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Review: “Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals”

SlavesWomenHomosexualsI took up William Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis as part of a challenge.That challenge was issued by a pastor friend after I made some comments on Facebook critical of Christian feminists and egalitarians. He suggested that rather than base my opinion on the popular treatments of the subject in books like A Year of Biblical Womanhood and Jesus Feminist, I read a more scholarly treatment of the subject.

Bottom line: I’m really glad I did.

Much ink (and probably blood) has been spilled over the topic of gender roles and Christian feminism. As such, Webb’s book has been widely referenced and reviewed (try THIS, THIS or THIS). Nevertheless, the book appears to have done little to bridge the complementarian / egalitarian divide. As I don’t have anything especially new to add to the debate, I’ll attempt to keep my comments to a minimum and cut to the chase.

While Webb’s treatment of the subject is thorough and very fair, it left me unconvinced as to the dismantling of traditional gender roles.

Webb spends considerable amount of time expounding upon an interpretive model for discussing this subject which he calls a “redemptive movement hermeneutic.” The method has to do with cultural analysis: Were biblical commands limited to a given culture or were the commands trans-cultural, applicable across all ages and societies? For instance, the Bible does not explicitly condemn slavery, a fact often pointed out by its critics. Instead, it establishes principles that, when applied, would inevitably lead to the dismantling of the institution of slavery. In other words, Christians apply a sort of “redemptive movement hermeneutic” when it comes to slavery. Webb suggest that certain texts have a “redemptive component” that moves the culture towards “a better ethic.” That there is, in fact, an “underlying spirit” to certain biblical commands.

I found this section of the book very helpful. It seems rather clear to me that, in Scripture, something is at work above the letter of the text, and that if we fail to recognize an over-arching redemptive movement to God’s dealings with mankind, we can potentially get stuck enforcing codes of conduct or societal norms that were not intended as trans-cultural.

However, this interpretive principle is not without its critics. In his review, Wayne Grudem calls Webb’s work,

…a deeply flawed book that fundamentally contradicts the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura because it nullifies in principle the moral authority of the entire NT and replaces it with the moral authority of a “better ethic,” an ethic that Webb claims to be able to discover through a complex hermeneutical process entirely foreign to the way God intended the Bible to be read, understood, believed, and obeyed.

It’s a very fair caution. Super-imposing another ideal over Scripture potentially guts the Bible of authority. After all, on whose authority do we define a “better ethic”?

Having constructed an elaborate system of 18 criteria by which to judge major social questions, Webb proceeds to hammer out this hermeneutic as it relates to three classes of people: slaves, women, and homosexuals. Why were certain biblical commands instituted regarding these groups? What were the cultural forces at work which precipitated such commands? Were the commands cultural or trans-cultural? Were the commands rooted in the creation narrative or the fall / curse narrative?

The major text the author concentrates on regarding women is 1 Tim 2:12-15.

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

While conceding that verse 13 may be trans-cultural, Webb asserts that verse 14 is definitely cultural, citing modern evidences to debunk the idea that women are more easily deceived than men. (For the record, I’ve always felt the argument for patriarchy that relies on the point that “the woman was deceived” overlooks a more crucial inference: that the Man willfully disobeyed.)

After using his 18 criteria, Webb’s conclusion is that most of the male rule in both the Old and New Testament is based on cultural, rather than trans-cultural values. As part of the dismantling of such rule, women should be allowed to teach in the church.  (Concerning the issue of homosexuality, which is somewhat peripheral in this volume, the author concludes that there is no redemptive hermeneutical movement that should lead to an acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle in the church.)

As much as I liked this book, I still find myself in a rather uncomfortable middle regarding the complementarian / egalitarian debate. While I have no problem with women teaching men (the primary qualification for teaching in the church is not gender, but gifting), Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals offers no compelling reasons to abandon male-centered leadership in the home and the church.

One reason is Webb’s concession that I Tim. 2:13 — “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” — may be trans-cultural. In other words, male hierarchy could be rooted in pre-Fall creation order. This admission is important on Webb’s part, I think, because that principle is one of the most persuasive for a patriarchal model. (As I’ve said elsewhere, this is also one of the reasons I believe many egalitarians also embrace a non-literal view of Genesis 1-11. By mythologizing the creation account, especially Eve being made FROM Adam to serve as his “helpmeet,” subsequent teachings on gender roles can be stripped of trans-cultural clout. )

The idea of male hierarchy based on creation order, rather than just social construct, is proffered often by the apostle Paul. For instance:

22Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. — Eph. 5:22-24

So there is an intrinsic connection between Christ’s relationship with His church and the husband’s relationship with his wife. On what grounds can we affirm Christ’s loving leadership of His Bride while deconstructing the husband’s loving leadership of his bride? It is precisely the divine hierarchy that this text seems to be paralleling.

I Corinthians 11:3 appeals to a similar order:

But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

Here, another chain is added to the hierarchy:

  1. God is the head of Christ
  2. Christ is the head of the Church
  3. Christ is the head of the man
  4. The man is the head of the woman

Again, the inference is clear as to a created order; that the role of men and women, husbands and wives, Christ and His church, are intertwined as part of a larger universal creation order. In other words, these roles transcend culture.

Which is why the Bible can both command us to “submit to one another” (Eph. 5:21) and still delineate societal / household / ecclesiastical roles:

  • Citizens submit to governing authorities — Rom. 13:1
  • Church members submit to spiritual leaders — Heb. 13:7
  • Slaves obey masters — I Pet. 2:18, Eph. 6:5
  • Children submit to parents — Eph. 6:1
  • Wives submit to husbands — Eph. 5:22

In no case is submission to authority translated as superiority or inferiority, which is a common charge of egalitarian proponents —  that submission implies one is a lesser person. On the contrary, citizens are called to submit to their governing authorities not because those authorities are better, but because such submission is part of a larger order. Church members are called to submit to their spiritual leaders not because those leaders are better, but because such submission is part of a larger order. I see the same principle at work in the gender debate.

OK. So much for keeping it brief and pointed.

Either way, I do not see this issue as a hill worth dying on. I have no problem fellowshipping with brothers and sisters in Christ who believe otherwise. I would, however, have difficulty attending a church led by a woman pastor. But I can’t deny that God has, and still does, call some women to lead men. (Especially in those places where men are not rising to their roles or a woman is exceptionally gifted.) Whatever the case, we need more grace in this conversation and I think Webb’s book does that. It’s a very fair treatment of the subject, good-natured and civil. I would definitely recommend it to those seeking to further their knowledge of this important issue.

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{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Johne Cook April 14, 2014, 8:40 AM

    Fascinating review. This is good stuff. Thanks, Mike.

    I tend to be a ‘taken at face value’ guy when it comes to scripture – I’m not a fan of the contortions we go through to fit scripture to culture instead of the other way around. Having said that, I agree with your comment about needing more grace in this conversation and happily worship with those who don’t maintain the same identical view that I hold.

  • Jill April 14, 2014, 9:01 AM

    This topic has been about done to death, as gender hierarchy is the “it” doctrine in Christianity. I don’t have much to add to it any more, except to say that if people actually believe that women are more easily deceived than men, then they aren’t living in the same world I am. At best, I can only assume that all women are cursed with male rule because Eve was deceived. And I also think it’s kind of nutty to claim that we have a hierarchy, but that the hierarchy doesn’t mean superiority vs inferiority. Of course it does. All hierarchies work of the principle of superior at the top, inferior at the bottom. It’s disingenuous to claim otherwise.

    • Mike Duran April 14, 2014, 1:06 PM

      Jill, do you think biblical hierarchies are built upon the superiority and inferiority of the parties, that the Bible actually teaches that women are inferior to men?

    • Jessica E. Thomas April 16, 2014, 4:27 AM

      Last week at church, we were discussing the passages where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet at the last supper. If there is a hierarchy, this is how it’s supposed to work. And who doesn’t enjoy a spa pedicure. (Well, I suppose people with shy feet might not.)

  • sally apokedak April 14, 2014, 11:41 AM

    The thing that always gets me in this discussion is the way Christ’s submission to God is ignored. Or, let’s go even further and look at Christ’s submission to Pilate. Is Christ inferior to Pilate? No, the superior one bows in submission to the inferior one based on the fact that Pilate’s authority came from above.

    God the Father sent God the Son and the Father and the Son sent God the Spirit. In no way is one member of the godhead inferior to the others and yet there is a hierarchy. There is leadership and submission to that leadership.

    But even more clear is that when Jesus bows to Pilate the perfect God is bowing to the sinful man. That is what makes me willing to bow to a sinful husband and sinful elders and sinful police officers. The authority they have comes from above. I may be superior to them in many ways. I may be smarter. I may be more spiritually mature. I still have to bow to their authority.

    And I can bow, knowing that God is in charge. He can kill them like he killed Abigail’s husband, Nabal. I am not at the mercy of sinful men. God can stop them dead in their tracks. He who changes the hearts of kings like he changes the courses of rivers can easily change the minds of the men who are in authority over me.

    So it seems to me that all the rebellion we have against the people God has put in authority over us is really rebellion against God.

  • R. L. Copple April 14, 2014, 12:03 PM

    To be a leader is to submit, so Jesus taught. The first shall be last and the last first. The Church doesn’t abide by the world’s hierarchy and authority/worth, even if some members do. It turns it on its head.

    People assume being a leader is a good thing. They long for the power. But such power is fleeting, and increases one’s responsibilities for which they will be held accountable for by God. It increases opportunity to sin.

    The freest people are those who submit to all.

    • Monica April 21, 2015, 7:11 PM


  • D.M. Dutcher April 15, 2014, 11:05 AM

    Good review, Mike.

    I think complementarianism may be a lost fight, though. I have the feeling that future generations may have to unlearn a few things.

  • Jessica E. Thomas April 16, 2014, 4:23 AM

    Thanks for your objective analysis. We need more of that. (Objectivity.)

  • J.B. April 18, 2014, 10:37 AM

    In my view, mythologizing Adam and Eve makes it worse. It’s one thing for a man to be created before a woman, with no real significance. It’s another thing for God to use the myth to show us that males are primary to females. So, the dishonest attempt to do away with Adam and Eve by calling it a “myth” backfires. A myth is literally untrue but conveys genuine truth; in this case, that truth is sexist.

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