Friday, July 22, 2011

What's With Paul and Women? by John Zens

When we debate with others, we need to make sure we understand their point of view too. Otherwise we run the risk of being deluded into believing our own bluster.

One area where this is particularly true is the debate about women in leadership in the church. For one side, the issue is one of fairness, of not arbitrarily saying that 50% of the church should not be allowed to teach or lead. For the other side, the issue is one of striving to be faithful to the Bible (or to tradition), especially when it doesn't fit with our cultural preconceptions.

What is needed in the debate, therefore, is for people who bridge the gap – who either seek to show how restricting the ministry of women is fair, reasonable and just or to show how allowing women to teach, preach and lead is compatible with the Bible. This book is an attempt to do the latter.

Zens takes the key passage of 1 Timothy 2:8-15, and tries to show that it addresses a specific situation in the church in first-century Ephesus rather than being a general injunction for all time. And he makes some good points. For example, by arguing that Paul's instructions to women all match up with specific features of the Ephesians Artemis-cult, he provides the first decent explanation I've seen of how v15 follows on from v8-14.

Some bits of the argument could be unpacked better. For example, I don't remember him making the specific link between the women wearing fancy hair styles to worship Artemis, or their leadership, and them seeking protection in childbirth. It is implicit in what Zens writes, but if he'd spelt it out a bit more, and then unpacked that Paul is showing them that there is a better way...

But the book's big weakness is how it treats people who disagree. The foreword is full of invective against people who restrict women's ministry. And regardless of whether it is true or not, that is not the way to win an argument with people who are honestly seeking to follow what they think God is saying. Ditto with Zens' argument in v12. He translates the verse “I do not now permit...”, and then makes his main point from the word “now”. However, it isn't in the verse in Greek. If Paul had wanted to put a “now” in, he could have done and he didn't. Zens is right of course that the verse could be describing Paul's practice at that time and in that situation, but grammatically it could also be describing his settled and permanent policy. That question can't be settled on grammar alone, so in implicitly saying that it can, Zens makes the serious mistake of over-arguing. I don't like people using bad arguments in debates because 1) it makes it look as if they don't have any good arguments 2) it makes it look as if they've already decided what the “truth” is before considering the arguments.

Other things about the book grated as well. When Zens wants to make a point I think is controversial, the sources he refers to to establish it are mostly non-peer-reviewed ones – he seems disturbingly fond of putting blogs in his references. Now I quite like reading people's blogs, but I don't always assume they're true. If I'm reading the blog of a noted Biblical scholar, I expect them to be right on the Biblical stuff and to have done their research. But Zens sometimes comes across as having the attitude “It says it on the internet, therefore it must be true.”

All in all, a thought-provoking read, and he makes some good points, but it could have been so much better if this book actually looked like an attempt to understand the verses rather than an attempt to have a go at people who disagree.

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