Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: The Gender Debate and Biblical Interpretation

As Christine mentioned, Rachel Held Evans is dedicating her blog to egalitarianism (or mutuality) this week, and we here at Thinking through Christianity are eager to chime in on (both sides! of) this important discussion.

Egalitarianism and complementarianism are the two major players in the contemporary debate about biblical gender roles and gender differences. [For a refresher of terms, revisit Evan’s site and the resources she links to.] The root of the different approaches is the method with which each group interprets Scripture. That being the case, the most helpful book for me on the issue has been William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. Webb is an adjunct professor of New Testament and Biblical Studies at Tyndale Seminary (semi-retired might be more accurate, for he does quite a bit of writing and speaking), and is the author of a number of books, but is most known for Slaves, Women & Homosexuals ( (Webb’s site)).

As the subtitle implies, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals is a hermeneutics book. Hermeneutics is a big fancy word to describe how we do interpretation, and it usually refers specifically to biblical interpretation. Webb is interested in answering the question: Which passages of Scripture are still applicable to modern Christians “exactly as they are articulated ‘on the page'” and which are not (13)? And how do we decide? Answering the how question requires a good hermeneutic: a logical, consistent, Bible-honoring method of interpretation.

Growing up in a complementarian church, I was always bothered and confused about why they considered passages about women’s attire in church… hair, makeup, hats… “culturally bound” (no longer applicable today) but stuck strictly to the mandate that women should not teach men (in church or in a spiritual capacity), believing that verse to be universal—applicable as articulated on the page to all cultures in every era. No one could ever give me a satisfactory hermeneutic, and so I never could bring myself to hold that position, but I didn’t have a good hermeneutic for why either. When I read Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, it was as if someone had finally put into words what I had always felt. It was like Webb put muscle on my bones so I could stand.

In his book, Webb outlines his method of interpretation, describing it as a “redemptive-movement approach” which posits a “trajectory of redemption” that applies to the whole of Scripture and is particularly helpful when thinking through the Bible’s more difficult pronouncements on cultural matters such as slavery, patriarchy, and homosexuality.

Besides being a handy hermeneutic, that God reveals himself to us through a trajectory of redemption absolutely jives with how we experience God’s gracious work in our lives! God doesn’t require that we clean our lives up before we come to him. He doesn’t even require that we get everything sparkly clean immediately after we come to him. Hebrews 10:10-14, a favorite of mine, notes that we both have been made perfect (through Christ’s atonement—salvation) and at the same time are being made perfect (through the continued work of Christ’s redemption through the Holy Spirit—sanctification). We are on a path toward redemption.

So what is a redemptive-movement hermeneutic (RMH)? Essentially, it is a method of interpretation that accounts for the way in which God, in his infinite grace, meets his people where they are, revealing himself and his kingdom ethos to us in baby steps (well, you know; one small step for God; one giant step for humankind). By aligning ourselves with God’s Word as it is revealed to us through the Holy Spirit, we put ourselves—and the cultures we impact—on a trajectory, or path, toward ultimate redemption. [You can find a more detailed overview of the RMH on Webb’s site, here.]

To better show what this looks like, allow me to quote extensively from Webb:

[An] example comes from those Scriptural passages that speak of taking female virgins as spoils of war. […] In defense of the biblical text, we should note that Deuteronomy 21:10-14 is at least somewhat redemptive relative to the original culture… After all, the Israelite male had to wait one month, marry the girl, and in the case of divorce he could not sell her or treat her as a slave (cf. Num 31:32-35; Judg 5:30; 21:11-12, 15-23). Compared to the horrible rape scenes that often accompanied ancient warfare (not unlike the rape camps of modern Bosnia) these biblical texts are clearly redemptive. […] One might expect such a redemptive movement, since the core of a biblical ethic is to love God and to love one’s neighbor. When compared to the ancient treatment of women in war, the biblical text represents a measure of, or greater movement toward, love and compassion. 

What we should live out in our modern culture, however, is not the isolated words of the text but the redemptive spirit that the text reflects as read against its original culture. In applying the text to our era, we do not want to stay static with the text… Rather, we need to move on, beyond the text, and take the redemptive dimension of those words further…. (32-33, bolded emphasis mine) 

Webb goes on to explain how Western culture (which finds its roots in Judeo-Christian ethics) considers equality and human rights important precisely because God put his people on a path toward a Kingdom ethic with laws and mandates that seem barbaric to us, but which were quite revolutionary for the original audience. Westerners often find the Bible barbaric precisely because of the redemptive movement within the Bible! Here’s a helpful picture to illustrate Webb’s trajectory of redemption:

(Webb 32)
[Click to enlarge]

Understanding this was such a relief because it synchronized that which had formerly been out of sync with the overarching Message of Scripture and the character of God. When I read through the Bible cover to cover for the first time as a young teen, I was horrified and angry when I read God’s laws about rape and slavery—Pay the father a fee and marry her? What the hell kind of justice is that? You’re God for crying out loud! Can’t you do better than that? God can of course. But he condescends to us. Such grace.

So far, complementarians and egalitarians may not disagree much, if at all, with Webb’s assessment of the Old Testament texts; however, the tension comes in when deciding which New Testament texts have similar movement. Suffice it to say, Webb generally understands the patriarchal New Testament “women texts” as catalysts of redemptive movement (Webb makes the same conclusion about NT slavery texts, but not about those regarding homosexuality), and he dedicates the bulk of the book, 148 pages, to establishing the 18 different criteria involved in deciding which texts have what kind of movement and why. Throughout, Webb not only outlines and supports his hermeneutical methods, he critically and civilly engages with his complementarian “opponents” (and his fellow egalitarians whose hermeneutic he finds weak or lazy). It’s impressive. And I haven’t seen anything like it anywhere else (from either camp), nothing so thorough, well-balanced, and convincing. 
So how about a NT example? (After this, you’ll just have to pick up the book yourself!)

Throughout church history the traditional interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:14 has been that women are more easily deceived than men. This fits well within the context because it explains why women were to have subordinate teaching roles to men—they were more vulnerable to deception than men. […] According to this view, men should have the authoritative teaching positions in the church. […]

The only problem with the traditional interpretation is that most Western Christians today, patriarchalists included, recognize that this perspective is factually incorrect. Women are not inherently (by virtue of their gender alone) more easily deceived than men… it simply does not square with the hard data… (see criterion 18 and appendix C). 


What Paul was saying to the original audience could have been validated in that particular culture. Women probably were, in general, more easily deceived than men because of gender differences in education, marital age, social exposure, financial vulnerability, etc. (113)

After diving into Paul (and Moses’s) cultural context(s) to show such a broad statement about women was in fact validated by culture, Webb concludes his discussion of this passage by positing:

The best solution, then, is not to discount the historical teaching of the church but to say that the social data has changed from Paul’s day to ours. […] So the text was suitable and accurate in its day due to cultural factors of an associative nature. Applying 1 Timothy 2:14 today, however, requres that we move up the ladder of abstraction and work with the underlying transcultural principle: seek teachers and leaders who are not easily deceived. (230)

A neutral illustration picturing the “ladder of abstraction” (53).

Webb wraps up SW&H by suggesting the bulk of the data from the intrascriptural and extrascriptural criteria support egalitarian positions, but readily admits where the weak spots are in his argument and never completely eschews what he calls an “ultra-soft patriarchy” (many of the tenets of which are described quite thoughtfully in TTC’s earlier post “Complementarian or Egalitarian? Yes… And No” (which is not to suggest soft patriarchy is the author’s position)). I greatly appreciate this about Webb, whose final chapter preceding his conclusion is called, “What If I Am Wrong?” Webb is honest, humble, and extremely serious about the authority of Scripture.

Even before reading Webb, this too was my position; perhaps somewhat ironically, however, Webb’s book not only put words (and scholarship) to my thoughts and inclinations about egalitarianism, it also turned my inklings about not eschewing soft patriarchy into convictions. I’m an egalitarian, but I have few qualms with soft complementarianism. We get along… in ways I do not agree with Chris from “A Tale of Three Christians” nor the egalitarians he represents. Slaves, Women & Homosexuals is a scholarly book but it isn’t just for scholars. If you pick up this book, and I recommend you do, you’ll find Webb engaging and accessible.
Lastly, hat tip to Evans for getting the conversation rolling, to my fellow TTC writers for writing with their brains and their hearts, and to our readers for hanging in there with these frequent and often long posts! It’s our hope you’ve benefited from this discussion as much as we have.
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