.  It causes us to look at the two sides and ask what is wrong with one or the other position.

She cites the work of Timothy George who asks other, more relational, questions of this kind:

What do I owe to people of the other sex?

What can I learn from people of the other sex?

How can I better trust and understand people of the other sex?

This is a springboard for moving the discussion on from the issue of who has authority or who has rights.  Although these are important issues, the Christian idea that all in the body of Christ are servants of each other moves the conversation beyond power and rights.

The book is going to have two parts.  The first part will deal with the cultural context of the complementarian-egalitarian debate in the evangelical movement.  Both sides have accused the other of yielding to social trends.   So she is going to look at these by retelling some of the history of American evangelicalism by looking at it through the lens of male and female roles.

She is looking for a third way.  I think the following gives some sense of where she wants to go:

In this book, I propose the need to step back for a moment from the pressing questions of the day to ask whether they represent the best way to approach the issue. I also present some other possibilities. While our current questions have a definite practical value, are there other questions we should be asking, ones that are more foundational to the topic. In other words, can we gain a more robust understanding of the role of gender in the kingdom of God. which may then help us answer our specific questions? (p. 13).

The specific questions she is thinking of are questions like whether women can hold positions of authority in the church and whether wives can be equal partners in marriage.  I think her view is that those questions have divided evangelicals, so what we need is to go back to the basic themes that unite evangelicals.  From there perhaps there is a way forward.

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Immediate and future blog projects

This year I want to study grace in Judaism and Christianity. There are important new works by John Barclay and Jon Levenson. Both of these have a very difficult subject.

Grace, which essentially means the undeserved love of God, has been a huge issue in Christianity. There is a useful Wikipedia article about it. There are Protestant and Catholic views. Within Protestantism there are Calvinist, Armenian, and other views. Within Roman Catholicism there were refinements of the idea at the Council of Trent, and then an attempt to go back to Augustine with the Jansenists. There is a distinct Eastern Orthodox view. The article also goes into views held by the Churches of Christ and the LDS church. All this over the undeserved love of God.

Then there is the whole controversy in recent biblical studies and theology concerning the New Perspective on Paul. The old perspective was that Paul practically invented the notion of God’s grace. However, many have tried to show that Judaism is also a religion of grace. So, is there continuity or discontinuity between Judaism and Christianity about grace?

I will get into this eventually, but I don’t feel ready yet.  So I am going to read and think about it and wait.

So I will do something a little less ambitious first. Gender politics is a hot political topic. Many people who hoped for a woman president in the United States have been disappointed. So with the future of feminist advance called into question, the slogan “the future is female” is showing up on T-shirts at marches and on the lips of Hillary Clinton. (I wonder how many realize that this is an old lesbian separatist slogan.  See here. It is hilarious that the future actually will belong to posterity, but the lesbian separatist contribution to that seems minimal. Not, as Seinfeld would say, that there is anything wrong with that.)

Gender politics seems to spawn extremes. In the evangelical world this manifests itself in the terms “complementarian” and “egalitarian”. Complementarians usually claim that the Bible supports set gender roles with women eschewing positions of authority in the church and letting the men lead at home. Egalitarians disagree and call for opening up both the church and the home to the possibility of female leadership. But sometimes egalitarians are hard to distinguish from secular feminists.

I am not an evangelical and I have pushed my own church to open up to women serving in leadership roles, including as clergy. But I also consider myself a non-feminist (not an anti-feminist). I do not experience gender, especially masculinity, as primarily a social construct.

Anyway, there is a book out that tries to find a middle way between the complementarians and the egalitarians. It is Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate by Michelle Lee-Barnewall. So that is the book I will be blogging through while I continue to think about how to do my study of how Jews and Christians should understand the biblical idea of grace.

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