The Surprisingly Complementarian Steve Chalke image

The Surprisingly Complementarian Steve Chalke

I’ve only just got round to reading Steve Chalke’s piece in Christianity, in which he argues that the Bible, if correctly interpreted, does not have a problem with homosexual sex. His case has received fair, gracious but ultimately devastating rebuttals at various levels over the last few weeks (a particularly insightful one is from my friend Steve Holmes), so I’m not going to go into all that here. The big surprise of the article, though, at least from my point of view, was how very complementarian Steve’s argument was. For instance:

There are several New Testament texts that are very clear about the role of women in Christian communities. 1 Timothy 2:11-14 says: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” The text appeals to Genesis 2 and the very nature of creation as its source of authority for the silence and submission of women. In 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Paul writes: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”

So far, so clear. Paul clearly prohibits women from giving two types of speech in Christian communities, and bases his instructions on the created order. Spot on. Steve continues:

There have been numerous popular and theological attempts to soften these injunctions. Some suggest these verses were added by later editors [I’m not sure anyone says that about 1 Timothy 2, actually], or that they address specific communities and refer to particular women. Others say they are offset by Romans 16 where Paul commends “our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae” and later greets Junia, commenting that she is “outstanding among the apostles.” Regarding Phoebe, however, the New Testament uses the word deacon (servant) to refer to those who serve alongside the overseers/elders of a local church (see Philippians 1:1). But in 1 Timothy 3, where it is noted that women can fulfil this “secondary” role (v11), the qualifications for the post of overseer/elder (vv1-7) are very male indeed!

Well: yes. It’s disconcerting to read paragraphs with which you strongly agree, yet which you know are intended to lay a foundation for a conclusion with which you strongly disagree. That paragraph, other than the reference to editorial additions with reference to 1 Timothy 2, could have been written by me. (Maybe it was.) Next up:

Regarding Junia, although some suggest that Paul’s greeting names her as an apostle, the overwhelming evidence is that the phrase simply means Junia was “esteemed by” or “greatly respected” among the apostles.

Now I’m freaking out. I am, it turns out, more egalitarian than Steve Chalke, since I don’t think that’s what Romans 16:7 means (and I don’t know what “overwhelming evidence” he’s talking about – I’ve read a lot about that verse now, and I don’t know many complementarian interpreters who’d agree with him). What is going on here?

The absolute and universal character of the Epistles’ instructions about women is not easy to escape. Although motivated by a laudable concern for inclusion, many of the arguments used in an attempt to soften these uncompromising statements unintentionally end up clouding the real issue – one of wider hermeneutics rather than simple exegesis.

Yes! Preach it, Steve! Arguing for an egalitarian position on exegetical grounds alone is extremely difficult (though, as some commenters here have shown in the past, not impossible); almost all egalitarians make their case based on a hermeneutic that puts clear blue water between the early church and contemporary society. If you start with the assumption that we should obey all New Testament instructions unless clearly indicated otherwise, then it’s almost impossible to end up with women elders. And then:

The vast majority of Christians now recognise that women can, and should, teach and lead. So, how have we got there when, on the face of it, the New Testament prohibits it?

(I pause to recover.)

“It’s cultural,” we say. But if that’s the case, why is the issue of the role of women regarded as “cultural” by so many while homosexuality isn’t?

Agreed. If saying that something is cultural means that we don’t have to obey it any more (and of course, an awful lot of egalitarians don’t argue anything like this way, but many do), then what’s left? The whole Bible is culturally conditioned, isn’t it?

Which culture does our phrase “it’s cultural” refer to? By whose authority do we decide to reinterpret any Bible passage? If “it’s cultural” amounts to “Because the way we think about the role of women in this day and age is different to that of the New Testament writers [sic], it’s ok for us to ignore those passages”, we are on very shaky ground. To make “this day and age” our spiritual norm is to place us all on the slippery slope of relativism ... What are we to make of the kind of fancy exegetical footwork which can allow (in spite of the 1 Timothy 2 argument from the order of creation) one approach to the role of women in church leadership, while rejecting the acceptance of faithful same-sex relationships because it would overturn a “creation ordinance”? Is this “pick and choose” approach to the New Testament more to do with an outworking of social conditioning and cultural prejudices than a genuine grappling with its text?

Couldn’t have put it better myself. Seriously. In a few paragraphs, Steve has thoroughly debunked an awful lot of street-level egalitarianism, and done so by exposing both the exegetical weight behind the complementarian position, and the fragility and potential relativism of the cultural/timeless fallacy. Who’d have thought it?
(I should insist at this point, as I’ve mentioned already, that not all arguments for egalitarian practice take this form, and some of the best responses to Steve’s argument were written by egalitarians, including the one I linked to above. So I am in no way saying that egalitarianism necessarily leads to this position; it clearly doesn’t, and hasn’t, in a large number of cases. What Steve’s piece shows, though, is how easily popular-level egalitarianism, which I have heard defended with the “it’s cultural” line countless times, can slide into a total hermeneutical mess. Many egalitarians can be commended for their clear statements on all this; many others, however, continue to play the “it’s cultural” card without heed to the ramifications. Steve’s article helpfully shows how significant this is.)
But, of course, the article didn’t stop there. I never thought it would, obviously; I would have been far more surprised if Steve had come out in favour of male elders than in favour of gay sexual relationships. Despite the similarities in exegesis on the key gender texts, Steve’s argument and mine are exact mirror-images of each other. My argument runs:
1. We should do what the New Testament says, unless it is clear that the instructions were limited to particular first century individuals.
2. It is in no way clear that Paul’s statements about men, women, marriage, teaching in the church or gay sex were limited to particular first century individuals. In fact, each is grounded in the creation story.
3. Therefore we should do what the New Testament says with respect to men, women, marriage, teaching in the church and gay sex. (As a church, we baptised a superb young man who is gay last week, who exemplifies the latter.)

Steve’s argument, by contrast, runs in precisely the opposite direction:

1. Paul says challenging things about men, women, marriage, teaching in the church and gay sex. They are not limited to specific individuals, and in fact are often grounded in the creation story.
2. We overlook what Paul says when it comes it comes to men, women, marriage or teaching in the church, despite the fact that they are not limited to specific individuals, and are grounded in the creation story.
3. Therefore it would be inconsistent not to overlook what Paul says about gay sex.
Needless to say, I don’t think that’s the best argument I’ve ever heard – and again, I don’t think responsible egalitarians would characterise their position in anything like the same way as Steve’s #2. But I do think it may prove difficult for an awful lot of egalitarians to see why that doesn’t follow from what they’re doing (just as, in fairness, it can be difficult for a lot of complementarians to understand why women don’t have to wear hats in church). Simply put, I think removing the presumption of obedience (my #1, above) can and does lead to all sorts of problems, and I think Steve’s article illustrates this brilliantly. If a little tragically.
So there you have it: one of the most complementarian arguments you are likely to find, from no less an advocate than Steve Chalke. You heard it here first.

← Prev article
Next article →