There was a time, before the internet, before video games, before cell phones, when people went to amusement parks to do more than ride coasters. There were actually quite a few other attractions there, such as arcades full of pinball machines or obviously rigged human reflex-defying games. And there were slow rides through scary or whimsical lands. But the “fun-house” was where you found such cheap thrills as wavy mirrors that gave you extra-long arms or a tiny head, or angled props to give the illusion of defying gravity.
What has any of that to do with theology? The connection is found in distortion, in façads, in optical illusions and rigged games. I’ve often complained about inconsistencies that elevate one aspect of God’s character far above another, or that greatly emphasize one half a sentence while ignoring the other. People can be very discerning and meticulous about the scriptures in one respect, yet violate every one of their own hermeneutical principles in another... almost as if they enjoy the amusement of fooling themselves at times. But too often it comes from an unwillingness to hear arguments counter to our own before we reach a verdict. To listen is not necessarily to approve, but to refuse to listen is to be fearful or incapable of defending one’s own views. Somewhere between those two extremes is the art of hearing someone’s argument through and then putting it to the test, allowing the evidence to determine whether the challenge should prompt us to reexamine our views or not.
One such distortion that has led to nearly universal ear-plugging is that of authority in the community of believers. Many read the NT not to honestly seek the truth or the wisdom of God but to justify foregone conclusions. Those who love the hierarchy of the world, the chain of command, see it under every rock and around every corner. So when that chain is rattled, the reaction is defensive and the strategy is not discussion and discovery but counterattack. Any challenge is seen as a threat to one’s comfort zone and way of life, so any challenger is seen as a rebel.
Yet we cannot read the NT without being confronted by the teaching of equality and mutuality, an even playing field that knows nothing of chains or ladders. The picture painted by Paul is that of the human body, where various parts complement each other as with the left and right hands, neither bossing the other (even benevolently!) but both working together. Though the hands are opposites, they are also mirror images--- yet certainly not distorted ones as the wavy fun-house mirrors would portray them. But when some people read a few NT passages that deal with either ecclesiastical or social order, they abandon the body model and replace it with a distortion that pits left hand against right, head against body, finger against toe. They hold up the “difficult” verses the way a wavy mirror puts one hand far above the other, and turn what is relatively minor into the place of highest importance.
Why, for example, are verses that seem to restrict women “difficult” at all? From whence comes the difficulty, the letters themselves or preconceived notions of privilege? Why is it not important that the Twelve were Jewish, but supremely important that they were male? Why do we not insist that there is always a Board of Deacons consisting of seven men whose mission is to see to it that Greek widows get fed? Why do we not have organizations today such as The Council for Biblical Judaism and Gentilism, or seminars to help masters be more assertive and slaves more subservient? Where are the Master/Slave Balls with little crowns for the masters and cardboard collars for the slaves? Why are there no heated debates over the meaning of Gal. 3:28 concerning the “roles” of Gentiles or slaves? (I trust that those of you familiar with the “gender wars” see how far my tongue is buried into my cheeck right now!)
The fact that nobody frets over such things is the clearest rebuttal to all the bloviating going on about roles and rules and restrictions. Selective literalism, like situational ethics, is all that allows the gender- and authority-obsessed to distort the flesh far above the spirit. Somehow society is only evil when it promotes equality of the sexes, and good when it does not. Much of history, and a disturbingly large number of societies even today, has been very patriarchal. Women have silently suffered this deep injustice against their very essence for thousands of years, yet in the rare instances where they attained some measure of autonomy and equality, the men have shrieked as though a vile contagion has been unleashed into the air and water. Heaven forbid that they should suffer for a moment what women have suffered for a millennium! Yet the majority of those pressing for women’s ontological and functional equality don’t even try to impose this reversal, but instead only seek to do away with a tilt in either direction. Vengeance would be so easy and justified, but we have shown much more grace and spiritual maturity in our willingness to simply right what has been wrong.
We can nitpick the grammatical, linguistic, and historical data all day long (you can read my effort in that regard for Ephesians for example here), but we need to remember the overarching teachings which no specific ones could violate without turning the Bible into an incomprehensible mass of contradictions. Did Paul really tell all women for all time to shut up in “church”, yet also tell them how to prophesy? Do his letters to Timothy really overturn Jesus’ rebuke to the Twelve for seeking positions of power in the coming kingdom? Did the one who wrote so passionately against legalism and “lording over” turn around and set up a new chain of command with a new book of rules? Or, instead, have many people been so afraid of losing power (or giving up “covering” for accepting personal responsibility) that they would rather make the scriptures violate themselves?
Quite frankly, I no longer care what such people believe; I’ve tried long enough to debate these issues with many of them. I’ve examined the NT from head to toe (there’s that Body thing again) with as much honesty and integrity as I can muster, and have seen none of these contradictions. I see the most important teaching as not about how God has relented and started judging by the flesh and playing favorites, but that Jesus came to do much more than die for sins; he came to overturn the chains and rules of tradition just as he overturned the merchant’s tables in the temple. As those merchants turned the temple into a “den of thieves”, so also have teachers, preachers, theologians and scholars turned the Body of Christ from one substance with many parts into an army or business of many ranks. The interconnectedness, unity, and mutuality taught by Jesus and the apostles has been made to take a subservient role to the feigned “service” of “benevolent control”-- the real meaning of the oxymoronic and Orwellian term “servant leader”.
As I’ve said before, Jesus did not come to enact Judaism 2.0 but to abolish religion altogether and replace it with relationship. We say that we believe this, but we go on with our sacred buildings, sacred offices, sacred furniture, and sacred rituals. He had told the Samaritan woman that the old ways were changing, such that worship would move from “this mountain... or Jerusalem” to “spirit and truth”; he told people that he’d be there whenever “two or three gathered in his name”, not when there was a quorum of clergy covering the laity. But people love rules and roles and rituals more than relationship; they love religion and hierarchy. And it is this love which provides the soil where the seeds of twisted scriptures and stunted spirituality are sown. As I’ve argued concerning the Trinity, “one cannot be divided”; the Body cannot be cleaved in two and remain alive, whether it divides “priests” from “peasants” or male from female. As long as we cling to religion and offices and traditions, we will waste far too much time and energy on “navel gazing” rather than evangelism or spiritual maturity.
In our efforts to stop the Body from being so divided, we need to leave our scholarly writings out on the table for any who care to read them, and then appeal to the purpose for which Jesus came and the radical change he introduced. We cannot allow ourselves to be weighed down by arguments over how best to sanitize and polish an institution he came to demolish. We women need to stop politely asking for a place at the adults’ table and just behave like the adults we are. If necessary, we should be willing to set up a separate table, a round one without “head” or “foot”. If the churches will continue ignoring James’ rebuke against taking the seats of honor and fawning over the rich and powerful, we will form our own. The lost and hurting world cannot wait any longer.
*The end of that post states, To participate in the Week of Mutuality synchroblog:
1. Write a post around the theme of mutuality in the Church, home, and world. 2. Share your post on Twitter using #mutuality2012, and it will show up in the live scroll here on the blog. 3. To be considered for Mutuality Week’s Sunday Superlatives, submit your post here.