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Interview: Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate

Interview by Matthew Claridge–

Anyone acquainted with the work of William J. Webb is fully aware that the discipline of hermeneutics is both indispensable and quite complicated. It’s all to easy to fall into the trap that interpretation is simply reading an author’s intent off the page. But as Webb’s work has demonstrated afresh for the evangelical world, there’s a world full of assumptions and presuppositions between the two horizons of text and reader. Entering into the fray to help us take our hermeneutical bearings is Benjamin Reaoch’s book, Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate: A Complementarian Response to the Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic.

At first blush, the title of your book puts together two topics that appear unrelated, “women” and “slaves,” both in the context of the “gender debate.” What is the connection?

The New Testament contains instructions to various individuals within the household structure.  For instance, in Ephesians 5-6 there are commands for wives to submit to their husbands, for children to obey their parents, and for slaves to obey their masters.  A newer egalitarian argument uses this connection to argue that the submission command to wives and the obedience command to slaves are both obsolete.

Russell Moore makes an interesting comment in his blurb for your book, “Some have argued that the Christian vision of gender complementarity will one day seem as horrifying as antebellum slavery views.” Why do you expect this will not or should not happen? What’s the difference between the fight for a slave’s emancipation and the fight for women’s equal participation in the functions of the church and the home?

This comparison seems persuasive when the complementarian position is seen as demeaning and oppressive to women.  However, the biblical view of manhood and womanhood is anything but oppressive to women.  Men are to lead, yes, but they are to lead sacrificially, for the good of others (see Ephesians 5).

In the fight to emancipate slaves, Christians rightly uphold the biblical doctrine that all humans are created in the image of God and should therefore be treated with respect and dignity and should not be owned by another person.  In the arguments for women’s equal participation in the functions of the church and the home, something very important is pushed aside—that is, the beautiful design of God for man and woman to be both equal and different.

 Could you provide us a working definition of the “redemptive-movement hermeneutic”?

The redemptive-movement hermeneutic compares certain biblical instructions with the cultural contexts in which they were written.  By doing this, we see that many biblical passages which make us uncomfortable are actually far more “redemptive” than the kinds of things being written by others at the time.  William Webb, the main proponent of the redemptive-movement hermeneutic, examines the issues of Slaves, Women and Homosexuals (the title of his book; IVP, 2001).  Through his complex analysis of these three cases, he concludes the slavery passages and women’s passages both point in the direction of full liberation (especially when we take into account verses like Galatians 3:28), while the biblical stance on homosexuality does not (that is, homosexual behavior is still to be seen as sinful).

As we are able to discern the “trajectory” of Scripture, we are guided along toward ethical conclusions.  The redemptive-movement contained within Scripture points us beyond Scripture to an ultimate ethic.

 How have you structured your response to the connection egalitarians working with the redemptive-movement hermeneutic draw between slavery and gender equality?

The short answer is that the gender passages are rooted in creation, whereas the slavery passages are not.  My book looks at each passage exegetically, and then also deals with hermeneutical questions.

 What difference does it make if we define movement across the canon as a result of cultural change rather than redemptive-historical change?

Cultural insights are certainly helpful, and I am grateful for much of William Webb’s work.  For instance, it is helpful to contrast the slavery passages in Scripture with the harsh realities of slavery in ancient times.  However, one of the confusing and misleading things about Webb’s approach is that he largely ignores the redemptive-historical movement from Old to New Testament.  Cultural aspects are not always a determining factor in how a passage applies to believers today.  It’s certainly significant in a passage like 1 Corinthians 11, dealing with head coverings.  But cultural differences alone cannot bring us to the conclusion that we must simply move beyond those instructions entirely, especially when instructions are grounded in God’s creation order.

 How does Webb’s “ladder of abstraction” inadvertently lead him away from Scripture as our sole authority for defining ethical norms and ideals?

When dealing with commands such as head coverings or foot washing or a holy kiss, it is necessary to move up a “ladder of abstraction” to arrive at a contemporary application.  So, “greet one another with a holy kiss” becomes something like, “greet one another in a culturally appropriate way that demonstrates your Christian love.”  I believe this is a valid way of thinking about these commands.  But when Webb addresses issues of civil government and wifely submission, he uses this ladder of abstraction to subtly insert his egalitarian presuppositions.  Webb shifts away from notions of authority, and the abstracted meaning becomes associated rather with honor.  Thus, the ladder of abstraction, if we’re not careful, can become very subjective.

 A key bit of exegetical insight you muster is the distinction between purpose/intent clauses and ground clauses used by the NT on the issues of slavery and gender roles. How does this distinction contribute to your complementarian argument?

It is true that there are some similarities between the statements to women and slaves when we examine those commands which are followed by purpose clauses.  In Titus  2:4, women are instructed to be “submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.”  Then in verses 9-10 slaves are instructed “to be submissive to their own masters . . . so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.”  However, the difference between the ground clauses are significant.  In the gender passages, there are ground clauses that point back to creation order (1 Timothy 2, 1 Corinthians 11, and I would argue also 1 Corinthians 14 in the reference to “the Law”; Ephesians 5 also quotes Genesis 2:24).  In stark contrast, the slavery passages lack any references to creation.

 Your first chapter contains a fascinating snapshot of the biblical polemics of the 19th century abolitionists. Why did they have such a difficult time making a biblical case against slavery? Where did they go awry in their attempts to convince others of slavery’s inherent evils?

Racism was a blinder to many otherwise excellent scholars.  They used their sophisticated argumentation to discredit the abolitionist arguments.  Solid, biblical arguments against slavery were presented.  But when they did not succeed, abolitionists began to move away from specific instructions in Scripture to general principles in Scripture and then away from Scripture to moral intuition.

 You take to task Webb’s handling of “theological analogy” by making a sharp distinction between anthropological analogy and christological analogy (or perhaps also, ontological analogy). Why is this distinction important when discussing how Scripture grounds behavior in some aspect of the divine nature?

Webb seeks to relativize the “theological analogies” in Ephesians 5 (Christ and the church) and 1 Corinthians 11 (headship of God the Father, and headship of the husband) by comparing them with other “theological analogies” in Scripture.  He points to Hosea 2 where a husband disciplines his wife for her promiscuity, and he concludes that since this is obviously not applicable to marriages today, we must also call into question the relevance of the analogies in Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 11.

The problem here is that Webb has lumped together analogies that are very different from one another.  In Hosea 2 the analogy is working from the human realm to the divine realm.  A human marriage is used metaphorically to show something about Yahweh’s relationship to Israel.  We could call this an anthropological analogy.  But in Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 11 the nature of God and Christ is used to demonstrate the pattern for male-female roles (hence, a Christological or theological analogy).

 Benjamin Reaoch (Ph.D. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is pastor of Three Rivers Grace Church in Pittsburg, PA.

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