As always, the heart of the debate between complementarianism and egalitarianism is hermeneutics. For millenia Christian’s have held that the task of interpreting Scripture is not separated from the task of loving our neighbor as ourselves. Regretfully, church history shows us that sometimes the Bible has been (mis)used to keep unjust cultural norms in place. Some 19th-century Christians, for example, employed the Bible in defense of racial slavery—an obviously wicked practice.
Complementarians have sometimes been accused of employing hermeneutical practices which mirror those used by 19th-century Christians to defend slavery. Is this the case? John Piper and Wayne Grudem address this issue in Fifty Crucial Questions.
Question 16: Aren’t the arguments made to defend the exclusion of women from the pastorate today parallel to the arguments Christians made to defend slavery in the nineteenth century?
See the beginning of our answer to this problem in question 15. The preservation of marriage is not parallel with the preservation of slavery. The existence of slavery is not rooted in any creation ordinance, but the existence of marriage is. Paul’s regulations for how slaves and masters related to each other do not assume the goodness of the institution of slavery. Rather, seeds for slavery’s dissolution were sown in Philemon 16 (“no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother”), Ephesians 6:9 (“Masters … do not threaten [your slaves]“), Colossians 4:1 (“Masters, provide your slaves what is right and fair”), and I Timothy 6:1-2 (masters are “brothers”). Where these seeds of equality came to full flower, the very institution of slavery would no longer be slavery.
But Paul’s regulations for how husbands and wives relate to each other in marriage do assume the goodness of the institution of marriage–and not only its goodness but also its foundation in the will of the Creator from the beginning of time (Eph. 5:31-32). Moreover, in locating the foundation of marriage in the will of God at creation, Paul does so in a way that shows that his regulations for marriage also flow from this order of creation. He quotes Genesis 2:24, “they will become one flesh,” and says, “I am talking about Christ and the Church.” From this “mystery” he draws out the pattern of the relationship between the husband as head (on the analogy of Christ) and the wife as his body or flesh (on the analogy of the church) and derives the appropriateness of the husband’s leadership and the wife’s submission. Thus Paul’s regulations concerning marriage are just as rooted in the created order as is the institution itself. This is not true of slavery. Therefore, while it is true that some slave owners in the nineteenth century argued in ways parallel with our defense of distinct roles in marriage, the parallel was superficial and misguided.
Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen points out, from I Timothy 6:1-6, that, according to the nineteenth-century Christian supporters of slavery, “even though the institution of slavery did not go back to creation … the fact that Paul based its maintenance on a revelation from Jesus himself meant that anyone wishing to abolish slavery (or even improve the slaves’ working conditions) was defying timeless Biblical norms for society.” The problem with this argument is that Paul does not use the teachings of Jesus to “maintain” the institution of slavery, but to regulate the behavior of Christian slaves and masters in an institution that already existed in part because of sin. What Jesus endorses is the kind of inner freedom and love that is willing to go the extra mile in service, even when the demand is unjust (Matt. 5:41). Therefore, it is wrong to say that the words of Jesus give a foundation for slavery in the same way that creation gives a foundation for marriage. Jesus does not give any foundation for slavery, but creation gives an unshakeable foundation for marriage and its complementary roles for husband and wife.
Finally, if those who ask this question are concerned to avoid the mistakes of Christians who defended slavery, we must remember the real possibility that it is not we but evangelical feminists today who resemble nineteenth-century defenders of slavery in the most significant way: using arguments from the Bible to justify conformity to some very strong pressures in contemporary society (in favor of slavery then, and feminism now).
Other posts from Fifty Crucial Questions include:
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