Women in the armed forces

I saw an interesting article yesterday titled My Pastor’s Daughter is in the Military. What do I do? I was intrigued because it’s not really a live question for me. Why on earth does it matter? The answer to the question seemed palpably obvious to me: do nothing. There is no reason for concern or alarm. If your pastor’s daughter has joined the army, I assume that’s because she wanted to do so. I struggled to see the problem.

Anyway, I clicked on it regardless and the opening paragraph said this:

One of the great unknown keys of test taking is learning how to morph the question asked into one for which you know the answer. While I think your greater concern here is the issue of women in the military, my greater concern is learning how to love our neighbor. I agree with you wholeheartedly on women in the military. The only thing you need to do on that issue is encourage daughter to not sign up.

The rest of the article was about explaining to your children (or others) that there are Christians who disagree on various matters and how we lovingly (in the view of the writer) deal with that. Incidentally, I think the advice that follows this paragraph is all pretty credible. But I was surprised that women being in the armed forces would be considered a Christian matter.

As a fully paid up complementarian, I believe the Bible has things to say about headship in the family home and the church. You can read some of what I think about that here and here. I do not believe the Bible has a vast amount to say on exactly how things should work practically in the home and I think it has little more to say about the church than eldership and teaching (in some form) are the specific things in view. I do not believe the Bible has any more to say about headship in any other context than these. It mentions the church – noting two specific things (teaching & authority) by name – and the home, mentioning very little in the way of specifics at all in this setting. The questions of complementary roles are limited to these spheres.

This is not just an argument from silence regarding everything else too. We have numerous examples throughout scripture of women taking apparent positions of authority outside of the specific areas complementarian theology hives off and some parameters of how things should work out within them. For example, Abraham was specifically told by God to submit to his wife’s wishes in sending Hagar and Ishmael away (Gen 21:12) suggesting that men are not simply to ‘lead’ and ‘overrule’ their wives. Zipporah – Moses wife – overruled her husband in the matter of circumcision and saved him from being killed by the Lord (Ex 4:24-26). In Judges 4 (cf. Judges 4:4), Deborah is a judge over Israel. In Judges 13, it is Samson’s mother who is visited by the angel of the Lord and it is she who takes the initiative in responding rightly to his word. In 1 Samuel 25, it is Abigail who takes the initiative in saving her household and David submits to her wise judgement. The virtuous wife of Proverbs 31 is clearly a working woman who exercises shrewd judgement on behalf of her family. In Acts 16, Lydia is clearly an able business woman of some means. In Romans, it is clear Phoebe is active in serving the church and one who carries apostolic letters. In 1 Corinthians 7, in the sphere of sex, there is clearly mutual submission to one another.

There are a number of other examples we could cite but you get the picture. All of that is to say, these things temper our understanding of the specific areas Paul does highlight as well as indicating that the areas he doesn’t mention are not limiting. The only areas Paul highlights as in view so far as complementarianism ought to be concerned is the family home and the church. On the former, very little in the way of functions and boundaries are put on that by Paul and plenty of other parts of scripture, as noted, show some significant flexibility in what that ought to look like. In the church, Paul highlights teaching and authority. This is largely understood by all complementarians to necessarily relate to eldership and, whatever teaching might be in view, is limited to the specific sphere of the church itself. All other areas of life are not in view.

Which brings us back to the question at hand. What should we make of women in the military? Based on all we have said already, there is no particular reason for that to be at issue. The Bible does not forbid women to join the army and the complementarian theology I have briefly sketched out has nothing in it to push us to that view either. So, again, in answer to the original question regarding what to do about your pastor’s daughter in the army: do nothing. There is nothing to be done. There is no biblical problem and it is not your business.

As I mentioned regarding John Piper’s view of women serving as police officers – which applies equally to this question of women serving in the military – I can only say what I said here:

As a complementarian, my issue with this wider world-encompassing view of this doctrine is its over-application of what the biblical text actually says. And so, if we take Piper’s now infamous comments on female police officers, I am immediately driven to the question: where did he get that from the text? I see nothing there about police, so there’s no direct line from headship to certain occupations. I see nothing there about being given directions from a woman, so I’m struggling to draw the link there. I see no comments about broader relational questions of directions being personal or direct at any point. I am left wondering where on earth this stuff comes from in the text and ultimately conclude that it isn’t there to be found.

Arguments to the Old Testament pattern of only men being chosen rely on something of an argument from silence. There is no prohibition anywhere in scripture on women going to war. We equally see Deborah going with Balak as a positive example of that happening. Similarly, it is Jael (another woman) who wins victory in that particular situation. Moreover, even if we find this argument against women unconvincing, it is only those with a theonomistic bent who will overlook that no such pattern or prohibition exists in the New Testament.

In the end, if we are really Bible people we will not say less than the Bible says. Where the Bible does speak about headship, we will recognise it and seek to apply it appropriately. But similarly, if we are really Bible people, we won’t be saying more than the Bible says either. I am convinced that is the problem of a significant amount of complementarian literature these days. It rightly recognises the issue of headship in the church and home from scripture, but then blasts well beyond the biblical data in the most unwarranted ways so that – to quote Carl Trueman – ‘it descends into sheer silliness’.

This very question strikes me as yet another example of the cultural-crusading complementarianism that owes little to what the Bible says and far more to cultural assumptions and values. Typically, it ought to be said, a peculiarly American cultural values about manhood and womanhood. But these things, it never hurts to remember, are simply not in scripture.