Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Day with Ben Witherington: A Brief Note on Women

It should not have really surprised anyone that Witherington, when asked, came out in favor of having women in all the same ecclesiastical roles as men. He is a Methodist, and their movement has historically been associated with championing the "rights" of women. I am not even sure why someone asked him his opinion, or why someone else asked him to defend it, or why someone else asked him to defend his defense of it. I suppose the presumptuousness of youth tricks us into believe that ideas which seem novel and irrefutable to us are in fact neither novel nor irrefutable. They are instead merely tired and flawed.

I would like, nevertheless, to engage a fairly common argument which Witherington employed with reference to appeals to creation as a defense for complimentarian gender economics. Witherington argued that all economic disparity between the genders is a result of the Fall and the curse which God placed on woman as a result. I do not agree with that, but let us accept it for the sake of argument. Witherington then argued that in undoing the Fall, Jesus inaugurated a society (the church) which erased the consequences of the Fall for gender relations.

The most productive way I can imagine to evaluate this is to look at the effects of the Fall as a group. They are these:

There will be enmity between the serpent (the devil) and humanity.
There will be pain in childbirth.
There will be a disparity in gender economics.
There will be toil as a prerequisite for food.

Looking at that list, if Jesus has undone the curse of the Fall, he seems to have overlooked every aspect except gender economics. Humanity still wars against the devil, and Paul exhorts us in Ephesians not to stop this warfare but to intensify it with spiritual weapons. There is still pain in childbirth. Humanity still toils for food. If we are going to reject complimentarian gender economics, I suspect we will need firmer grounds than simply because it was part of a curse which is no longer in effect.


  1. Turning to Jesus is an unnecessary (not to mention unpersuasive) hermeneutical move. Gender inequality in Genesis 3 is descriptive, not prescriptive. This is how modern Evangelical complementarians read it, though they preach otherwise. Most modern women with access to healthcare (e.g. many Evangelical women in America) use epidurals to decrease their pain during childbirth, and industrialized agriculture has all but eliminated the kind of toil described in Genesis 3 required to produce food. The efficiency of the latter is such that most of us will never experience toil in growing our own food because we have no need to grow our food; it would prove an unessential distraction from our otherwise demanding lifestyles. We could debate the wisdom or positive value behind epidurals and industrialized agriculture, but we can't deny that we live as though some kind of move toward alleviating pain in childbirth and reducing the toil necessary to produce food is fine and appropriate. If the gender economics of Genesis 3 are prescriptive, then pain in childbirth and toil as a prerequisite for food would likewise be prescriptive. To resist pain or toil would be to resist God. I've yet to hear that sermon preached from an evangelical/complimentarian pulpit.

  2. Those are fair points, but I did not make the hermeneutical move to Jesus. Witherington did, and accepting that move for the sake of argument I demonstrated that JESUS (as opposed to modern technological innovation) did not undo the curse described in the Fall.

    I stated at the outset that I do not agree with Witherington that all disparity in gender economics is the result of the Fall. I suspect that most complimentarians do not either, which is precisely why you will not hear a sermon against tractors even though you still hear sermons about complimentarianism.

    (I would debate with you whether modern innovations have reversed the curse of the Fall in actuality or only in an illusory sense...or for that matter whether the "rights" that egalitarians argue for really correct any of the problems in gender relations. But, as with Witherington, even accepting your premise for the sake of argument, you have not undone complimentarianism.)

  3. I wasn't accusing you of appealing to Jesus, nor was I attempting to undo complimentarianism per se. I'm recognizing what I perceive to be a contradiction for those who would point to Genesis 3 as a prescriptive text for male patriarchy, and even if it were true that most complimetarians don't see that verse in that light (and I'm not confident your estimation is accurate), I would argue that many do, enough to warrant the use of the argument.

    As for the "illusory" reversal of "the curse of the Fall," I don't know how you understand "the Fall" with respect to Genesis 3 to be an ontological reality. I would agree that our "mastery" over agriculture and our own health is illusory.

  4. I'm certain that many do appeal to Genesis 3 as a part of their gender economics. If I gave the impression that I didn't think they did, I apologize. Without reference to the merit of that move, however, it is important to recognize that most complimentarians will likely see a complimentarian economy operative prior to the Fall. If you could get the whole world to admit that the curse is descriptive rather than prescriptive and thereby exclude it from the discussion, complimentarianism would likely go happily on.

    If there are those (as undoubtedly there are) who think that all gender economics is tied up in the curse, I will gladly stand right alongside you in criticizing that position. The church has no place in endorsing and actively propogating the effects of sin in the world.

  5. No doubt you are correct that for such complimentarians, Genesis 3 is only a small part of a larger whole.