Russell and Duenes

How Does One Know that a Text Means What One Thinks It Does? Part 2

with 3 comments

I think this question is worth illustrating from a particular interpretive controversy I’ve dealt with in my own life. Thus, I take the topic of women’s and men’s roles in the church and home.

I hold that men and women are equal in dignity, worth, and status. Both men and women are created fully in the image of God, both have equal access by faith in Christ to all of the blessings of salvation in Christ, and thus, both are fully children of God, adopted into God’s family. By union with Christ, both men and women have been raised up with Christ and seated with Him at God’s right hand (Eph. 2:1-10). However, I also hold that husbands have headship over their wives, that is, they properly exercise authority over them (1 Cor. 11:3-16; Eph. 5:21-33; 1 Peter 3:1-7; Colossians 3:18), and I believe that women are not to teach men or exercise authority over them in the church (1 Tim. 2:8-15). Thus, women should not be elders and overseers in the church. God has designed men and women such that they wonderfully complement each other by having different roles and gifts. Neither is inferior or superior, but God did not ordain some kind of bland sameness for men and women.

Such a view does not go unopposed today, whether in the church or in the culture at-large. Whether it is a majority theological view probably depends on how one is counting, but it matters not. What matters is that I arrived at this interpretation of Scripture by some means, and I believe I am correct in this interpretation. How did I arrive at it? And upon what basis am I confident that my interpretation is correct?

As an undergrad at UCLA, I had never considered the issue of “men’s and women’s roles” in the church. I didn’t even know it was a biblical controversy, for I had never read the texts that touched on it. The issue came up for me when our Christian group on campus sponsored a lecture in our dorms entitled: “Is Christianity Sexist?” The woman who gave the talk argued, quite naturally, that it isn’t and she supported this contention mainly with her interpretations of Genesis 1-2, the Proverbs, the way Jesus treated women, and some selected texts from the New Testament letters. I thought she had covered things quite well, but when I asked one of my non-Christian dorm mates what she thought of it, she quipped: “That’s her interpretation.” Somehow this sparked me to consider whether the speaker had done a good job of addressing the topic. How could I find out?

I turned to a little article that one of my professor’s wrote on women, slavery, and power back in the first century. He argued that women now had the same roles and power that men had in the church, and he based this on a better coverage of texts than the woman speaker had. I read his article carefully and then read all of the New Testament texts on the topic that I could find. Then I went and visited this professor in his office hours – the only UCLA professor I ever visited in his office – and asked him to clarify his article for me. He did so, and recommended a book to me for further study.

The book was entitled, Women, Authority and the Bible, by Alvera Mickelson. This book was full of scholarly articles from modern Protestant writers, defending the view that men and women were entitled to the exact same roles within the church. The book provided an exegetical and hermeneutical exposition of every biblical passage on the topic and general theological reflections on as well. The authors appealed to some Patristic writers such as John Crysostom for support of their arguments, as well as some Reformed theologians. I was unpersuaded. But why?

Was it the weight of opinion going against such a view? That was part of it. As best I can tell, in the central theological tradition of Christianity, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, the view has always been that men and women have complementary roles in the church and home, that men are ordained with the leadership role, to be exercised in a godly manner, and women are called to submit to such godly leadership. Of course, I had some basis for believing that the weight of historical theology was on my side, namely, I trusted that I was accurately reading the primary and secondary sources. I trusted that they could, in fact, be accurately read.

But equally important was my experience of reading the biblical texts themselves. On a common sense reading, they seemed to be saying that men and women have distinct roles. But I thought I should go deeper, so I got a hold of a book entitled, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. This book was essentially the counterpoint to the previous book I’d read, structured exactly the same, but taking the complementarian viewpoint. I was persuaded. Of course there were unanswered questions that remained, but reading the exegetical, historical, and social arguments in this book clinched it for me. Why? Didn’t both books appeal to the Church Fathers? Indeed they did. Didn’t both books claim to be giving the correct understanding of the development of this doctrine down through the ages? Yes. Weren’t both arguing that their expositions of the biblical texts were correct? Of course.

Perhaps I was persuaded by the complementarian view because my own personal biases predisposed me to agree with it. I don’t doubt that this played a part. Indeed, since those days, my experience in this world has only confirmed my belief in the correctness of the complementarian view. But I’d like to think that more than my predispositions led to my convictions. In my view, the complementarian interpretations of the biblical and extra-biblical texts themselves were better. Yet I must have had some basis for judging them to be better. What was that basis exactly? This question leads back to the question I raised in my previous post on this. An involved answer would be quite involved indeed. But I think the short answer is, based on my understanding of human language and communication as it comes to us through written texts set in historical epochs, I find the complementarian view to have more to recommend it. I certainly give weight to what others before me have thought, and further, I would not even have an understanding of human communication in texts unless some people had transmitted that knowledge to me over the course of my life.

So I guess what I’m saying is that everyone is dependent on some prior authority or authorities for his or her understanding of any particular human language or communication. Yet at some point, we all reach our conclusions about what texts mean based on our understanding of the diction, grammar, syntax, tone, and structure used in that text, and our understandings of these things are based on the greater or lesser influences of various authorities on such texts. Somehow we are persuaded of things, and we do not always know how or why? Indeed, there is something spiritual about it.



Written by Michael Duenes

January 23, 2012 at 8:15 am

3 Responses

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  1. I forgot exactly when I asked you (though it had to be late December or early January,) but I think I asked and I think you did not answer the following question:

    Recently, a family that lives near me (I do know know them, but I know people who do) was traveling on Christmas day to visit grandma. As they drove, a tree fell on the car, killing a popular and much-liked 9-year-old girl, and breaking the back of the father. (He seems to be recovering somewhat.)

    My question was: as a religious believer, how do you reconcile this “Act of God” (to use the legal term) with the idea of a merciful and loving God?

    As you did not answer this question last time:

    1) I await with interest to see if I will get an answer and what it will be.

    If you once again don’t answer the question, I can’t help wondering:

    a) Is this a choice on your part?
    b) Is not answering difficult questions a compulsion on your part?

    Thank you.


    January 23, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    • I apologize, Modesty. I honestly don’t remember you asking the question, but it’s probably an oversight on my part. I will do my best to give you an answer this week.


      russell and duenes

      January 24, 2012 at 8:39 am

    • Modesty – I haven’t forgotten about your question. I’ve been a bit behind in my schoolwork, so I’ve not gotten to it, but I will.


      russell and duenes

      January 30, 2012 at 9:16 pm

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