Before work this morning, I listened to Preston Sprinkle's conversation with Kevin Grasso about biblical languages and the meaning of the Greek word behind "head" in Ephesians 5:23 (kephale). If you have no idea what that word is or why it matters, go listen to the podcast! Though I am not always onboard with Preston's stance, I enjoy listening to his podcast because of his ability and willingness to engage with a wide array of perspectives, including ones with which he personally disagrees strongly. I have something to learn from his winsomeness, his charity, his posture toward those who take a different point of view than him.
In the second half of the podcast, Preston said something about the Complementarian/Egalitarian debate that I've heard him say before: that he strives for objectivity in his own scholarship, and that it rankles him when other writers fail to be objective. The danger he's concerned about is, of course, a real danger: that of the tail wagging the dog. It is a real and present temptation to start with a desired end in mind and consciously or unconsciously fit the evidence to support that conclusion. In practice, this looks like those who hand-wave away what a text says:
- "This passage doesn't really support my conclusion, but we have to take it in tension with other passages that do support my conclusion and that therefore I see as more important."
- "Paul really did say that, but we have to remember that that was then and this is now, so it's not really relevant anymore."
- "This passage radically undercuts my position, but I'm going to try to shove it into as small of a box as I can so that it's functionally irrelevant."
The times that Preston has raised this contention about objectivity, it seems that the primary offenders in his view are Egalitarians. His accusation about their treatment of kephale is that interpreting it to mean "source" is unwarranted, and also that this therefore must be an example of sloppy, subjective scholarship. Whether that is the case or not is frankly beyond the scope of this short blog post. Instead, I want to focus in on this question of objectivity because it comes across as an unintentional dogwhistle. It's an implicit accusation of motivated reasoning and shoddy work—a kind of gentle ad hominem. But whether a scholar's argument objectively weighs the evidence or whether it's a preconceived notion searching for support should not matter; show me that the argument does not follow rather than questioning the author's motivations or integrity.
Dogs in the Fight
At another point in the episode, Preston says that he does not yet have a dog in the fight and that he's merely doing his legwork to discover what he believes about it, but that some day he will have a dog in the fight once he decides what he believes. This struck me as a discordant blend of self-awareness and a lack of self-awareness. On the one hand, he seems to suggest that his present lack of a dog in the fight is exactly why we can take his word that he's doing objective scholarship. And yet, it also stands to reason that he probably wants us to continue viewing his scholarship as objective even after he's staked his claim. But that very "staking of a claim" is the reason he wants us to think that other scholars aren't being objective!
The truth, I think, is that none of us are actually, truly objective. For the past two years I've been writing a book about why and how I changed my mind on women in the home, the church, and the world, and I am acutely aware that even when I want to be objective, I'm most likely not. My heart is deceptive, even to me, and there are times when I say, "These are the facts, Jack!" but it isn't all the facts, and neither could it ever be all the facts.
My book is explicitly about how and why I changed my mind. You might say that it's about how I used to have the Complementarian dog in the fight, but now I have the Egalitarian dog in the fight. I am trying very hard not to pretend like I've always held my current position. Instead, I'm trying to put on public display a growth mindset. Christians tend to want to act like they hold their positions with unwavering confidence, but I'm not sure if this is ever quite as true as we ourselves would wish it to be. Can one have a partial dog in the fight? I personally have come to see the evidence as leaning in favor of Egalitarianism, but I'm not going to act like I have 100% confidence that I'm completely right in my interpretations of every single passage. I could be wrong. I want to leave room to grow in the future.
Cards on the Table
A better conversational cliché to use here, I think, would be that of putting all one's cards "on the table." It's a Poker metaphor that means that I have nothing hidden from view—I'm playing the game with no deception; I have no hidden commitments that subtly color my actions. I genuinely think that the evidence (at least as I see it today) leans in favor of Egalitarianism, but I also want you to know that I genuinely used to think the opposite.
In my chapter where I walk through Ephesians 5, I try to put forward my reasons for seeing kephale as meaning "source." My reason is not, "Because I think it makes that passage more convenient for me" (though it does, admittedly, work better for Egalitarianism). Instead, my reason is, "Because I truly think the text leads there." But with my cards on the table, I also want to admit that there are legitimate reasons for reading it as "authority." I would rather not play the game where I act like Complementarians are just airheads who ignore the evidence—they are my siblings in Christ, not my enemies!
None of this is really what I would call, "objectivity." My book is decidedly not objective: I want to present the most compelling case that I can for male-female equality in the home, the church, and the world. I do hope, however, that my book is honest. I write as a traveler who has shifted in my commitments over time, and I want you to see that and hear that. I hope that my book is charitable. I once fervently believed in Complementarianism too, so I get where you're coming from if that's you, and I want you to see yourself fairly represented in my portrayal of it. But I also hope to write a book that is persuasive. I want you to see Complementarianism fairly represented—and then I want you to hear strong reasons for why there is a better, more faithful way.
I think that Preston Sprinkle by and large is an example of this kind of honesty, which is why I regularly listen to his podcast. Even though I don't always find myself agreeing with his conclusions, I want to emulate the way he tries to honestly and lovingly engage with as many people as he does. Even though I don't think objectivity is possible for fallible humans, I think we can do one better: being honest about where we're coming from, unflinchingly focused on the issues, and charitable towards the human beings in front of us.