Femmevangelical Readings of Paul

So, this is the one where I wade into some stuff.

Earlier this week, Rev. Jennifer Crumpton posted a piece over at her Femmevangelical blog dealing with the way recent politicians have been (mis)using the Bible and Christian theology in order to forward their own political agendas, particularly with respect to womens’ rights issues.

She opens with some very instructive comments about the way both parties used Luke 12:48 to justify their respective positions fiscal responsibility, both at the expense of a proper reading of the text in context. So far, so good. Trouble started to brew though, when she began to push on to the way some politicians have insidiously begun to use the “ancient biblical worldview” to impose their agenda on modern women.

I’ll quote her at length:

These politicians have put their original spin on original sin, creating policy foundationally based on the biblical literary portrayal of women as the stereotypical Eve persona. Genesis 3 tells the story; in Romans 1-5 and 1 Timothy 2-3 the oft-quoted apostle Paul (a converted death-dealing zealot) of the first-century Roman-occupied Mediterranean Diaspora makes it his personal mission to theologize and doctrinize it.

You know the story: the prototype woman created by God causes the entire “Fall of Man” by offering Adam the forbidden fruit of the “tree of knowledge.” She is mythically and culturally characterized as unwise, untrustworthy, an evil seductress with questionable motives who disobeys, tempts and makes everyone pay. In 1 Timothy, Paul – who created the most widely-accepted and practiced theological premises of the early church and modern Christianity – says this:

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

Controlling women’s options, decisions, sexuality and progeny-bearing bodies has been the obsession of the patriarchal Christian establishment ever since. It is scary how much the Republican party line echoes this old biblical ethos. But this is the challenge we face when “biblical authority” is misused in modern politics: an ancient, mythical oral tradition of societies vastly different from ours dangerously affects the health and lives of real American women, today.”

Predictably she moved on to a discussion of abortion rights, Todd Akin’s idiotic rape comments connecting them to “rape texts” in the Bible, and the Romney/Ryan ticket. You can read the rest of her piece here.

In Defense of Paul

To be honest, I don’t care to comment on any of those things at this time except to say that yes, I agree that many of the ways that politicians use the Scriptures in political discourse today is troubling even though I don’t follow her actual conclusions in various places. While there is some legitimate concern there, what troubled me was her approach to showing the inadequacy of “biblical approaches.” For those of you who know me and my love for Paul (and the Bible in general), this is the part that predictably annoyed me.

Here’s my response to her post in the comment thread (yes, I’m quoting myself):

“I’m not going to get into the politics or the specific issues, (which do concern me), but rather with your characterization of the some of the biblical material which, just to be straight with you, reads like a Dawkinsian attempt to make the scriptures look stupid by taking worst possible reading of them. It feels like an exercise in “Well, my opponents use these texts to support positions I disagree with me. I’m going to invalidate those texts and take their legs out from under them.” Realize, there’s actually that other option of saying, “Well, that’s just not what the texts are about.” Or, “You’re neglecting the sweep of redemptive history which makes those texts inapplicable, though not invalid.” Or, “In fact, those texts actually support the opposite of what you’re saying.”

Let’s take Paul for instance. You talk about the Genesis story of Adam and Eve and the way Paul, a notoriously converted ex-murderering zealot (read “extremist personality”), theologizes and doctrinalizes the slanted description of it you give, imputing your mischaracterization of classical Christian doctrine to him. Interestingly enough, you mention Romans 1-5, and 1 Timothy, but then don’t deal with Romans where the sin is placed on Adam’s representative head with no mention of the “deceptive seductress” (your words, not Paul’s or the Scriptures) Eve. You also fail to mention the fact that elsewhere in that death-dealing zealot Paul’s letters we find the basis for today’s egalitarian consciousness, that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28), or that in various of his letters he commends women like Chloe, Phoebe, Junia, and others as his co-laborers and even apostles who are allowed to prophesy (preach?) in the church of God.(1 Cor 1, Rom 16) Nor is there any mention of contextual readings of the passage you do quote in full that argue that Paul’s instructions there were limited responses to particular situations in the churches he was dealing with at the time.

For instance, N.T. Wright argues that the letter was probably written to Timothy while he was in Ephesus, known for its devotion to the worship of Artemis, a female-only cult that was simply a mirror-image of the patriarchalism of the ancient world. Paul is combating a pendulum-swing mentality among the church that moves from the equality of women to the dominance of women, most of whom, owing to the context, had probably not been properly educated in the scriptures or the Gospel, in which case it would be dangerous for them to exercise authority.

Wright is worth quoting in full when he says:
Now if you were writing a letter to someone in a small, new religious movement with a base in Ephesus, and wanted to say that because of the gospel of Jesus the old ways of organizing male and female roles had to be rethought from top to bottom, with one feature of that being that the women were to be encouraged to study and learn and take a leadership role, you might well want to avoid giving the wrong impression. Was the apostle saying that women should be trained up so that Christianity would gradually become a cult like that of Artemis, where women did the leading and kept the men in line? That, it seems to me, is what verse 12 is denying. The word I’ve translated ‘try to dictate to them’ is unusual, but seems to have the overtones of ‘being bossy’ or ‘seizing control’. Paul is saying, like Jesus in Luke 10, that women must have the space and leisure to study and learn in their own way, not in order that they may muscle in and take over the leadership as in the Artemis-cult, but so that men and women alike can develop whatever gifts of learning, teaching and leadership God is giving them…Why then does Paul finish off with the explanation about Adam and Eve? Remember that his basic point is to insist that women, too, must be allowed to learn and study as Christians, and not be kept in unlettered, uneducated boredom and drudgery. Well, the story of Adam and Eve makes the point: look what happened when Eve was deceived. Women need to learn just as much as men do. Adam, after all, sinned quite deliberately; he knew what he was doing, he knew that it was wrong, and he deliberately went ahead. The Old Testament is very stern about that kind of action.” Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (25–26).

I don’t imagine this will convince anybody, but it does show at the very least that there are good reasons for doubting your (mis)characterization of Paul, and thereby also casts some doubts on your subsequent readings of the “rape texts”, etc. as not quite taking into full account the historical context, or dealing with alternative, more understandable readings of the texts.

None of this immediately invalidates your points about politicians misusing God, the Scriptures, or theology in service of political positions and platforms. Nor does it answer fully the issues involved with abortion rights. My point is more that you don’t have to tear the Bible apart in order to say that people’s use of it is inappropriate. The Bible has its own inner-logic for this sort of thing, like the fact that we live in the New Covenant age, the tension of the church and the state, etc.

Well, there’s more to say, but I’m not going to write a book.

Blessings!!”

Options

Why am I going into all of this beyond the fact that I wanted to re-use a quickly typed, blog-length response? Because this makes a very important point about the way we approach the Bible and our moral/political convictions: be careful how you read, be humble while you read.

For all of us, liberal/conservative, Republican/Democrat the Bible is going to say things that make us uncomfortable at some point. Shockingly enough, it may appear that God disagrees with you occasionally. What do we do with these texts? There are at least 3 options to consider before you come to the conclusion that the Bible is wrong on a given subject:

1. The verses you’re reading don’t say what you think they say. Honestly, a good commentary can clear up a lot of heartache by pointing out linguistic confusions and socio-historical factors that show you’re not reading the thing properly. Read carefully. If something disturbs you, don’t just chuck the Bible away in disgust, but wrestle with it and read it charitably, like a letter from a friend that initially reads offensively. Give it the benefit of the doubt and then try to understand it.

2. The verses say what you think they say, but the problem is not with the Bible, but your own cultural presuppositions. I mean, let’s just be honest and say, this wouldn’t be the first time you were wrong about something, right? And we can all agree that there are some segments of our society that might have regressed a bit (Justin Bieber v. Frank Sinatra anybody? I rest my case). You may just have to consider the fact that a dusty old book might get something right that our current culture gets wrong. Humble yourself and be open to your own fallibility.

3. The verses say what you think it says, but the application is up for grabs. The Bible very clearly condemns adultery and divorce. Nobody’s going to argue that one. There’s still a difference of opinion amongst Jesus-loving, Bible-believing Christians as to what the state should be doing about that. Should the state make/enforce adultery laws? How hard should divorce be? Should non-Christians be held to the standards of the church? These are all legitimate questions that people who agree about what the Bible says on the moral issue still can discuss. Applying the text is not always a straight-forward affair. My buddy Alan Noble has some good reflections on misguided Christian appropriation of the Bible for political rhetoric over at Christ and Pop Culture.

To conclude, I know it’s a lot easier to look at the Bible and take the parts you like and scrap the parts you don’t like as it fits your own experience or judgments arrived at independent of the text, or simply “read” it and try to ham-handedly apply it to our lives no matter how awkward (or possibly wrong) we are in doing so. It takes a lot more effort to wrestle with the thing, struggle, read carefully, pray, be uncomfortable, struggle again, and submit to what the Lord says.  Apparently God’s Word isn’t always easy or comfortable reading. Who knew God could say some hard things? Still, this is the call. May God give us grace to read carefully and read humbly.

Soli Deo Gloria

2 thoughts on “Femmevangelical Readings of Paul

  1. One of the good things that I got drilled into my head at Duke is always interpret charitably and deconstruct yourself rather than the text.

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