Friday, May 6, 2011

CBE 2011: 'A Biblical Perspective?'

The Rev Matthew Williams, a friend from my time at Ridley and now a minister at St James Old Cathedral, Melbourne recently presented a paper at the 2011 Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) AGM.  It's entitled 'What does it mean to be a Christian man? A Biblical Perspective' and was given as part of a panel on 'masculinity'!

A summary of Matt's argument

What is the "normative" version of a Biblical man, asks Matt. He rejects a survey of "normative descriptions of masculinity" because this would slant results in favour of "the images of manliness we already have."  Instead Matt suggests we should focus "on what it means to be a Christian man, "biologically or sociologically. Matt then suggests beginning the definition of a 'Christian man', eschatologically, in the opening verses of Colossians chapter 3. Our definition of masculinity should be shaped by the future; "Kingdom-shaped goal in all things."

Later in the chapter, the Apostle Paul gives some instructions about slaves (Col 3:22), which sounds, according to Matt, like being conformed to this world instead of being renewed.  "Is this asymmetry, this power imbalance another mandate, a creation mandate that stands over against the kingdom mandate?"  This is only a problem says Matt if we read the household code (Col 3:18-24) as "law" instead of ethical applications.  In the second part of his definition Matt adds "cross-shaped means" because of the Apostle's dual Cross-Resurrection emphasis.  The Atonement, should be our ethical starting point. Therefore says Matt, "Paul is not self-contradicting nor is he inadequately developed in his grasp of the gospel, he rather understood the full implications of the gospel." Matt then argues that the cross should prompt us to be more egalitarian now because of the egalitarian future, rather than "make our relationships asymmetrical again."

While Matt affirms "egalitarianism" as a gospel ethic over and above "patriarchalism", the process of implementation should be slow because we are still in the world, with all it's varying power structures. Matt then concludes by stating that a Christian man does not need any particular characteristic, except godliness.  Matts' final words are: "Because I think perhaps one of the distinctives of being a Christian man is that you are in a particularly good position to look exactly like the gospel, looking not to your own interests but to the interests of others; exercising a cross-shaped means to a kingdom-shaped end - precisely by encouraging women and helping them to flourish by standing up against institutionalised and baptised sexism and giving women the space  to become all that God has given them to be in our households, in the world, and in the church."

1. A biblical basis for masculinity and femininity?

Matt rejects the need to "survey" Scripture for a normative description of Biblical masculinity.  Given that Scripture is both the philosophical starting point and the epistemology of any theological comment it is very odd that Matt writes the following:

It is tempting to focus on the word 'man', to survey the bible looking for normative descriptions of masculinity or examples of men or actions by men  we deem particularly manly. But in fact, if we do that, we find that our arguments are really circular, because we are likely to select and use those passages according the images of manliness we already have.

Later Matt does indeed select a Biblical passage (Col 3:1-3) as a starting point for his definition of what a Christian man should be, but one can't help but wonder how even that selection is protected from bias. (Clearly everyone suffers from bias and it's simply a matter of ensuring our interpretations are consistent with church tradition. (Viva Sola Scriptura!)) The more troubling aspect of this first problem is Matt's a priori rejection of a normative biblical definition.  I recall a speaker from a seminar at the 2008 CBE conference claiming Scripture "could not / should not" provide us with definitions of masculinity and femininity.  Matt's argument seems to reflect this worrying trend, an implication that Scripture, the basis of our Christian worldview, should not provide the basis of our definitions of masculinity and femininity.

I concede of course that Matt may not have sought to create this implication but his paper does little to mitigate the problem his initial statement creates.  I also concede that creating biblical definitions of masculinity and femininity is a difficult task, but that 'difficulty' alone shouldn't be a logical barrier to using Scripture as both the springboard and the basis of our definition. One would hope the controversy should be about the content of biblical definitions of masculinity, not the more foundational question of whether or not Scripture can provide a definition of masculinity!

2. An over-realised eschatology?

I admit that this particular critique is, to a degree, subjective, because of the legitimate range of eschatological positions within Christian tradition.   However, I do believe that Matt, in an effort to create a currently applicable egalitarian ethic strays into over-realised eschatology.  An eschatology that isn't over-realised anticipates the return of Jesus (Rev 22:20), our future glorification (Rom 8:30) and the transformation of all things (Rev 22:1-2). But it also acknowledges that while our hearts may be set on heaven (Col 3:3), we're still only seeing our eternal future with Christ from a distance (Heb 11:13-16), like strangers in a strange land (KJ Ex 2:22) and we're, for better or for worse, ordained to live in this world until our time is up (Ps 90:10).

Matt writes:

It's a wonderful picture, and a powerful ethical paradigm, to simply think of heaven, of the kingdom of God, and to seek to be conformed to its reality; to set before ourselves a kingdom-shaped goal in all things. We are being renewed according to God's image, a renewal in which our distinctions fade away, distinctions of race and social standing (and he says in Galatians, of gender) and we are all simply people sharing that same divine image, and therefore treat one another accordingly.

The eschatology Matt suggests here isn't the hopeless (an earthly Kingdom of God) and pragmatic (work hard now) over-realisation of Schweitzer, but a problematic version nonetheless.  Ethical instructions such as the household codes shouldn't be modified in the light of a still undiscerned future. Furthermore, the household codes have a particular and unique place in the larger and longer economy of God's action in the world, that isn't superseded by a still un-occurred future. (Oscar Cullerman's model of living between D-Day and V-Day doesn't (and shouldn't) account for time travel!)   Lastly the model of Egalitarian ethics Matt presents calls for current and precise certainties, based on a eschatological future that is painted in deliberately broad and tantalisingly mysterious brushstrokes.

3. So what actually is a "Christian Man"?

Matt closes his paper by noting that apart from godliness there is no outstanding characteristic of biblical masculinity. At the beginning of the paper Matt mentioned in passing, biology and sociology as contributing to our definition of masculinity. However at the end of Matt's paper one is left with the impression that an Egalitarian definition of masculinity is sexless, there is nothing except maybe biology ("a Y chromosome") that makes a man or a women.

This is a little disappointing, the promise it seems at the beginning of the paper or at least on reading the title is that there is something to being a male, something uniquely Biblical, something that makes a male well male.  Although Matt nods at biology and sociology, nothing it seems distinguishes men from women. It feels as though the entire CBE AGM panel was a setup; 'Actually, Egalitarianism is true, there's nothing different about men and women.'  Now again, I don't think Matt intended it to land like this but that's the distinct impression I get from his paper.


Matt's paper is both readable and interesting and in critiquing it I appreciated the way it sharpened my own thinking.  In addition, although Matt obviously takes a polemical line in his paper, he personally is a champion of discussion and making-a-place for 'Complementarians' even when 'Egalitarians' are in the ascendency!  I don't think Matt makes makes a convincing egalitarian case for what it means to be a Christian man, but I wonder how representative his line of arguments are and how applicable my critique would be to the wider CBE movement in Australia?


Andrew Bowles said...

I'm not sure your first critique construes Matt's argument correctly. The question isn't whether the Bible is a starting point for theological reflection. The point is to challenge the type of questions that we ask. When we think about what a 'Christian man' is, the complementarian approach seems to be to ask first what a 'man' is, and once that is ascertained in general then to seek to shape that with Christian principles. Matt's approach is to ask what a 'Christian' is, and then to apply that to men, i.e. those who have the 'Y' chromosome and it's attendant biological characteristics. That's why seeking normative definitions of masculinity in Scripture is being critiqued, because it is making a diffuse and ambiguous category (masculinity) more fundamental than a clear and abundantly defined category (holiness). On what basis should we expect that every single question that we ask will find ready-made conceptual answer in the Bible? Shouldn't we be more concerned with the questions that the biblical writers themselves are asking?

Your second point is more substantial, I think, though I would frame it differently. As it stands, it appears to be an admission that the more egalitarian you become the more you are realising the presence of the kingdom, hence implying that complementarianism is a sinful or flawed structure. I thought it was supposed to be a normative system based on the good design of creation. ;)

The real issue seems to me to be that egalitarianism functions as a 'counsel of perfection', in that it offers only a pure and mature Christian discipleship as a way of life, and nothing else. Traditional gender roles have functioned as a kind of 'lowest common denominator' to give everyone at least a basic standard of behaviour that has shown to be good enough to avoid really negative patterns. If you deconstruct them and take away that middle ground, for every person who rises to a more radically gospel-centred life many more will fall below into more selfish and exploitative ways of relating. That is the challenge for egalitarians and it was raised at the meeting, and I think it's behind your complaint that the panel didn't provide any concrete distinctions in the end.

Matthew said...

(This is a repaste - sans some personal catch-ups! -of a private reply to Luke which he asked me to air here.)

Brother, I do see that you have genuinely sought to understand what I was saying but there are a few misunderstandings (which are inevitable in any act of communication). I hope to help clarify those a little here.

I didn't explore any biological implications of maleness because these were covered in the first talk by Professor David Clarke, who gave a comprehensive statistical comparison of maleness and femaleness in terms of averages and statistical distributions, followed by a quick statistics lesson. So it wasn't part of my mandate to cover that, but considerable context was provided on the evening, and I was riding on the back of that.

The actual thesis I was presenting, and the purpose of the exegesis of scripture, was to take a step back altogether from the question of masculinity or manliness itself (which I considered circular to do from scripture) and instead do a quick sketch of what I believe to be the framework of a Christian ethic that applies to all people. In other words, this wasn't an attempt to describe masculinity from scripture, but what it means to be a "Christian" in the broadest sense possible - which was then applied not to define masculinity but to redeem men who are already male not as an accomplishment but as a gift. I particularly wanted to show that this gospel ethic can provide an orientation for men who were disoriented by shifting cultural definitions of masculinity, because it can start from anywhere.

Unfortunately given the time constraints of a 15 minute talk I couldn't take an evidentialist approach to make my case from scripture, I could at best simply sketch a view. But my view is that we make a mistake seeing the ethical tension in Paul’s thought as being primarily between creation and new creation - which results in him making seemingly arbitrary decisions between the two in ethical instruction, which are difficult to replicate in new situations.

Rather, without dismissing the real difference between creation and new creation, I think most of the tension in Paul's ethics - the principal restraint on his kingdom-shaped ideal - is the cross. The cross is a model of self-sacrificing rather than self-aggrandising (this, by the way, isn't really atonement as such but takes its cue from Philippians 2/John 13/Mark 10 terms). It therefore restrains trying to take hold of the privileges of the kingdom too soon. We have our eye on the goal of the kingdom, but our actions to move in that direction are to be constrained by the shape of the cross. I have found this a robust hermeneutical key for reading Paul - showing him to be less arbitrary - and also a robust shorthand ethical framework for all decision making: to consider
a) is this action consistent with the goals and values of the kingdom of God or does it move us away from that shape?
b) is this action consistent with the principle of self-abnegating service or is it furthering my own power?

In other words, is my life an embodiment of both the cross and the goal of the kingdom? That is not, I think, an over-realised eschatology, precisely because I am okay with waiting for God to bring the kingdom in completely.
(to be continued...)

Matthew said...

But how does the kingdom get 'tasted' now? When we who have power are transformed to use it to dismantle the self-serving approach to power of the world - to realise our spiritual equality within our fallen, inevitably asymmetrical, realities, as much as possible. That, I take it, is what the household codes do for their time.

Once I had delineated this framework, I then sketched a few ways it would play out. You will notice I then critiqued an impatient egalitarianism, which includes those who use egalitarianism as a stick to advocate for themselves. This is because our obligation under this framework is to be slaves to one another through love - including, I should imagine, even to people who disagree with our understanding of God’s ideal shape in gender relations.

But I also critique the attempt at restoration of patriarchy or any other kind of self-favouring asymmetry by men in an egalitarian world. I critique this because a) it isn't like the cross, in that the men teaching it are levering their interpretation of scripture into power for themselves; and b) it actually seeks to take something in society which is more like the kingdom and make it less like the kingdom. The kingdom hasn't arrived yet, which is why we still have to take the path of the cross, but to disregard the path of the cross in order to make the world less like the kingdom seems to me to fail to embody both sides of the gospel story - thus, if you like, double the ethical failure of impatient egalitarianism.

Anyway, I hope that helps people better understand where I was coming from. Indeed, regardless of what we think the shape of God's ideal present world is in terms of men and women, regardless of the failures of the present situation, whether we are not kingdom-shaped enough or not some ideal creation-shaped enough, if our method of changing that is anything involving levering power for ourselves or tearing down others or trying to prevent them exercising gospel ministry, I don't think Jesus would be impressed with our discipleship (and cf. Mark 9:38-41; Philippians 1:18) . That, really, is the main point I want to make on the whole subject of gender: whatever you think, however egalitarian or complementarian you are, don’t think it matters more than embodying the gospel. The present world is passing away, God's kingdom will prevail, and our role in it is to act in such a way that people can see we have both taken up our cross and are citizens of heaven.

Luke Isham said...

Hi Andrew,

The question isn't whether the Bible is a starting point for theological reflection. ... On what basis should we expect that every single question that we ask will find ready-made conceptual answer in the Bible?

Clearly all ideological/theological questions are answered either generally or specifically by Scripture. If the answer is otherwise then this would form a significant (and worrying) difference between Egalitarian and Complementarianism.

(I agree about the nature of those two categories.)

Re: Eschatology, that might be a criticism, but be careful what you wish for because it would be one that would hurt the Egalitarians just as much because things like marriage and sex don't seem to present in the new heavens and the new earth maybe implying that they are part of the world's "sinful or flawed structure."

Interesting last point, although it seems I needed to be there to understand that nuance.

Luke Isham said...

Hi Matt,

Thanks for posting your further responses and your graciousness in reply. It's already a complex topic and clarification seems to be the wisest course at the moment.

I see that context plays a part in this little discussion and the fact you talk was given as part of the panel, particularly after Clarke's talk is significant.

Just to clarify my remarks in response to your response! I didn't want you per-say to outline a whole case for biblical masculinity but felt you closed the door to that possibility by remarking that such a process would be circular rather than simply saying (on the day) you didn't have time. This point comes out with Andrew above.

Finally, you comment above:

I critique this because a) it isn't like the cross, in that the men teaching it are levering their interpretation of scripture into power for themselves; and b) it actually seeks to take something in society which is more like the kingdom and make it less like the kingdom.

I agree with your first critique, and men on my side of the debate need to hear it! However I'm not convinced the tension of eschatological expectation should be leveraged into an ethical framework. The Apostle Paul also draws on creation and principles from the old Testament as an ethical basis. In other words your ethical summary requires certain hermeneutical assumptions about the New Testament that I'm wary of but are probably beyond the scope of our discussion.

Andrew Bowles said...

'Clearly all ideological/theological questions are answered either generally or specifically by Scripture.'

Neither I nor Matt have denied this. This is a misunderstanding, as I pointed out. My questioning was of 'ready-made concepts', like the assumption that masculinity is necessarily a useful category to approach the scriptures with. Maybe it ain't. I've never seen anyone produce anything helpful by doing so.

Andrew Bowles said...

p.s. A clarifying example would be to ask 'What is the normative political system according to the Bible?'. That is an ideological question which we should turn to the Scriptures to answer. But trying to find a ideal form of government in Scripture would be a goose chase, because such data just isn't there. The actual answer would be something like 'any form of government can be good if it is conducted in a Christ-like manner and bad if sin takes hold'. Now insert 'masculinity' in place of 'government'.

Roy said...

I'm a bit wary of requiring people to ask certain questions of scripture. I think you can ask anything of scripture, you just might not get a clear answer, or you might get directed to a better question.

I agree that where there is ambiguity in scripture, we are tempted to import our own images and experiences into that space, and then, perhaps unwittingly, invest them with biblical authority. That's a good point and it needs to be heard. But I think it needs to be heard by both sides.

Also, I don't believe circularity is inevitable. Surely the Holy Spirit can help us get past our biases and see ambiguity in scripture for what it is?

I would have liked a survey of the biblical data, at least so I could be convinced that the category of masculinity is 'diffuse and ambiguous'. After reading the talk and viewing these posts, I'm still left wondering.

Roy said...

Just a query for our host: is a 15 minute talk given at an AGM really fair game for analysis in cyberspace? I know it was put up on their website, but did Matt really intend it for public broadcast?

Luke Isham said...

Hi Roy,

Welcome to the blog, I'm just as wary of saying we shouldn't ask questions of Scripture, where is the precedent for that? Questions are part of thinking about something. Furthermore everything is both simple and complex, it doesn't necessarily follow that because one person or persons find something ambiguous that it must be that way for other people.

Although I agree with you that the Holy Spirit intervenes and guides us both through the traditional path and through more extraordinary changes of heart of insight.

Re the right to comment, I believe is was intended for public comment, the other talks AFAIK we're posted on the CBE website, only Matt's.

Matthew said...

Actually all the talks are on the CBE website on the audio file. Since I happen to speak from a full text (the other two speakers were more extemporaneous) they asked to post my script as well.

I didn't know in advance they would want to do this, but as something in the public realm I don't mind it being critiqued. Of course I'd prefer it was critiqued according to what I was asked to do - which is to give a fifteen minute talk to say something from the bible to help Christian men understand and orient themselves in the world today; not to supply a rigorously defended academic paper!