Keith came on the blog today discuss biases and how they relate to evangelicals interpretations of the Bible, especially when it comes to women.
No one reads Scripture in an unbiased way – especially the people that say they do.
Does a person have the right to tell you that you have a biased reading of Scripture and they don’t? I have had that happen so many times when I discuss my belief that God never intended men to rule over women. Even when I admit I might be biased, very rarely have I ever got the other person to admit that they might be biased as well.
What does science actually say about bias and how does it apply to this issue? I want to talk about two types of bias, how psychological studies proved bias exists and how we can approach people who claim that bias doesn’t affect them.
1. Confirmation Bias: The Rule Discovery Task
The first study was done by Peter Wason in 1960 called the “2-4-6 task” or the “Rule Discovery Task”.
He asked people to guess the rule behind a series of three numbers by starting with 2-4-6 and asking them to try other combinations. After each selection, the participants were told whether the three numbers they chose fit the rule or not.
When people were satisfied that they had figured out the rule, they stopped.
The surprise was that the rule was actually just “a series of increasing numbers”. The fascinating discovery in this study was that participants tended to come up with a rule and then only give suggestions that followed the rule they had already come up with. Very few participants specifically set out to test their rule by disproving it with combinations that didn’t fit.
2. Anchoring Bias: The Stanford Study
The second study was done in Stanford in 1975.
They recruited undergraduate students ostensibly for a study about suicide. The participants were given pairs of suicide notes, and were told one was written by a random individual and the other by a person who had eventually gone on to take their own life. The students were asked to guess which was which and then they were told whether they were right or not. Some of the students did remarkably well, having close to perfect accuracy while others did terribly, getting almost all of them wrong.
Like so many psychological studies, it was designed to mislead. In the second half, the students were told that the study was in fact about their reactions to being right or wrong. The testers revealed that the scores they had given were totally contrived and not based on the participant’s actual performance at all. The participants were then asked to rank how well they thought they actually did compared to their peers.
I suspect you have already guessed the punchline: the students who had previously been told they were good at the task estimated they were better than average and the ones who had previously been told they had done badly estimated they were worse than average.
What do we learn from these studies? Well, the first study shows that once people develop a hypothesis their tendency is to attempt to confirm it rather than challenging it.
This is called confirmation bias. Subsequent studies have shown that we humans are very good at finding data that supports what we currently believe and ignoring data that challenges it. And this is not based on intelligence; highly intelligent people can make this mistake as easily as less intelligent.
The second study shows that once we have conceived an opinion about something, it is extremely difficult to get us to change our minds even when presented with contradictory new information or even with proof that previous information was false. This tendency we humans have to give undue weight to the first information we receive, regardless of its accuracy is called anchoring bias and it has been shown in other studies as well.
What’s my point? Well, I actually have three:
#1 Nobody is free of bias
I continue to be amazed by how often believers in gender hierarchy when challenged continue to assert that they read the Bible without bias. If you are one of those people, then I have news for you – it has been scientifically proven that the human mind is prone to bias and you are no exception. So please try to keep an open mind and show a little humility.
Now this is not to say that since we all have biases, nothing any of us believes can be validated or disproved. Quite the opposite! Just because our brains tend to take short cuts, doesn’t mean we can’t make them function logically. Biases certainly can be overcome, but not if you are in denial that you even have them in the first place! So to those of you who remain certain that you are free of all bias, I say this: please know that your staggering level of confidence doesn’t impress the rest of us. Whether you realize it or not, you are several steps behind the rest of the class.
And what about the rest of you? How do you talk to someone who refuses to acknowledge that they might have bias even after you share this information about the latest in cognitive research? Well, I would suggest that you give yourself permission to spend your time in better ways than continuing discussions with a person who blatantly refuses to listen to logic.
#2: The entire movement that calls itself Biblical Manhood and Womanhood seems like a classic example of confirmation bias to me.
They assert that they are going back to the Bible to discover God’s design for men and women. But to anyone who does not share their particular view of masculinity and femininity it is clear they already had a preconceived notion of what God’s design was and went to the Bible to specifically find it. They then ignore all the examples of women and men who do not fit the mold.
For instance, a huge part of Biblical manhood and womanhood is that women are meant to be submissive to men and not challenge them. For instance, John Piper believes that women must not give direction in a way that is both direct and personal. (How’s that going to work?) Emmerson Eggerichs in Love & Respect talks about how a woman should approach her husband when he is in sin. The sugary-sweet way he instructs her to fawn over him without actually confronting him is frankly pathetic to me.
But this is what proponents of Biblical womanhood say a woman must be like to be Biblical.
This is frankly laughable if we consider Old Testament women like Zipporah, Miriam, Rahab, Deborah, Jael and Abigail and how they related to the men around them. It seems to me very few of the women in the actual Bible would actually be considered a “biblical woman” by modern evangelicals. To me, the fact that this does not give them pause is proof positive that they are in the throes of confirmation bias. Seriously, should we be surprised to find themes that support that idea that men are meant to rule women in a book that was written thousands of years before women were given the most basic of human rights?
As Beth Alison Barr put it: “It’s no surprise we find patriarchy in the Bible, because that’s the world the people of the Bible lived in …. What is surprising is how much resistance to patriarchy we find in the Bible.”
One of the best ways to overcome confirmation bias is to set out specifically to see if you can prove your hypothesis false. This is a key component of a scientific theory: falsifiability. If the hypothesis is “God’s intent is that women are never to have authority over men”, then we can prove that false by finding even one example in the Bible where they did and were praised for it.
Now consider that in the New Testament we find at least three: Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2), Junia (Rom 16:7) and Nympha (Col 4:15). If we want to avoid confirmation bias we all must train ourselves not to ignore the data that goes against what we already want to believe. I have no problem with seeing parts of the Bible that seem to go against my belief in the intrinsic dignity and worth of women.
I don’t need to ignore those sections because I have an easy explanation for them: they were written in a time when that’s how people saw women. What I don’t understand is how people who hold the other position explain away all their exceptions.
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#3 Realize that if you grew up in the evangelical church, you have a huge anchor bias toward the idea that men should be in charge.
You need to train yourself to look at actual data rather than being swayed by rhetoric. Even if you no longer believe it, you have been taught things like “the man needs to be the tie breaker” from very early on and your first tendency is going to be to give that mentality the benefit of the doubt. Remember the study participants who falsely evaluated themselves based on how they had been lied to even after the lie was revealed!
So, for instance, when Emmerson Eggerichs asserts that “to set up a marriage with two equals at the head is to set it up for failure” and “that is one of the big reasons that people are divorcing right and left today” (p. 221), your first response may well be to second guess yourself rather than realize he is talking absolute nonsense. Remind yourself that all the data shows the opposite of what he is saying.
I have seen no scientific data confirming that a man being in charge and having authority over his wife is a healthy way to run a family. There are, however, studies that warn of the inherent dangers in this idea. In fact, the data is swinging so overwhelmingly in favor of equality in marriage that I have seen a disturbing trend of people starting to use the argument that we ought not to be “swayed away from the word of God by secular studies”.
Wow! What happened to believing that Jesus is the Truth? God is not a trickster so we should not be afraid to look at His creation to find truth. Jesus Himself encouraged us to do so when he said, “You will know a tree by its fruit.”
If what we see in creation doesn’t line up with how we interpret the Bible, the answer is not to disbelieve our own eyes; it is to humbly consider that our interpretation of the Bible may be wrong. When a person intentionally sets out to ignore contradictory data (i.e. “secular” studies) because it doesn’t line up with their preconceived notions, they betray their bias and their unwillingness to see past it.
They have shown they are not trustworthy, so don’t trust them. Neither should you fear them.
Instead see their insistence to argue “only from the Bible” for what it actually is: a retreat from the battlefield of logic and reason, because they have no ammunition that works there.
What are some of your biases you’ve come to realize you held about women and scripture and how did you work through them? Let’s discuss in the comments!
I’ve noticed anytime something happens to me, I see it more. I become pregnant? Wow, look how many pregnant ladies there are I didn’t notice before. I bought a blue car? Wow, I didn’t realize there were so many cars of this make and color!
Being surrounded by women that behaved the way “biblical” womn should: meek, soft-spoken, serving and sacrificial to the point of a break-down (at which time you were chastised for not doing it in “God’s power” and were prideful trying to do it in your own power) I noticed it more. (I also noticed a lot of sadness behind many, though not all, of their eyes.)
Now I’m in a church that would preach about or bring into a discussion women in the bible such as Deborah or Phoebe. I’m starting to feel like I have some worth again. My words aren’t discredited simply because a woman spoke them. It’s like the bible applies to me, too, including God’s love for His creation, and not focused solely on pharisaical rule enforcement.
My mom hated “that misogynist Paul” and discounted his words because she didn’t like his views on women (as it appeared). Extremly wrong form of “feminism” to grow up with. Pendulum-swung into an SBC church for years where I learned my worth was in obeying and putting out so my husband could shine (he didn’t). Finally in a healthy place where we are called to look at how we may be mis-seeing or mis-interpreting things based on our background, our lens. Challenged to see it how Jesus would have viewed it. So thankful for the Greek language/studying types of people that help us understand what is actually happening on these sacred pages. A “plain reading” of scripture is often uninspired, unrevealed by the Holy Spirit, unloving.
Beautiful, Nessie! I’m glad you’ve landed in a healthy church!
As always, a great post, Keith.
Regarding studies of how to make marriage work: this seems an instance of getting more attached to the proxy than to the goal. If your goal is healthy, strong marriages, then you should support that which leads to them. (It is a mix of traditional – save sex for marriage, go to church, pray together – and modern – equality, feeling like her happiness in the bedroom matters too, etc.) But evangelicals attached themselves to the proxy of “anything that goes against modern feminism,” and, even when shown that their proxy does not always work to advance their goals, promote the proxy instead.
You can teach but only indirectly.
That does not compute.
Your comment about retreating from the battlefield of logic and reason reminds me of a conversation I once had with a man who told me I was an ‘unbiblical woman’ because I was wearing jeans instead of ankle-length dress and a hat to church.
“You should dress in this way to show submission to your husband.”
“I’m not married.”
“Oh. Well you should dress in this way to show submission to your father then.”
“My father disagrees with women wearing head coverings. How is it showing submission to my father to do something that he disagrees with?”
“…You have a rebellious and sinful spirit and need to repent.” And he walked off.
The irony is that he’d previously been telling me how women were emotional, illogical and incapable of reasoned discussion…
Exactly! And women are called the more emotional ones!
Since I did not grow up in church and didn’t become a Christian until I was in high school, I did not know about what the Bible said about women. Then not long after I got saved, the pastor talked about how men are the heads of their homes and what they say goes. That sounded faulty to me, because my parents made decisions together. No one was in charge of the other. I told my friend I didn’t agree with that and I thought the pastor was sexist. She told me that was in the Bible, which I hadn’t read much of yet. So, I started believing that the God of the Bible was a male chauvinist and I decided I didn’t want to have anything to do with organized religion. I was so upset that I could not read the Bible.
This experience wounded me and nearly 30 years later, churches are still teaching this but they are trying to dress it up nicely. Well, I can see through it. I thought I had to believe in God’s supposed created order because if I didn’t then I was not really a Christian. Now, I realize it’s how people interpret the Bible that causes a lot of biases. They interpret it without considering the time and culture the Bible was written. Nor do they consider that translations vary from the original language of the Bible.
Several years ago, I went to a women’s Bible study on the women of the Bible. I thought it was ironic how they said that women should be a certain way, yet most of the women in the Bible did not adhere to a one-size-fits-all ideal of supposed “biblical” womanhood. Wives must submit to their husbands. “But Abigail didn’t. Sarah didn’t; in fact, God told Abraham to listen to his wife.” I think I mentioned those scenarios and the teacher said, “But those were different circumstances and we should all submit to our husbands even when we disagree with them.” They also believed that Vashti was an evil woman because she set boundaries and refused her drunken, pagan husband’s request to pose half-naked in front of a bunch of other drunken men.
Then, single women are told that men have to do all of the pursuing. “What about Ruth? She pursued Boaz.” Well, the typical response from the leader was, “But this was just a one-time thing. What about the verse of he who finds a wife? That means the man should do all of the pursuing.” Well, that’s just sexist, which I did not say out loud.
It’s really hard to have these conversations with Christians who are so set in their ways and if you believe differently than they do, you’re headed on the highway to hell. Also, a lot of Christians I know refuse to believe in the value of secular, but scholarly studies because those don’t line up with the Bible. How about the test of comparing certain doctrines with the fruit of the Spirit? I do not find any good fruit from the theology that men should be in charge of women. Except, a lot of power-hungry men are the only ones that benefit from this rotten theology.
So true, Laura! And, yes, if we defined biblical womanhood by what women in the Bible actually did, it would look more like this!
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I love it!
You said, “ Also, a lot of Christians I know refuse to believe in the value of secular, but scholarly studies because those don’t line up with the Bible.” I think that this is the crux of the matter. But the reality is these studies don’t line up with their limited interpretation of the Bible, or what they THINK the Bible says. In my experience, a lot research actually seems to line up quite well with Scripture and what God calls us to as believers.
Yes, exactly! Well said.
My adult son and I have been discussing how damaging the biblical manhood/womanhood teaching is for both genders, and I see him struggling with confirmation bias. Don’t get me wrong – I struggle with it, too. It’s difficult to change our thinking when the lie has been so often repeated and especially when we desperately want to obey and please God.
We have agreed that we are dealing with two sides of the same coin. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s when sexism and the “old boys’ club” was still the rule. People were pushing back against that ideology then, but still I received a great deal of sexist abuse. My son grew up in the 2000’s and 10’s AND in the Evangelical church. All focus was on the “terror” of feminism and how to stop it from ruining our society AS WELL AS the Every Man’s Battle nonsense. So, we both have been victimized by the enemy who will say anything to make us hate ourselves and each other. I learned not to trust men and he learned that women want power and that he can’t control himself. I’m so grateful to be having open conversations with him.
Just for fun comparison, my youngest son is almost a decade behind my oldest, and his understanding of gender and roles is vastly different. The enemy keeps attacking in different ways. Maybe if we start with the premise of “God created us all and died for us all and we all need Him” we can better understand the details in the Bible.
I totally agree with this: Maybe if we start with the premise of “God created us all and died for us all and we all need Him” we can better understand the details in the Bible.
This is the basis for Christianity and unfortunately, we get caught up in doctrines that are often man-made. It’s awesome that you and your son can have these conversations. Like you, I have difficulty trusting men and any time I hear a sermon about how wives are supposed to be submissive, triggers go off in my head causing me to wonder if men are the enemy in all this. I know this is not true because a lot of men are not male chauvinists, even Christian men. And I don’t understand why men think women want to be in power because we (women) are not asking to be in control; we just want equal opportunities to be in leadership positions. But of course, those who have been so used to privilege think that equality equals oppression.
Women do want power though. I believe most want as much power and control as the men have, we want the power of equality, power of bodily autonomy, power of having an equal say in our marriages and our journey with God. Many men, mainly Christian men, see woman wanting to be equal as taking something from them and they don’t like that.
Yes, we want “power of equality, bodily autonomy, having an equal say in our marriages, and journey with God.” We don’t want to be in power over others.
> > their insistence to argue “only from the Bible”
Say rather they argue only from THEIR INTERPRETATION of the bible.
Fun thing: I first read this blog title as “Are you for or against women reading scripture”? And in fact I have heard a few people who say that the bible was written only for men. That is, the husband reads the bible, then he tells his wife what it says and means.
To me, at least, that makes no sense. It’s much better to read it together and discuss what each of us sees in it
Keith: “For instance, John Piper believes that women must not give direction in a way that is both direct and personal. (How’s that going to work?)”
Speaking of Piper. I wish I could remember where and how I saw this. But Piper was talking about the creation story and the fall of man and he used the phrase, “God’s intention” over and over again to make the story of Adam and Eve all about God’s design for marriage, manhood, and womanhood a la patriarchy style.
He had to keep saying, “God’s intention” to make it say what he wanted it to say. Because at face value, wored were not actually wasn’t saying what Piper insisted on.
I remember thinking how arrogant Piper was, believing that he knew God’s intention concerning this and making something he believed into God’s intention. I also thought that if this really was God’s intention, He should have been way more clear so we don’t have to rely on Piper to explain it to us. What if Piper had never been born to enlighten us on “God’s intention”. Then what would we do? Oh, the horror.
“What if Piper had never been born to enlighten us on “God’s intention”.”
What about the two thousand years of Christianity that existed before John Piper had a soapbox? What about the millions if not billions of people in the world who have never heard of John Piper but faithfully read their Bibles anyway?
A great author to look up is Kenneth Bailey. His books are big and somewhat academic, but he has some great explanations for the trickier passages about women. In particular, regarding women must not speak in church but ask their husbands at home, it’s in the section in order in the church. Kenneth’s experience in the middle east was such that he suggested this was a situation where the women were being unnecessarily disruptive and it was making worship chaotic. They were asking questions and conversing instead of listening. Paul was asking the women to be respectful and not interrupt the speakers.
Kenneth Bailey also has some articles on women as well.
My co-author for The Great Sex Rescue, Joanna Sawatsky, LOVES Bailey and even knows him!
If you had asked me growing up who was the head of our household, I would have automatically said, “My dad!” If you had asked me who kept a steady job, watched our finances, helped me with my homework, did most of the housework, read the Bible to me, talked to me about Jesus, and was just all around more mentally stable, I would have said, “My mom,” and I didn’t see any issue with that until I was older. It’s not that my dad didn’t contribute, he did, but he had severe depression that he wouldn’t get help for, and it manifested in anger, annoyance, and indecisiveness. I was being taught one thing at church (the man is the head) but my family was living the opposite, and I didn’t recognize it at the time. I definitely grew up with a bias believing men were supposed to be in charge.
I am battling with heartache. I love the feeling of home I have at our church. I love feeling rooted and known, a part of the community. Unfortunately I am feeling deep conviction of a “male-elder” leadership model. Women do have leading roles and ability to pastor but our elders and head pastors will only be male “as it is written.” The last section of She Deserves Better has wrecked my heart in the importance of aligning the message we teach at home with the message our daughter observes at church. I don’t believe in hierarchy, especially when based on gender when Christ’s word was given to all of us.