Psychology, the Bible and Church

Science as a means to clarify textual interpretations

Psychology and Sociology are not precise sciences. However, they are disciplines that have made very important contributions to understanding human beings. In the Church they have often been viewed (along with other sciences) with skepticism. Sometimes the skepticism is legitimate, sometimes it isn’t. This is perhaps down to a difference in understanding what the bible is and what psychology is and the modes in which each operate. The bible is descriptive but also prescriptive (though the hermeneutics of that prescription is more complex than it might seem), while psychology is descriptive (for the most part, and when it isn’t it should be). Diagram of human head

The interpretation of texts in relation to prescriptive validity found in the New Testament as applied to our life now requires the use of wisdom and sometimes scientific tools to help us apply the meaning of research to our hermeneutics. As such the discipline of psychology allows us to articulate a more encompassing hermeneutic in relation to culturally contentious biblical passages. That does not mean that psychology or its research outcomes are truer than the bible. What the claim does say however, is that hermeneutics can be helped by scientific insight.

For example, if it is true that the earth orbits the sun then numerous biblical passages might be contradictory to the findings of science, a truth Galileo was rudely awakened to. The arrogance of the church at that time was a problem. It did not want to admit that passages in the bible are not ‘literally’ true.

Listen closely now. They are true, given that the language which contradicted Galileo was poetic and had a poetic meaning, however they where ‘non-exactly true’ (as opposed to exactly true). However, if the church at the time of the enlightenment would have been humble enough to recognize this very simple distinction, perhaps Galileo would not have had such a hard time. This tension is something that literary criticism and psychology can defuse, if used humbly.

The Bible and Psychology: Gender roles and Personality types

Red shoes Both the bible and psychology have much to offer church life. So it is with this in mind that I want to add some observations (in the form of information) to my pastor’s sermon as well as his short articulation for the vision of ‘all age church’ last sunday. I would only add that the outline of the vision given was based on a sociological description of how church and church planting tend to work, so it should not be a surprise that I am more than comfortable reaching to psychology in this blog post to relate it to a good sermon we had on 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.

Our pastor did a good job in clarifying what the passage was about. He noted that the Observer (and other newspapers) had trashed the reputation of the pastor of a church sympathetic to conservative views that differentiate the role of men and women in church. The pastor had recently spoken on this and similar passage. Needless to say those are controversial views in our times.

The title of one of the articles was ‘Vicar: Women should shut up’ and stated that the pastor of this Kent church had spoken out in support of Reforms webpage on women and the local church. I have not read the Reform article yet, but I can imagine that both Guardian readers and Church of England parishioners used to a weak diet of biblical teaching will have been shocked and offended especially since the articles seem to take the text and quotes out of context.

Who knows, the pastor might not have couched what he said in terms that would resonate with the role of biblical manhood, which is to love your wife just as Christ loved the church (i.e. dying on a cross for her). If he did not, shame on him. Either way, its not really a news story, its trashy campaign journalism relating to other issues going on in the Anglican communion at the moment, and the authors judgment stinks. (Edit: Possible hypocrisy comes out: The Reform pamphlet was written by a woman! )

The affirmation of the biblical prescription

Woman Wearing a Suit

I got so much love to give, I just dont know where to put it.

Anyhow, our pastor affirmed the principles behind what Paul was prescribing for the Corinthian church. While not requiring women to cover their heads, he said that men and women are different, have different roles in the family and the church and that this can be argued from nature and from other books of the Bible.

He maintained very strongly that such passages had been used in the past to justify immoral, repulsive behaviour towards a spouse and such behaviour was wrong. This emphasis is important, because it puts us in the right frame of reference. I agreed with what he said in relation to how we should apply this specific text now, though I would like to add some observations of my own in relation to what it means to be a man or woman in awe of God. I also want to relate these thoughts specifically to gender stereotyping, personality traits and some of Sandra Bem’s research. (Please note, I don’t agree with all of what she says, but bare in mind her work is descriptive, not necessarily prescriptive.)

Men and Women are different but what is that difference?

It is true. Men and Women are different and it is good that they should be recognized to be different in church. However, man and woman complement each other and are reliant on each other, so just as Eve came from Adam, so man is born by a woman. But it is not right that a man should try and seem like a woman in church because it implies that gender differences, and responsibilities of each gender are not important to God. They are.

Without wanting to mitigate the existence of androgyny, which can be very problematic evidence indeed for a simple male/female view of the world and quite rightly so, I do want to say that the simple view of the world is a normative one, and will not need to be questioned by many of us. What Paul was talking about in the Corinthians passage related to gender norms, which is a term used in the social sciences to denote contracted symbols that are culturally relative and show that a man is a man and a woman is a woman. These are as simple as clothing, but can be as complex as the type of work one engages in.

The insight of psychological research

People who promote the idea of gender role theory in psychology, such as Sandra Bem, say that a number of differences between men and women are socially constructed. So the idea that men go out and are the bread winners, while women stay at home and do the house-work is very culturally specific and was probably inaccurate for most of the existence of creation. The fact that blue is a boy’s colour and pink a girl’s colour is another such example. So when St. Paul was talking about how people should dress, he was talking about how they should appear to the greater social expectation of what it means to look like a woman and what it means to look like a man. These are separate from masculine and feminine traits.

Filipino Devotees Crowd Onto The Streets For Procession Of The Black Nazarene

What did Jesus really look like?

Masculine and feminine traits as well as gender roles of male and female in gender role theory make up what a man or a woman should be like according to culture. And here is where it gets complicated, especially in relation to cultural norms and the fruits of the Spirit. Most fruits of the Spirit tend to be viewed as feminine traits by our culture. Conversely many masculine traits we would not necessarily describe as Christian behaviour, such as aggression, dominance and forcefulness. There are also neutral traits, which don’t fall into either the masculine or feminine category. These are shared cultural characteristics.

According to Bem people are made up of a mixture of masculine, feminine and neutral traits. So we might have a man, who is quiet, caring, unaggressive, introverted, speaks quietly, but well on issues he is comfortable with. Then we might know an outspoken woman, who can be quite forceful in a social crowd and is unafraid to be the centre of attention. What I have just described are not unknown character types. We could probably name a person who fits that description, and yet the Pauline passage is not saying that who they are, and how they where shaped (in relation to gender roles and masculine and feminine traits) is in any way wrong. Or that their behaviour in some way contradicts the image of biblical manhood and womanhood. So it is right to say that our outword gender roles, in relation to dress and other behaviour should conform to the cultural standards as to make sure that the male and female distinction is kept, but it is equally important to ensure that people can be different and assume feminine or masculine traits, within their gender.

Why this matters

The idea that manhood and womanhood is on a continuum, and that it is good for men to have feminine traits or that it is good for women to have masculine traits along with their feminine and neutral traits opens up the possibility that biblical manhood or womanhood looks like a verity of people. It means that we do not all have to somehow conform to the pseudo-platonic form of “manhood” and “womanhood.” Recognizing that the church body, the bride of Christ, is made up of a verity of people, whether male or female, ensures that the finger, does not have to be like the eye. And it allows the eye, to say: “I don’t have to be a finger and that’s ok, its just not who I am.”

Please notice that this argument is also based on the idea that difference is good, hence it is good to differentiate between men and women. It is also ok to generalise as long as we do so loosely and with caveats. Equally it is good not to be passive in our understanding of ourselves, but rather to be active and recognize that change in how personality traits are used can mean we fulfill our role as men and women in a  better way. This is especailly important in relation to sanctification and the fruits of the Spirit.

The church, people’s skills and personality types

This leads me to the less gender specific but still important differentiation of personality types, such as those measured by the Myers-Briggs typology test. Our pastor reminded us that we are a missional church. We exist for people who usually don’t do church. He described four instances or places in time where people are in relation to our church and its functioning. We tend to go from contacts (people who have come once), to the crowd (people who come sometimes), to consumers (people who pay their fee, like at a gym) and end at contributors (the 20% who do the work). He talked about how it is the goal of our church to move people along from the continuum toward the centre to become contributors so the church can grow and then ultimately, replant another church, and take some of the contributors with it. Portrait of a Balding Priest in a Habit Pointing at Himself

He and the team of elders he leads/is a part of want to equip people to move in the right direction for what ever gifts they might have. In this vein I would like to commend a book, which uses the Introvert/Extrovert model to showcase how different people with these personality types can thrive towards the goal. The book is called Introverts in the Church and a review can be found at Out of the Cocoon. In relation to this subject the spotlight should shine on a blog post article written by Dr. Richard Beck on his blog Experimental Theology. Beck is a Christian experimental psychologist, who seems like he is an authority in theology and psychology.

Lone House on a Prairie

Introverts like this sort of place

He answers the issue of whether introverts fit in the church and distinguishes between liturgical churches and sociable churches (we are very much a sociable church). He points out that introverts and extroverts fit fine into liturgical churches, but that introverts sometimes have a harder time in sociable churches, and that they are often misunderstood and labeled unsociable (which they are not, its just they dont like big groups), which then might be assumed to mean they are un-spiritual (or dont want to spend time ‘at church’.) In other words the underlying assumption is that Spirituality = Sociability. Beck makes some good recommendations about how to address the issues, clarify the misconception and offers ways to move on.

Life on the prairie

Science and knowledge are important to our lives. No christian believes, or at least acts, as if the only things we ever need to know, are in the bible. Drivers stop at red lights. Children are hugged and houses are made out of red brick and have plumbing. So it should come as no surprise that psychology and other imprecise sciences also can add much to better out lives and understanding of biblical texts. Lets embrace what is true where ever we find it.

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One Response to Psychology, the Bible and Church

  1. Pingback: Woo me, baby « Fiction and the Reading Public

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