Why Complementarians “See” Male Leadership as God’s Design: The Psychology of Perception (Seeing What We Already Believe)

All of us have blind spots. I think every one of us, as human beings, can safely conclude that we don’t know everything. Some of the things we do not understand today, we may understand tomorrow. Some of the things we do understand today, we may understand better (i.e. differently) tomorrow.

One of the reasons we all have blind spots is a result of something called “top-down processing.” Top-down processing refers to the way we experience the world around us. We do not, in fact, see the world as it is. We see it as it is meaningful to us. In other words, we see the world through the lenses of our past experience, previous learning, deeply held beliefs, assumptions and expectations.

Details in the environment that do not align with our assumptions can be missed altogether – due to top-down processing.

Details in the environment that do not align with our deeply held beliefs can be misinterpreted so that our beliefs are not shaken – due to top-down processing.

What complementarians do not seem to recognize is that top-down processing impacts how people read the Bible. Please allow me to explain.

Before a word can be translated it must be interpreted. In my grammar text for New Testament Greek, for example, one verb (ago) can have multiple meanings: “lead,” “go,” “depart,” “guide” or even “celebrate a feast.” What determines our interpretation? The immediate context of the word and top-down processing. In other words, our interpretation consists of what we expect the word to mean given its immediate context. Our expectations come from our own previous learning and experience.

Imagine being a Bible translator in a culture that assumes women to be morally and intellectually inferior to men. (This would be true, for example, of all the men who helped translate the King James Version of the Bible.) Then imagine coming across a particular Greek word in the Bible that refers to a woman. The word is “prostatis.” This is the noun form of the verb “proistemi.” You can translate this word to mean “someone who presides over others,” “a woman set over others,” or simply “someone who gives aid to others” (i.e. a helper). Because of your previous learning and past experience in a deeply patriarchal culture, any interpretation assigning authority to a woman would simply not be cognitively available to you. In other words, the possibility may never enter your mind.  It would be unthinkable, literally.

Interpretation leads to translation, and now henceforth, Phoebe shall be known as a “helper” in the Church at Cenchrea, rather than a “leader” (Romans 16:2 NKJV).

Another Greek word used to describe the role of Phoebe in Romans 16 is “diakonos.”  It could be translated “servant, deacon, or minister.” Equipped with an understanding of top-down processing, I’d be willing to bet you can accurately guess which word was selected for the King James Version of the Bible.

Complementarians have told me that contextual factors in Romans 16 dictate that Phoebe must have simply been a “servant” and “helper” rather than a “leader,” “deacon” or “minister.” I wonder what those contextual factors are, since the passage is simply an introduction of Phoebe and a commendation of her work in the church.

I was reading a complementarian blog earlier today. In it, the author explains that egalitarians go awry because we rely on a subjective understanding of the Bible’s original context. What we should be doing, he says, is relying on “the written word of God” because its meaning is “concrete.”i Apparently, this blogger doesn’t recognize that the “written word of God” is also subject to human interpretation, which is determined in part by top-down processing.

Similarly, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood states that a Christian’s subjective interpretation of God’s call to ministry should never contradict the clear instruction of God’s written word.ii Does this statement presume that God’s written word is not subjectively interpreted? Apparently so, and that is a significant blind spot.

Wayne Grudem, well-known complementarian, says that Christian egalitarians undermine the inerrancy of the word of God.iii I don’t believe that’s an accurate accusation. What we are questioning is not the inerrancy of God or his word, but rather the subjective interpretation of complementarian believers, who are human beings, with blind spots that exist due to top-down processing.

i http://jacoballee.com/1/archives/09-2012/1.html

ii http://cbmw.org/core-beliefs/

iii http://jacoballee.com/1/archives/09-2012/1.html