Can a Woman Teach a Man?

Does it count as un-biblical if a woman teaches a man in seminary classes?  That’s the question debated recently in the pages of Christianity Today.

The issue was sparked by a change in policy at Cedarville University.  The relatively new president, Thomas White, recently announced that only women may enroll in a Bible class taught by a female faculty member.  This has been part of a continuing shift toward greater conservatism by the new administration, which one journalist described as being “taken over by Southern Baptists.”

The question is one of a “complementarian” view of gender relations.  I’m out of my theological depth here, so I invite correction if I get this wrong, but as I understand it, a complementarian view in evangelical Protestantism suggests that men and women have different roles to fulfill in family and church.  Males are meant by God to be the head and women are meant to be helpmates.  Complementarians, I understand, insist that this is not a question of chauvinism or male supremacy.  Rather, both men and women are understood to be equal but different.  In church affairs, following a complementarian interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:3 (“But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God”) only men should teach men about church doctrine.

For secular folks like me, this is a difficult cultural pill to swallow.  The core of my social morality is that people are equal.  Talk about “different roles” for men and women, or for different social groups, makes me extremely uneasy.  To folks like me, this sounds like just window dressing for traditional hierarchical domination.

Smart complementarians get this.  Evangelical writers have explained the subtleties of complementarianism and what one woman called the “holy beauty of submission.”

In conservative Christian colleges, the question is whether women can teach men theology.  At Cedarville, the new answer is no.  In the pages of Christianity Today, evangelicals debated the issue. Mind you, this debate seems to have been within the ranks of complementarian theologians.  Respondents did not argue that men and women should be seen as equal.  Rather, those who thought women should be allowed to teach men argued that colleges were different than church.  In church, they granted, women must not lead men.  But college was different.

Those who agreed with the Cedarville policy argued that schools should be logically consistent.  If women should not be leaders of men, then women should not be teachers of men.

To outsiders like me, this debate illustrates the deep cultural divide between conservative evangelical Christian colleges and pluralist ones.  Even the terms of this discussion are foreign to folks like me.  For many secular folks, even the idea of such a discussion seems horrifying.  Even to ask if women should be allowed to take on leadership roles seems like a terrible revival of traditionalist hierarchy.

Yet if we outsiders want to understand conservative thinking, we need to try to understand debates like this one, precisely because the terms of the debate are so far beyond the pale of our thinking.  For example, as Dorothy Patterson, the “first lady” of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary responded, when in doubt, go with God.  Though teaching in the university may be a complementarian “gray area,” Patterson conceded, it was better to stay on the theological safe side.  God, Patterson concluded,

is going to have far greater pleasure in seeing a male theologian in the classroom than in our seeing if we couldn’t put a woman in simply because she’s gifted.

Unless and until secular folks like me make an effort to understand the worldview behind statements like that, we’ll never understand conservatism.


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  1. David Long

     /  May 17, 2014

    Hi Adam. As usual, an interesting analysis and rhetorical position to take. Let’s say that we dissolve your ‘unless and until’ conditions for understanding by a significant number of outsiders make such efforts.

    Then what? Would that deeper understanding carry with it a different political posture toward the kind of conservative in your sights? I doubt it. Understanding, in the kind of way where one deeply knows the unstated rules of the game, shares the same hopes and dreams, is working toward the same purposes, is the kind of thing anthropologists talk about when they or others have ‘gone native’ through deep knowledge, having practiced ‘being’ the thing. What that usually has carried with it is a sense of membership at some level. Imagine it as the bumper sticker logic. I have often seen something like the following. “Its a Jeep thing, you wouldn’t understand” on Jeeps. The non-understanding has to do with not being part of a social practice, a community. There’s some deep-end of the pool points here from Heidegger and late Wittgenstein about this, which we can take up if you want to nerd-out, but the point can be shorter. There is little interest on the left of gaining such understanding, because, as you pointed out and I will elaborate, the sympathy you’d gain is cognitively dissonant with some foundational commitments to sustaining pluralism. It’s the same kind of problem sociologists and anthropologists have prompted for some brands of philosophy by making non-vulgar forms of relativism something to seriously grapple with.

    What you’re pointing towards, and the path you’re taking is that of being a non-outsider.

    • But it can be simpler than that! For normal non-anthropologist folks, there is a much broader spectrum of ways we can try to “understand” others. In my circles, the most common response to a woman who celebrates her submission to her male partner will be to explain her decision as a psychologically defensive maneuver, something unhealthy. A submitting woman will be explained as a coerced woman, a woman who has embraced her mate as a psychological response to gender-based intimidation. But without moving away from my confessed outsider status, I can try to understand a woman who is psychologically healthy yet chooses to enter a “complementarian” relationship. After all, I can see that many of my relationships are not particularly beneficial to me, yet I love them. Take teaching, for example. There are few jobs as thankless as that of a middle-school teacher. I did not expect “egalitarian” respect from my students, yet I freely and healthily chose to work with them. Don’t know if that’s a fair comparison, but it’s the first one I could think of.

  2. David Long

     /  May 17, 2014

    So I likely run in the same kinds of circles as you, and agree that there is a spectrum. The point which I’ll parse one slice further is that there is, in some liberal minds, the idea that deep understanding often entails sympathy, like instances of people interviewing murderers and finding in them complexity than just being a monster. I’m doubtful that if you got more secularists to achieve the kind of understanding which I hear you asking for, that the political intentions toward each other would be any different. Understanding being in a mindset where ‘complementarity’ brings about warm and fuzzy waves of ‘grace’ and biblically assured righteousness would mean, for me, being in that state. Understanding includes not just definitional knowledge, but also affective and social relations. I can’t imagine that kind of understanding because, like you articulated, it’s politically nauseating. As far as teacher middle school, as we both did, I understood some of my students much more than others, usually due to cultural similarities and life histories. Which makes me think…what change do you want to see happen by secularists having more understanding?

    • David, I think I have a simpler goal. I think there is something beyond the usual assumptions some folks might make about this kind of thinking. Lots of my colleagues and acquaintances will choose one of two unsatisfying options to explain away this kind of debate. They will call a complementarian worldview either “crazy” or “sugar-coated sexism.” As Samantha commented, it certainly seems that some people who know a great deal about this kind of thinking will agree with those explanations, but IMHO there is a world of difference between Samantha’s conclusion, based on a lifetime of insider’s knowledge of this culture, and an outsider’s glib conclusion along the same lines. In other words, my beef is primarily with the unexamined simplistic explanations that outsiders like me tend to assign without even examining them. To address your question directly, I would like more non-evangelicals to apply more thoroughly their claims of cultural sensitivity. There is a world of difference, I think, between a discussion in which one side assumes the other is “crazy” or “sexist” and a discussion in which each side frankly acknowledges the opacity of the other side’s worldview.

  3. For the most part, I believe that this is just appealing to scripture to rationalize the subservience of women, not unlike using scripture to justify slavery. Even the Mennonite Church has moved beyond quibbling about ordination of women, female lead pastors, female faculty at AMBS, etc., and is currently discerning the propriety of ordaining a gay female.

    • Patrick

       /  May 17, 2014

      I’m sure you’re right in some cases, especially in past generations. But I’m personally convinced that today, the majority of those who hold to the complementarian position do so out of a desire to be faithful to Scripture in spite of their personal preferences. I’m a Christian and my complementarianism makes me feel like a cultural dinosaur. But my theological commitments lead me to defer to St. Paul on this one, and I’m okay with that.

      • Patrick – A key phrase in your response is “a desire to be faithful to Scripture.” When I teach science and religion to undergraduates, it is a fairly easy task to get them to accept that everyone stratifies scripture, lending greater credence to some passages, less to others, and completely ignoring others. Many Xians look first to the words of Jesus, relegating Paul to secondary status, particularly since Paul wrote some directives that most Xians ignore 🙂

    • Patrick

       /  May 22, 2014

      Point taken. But what I’m saying is that you shouldn’t assume that someone’s interpretation of Scripture is little more than a justification for their previously-held beliefs. In many cases, people change their beliefs based on their understanding of the Bible. I don’t think there’s any basis for asserting that “for the most part,” complementarianism is cynical self-rationalization (even if it is in some or even many cases).

  4. Jeff

     /  May 18, 2014

    There are complementarians who believe it is appropriate for women to be teachers (e.g., Tim Keller) and even hold positions of leadership (such as Melanie Penn who was used to lead the music ministry; now oversees some of their mission City-to-City ministries); so this is not a given that complementarians do not believe women can teach. They do hold a view that overall leadership is given to men – arguing from the NT that elders/apostles were male (there are some who argue against this but that’s not a done deal). And, these do so not because they want to oppress women but because they see it in Scripture.

    But, to go to Adam’s interesting take (“A submitting woman will be explained as a coerced woman, a woman who has embraced her mate as a psychological response to gender-based intimidation.”), the model is based on something completely different. It is based on a crucified Messiah. One that empties himself completely of all power (Phil. 2:5-11). This relinquishing of power and of control in life is what qualifies him to glory in his resurrected life. And it is what brings about the greatest influence, because he voluntarily chooses to lay down his life – even for his enemies (Rom. 5:8-10). This is the pattern for discipleship and it is the pattern for both wives and husbands, for example (cf. Eph. 5:21-29; 1Pet. 2:21-3:7). This voluntary submission does not entail male superiority – because husbands are called to love as Christ loved – which means laying down one’s life for another – that means, also, a complete self-emptying for one’s wife. There’s no way a theology of the cross is oppressive. Dying for one’s enemies or loved one’s is not a narrative of oppression or power over in any way. But, Jesus taught everything that is upside-down to this world (e.g., “the greatest shall be your servant”; “the one who makes himself/herself least among you shall be your leader”). And, Jesus’ claim to be the ultimate self-revelation of the Father (God) – John 14:7-9 – comes on the heels of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples (choosing to be a slave/servant). This is the heart of the character of and essence of God’s identity, according to Jesus, a servant. And, this is the fundamental characteristic of Christian discipleship in all roles. It is counter-intuitive to this world. But, the resurrection (the foundation for faith) transforms that. The husband who abuses his wife’s voluntary submission becomes the object of God’s judgment – he is oppressing another – which is a fundamentally immoral action throughout Scripture. At the heart of all Christianity is mutual submission. Consider a sports example. Who is the most important player on a baseball team – Once every 4 days pitcher? A hitter who plays every day? Fundamentally, they have different roles; but one is not necessarily more valuable than the other. There is a difference between role and value (we see this in business as well as sports).

  5. I grew up in a deeply complementarian environment all the way through college, and I don’t think there’s much more for you to “understand.” Their worldview is sexism, justified by their interpretation of Scripture (an interpretation that requires one to ignore Jesus and the actions and words of the Apostle Paul over his career).

  6. Christopher Bradley

     /  May 18, 2014

    What consistently baffles me is when people like Dorothy Patternson speak for their god. She, apparently, KNOWS what GOD wants without doubt, hesitation or the slightest caveat. Despite absolute Biblical silence on the subject of colleges, she KNOWS that her god is going to have great pleasure if mean are the teachers in classrooms.

    This happens all the time, amirite? There are a lot of things in this world about which the Bible is simply utterly silent. But then someone comes long and says that they know what the god of the Bible wants and millions of Bible believing Christians seem completely OK with a mere mortal claiming to know, beyond doubt, the innermost workings of their god.

  1. Required Reading: Faces of Fundamentalism | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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