CBMW and the Heresies of 'Sociology' and 'History'

Okay, here we are again, me, 15, 000 km away from America, entering into intra-American Evangelical debates, defending my friends Kristin du Mez and Beth Allison Barr for their critiques against patriarchy from complementarian apologists.

This time, Dr. Neil Shenvi, writes for CBWM.org on “Sociology as Theology: The Deconstruction of Power in (Post)Evangelical Scholarship”. Read it yourself, I’m not gonna summarize it. To be honest, it is reiterating the same thing Jonathan Leeman complained about, namely, du Mez and Barr and others are doing history and sociology, but we do Bible. They are postmodern deconstructors, we are biblical exegetes! Alas, t’was it t’were so simple!

Okay, for a start, I would not characterize the work of du Mez and Barr as “intersectional” (unless that’s a word you use because want to scare people) or call their work acidic towards theology (I’d described it as illuminating and stimulating). Shenvi lays his cards on the table at the end:

[O]our arguments must always be rooted in Scripture. What is notably absent from almost all these books is any attempt to defend or square their claims with the Bible or with historic Christian theology. Yet the errors of postmodernism are not refuted by returning to the conceits of modernism, nor are they answered by retreating to biblicism. The problem is not sociology or history per se, but rather the unbiblical assumptions being made by sociologists and historians. Humility is required, but so is conviction. Like all disciplines, sociology needs to fulfill a ministerial, not a magisterial, role. Science, history, psychology, and sociology can all contribute to our understanding of the world around us and even to our understanding of Scripture. But we must always return to Scripture as our final and ultimate authority. To the extent that we abandon it, we will understand not more but less about race, class, gender, sexuality, history, the world, and ourselves.

Sweet Mother of Melchizedek! This ignores what du Mez and Barr are saying and what they are doing. Their premise is not white heterosexual men are evil. They're not saying that 1 Tim 2:11-14 was spawned from the armpits of Satan. They are not sitting in Aimee Byrd’s basement drinking sangria and plotting a takeover of the SBC. They are pointing out the sociology behind American evangelicalism and how that has driven so much of their biblical interpretations, biblical applications, doctrinal divides, and political aspirations. American Complementarians might think of themselves as Bible people, but the study notes were written by people with some misogyny, pernicious patriarchy, and who held deplorable views about dealing with domestic and sexual violence.

How do you separate the authority of a biblical text like 1 Tim 2.11-15 from Paige Patterson’s interpretation of 1 Tim 2.11-15 and Paige Patterson’s way of dealing with allegations of sexual assault against female students under his care as the product of his interpretation? This is the problem in American Complementarianism, the text, the interpretation, and the practice got fused together under the aegis of “divine authority.” Yet, if you question the interpretation or the practice, you get accused of attacking the Bible. This is where du Mez and Barr are onto something!

As proof of the synthetic rather than scriptural roots of American Complementarianism, consider this, why do American complementarians believe in more restrictions on women’s ministry than Catholic and Orthodox churches? Why do some complementarians believe women shouldn’t vote, go to college, be police officers, run for public office, or speak to a mixed gendered audience? Why did American Complementarians oppose the Equal Rights Act? Why were the same American Complementarians excoriating Bill Clinton yet defending Donald Trump? Is this the fruits of biblical exegesis? Now the complementarian will say, “Because the Bible says so!” Except, maybe it doesn’t, and maybe what drives American complementarian is partly Scripture but Scripture as interpreted in light of a social context, a particular history, networks of power and patronage, political connections, and discrete local cultures. What if your theology is merely Scripture used to justify your own cultural position and merely substantiates your own prejudices? That is what du Mez and Barr are pointing out and doing it damn well!

Here’s my gripe with Leeman and Shenvi, they think that culture is something that happens to other people, and they are shaped by the Bible alone. Yet du Mez and Barr point out, no, American Evangelicalism is saturated in culture, driven by culture, and even blinded by culture.

I find myself returning time and again to this tweet by Anthony Bradley of The King’s College.

I invite anyone from CBWM to disprove that tweet. History and social location have undoubtedly shaped organizations like CBWM. CBMW is a product and purveyor of a specific culture, in a specific place, with a specific set of values. Your biblical interpretation does not happen insulated from outside philosophies, networks, and cultures. Some of it can be tangentially connected to Scripture, some of it comes from a type of Howard Cunningham patriarchy, and some of it comes from a pernicious patriarchy that in practice enabled domestic violence and covered up sexual abuse.

Oh, as to how a pernicious patriarchy impacts Bible interpretation, check out my Ridley colleague Dr. Andrew Judd’s paper “‘She had it coming’: text, tradition and trauma in Judges 19.” Andrew is himself a soft complementarian, but he shows how Judges 19 has been interpreted to justify or at least mitigate sexual violence against women. Needs a trigger warning!

I would label the work of du Mez and Barr not as deconstruction or even intersectional, I would call it Burnsian! Their work forces American complementarians “To see ourselves as others see us” (from the poet Robert Burns). They show how American complementarianism is a lot less biblical than they thought, but has a lot more culture, politics, and parochialism driving it than they could have imagined.

Here’s the thing, if I were the president of CBWM, I would invite du Mez and Barr (maybe also Aimee Byrd, Devi Abraham, Sheila Wray Gregoire) to a workshop with pastors, and ask them to speak on, “7 Things I Wish All Complementarian Pastors Knew” and then host a separate forum with the same pastors on “How Do We Know if Our Complementarianism is Cultural or Biblical?”

Rather than circle the wagons against the barbarian hordes of historians and sociologists who are exposing your dirty laundry and digging up the dead bodies behind your house, maybe consider that there is something to learn here. Maybe this is an opportunity for American complementarianism to become decontaminated from predacious forms of patriarchy that have found a home in the church. Maybe you should listen and reflect on their work, and you could end up with a complementarianism that is humbly chastened, less tied to the worst of American culture, less buoyed by perversions of masculinity, maybe more scriptural, maybe more rooted in Christian tradition. Maybe a complementarianism that is more like Christ and less like John Wayne.

There endeth the lesson!


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