Strict Constructionism and Gender Inclusivism

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Judge Robert Armstrong in California has ruled that a law against disrobing in front of a minor applies only to men and not to women, even though no mention of gender occurs in the law. How could that be? It says "exposes his person". [See also here for further details. Hat tip to How Appealing for the last link. I found the story initially from a Google search for something entirely different.]

Now I'm a strong defender of inclusive language, as anyone who has been reading my blog for very long should know, but this is pretty stupid. Just because most of the English-speaking world now does not speak the way this law was constructed does not mean that the law as written means to include men by the pronoun 'his'. Either the judge doesn't know that anyone has ever used grammatically masculine pronouns for gender-indeterminate or gender-unknown people, or this is strict constructionism gone wild. Originalists distinguish themselves from strict constructionists for reasons much like this. No original reader of the law would have interpreted it like this, and the writers of the law surely didn't mean it this way. But if the strict meaning of the literal text is what counts, regardless of what anyone at the time would have understood it to mean, then you get this kind of thing. It strikes me as being in the same category as insisting that there is too milk in the fridge and thus you don't need to go to the store to get more, then pointing at a tiny puddle of milk in the bottom of the vegetable crisper to demonstrate this claim.

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A non-inclusive interpretation of the word "his" has led to a bad judicial decision. Click here to read about it and some implications for translation of the Bible. Parableman first posted on the legal ruling. Read More


Talk about taking something too literally! The law was obviously intended to protect children, not to address issues of gender. This reminds me of some who take the Bible so literally they drain the spirit of it. They bar women from ministry based on a few isolated texts. That illustration with the milk is so perfect it made me chuckle.

Kathryn, I'm not sure your comparison is apt, but it depends on what you mean by ministry. Obviously those who ban women from ministry are going against the whole spirit of the New Testament. Women were an important part of ministering during Jesus' ministry, since they were part of the financial support of his endeavors, and they ministered to him in several ways as recorded in the gospel. I Corinthians records women prophesying in ways that seem favorable, and most discussions of spiritual gifts seem to treat them as if everyone, including women, should be part of most ministries.

It is over-literal to take "I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man" to as forbidding women to teach period, since the same epistle tells Timothy to encourage older women to teach younger women. I'm not sure if that's what you meant, but if that's your point then I fully agree. On the other hand, if you meant to say that the verse I just quoted should not be taken to reserve authoritative teaching positions (over men and mixed groups) for men, I can't see how that is taking the statement in an over-literal way. That's what the statement says, and it's what it in context must mean. Immediately surrounding the statement are indications of Paul's reasoning, and that involves gender distinctions in terms of characteristics of Adam and Eve.

Since I'm not sure why you consider this an example of over-literalness, I'm not sure how to respond, but I can't see how that could be right unless you just mean the first thing I said, in which case I fully agree.

It seems to me that there is a better biblical parallel to Judge Armstrong's ruling than 1 Timothy 2:15 which you have alluded to. That better parallel is 2 Timothy 2:2. This verse is entirely gender generic in the original Greek. But certain modern interpreters have understood the "faithful men" of KJV and other translations, who are supposed to teach others, to be male only. However, it is abundantly clear that neither the Greek author Paul nor the KJV translators intended to specify gender at this point. It is also clear, as Jeremy mentions, that Paul expected women to teach, if only other women. This seems to be a modern reinterpretation of the verse based on a misunderstanding of English translations.

If II Tim 2:2 is referring to the appointment of elders, complementarians are rightly wary of translating it in a way that suggests in English that these would include women. It's actually a very interesting translation issue if you assume the complementarian view and the interpretation that this refers to the eldership (and George Knight, William Mounce, and Andreas Kostenberger all take that combination of positions to be most likely).

The semantic range of the term can include women, and the sentence taken out of context can thus fail to eliminate a reference to women. You could thus translate the sentence in isolation as "entrust these things to faithful people". However, in English when we speak that way, especially in the light of complementarian and egalitarian debates, that translation might for some readers carry the implicature that you are not excluding women. I don't think it would have had such an implicature in the original Greek, even if you would have needed to read the larger biblical context to see that it couldn't include women (if complementarian interpretations are correct, as I believe they are).

I should say, however, that I'm not as convinced of the view that this is referring to elders as Knight, Mounce, and Kostenberger are. It's not that I'm convinced of the opposite view, however. I've simply not looked at the issue in any detail and don't want to prejudge it just because people who agree with me about the other issue happen to hold it.

Thnk you all. My point was that women have been barred from ministry based on a few isolated texts taken too literally, and the whole body of evidence (from Genesis to Revelation) that women did indeed teach and lead men has been ignored. Can women have authoritative positions over men? Look at Deborah in Judges 4. Can women preach to men? Look at the prophetess Huldah, & the woman at the well (Those Samaritans believed on Jesus because of her preaching!); also, the women of I Corinthians 11. Didn't Jesus say that "the fields are white already to harvest (John 4:35)" and that "the laborers are few (Luke 10:2)"? Early churches met in the homes of women. Is it possible that some of those women pastored those churches? In view of all this, Paul's instructions in I Timothy 2 are much less restrictive, and are about learning before teaching. He was addressing a particular situation in which a false doctrine was being promoted as truth. For more on all this, please visit Christians For Biblical Equality at for good discussions and wonderful books. As to this judge, he has ignored the context of the law. Ignoring the context of the law is dangerous and could lead to serious abuse. People have historically done that with the Bible, and it has led to great injustice.

If by preaching you just mean being an evangelist, then of course there's no biblical warrant for limiting that ministry to men. It's unclear what role Deborah had in Judges 4, but here's one thing it was not: being an elder in the Christian church. Here's another thing it was not: the normal functioning of the government and spiritual leadership of Israel. Of course there have been women prophets. The same Paul who restricts women from being elders speaks approvingly of women as propets, so whatever he means in I Tim 2 is not prophecy. It's rather the authoritative teaching of the church as overseen by the elders.

I'm certainly familiar with the speculative historical reconstructions that members of CBE will give. There's little evidence for any of them, and egalitarians can't even agree on which one is the right one. They're all sure it can't say what it seems to say, but there's no consensus at all about how it ends up looking like something it's not supposed to mean. It's striking that biblical scholars with no axe to grind agree with complementarians on what the text actually means because they can feel free to reject it in the end.

Of course, egalitarians don't reject the texts. We deal extensively with I Timothy 2 and other passages that have been used to restrict women's ministry. As I said above, I Timothy 2 was about learning before teaching. I Corinthians 11 doesn't restrict women's ministries, it only reminds them to adopt appropriate behaviors. "Head" doesn't mean "leader" or "authority over", but " source" or "origin". All believers are commandedto submit themselves to one another (Ephesians 5:21, and I Peter 5:5). Why would it be unclear what "role" Deborah had? She was a Supreme Court justice, and a prophetess, a spiritual leader (She spoke God's Word to the people). She "pastored" a whole nation! She and Samuel are the only two Judges with a prophetic ministry. I realize that Deborah poses a fundamental problem for those seeking to limit women. Most preachers don't even deal with her. I don't believe Paul restricted women from being elders. Phoebe was a deaconness ("diakonos") and Junia was an Apostle. Philip had four daughters who prophesied. Euodia, Syntyche, Chloe and Nympha were co-workers with Paul and did much more than serve refreshments (I'm not knocking that; it's important too.). In an unusual turn-about, Priscilla is usually named before her husband Aquilla, possibly in recognition of her superior teaching abilities. The "aged women" of Titus 2 were surely elders. I Timothy 3:11 speaks of "deaconnesses" in the original. Genesis 1:26, Ephesians 5:21, Galatians 3:28, and I Peter 5:5 all forbid authority based on race, previous religious background, and/or gender in the body of Christ. We used to segregate churches by race; we used to treat black people as second-rate; we no longer officially do that. The prophet Joel said that the Lord would pour out His Spirit upon all flesh "and your sons and your daughters will prophesy". Women would stand on the front lines. They would preach. They would lead men. How many Southern Baptist churches let women preach at all? Allow that and you will be called a liberal! I know because I've been a Southern Baptist all my life and I've seen that happen. I didn't arrive at my present stand overnight; it came through years of Spirit-led prayer and Bible study. My eyes were closed to all this until the Holy Spirit began to open them. The patriarchal structures of most churches are much closer to the world's standards than Christ's (Luke 22). Our God is a God of promotion (Psalm 75:6, & 7, Proverbs 4:8, I Peter 5:6). Again, please join us at Christians For Biblical Equality,, to see egalitarians deal in depth (books, magazines, and blogs) with Scriptures that have historically been used to limit women's ministry.

My apologies for taking this discussion so far afield. I now return you to your regularly scheduled subject matter!

Yes, I'm familiar with all that. I've got some of the egalitarian literature sitting on my shelf, and I have looked at a fair amount of the debates. I don't think the arguments for those positions are very convincing unless you enter into the discussion wanting the egalitarian position to be true. I truly cannot see how someone would think the arguments would go that direction without some kind of wishful thinking in the mix. The arguments just don't seem to me to stand up. There are alternative positions on everything you said, including Deborah (it's simply not true that complementarians don't deal with Deborah; see Bruce Waltke for one complementarian take on her, although I'm not sure I agree with his view entirely). A blog comment thread on a post about language and translation isn't the place to go into the detailed arguments on these issues. The complementarian and egalitarian literature does a much better job of that anyway. My only concern here is not to have complementarianism be misrepresented (as it usually is by egalitarians, especially on the CBE website post that links to mine) and to make it clear that I don't think the views you're putting forward are supportable without assuming things that I think are false. I'm not going to go head to head on every issue you've suggested, because you raise probably 15-20 issues that would each take a whole post to deal with adequately.

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