The Bird Boy Of Fiji And How We Read Scripture, Part Two

In my previous post, which you should read before you read this one, I discussed the danger of a literal, wooden, context- and greater-knowledge- free reading and application of Scripture, using the example of a boy in Fiji whose epileptic seizures terrified his family, resulting in his being raised under their home, in a foot- and a half-tall space where they kept chickens.  While Suchet is safe and loved now, his body and psyche have suffered enormous damage from his living ’til adolescence under a house and then spending years tethered to a pole at a nursing home. 

His parents, who undoubtedly loved their child when he was first born, learned by culture and perhaps by training that his seizures were a manifestation of demonic possession — either a demonic spirit possessed their toddler son, or he himself was a demon.  Either way, he was cast out and, living much of his childhood and youth among chickens, he picked up their ways — he clucked, he flapped his arms, he pecked at his food from the ground, and, because of the skeletal deformities caused by growing up in an 18-inch- high patch of ground under the house, he perches rather than stands. 

Because his parents believed that seizures were proof of demonic presence.

We shudder, and rightly so, that anybody would ever be abused and neglected this way.  If we’re Christians, we join with good women and men of other faiths in praying for Suchet’s full rehabilitation and secure human connection.  But, as Christians who believe that the Bible is the revealed Word of God, we must also acknowledge that our own Scriptures treat every instance of seizure activity as a mark of demonic possession — because, no matter how much we know about epilepsy and its power to wrack the brain with uncontrollable surges of electrical stimulus, we feel committed to “follow Jesus” in calling New Testament accounts of healing from seizures examples of the power of God over demons — all the while knowing that, today, science and medicine tell us that seizures are organic,  not demonic, in nature. 

Most of us are OK with that; it seems a safe way to “move forward” in our understanding of Scripture, which, God be praised, means that we’re not at all likely to tell a friend with epilepsy that he is demon-possessed.  Nor would we suggest to a hemorrhaging female friend that she is to be considered filthy — stricken by an “unclean” illness and thus not fit for the company of the saints.  I think we can all agree that these would be, at best, detrimental to our evangelistic efforts.  At worst, it would cause the suffering person to reject the message of the freeing, healing, Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But Bible-believing evangelicals find themselves in a bind, largely because we’ve come to believe that the Bible is a handbook for how to live — an instruction manual for personal fulfillment, marital harmony, business practice, politics, health, and any number of things.  We too often use the Word as a mechanic seeking to fix a broken-down carburetor checks the repair manual for a 2004 Honda Accord.  We pick out “applicable” verses and take them into our hearts — or slap them over our problems and those of others around us — and believe we’re on solid ground because we’ve “take the Bible at its word.”

Christian Smith, in his book “The Bible Made Impossible,” calls this “Biblicism,” and he raises some profound questions about how 21st century evangelicals have, in their attempts to be faithful to the Word, treated the Bible as a handbook, a repository of answers to any questions that may come up in our lives.  Undoubtedly it’s an approach that seems utterly faithful, entirely correct.  Sadly, Biblicism has become the favored, comfortable approach to exegesis — while completely missing what Smith says is the purpose of the revealed Word of God. 

He argues that the sole purpose of the Scriptures is to announce the coming, message, death, crucifixion, and imminent return of the Savior.  Every word, every verse, every passage, must be read through the lens, and in the context of, the work of Jesus Christ. Rather than existing as a manual for day-to-day consultation when issues or problems arise, Smith is not alone in his view that it is Jesus Christ, and Christ only, who is the revealed Word of Yahweh.  C.S. Lewis wrote “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God.  The Bible, read in the right spirit, and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.”  (“The Bible made Impossible,” Brazos Press, p. 117)

Douglas Wilson, whose condemnation of women’s teaching and ordination, based on 1 Timothy 2:11-15, is not a good teacher.  While he and I both revere the Bible as the revealed Word of God, containing all we need to come into relationship with Christ Jesus, we differ in our hermeneutical approach.  Wilson’s patriarchal masculinism — misleadingly called “complementarian,” as opposed to the “egalitarian” approach that sees Scripture as a call for women and men to serve, in church, home, and society, in accordance to their Spirit-given gifts and not their gender — requires that he pick and choose these and other scattered verses in the New Testament that seem, on the first, literal reading, to deny women the expression of their preaching, teaching, pastoral, and leadership gifts.  

He does this because of a sincere desire to “get it right,” to apply the Bible in its literal sense rather than wander down trails of free-form, compromising liberalism.  Unfortunately, he claims to have completely mastered a text that includes a Greek verb, “authentein,” that scholars have wrestled with for centuries.  The word can mean anything from domineering, usurping, grasping behavior to the “murder” of someone through slander.  In the 1 Timothy passages, he reads literally, and applies literally — with a typically arrogant certainty — two or three verses that the Apostle Paul wrote to a specific church in a specific time.  And these verses, if read and applied with exacting literalism, strike at the heart of the Gospel and deny the Body of Christ access to the profound gifting of its women.  In his certainty, Wilson presumes to call “false” what Spirit-gifted and Spirit-called women know to be true of themselves.  He not only condemns, with an appalling insouciance, the sincere calling that many women have, but also contributes to the hobbling of the Gospel message in a culture tremendously different from the culture in which Paul was writing.

Here is the text Wilson uses to deny women the full exercise of their gifts.  I’m quoting from the new Common English Bible, largely because many of you haven’t yet read from it.  The CEB’s translation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 says:

“A wife (in the translators’ notes, a woman) should learn quietly with complete submission.  I don’t allow a wife to teach or to control (authentein) her husband.  Instead, she should be a quiet listener.  Adam was formed first, and the Eve.  Adam wasn’t deceived, but rather his wife became the one who stepped over the line because she was completely deceived.  But a wife (woman) will be brought safely through giving birth to their children, if they both continue in faith, love, and holiness, together with self-control.”

A Biblicist approach to the verse seeks out Paul’s denial of teaching responsibilities over men — and stops there, as it must.  The Biblicist, the Christian who reads the words on the paper, apart from any context, takes from this that women cannot teach men and cannot be ordained, believing that their exegesis is correct because it’s the most literal.  That literal approach, however, fails in the following verses.  Verse 13 says that Adam was formed first, and then Eve, confirming the Genesis account of the chronological order of creation.  It also says that Eve was deceived and sinned first.  Indeed she did.  However, the entirety of the New Testament, and particularly Paul’s long discourse in Romans 5 and 6, lays the responsibility for humankind’s sinful nature at the feet of Adam — whom God personally prohibited from eating of the tree’s fruit — and not Eve, who was tragically deceived. 

From this, complementarians assert that Eve, having been deceived, is the prototype for all women — concluding that women are more easily deceived, period, and thus unfit for the pastorate and the pulpit.  The Bible student who approaches the Scriptures with a “Bible as handbook,” literalist approach will wave verses 11 and 12 to support their complementarianism; the reader who views every verse through the lens of the life and work of Jesus Christ will not only consider other verses that favorably note women leaders in the Church, but also consider how, in the 21st century, this verse can be applied to lead Bible readers into a fuller understanding of Jesus Christ.  Their conclusions will, by necessity, vary. 

But the literalist is on shaky ground with verses 13 and 14, which are an accurate reflection of the Genesis account of the Fall but which say only what they say — and no more.  There is no warrant for reading into this account that women are, in all times and in all situations, more easily duped than men.  Their shaky ground becomes a Biblicist quicksand, however, in verse 15, which, if read literally and without context, insist that all women, if they practice Christian virtues, will survive childbearing.  Other translations say that women will also be saved through childbearing — and, as Biblicists, they must be consistent in their application of v. 13-15.  This means that women, if we read the text just as it is, are saved — redeemed, justified — through the bearing of children, which does damage to the Gospel message that all human beings are saved solely by grace through faith in accepting Christ as Lord and Savior (see Acts 15:11).  Further, any pastor, and most people in general, understand that throughout history many virtuous Christian women have died in childbirth.  This is a quandary, to be sure, for the Biblicist, who must explain why the Church must take v. 12, with all its murkiness, in a completely literal sense — and then abandon that, in faithfulness to the Biblical message of the Gospel, for v. 15, while also reading into v. 13-14 a declaration of female frailty that simply isn’t there.

Paul was writing from Ephesus, which, as we see in Acts 19, was in the throes of idol worship — specifically, the female goddess Artemis.  The cult of Artemis not only included the usual pagan debaucheries, but had women especially in a frenzy of falsehood.  The cult of Artemis appeared to give women more freedom and more power, and in its excesses brought women a false but intense sense of liberation — even to the point of degradation of men.  In the grip of goddess worship, the women of Ephesus were out of control.

It was in this context that Paul, whose primary concern was that the Church not engage in any activity that would disrupt or cause unnecessary offense to the culture around him, wrote that he was not allowing women to teach over men — then.  The trouble with the Greek “authentein” makes this verse not the clear-cut command that Wilson and others insist.  Properly understood, Paul, writing in a culture where women were literally and figuratively drunk with the “power” they found in the house of Artemis, wanted to make sure that women in the Church didn’t mirror the out-of-control female Artemis worshipers.  He chose to limit, then, the influence of women in the Church so there would be no mistaking that the Way of Christ was radically different from the female-led dead-end of Artemis worship.  Paul’s numerous commendation of female church leaders like Phoebe,  Lydia, Nympha, and the apostle Junia as well as the teacher of Apollos, Priscilla, ought to make it clear that he applauded female leadership — when that didn’t cause needless offense to the surrounding, nonbelieving community. (I recommend Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger’s “I Suffer Not A Woman:  Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 In Light Of Ancient Evidence,” Baker, 2003.  The Clark Kroegers were evangelical scholars of Greek, the classics, and New Testament theology.  Wilson, I should add, may be the father of a classical Christian college, but he is not in their league; in fact, his Federal Vision theology reveals his tenuous grasp of basic soteriology and ecclesiology.)

Wilson and other masculinists cling to these cherry-picked verses, and the effect on the witness of the Gospel in the world around him is toxic. Whereas the Church in first-century Ephesus chose to not needlessly offend the female-crazed, pagan culture around it by prohibiting, there and then, women’s leadership, those in the 21st-century Church who insist that women must not use their Spirit-given leaderships gifts blissfully ignore the needless, and un-Biblical, offense their message causes to the women and men around them.  The Gospel is, by its very nature, offensive to the sinner.  We can’t remove the offense that tells sinful men and women to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and may God rebuke us if we do.  That message is the foundation of the Gospel message, and it will offend sinners.  It must; it allows the Spirit to convict their hearts and turn to Christ. 

But the insistence on male hierarchy, female subordination, and gender-based service in the Church is not an essential part of the Gospel message — it’s not a part of the Biblical Gospel at all.  To make an erroneous teaching a central part of the Gospel preached to a contemporary audience that IS offended by the un-Biblical insistence on male-female hierarachy is a tragic, toxic endeavor that guarantees the rejection of Christ’s offer of salvation.  Preaching the true, egalitarian (Galatians 3:28) Gospel of Christ isn’t an accommodation to a feminist culture; it’s a proclamation that the social, economic, cultural, racial, and sexual divisions in sinful society are shattered in Christ and have no place in the Kingdom of God.  Praise God that that message, rather than the erroneous insistence on gender hierarchy, will resound with a 21st-century audience! The true Gospel focuses on Christ; all truth is in Him, and the clutter we add in the name of “faithful exegesis” dilutes that message and elevates secondary, divisive, and, in the case of women’s teaching and ordination, false teachings. 

These are the things that turn off our audience, who will walk away from a message of hierarchy, division, and sexism and never hear, perhaps, the message we ought to focus on.  Telling women today that they can come to Christ only to be limited, subordinated, and shackled virtually guarantees a rejected invitation.  How different the response could be if the only offense were the offense of calling out sinners and leading them to the One whose nature is reflected, beautifully and mutually, in the women and men he created!

I cringe at the thought of Wilson meeting a decent and prudent man from the Isle of Crete; will he stubbornly insist that, as Paul says, all Cretans are obnoxious sluggards?  He must if he insists on reading and applying the Bible literally.  I trust that he is wise and gentle with any congregants with epilepsy, any women with uncontrolled or erratic vaginal bleeding.  But what I truly hope, not just for Wilson but for the Church — as well as the churches and enterprises he controls — is that we approach the Word with reverence and Spirit-enriched focus on its true, sole message:  that God came to us in the flesh, showed us that He is the Way, died on a cross bearing our sins, and rose from the grave. 

We will glean much from the Word — comfort in times of trouble, counsel in times of uncertainty, promises in times of weakness.  But we cannot pluck a few verses that confuse and distract from the point of the Scriptural mission and then wonder why the non-believers around us continue to walk away, jeer at us, or react in shock that the good teacher they thought they understood really does want to keep women down.  He doesn’t, and until we learn how to read and apply the Bible for what it is and for what it intends, we will continue to offend, needlessly, those we supposedly want to reach. 

Paul would be dismayed.  In fact, I imagine the Apostle would find great need to fire off a letter to the Church today — and I don’t imagine it would be terribly complimentary.  May God help us to feed on His Word for what it is, not for what we need it to be to advance our social agenda.

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