Responding to Non-Christian, Monotheist Critiques of Christianity

Many of us live on streets where nearly all the world’s major religions and different types of secularism and atheism are represented. We personally encounter religious viewpoints today that fifty years ago we had only read about in books. We are encouraged by the exponents of pluralism and relativism to ignore the differences and just get along. And from a personal and political vantage point this may be a good strategy. But what is true for individuals and politicians is not true for religions and philosophies. They make conflicting truth claims. From a logical point of view they may all be wrong, but they cannot all be right. I am comfortable and experienced in arguing for the truth of Christianity against atheism or for the truth of an important theological truth against a Christian thinker who denies it. But like many of you I am not all that experienced at defending the faith in discussions with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others. And as I hinted above, our culture discourages us from anything but affirming encounters with representatives of other religions. I think, however, that Christians need to go beyond tolerance and politeness, and learn how to explain and defend our faith to our non-Christian neighbors. Let’s think today about how to respond to one particular non-Christian critique of Christianity.

Critics of Christianity attack at different points. Where they attack depends on what they assert as the alternative truth. Atheists object to the very idea of God, and offer nature or matter as a god-substitute. Non-Christian monotheist religions object to the status and role Jesus Christ occupies in the Christian faith and assert some other revelation or mediator or law as a Christ-substitute. Non-Christian polytheist religions find it easy to assimilate Christ as one appearance of god among many. Today I want to address certain objections to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. I am not concerned in this essay with those Christians who object on biblical grounds to the specific doctrine asserted in the Nicene Creed. I am thinking of rational critiques by Jewish, Islamic, Theist or Deist thinkers.

These critics assume that defeating the doctrine of the Trinity defeats Christianity as a whole. And to accomplish this goal they make use of a common (and mistaken) notion that gives their objections underserved force, that is, that the simple unity of the divine being is a clear, rational truth whereas the triunity of the divine being is irrational or mysteriously beyond reason. But as a matter of historical fact, biblical Israel’s belief in the unity of the divine being was based on historical revelation and divine action, not on reasoning from nature. The best reasoning from nature at that time concluded that the divine nature was plural, that there were many gods, some more, some less divine. There are many forces and spheres within nature, and for the ancients these different forces possessed no obvious connection. And even if you examine the writings of the Greek philosophers from Plato to Plotinus, you never find a rationally plausible system that gets beyond dualism, that is, the assertion of at least two ultimate principles; and the divine realm always includes multiple levels. The history of philosophy proves that we cannot reason conclusively from the many things of our experience to a single, simple explanation for everything, much less to a single personal God. To think at all is to relate one thing to another. If there is only one thing, we are beyond thought. Hence simple monotheism is not a clear, rational truth self-evidently superior to belief in a differentiated divine unity. That there is only one, personal God is a truth that can be known only by revelation. I think it can be rationally held once believed, but just because it can be rationally held doesn’t mean it can be rationally proved. And I’ve not even addressed the question of the identity of that one God, which, of course, can be known only through the self-revelation of God, who alone, knows who he is.

If we remove the presupposition of the rational superiority of simple monotheism, the rationalist critique of the doctrine of the Trinity collapses. The question of whether God’s inner nature is absolutely without distinction or contains internal relations is beyond rational discovery. Now we can see clearly that the more basic question at issue is, has God revealed himself in such a way that calls for thinking of God as triune? Just as Jews assert that the God who called, guided, punished and saved Israel proved himself to be the one Creator of all things, Christians assert that this same God showed himself by what he did in and through Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to be eternally Father, Son and Spirit. The real question is not whether or not this assertion is as clear to reason as is the assertion of simple monotheism. Neither one is a truth discovered by or transparent to reason. The real question is whether or not God really has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit in the way the New Testament declares. Judaism, Islam and Deism deny this; and this denial is the root of their objection to the Trinity and to Christianity as such. The rationalist objection is a distraction.

Has Your Church Forgotten Something?

I have been deeply involved in the life of church since I was a child. The church taught me about Jesus and formed me as a Christian and as a person. I love her and I can’t imagine my life without her. Early in my life I felt a call to serve in the ministry or, as I would have articulated then, “to become a preacher.” And after some hesitancy in my teen years I decided to take that step. I studied Bible and theology in college and graduate school, receiving my Master of Theology degree. I spent approximately ten years in campus ministry, youth ministry and preaching ministry. After receiving my Ph.D. in religious studies I began teaching at the university level. That was nearly 28 years ago. For much of that time I served as an elder in a local church. Last summer, after 22 years as an elder, I ended my career in this role. I informed my beloved congregation that I could no longer do what contemporary elders are required to do and make the decisions they must make. For the first time in a long time I am a regular church member.

I want to share with you today a perspective that has gradually been crystalizing in my mind over many years. I have come to believe that many of the challenges that consume the energy of contemporary churches arise because they have redefined the nature and work of the church to include many things almost wholly unrelated to the essence and original purpose of the church. The New Testament church was a family, but we’ve transformed it into a bureaucracy. The early church’s ministers were traveling missionaries or respected local leaders, but we’ve turned them into religious experts and middle class professionals. The first churches met in homes around a table, but we met in a hall in facing a theater stage.

Think of how much energy and money churches spend and how many legal and political entanglements they bring on themselves by involving themselves in following unnecessary things: owning and managing property, hiring and managing professional clergy and staff, acquiring and servicing nonprofit tax status, organizing and funding worship bands, singers and worship ministers, and buying, maintaining and operating expensive sound and video systems. And consider how many unnecessary and inefficient programs must be staffed with overworked volunteers and paid staff. Think of how much envy, resentment and showiness having a stage with spotlights and microphones as the focal point of the service evokes.

Ask yourself why people attend church and on what basis do they choose a church. Do they attend church to be reminded of who they are in Christ, to participate in the Lord’s Supper with their brothers and sisters in Christ, to hear the Scriptures read, to encourage and be encouraged to live lives worthy of the gospel? These are the essential and original reasons. Or, do people attend a church event because of the music, the speaker or the wide array of services provided for children, teens, singles and other affinity groups?

I am not a reformer. I am not an iconoclast. I simply want to spend my energy on things that really matter.  And I wish that more churches would do the same.

Should Believers Worry that Extra-terrestrial Life Really Exists?

As you may know from recent news releases, astronomers are excited to find 7 new earth-size planets orbiting around a star 40 light years from us. Of course 40 light years puts them way beyond our reach. It would take a space ship constructed with our current space technology 800,000 earth years to reach it. The main motivation for space exploration has always been our curiosity about ourselves, our origin, nature and destiny. So, we search for extra-terrestrial life or at least planets that could support life. Some people of faith are a bit skeptical or anxious about that possibility. So, I want to calm your fears.

What would it mean if space explorers found proof of extra-terrestrial life? Many people of an atheist bent would conclude that discovery of life elsewhere would disprove divine creation and prove that life here happened by chance. I suppose the argument would have to run like this: since we have another example of the evolution of life in the universe, we know that life on earth is not so unique and improbable that it requires a miracle to explain it. Instead, life tends to arise wherever in the universe conditions are right. And those conditions are not limited to earth. Hence we must assume that life arose on this planet by chance when the conditions made it possible.

Is this the only, or even the best, way to draw out the implications of such a discovery? I think the opposite is true. As long as earth life is the only instance of life we know, we could plausibly think of it as a freak accident unrelated to any purpose. Physical law made it possible, but chance made it actual. In truth, if we found life elsewhere it would make less plausible the idea that life on earth was a chance event. If we discovered that the universe was teaming with life, it would completely destroy the idea that life on earth came about by sheer chance. Why? Because it would demonstrate (at minimum) that the universe has a built in tendency to produce life, ultimately intelligent life. The occurrence of life could never again be attributed to pure chance. We would know it to be matter of law! The law of life would be as much a part of the universe as the law of gravity or any of the other fundamental forces. At its origin, the universe would have been programmed to produce life, to produce us. Producing intelligence is the universe’s goal. And when you and I think and dream and pray, we are enjoying the activity the universe has been aiming at from its origin! Our experience of our own minds is the most powerful telescope or microscope conceivable. It is a window into the beginning and end of all things.

But how could intelligence be the law and goal of the universe unless Intelligence was also present at the origin of the universe? As long as we think of the initial laws of our universe as mere regularities in a material universe—a rather unimaginative viewpoint—we did not have to raise the question of divine creation. But when intelligence comes to be considered an inbuilt aim–as the discovery of instances of ETL would force us to conclude–this explanation will no longer work.  Intelligence is not a mere regularity but a real thing indicating the presence of a mind. If the goal of producing intelligent beings is part of the initial conditions of the universe, the only explanation of this fact I can imagine is that a super intelligence programmed it that way.

Hence far from believers have something to fear from the discovery of extra-terrestrial life, we should rejoice at its discovery and say to our atheist friends, “See, we told you this universe was created by Life for life, by Intelligence for intelligence.” It is the atheist who should hope that we are alone.

LOOKING FOR GOD IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES

For 30 years or longer I have been trying to figure out what makes skepticism, indifference and atheism plausible and belief in God difficult for some people.  I am sure there are many reasons and the relative strength of each varies from person to person. But one stands out to me. The external, physical/material world seems so real to us that we have a hard time imagining anything real that is not also external and material. This sentiment is expressed by a saying making the rounds on Facebook: “I worship nature. Don’t laugh. At least I can prove it exists.” I laughed anyway.

During his early adulthood, under the instruction of the Manicheans, Augustine of Hippo also experienced this difficulty:

When I wanted to think of my God, I knew of no way of doing so except as a physical mass. Nor did I think anything existed which was not material. That was the principle and almost sole cause of my inevitable error. ..If I had been able to conceive of spiritual substance, at once all their imagined inventions would have collapsed and my mind would have rejected them. But I could not [Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (Oxford 1991), pp. 85, 89].

And speaking of the philosophers of his day, who focused on external appearances, Augustine says,

They can foresee a future eclipse of the Sun but do not perceive their own eclipse in the present. For they do not in a religious spirit investigate the source of the intelligence with which they research into these matters (Confessions, trans. Chadwick, p. 74)

Baron Holbach, author of The System of Nature (1770) and patron of Paris’s atheist and freethinking community, attempted to explain the whole world and every event within it in material terms. His fundamental assumption seems to be that the true nature of things is revealed only in empirical experience. Empirical experience works by physical contact between our bodies and other bodies. We know things only in their external relationships to us and other things. Reality consists exclusively of external bodies set in relation to other external bodies. Holbach then interprets all our internal experience, which we do not experience empirically through the senses, in keeping with his external view of knowledge. We know that our minds, ideas and concepts possess no reality beyond the physical forces that bring them about. God is a creation of the human imagination, which itself is a product of the motions of matter.

As you can see, Holbach falls into an error similar to the one Augustine complained the Manicheans made, that is, that reality can be known truly only as external bodies and the images that represent them. Augustine saw through this error when he realized that we have internal access to reality as well as external access. Limiting knowledge of reality to how things appear from an external viewpoint severely limits and greatly distorts our understanding of the world. Holbach, the Manicheans and the nature worshiper mentioned above forget that the internal power by which we know the external world also knows itself and all its contents. And the mind knows itself and its contents not by physical contact with external surfaces but by knowing itself directly. Inside the world of the mind, nothing is external and material. Nothing takes up space or weighs anything. Nothing breaks down into smaller material bits.

In Augustine’s view, the Manicheans, and by extension Holbach and all metaphysical materialists, should have given priority to the knowledge gained by our mind’s experience of itself. Privileging an external point of view makes an inferior, indirect and obscure access to reality the judge of a superior, clear and direct access. It dismisses our sense of certainty that our minds are real and possess freedom and causal power over our bodies in favor of an analogy drawn from our external observation of the interaction of assumedly mindless bodies. It rejects our internal experience of immaterial ideas, logical laws, concepts and relations and forces them into the pattern we derive from external observation, that is, they must be material bodies externally related to each other, despite our invincible inclination to believe otherwise.

What a difference there is between the two systems (Atheism and Christian Theism)! Christian theism asserts that the appearance of humanity and all that goes with it—mind, reason, freedom, self-consciousness, moral intuition, and all that is made possible by them—reveals the true nature of the ultimate reality behind all appearances better than the externality, unintelligibility, inertness, and mindlessness of matter. And this truth comes to light in our experience within ourselves of ourselves and in fellowship with other human beings. The idea of matter is derived from sense experience’s discovery of opacity and obscurity in its vision of the world in contrast to the clarity of ideas and the self-identity and self-transparency of the mind in its act of thinking and self-reflection. Atheism (at least the most common contemporary forms) views the mindless externality of matter as disclosing the true nature of what we wrongly think we know on the uniquely human level: mind, qualities, freedom, consciousness, self-consciousness, reason, intelligibility and moral intuition.

Here is a stark choice. Both views make knowledge claims. One must choose. But the irony is that in choosing materialism I give revelatory priority to something I know externally, obscurely and indirectly over what I know directly and clearly by virtue of the process of thinking. I assert that the ultimate and underlying reality from which thinking, ideas and concepts derive is itself unthinking, obscure and unthinkable. Don’t miss this: ironically, if not in complete self-contradiction, materialism is a theory that conceives and thinks of thinking and concepts as secondary qualities derivative of matter, which is the complete absence of mind and intelligibility! According to their theory, the very power (mind) and its instruments (ideas and concepts) by which materialists formulate, defend and explain the philosophy of materialism, need to be resolved into their (material) components in order to get a clear idea of what they really are. What an absurdity! Mind and the idea of ideas are obscure and complex whereas the idea of matter is simple and clear? Of course the idea of matter is simple and clear but the idea of matter is in the mind. But matter itself is defined by being external to the mind and obscure to the eye of the mind. So, in the theory of materialism I am basing my understanding of all reality on something that can be known only as unknowable and obscure. Surely there is some kind of incoherence here!

But everything changes if with Augustine we give priority to internal experience. The way we know our minds and their contents becomes the model for our knowledge of the external world. We experience the world not only as external, material and obscure but also as internal, ideal and transparent. Through our senses we receive into our minds information (not simply dumb physical impacts) embodied in the world. This information becomes internal to our minds; only then do we possess knowledge of the “external” world. Assuming that this information truly exists in the world apart from the work of our minds, we can ask from where it came. Or, since we know from our internal experience the creative and shaping power of mind and ideas, we can ask about the nature of the Mind that thinks and creates the world I experience as intelligible but not as the product of my or any human mind.

The apostle Paul was not making idle conversation with the Athenians when he quoted the Cretan philosopher Epimenides: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” Unlike the young Augustine, Holbach and today’s nature worshiper, Paul looked around at the world and saw in everything the marks of the divine Mind, and he felt surrounded, indwelt and empowered by the Spirit of the living God. Our task, Paul says is to “seek him and perhaps find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27). And it helps to begin your search in the right place.

Where’s the Outrage?

Today we return to the theme of  “Love not the world,” taken from 1 John 2:15-17:

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

In times of social unrest we often hear extreme expressions of such emotions as fear, anger and anguish. These expressions are sometimes accompanied by dismay that more people do not seem to feel these emotions as violently as they should. Hence the agonized questions, “Where’s the outrage?” “Why the apathy?”

I’d like to reflect today on these questions.

They presuppose that the right response to perceived injustice is extreme, near out-of-control emotion. A good person, one who cares about right and wrong, justice and injustice, would feel these strong emotions and be moved by them to express them in equally strong ways. Anyone who doesn’t feel and express these emotions shows themselves to be insensitive to wrong and lacking in compassion for its victims.  But is this presupposition really consistent with the Christian understanding ethics and virtue?

John tells us not to love the world or anything in it. Love for the world crowds out love for the Father.  He condemns three emotions or passions, passion for physical pleasure, passion for possessions, and passion for honor. John does not mention other passions, fear, anger, and jealously, but his argument applies equally to all emotions. Allowing any object or any experience in the world to control our emotions and direct our behavior will displace love for the Father. We should not allow ourselves to be controlled, consumed or outraged by the world and its desires. They will pass away.

What then should a good person feel and do in the face of wrong? If allowing ourselves to be outraged, fearful, and anxious conforms to the pattern of the world, what is the correct response? I think John would say that our utmost passion should be to love the Father and do the will of God in every situation. In other words, our emotions and actions should be determined by the unchanging love and will of God rather than by the images and words we meet in the world. Every day the world confronts us with enticing things and revolting things, with good and bad, curses and blessings, beauty and ugliness, safety and danger, right actions and wrong actions. John tells us not to allow our emotions and actions to be determined by the changing scenes around us. We should instead anchor them in God so that we can experience clarity of purpose, steadiness of composure, and consistency of action.

John is not alone in his caution about human passions. I know of no place in the teaching of Jesus or anywhere else in Scripture that encourages us to be angry and express outrage. Quite the opposite is taught. We are taught self-control, moderation, and patience. Would Paul, the author of Galatians and the following ethical teaching, encourage us to rage?

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other (Galatians 5:19-26).

Would the one who pronounced his blessing on the “peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) and instructed us to “turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39) rebuke us for apathy because we are not sufficiently outraged at our enemies?

James seems to think our tendency to outrage is a fault not a virtue:

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be…17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness (James 3:9-18).

Peter also lived in a time of social unrest. What advice did he give?

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing…14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.

No my friends, outrage is never a virtue. Anger is not a reliable guide to justice. Cursing is never a sign of devotion to truth. Nor are self-control, patience, kindness and blessing indications of apathy. Where is the outrage? I can tell you where it’s not: it’s not in any heart devoted to “the love of the Father.” There is no room for outrage there.

Three Views on Women in Leadership: A Hyperlinked Index

A reader of this blog requested that I compile an index that organizes and hyperlinks all the posts in my recent series on the debate between secular feminism, evangelical egalitarianism and Christian Neo-Patriarchy. This series ran through December 2016 and January 2017. I am in the process of turning this series into a book with the tentative title Three Views on Women in Leadership. I am considering giving last names to Sarah, Gloria and Abraham. I am open to suggestions. I am also open to suggestions on anything I need to add to the book to make it better.

I changed the order from the way they appeared onthe blog. Now they are ordered so that the responses follow immediately after the presentations. If you wish, you can forward this page to a friend who would like to read them all together in this new order.

 

Gloria Explains and Defends Secular Feminism

Sarah Responds to Gloria

Abraham Responds to Gloria (Part one)

Abraham Responds to Gloria (Part Two)

Abraham Responds to Gloria (Part Three)

Sarah Explains and Defends Evangelical Egalitarianism

Gloria Responds to Sarah

Abraham Responds to Sarah (Part One)

Abraham Explains and Defends Christian Neo-Patriarchy (Part One)

Abraham Explains and Defends Christian Neo-Patriarchy (Part Two)

Gloria Responds to Abraham

Sarah Responds to Abraham

Women and the Bible: An Egalitarian Critiques Patriarchy

Speakers:

Gloria (Secular Feminist)

Sarah (Evangelical Egalitarian)

Abraham (Neo-Patriarch)

Moderator (Neutral)

 

Moderator: Welcome to our twelfth and final talk in our dialogue on the relationship between men and women in society, church and family. This evening evangelical egalitarian Sarah will reply to Abraham the spokesman for neo-patriarchy.

Sarah: Thank you Moderator for your guidance throughout this dialogue, and thank you Gloria and Abraham for your stimulating presentations. From my perspective, among the most interesting and surprising developments in these discussions were those occasions where Gloria and I agreed against Abraham or Abraham and Gloria agreed against me (!) or Abraham and I agreed against Gloria. I didn’t expect these strange alliances to develop. Each person’s presence added something important to the discussion.

And I have to say, I found both my dialogue partners’ thoughts challenging. Gloria challenged me to show more convincingly just how the message of Scripture supports the case for equality in ways reason and experience cannot. Abraham’s creative combination of reason and scripture to support the justice of traditional role differentiation surprised me and made it necessary for me to seek in the future a combination of the two that supports egalitarianism. But my task tonight is to reply to the central argument in Abraham’s first speech.

Sarah Summarizes Abraham’s Argument

As I understand it Abraham’s argument can be summarized as follows: Abraham asserts the infinite worth of each individual, man or woman, and insists that our primary duty to one another is love. He defines love this way:

“To love another is to seek what is best for them individually, given their natural and historical circumstances.”

Hence to love others and do them justice cannot be identified with treating them equally but falls under the rule of seeking “what is best” for each person. Abraham argues further that since men are on average much stronger physically and more aggressive in temperament than women, the rule of love and justice—that is, of “seeking what is best”— demands that men (and society in general) adopt an attitude of protectiveness toward women. In a just order, the rules and roles for women must give them special protections not needed by men. In Abraham’s words,

“Christian neo-patriarchs believe they ought to view women as mothers, wives, sisters or daughters and adopt a loving and protective attitude toward all women. Not a condescending attitude, for we know that women are just as intelligent and wise as men and women possess infinite worth to God.”

Based on this moral vision, Abraham criticizes the egalitarian demand that all social and church offices and roles be open to women and men alike based on giftedness (or ability) rather than on gender. Instead of this meritocratic rule he defends the church’s practice of withholding “ruling” offices and functions from women as consistent with the teaching of Scripture and the demands of love and justice as exemplified by Jesus.

Sarah’s Four-Part Reply

What’s Wrong With Equality?

I shall reply to the four most basic claims made in this argument. (1) In criticizing my emphasis on equality, Abraham asserts that women and men possess infinite worth in God’s eyes. Equality, he says, is a morally suspect idea. Apparently Abraham thinks my argument and practical program of reform depend on the concept of equality. Without it, so he thinks, egalitarianism falls to the ground. In response, I admit that attributing infinite worth to women says something more sublime about women than the equality claim asserts. But if both men and women have “infinite” worth, don’t they also have equal worth? So, how does Abraham’s move defeat my argument? Shouldn’t women still be treated equally even within Abraham’s theoretical framework? How can he justify departing from the rule that equal dignity demands equal treatment?

Abraham replies to the equal-dignity-equal-treatment challenge by defining love and justice as “seeking what is best” for each person given their natural and individual differences. Equal or infinite dignity demands not equal treatment but true love and justice individualized for the needs of each person. It’s hard to find anything wrong with this principle in theory. But here is the problem: who decides “what is best” for men and women collectively or individually? Wouldn’t there be lots of room for stereotypes, misinformation, prejudice and selfishness in such deliberations? And why should men have any say in determining “what is best” for women? Perhaps each woman should decide for herself what is best for her?

To escape this endless, convoluted discussion evangelical egalitarians choose equality as the norm for the treatment of women rather than “what is best.” The concept of equality is simple and generates simple rules. It’s not subject to endless discussions that attempt to take into account myriads of factors. Indeed, as Abraham points out, equality is more a mathematical than a moral concept. But at least mathematics is simple! There is less room for obfuscation and humbug!

Even for Christians, “Biology is not Destiny!”

(2) Abraham makes much of the biological differences between men and women. I grant that in terms of raw physical strength and psychological aggressiveness men have the natural advantage. But Abraham argues that those biological differences demand to be embodied in hierarchical relationships in society and church. Moreover, he contends that though technological advances can ameliorate the social impact of these differences to some extent, they cannot neutralize them completely. Gloria dealt with this claim effectively in her response to Abraham, so I don’t need to address it at great length.

However, I want to consider one aspect that Gloria as a secular person could not really understand or deal with effectively. Gloria pointed out that Abraham presupposes that God’s choice to create male and female unequal in the areas mentioned above justifies maintaining traditional social inequities. She deals with the problem by dismissing divine creation. I do not believe this is necessary. Indeed, as an evangelical Christian I believe God created male and female with all the differences that that entails. Those differences are good for each gender and for society. We are better and happier together than alone.

But it does not follow that it is wrong to strive to overcome the negative impact of those differences, especially when they are magnified by the effects of sin. God also made males and females intelligent, so it cannot be wrong to use this God-given intelligence to equalize the sexes in the workplace and in other areas. If it were wrong to use our intelligence for this purpose, wouldn’t it also be wrong to use it to cure disease, treat pain, increase productivity and enhance human life? Even for Christians, “Biology is not destiny!”

Condescension and False Dichotomies

(3) Abraham argues that men will relate to women either protectively or exploitatively.  He allows no third alternative. As Abraham sees it, on average men possess superior physical strength of a kind that gives them the ability to intimidate and harm women in one-on-one, private encounters. This fact forces men, whether consciously or not, to adopt one of two attitudes toward women: protectiveness or exploitativeness.

Although Abraham asserts that protectiveness need not be “condescending,” given women’s equality of dignity and intelligence, I am not convinced. It seems to me that both protection and exploitation are condescending and domineering. Both imply that women depend on the goodwill of men in a way that men don’t depend on the goodwill of women. These attitudes discount the equal dignity and intelligence of women and reduce them to their bodies. And this condescension is a constant source of insult and irritation to women.

Additionally, Abraham sets up a false dichotomy. I don’t deny the biological facts of the situation, but why can’t men overcome the impulse to condescension of any kind and simply treat women as equals? Why must the issues of sex and power—as inseparable as the two sides of a coin—cast their cold shadows over every encounter between men and women?

The Weakness of the Biblical Case for Neo-Patriarchy

(4) What about the teaching of Scripture? Abraham contends that Scripture teaches the subordination of wives to husbands in the home and of women to men in the church. He attempts to inoculate Scripture from the secular feminist charge of irrational male prejudice by showing that Scripture’s perspective and its instructions are reasonable, just and loving when measured against the facts of nature. He anticipates the evangelical egalitarian argument from Galatians 3:26-29—“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female.”—by limiting its application to justification. These verses speak of a new way of relating to God. In the matter of sin and its forgiveness, the worldly status of people makes no difference. All that counts is faith and the life that flows from it. This text does not speak of actually recreating people so that they are no longer male and female. Accordingly, Abraham concludes, it should not be taken to imply that the traditional social, ecclesiastical and familial orders be reordered so that being male or female makes no difference. Hence preserving the “ruling” offices in the church for men is not only reasonable, just and loving, but also obligatory. I shall reply to each phase of this argument in order.

First, I can see why Abraham appeals to reason and natural law to absolve Scripture of irrationality and male bias. He presents an interesting case for patriarchy. Some people may find it compelling. But I don’t believe it really meets the challenge of secular feminism. It leaves the essential idea of patriarchy intact. I too want to defeat critics of Scripture that accuse it of such prejudice. But I don’t see the need to appeal to biology and natural law. I think we can show that the central message of God’s love, new creation and redemption in Christ shows that patriarchy is peripheral to the ethics of Scripture and has been made obsolete by the Christian vision of equality in Christ.

Second, I’ve already dealt extensively with Galatians 3:26-29 in this dialogue, so I don’t need to spend much time on it. I admit that the subject of this text is justification before God and unity in Christ. This is the subject under discussion in the Galatians as a whole. But that doesn’t settle the issue of what follows from the fact of our solidarity in Christ. If our worldly—even biological—status makes no difference in the matter of sin and salvation, surely we are not permitted to carry on “business as usual” in society, church and family! If God accepts us because of our faith rather than any biological or social status, surely we must accept and relate to each other on that same basis! And if we really accept each other on this basis, how can we defend and practice an order based on biological and social status? Moreover, if we insist on continuing the old order, don’t we render our assertions of salvation by faith and oneness in Christ empty phrases? Pie in the sky with no ethical teeth?

Third, what is this all talk about “ruling” and “ruling offices” in the church? Jesus rebuked his disciples for talking like this. He told them that the greatest among them is the one who serves all the rest (Mark 9:33-37). And Jesus himself set the example of greatness in service by washing his disciples’ dirty feet and dying on the cross for sinners (John 13:1-17 and Philippians 2:1-11). The New Testament understands every office and function in the church as service to others for Christ’s sake. If we are thinking rightly about church officers and functions, we won’t view them as ruling but as serving roles. Hence even if you think women should not rule over men, why object to them serving the church in any way they can and doing anything the church needs done and calls them to do?

Moderator: Thank you Sarah, Gloria and Abraham for a very stimulating debate. This concludes our time together. I hope that truth will be served by such respectful and thoughtful conversations as we have witnessed in these twelve sessions. And I am sure you agree.

Programming Note: I am now in the process of editing this 12-part dialogue for publication as a small book. The tentative title is Three Views on Women in Church Leadership. The purpose of the book, like the purpose of this dialogue, is to help churches, church leaders and members to think through the issues now facing many Bible-believing churches concerning the apparent tension between the teaching of Scriptures on the subject of women and church leadership and the increasing demands of society for the equality of women to men in society and church.