I don’t often read materials from the so-called “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” (CBMW). They promote a complementarian position, that is (to put it rather tendentiously), that whereas men and women are supposedly equal in status, all of the roles in the church and the family which are generally considered to be of high status are reserved for men only. As my regular readers know, this is not my position. Authors associated with CBMW, such as Wayne Grudem, often try to justify their position from Scripture, but in my opinion, explained further below, their arguments are generally seriously deficient.
But my attention was drawn to a series of posts on the CBMW blog in which David Kotter, Executive Director of CBMW, responds to my blogger friend Molly Aley. See also the discussion here, and Molly’s response to the series (which includes an excellent account by Elijah McKnight of how he moved from complementarianism to egalitarianism when he learned a proper approach to the Scriptures).
In part 2 of the series Kotter seeks to root CBMW’s complementarian position in the doctrine of Sola Scriptura:
The complementary nature of manhood and womanhood and its implications for the home and church can only be defended from the Scripture alone.
But in fact neither his logic nor CBMW’s arguments for complementarianism support this conclusion.
In the lead-up to this conclusion Kotter argues:
The foundation of the complementarian position cannot rely on reason alone. There is not a convincing rational argument about why I should lead my family and not my wife. … The argument for complementarianism depends ultimately on Scripture alone.
I can’t make a convincing argument for male headship in marriage based on my feelings alone. Feelings are a helpful guide …
I can’t make a convincing argument for male leadership in the church or headship in marriage based on tradition alone, even though it has been the long-standing practice of the Church for centuries. …
Well, fair enough. His position cannot be established from any one of reason, feelings or tradition alone. But it is false logic to conclude from this that the position depends on Scripture alone. Logically, it would be quite possible for the position to be supported by more than one of these. In fact, if we borrow (in an adapted form) the analogy of a stool from ElShaddai Edwards, the conclusion will be all the more stable and certain if it has more than a single support.
But let us examine more closely Kotter’s claim that complementarianism “can … be defended from the Scripture alone”. Does this claim really hold? If it did, then wouldn’t every interpreter of the Bible find it supporting complementarianism, and wouldn’t egalitarians have to justify their position by rejecting the authority of Scripture? But (despite Kotter’s attempt in the first part of the series to portray “99% egalitarian” Molly Aley as rejecting this authority because she dared to question Sola Scriptura) there are plenty of exegetes of the Bible who have found that it teaches an egalitarian position.
Kotter attempts to answer this question in the third and apparently final part of the series. He does so by quoting from Wayne Grudem, concerning cases in which the Bible does have something to say on an issue (as presumably he assumes in this case) but interpreters disagree on what:
A second alternative more relevant to the gender debate is that believers have made mistakes in their interpretation of Scripture. Grudem says, “This could have happened because the data we use to decide a question of interpretation were inaccurate or incomplete. Or it could be because there is some personal inadequacy on our part, whether it be, for example, personal pride, greed, lack of faith, selfishness, or even failure to devote enough time to prayerfully reading and studying scripture.”
Indeed. And it is good to see in Kotter (is it also in Grudem?) a willingness to consider the possibility that this applies equally to both sides in this debate:
Please understand this primarily as a call to both complementarians and egalitarians for humility in dialogue, heart introspection, and a renewed zeal for engagement over the biblical texts themselves.
So, it may be the complementarians as well as the egalitarians who are working with incomplete data, or with personal inadequacies, and so the mistaken interpretation of Scripture might be their complementarian one. Is this what Kotter really means to say? I hope so. But if he really wants “humility in dialogue” and is open to the possibility that the Bible does not teach complementarianism, why is he Executive Director of an organisation which campaigns for the complementarian position, and which, at least in the past, has done so with dogmatism and arrogance?
So, what is the real basis for the complementarian position of CBMW? I touched on the underlying issues in my series last year on The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible. The matters I looked at there are both deeper and wider than gender issues, but differences relating to gender roles are one of the places where they are most clearly seen in practical application. And so I took the position of Grudem and CBMW as an example in that series. I wrote there, in the first part, that:
I have examined … what has been written on this subject by Grudem and his collaborators, and I cannot accept that it is truly scholarly. Books like The Gender Neutral Bible Controversy, by Vern Poythress and Wayne Grudem, are full of elementary misunderstandings of Greek and linguistics, and show every sign of being an attempt to put a scholarly dress on to an argument which is in fact based on fundamentalist proof texting.
In part 2 of that series I pointed out the major weakness of this fundamentalist approach:
It can be highly selective; an interpreter can choose to give great importance to small phrases, even the tiniest grammatical details, which support the position which he or (more rarely!) she supports, while ignoring the main teaching point of the passage in question. It can also be highly ingenious in finding excuses to dismiss other passages which seem to be contradictory – while rejecting similar attempts to dismiss the original interpretation as “deny[ing] the clear teaching of Scripture“.
In fact, it is possible to support almost any position on any issue of current controversy in the church with this kind of interpretation of Scripture. (Yes, I could even put together an argument for gay bishops if I wanted to!) An interpreter can take a verse of two out of context, selectively latch on to small points within those verses, and use them as support for any teaching they might choose to promote. They then use their ingenuity to reinterpret any verses which might seem to contradict their position.
I did not point out in that series the extent to which this fundamentalist approach is in fact based on tradition. But in fact the only reasons that I can see for these interpreters to rely on the passages which support their position and dismiss those which do not are tradition and prejudice.
Now sometimes prejudice may be a factor, at least if presented in a more positive light as unthinkingly accepting presuppositions from one’s cultural background. I have suggested that this may be a factor in John Piper’s complementarianism.
But it seems clear that a major reason why complementarians, especially those in the Reformed tradition like Grudem and Piper, base their doctrines on certain passages and not on others is that they are following the Reformed tradition of exegesis. Now I am sure that at least a large part of what their heroes the Reformers and Puritans wrote was excellent. But they were men (never women, among those commonly cited) of their time, and they were working with pre-modern understandings of the biblical text and its cultural background. They surely made some mistakes. They would never have accepted being treated as infallible authorities, as sometimes they are today, and they never should be. Instead, their contributions to Christian thinking need to be assessed carefully and critically.
Kotter writes, in part 1:
Is the Bible clear? It certainly claims to be.
But it seems that the clear teaching which he claims to find in it is in fact very often simply the traditional Reformed interpretation, which is often in fact not at all the interpretation which would be arrived at by a reader not familiar with this tradition. For he ignores the main point of one of the references he cites out of context, which is that the Scriptures
contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort … to their own destruction.
2 Peter 3:16 (TNIV)
Understanding the Bible is not a trivial matter. We cannot pretend that we can simply lift verses out of context and find in them simple answers to every question about the Christian life. Hard work is needed, and the humility to realise that one’s own understanding is not always correct.
The danger with arguments like Kotter’s is that they end up entirely dependent on a particular tradition of interpretation of the Bible. Those who are sometimes loudest in rejecting church traditions, especially those associated with Roman Catholicism, are often the most reliant on the Reformed tradition of interpretation. They claim to base their doctrines on Sola Scriptura, but to the outside observer, one sceptical about their tradition of interpretation, it looks rather as if they are really following Sola Traditio, tradition alone.