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.