An Open Letter to Kenton Sparks
Dear Dr. Sparks,
I finished your book God’s Word in Human Words a few weeks ago. It was the second of your books that I had read, the first being Sacred Word, Broken Word. Both books are about reading the Bible for what it shows itself to be, rather than forcing it into a box based on human conceptions of what we think a book inspired by God ought to be like. Much of what you had to say was really helpful. For instance, it was a relief to be able to admit to myself that in 1 Samuel, King Saul appears to meet David for the first time twice, in two very different stories– and each time to have no recollection of having met him in the other scenario. It’s good to know I don’t have to pretend not to see things like this in the Bible, but can allow things like genre and ancient ways of writing to be what they are in the Bible, without overturning its beauty or truth.
I also really liked your discussion of the trajectory approach: the idea that as the books of the Bible came into being chronologically, they have reflected a positive ethical forward movement, as the Holy Spirit leads God’s people into higher, more loving ways of thinking and being. I greatly appreciated your approach to the question of slavery and why Christians eventually came to reject it as a cruel and unholy institution which God’s Spirit accommodated but did not endorse:
As we move from the Old to the New Testament, we can discern a positive trajectory in the status granted to slaves. . . This positive trajectory should be read in the light of other New Testament developments, such as the New Testament command to love our neighbors and to do for others as we would have them do for us. The New Testament also includes texts that minimize ethnic, gender, and social distinctions, such as its assertion in Galatians 3:28 that there is neither “slave nor free. . . we are all one in Christ.” When our rational capacities are applied to such texts, the only way to make good sense of them is to head in the direction of manumitting slaves.
So when you went on to say, “”So we have good reason to ask, In spite of the Bible’s general consistency [on the issue of male-female relations], does Scripture provide us with a theological trajectory, in which the relationship between men and women moves in an egalitarian direction? I believe that it does” — I felt you must be in agreement with me that men and women ought to be equal in authority in the church and home. And indeed, you went on to defend women’s freedom to function in all areas of church ministry.
And then suddenly, everything changed. Dr. Sparks, you were right in the middle of explaining how “[W]hatever else we may say, it is certain that the New Testament tends to soften, and in some cases almost eliminates, the one-sided authority of men over women. As a result, the expectation of mutuality placed on husbands in marriage is more specific and far-reaching than anyone finds in the Old Testament. . . .” But then all at once you became very interested in stopping this particular trajectory– the trajectory towards full male-female mutuality– before it went too far. The male-female mutuality trajectories are “analogous to those that prevail respecting slavery,” you wrote– but unlike in the case of slavery, where you believe the trajectory is to proceed to its logical conclusion of eliminating that institution, you believe the gender trajectory stops cold before it can proceed to give wives full equality with their husbands.
I’ve got to confess, Dr. Sparks– it felt like running into a hard brick wall. All of a sudden I found myself reading this:
Although Genesis 1 describes the male and female as full equals who jointly bear the divine image, there is no a priori reason to suppose that this is an expression of pure assymetrical egalitarianism, especially when the text is situated properly within its biblical and theological context. That the woman was made from man to be his helper, and that he twice names her (Gen. 2:23; 3:20) as he does the animals (2:20), suggests his priority and thus his authority over her– just as 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and 1 Corinthians 11:5-10 indicate.
Dr. Sparks– when this text is situated within its biblical context, it occurs at the very beginning of Genesis– at or near the beginning of this theological trajectory which you have agreed moves towards gender equality. Furthermore, when you quote the passages you have just named in Genesis, 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians, you appear very happy to accept the translation of certain ancient words in ways that uphold male headship. But the fact remains that these translations are not very well upheld by the way those words were actually used in other contemporaneous ancient texts, or even in other scriptures within the biblical text.
For instance, you say the woman was made to be the man’s “helper,” when the Hebrew word “help” in that text (transliterated (“ezer”) actually is used most often of God as the “help” of Israel, and thus hardly reflects sidekick or assistant status. You are also contented to accept the Greek word transliterated as “authentein” in 1 Timothy as “to exercise [normative] authority,” when it does not appear to have meant anything of the sort. Finally, you don’t even question that the Greek word for “head” (transliterated “kephale”) in 1 Corinthians 11 means “authority over,” when the context of the word’s use in that passage much more strongly supports the meaning “source or origin.”
I’m really not sure why, in a book which is so welcoming to historical and linguistic research on the biblical texts, explaining how we needn’t fear scholarship and bible criticism, you fail to even mention these translation issues, instead simply maintaining that these texts uphold the man’s “priority and thus his authority over” the woman– in a way that no biblical trajectory towards equality can overcome.
You base this male priority on two basic points. First, you believe that the Holy Trinity is a hierarchy of Father over Son and Spirit– and that since Father, Son and Spirit are equal, therefore a woman can be equal to her husband and yet be permanently and irrevocably under his authority. Second, you believe that a hierarchical order is necessary in marriage to prevent chaos.
I will address the issue of the Trinity first. You state:
As for the tradition, we find that God the Father is described as . . . “the source” of Son and Spirit (Gregory of Nazianzus), the “cause of the Son” (John of Damascus). . . Such is the evidence for this hierarchical view of the Trinity’s order. If this view of the Trinity is correct, then it becomes very difficulty to argue that human hierarchies are inherently evil. Indeed, it becomes more likely that hierarchies are good things.”
Thus you equate the “assymetrical order” of the Trinity with a hierarchical order of the Trinity– never questioning your root assumption that a thing cannot be both assymetrically ordered and non-hierarchical. To you, if the Son and Spirit proceed from the Father (as orthodoxy teaches), then the Son and Spirit must be subordinate to the Father (which I don’t think orthodoxy actually does teach).
The Athanasian Creed, as you know, Dr. Sparks, is the principal creed whereby orthodoxy defines the Trinity. It is the Athanasian Creed which your opponents also cite to uphold the non-hierarchical nature of the Godhead– though you claim they have “simply misread Athanasius.” You assume that because Athanasius was not an opponent of assymetrical order in the Trinity, therefore Athanasius could not have been saying that the Son was not subordinate to the Father in Their Divine eternity (I make no argument denying that the Son, when He took on human flesh, became subordinate to the Father as He walked as a living human being on the physical Earth).
The best-known phrase of Athanasius is “That we worship One God in Trinity and Trinity in unity, neither confounding [confusing] the persons nor dividing the substance.” Dr. Sparks, I hate to say it, but I really feel that in your care not to confound the Persons, you have in fact divided the substance.
Orthodoxy teaches that the Son proceeds from the Father in the sense that the Son is the perfect Self-expression of the Father (John 1:1, Colossians 1:5). The Spirit proceeds from the Father in the sense that the Spirit is the Spirit of the Father (John 15:26). God’s Self-Expression is Himself God, and God’s Spirit is Himself God; and They are not three gods, but one God. God the Father did not need to command Himself the Son to do something which Himself the Son did not also want to do in the same quality and to the same extent that the Father did. We say that the Father “sent” the Son and the Holy Spirit to mankind– but that word “sent” is necessarily a metaphor of time and distance, applied to One who dwells in neither. The Father, Son and Spirit, in Divine eternity, must of necessity be united in will. The only way that the will of God the Word could differ from the will of God the Word-Speaker, was when the Word became flesh and dwelt among men, subject to human desires and human limitations.
To speak of authority and subordination coherently is to speak in terms of one person submitting his or her own will to the will of another. To speak of submission or obedience coherently is to speak of one person giving in to the commands or desires of another. But where there is One will, how can there be a command at all? We say the Father sent the Son; the Son also said He came forth from the Father (John 16:28). Was this two actions– one of command and one of obedience– or one act of one God, described two ways according to two of God’s Persons? I maintain that it was the latter, and that this in fact is orthodoxy. I maintain that to speak of the Father needing to command the Son to go, and the Son obeying and going, is incoherent– unless you divide the substance of the Trinity into three gods with differing wills, rather than one God in three persons, with one will and desire towards mankind.
Humanity, of course, functions differently. A husband and wife are in fact two distinct and separate beings. If a wife submits to her husband, she is submitting her differing will to the will of her husband— otherwise she would not speak of submission, but simply state that she and her husband are in agreement on a particular course of action. To compare the finite, fallen husband-wife relationship in this way to the divine communion of the Trinity is to impose on both, categories that are foreign to them. Thus, it simply does not follow from the assymetrical nature of the Trinity, that the Trinity’s nature is hierarchical– any more than it follows that the wife can be in a state of permanent subordination to her husband and yet be equal to him, functionally or otherwise. For as I have maintained elsewhere:
Either women are not equal to men, because God created them with a certain lack of authority over themselves, or ability to lead others, that men do not lack. And this lack is intrinsic to womanhood, while any lack a particular man may have in the area of leadership, is simply an individual characteristic, not intrinsic to his manhood. This makes women, in their essence as women, inferior to men.
Or women are equal to men, but God simply decided that women, because they are women, despite lacking nothing that He gave men for authority over themselves or leadership of others, may not use that authority or leadership. In other words, they are to be under male authority even though God did not design them or create them to be suited for being under male authority. This makes God, in His essence, arbitrary and unjust. He makes rules without good reasons.
You see, you can’t tie the fundamentally unequal characteristics of authority to one group and subordination to another group, based on something like the sexes (which people are born with and have no control over), without rendering them as groups unequal. If you tie the characteristic to the group’s very nature (as CBMW does), then you deny the equality of that group in any real sense at all. But if you tie the characteristic to the group functionally, as soft complementarianism does, even though you say the groups are equal by nature and there is no difference in the group’s ability, as a group, to perform the function– then you have no justifiable basis for the unequal treatment. And if you then claim this unjustifiable, unequal treatment is from God– you have turned God into something you never intended. “Because God said so” doesn’t exactly glorify God.
To be in authority over a subordinate is to have power and agency which the subordinate lacks, and thus to be unequal. That is simply what the words mean. Authority in the workplace, or in democratic or republican government, is temporary and limited, based on situation and circumstance. But authority of male over female is permanent, because maleness and femaleness are permanent states in this physical world– and thus the inequality is permanent. I maintain that this is not the state of the Father and Son, and should not be the state of the husband and the wife.
Going on to address your other point– that hierarchical authority in marriage is necessary for the sake of order, to prevent chaos in the marriage when the parties can’t agree– if this is your solution to these potential problems, I have to say that the cure is far worse than the disease.
To be fair, you do express male headship in terms of “self-giving” on the part of the husband, so that there is mutuality between husbands and wives. But your main point is this:
But even as God has acted in Christ to reverse the consequences of the fall, he has also introduced certain structures into human society to quell the threats of disorder and human sin. . . To be sure, these structures are baser solutions to human conflict than redeemed living. . . But insofar as redeemed persons live by the Spirit, these bald assertions of authority become unnecessary because our human differences are resolved through mutual submission. . . However, when our human disagreements succumb to the influence of sin– be it in the church, in the home, or in regard to our neighbor– Scripture calls us, for the sake of order, to submit our wills and behaviors to the preferences of others. . . In light of what I have said, the proper aim of Christian marriage is to incarnate the vision of mutual love and submission. . . But so long as there is human sin, the divine decree that husbands shall have authority in the home still stands and is needed. [Emphasis in original]
It was at this point that I actually began to be appalled. What you are asserting, Dr. Sparks, is nothing less than “divine right” — the right of some, by virtue only of their birth and blood, to rule over others, for no reason other than that they were born to be so ruled. The amount of abuse and oppression that this doctrine has directly led to, need hardly be mentioned. It’s all very well to pat the hand of the authority-by-divine-right and tell him to be a good king and not oppress his subjects or treat them cruelly– but without some way of checking and balancing the ruler’s power, his subjects are at his mercy and can only hope that mercy will be forthcoming.
Yes, I can see that you spoke out strongly against abuse of power by husbands over their wives– but in just the same way did preachers in the 1860s speak strongly against abuse of a slaveowner’s power over his slaves. What was being overlooked then, Dr. Sparks as (I feel I must say) you are overlooking now, was that just as the institution of slavery was itself unjust, so the institution of patriarchy is also itself unjust.
Look at it this way, if you will. As I understand it, the whole extent of the authority you wish husbands to exercise is just the authority “necessary to resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise between husbands and wives.” That is, you don’t want the husband to constantly override his wife, but only to so act when they cannot agree. You state that because human beings are fallen, irreconcilable conflicts in marriage are “inevitable,” and that the divinely given authority of husbands is the only thing that can solve the “crisis of authority that can threaten the health of the marriage and the stability of the home.” You do not believe that the same case exists in churches, because “women [can] be duly selected and would simply take their assigned place in church leadership.” In other words, because there is some sort of authority or leadership in place in a church, it is not necessary that it be male leadership or authority– but because an egalitarian marriage admits to no authority between husbands and wives, chaos is going to ensue unless someone gets to be in charge– and God says it has to be the man.
One of my problems with this is that I see no reason why there have to be “inevitable, irreconcilable” differences arising between two people who are committed to mutual submission, service and love. Even in a non-Christian business partnership, two people (often both male) have no problem working together for the whole of their working lives until retirement, each deferring to the other in his area of expertise and negotiating the rest. Sure, humans are all prone to sin and can and do sin against one another, both as business partners and as married partners– but we are also capable of forgiveness, of compromise, and of reconciliation.
I agree that some form of leadership is usually necessary in larger groups– but does someone have to be in charge when it’s two best friends?
But my other, much more serious problem with your solution is this. Even in a case where two people are both being selfish and cannot agree, are you really convinced that the appropriate solution is to give one of them a permanent “trump card” that they can play against the other partner at will? Are there no such things as counselors? Are there no mediators? Are there no pastors or friends who could be consulted to help break the tie? Is it really a solution to the problem of sin in marriage, to give one of the sinners that kind of power and preference over the other?
Think about this, Dr. Sparks. Even in the case where the parties are trying hard to be mutually submissive, where the husband is doing his best to serve his wife and take her needs into account– in your scenario, there is always in the back of both of their minds the knowledge that if it ever comes to an actual conflict, he gets to win. Hopefully, if he’s humble and Christlike enough, he will see the danger of this and determine that when he does pull that ace out of his sleeve, he will use it in her favor and not his own. But they both still know, deep in their hearts, that that ace is his and not hers.
What does that do, psychologically speaking, to the dynamics of that marriage? Isn’t the wife likely to give in too easily, knowing that it’s inevitable that she will lose when push comes to shove– and that she therefore might end up agreeing to move in a direction that she knows is the wrong one? Isn’t the husband likely to want to pull out that trump card too fast– when if he didn’t have it, he might pray and talk and think together with his wife, much longer and harder about how to come to an agreement?
Or maybe, deeply aware of his own tendency to sin, afraid of that trump card and hating the fact that he has to have it, he will not want to make any decision at all, and will practically always defer to his wife– even when he’s actually in the right and she could come to see it if he would explain his point of view. And then, with the doctrine of male headship hanging over his head, he might come to feel like a failure as a husband because he simply can’t take and use the authority he wishes he didn’t have to have in the first place. Further, his wife might come to feel like a failure too, because she just can’t get her husband to take the lead and seems to always end up stepping up to the plate herself.
In short, this doctrine of male headship does nothing to solve the problem of sin in marriage, and if anything exacerbates it. Neither does it take into account the different temperaments and giftings of men and women in marriage– making married partners who can’t fit comfortably into the male-headship-female-submission paradigm feel like there is something wrong with them. Dr. Sparks, I know you must realize that women who like to lead, and men who enjoy letting someone else take the lead, do exist, and not because they’re in some sort of rebellion against their natures, but because that’s the way God made them. And such a man and woman could get married and have a very happy and successful marriage, if only they could stop beating themselves up because they can’t seem to do “biblical marriage” your way.
Everything you say about male headship in marriage, Dr. Sparks, seems to contradict everything else you say in your book. And I can’t help wondering why. I can understand Christians who feel they must read the Bible literally and according to a strict standard of inerrancy, believing that male headship is right. I’m really having trouble figuring out why you think it’s right.
I don’t presume that I can know your motives, and I don’t presume to judge your heart. But I feel as if I went three quarters of the way through a book that kept telling me, “You are free in Christ. It’s ok to read the Bible and see something more than harsh literalism. Don’t be afraid; be free!” only to come up short in the last quarter against this: “Unless you’re a married woman, of course. Then– get back in your cage.”
Dr. Sparks, I spent a lot of years in that cage, and I’m not getting back in. So as much as I respect you as a scholar and a brother in Christ, I’m going to tell you that when it comes to this, you’re not just wrong– you’re dead wrong.
I hope you will understand that though I’m writing to you very bluntly, I wouldn’t be writing at all — even an open letter that I’m not sure you’ll end up reading– if I didn’t think you were the kind of person who might listen. I think you have what James 3:17 calls “the wisdom which is from above” – that your reasoning is “first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” I’m asking you to consider what I’m saying and think about changing your mind. As you wrote your book for the public to read, so I’m posting this letter for the public to read, by posting it here on Bible Literature Translation where the same sort of audience gathers.
Thank you for your consideration.