Maybe If You Had Women Preachers, You’d Know How To Use The Word ‘Heresy’?

Why You Should Define Your Terms
Peter Leithart is one of the most prolific theologians writing today and his books are always worth a look. He writes a blog – an old fashioned, often updated, here’s-what-I’ve-been-thinking blog – for the conservative American magazine First Things. Sadly, because it is a blog, he sometimes publishes things that I suspect an editor would stick a firm red line through. For example, last week he called feminism “gender arianism.”

One of the basic tasks of honest thinking is to do justice to your opponent. You will never arrive at the truth if you don’t account for those you disagree with in such a way that they would stand over how you have described them. Feminism is a massive, many branched thing. It is a splendiferous diversity, such that one can easily be a feminist (because you have strong allegiance with some or a large chunk of the movement) but you could never really be an anti-feminist (opposed to everything that could be called feminist). After all, each of the different waves and movements have one thing in common – they are activist movements that seek to end sexism and its associated oppressions.

Leithart offers no definition of how he uses the word “feminism” and he doesn’t even offer any clues to help us. There is no accounting for the diversity of feminist thought. There is just “feminists”, a conceptual unity, who apparently “reject the Genesis account of creation as misogynist.” I think I could find feminists who would reject this account of feminists. I would raise my hand but I am too busy angrily typing. Wife-unit would raise her hand but she is too busy burning her bra.

Pat Robertson

Who was Arius?
Feminism is, it seems, a form of gender Arianism. “What the hell is Arianism?”, asks everyone who has never been to seminary.

Arius was a 4th Century Christian teacher who became one of the first and most notable heretics in the church. As Rowan Williams has shown, Arius was not some evil caricature of a false teacher. He was a serious ascetic who felt that the language that Christians were using to describe Jesus’ identity was in error. All this talk of homoousia and pre-existing eternal divinity was an innovation to Arius’ mind and a dangerous one at that. The central concern for Arius was that Jesus was not pre-existent. He was not properly, originally divine. So Leithart summarises Arius well when he talks of a “twofold assumption behind Arianism.” The church decided that he was wrong. And his views about Jesus were ruled out of bounds. That is what heresy is. It is the markings on the pitch that determine where theology can play. You cross into Arianism and the ball is out of play.

File photograph of Arius, lounging around while the bishops do the hard work at Nicea


Now there are two big problems with what Leithart has written and they replicate enough in common Christian conversation: Misapplication of the word “heresy” and blindness to where your argument really leads.

Stop Dropping the H(eresy)-Bomb
The first is the colloquial use of the word “heresy”. Arianism is a heresy and a heresy is a sort of border we cannot cross. But heresy is the most formal language that the church can deploy. It would be a dreadful mistake to take the ancient heresies and start applying them willy-nilly, wherever their resemblances could be discerned. We could no doubt make a superficially scholarly argument that that kind of habit should be called rhetorical Donatism but Donatism is an ecclesiological heresy and we would be warping it to, well, apply it willy-nilly, wherever a resemblance could be discerned!

Serious Christian speech involves taking care of our language. Let us not start comparing feminism to Arianism, unless of course a specific feminist starts teaching Arianism. Heresy is a special category, determined by councils, not individuals and specified with precision, not as a stylistic flourish to short-cut an argument.

The alternative is that you’ll start calling me a Star Wars Marcionite because I want to cut out the first three movies when I am giving any hypothetical future kids an education in film. And while there is an elegance in combining the nerdiness of Star Wars with the nerdiness of church history, it is probably a bit over the top to call someone a heretic for disagreeing with you about Jar Jar Binks.

The Incoherency Of Complenetarianism
Leithart’s argument is a variety of what might be called complementarianism. This is the position within the church that holds that men and women are equal, but different. They complement each other, see? The difference argument sometimes is a tedious Men Are From Mars, Women From Venus variety and other times is an even more tedious argument from some “natural law” but what it amounts to is that men get to preach and women get to listen.

That mansplaining remains a Christian doctrine is a sad thing.

Complementarians are happy to live under the authority of a female President, as they are happy to live under female Supreme Court judges, female surgeons, female police officers, female primary school teachers, female basketball coaches, female environmental health inspectors and female playwrights but they draw the line at female preachers. Their reading of Scripture leaves them in this strange quandary.

Whenever I press my friends – and I have dear and beloved friends of both genders who fiercely hold this position – they tell me that this is what the Bible says and that Eve was made from Adam so there is some intrinsic ordering at play that means that preaching and priesting is a male-only thing.

That the first creation narrative in Genesis doesn’t have ordering is never fully acknowledged. That Paul who references this argument elsewhere praises female teachers and gives guidance for how women should prophesy in church is not fully acknowledged.

And this is where Leithart’s argument is very werid. I’ve been mulling it over this week and I think it reveals an incoherency in the complementarian position.

Leithart’s argument is that feminism has a blanket rejection of Genesis and that rejection is based on a perception of misogyny. (Let us skip over the fact that there are so many reasons why individual feminists might not take Genesis as sacred, most fundamentally that they might not be Jewish or Christian!) The critical move comes right at the end. Leithart says that the misogyny in Genesis is diagnosed by feminists because they think that “to be second is to be subordinate.” Arius thought that too. So feminists resemble Arius. And QED: feminism is gender Arianism.

Am I imagining this? This argument freaking DESTROYS the complementarian position.

If priority does not equate to primacy, then that the first priests were male in no way excludes women from being priests today, or bishops, presbyters, elders, pastors, deacons, ministers, or whatever title you want to give to the people who hold the keys. If priority does not equate to primacy, then the entire edifice of cultural reasoning that allows some Christians to block the way of women with gifts and calling from the pulpit falls away.

You can’t call people you disagree with heretics, unless they are guilty of that specific heresy (and found guilty of that in an actual council of the church!). You certainly can’t do ad-hoc extensions of heresy so that 4th Century disputes about the nature of the Trinity become grounds for attacking 21st Century feminism. But the one thing that Leithart gets right in this post – that coming first doesn’t make you best – is completely misapplied. That is not a stick with which to beat feminists. It is the collapsing walls complementarians have constructed around the Bible.

When your defensive walls fall in on yourself, maybe you’ve misidentified your enemy?

Your Correspondent, From Earth, like all women.

4 Replies to “Maybe If You Had Women Preachers, You’d Know How To Use The Word ‘Heresy’?”

  1. I’m not a ‘go-to-the-stake-complementarian’, but I am wondering if you have failed your own principles of doing justice to your opponent and describing them in such a way as they could stand over how you have described them. Example: “This is the position within the church that holds that men and women are equal, but different. They complement each other, see? …. what it amounts to is that men get to preach and women get to listen.” Surely many complementarians, women and men, would question such a simplistic reduction of their position? It is about much more than preaching, and women get to do a heck of a lot more than “listen”.

    For the record, I think Leithard shoots himself in the foot and if he had rather said “to be second or subordinate does not mean to be inferior” it would be a much more robust defence of the complementarian position and remove your objection (at least on that ground). there is subordinacy and equality within the Trinity and, the complementarian would say, within marriage and the church. In fact by looking at the Son’s subordination to the Father is the best way to rid the “subordination” word of its negatve overtones.

  2. The opponent I have in mind is Peter Leithart. I think I have accounted for what he argued and gave him credit where it is due. The sentence you highlight as a “simplistic reduction of [the complementarian] position” is obviously more a joke than a major argument, as seen by my punchline calling it “mansplaining”.

    I definitely think there are more nuanced ways to make the argument Leithart makes; I implicitly grant that by suggesting an editor would tell him to re-work this.

  3. “That the first creation narrative in Genesis doesn’t have ordering is never fully acknowledged. That Paul who references this argument elsewhere praises female teachers and gives guidance for how women should prophesy in church is not fully acknowledged.”

    You’ve touched on something here which I think is key: what do we do with the diversity (even contradiction) within the canon?

    A complementarian can piece enough scriptures together to legitimate their position; likewise an egalitarian. But what can and should each of these do with those texts that don’t quite fit?

    I have seen egalitarians “incorporate” problematic texts by acknowledging them as problematic texts and putting them down to the patriarchy of the times. These problematic texts, therefore, are not normative. From what I gather, there would be few if any complementarians who would accept this view of scripture.

    Are there other interpretive moves available to egalitarians which would not be prima facie rejected by complementarians? And what do you know of complementarian attempts to deal with those scriptural passages which contradict their own position? I know Calvin, for example, said that just because Paul gave instructions for women prophesying doesn’t mean it actually took place! Calvin came to this conclusion because he refused to acknowledge that scripture would contradict itself, but all he was left with was an absurd claim (much like Lindsell, who in the name of biblical inerrancy claimed that Peter must have denied Jesus six times!)

  4. The questions you’ve posed really push the conversation on Dec. But in so doing, they might also not be answerable in modes that satisfy the sort of Biblical reading that gives rise to either complentarian or liberal egalitarian positions.

    To insist that Scripture cannot contradict itself is a claim that could be maintained. But when we really press into it, it has to be maintained by emphasising our deficiency as readers. We ought not square circles as Calvin and Lindsell do in your examples. But neither should we say that shapes don’t exist, which (to beat an idiom to death) is tantamount to what the breezier egalitarian position does.

    Complementarians cope with the Scriptural passages that don’t fit into their jigsaw in a range of ways. They do an equivalent-ignoring trick sometimes, as egalitarians tend to do over 1 Timothy. The savviest among them – I am thinking of Craig Blomberg or Tim Keller – tend to create role distinctions that aim to do justice to some sense that women have some sort of teaching role.

    I think you and I are obsessed with drawing attention to the passages and trajectories in Scripture that break the settled discourse. Fundamentally, I suspect it would be a wise investment to try and get away from appraoches to Scripture that anticipate it – so that it is inerrant or non-contradictory or infallible or what have you – and find again the strange new world within that stands over and against us. But you would expect me to just write “See Prof. Barth” as my answer on the postcard. 🙂

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