On Women and Slaves (Red Letter Year: 11/21)

John 11.32-44

45 Many of the people who were with Mary believed in Jesus when they saw this happen. 46 But some went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47 Then the leading priests and Pharisees called the high council together. “What are we going to do?” they asked each other. “This man certainly performs many miraculous signs. 48 If we allow him to go on like this, soon everyone will believe in him. Then the Roman army will come and destroy both our Temple and our nation.”

49 Caiaphas, who was high priest at that time, said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about! 50 You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.”

51 He did not say this on his own; as high priest at that time he was led to prophesy that Jesus would die for the entire nation. 52 And not only for that nation, but to bring together and unite all the children of God scattered around the world.

53 So from that time on, the Jewish leaders began to plot Jesus’ death. 54 As a result, Jesus stopped his public ministry among the people and left Jerusalem. He went to a place near the wilderness, to the village of Ephraim, and stayed there with his disciples.

55 It was now almost time for the Jewish Passover celebration, and many people from all over the country arrived in Jerusalem several days early so they could go through the purification ceremony before Passover began. 56 They kept looking for Jesus, but as they stood around in the Temple, they said to each other, “What do you think? He won’t come for Passover, will he?” 57 Meanwhile, the leading priests and Pharisees had publicly ordered that anyone seeing Jesus must report it immediately so they could arrest him.

Comments

The raising of Lazarus added quite a few followers to Jesus’ tribe, which had taken some hits in the previous chapters. But there is almost immediate backlash from the religious leaders who see the raising of Lazarus, not as something to be celebrated, but as a threat. They claim to be looking out for the good of the people, but they employ specious logic in v.48. It does not logically follow that a mass conversion to Jesus would bring on the wrath of the Romans. At no point had Jesus challenged Rome or acted in any way like the numerous political instigators that plagued Judea during this period.

This is a classic non sequitur, where any change from the status quo is seen by the protectors of said status quo as the harbinger of whatever their worst fears are, whether any causal relationship exists or not. The religious leaders’ worst fear was a Roman crackdown and the loss “our” Temple and “our” nation (see those possessives in v.48?). Like all guardians of status quos, what they really feared most was losing their place of influence and control. Leaving Jesus unchecked would have caused that, so in order to remove him, they projected a worst case scenario to rationalize their violence.

And so they begin to plot the death of the man who just raised another man from the dead. The irony seems lost on them. It was not lost on John’s first readers though, for whom the destruction of the Temple was a recent event, fresh in their minds. By not leaving Jesus alone they accomplished what Caiaphas accidentally prophesied in v.50 and they in no way stayed the destruction of what they presumed to own.

So the real story is Jesus threatened their power and position, so Jesus had to go. But they cloaked their motives under guise of care for Temple and nation. Or as Richard III put it: “But then I sigh and, with a piece of scripture, / Tell them that God bids us do good for evil; / And thus I clothe my naked villainy / With odd old ends stolen out of holy writ; / And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” This is just the sort of move we have seen time and again in church history, where protecters of status quos far removed from the kingdom Jesus established misuse Scripture to sanctify the very evil actions Jesus died to bring an end to. Church leaders take their ethic from Caiaphas as often as from Jesus.

In addition to the clear villains willing to sacrifice others to maintain their power (does it get more ironic than crucifying in the name of Jesus?), there are also a lot of well-meaning, sincere people who fall for the pious language and self-referential, self-serving logic. For example: “no household is perfect under the gospel which does not contain all the grades of authority and obedience, from that of husband and wife, down through that of father and son, to that of master and servant.” This is from an 1861 sermon extolling the “biblical” view of slavery (click here to read the whole thing, you may find the arguments all too familiar). I suspect in this case the pastor himself was less a villain and more a well-meaning man caught up in the logic that slavery was God’s will, because look it says so right there in the Bible.

The hermeneutic (method of interpretation) Rev. Wilson used to sanctify slavery in 1861 is exactly the same that is used now to make suppressing and subjugating women in the church seem holy too. You can see it in that same quote. Husbands are to wives as masters are to slaves. Same logic. Same way of reading the Bible. We even have an intellectual, religious, and sanctified sounding word for it: complementarianism. Woo. Word that big has to mean something true and important, doesn’t it? It stands in for the idea that God created men and women with different natural roles that complement each other. Many who hold this view go so far as to argue that such difference and role assignment also exists in the Trinity, of which ours is a reflection since we are made in the divine image. And according to God’s own nature and design for humanity, men are made to lead (mirroring God the Father who is charge of the Trinity), and women are made to follow (mirroring the Son and/or Holy Spirit, both of whom are subordinate to the Father).

This logic dictates two things that sometimes (not always) go unspoken: that men and women are not complete outside a marriage relationship (we need each other’s complementation to reflect the divine image), and that ‘different but equal’ marks the nature of men and women and also of the members of the Trinity. But the logic here is as specious and status-quo-protecting as what the Pharisees were using. It fails in a couple key theological areas:

  1. The ideas of difference and/or subordination within the Trinity have always been regarded as heresy. We are working in a highly theoretical area here (trying to talk about the inner life of God no less, which by the way, is a dicey place to build a moral position), but both of these ideas have been rejected since the doctrine of the Trinity first emerged. To the best of our finite understanding, the members of the Trinity are separate, equal, interpenetrating, and at all points co-workers in whatever God does. There are no roles in the Godhead and there is no existential or functional subordination. They mutually submit to and glorify each other, existing in a perpetual, infinite dance of love.
  2. The idea that any single human person is not fully created in the image of God, that a marriage relationship is required to reflect the divine image is also heresy. Why? Because Jesus. Jesus is both the full revelation of God to humans and also the full revelation of human to humans. In Jesus we see what God is like and we see what we’re supposed to be (can be!) like. And no, Jesus was not married. He was fully God and fully human from the moment of his incarnation (Christmas is coming!) and was at no point lacking in being fully human. To suggest otherwise is to move immediately into the most serious and oldest heresies the church has ever dealt with.

The whole complementarian idea can only be defended as “biblical” if we only take seriously a few statements by Paul and completely ignore everything Jesus said and did, what we find in Acts, and even what we find in the Hebrew Scriptures. As we have seen this year, you will not find Jesus supporting a complementarian view. Quite the opposite. When we come across places where Scripture seems at odds with itself, we have to interpret Scripture in light of itself. And we have to understand that as a record of the experiences of Israel and the early church with God, not all parts of Scripture carry equal weight. The Gospels take preeminence. Always.

Jesus is the fullest expression of what God is like and what we’re supposed to be like. We start there and work our way out. If we find things in Paul or in the Hebrew Scriptures that don’t readily square with what Jesus did and taught, then we don’t just drop Jesus and robotically follow what Paul said. No, we try our best to see how Paul can be brought into agreement with Jesus. So with slavery: Jesus declares he has come to set the captives free (echoing the Exodus, the most powerful part of Israel’s story). Then Paul tells slaves to obey their masters, but that doesn’t mean slavery is God’s will because Paul gave advice on it. Paul’s advice is practical wisdom for making do. Israel was in Egypt for 400 years before Moses came along. Paul’s advice would have been good to follow then. But not when Moses told them to go. Then following Paul’s advice would have been the opposite of God’s will. The direct opposite.

Same with women leading in the church. If you’re in an oppressive culture, do the best you can. If you need to cover your head to prophesy, then do that. But working within given cultural confines has nothing to do with the express will of God (equating them is the same non sequitur as above). The express will of God is always the kingdom Jesus declared and started. In the kingdom, we do things as much like Jesus as we possibly can. We push the culture around us as far toward Jesus’ way as we can get away with (and even beyond if we’re not afraid of persecution). While we’re on culture, let me say this: complementarians will tell you that if you support having women at all levels of church leadership then you are caving to cultural pressures. They claim the moral/biblical high ground from which they look down on those slipping down the cultural mud slide. But what cultural pressures are they talking about? We live in an entrenched paternalistic, misogynist culture. That is the status quo. The church belongs on the horizon of justice, pulling society toward freedom, equality, and unity. The church cannot be the protector of the restrictive, unequal, and segregated status quo without losing qualities essential to being the body of Christ.

Jesus was clear on slavery: freedom to the captives is the goal. Jesus was clear on women leading too: they are welcome, their voices are privileged. They get to be the first to believe, the first to preach, the first to see the resurrected Jesus, and are right there with the men receiving the empowerment of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. No separation. No subordination. No confined roles. None of that is biblical. We must learn to differentiate the ideal the Bible holds up from the accommodations the Bible will allow for under adverse conditions.

We can’t call something “biblical” that falls short of the highest goal the Bible sets for us. Slavery is not biblical. Restrictions from church leadership based on gender aren’t biblical either. This isn’t a place where we get to “agree to disagree.” Those who have been following all year know that Jesus is pretty fierce at times. Following him is always an all or nothing proposition. Soon we will read where he tells Peter to accept a foot washing or get out. Following Jesus means something really specific and part of it necessarily means not treating women the way complementarianism does. That practice and the logic behind it are not compatible with what Jesus did and taught his followers to do. You can’t follow Jesus and tell women they can’t pastor.

Wow, this post started as one thing and then became something else. If you’re here for the daily RLY (and are still reading), sorry for going so long, I won’t do this tomorrow (probably). But let me end by looping back to today’s reading. Caiaphas was proposing an evil thing. In his conscious mind, he was plotting to murder a man just so he could keep feeling comfortable in his leadership role. There are some (by no means all) who hold the complementarian view under the same condition. They know it’s bad interpretation. They know it contradicts the Gospel and the overall tenor of Scripture. They consciously and deliberately mislead and confuse people from the same motivation Caiaphas had. The only response I can think of to such people is not to let them have the label “biblical.” They don’t get to own that. They don’t get to sit on their high religious perch and look down on the actual followers of Jesus trying to undo the damage their violence does. Not without push back.

But I think most people have just been taken in by the clever, false teaching. It sounds so smart, religious, righteous, and biblical. If that’s you, I hope you will see the logic is deeply flawed. It is mired in heresy. It is far short of God’s best will for us, far short of the kingdom Jesus came preaching, far short of what we have been called to, far short of what the Bible teaches. Though he didn’t mean to, Caiaphas did prophesy. He said Jesus was going to, “unite all the children of God scattered around the world.” There can be no unity without equality and freedom. Jesus has come to set us free, make us equal, and make us one. We should never settle for anything less. And if by chance you are a woman who has felt a call to pastor and suppressed it after listening to a Caiaphas, I hope you will hear again your call. I hope you will be stirred again to do what the Spirit laid on your heart. Preach the Gospel to us. Lead us. Lead us into the kingdom.

I would love to get your reaction to all this. There is a comment button, but it’s all the way back at the top. Please chime in and share your thoughts.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

11 thoughts on “On Women and Slaves (Red Letter Year: 11/21)

  1. A quick reaction to my first read of this great post…

    I’m always wary whenever we paint people in black or white. I think, from an historical perspective, the Sadd’s had very good reason to fear Roman retribution. These leaders were sitting on a pile of powder kegs like Yosemite Sam and just waiting for Herod to flip out or another messianic-wannabe to show up and piss off the overlords. And it happened and then these religious leaders stepped in and tried to restore peace without more bloodshed. To quote St. Spock of the Vulcans, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” Were they wrong? Yes. But they weren’t just villains, they were fathers and husbands and sons and men who were scared – not only of losing position, but losing their nation that was barely clinging to life under Roman occupation.

    Similarly, I was once a cessationist and a complimentarian. Was taught both. And then preached both. I was convinced and could convince by biblical arguments for both. I never saw myself as suppressing women, rather, I saw myself as liberating women from cultural confusion and freeing them to be what God created them to be. Was I wrong? Yes. Way wrong? Yes. But I never came across back room meetings where we were colluding to keep women out or down or anything even remotely organized or pre-meditated. At best I was part of a cadre of men who could be described as the blind leading the blind. I hope that my brothers and sisters who are still swayed by complimentarianism will get a revelation that will bring them to a more expansive place in God’s Big Story and I’ll do my best not to treat them as one dimensional beings rather than the complex and mysterious creation they are.

    Thanks for your thoughtful writing and the daily provocation!

    1. I think most people who hold a restrictive view are where you are. But for all the people drinking the Kool-Aid, there are a few who mix it and know what’s in it. I’m not a conspiracy theorist by any means, but there are some pushing this narrative (your old teachers perhaps) who are clever enough and educated enough to know better.
      And I get how what I’m doing here can seem contrarian, divisive, and otherizing in its own right. This kept me quiet for a long time. The shrill voice screaming, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” sounds really shrill. But I have reached a point where I just can’t accept people calling things “biblical” that clearly aren’t. I can’t sit by while people like your younger self are left to the Caiaphases. There is no such thing as an innocent bystander. Without serious push back, the lie of complementarianism will persist.
      Thanks for reading and supporting.

      1. I once thought my old teachers had to have been intentionally deceptive or at least intentionally obtuse but life experience had led me to different conclusions. For certain, there are men who teach what they teach aware of their deception. I just tend to think, unlike Paul, that “The people of Crete are all liars, cruel animals, and lazy gluttons.” is never true. Life experience has led me to believe that we’re all victims who are bent on victimizing others without the redemptive work of the Cross in our lives and the power of the resurrected Life at work in us. And even then…

        I’m all for the pushback on complementarianism. My hope is that as more women preach and the Holy Spirit falls that we’ll find that even complementarian men have the good sense to get out of the way. Some of us may have to offer ourselves up to being crucified before that fully happens though.

  2. Mike, I saw your conversation with Tyler Braun and came over to read. Well thought out and well communicated. I do have one issue though. This paragraph-

    “The ideas of difference and/or subordination within the Trinity have always been regarded as heresy. We are working in a highly theoretical area here (trying to talk about the inner life of God no less, which by the way, is a dicey place to build a moral position), but both of these ideas have been rejected since the doctrine of the Trinity first emerged. To the best of our finite understanding, the members of the Trinity are separate, equal, interpenetrating, and at all points co-workers in whatever God does. There are no roles in the Godhead and there is no existential or functional subordination. They mutually submit to and glorify each other, existing in a perpetual, infinite dance of love.”

    I just don’t agree with this and don’t believe that this is the common understanding among evangelicals. The members of the Trinity are all the things you mention, but they clearly have different roles. The Son is the Word of God, deployed at creation as the method of creation. He is also the atoning sacrifice who submits to the will of the Father. He says it himself. The Holy Spirit serves as a helper, and a counselor to communicate the will of the father. The Father guides all of creation with an overarching vision. No role is more important, and all are hard.

    While I do agree that they indeed submit to each other, they clearly serve unique roles.

    1. Dan, Thanks so much for reading all that and for the thoughtful comment. I think you gave a fair representation of the evangelical view on the Trinity. But that view goes against the understanding of the Trinity established by the church fathers based on their careful reading of Scripture. For example, while Jesus is the most obvious member of the Trinity involved in atonement, he clearly states (especially in Luke) that he is taking direction from the Father and operating only in the power of the Spirit (having laid aside his own power in the incarnation). Same with creation, where all three members of the Trinity create in concert. Remember Gen. 1. “Let US make humans in OUR image.” Whatever one does, they all do, because they are not just three, they are three in ONE. Assigning different roles undermines the divine unity. It also leads to damaging ideas like hierarchy and subordination. As esoteric as the doctrine of the Trinity is, it turns out to be really important and the standard evangelical view is at odds with Christian orthodoxy. Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and Karl Barth are good places to explore this further. Mike

      >

  3. Thanks for the reply Mike. I appreciate your explanation. I haven’t really done a lot of research on the beliefs of the church fathers. When you said always, I assumed you meant that it is a generally widely held belief in the church which I haven’t found to be true in my time as a believer.

  4. Hi Mike,

    Thank you for your thoughts on this. I personally believe in the Complimentarian perspective. What I see in the Trinity supports this perspective. All three members of the Trinity are equal. There is no “lesser member” of the Trinity. On this I believe that we can agree. But when you examine the role of Christ, he willingly submitted to the will of His Father. Although equal, he put aside his will for the will of the Father. This is the picture that Paul uses when he speaks of spiritual leadership in the home. Marriage is about submission; the model that we get from Christ. I as the husband submit my will to that of Christ as does my wife in that she follows my spiritual leadership. But this spiritual leadership is only Biblical when I am not seeking after my own will but that of Christ. This isn’t about oppression, dominance, etc. I seek after Christ and so does she.

    Neither of us see this as “drinking the Kool-aid” as you mention above nor do we see this as oppressive. Honestly as we both seek after the heart of Christ, we have never found this to be an issue and we have been married for 18 years. I agree that some in the past have used this as an excuse to belittle women and make them wear bonnets and sit in the corner quietly, but that is not the Biblical perspective. My belief is that this idea of spiritual leadership has been so mired in the lens of modernity that we miss what it really is which is a beautiful picture of mutual submission to Christ.

    For us as a couple, I have found that when we are both seeking after Christ we are aligned on decisions. When we are not, we go back to prayer and see where the issue is. If we are both off, then my wife submits to my leadership out of obedience to Christ. Honestly, this has happened only a couple of times in 18 years. Alternatively some of the most significant decisions I have made personally, I did so with the advice of my wife. That is where we are at.

    I do though appreciate your perspective. One recommendation, you will probably foster more productive conversation if you avoid using terms like “drinking the Kool-aid” in your comments section when referring to differing opinions. 🙂

    Blessings,

    Corey

    1. Corey,
      Thanks for reading and responding, I really appreciate it. A few things in response:
      1. The complementarian view as it is presented by those who hold it includes existential subordination that is not supported by an orthodox understanding of Trinity. The whole idea hinges on men being created by God to lead (as a natural function of male being) and women being created by God to follow male leadership (as a natural function of female being). We cannot ascribe such natural, inherent qualities to members of the Godhead without compromising our commitment to their essential unity. For the complementarian view to be right, men and women at least have to be different (even if you want to maintain they are different but equal). Difference, existential difference, difference of essence, is not something we can say about God and remain trinitarian. Please understand, this is strictly a theological point, but an important one. If you want to build a complementarian view, you can try, but you can’t build it on Trinity, because the Trinity is not complementarian.

      2. Submission is a separate issue. A person, or a member of the Trinity, can willingly submit to another, even one who is equal in essence. Here is where we have to deal with Paul – and we have to take time to read him well. The passage you are thinking of is in Eph. 5, but that gets translated poorly on a regular basis. A complementarian reading wants to begin in v. 22 (“wives submit to your husbands”), but if you read it in the Greek, there is no verb at all in v. 22. English translations start a new sentence (and sometimes a new paragraph or section) in the middle of a Greek sentence. A good translation has to begin in v. 21 and would read: “Submit to one another out of respect for Christ, wives to husbands…” – then calling wives to submit to their husbands and husbands to love their wives self-sacrificially, following Jesus’ example of dying on the cross. While you can still read this as (mildly) complementarian, it takes on a stronger emphasis of mutuality when you begin where the sentence starts. The idea that we submit to one another and serve one another comes closer to Paul’s meaning and tracks better with a trinitarian understanding. But it is worth noting that Paul does not compare the marriage relationship with the inner life of God, so we should be careful doing that at all.

      3. Still, this discussion of relationships between husbands and wives is actually beside the point here. However you and your wife take Paul’s instruction and apply it to your marriage is your business. I hope it works well for you and facilitates a life long, loving marriage. But complementarianism is not primarily about the marriage relationship and my post wasn’t addressing that. We are talking here about women leading in the church. Even if a wife is to submit to her husband, that does not mean she is supposed to submit to other men. That does not mean she cannot preach the Gospel. It does not mean she cannot prophesy or operate in the other gifts of the Spirit. Conflating Paul’s marriage instructions with church polity is a basic error. The only thing Paul says that can be taken to restrict women from leading in the church comes in 1 Tim. 2.12, where Paul clearly begins by saying, “I do not permit…” There are times when Paul claims to be speaking divine directives and there are times when Paul is consciously giving his own opinion. This lone statement limiting women in leadership should be read as the latter, given the way Paul begins the statement, given his other positive statements about women being apostles and prophesying, and most importantly, given the preference Jesus showed for women in the Gospels. In trying to limit the authority of women in the church, complementarians works against the clear message and direction of the New Testament.

      4. Which brings me to the “Kool-Aid” issue. I have seen so much injustice justified by poor readings of Scripture, I have seen so much harm done by men misusing the faith to cover up their own misogynist sin, that I don’t think my rhetoric is out of bounds. This is a very serious issue. When women are called and gifted by the Holy Spirit to lead in the church and we suppress that, we are not just limiting women, we are quenching the Holy Spirit. The Spirit comes to build a community marked by unity, freedom, and equality. When we work against that, we are fighting against God and building an empty facsimile of the church; empty, because the Spirit of God will not dwell there. We cannot afford to ‘agree to disagree’ on this issue. Scripture is clear. Jesus was clear. The Spirit is clear. There are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. If we want to belong to that kingdom, then we have to follow Jesus on this and all things.

Comments are closed.