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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  • Tim

    I’ve wondered about the issue of being too busy to do the heavy lifting too, Michelle. Adopting the list because it’s in a book assigned as a seminary text or using a research service to provide material for weekly sermons seem like the kinds of things pastors and church leadership should be doing for themselves by the very nature of their jobs.

    The Pharisaism inherent in that list also galls me. (I’ve been working on a post of my own on it.) I live under the New Covenant, so my practice is to follow what is laid out explicitly and rest in Christ’s freedom when dealing with things not clearly addressed. Mr. Grudem’s list is not New Covenant living.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Tim, please let me know when your post goes up!

      • Tim

        Will do. I’ll be linking back to this post in it too.

  • I can see where you’re going with your overall point about women, but I’m not sure about the Sabbath elevator illustration, from what I understand (as a Gentile) about Jewish law. (I realize you’re Jewish by background, so may know a lot more.) Christians tend not to grasp the importance of Sabbath observance in the Bible, that it was symbolic of fidelity to the Mosaic covenant as a whole. We hear every prohibition as silly legalism, when there really was a reason for the rules against work, even some of the more “hairsplitting” ones.

    If a law is truly important, it’s natural to “fence” it with lesser laws and react strongly to borderline cases. Parents tell teenagers to be home before 11 PM and not be one minute late. It’s not that 11 PM is magical, it’s because it’s so critical to them that their kids don’t even *think* of doing the things they’d do if they stayed out late and got in trouble.

    I think that this really the point you’re making. The church has so over-emphasized the prohibition against women teaching that it obsesses over borderline cases and comes up with work-arounds so that it doesn’t violate this life-and-death ruling from Paul. I gotta say, I agree with you completely.

    • Tim

      Lois, I love your books!
      On the law, one of the main problems with Christians trying to come up with these types of rules is that they are completely foreign to the New Covenant life. Old Covenant and written law go hand in hand, but the written code has no place for us who are in Christ. After all, Paul said the ministry written in stone brought death, but the one written on our hearts (and not in our lists) brings life.

      • Tim, thanks. But despite my Lutheran upbringing, I have to disagree. In Acts 15 the church decided that Gentile believers did not need to observe the laws of the Mosaic covenant to be included in God’s people. It’s not because Christ abolished them, but because we are Gentiles that we aren’t “under the Law.” That’s what Paul was saying too. You may want to read up on the current thinking on Paul in his Jewish context.

        • Michelle Van Loon

          Next quarter at Northern Seminary, I’ll be taking Acts and Pauline Epistles with Dr. Scot McKnight. We’ll be reading N.T. Wright, and I am looking forward to getting into some of these issues more deeply than I already am as a very interested layperson and in a new way that veers from the ol’ dispensationalist and replacement camps.

          Anytime you’ve got space for a conversation about our stories of faith, Lois, I’m game!

          • Michelle, feel free to share your notes from class!

            Wish you lived closer by – it sounds like we’ve got a lot in common. I especially enjoyed your “Casserole Club” post – my friends did too.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Lois, I, too, am an admirer of your work! Thanks for stopping by here.

      I have received some pushback about the Shabbat elevator analogy, to be sure. I agree that Christians tend to dump anything O.T. – including the 4th commandment – in a huge container labeled “Law”, then dismiss it with a wave of the “Now We’re Under Grace” wand. I didn’t intend to come across as glib or dismissive of Shabbat observance, or of offering those with mobility issues a way to enter into the day of rest.

      The point was to create an illustration of a fence-around-the-fence, and I’m grateful you could hear my intent in the post.

      And for what it’s worth, I was that stubborn kid who would cruise in the door at 11:08 p.m., just a hair beyond the curfew. 🙂

      • Thanks, Michelle. I figured that the elevator was just an illustration, and you’re right, it is somewhat over-the-top. And I have a particular bent against doing anything I’m told to too.

        I’ve been enjoying your blog a lot. I’d like to hear more about how your Jewish background has informed your faith sometime.

  • “excruciatingly hair-splitty” – my favorite phrase this week!

    Great post, MVL, and how fun to read comments from you, Tim and Lois… And in a strangely-connected-isnt-the-world-small-place kind of way, just thought I’d mention that I’m 90% through reading Tim’s copy of Lois’ book “sitting at the feet of rabbi Jesus” 🙂

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Bronwyn, your “MVL” made me smile. A few of my former coworkers used to call me that.

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