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Current Issues in New Testament Studies: Gender

In this series of blogs, I’ve been surveying four important current issues in the field of NT studies: (1) Biblical Theology (BT), (2) gender studies and biblical manhood and womanhood, (3) Pauline studies, and (4) NT Greek. The purpose of this survey is to keep students and faculty outside of the NT area (and those in biblical studies as well) abreast of new developments. In my previous post, I covered biblical theology. For this post, I’ll be focusing on gender and biblical manhood and womanhood.

Gender Studies and Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

I’d like to start with a volume on the most important passage in the biblical teaching on women’s roles in the church, 1 Tim 2:9–15, namely a book Thomas Schreiner and I co-edited, Women in the Church. The first edition appeared in 1995; the second edition in 2005; and the third edition was published just recently in 2016. The multi-author volume looks at each of the various aspects of the interpretation of 1 Tim 2:9–15, starting with the Ephesian background (S. M. Baugh). Following chapters cover the rare word authentein (exercise authority, by Al Wolters), the syntax of 1 Tim 2:12 (by myself), the exegesis and hermeneutics of 1 Tim 2:9–15 (by Tom Schreiner and Robert Yarbrough, respectively), the translation of 1 Tim 2:12 (Denny Burk), and a panel of women and men discussing relevant issues of the application of 1 Tim 2:9–15 in the church today. This continues to be the definitive work on 1 Tim 2:9–15.

In the previous generation, the discussion of men’s and women’s roles in the home and in the church has often gotten bogged down in polarization between different camps (egalitarians and complementarians), partisan rhetoric, point-by-point polemics, and back-and-forth rebuttals. The debate culminated in Wayne Grudem’s Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More Than 100 Disputed Questions. The unfortunate result of the polemics, however, has been that the younger generation has often been turned off. Also, many churches and seminaries, in an effort not to antagonize prospective churchgoers or students, or for other reasons, have chosen not to address this vital topic at all.

In 2014, my wife and I wrote God’s Design for Man and Woman, a study of the biblical teaching on manhood and womanhood from Genesis to Revelation. This was written not primarily for other scholars but to equip a new generation to understand and live out the biblical teaching. The focus of the book is on the dual pattern of male leadership and male-female partnership which pervades the Scriptures from beginning to end. In the book, we argue that to the extent that a given side unduly neglects either one of these patterns, an imbalance results, whether feminism or patriarchalism. We also developed 2 courses based on this book on both the college and the seminary levels, which can be accessed through BibleMesh as well as Biblical Foundations.

A Survey of the Field

In surveying the field, there seem to be 3 (or perhaps 4) types of recent publications.

(1) Further explorations of the biblical teaching on manhood and womanhood along complementarian lines. I would place my wife’s and my book on BT here, also Owen Strachan’s and Gavin Peacock’s, The Grand Design (2016).

(2) Further advocacy of a feminist/egalitarian approach to gender roles. This includes Philip Payne’s book Man and Woman, One in Christ (2009; see the thorough review by Thomas Schreiner) and, more recently, Cynthia Westfall’s Paul and Gender (2016, capably reviewed for Books at a Glance by my student Sam Ferguson), Alice Mathews’ Gender Roles and the People of God (2017), and Tara Leach’s Emboldened: A Vision for Empowering Women in Ministry (2018, foreword by Scot McKnight). Often what you find here is an attempt at reinterpreting the key NT passages and an appeal to historical-cultural background and/or broader theological categories such as the kingdom or ecclesiology.

(3) A third category is volumes trying to find a via media between complementarianism and egalitarianism. This is epitomized by books such as James DeYoung’s Women in Ministry: Neither Egalitarian nor Complementary (2010) and Michelle Lee-Barnewall’s Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian (2016, though she does seem to take an essentially complementarian stance).

A fourth category might be multiple views books on the subject (personally, I’m not a huge fan of this type of genre, as the format often misleadingly suggests that these views are equally viable for Bible-believing Christians when often they are not). This is particularly egregious in the case of a volume in the Counterpoints: Bible and Theology series edited by Preston Sprinkle, Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church (2016), which features the “affirming” and the “traditional” views with two contributors on either side. But oddly, one of the contributors arguing the “traditional” view is Wesley Hill, who argues for the category of “gay Christians” who don’t try to change their sexual orientation but choose not to act on their homosexual orientation and remain celibate (hardly a “traditional” view!). Other relevant entries here include Women in Ministry: Four Views (1989), Two Views on Women in Ministry (2005), and Ron Highfield’s Four Views on Women and Church Leadership (2017).

In my view, egalitarianism unduly presupposes feminist ideology and therefore cannot do justice to an inductive, authorial-intent study of the biblical teaching, because wherever a given passage appears to conflict with feminism or egalitarianism, a non-feminist reading is excluded a priori, and an attempt is made to reinterpret the passage along egalitarian lines. Also, I am not convinced that oil and water mix, or that there is a way to successfully blend egalitarianism and complementarianism.

That said, I agree that labels can be problematic. For example, complementarians affirm male-female equality (in essence, though not role), while egalitarians affirm complementarity (albeit while denying the biblical pattern of male leadership). My wife and I have written a blog post about this which you can find on my website. So, I appreciate the effort of those who set out to explore a via media for their desire to conciliate (if that’s what their motivation is) but I think it is impossible to remove the countercultural offense given by the biblical teaching in the area of male-female relationships and roles. A better path, I believe, is to extol the beauty, wisdom, and goodness of God’s design for man and woman as taught in Scripture.

Gender and Sexuality

While still on the topic of gender studies, I should note several books on the issues of homosexuality, sexual orientation, and transgenderism. The standard work here is Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice (2002). While not written primarily from a biblical studies perspective, the work of Rosaria Butterfield is important as well: The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (2012) and Openness Unhindered (2015). A very useful recent book comes from Denny Burk and Heath Lambert, Transforming Homosexuality: What the Bible Says about Homosexual Orientation and Change (2015; Burk also wrote an excellent JETS article on the subject). Another volume on the subject is Preston Sprinkle, People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue (2015). Also helpful is Mark Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria (2015), an important book but written mostly from a psychologist’s (rather than NT scholar’s) point of view.

I should also mention here the 2016 book by Vaughan Roberts, Transgender. Roberts is a conservative evangelical pastor at St. Ebbs, Oxford and a gifted exegete, though not a professional scholar who provides here a good and concise treatment of the transgender issue. Finally, I should note Andrew Walker’s 2017 book God and the Transgender Debate: What Does the Bible Actually Say about Gender Identity? Walker does a solid job drawing together an explanation of a complicated issue, of the various exegetical issues involved, and of sketching a pastoral response. He also wrote a compelling review of a recent pro-transgender volume, Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians, by Austen Hartke (2018), which he calls “an identity politics manifesto in search of theological justification” (review on TGC website).

In addition, I have benefited from a series of talks given by John Yates Jr. and my student Sam Ferguson entitled Being Human which cover both homosexuality and transgenderism. A concluding example of the intersection between gender studies and NT studies is the work by Manuel Villalobos Mendoza, When Men Were Not Men: Masculinity and Otherness in the Pastoral Epistles (2014), which Dillon Thornton calls more “an exercise in creative writing than a scholarly investigation.” He says, “The work is entertaining but does little to advance the serious, exegetical study of the Pastorals.”

For Further Study

Note: This blog is an excerpt of a lecture given for a PhD colloquium at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC on April 19, 2018.

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