There are two major problems with Payne’s treatment of Mary Magdalene’s role in resurrection proclamation. First, he ignores principle #1. Just because Jesus did tell a woman to proclaim the gospel to a group of men once doesn’t mean women should do that today. Second, Payne wrongly equates Mary’s delivery of information to the disciples with preaching to the gathered church. He turns similarity into prescription, correspondence into command.
Earlier this year, the debate over women as pastors was reignited by Rick Warren’s attempt to convert the Southern Baptist Convention to egalitarianism. In his March interview with Russell Moore, prior to Saddleback’s removal from the SBC, Warren made his case for why he believes women should be pastors, citing Matthew 28:18-20 (The Great Commission), Acts 2:1-21 (Pentecost), and Matthew 28:1-10 (The Resurrection) as his defense. According to Warren, these passages are what moved him to repent of complementarian doctrine and embrace egalitarianism.
Of particular interest for this review is that all three of the passages Warren cited were taken from biblical narratives.
In this four-part review of Philip Payne’s The Bible vs. Biblical Womanhood, we observed how egalitarianism warps equality in the Bible, twists the text of the Bible, and overrules the authors of the Bible. My aim has been to show how Payne’s distortions of Scripture fall into easily identifiable categories so that Christians can spot these kinds of errors wherever they see them. This last part of the review will deal with one more category of common egalitarian error: its abuse of biblical narratives.
Admittedly, Payne doesn’t write as much about narrative texts as he does didactic (teaching) texts in his book. But arguments from narrative texts are prominent among egalitarians because of the appeal to well-known portions of Scripture, to the life and ministry of Jesus, and to current cultural ideas about narrative. There is an exploitable elasticity to the way that many think about applying Bible stories to the church today, and Payne knows it. If it can be shown that women were given pastoral roles (or something similar) in sacred history, the egalitarian reasons, then it can be argued that women should be given pastoral roles today.
That leads me to the main takeaway from this post, which I hope will be useful for you whenever you encounter any narrative in Scripture:
Just because something did happen in a biblical narrative doesn’t mean that it should happen today.
This point may seem obvious at first. Biblical narratives record all kinds of behavior unworthy of imitation today: Ishmael’s ill-advised regicide (Jer 41:1-8), Lot’s offering of his daughters to the Sodomite mob (Gen 19:8), Samson’s almost-marriage to a Philistine (Judges 14:1-20), and Solomon’s massive harem of wives and concubines (1 Kings 11:1-8). Likewise, biblical narratives include details about events that we wouldn’t expect to be repeated today; at least, I don’t open my window in the morning expecting to get a meal delivered by a local murder of crows (1 Kings 17:1-7).
But my guess is that you have heard a sermon about “defeating the Goliaths in your life” or “not letting go until God blesses you” or “looking for your honey in the rock.” Apparently, we do think some parts of Bible stories – what did happen – can teach us how to live the Christian life today – what should happen. In the Bible itself, Peter teaches us about the modern relevance of the Noahic narrative (2 Pet 2:4-10), Paul instructs us how to apply the wilderness wanderings to our own temptations (1 Cor 10:1-13), and John tells us that believing in the story of Jesus’ flesh-and-blood life on earth is essential to Christian living (1 John 5:6-12). If all of Scripture is profitable for our maturity (2 Tim 3:16-17), surely that includes the 40% of Scripture that we label “narrative”!
So, what principles should drive our right understanding and appropriate application of biblical narratives?
To illustrate just two of these interpretive principles, we will examine how Payne (as an example of egalitarian exegesis) wrongly interprets biblical narratives to turn prophetesses into female pastors. Payne regularly leaps from biblical stories involving a woman to a prescriptive application for the church today, misunderstanding and misapplying the texts against the original author’s intention. By undermining these common-sense principles, he demonstrates the need to distinguish between descriptive and prescriptive elements in a narrative – that which did happen and that which should then happen.
Bible Narrative Principle #1: Characters Aren’t Always Examples
When egalitarians attempt to defend their views on women in church leadership, the name “Deborah” frequently makes an appearance. According to Judges 4-5, Deborah was “a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth” who “was judging Israel” (Judges 4:4), who spoke on behalf of God to the leader of Israel’s army (4:6-14), and who celebrated God’s victory over the Canaanite king with a chapter-long song (5:1-31). Her name is often invoked by egalitarians because she acts as a judge for all Israel and because Barak, the male leader of Israel’s army, receives commands from God through her and says to her “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go” (4:8).
In dealing with the story of Deborah, Payne claims that she is an example of God’s affirmation of female leadership over his people. Payne asserts, “that there is no suggestion whatsoever in the text that there is anything amiss because this judge, Deborah, is a woman” (p. 14). Positively, he states, “Deborah powerfully demonstrates God’s blessing on female leadership” (p. 14).
So how does Payne go amiss? In 1996, D. A. Carson demonstrated Payne’s logical error in his book Exegetical Fallacies by showing that Payne improperly handled a syllogism in his 1981 article on 1 Timothy 2 (p. 94-95, Exegetical Fallacies). The same problem is at work here. Payne’s logic with the Deborah narrative can be represented in the following way:
- Deborah is a female leader of God’s people.
- God blesses Deborah’s efforts as a leader.
- Therefore, “God blesses female leadership.”
The first problem with this logic is labeling Deborah a “leader,” which is intentionally vague and textually imprecise. She was a mouthpiece for God (“prophetess”) and a resolver of legal debates (“judged Israel”). Secondly, Payne draws his assertion about God blessing Deborah’s leadership from Judges 5:31, “And the land had rest for forty years.” To claim that a good consequence following one’s action demonstrates blessing on that action doesn’t logically follow and is the kind of leap prosperity preachers regularly make. God regularly blesses wicked rulers in Israel not as an affirmation of them, their gender, or their office but as an expression of his grace or even his eventual judgment (see, for example, 2 Kings 14:23-27 with Jeroboam II).
But the biggest exegetical problem with Payne’s reasoning is his massive logical leap of a conclusion, that God blessing Deborah’s leadership is God blessing all female leadership.