Literalism as a moral guide is always a form of practical atheism. Literalism inherently fails precisely to the extent that it obfuscates the simple fact that we are not God and we will never fully understand or control our actions, intents, or the results of either. I’ve written more generally about complementarianism and it’s problems, but it is the most illustrative of this point.
For the sake of this particular argument I’ll assume that the Bible does in fact say what the most plain reading seems to say and that the Bible means to imply what complementarians take it to imply – namely, men are the head of household and women are not to have authority over men. The Bible says “the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church.” (Eph. 5:23) Therefore, men are to be the spiritual leader, make final decisions, etc. A couple of other verses may also be brought in as relevant – “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” (1st Tim. 2:12), for instance – and a whole way of life, marriage, and church leadership is developed to most literally reflect the words of scripture.
This is the point at which a literalist reading presumes that it has made a definitive moral argument – the Bible says it, we must live accordingly. But to segment off this question of morality from 1) a further reading of God’s Word and 2) the rest of a faithful life, is to compartmentalize God out of the equation as an unnecessary distraction rather than the source of life and meaning.
1) Here are a few other things the Bible says – “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed,” Psalm 82:3. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world,” James 1:27. “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless,” Isaiah 40:29. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” Luke 14:11. I could go on naming verses about the reversal of power God brings about and naming those passages that emphasize humility and self sacrifice as the Christological form of power. The weight of scripture has a very clear theme – God lifts up the least, the last, and the lost time and time again. To do anything to harm these, is to do the very same to God (Matthew 25:31-46)
2) Here is something else complementarianism justifies in the real world – spousal and child abuse. I don’t know that specific research has been done to express just how often complementarian thought is used to justify abuse, but it happens infinitely more than is acceptable. My wife’s experience with survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse combined with a cursory internet search lead me to a heartbreaking number of anecdotes in which it is the case that 1) a woman is made to feel by her abuser that abuse is justified by his God given authority, and/or 2) a church implies (and at times outright says) that a woman cannot escape abuse because she is to submit to her husband. The numbers do not matter to this argument nearly as much as it matters that such justification does in fact arise through complementarian arguments.
The literalist reading would suggest that the existence of people failing to live into complementarian marriage in the way God intended it to exist is no excuse for abandoning the clear sense of marriage as described in the set of verses above. Put differently, just because we’re bad at God’s ideal for marriage doesn’t mean the Bible is wrong. We should still strive for that ideal because the Bible says so. This is the point at which literalism fails so spectacularly and devolves into practical atheism.
Christians do not have any possible way to separate our decision to follow this pronouncement about men and women from our decision of whether or not to lift up the powerless, defend the widow, value humility, challenge the world’s assumptions of power, or any other desire to embody the love and life that Jesus makes possible. Again, I’m happy for the sake of this argument to accept the validity of the assumption that the above verses say and mean what a plain reading implies. But we cannot say that we support ‘biblical gender roles’ and at the same time pretend that this particular take on ‘biblical gender roles’ does not in actual, lived experience lead to spousal abuse.
To pretend like we have no choice but to be complementarian is to choose the value of male authority over the reality of female suffering. Jesus, faced with the choice to heal on the Sabbath or keep it holy, chooses healing over strict interpretation. The same logic is at play in every aspect of the way we live our lives – it’s not a question of if we are faithful, but of which attempt at being faithful is the most important for the here and now. We will fall short of some aspect of the life God intends, but I cannot see how we should ever prefer to try for a way of life that leads to spousal abuse instead of a way of life that puts the well being and humanity of women and children above any perceived benefit of complementary gender roles.
Said differently, even assuming men are scripturally supposed to have greater authority, we necessarily have to choose whether to value the safety of women and children more than the value of living into that authority structure. You may say that by choosing the former value we are choosing to violate God’s will and design, but when male authority creates the space in which women and children are abused, we have already made a choice about which kind of failure we authorize and which we ignore. Given that we are always choosing one value over another, I cannot see any scenario in which God would call us to choose spousal abuse over egalitarian relationships.
Literalism is a form of practical atheism because it empowers us to pretend like we don’t have a choice. It enables us to hide our deepest imperfections and failure to live as God calls us to live. Literalism gives us the space to pretend that we’re “just following God’s word,” when in reality we are living in a fallen and broken world in which our words and actions go far beyond our knowledge and control. Literalism suggests that we can take one snippet of scripture, divorce it from all other scripture and life itself, and have a clear understanding of how we are to live that compartmentalizes away the necessary harm that results. By pretending like we can segment our lives in this way and, even worse, that we should presume only one kind of moral question matters at a time, we do violence to the powerless in our world whose voices are not heard over the assertions of power made by those of us viewed as having authority.
Literalism never allows God to call into question the rationality and tradition that are shaped by the strong and authoritative men in the world, even though scripture itself calls those with power and authority into question time and again. The cross is God’s radical declaration that we are embraced and transformed no matter how far we fall short – literalism is practical atheism because there is no space to admit the multiple competing values and choices that we make everyday; choices that cannot be perfect to exactly the same extent that we are not God.
To live in submission to God requires us to at least 1) admit how deeply flawed we are and how impossible it is to fully embody the new life in Christ without the constant grace of God, 2) embrace and never hide the fact that we are always making competing value judgments in every decision we make, 3) refuse to hide behind tradition or bureaucracy as a reason for our failure to embody the love of God more fully, and 4) prioritize the same people and values that Jesus did – the sick over the healed, healing over Sabbath, the powerless over the powerful, the outcast over the popular, etc.