Tuesday, March 22, 2016

No Getting Around That

Rachel Held Evans vs. John Piper? Who could resist weighing in? Not me.

Some background: My favorite popular Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans has been sharing with her readers how well ditching “strict gender roles promoted by conservative evangelical culture” in favor of “a relationship characterized by mutuality and flexibility” is working for her and her husband Dan as they welcome their new baby into the world.

Yes, Dan is helping Rachel out by changing diapers, doing laundry, rocking the baby and making pot after pot of coffee.

Bravo, Dan.

Mountains and Molehills

Having done each and every one of these things Rachel enthusiastically describes time and time again when my own children were small, may I point out that despite being brought up in what Rachel would call a “conservative evangelical culture”, I find nothing revolutionary or untraditional about Dan helping out wherever he sees a need. In fact, I don’t know a single conservative Christian father (even VERY conservative fathers) in the last couple of generations who has not done many such things and even enjoyed doing them. All are way more fun than breastfeeding or carrying a child to term, I suspect.

Frankly, none of these little “assists” has much to do with gender roles. They are simply the sorts of kindnesses Christians tend to perform for one another when we see loved ones — wives, daughters, granddaughters or daughters-in-law — that are overburdened. We do not become less manly for doing them, and offering such assistance does not require us to abandon our conservative principles or biblical roles to do it. To refuse to help out in a crisis is not to be a conservative Christian man, it is to be an inconsiderate, insensitive clod.

Now, on the other hand, if Dan later decides to quit work to become a full-time househusband while Rachel hits the road for six months on a speaking tour, THEN I’d say the Evanses have officially ditched “strict gender roles”. But coffee and diapers? Holding his own child? Sorry, no brownie points for being edgy and trendsetting this time, Rachel.

One suspects conservative evangelicals are being just the teensiest bit straw-manned here. Or maybe Rachel just grew up knowing the wrong sort of Christians.

No Getting Around What?

Be that as it may, if it helps Evans and her husband to justify ditching evangelicalism by portraying the rest of us evangelicals as cartoons, carry on.

What I can’t as easily slide past is this paragraph, in which Evans takes issue with John Piper’s complementarian understanding of New Testament gender roles. As regular readers will know, I have my own issues with both Piper and complementarianism, but when Evans takes on Piper’s hermeneutical approach to what she calls “New Testament household codes”, she is way out of her depth.

Here’s Evans on Piper:
“Perhaps the strongest argument against Piper’s hermeneutical approach to the New Testament household codes is the fact that the very same hermeneutic has been applied to these passages to justify slavery. All three of the biblical passages that instruct wives to submit to their husbands are either directly preceded or followed by instructions for slaves to obey their masters, with phrases like “likewise” and “in the same way” connecting them. If the New Testament household codes mean that patriarchy is a good, God-ordained system for all places and times, then to be consistent, one must also argue that slavery is a good, God-ordained system for all places and times. There’s really no getting around that.”
Actually, this is about as intellectually flaccid an argument as is possible to make.

For ease of reference, Evans is talking about these three New Testament passages: Ephesians 5:22-33, Colossians 3:18-25 and 1 Peter 3:1-7 (two Pauls and a Peter).

Here’s the problem. Okay, there are actually three problems:

Children Disobey Your Parents

Evans takes the position that the commands of the apostles for wives to submit to their husbands are merely a product of the “patriarchal” culture in which they were given. In fact, she makes this explicit:
“In their letters to the early church, the apostles Peter and Paul include what you might call a Christian remix of the traditional Greco-Roman household codes, which detailed the responsibilities of a male head-of-house, his wives, slaves, and adult children.”
Got that? In Evans’ view, Peter and Paul are just giving us a “Christian remix” of Greco-Roman ideas. Their instructions are not binding on Christians currently enjoying different sets of cultural options. So Evans then says that because instructions to servants (or “slaves”) are found in the same passages as instructions to wives, if Christians argue that instructions to wives are relevant in all cultural settings, we are also forced to argue that slavery is a “good, God-ordained for all places and times”.

The first fallacy is obvious. As Evans herself admits, side by side here with the instructions to servants and wives are instructions to children (Evans calls them “adult children”, but there’s no textual basis for that assumption; “children” [Greek: teknon] has a broad semantic range covering both natural offspring and adoptees from infancy to adulthood). If the occurrence of instructions to slaves adjacent to instructions to married women proves conclusively that these directions are only cultural, then by extension the apostles’ commands to children of all ages are equally cultural and ought to be just as speedily abandoned.

Well, why not? They’re right there in the same context.

If Evans’ logic holds, we might as well scrap this whole family nonsense entirely. Maybe Hillary Clinton is right: “It takes a village to raise a child”.

But nobody is forced to argue that slavery is God-ordained or for all places and times just because of contextual proximity. Consistency does not demand this at all.

Give Me Reasons

Neither Paul nor Peter gives any possible rationale for slavery to be considered “good”, “God-ordained” or “for all places and times”. If in fact “the very same hermeneutic has been applied to these passages to justify slavery”, as Evans puts it, that does not mean that it was correctly applied. Just because a method of interpretation may have been abused to the detriment of many does not mean the method itself is intrinsically flawed. The problem may lie elsewhere: in false underlying assumptions or in failing to take into consideration everything that is taught in the passages being interpreted. The problem may be gullible audiences or disingenuous interpreters.

In fact, Peter and Paul DO NOT defend the idea of slavery in their time, much less set it out as a universal. They simply accept it as a fact of their current existence, just as they accept Roman rule over them in all things except the preaching of the gospel.

That is not true of their statements about the submission of wives to husbands. These statements are not supported by cultural arguments, but by appeals to other reasons entirely.

Here’s Paul’s rationale for wifely submission from Ephesians 5:
“For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”
Such a rationale is not cultural at all, or if it is, it is as cultural as the relationship between Christ and his church from Pentecost all the way into eternity. That ain’t Greco-Roman culture, folks.

Here’s his rationale from Colossians 3:
“Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.”
It’s not a long one, but it’s clear and it’s also unrelated to culture. Submission of wives to husbands is fitting “in the Lord”, not in the Greco-Roman patriarchal world or the “present circumstances”. It is the fact of being “in Christ” that establishes the real basis for wifely submission.

Finally, here’s Peter’s rationale for the very same command:
“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.”
In this instance the reason given is testimony, not culture. It remains as relevant today as it did 2,000 years ago when Peter gave it.

It is important to understand that while both Peter and Paul give good, solid reasons for slaves to obey their masters, reasons that have foundations in the character of Christ himself, neither apostle ever defends slavery as an institution.

What’s the Difference

In her post, Evans compares slavery to patriarchy, but this is merely a convenient gloss. It is not the way the apostles frame the subject (evident from the fact that the word “patriarchy” is nowhere to be found in the epistles). If we frame the subject as the apostles have done, the parallels draw attention to the obvious:

Marriage is God-ordained. Slavery is not.

We acknowledge this at the end of the marriage vows when we quote Mark 10:9, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate”. God — not the legal system, society, customs or the church — has joined two people together in marriage. That marriage bond may be dissolved by the death of one partner, but otherwise, we are bound to observe our God-given roles within a union God himself has ordained.

Slavery, on the other hand, was never ordained by God. It is simply something that men have done throughout history and continue to do today. That being the case, in the Old Testament Jehovah gave instructions to Israel about how to treat their slaves differently from the nations around them. The law limits the damage done by slavery by making it, in Israel at least, a much more humane practice than that practiced in the Assyrian, Medo-Persian, Greek and Roman empires. In God’s economy, slaves had rights. The length of their slavery and its conditions were controlled and limited by God. But it was never HIS practice. God didn’t start it, and he never commands it.

Going forward to the New Testament, when men were still keeping slaves, many of whom were coming to Christ, the Lord gives Christian slaves instructions through Peter and Paul about how to behave for the glory of God if you find yourself stuck in what is a rather undesirable, un-God-ordained place in life.

Avail Yourself of the Opportunity

But the institution of slavery is not binding in the way marriage is, because it isn’t God’s institution. This was true even in Paul’s day. He says, “If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity”. Nowhere does Paul or anyone else suggest that a woman should avail herself of the opportunity to be free of a believing husband.

There is a night-and-day difference between marriage, instituted by God, and slavery, which wasn’t. Equating the two seems almost deliberately obtuse.

I don’t agree with everything John Piper says, but far from being inconsistent, his “hermeneutic” (as Evans puts it) is head and shoulders above hers.

There’s really no getting around that.

1 comment :

  1. Reading R H Evans' "reinterpretation" (hijacking?) of these biblical passages reminds me of a certain conversation recorded much earlier in Genesis: "...has God really said?..."

    Basing biblical interpretation and/or living on "feelz" leads to a very weak and watered down Christianity. There can even seem to be a gain, for a very short term, by using emotion-based arguments but it is using mud instead of reinforced concrete to build upon -- it fast crumbles when put to the test and quite often the damage can be severe, whether for an individual, a family, or a local biblical church. A lasting, joyfilled, satisfying life, will only be found in obedience to God as He speaks through the bible by the Holy Spirit.