I learned from Associated Baptist Press (since I no longer receive unsolicited review copies) that LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention has published a two-volume Bible commentary (for the Old and New Testaments) that’s marketed to women. That comes as no surprise, nor is it surprising that the volumes would be co-edited by Rhonda Kelley, wife of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary president Chuck Kelley, and Dorothy Patterson, whose husband Paige is president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
And, it’s no surprise that the commentary is designed to promote a “complementarian” view of the genders, a view that really conservative interpreters call “biblical womanhood.” At least the volumes are named “Women’s Evangelical Commentary” on the Old and New Testaments, lest they be confused with more feminist-oriented commentaries that target women. It’s unfortunate that the word “evangelical” has become a virtual synonym for “fundamentalist,” but its inclusion (along with its publisher) lets the reader know up front which tack the commentary takes.
The basic argument of “complementarianism” is that God created men and women with equal worth, but assigned them different roles in which the man is to lead and the woman is to submit, both at home and in church. This is portrayed as the biblical view of womanhood, as opposed to more liberated views of equality between genders that are common to Western culture.
Here’s the main problem with the “complementarian” view: biblical stories reflect the prevailing culture of their own time, a highly male-dominant culture in which exceptional women could occasionally shine but were always clearly subservient to men. Even women typically held up as heroes (like Ruth and Esther) achieved their fame by playing along with cultural expectations, dolling themselves up and fawning over the men they hoped to impress.
The problem is that biblical inerrantists, who assume that the Bible way is the only way, assume that male dominance is inherently a divinely-intended biblical value rather than a reflection of the ancient cultures in which the biblical stories took place.
Those cultures also called for regular doses of blood-vengeance, a wholesale acceptance of slavery, and capital punishment for minor offenses. Should we argue that those practices establish biblical standards rather than recognizing them as cultural influences reflected in the biblical world? Of course not.
Neither should we assume that God created women to be subservient to men just because that’s the way it was in the cultures of against which the Bible was written, and therefore in the minds of some biblical writers — all or most of whom were men.
The world in which we now live continues to reflect a variety of cultures. Western societies acknowledge greater equality to women, at least in theory, though men continue to dominate the economic and political systems, and women’s wages for the same work still falls behind those of men.
Other cultures are unapologetically male-dominant. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women are expected to remain at home most of the time. They are not allowed to drive, and only recently were women given permission to work in sales; then only for the sale of women’s lingerie. In Muslim countries dominated by religious fundamentalists, women must cover themselves from head to toe when outside the home, as if they are not truly humans with faces. In some African cultures, female circumcision and other practices are designed to disempower women and keep them under men’s thumbs.
The awareness of competing cultural expectations in our own time should help us to understand that the Bible’s reflection of its narrow cultural world does not necessarily imply a biblical endorsement or establishment of male dominance. God, whose own “personhood” is beyond gender, created both men and women in God’s image, according to Gen. 1:27. That’s the ideal: anything less is a cultural corruption, even if it is reflected in the world of the Bible.
Complementarianism is no compliment.