There’s a common mistake at work in the debate about women in ministry, one that infects people arguing on both sides of the issue. And, while fixing the mistake won’t end the debate, it should provide more clarity about what’s involved in the conversation, which can’t be a bad thing.
Confusion at Work
The mistake I have in mind is a common one that affects many arguments. So before we look at the gender debate specifically, let’s take a brief look at the problem in general.
In its simplest form, the mistake involves thinking that one concept (A) requires another concept (B) in such a way that if B is false, then A must also be false. That’s often a valid way of thinking. For example, if I believed that (A) the tooth fairy exists and (B) she puts money under pillows in exchange for teeth, disproving B would be a pretty strong blow for my belief in A. (Technically I could still believe that she exists and just drop the belief that she’s involved in the tooth/money deal. But why would I want to?)
The argument becomes a problem, though, when we’re wrong about the relationship between the two concepts. If A and B just happen to hang out together a lot but A doesn’t depend on B in any meaningful sense, then disproving B doesn’t really have any affect on A. Sure A will get a little lonely now that it doesn’t have B to hang out with on Friday nights, and it will probably end up watching too much TV and eating bad ice cream. But it will get over it eventually.
Consider an example from another contentious discussion: the relationship between (A) biblical inerrancy and (B) a “literal” reading of Genesis 1 (young earth, six 24-hour days, etc.). I often hear people present these two arguments as though they are logically linked in such a way that you can’t drop one without losing the other. And people on both sides of the discussion do it. So the more conservative side thinks any attempt to read Genesis 1 differently is actually an attack on inerrancy. And people on the other side agree, thinking that if they can prove Genesis 1 shouldn’t be read literally, then they’ve somehow defeated inerrancy. When the simple truth is that both concepts can survive just fine on their own. They’re related historically (i.e. they’ve often been held or rejected by the same people), but not logically.
Once we’ve recognized that, we’re now free to have an interesting discussion about either concept without undue worries about how the discussion will affect the other one.
Confusing Concepts in the Gender Debate
So what does this look like when we turn our attention to the gender debate in particular? Here as well people on both sides of the discussion have assumed that two concepts are logically connected when they’re not. As usual, that’s not helpful.