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The Careless Biblical Interpretation Behind Justin Lookadoo's Views on Gender

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By now, Justin Lookadoo's dating advice to young women and men has been thoroughly exposed and rightly mocked. Where did he get these crazy ideas that women are best left covered up and quiet, while men are just naturally prone to follow their lusts?

Probably from the Bible. Oops.

And that is why in the long run it matters little how much backlash gets directed at this man and his books. As most of us know, he is hardly the only one teaching this stuff. Others will reassure him over the weekend that he is being persecuted for doing the Lord's work. Others will replace him if he opts out of the game.

So what does that mean for the rest of us who are trying to raise daughters and sons to understand their own worth, dignity, and potential? If we ignore Lookadoo's advice, and the teachings of others like him, does that mean we have to ignore the Bible?

No. But it does mean we have to read the Bible thoughtfully.

The Bible and Gender Roles

It would take many articles to get into all the relevant biblical texts. Instead, let's consider just one passage, a rather notorious one: 1 Timothy 2:8-14 (quoted here from the NRSV):

I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

There it is: Dress modestly. Keep quiet. Don't blame the guy; he's just doing what you tell him to do.

Why is this in the Bible?

Here's the short story: The language and teachings of this letter (First Timothy) suggest it comes from the early second century, sometime after the year 100. Its instructions tell its readers to live according to established social conventions. It tells Christians to fit into established cultural notions of good behavior, so they won't provoke hostility or get labeled as troublemakers. Guess what those cultural notions included? That's right: modestly dressed women, silent wives, and men need to look out lest they get caught by -- you know -- those wily ways of women.

Consider this snippet from the wider culture, which appears in an ethical treatise written around the same time as 1 Timothy:

Women who eat and drink all sorts of extravagant dishes and dress themselves sumptuously, wearing things that women are given to wearing, are decked out for seduction into all manner of vice, not only the bed but also the commission of other wrongful deeds.

Yep, those women who aren't humble or dressed right are probably out to seduce. We've heard this excuse before. And still do. Too often.

And this advice, from the Greek author Plutarch, written a little later than 1 Timothy:

Not only the arm of the virtuous woman, but her speech as well, ought to be not for the public, and she ought to be modest and guarded about saying anything in the hearing of outsiders, since it is an exposure of herself; for in her talk can be seen her feelings, character, and disposition. . . . A woman ought to do her talking either to her husband or through her husband, and she should not be aggrieved if, like the flute-player, she makes a more impressive sound through a tongue not her own.

Plutarch explains the belief that women who show too much arm are revealing too much of who they really are. Plutarch's head would explode if he walked into a mall today. Another worry for Plutarch: women who talk too much are likewise exposing themselves. If she has something to say, surely her man can say it for her.

And from the philosopher-theologian Philo, writing a few decades earlier than 1 Timothy:

Woman is more accustomed to be deceived than man. For his judgment, like his body, is masculine and is capable of dissolving or destroying the designs of deception; but the judgment of woman is more feminine, and because of softness she easily gives way and is taken in by plausible falsehoods which resemble the truth.

Men strong; women gullible. Men hard; women soft. *Grunt*

Make fun of Plutarch, Philo, and their philosophical contemporaries all you want, but they were doing the best they could (maybe), based on ancient understandings of what we would today call anatomy, biology, and social well-being.

But we know now that they are wrong.

Very wrong.

Reading the Bible Thoughtfully

What should we do with 1 Timothy 2:8-14, then? What does it mean to read this passage intelligently?

First, it means to recognize that the Bible also contains many counter-examples. I wish there were more, but still there are many biblical passages that present us with speaking women; women who lead in public, influential ways; women who wisely secure God's blessings for themselves and their neighbors; women who out-do the men around them in faithfulness and insight; strong women, even warrior-types who might laugh at this whole conversation. These additional passage should make us regard the premises of 1 Timothy 2:8-14 with a boatload of skepticism.

Second, it means we have to acknowledge that the passage is indebted to -- it is trapped within -- ancient assumptions about what it meant to be male and female. The passage is borrowing from relatively widely accepted (accepted among many ancient men, at least) understandings. The passage says, essentially, "Hey, people, just act like how you know good, upstanding folk are supposed to act."

That might be a dangerous form of theological reasoning to use in any cultural setting. At least, I think so.

But much more dangerous is the belief that 1 Timothy 2:8-14 is not beholden to a particular ancient setting, that the passage somehow offers universal laws and truths that cover all people of all times in all places and cultures. If you go that route as a biblical interpreter -- as Justin Lookadoo might be doing in his books and Web-based videos -- then those newfangled things like science, sociology, and feminism don't get a voice today in rightly defining what it means to be human, what it means to be male and female, what it means to live in relationship.

What's more arbitrary? To believe -- as I do -- that the instructions of 1 Timothy 2:8-14 lose credibility because of their dependence on outdated, misguided social conventions, and because of other biblical affirmations? Or to believe -- as some persist in doing -- that God doesn't care about all the good stuff we've learned in the last few millennia through scientific discovery, deep listening to our neighbors, and our trial-and-error efforts to understand what human dignity is all about?

For Further Reading

Victor P. Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues, revised edition (Abingdon Press, 1985).

Ross Shepard Kraemer and Mary Rose D'Angelo, Women and Christian Origins (Oxford University Press, 1999).

Frances Young, The Theology of the Pastoral Letters (Cambridge University Press, 1994).

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