Getting doctrine right is important. Reading the Bible – knowing what it says and what it means when it says it – is a blessing given by God. Which means that when you see the Bible say something you should strive to understand it.
It’s important too not to create doctrines based on things the Bible doesn’t say. This is a trap which a prominent ministry recently fell into.
Creating doctrine out of negative space
A student at the University of California at Santa Barbara visited the Grand Canyon years ago. An art major, she chose to represent her impression by sculpting the Grand Canyon. Rather than display the deep emptiness of the canyon with the walls rising high around it, she sculpted the emptiness as a solid mass by making the canyon’s actual shape into a mold, pouring plaster into the emptiness, and then removing it to show the shape of that emptiness as a free standing body.
It was a clever way to get people to think about the Grand Canyon, but nobody was fooled into thinking they were seeing the gorge created by the flow of the Colorado River flowing along the base of the canyon. The solidity of the negative space was a representation of an aspect of the canyon, yet it was not what anyone would call the reality of the canyon itself. The solid plaster represented what had been taken out of the canyon in its formation, not the canyon as it truly exists.
John Piper’s recent article at Desiring God, Do Men Owe Women a Special Kind of Care?, is likewise created from negative space. He uses the absence of information in a few passages to create an entire doctrine on how men and women are to relate to one another.
The article starts by decrying what Mr. Piper sees as an inability of some people to understand that men as a sex are spiritually – not just anatomically – different from women as a sex. He believes there are some things the Bible requires of men toward women that it does not require of women toward men. He calls this requirement “peculiar”: men, he insists, have a responsibility that women do not and cannot have if they are each to live out their spiritually sexual natures.
He starts by acknowledging that women and men are to care for each other generally.
While affirming the importance of mutual love, respect, honor, and encouragement between men and women, there is in our day a resistance against the biblical summons for men to show a peculiar care for women that’s different than they would for men — and a strong disincentive to women to feel glad about this.
He then cites a few passages where husbands are told to care for their wives.
But in Colossians 3:19, the apostle Paul told husbands, “Love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.” That is not the same as saying, “Neither of you should be harsh.” We can tell from Ephesians 5:22–33 and 1 Peter 3:7 that this admonition to men is owing to a peculiarly male temptation to be rough — even cruel — and to a peculiarly female vulnerability to that violence, on the one hand, and to a natural female gladness, on the other hand, to be honored with caring protection and strong tenderness.
Contrary to Mr. Piper’s assertion, the passages from Ephesians 5 (which he failed to start with verse 21’s call for mutual submission) and 1 Peter do not reveal an inherently male temptation to be cruel and an inherently female gladness to be honored with protection. Yet he insists that these passage reveal:
God requires more of men in relation to women than he does women in relation to men. God requires that men feel a peculiar responsibility for protecting and caring for women. As a complementarian, I do not say that this calling is to the exclusion of women protecting and caring for men in their own way. I am saying that men bear a peculiar burden of responsibility that is laid on them in a way that is not laid on women. (Emphasis in original.)
Those concepts, in fact, are entirely absent from the Bible passages Mr. Piper cites. He looks at this emptiness and tries to make it stand as a solid body (much as the art student created a solid mass from what is missing) and sees a doctrine in what is not there.
That might work as an art student’s project but it doesn’t work as doctrine.
Learning from what is actually there
The passages Mr. Piper cites actually do lead to a discernible doctrine, but it is one found by looking at things that do exist, not matters that are absent. Look at them together:
Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. (Colossians 3:19.)
In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Ephesians 5:28.)
Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. (1 Peter 3:7.)
While Mr. Piper’s doctrine posits these passages somehow reveal that men have a responsibility to women that women do not have toward men, a more reasonable reading is that these passages teach that people in positions of authority and power (for example, husbands in ancient households) should not use their position to harm those in weaker positions (like wives in those same households).
Take 1 Peter 3:7, for example. As Margaret Mowczko explains in A “Weaker Vessel” and Gender Justice (1 Peter 3:7):
Peter calls wives “weaker vessels” because he wants husbands, not necessarily to pity them, but to be more understanding with their wives who were, with few exceptions, disadvantaged economically, legally, and politically in the first century.
Cultural context – something that exists for all writings, including the Bible – helps inform the reader’s understanding of the writer’s meaning in a passage. The place of women in Peter’s day shows them to be disadvantaged compared to men.
The verses from Colossians and Ephesians likewise show a relationship where the husband is told not to use the superior position given by the world, but to love his wife with the same love Jesus has for all his people. These passages recognize the cultural context (something that actually exists) and tell people in power not to abuse that power.
This is a doctrine that applies to men and women alike.
- If you have power, never use it to harm those who are weaker than you.
- If you have authority, never use it to harm those who are subordinate to you.
- If you have a position of responsibility, never use it to harm those who are under that responsibility.
Instead, use the power and authority and responsibility God has given you to love everyone he has put in your life, whether a family member, a co-worker, a classmate, or a stranger on the street.
This is the doctrine you can glean from those passages, and there is nothing negative about it.