Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Rachel Held Evans versus John Piper: Advantage Evans

Earlier this month on her blog, Rachel Held Evans posted a helpful series she called "Week of Mutuality."  In case you hadn't heard — are there any such oblivious people still out there? — a somewhat acrimonious split has occurred in today's Evangelicalism between opposing parties who are usually called "complementarians" and "egalitarians" with regard to male-female relationships in the home, church, and world at large.

Such labeling was something of a stroke of marketing genius on the part of conservatives, who could thereby associate Christian advocates of equality of status and roles for men and women/husbands and wives with the more egregious positions of secular "feminists," for whom gender differentiation is nothing more than a human, cultural construct.  Yet Christian "egalitarians" certainly do not deny innate gender differentiation outside the obvious reproductive realm (at least in broad strokes).  Nor do they deny "complementarity."  As a result, Evans, following the lead of such scholars as Scot McKnight, have preferred to speak of "mutuality."  Such a designation has the advantage of referencing the biblical injunction to mutual submission (Eph 5:21) and division of roles and responsibilities based more on giftedness and spiritual/educational qualifications than on mere biological differentiation.

By stressing "complementarity," conservatives have, until recently, deemphasized the hierarchical authoritarian structure of what is more accurately referred to as "patriarchalism," "hierarchicalism," or "androcentrism."  The reason for this is obvious: "patriarchy" is just too offensive a term to be of much help in the current cultural climate.  Better to stress divinely-designed complementary roles, even if the roles assigned to the female half of the population are ultimately subordinate to those assigned to their male counterparts.  Such roles have at least the putative warrant of Scripture (faithfulness to Scripture: check), and hold out the prospect of a blessed life  in keeping with God's supposed design for women ("fulfillment" in life: check).

Somewhat surprisingly, the patriarchalists have grown ever more feisty over the past couple of decades, perhaps glorying in a distinction that confirms their self-perceived counter-cultural stance (counter-cultural on this issue, at least).  One group for which patriarchalism has become something of a litmus test for orthodoxy is the newly-resurgent neo-Calvinist movement.  The group, "Together for the Gospel," for instance, has even included an article on "complementarianism" as one of its 18 fundamental "Affirmations and Denials" that supposedly have direct bearing on the truth of the gospel in this age of "theological and spiritual crisis in the Church."  Just this month, Denny Burk of Boyce College explicitly flew the "patriarchalist" banner, claiming scriptural authority.  More recently, Russell Moore, dean at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, who had previously written an article defending the "patriarchal" label, lamented what he saw as "paper complementarians" living functionally egalitarian lives.  In the same panel discussion, Greg Gilbert, pastor of the Third Baptist Church in Louisville, made the charge that egalitarianism corrodes the authority of Scripture and — note the slippery slope logic! — threatens the integrity of the gospel message itself.

The attraction of Calvinists to patriarchalism is not surprising to me.  I am a Calvinist because of exegesis and my own existential awareness of the depths of my own sinfulness.  But Calvinism, like patriarchalism, is certainly counterintuitive to anyone raised in the postmodern West.  And the "manliness" — indeed, the apparent harshness — of some Calvinist dogmas certainly appeals to a certain sort of Christian temperament.  It is likewise compatible with the androcentrism of patriarchalism and amenable to people hard-wired to a conservative outlook on life.  But any Calvinist worth his or her salt should realize that the complementarian/egalitarian debate has little, if any, relevance to the integrity of the gospel message rightly understood (indeed, Scot McKnight would argue that the salvation-historical focus of the gospel leads to the opposite view).

I was raised in a fundamentalist environment in which patriarchalism was assumed.  I did my theological education at Dallas Seminary, where patriarchalism was held, though at least it was argued for.  What I came to realize is that not all patriarchalists are cut from the same cloth.  Indeed, my friend Bill Webb, an avowed egalitarian who paid the price for his hard-fought views by losing his seminary teaching job, made a distinction that has proved very helpful for definitional purposes.  In his groundbreaking book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, Webb distinguished between "hard patriarchy," which promoted female subservience in every realm of life, and "soft patriarchy," which limited subordination to the realms of family and church.  He even spoke of an "ultra-soft patriarchy," in which mutuality is combined with a nominal notion of male "headship" that can, at times, border on a "figureheadship."  The patriarchy I was taught and experienced in the home in which I was raised was definitively of this latter type.  And so I assumed it was with other evangelicals.

But I was wrong, as I was reminded by Evans this morning.  The "Calvin's Institutes" of the complementarian movement is a multi-author work published back in 1991 entitled Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem and including articles by such scholars as Don Carson, Vern Poythress, and Doug Moo.  It has been more than a decade since I last read some of its articles.  Since that time I had somehow forgotten some of the more extreme stances taken in some of the articles.  Not surprisingly, one such article was written by John Piper, who earlier this year made quite a stir by promoting "the masculine feel" of biblical Christianity (for my response, see here).  Evans quotes Piper in one of his clearest statements:
There are roles that strain the personhood of man and woman too far to be appropriate, productive, and healthy for the overall structure of home and society.  Some roles would involve kinds of leadership and expectations of authority and forms of strength as to make it unfitting for a woman to fill that role.
This, my friends, is hard patriarchy at its most explicit and blatant.  And such hard patriarchalism has little, if any, claim to be the teaching of Scripture and the ideal for the people of God who live as microcosms of the irrupting, macrocosmic new heavens and new earth.  There are texts which certainly can be used as prima facie evidence for what Webb terms "soft patriarchalism" (classic here are such texts as Eph 5:22 and 1 Tim 2:12-14).  And I would maintain that "ultra-soft patriarchy," in which the "authority" inherent in its vestigial hierarchicalism has been deconstructed along the lines of Jesus' teaching in Mark 10, is certainly a viable position.  I would argue, however, that the evidence in favor of perpetual patriarchy is not nearly as univocal or as universal as its supporters imagine (for those interested, I would suggest reading Scot McKnight's The Blue Parakeet and his recent e-book, Junia Is Not Alone), and that a nuanced mutuality that embraces complementarity is likewise viable. 

Indeed, the hermeneutical and exegetical issues are too complex and difficult to come to such dogmatic and, frankly, irresponsible positions as are propagated by such men as Piper and Gilbert.  The authority of Scripture is not at issue here, as such men suggest.  Even less is the gospel at stake.  But, to turn the tables, what might be at stake when such hard patriarchy is taught is the credibility of the gospel to 50% of the world's population.  Zeal in the defense of what one believes to be God's truth is only praiseworthy if it is accompanied by humility and actually coheres with that truth.  And to encumber the gospel with illegitimate accretions of human imagination is both irresponsible and tragic.

When my wife and I raised our two daughters, we told them they could be anything they wanted to be.  They are both now married to wonderful guys and work as an economist and a nurse.  Words cannot express how proud we are of them.  When my older daughter was asked by our pastor in her pre-marital counseling which of her parents acted as the "head" of the house, she responded, "Neither. They both were equal."  Russell Moore would be distressed by such a situation.  I, however, as one who knows how much more gifted his wife is than he in so many areas, am proud of that.  And I can only shudder to think what would have become of my girls had they associated Christianity with the hard patriarchalism of Piper and company.


  1. ... and for admitting your daughter saw you as equal to your wife, Mark Driscoll will now ridicule you for not being enough of a man.

    Excellent write-up, Doc. I'll be sharing this post

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