The Problem with the Egalitarian/Complementarian Debate
The other day, Suzanne talked about the need to set aside our pre-existing "paradigms" when it comes to interpreting the Bible. She specifically focused on ways that Wayne Grudem's "male leadership" paradigm influences his interpretation of passages such as the creation narrative in Genesis.
You'll hear others use terms like "eisegesis" (as opposed to "exegesis") to describe when someone reads a meaning into a text rather than deriving it without bias from the text. Still others will speak of the importance of being aware of the "presuppositions" with which we approach the text—that is, our pre-existing notions of what the text says or the way the world works.
Whether we speak of paradigms, eisegesis, or presuppositions, the basic warning is always the same: if we are going to translate and interpret the text correctly, we must do our best to avoid being influenced by our pre-existing assumptions.
That's easier said than done, of course. Like the proverbial log and speck (Matthew 7:3-5), we are very good at seeing when others are reading their presuppositions into a text, but often blind to the fact that we are doing the same.
We become even more blind to our preconceived notions about what the text says when we become embroiled in some kind of theological or interpretive debate. In the process of trying to persuade those who disagree with us, we often become even more polarized in our views. We get so frustrated with the other person for not agreeing with us and so flustered by their arguments, that we begin to shore up our own arguments and press the text to say something more clearly or explicitly than it really does. This is especially true when we see the stakes as being high. If the other person's perceived distortion of Scripture strikes us as self-serving and hurtful to others, we'll combat it with even more vehemence and passion.
As I've observed the gender role debate, I've seen this dynamic played out over and over again. There is a finite set of Biblical passages which the two camps must deal with. The egalitarian strategy seems to be to chip away at anything in these passages which appears to teach that men are to exercise the primary leadership role in the home and church. On the one hand, the best egalitarian exegetes have challenged traditional interpretations and applications of these passages and shown some of them to be Scripturally unwarranted. On the other hand, there are places where the egalitarian arguments are weak and where they seem to be more driven by their agenda than by an openness to be taught by Scripture.
Complementarians are fighting a defensive battle. Consequently, many of them worry that if they give too much ground on any one of these passages, they'll be opening the door to a view of marriage and the church which they see as unbiblical and even dangerous. Most complementarians would be content to ignore Romans 16:7, but because it is held up by egalitarians as an example of a female apostle (who must therefore have had "apostolic authority"), they feel they have to demonstrate that Junia was not an apostle, not a woman, or that the term apostle in that context does not imply the same kind of authority that Paul and the Twelve seem to have had. The length to which they go to defend against the egalitarian view of various passages seems more driven by their agenda than by an openness to be taught by Scripture.
The thing both sides need to realize is that if they are to convince anyone that their view is the "Biblical" view, they need to take extraordinary care to let Scripture dictate their agenda rather than letting their agenda dictate their understanding of the Bible. That means praying for the illumination of the Spirit, doing our best to understand where our theological opponents are coming from, and trying to give their interpretations a fair hearing before we begin arguing against them. Egalitarians need to stop looking for abuse in every traditional marriage, and complementarians need to recognize that egalitarian women are not necessarily looking to "wear the pants" in the church or in the home.
If we fail to approach the Bible and each other with humility and integrity, we're likely to convince people that the opposing view is the right one. In a comment, Suzanne quoted a reviewer who wrote:
This doesn't mean I am simply what Grudem calls an "instinctive complementarian". In fact, my instinctive (or default) position would probably have been more toward egalitarianism. However, every argument I heard egalitarians make sounded "grasping" and flimsy, so I began to view the whole viewpoint with suspicion.
Suzanne then wrote:
She ought to go with her instincts! She knows the Bible, she is a mature and experienced woman. If God puts egalitarianism in her heart, then she should not let anything Grudem says change that.
Suzanne is worried about Grudem's influence over this woman, but look again at who she said moved her toward a more complementarian view. It was not Grudem, but the arguments of egalitarians which sounded "grasping" and "flimsy" to her.
I believe I've seen Suzanne write something similar about her own journey. She became more egalitarian in her viewpoint after reading complementarian authors.
This dynamic of driving people away from our viewpoint should challenge us to be careful not to overreach in our interpretations or be too adamant in our applications. As passionate as we may be and as right as we think we are, we're most likely to convince others if we strive to be sound in our interpretations, charitable to and respectful of our opponents, and careful to question our own presuppositions.