**edited by Lauren R.E. Larkin
I talk to a lot of people in any given week. Whether it be mutual dialogue with close friends, friendly debate with disagreeing critics, or open animosity from trolls, a good portion of the last year has been spent in conversation with people from all walks of life. However, as would seem obvious, the majority of these conversations are with other Christians. It is on these specific conversations I want to focus.
As my audience tends to cover a fairly wide demographic, due largely to my work on the theological roots of abuse and gender inequality in the church, I get to hear arguments on a wide variety of issue from a wide variety of perspectives.
Some of the most frustrating of these conversations tend to occur with Christian siblings who are either deeply conservative, or in transition out of conservativism. In both cases, these persons have been indoctrinated in a system of ideology that reinforces an ardently Foundationalist view of knowledge.
In a nutshell, Foundationalism is a vertical approach to knowledge. It operates from the assumption that establishing a set of objective truths will form the basis for all other knowledge. For example, conservative Christians are typically encouraged to begin all knowledge with a set of assertions about the truth of Scripture.
In the case of my conservative education, these assertions went something like this:
1. God is holy, thus he cannot lie.
2. All Scripture is God-breathed.
3. Since God cannot lie, all of Scripture must be absolutely true.
4. The Bible is thus completely inerrant.
5. Ergo, we can know the truth and goodness of God because he has revealed himself to us in his Word, the Bible.
Ignoring for a minute how circular this logic is, it is my experience that most conservative, Christian approaches to epistemology will begin with similar assertions. As such, inerrancy almost inevitably becomes the epistemological basis of a vertical framework (or tower) of belief.
In such a framework, each layer of “knowledge” is predicated on the previous layer. This creates an equation between that which is “known” and the deepest, most foundational concepts of self. So for instance, when one bases a vertical tower of knowledge on the inerrancy of Scripture, to question the notion of inerrancy is to challenge the very basis by which they claim to “know” anything with certainty. As a result, persons with a Foundationalist epistemology will often react in anger, vitriol, and even violence because any challenge to their tower of knowledge can feel like an attack waged on the very core of their being.
In clinging to these towers, they often attack anyone for daring to risk a critique (however slight it may be), because considering the validity of a critique requires one to consider their own theological frailty. This leads to the formation of an ideology crafted to preserve the privileges and comforts we hold sacred, an epistemology which values self-certainty above all else. If left unchecked, self-preservation will eventually manifest itself as a staunch and unwavering commitment to “doctrinal purity” above all else. Eventually, the worship of doctrinal purity requires that those who disagree with us be treated as anathema – considered to be inferior (and thus unworthy) or apostate. – because a commitment to a foundational epistemology is necessarily predicated upon antagonistic paradigms.
For example, if one sees egalitarianism as the clear and unquestionably inerrant teaching of Scripture, they will then perceive complementarian theology as either demonic or deceptive. In such a framework, one’s goal in critiquing complementarian theology will be primarily to decide who is right, thus necessarily who gets to be in charge. While one argues for the need to elevate women, the goal is not simply to establish equality for all persons and expose the abuses and theological pitfalls of patriarchal systems. Instead, one’s goal becomes primarily to demonstrate the superiority of one’s epistemology, to create a system of self-normativity by which one joins with like-minded person to enforce the sanctity of those privileges we hold foundational to our narrative expression of self.
In this way, egalitarians often coopt movements and ideologies in order to pursue the primacy of personal comfort and privilege. Such person will be happy, and even proud that, their ideology benefits others. But this is primarily because persons with an antagonist epistemology so often bask in the glory of being perceived as the “good guy.” However, the motivation for promoting the “good” of others is actually to reinforce their own “ultimate good,” an unwavering sense of self-certainty.
But in doing this, this strand of egalitarianism is not truly working to undermine the hierarchical foundations of patriarchal theology, but only to normativize self within them. While any form of patriarchy which challenges our notion of “self” is eschewed, those forms of patriarchy which reinforce one’s narrative “self” are used to codify this narrative over and against some perceived “other.” Instead of “smashing the patriarchy” in order to level the playing field and elevate disenfranchised persons, for many the aim is to bend and manipulate patriarchal systems to serve a personal agenda.
An Egalitarian Issue
It is my opinion that such a framework influences the arguments many egalitarians use against the LGBT community. As a result of this, egalitarianism so often does not have room to include persons of sexual and gender minority within its ideology. Rather that undermine the entire paradigm on which complementarian concepts of gender and sexuality are based, they choose to work within a patriarchal framework of gender and sexuality, seeking only to reshape the “roles” people can occupy within such a power structure.This is largely because they have succumbed to complementarian bully tactics. When a complementarian says, “Egalitarianism will lead to the embracing of homosexuality.” many egalitarians respond defensively. Out of desire to maintain their own seat at the table, egalitarians will often refuse to consider the logical implications of basing one’s theology in a reaction to a slippery slope argument. As a result, the egalitarian response is quite often to actively exclude LGBT persons in service of self-interest.
But in doing so, they have let the patriarchalist set the tone of the conversation. That is, they claim that patriarchy is oppression yet continue to function within a paradigm created to maintain patriarchal power. In this way, egalitarianism has so often presented itself as little more than the flipside of the complementarian coin. Both sides of the argument are caught up in the foundational pursuit of power built upon antagonism, the exclusion of persons considered “other.”
The problem is, when we let oppressors set the tone of the conversation, the conversation will only ever result in continued oppression of some mutually agreed upon group of “undesirables.”
This leads to the question:
Can oppression and exclusion in service of self-interest form a consistent biblical hermeneutic?
Most people would consider me an egalitarian, but I have to admit a certain trepidation about the label. There are a great number of good egalitarian people, people I consider friends, who promote love of and equality for all persons. But there are also those along the egalitarian spectrum whose theology is caught up in the sort of antagonism and exclusionary tactics described above.
This dynamic becomes most readily apparent when one considers the ways in which egalitarians approach biblical hermeneutics in regards to the affirmation and inclusion of the LGBT community within the church.
Because many egalitarians embrace the so-called “doctrine” of biblical inerrancy, they approach hermeneutics in a necessarily antagonistic fashion. Thus, the goal of hermeneutics becomes bound up in possessing THE correct interpretation of Scripture, and those who deny this are inherently considered somehow lesser as Christians. The goal is to overcome “revisionist” hermeneutics and work toward the only true, fully informed translation of Scripture.
In this way, the hermeneutical process is viewed as a means to an end. Learning and study are not the goal, but mastery over the text. But the belief that one can ever truly “arrive” theologically is pure hubris. Such an approach fails to understand:
Every hermeneutic is revisionist, because any modern study of the biblical text requires the creative re-visioning of the text for a modern audience.
The reality is, we all bring bias and assumption to the text. As such, a careful and nuanced hermeneutic musts function at the intersection of a vast array of interpretive concerns. To achieve this, one must enter into a process Feminist New Testament scholar Elaine Wainwright calls poesis.
In the act of poesis, one seeks to approach the text not as a source of information but a locus of meaning by which modern concerns may be brought into a new light.
The goal is not to arrive at the only truth of the text, as if such a thing even exists, but to consider how the inspirational work of the Spirit brings truth into our own lives and circumstances – an approach rooted in careful study in personal, communal, and academic settings.
However, when one ascribes to inerrancy, the goal of the interpretive enterprise quickly moves from understanding one’s narrative self and community through the lens of Scripture, to appropriating the text in order to normativize one’s narrative self at the expense of some, or all, other narrative. Because this requires that the meaning of the text be made static, antagonism becomes a hermeneutical tool used to preserve self at the expense of rich tradition and a generous orthodoxy.
The text becomes a pawn in a larger game, a prize to be captured and defended at all costs. And in the process, the space once occupied by dialogue and prophetic imagination inspired by the text is now cemented in the mires of an endlessly self-defeating apologetic.
In this way, many egalitarians will rightly critique the deeply dangerous and damaging aspects of complementarian theology while failing to hold persons within their own camp equally accountable for harmful and errant theology.
This is precisely the quagmire into which so many egalitarian thinkers sink when attempting to interact on a theological level with the LGBT community. In fact, many egalitarian arguments against the LGBT community are distressingly similar to the hermeneutic used by complementarians to exclude women from certain roles within the family and the church.
A few examples will prove enlightening.
1. 1 Timothy 2 has proven one of the most controversial passages in the 21st century Western church. Debate rages over the precise meaning of women being “silent,” whether Paul meant all women or a specific group, and what we are to make of a rather tricky word, occurring only once in the entire biblical canon, “authentein”.
Complementarians claim the passage’s meaning is clear, women cannot teach or hold authority over men in an ecclesial setting. And, if one ascribes to a particularly literal approach to hermeneutics, one would be inclined to say they are right.
However, the egalitarians have pushed back, and pushed back hard. In interpreting the Greek word authentein, they point to extra-biblical texts which use this word to indicate ritual castration performed in worship of the goddess Artemis (Diana). They, rightly, argue that the cultural context of Ephesus provides fertile soil for interpretation of the power dynamics at play in such difficult verses. And they thus arrive at the belief that Paul was targeting a particular group of female believers within the Ephesian church, who were attempting to bring the ritual practices of the Artemis cult into the worship services of Ephesus. This was causing discord, as it undermined equality and created strife amongst the believers, causing disunity and distraction.
It is strange, then, that so many Egalitarians take a very literal approach to the cultic imagery evoked in Romans 1. Falling in line with their complementarian counterparts, they argue that the teaching of Paul against “homosexual” acts is clear and unquestionable. What they entirely fail to address is that the imagery Paul evokes throughout Romans 1 is entirely consistent with the cultic imagery and practices involved in Cybele worship. In fact, the acts of ritual sex worship performed in the Cybele cult would provide ample explanation for what Paul is describing in the infamous verses 26-27.
This creates a disturbing irony, as there is significant evidence suggesting a connection between the Phrygian goddess Cybele and the Roman goddess Artemis. That is, the very cult appealed to in order to argue for equality of women in all ecclesial settings in 1 Timothy 2, is the same cult evoked by Paul to condemn ritual sex worship in Romans 1. Within the Egalitarian hermeneutic, there are already the necessary building blocks for dismantling toxic and harmful patriarchal theologies which denigrate LGBT persons.
Unfortunately, many egalitarians are willing to dismantle exclusionary rhetoric when it disenfranchises people within their own narrative community, but entirely fail to do the same when the targeted community is a person of sexual or gender minority.
2. A similar dynamic can be seen by juxtaposing the hermeneutics used to interpret the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19) and David and Bathsheba (2 Sam 11). In the latter story, egalitarian scholars often work to undermine certain salacious assumptions about Bathsheba. That is, while complementarians often consider Bathsheba complicit in David’s sin, a temptress hoping to be seen bathing, egalitarians take a decidedly different approach rooted in the dynamics of consent.
Using these dynamics, egalitarians point out that where power differential exists, consent is undermined. This is especially true of a voyeuristic king summoning a woman to his palace. The reality is, Bathsheba had no say in the situation and was, in fact, raped. She was not a willing participant but a victimized woman caught between loyalty to her husband and the threat of royal retribution if she refused her king’s advances.
It makes zero sense, then, for egalitarians attempt to use Genesis 19 against the LGBT community. Ignoring for a moment the context of other biblical passages which undermines the notion that this passage was ever intended to condemn gay persons, it strikes me as entirely self-serving to draw a distinction between rape and consent in one passage while ignoring it in another.
It is all well and good to seek to redeem the image of Bathsheba, to point out she is a rape victim robbed of her voice. But is it not also important to note the dynamics of rape and consent involved in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah?
It is deeply problematic to use an instance of attempted same-sex gang rape to condemn consensual same-sex relationships. Differentiating between consent and rape where the victim and perpetrators are of different binary genders, but conflating the two when both are male, is the very definition of prejudice.
A hermeneutic based on blatant double standards and a rhetoric of denigration against a perceived “other” can hardly be considered consistent with the ethic of Christ, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom 13:8-10).
3. Egalitarians consider patriarchy to be a system of oppression, reflected in the historical context of Scripture, and critiqued by the cross of Christ. They take issue, rightly, with using Scripture to disenfranchise women in society, the Church, and the family. Egalitarians recognize that complementarian gender roles create an environment of toxic masculinity which end up harming everyone.
However, despite holding to these beliefs in principle, many egalitarianism, in order to earn their place within the cult of patriarchal Christianity, are willing to sacrifice their LGBT neighbor on the altar of heteronormativity.
What they fail to realize is that heteronormativity is cut from the same cloth as the oppressive gender roles they claim to fight: gender essentialism.
It is a sad irony, then, that many egalitarians read hetero- and cisnormativity into the very same passages complementarians use to enforce their vision of gender roles. That is, wherever the text says “male and female” or “man and wife, “ whether it be Genesis 1-3, Matthew 19, Malachi 2, Ephesians 5, or any host of other passages, egalitarians presuppose a hetero- or cisnormative lens then bend the passage to fit such an agenda, in precisely the same way that complementarians operate from a paradigm of gender hierarchy.
But it must be noted that, regardless of one’s opinion of patriarchy, a gender essentialist hermeneutic is always a patriarchal hermeneutic.
No person can hope to “smash the patriarchy” by only targeting the forms of patriarchy which affect their own narrative community.
When it comes to dismantling toxic systems, it is entirely self-defeating to free one’s self from oppression by agreeing to impose the same oppressive upon a mutually perceived “other.”
One cannot pursue equality in Christ by simply reassigning the office of “least of these” to another group of people.
I love the egalitarian community. Many egalitarians have been supportive and encouraging during the past year of this blogging journey. Several have become close friends.
But I am of the conviction that dangerous ideologies must be addressed, regardless of the source. It has become apparent to me that some of the most prominent thinkers within egalitarianism have developed a hermeneutic predicated on establishing a mutually denigrated “other.” That is:
In order to earn their place within the cult of patriarchal Christianity, they have sacrificed their LGBT neighbor on the altar of gender essentialism.
I stand by my strong belief that there is no hermeneutically or theologically consistent reason to exclude LGBT persons from full participation in the sacraments and polity of the Christian church, based upon their sexuality or gender identity. As such, when I see such arguments within my own “camp,” it would be dishonest and hypocritical to pretend they don’t exist or leave them unchecked.
The reality is, doctrinal certainty means nothing if we do not love our neighbor.
Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee blameless before the law and a lover of Scriptural truth (Phil 3:1-14), was also a man with intense hatred for the Christian community, who murdered and persecuted Christ and his followers in order to preserve what he considered to be the “doctrinal purity” of Judaism (Acts 9:1-6). Thus, when Paul addressed the Corinthian church – a church rife with division and injustice – he no doubt reflected on his own past as he advised them that all the good works and doctrinal certainty one can muster is utterly meaningless without love. He reminded them of the emptiness of words if they are not rooted in pursuing the good of one’s neighbor (1 Cor 13); that there is no theology of the cross which would seek to exclude someone simply because they are deemed “other” than ourselves (1 Cor 1:18-31).
In considering this, it seems evident that we cannot continue to claim to worship God and continue using patriarchal systems to enforce our own sacred privileges. Patriarchy is a hierarchical system for deciding human worth. It is an ideology built on exclusion and denigration. As such, patriarchy in all its forms is devoid of the love of Christ.
Where the love is absent, injustice will always prevail.