On Building Fences Around Fences (Part 1)

On Building Fences Around Fences (Part 1) December 10, 2013

Recently, I ran across this list, reprinted from Wayne Grudem’s* 2006 book about gender roles in the church. Others are far more able than I to debate just how “Biblical” the content of lists like this really are. Suffice it to say that there are many other wise and faithful scholars and practitioners I respect who would debate the both the structure and the content of this list. Their debate may itself be the truly Biblical response to excruciatingly hair-splitty lists like Grudem’s. I am troubled that someone can extrapolate this sort of specificity out of both prescriptive Bible passages and the many examples in Scripture of women who served and ministered in ways that wouldn’t have fit tidily on a list like this.

I am even more troubled that many church leaders rely on resources created by “experts” as a shortcut so they don’t have to do the hard work of ministry, which includes seeking God, thinking for themselves and working out their convictions in their own community.

The specificity of Grudem’s list reminds me of the Shabbat elevators I saw in many hotels and office buildings in Israel. Lest a religiously-observant person kindle a fire on the Sabbath, these elevators run continuously from Friday’s sundown to an hour past Saturday’s sundown, stopping at every floor in a building so that a person could use the elevator without pushing a button and doing the work of sparking the fire of electricity. Those energy-sucking elevators were a “fence around the law” of the Sabbath commandment. Judaism 101 explains: “A gezeirah is a law instituted by the rabbis to prevent people from accidentally violating a Torah mitzvah. We commonly speak of a gezeirah as a “fence” around the Torah. For example, the Torah commands us not to work on Shabbat, but a gezeirah commands us not to even handle an implement that you would use to perform prohibited work (such as a pencil, money, a hammer), because someone holding the implement might forget that it was Shabbat and perform prohibited work.” Never mind that it uses much more energy to keep that elevator running than it would to push a button. Kindling the fire in the form of pushing a button and calling the dormant elevator into service becomes the way in which the Sabbath is violated. Don’t push the button, and you have nothing to worry about. You’re observing God’s rules.

Grudem’s list states that either a man or a woman may teach a high school Sunday School class, but says that only a male may teach an adult Sunday School class. A woman may teach an 18-year old man until he graduates from high school, but the moment he dons a cap and gown, he may no longer sit under her teaching. I’m not quite sure how high school graduation – a modern, culturally-bound notion if ever there was one – becomes the line of demarcation between childhood (when a woman may exercise “authority” over a male) and adulthood (when the rules of complementarianism apparently kick in). In his rush to build a fence around his fence of interpretation of what Scripture says about gender and authority, he’s created a Shabbat elevator.

I think what troubles me most about lists like this are the way in which they become prescriptive for certain church leaders. Grudem is a theology professor, not a person in a position of relationship with or authority within a specific denomination or group of churches. And yet, church leaders who may not wish to devote much time or prayer to this issue will simply appropriate, then rubber-stamp this list with the words “Case Closed”. Not all, of course. Some have wrestled through this on their own and have come to conclusions similar to Grudem’s. But many I’ve known are stretched too thin with the busyness of day-to-day church life to have the interest or energy to look into the issue for themselves. Much easier to hand their congregations a list on gender roles or spiritual gifts or whatever and tell them the matter is settled…full stop.

If a list like this appeals to you because you’re too busy to do the work of prayer and ministry of the Word when you have a position of responsibility for the spiritual lives authority over others, you’re too busy. It may be easier to build a fence around the fence, but your shortcuts will inevitably hurt the people in your congregation. In my next post, I’ll take a look at how.


* I’ve been a “book student” of Grudem’s over the years; his Systematic Theology made the study of the subject accessible to a layperson like me.

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