The Cycle

1280px-Cycle_of_Abuse

If you add “Refusing to respond to the overt harm someone else causes” to number 2 of the cycle and remove “apologizes” from number 3, you have a pretty good summary of the presidency so far. To understand why his leadership is so destructive and yet so hard to specifically call out for some, I can’t think of a better framework than this cycle. Replace “of course racism is evil and the KKK is repugnant” with “of course I didn’t mean to hit you and I never will again” and you get a sense for how the (news) cycle plays out. Having someone like him in power is so insidious because most of the worst acts of violence that actually affect people don’t look anything like the ‘stranger danger’ or the ‘foreign terrorist’ that we’ve been taught to fear; they look exactly like what we see every time he takes just about everyone who isn’t like me on a ride around the cycle of abuse. Intelligent, well meaning adults can disagree about all kinds of policies, priorities, and prerogatives – we cannot abide an abuser-in-chief.

On txac17 and the GC Amendments

This is a post on the (lack of) discussion that took place at our annual conference session this year in regard to a few proposed amendments to the Book of Discipline. I don’t tend to look for all possible concealed motives or confusion within the language of General Conference voices, which means I was rather caught off guard by the way the discussion went with regard to Amendment 1 copied here in its entirety):

“As the Holy Scripture reveals, both men and women are made in the image of God and, therefore, men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine. The United Methodist Church acknowledges the long history of discrimination against women and girls. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten the cause of women’s and girl’s equality and well-being.”
General Conference-approved rationale for the amendment notes that the constitution contains a paragraph on racial justice but not one on gender justice.
“The language of this petition is parallel to the language of Article 5 on racial justice already in our constitution,” the rationale states. “It is an affirmation that, as part of our core foundational beliefs, this church will forever stand against any actions, organizations or individuals that discriminate or dehumanize women and girls anywhere on this planet.”

Perhaps it should not have surprised me that the variety of speeches against the amendment all revolved around the “confusion” and “ambiguity” regarding God’s gender. Jesus is a man, the arguments went, thereby it is at least confusing if not outright wrong to say that “it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female…” At least one argument dove fully into complementarian thought and proof texting literalism, which have their own problems that I’ve commented on at the links.

I stated previously that infidelity is the only analogy through which I can make sense out of where we’ve arrived; seen here in our ability to take such an important and needed statement about rejecting the abuse of women and girls and turn it into a referendum on human sexuality and all gender related disagreements. I don’t know that any argument would be helpful/convincing in our present climate, but I feel compelled to offer below what I would have liked to say in response to what I heard on the floor of conference.

———————————–

I can respect that it may seem to be a troubling matter of “confusion” or “ambiguity” to assert that God is not male or female given what we believe about Jesus. Anytime I try to speak directly about the nature of Trinity, confusion and ambiguity are close at hand. But even granting the necessity of saying that Jesus is male in no way suggests the sufficiency of that label in reference to God. This may seem to be quibbling over words that are unrelated or irrelevant to the amendment, as one speech against it suggested, but our language about God deeply affects the actual lives of actual people every day. There may exist a world in which we could assert that God is a man in such a way that did not directly result in the abuse of women and girls throughout the world, but we do not live in that world.

Assertions of God’s exclusive masculinity and the correlative assertions of male authority/headship/gender roles lead very directly to the dehumanization, discrimination, and abuse of women and girls. If speaking of God as a man did not lead to the dehumanization, discrimination, and abuse of women, there would be no need to concretely remind the church that male and female are not sufficient categories for God. The wording of the amendment does not come to us in a vacuum – it comes to us in a world in which our fallen, inadequate, and misunderstood labels for God are weaponized against women and girls all over the world.

Making a clear and concise statement that no one should be discriminated against or dehumanized on the basis of gender is FAR more important than stealing yet another stage to hash out our incoherent yelling matches regarding sexuality, gender, and biblical authority/interpretation. I am deeply ashamed that we cannot even set aside our talking points, soap boxes, and mistrust to remind the world that dehumanization and discrimination against women and girls is never OK and never justifiable on the basis of the Christian faith or the nature of God.  

The fight we keep having is not the fight we need to have and if we don’t even trust each other enough to make a clear statement against abuse, we have little hope of making the substantive changes needed to ensure a vital and fruitful future for our church.

Techno-Babel

 

Now the whole earth had one internet and the same binary code. And as technology progressed they came upon a crash-free, virus-free, stable OS and installed it everywhere. And they said to one another “Come let us compose lines of code and Beta test them thoroughly.” And they had computers for networking, and wireless routers for data transmission. Then they said, “Come let us build ourselves a chat room, with fully functional video conferencing, and let us make a search-able database of screen names for all, otherwise we’ll be scattered abroad and out of touch for minutes (or even days!).” The Lord logged on to see the chat room and the video conferencing function, which programmers had designed. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they are all using ‘C’, this is only the beginning of what they will do; no connections they propose to make will now be impossible for them. Come, let us hack in, and confuse their language there, so that their servers will crash and shut down.” So the Lord crashed their program and they left off building the chat room. Therefore, it was called Techno-Babel because the Lord confused their language and crashed their servers so all were out of touch over the face of all the earth.

01000111 01100101 01101110 01100101 01110011 01101001 01110011: 11:1-9

I’m not actually opposed to using technology (I even wrote this essay on a computer) and I don’t believe God will really come down to destroy the internet. But, I am opposed to the uncritical use of technology as a medium for communication and I do believe God speaks more in spite of technology than through it. As we continue to press forward into the electronic age, I hope to use the story of Babel as a means of considering the limitations of electronic communication. By keeping the following two thoughts in mind, just maybe we can help prevent our own Techno-Babel: 1) Relationships are necessary for accurate communication; and 2) God is the only medium for real human connection.

1) The value of modern technology in communication is ambiguous. The internet enables people to see and speak to each other instantly across the world; translation programs even enable speaking with people who don’t speak the same language. Cell phones and PDAs allow people to stay in touch from nearly anywhere in the world and satellite technology may just complete the coverage map. At the same time, NE1 who has ever been in a txt msg fight knows how easily words can be misunderstood. No matter how clear your acronyms, abbreviations, and emoticons may seem to you, sth is 404 n transmission. @TEOTD, each side misses out on body language and facial expressions that are central to communication; a cold stare or a soft touch can say more than a thousand words.

Video conferencing is one of the newer gadgets to remove some of these issues. However, the relationships we develop with people, and not just the ability to see and hear them, are the basis upon which real communication becomes possible. It doesn’t take much effort to prove that miscommunication is quite possible, even likely, between people. Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians provides plenty of examples of how people can take a simple idea, turn it into a slogan, and miss out on the whole meaning of the message. It’s like saying ‘All things are lawful for me’ is a justification to do whatever I want (see 1 Cor. 6:12); perhaps a logical conclusion, but certainly not at all what Paul means when he speaks of Christ abolishing the law. The relationships in which words are spoken fill out as much meaning as the words themselves.

I’m certainly not denying the potential for technology to help start or continue relationships; I’ve known plenty of people who met online and my wife and I used countless hours of Skype video chat when I was 1000 miles away at school. To say that all uses of technology are inherently wrong would even implicitly deny the Bible’s validity; writing itself was at one time a new invention with an ambiguous potential for communication. What I am pointing out is that the written or spoken word has no single or necessary meaning; even the most treasured and beautiful words of scripture can and have been used to do incredible harm to others. The ability to speak instantly with anyone across the globe does not mean that communication is just the touch of a button away. Communication requires far more than the ability to hear and understand words; a whole network of presuppositions and assumptions goes into the way words are comprehended and the assessment or universality of that network is something that technology can’t even begin to address.

To speak to one another in a global society requires human relationships developed over time; nothing can replace the value of physically spending time with another human being. To share thoughts and ideas requires more than a program to map word equivalencies and nuances. The danger we are taught by the story of Babel is that globally unified purposes, actions, and languages aren’t inherently good. Enabling everyone to speak the same language (whether a ‘universal’ English or some totally unforeseen machine language) does not make communication possible across the globe. The kingdom of God stretches over all creation and certainly implies that the whole world is necessarily a part of our human relationships; but developing the ability to see and hear anyone, anywhere is nowhere near the same thing as edifying the Body of Christ through deep and challenging relationships with all persons.

Transferring data so that information can be rationally accessed is not identical to the life altering power of gospel community. Technology can be a powerful tool for human connection, but it is only a tool. Imagine if God had emailed Moses the Ten Commandments or sent a video series on Jesus instead of sending Him to live among us. The beauty and power of the gospel is that God loved us so much that He entered our world and changed everything. Christian relationships run deeper than broad band connections.

2) If the church ever hopes to be more than just one more sound bite in an A.D.D. world of flashy ads and catchy phrases, it must realize that God is the only mediator for human relationship. Technology only passively facilitates the senses’ involvement in communication; it does not actively enable anything to happen.  Technology allows the thoughts or experiences of an individual to be transmitted into the mind of another, but it does not provide any essential means for interpretation or evaluation. To arrive at the truth of the gospel message and to realize its transformative power, we must rest our hopes on the movement and action of God and not the marketability of our mission slogans or ad campaigns.

If you want to reach someone on the other side of the globe, you have many options. You can pick up a telephone, send an email, find a nice chat room, etc. But when you actually decide to share something of yourself with that person, the transmission of 1’s and 0’s isn’t enough. When you come to know someone by your relationship to God, you are necessarily connected to that person. I don’t mean something happens in a mystically spiritual way that unites ‘life-forces’ or something science-fictional, but I do fully believe that God unites people together in an absolutely real, almost palpable way. God binds us together in all of our relationships and is most fully present in marriage when “the two become one flesh.” The type of connection that unites us as members of the Body of Christ is far more real and far more meaningful than the ability to reproduce sensory data through 1’s and 0’s.

When we sit down and consider how best to “reach” people in the church, the conversation often presumes the need to condense the gospel message or share the church website with people outside the church. Neither practice is inherently wrong, but to think that the truth of the Christian message should be primarily conveyed in a 30 second spiel (or even a 30 minute sermon) is to miss the majority of the biblical witness. Certainly, the Holy Spirit is capable of reaching someone through a 30 second conversation or even just a single word, but to turn that potential into the basis for Christian proclamation is to miss out on God’s abundant gifts to humanity. The church does not construct an intellectual portal into a heavenly realm (or hack into God’s internet servers) to provide mediation between humans and God. The church trains persons to identify the abundance of gifts that God has directly provided for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The church facilitates the development of formative relationships in which we are made members of Christ’s body and enables us, by the power of the Spirit, to see that God is the only One Who actively enables communication of the Word.

To share the Christian message requires God to activate our speech and enable communication. Technology provides an unparalleled medium of communication because it seems to be a more direct and permanent connection with one another than God could ever provide; technology provides instant audio and visual connections from and to nearly anywhere in the world.  However, the problem with Babel was not the inability to speak to one another and share in “the same words;” the problem was that people thought their labor was necessary to stay united. The more time and resources we put into the development of new technologies for sharing the gospel message, the more our attention is diverted from the fact that God has already united us in Jesus Christ.

Instead of finding ways to “reach” people, we should find ways to see what God is doing among us and invite others to share in our life together. We can’t rid ourselves of technology, but we can work to reform its use given a proper understanding of God’s role in the life of the church; we can work to make God, and not the appeal of a power point slide, the center of our proclamation and worship.

The next time you open up an email or chat window, consider what connection you really have with your conversation partner. Are you relying on and trusting more in a computer’s ability to get your message across than in the power of the Spirit through whom we are all connected? Good communication is a tricky business and technology is neither necessary nor sufficient for it to occur. To use technology in the life of the church requires a community of interpretation. To share in the Word of God requires more than a detailed reproduction of sense experience. Just as we must know the voice behind the text-message to avoid misunderstanding, we must know the voice of the One Who spoke creation into being if we really want to share the gospel. As I said before, I doubt God will ever come down to destroy the internet, but I would hope our tendency to embrace technology as the bearer of truth doesn’t force His Hand into causing our own Techno-Babel.

****Written in Spring 2010

Intellect and Idol

The intellectualization of the Christian faith cannot help but lead to the idolization of scripture. The assumption that there is a definable philosophical/logical/rational/scientific background on which to stake our understanding of God and history is the golden calf of our intellectual culture. To claim instead that God alone is the arbiter of truth and definitively reveals Himself in scripture is to require that present experience of God play a key role in standing under authority – not a mind game, a mind changed to see clearly.

It does not make any more sense for us to now adopt the ‘background’ philosophical understanding of the bible than it would make for us to adopt the scientific background of Genesis – it’s not that a ‘biblical’ worldview or a ‘modern scientific’ worldview is right or wrong – the problem is that we can’t define the ground on which we stand in either case apart from the ground upon which we stand. Culture will never stay still enough to feel like we have any semblance of a solid place to stand.

Placing God at the center of our faith (and not scripture, or philosophy, or whatever else) necessarily feels like a shifting sand beneath our feet because we will never understand God to the extent that we can lock God down and know God perfectly by a set of beliefs and words. Refusing to assume there is solid intellectual ground without the power and presence of God is an essential part of the church’s continued faithfulness – just like refusing to assume a golden calf could contain the essence of God was an essential part of Israel’s faithfulness in the Exodus.

Literalism is practical atheism

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.

Anger, terror, and the reality we don’t want to talk about

I’m not sure there is anything that bothers me more right now than the constant rhetoric about ‘Islamic terrorists’ and ‘illegal aliens.’ I don’t agree with those characterizations and I have said why at length. But that’s not what brings me to the point of anger. I am angered because the VAST majority of crime that actually destroys lives and dehumanizes children of God has nothing to do with the big scary boogeyman waiting around the corner.

Every time we participate in the culture that vilifies and dehumanizes the ‘others’ of our world, we are actively creating the space in which a blind eye is turned toward the people who actually do the most harm. I could say this alluding to a variety of offenders, since more than half of violent offenses are committed by someone the victim actually knows. But one particular type of violence is especially on my mind.

Every time we cheer on the rhetoric that says people of a different religion or race or culture are in any way to be feared merely bc of who they are or our views of what they believe, we are actively creating the space in which crime survivors are shamed and silenced because their attacker is too ‘normal’ or ‘so nice’ or because we don’t talk about it. For domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, justice rarely comes.

In the last 40 years, foreign born people have killed 3,024 Americans in terror attacks on US soil. That includes 2,983 deaths on 9/11. That means an average of 75 Americans have died on American soil each year from terrorism, or 0.205 each day. Every day, 3 women are killed by an intimate partner (a spouse, boyfriend, or ex) – but that is only the tiniest fraction of the iceberg in domestic violence.  

18.3% of women will be raped in their lifetime. An estimated 43.9% of women and 23.4% of men will be victims of some form of sexual violence. 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men will be victims of severe physical violence. A great majority in each of these cases is perpetrated by someone the victim knows. It is likely that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men are victims of sexual abuse before age 18, although precision is difficult because as little as 12% of instances are reported. Of all childhood sexual abuse cases, around 93% are victimized by a family member or acquaintance.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence did a 24 hour census of domestic violence agencies. A few stand out stats – 25,735 domestic violence victims sought emergency shelter…in one day; 21,332 local, state, and national hotline calls were made by people seeking assistance…in one day; and 12,197 requests for help in that one day went unmet because of a lack of resources.

The result of such encounters, when survived, can be depression, anxiety, PTSD, reproductive problems, chronic pain, unwanted pregnancy, STIs, suicidal behavior, an increased likelihood for alcohol or drug dependence, and any number of other social, mental, job related, or physical ailments.

Domestic violence and sexual abuse cross over all age, socioeconomic, racial, religious, and whatever other lines you want to draw. With a very conservative estimate, at least 1/5 of the people you know (and far more likely close to ⅓) have been directly affected by these heinous crimes. And yet we almost never try to root out the perpetrators or start a war on the actual terrorism taking place in the American home. To spend almost any time focusing our energies and our fears on people who scare us by their differences is to further isolate and victimize the people whose lives are actually being turned upside down by people who look no different than us.

I’ve heard the argument that we have to be careful not to ruin the lives of good people, almost exclusively good men, if a baseless allegation is made against them. The two salacious cases of the Rolling Stone article and the Duke lacrosse team are sure to be referenced. The myths and misinformation surrounding false reporting are far too complex to do justice here, but suffice to say false reporting is not at all common and there are a lot more reasons to recant an accusation than to push through to a trial.

But any meaningful worry about the effects of an allegation on men, false or not, have absolutely zero standing to me after November. The US elected a president who has been accused of the things he himself claimed to do, accused of spousal rape, accused of raping a 13 year old, and accused in multiple other instances of groping; he has ‘defended’ himself of an accusation of abuse by implying he prefers better looking women; and he has been implicated in so many cases that it’s hard to keep track of which case is which. And we elected him president. We don’t need to be more careful about accusations, we need to be willing to open our ears to the cries of the people whose voices we have not heard and whose struggles we cannot understand.

It’s far easier for us and makes us feel safer to paint the Middle East or Mexico as the land of all the evil extremists than it is and feels to actually confront the abusers who look and talk and act just like us most of the time. But buying into the terrorism narrative necessarily turns a blind eye to the plight of our vulnerable neighbors who are deeply harmed by the rampant, actual crimes that are committed every day. And that is what makes me so angry right now. I’m not at all convinced that any of the recent executive orders will do anything to make us more safe. But I am entirely certain that vilifying the ‘others’ rather than confronting our own will actively harm the most vulnerable among us. I refuse to do so.

The Insidiousness of Complementarianism

It’s been a long time since I’ve been part of a church culture that does not affirm the equality of Women and Men at every level of church leadership. Granted, there are some subtle and sometimes not so subtle biases and comment about the “lady preacher” – but in the communities that I have served, the comments have always been a reflection of upbringing and discomfort rather than a systematic and intentional way to discourage Women from preaching and/or leading. I’m not suggesting that makes such comments acceptable, but I see an entirely different set of issues at play in careless speech as opposed to systematic devaluing.

I happened upon a tweet conversation recently in which I was once again forced to see the reality of both the kind of simplistic arguments that are made and also the kind of hateful and demeaning rhetoric that bleeds through even when people are trying to calmly argue for a “traditional” view of equal but different gender roles. Ultimately, I followed the rabbit trails until I found this transcript from John Piper that concisely makes one such argument.

I realized two things while meandering through the arguments.

First, As I’ve said before, “separate but equal” doesn’t work any better in the complementarian context than it has elsewhere. The implication nor the truth of that statement didn’t really settle in until now. How do you expect it to sound to say women get to lead the kids, but men have all top level authority? Or women can quote scripture, but only men can preach and interpret?  Or wives have to follow the spiritual direction of their spouses? No matter the intention, it is demeaning and belittling to the roles of women. And that mentality actually puts women in abusive situations in which it seems reasonable to think the man is still right. If you cannot teach complementarianism in such a way that no woman ever wonders if it is OK for her husband to abuse her* AND no church member or leader ever requires a woman in an abusive relationship to be silent or stay put, then something inherently problematic exists within the doctrine.

One further point: perhaps one of the more nebulous, but problematic undercurrents of how the gender role distinction plays out is that no one seems to question that the ‘traditionally’ male is somehow superior or more important or valuable than the ‘traditionally’ female role. There are fewer men clamoring to be a stay at home dad than there are women desiring to be CEOs or full time workers. A value differential may not be written down anywhere, but the statistics about what people actually try to do with their lives makes a clear statement about which roles are seen as more desirable or important in our current context. It is just as misogynistic to devalue the roles women often play as it is to keep them out of roles claimed for men. I can’t help but think the complementarian mentality that bifurcates the world along gender lines is a significant part of the culture that enshrined the respective values of each kind of role, even outside the church walls.

Second, arguing against complementarianism is like arguing against fake news. There is just enough information in the Bible that you can shut off your mind, ignore culture and context, and think only about the static and precise wording of a couple of stories or letters and come up with a bullet point list of complementarian roles for men and women. Once you’ve made the commitment to reading that way and using those filters, there is nothing that could persuade you away from the position; in just the same way that once your favorite deeply slanted fake news site shares just a little nugget of truth or conspiracy theory, there is no persuasion.

How can you prove, for a clear example, that there is no child sex ring in a pizza parlor when the only “evidence” that there is one in the first place is the super narrow fact that it has weird symbols and some powerful people mentioned it in an email? If you’re unwilling to consider the lens through which you evaluate information, nothing could ever persuade you of change. You can’t produce documents that prove the evidence of a story is false when there is nothing to disprove.

What is perhaps most difficult about arguing for a different lens when others have a myopic and literalist view of scripture is that it isn’t the text that we’re arguing about. The Bible says tons of things that are not taken literally – “sell all you have and give it to the poor;” “the meek shall inherit the earth;” “even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief.” – but without an acknowledgment of the tradition of thought and values and choices that lead you to take one thing literally and another not, there is no ground upon which to change viewpoints.

The Christian faith is ALWAYS a dynamic tradition in which the very values and shapes of discipleship and faith are constantly called into question and given new life for the present day. Peter and Cornelius is one of the most fascinating examples of a moment in which, even inside of scripture, we see a very deeply held, key marker of faithful life challenged and changed because of a new direction the Spirit of God is showing. When your assumption about what the bible is and how to read it do 95% of the work toward an interpretation, there is little chance you’ll be convinced of anything significant by reading another verse.

 

*It happens enough that a Psychology today article actually mentions ‘based on the bible’ as a reason men sexually abuse women.