The future of complementarianism (2): the search for the One True Complementarianism

This is the second post in Mark’s series on the future of complementarianism. (Read part 1.)

The second observation is that the debate over the place of gender in public ministry and the husband/wife relationship is more complex than it can appear on the surface. As I suggested in my previous series, underneath the term ‘egalitarian’ there are a huge number of mutually contradictory positions held for a wide range of mutually contradictory reasons. Underneath the term ‘complementarian’ appears to be a smaller number of positions but which seem to be increasingly concerned to differentiate themselves from each other and which are about as quick to shoot each other for being chauvinistic as they are for being too close to egalitarianism.

In time I think it is possible that we will see the appearance of substantially different ‘complementarianisms’ that put energy into defining themselves against each other about as much as they do against egalitarianism. It’ll be something like the years after the Reformation where Reformed and Lutheran, Presbyterian and Anglican magnified the internal differences between themselves almost as much as they did the differences between themselves and Catholicism. In 15 or 20 years it is possible that ‘complementarian’ will need qualifying much like ‘evangelical’ does today; the word on its own won’t be clear or precise enough to communicate to others where you stand on the questions of the day. As egalitarianism and complementarianism increasingly part ways on the structural level and stop talking to each other or interacting with each other, the differences within the two camps will become more significant. In a series of posts in 2010, I highlighted how some of that might affect egalitarianism as it moves from being a reform movement to being the defender of its new status quo. But the Piper controversy highlights how I think it might affect complementarianism: we’re going to be dinky-di Protestants, and split off from each other.

At the moment, two of the fracture lines within complementarianism are how broad the limits on women’s authority extend, and why they exist. That is, one debate is over what practical position we should have (what should women do and not do?). The other debate is over the reasons why the commands exist at all.

On the first question, of what should practically happen, some complementarians want women to have no authority over men in any sphere: no female heads of state, police officers, judges or employers. Others want that limitation on womanly authority itself limited to church and home—in those spheres (and those spheres only) women are to have no authority over men. And then some complementarians don’t want women to have no authority over men in marriage and church, and would be happy for women to have some roles in church and home that might be considered by at least some to be authority laden—preach to men under the authority of a male senior pastor, publicly read the Bible or pray, lead church services, head up ministries like evangelism or Sunday School, be the primary wage earner—but distinguish others where women should not have authority (and which items in that representative list I mentioned goes into which camp itself varies from complementarian to complementarian). And then some complementarians are in between these two groups. When Sarah Palin was selected as the American vice-presidential candidate for the Republican party in 2008, I noticed that there was consternation in the States among some complementarians at the prospect of a woman President (as Palin would have needed to step up as President if anything happened to the former occupant of the office). But these same people would quite possibly be okay with a woman employer or judge. This group doesn’t see the NT restrictions as limited simply to the home and church, but they don’t see them applying to all of civic life either. They’re a half-way position between the first two groups.

That’s a pretty big fracture line, because it involves what the commands in the Bible mean in practice and what obedience to them requires. And that can raise the kind of conscience issues that I suggested in the previous series between complementarians and egalitarians. What do you do if you think that women simply should not head up any ministry, or read the Bible publicly, or pray publicly, or preach to men but that’s the practice of your church? Complementarians rightly invest significant energy into working out what they can live with in this area, and what is simply too far from faithfulness to their understanding of Scripture’s commands for them to be able to accept it.

The other fracture line is over the reason given for the limitations on women’s authority over men. This kicks in when someone asks, “Why does God command this? How is this good for us?” On this debate (and this is the one that raised its head with Piper’s talk), I currently think I can see four rough positions floating around.

1. Chauvinism

Some complementarians have a genuinely chauvinistic position. They think women are inherently less capable than men—less rational, less emotionally robust, too prone to value people over truth, more easily deceived, and the like—and that this indicates a genuine inferiority of the female gender compared to the male. Women simply are less able than men in the areas that really matter. By normal usage of language, that’s a classic ‘male chauvinist’ viewpoint—men genuinely are superior to women. However, and this is where things get interesting, these complementarians still think women are ‘equal’ to men.  This is because they hold that God values women the same, that women are equally in the image of God, that women have the same dignity, the same honour, should receive the same respect. If you like, their view is that women are ‘inferior but equal’.

While I strongly disagree with this position (and in the past wouldn’t even recognize it as a valid complementarian view at all), I have come to realize that it is an important positive contribution to the debate. By disconnecting worth and dignity from capability so strongly, this form of complementarianism does yeoman service in protecting, not just women, but also the physically and mentally disabled, and the mediocre-in-talent (as well as men in general) from the present tendency to value people by what they can do. I take umbrage at its view of women as being inferior to men but I think its strong stance (that genuine inferiority in ability doesn’t make you any less valuable or honourable as a person) is an important balm when egalitarianism tends to buy into the view that women can only be equal to men if they are ‘as good as the men’—which has a terrible implication for those people in our society (men, women, children, the aged, the unborn, the disabled ) who aren’t ‘as good as the men’ and never will be. The ‘inferior but equal’ crowd are, to my mind, the enfant terrible of complementarianism—male chauvinists at one level, and yet, at their best, champions of the worth, value and dignity of the genuinely inferior at another. Given the cruelty of egalitarianism’s linking of worth to ability for those who are genuinely interior in ability, even the male chauvinist complementarians are doing something truly important in this debate.

2. Grounded in gender

Some complementarians (and I’d put Piper somewhere around here) seem to point to basically intrinsic traits that distinguish men from women—grounding the reason for the commandments in masculinity and femininity. Like the first group, they seem to suggest that men are a bit more natural at being the kinds of things that leadership in the church requires (although it needs to be acknowledged that Piper, in the ‘offending’ talk, made it clear that he sees the commands as about responsibility not ability, so there’s some nuancing in his position that needs acknowledging). They might even point to the same things as the first group. Where this group is different from the first, is that they don’t attach any sense of superiority to these qualities. The qualities that make you a good leader in the home or in the church (and maybe, for some people in this position, in other spheres beyond those two) make you a good leader but that’s all they do. They don’t make you superior in some kind of more global judgement. Men and women, on this view, are typically better at different things than the other gender, and often have to work at their weak area, but that is merely difference and not superiority or inferiority in overall ability (and hence, it goes without saying that it doesn’t attach any sense of value or dignity to such abilities either). This group also brings something important to the table in my opinion—they witness to the fact that being a leader is not the ‘gold standard’ for human beings, as though leaders are, overall, more capable and able and talented, than the people under their authority. Again, our society, and egalitarianism, is often deeply confused on this point and can make statements that suggest that only if women can lead like men are they truly being recognised to be as capable as men—which has disastrous implications for those people (men or women) who have no leadership ability and never will be leaders. Someone can be very capable, very talented, very intelligent, and not be well suited to wielding authority in a particular sphere of life. So the stance of this kind of complementarianism is an important corrective as well. Natural followers are not inferior to leaders—certainly not in worth and dignity, and not necessarily in ability and talent. That seemed to me to be an implication of Piper’s overarching point in the talk in question: leadership is about responsibility primarily, not ability—the ‘masculine feel’ of Christianity is because men have the responsibility to take the pole position in key areas involved in public ministry in the church, and is not because only men have the ability to do that.

The other two groupings are, in my view, far more amorphous, and so it’s going to be hard to say anything as substantially positive about what they contribute as what I’ve attempted for the first two groups. I think that it is probably fair to say that they are motivated by a sense of how much any kind of complementarianism is a ‘hard word’ for moderns, and so seek to find a form of complementarianism that does not stumble even the least with anything more than what Scripture absolutely and clearly requires. I think that’s a virtue too, but I can understand that some people might disagree on that point.

3. Having your cake and eating it

The third in my ‘group of four’ is where I’d put myself. This constellation of views is sympathetic to the attempts of Piper and others to see that commands about men and women probably need to have some ground in the qualities of women as a group and men as a group. But it’s acutely conscious that if you break down ‘leadership’ or ‘wielding authority’ into its component tasks, some women can do those tasks as well as many men who are recognized as qualified for the role. ‘Masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are not points but a fairly wide range, and it’s not as though the men who should be leaders are the ones who display no ‘feminine’ qualities (which, to be fair, was something Piper clearly acknowledged as well in the Q & A after the talk). So this grouping of views wants some way of grounding these commands on maleness and femaleness, but it also wants some distance between the intrinsic essence of the genders and the commands. It wants its cake, and it wants to dig in and make a pig of itself in the eating of it. Various people have their theories about how that could work, with varying degrees of having worked it through. Whereas the second group grounds the commands in maleness and femaleness directly, this group seems to be trying to find a way to do that indirectly.

4. Minimalists

The last group are what I tend to think of as the ‘minimalist’ complementarians. Here the concern seems to be to hold to the biblical commands, but to keep the commands as distant as possible from anything that smacks of the arguments of the first two groups we’ve looked at—of saying that part of the reason for the commands is that men might be more capable in some areas than women. Some offer fairly ‘thin’ accounts of the rationale behind the commands (God says it and we should accept that it’s good without developing too extensive a theology of gender to justify the commands). Others offer more exotic explanations. Perhaps the most unusual I’ve heard being that men are bad at being sacrificially other-centred, so God calls on women to step back so men can learn to be servants through leading like Christ—which grounds the commands in the intrinsic spiritual weakness of men in a stimulating, if somewhat quixotic, twist on the arguments of the first of my two groups of complementarians. This view seems to head directly at the Scylla of a female chauvinist explanation in its attempts to escape the clutches of the Charybdis of a male chauvinist explanation.

Both questions—what should women do and not do and in what spheres, and why do the limits exist—really matter, and the position in each of the two fault-lines can interact in a way that can generate a surprisingly wide variety of views, even among complementarians who all agree on how the relevant biblical texts should be read. And it’s not unusual for complementarians to see their particular combination of answers to the two questions as the One True Complementarianism, and to get a bit aggro about other positions for either being too close to misogyny or too close to egalitarianism. There is, at this point in time, and I think it will be with us for some time to come, a search for the One True Complementarianism taught by the Bible.

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