Friday, March 15, 2013

So-Called "Complementarians": The Goofy, the Offensive, and the Obnoxious (Part 1)

What's in a name? A lot, as it happens. "Complementarianism" is a case in point. Over the past few decades this has become the de rigueur term used by traditionalist evangelicals to designate a view on the relationship between men and women or husbands and wives in the home, church, and wider world that more precisely is labeled "patriarchalism." And, as I remarked last year, the adoption of this terminology was a mark of strategic genius. After all, Christian "egalitarians," who argue for mutuality in the husband-wife relationship, certainly don't deny complementarity, and not simply in the (obvious) sexual realm. But by co-opting this term, patriarchalists were able, in one fell swoop, to lump Christian egalitarians with the secular champions of the dreaded "f" word: feminism.

Some years ago my old friend Bill Webb caused quite a stir in evangelical circles with his groundbreaking hermeneutical exploration, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals. In it he distinguished between what he termed "hard patriarchy," which promoted female subservience in every realm of life, and "soft patriarchy," which limited subordination to the realms of family and church. His taxonomy even included a category he called "ultra-soft patriarchy," in which  a practical mutuality is combined with a nominal notion of male "headship" that can, at times, border on a "figureheadship."

I was raised in an environment in which male "headship" was assumed, based on a "common sense" interpretation of the Bible. But the patriarchy I was taught and experienced at home was definitively "soft patriarchy," perhaps even Webb's "ultra-soft" variety. And so I assumed it was with other evangelicals. That was a long time ago, however. In 1987 the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was formed, and recent years have witnessed an increased stridency in the stance of "complementarians." Last year Russell Moore, dean at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, lamented the preponderance of functionally egalitarian Christian families that are "complementarian in name only." Some organizations (e.g., Together for the Gospel) even  consider "complementarianism" to be an essential "truth" with Gospel implications. And it is in this context that defenders of patriarchalism have increasingly felt the need to utter things that, at best, are biblically questionable, and, at worst, are potentially harmful to the church's witness in an increasingly hostile world. Recently I encountered three such examples in the blog of Rachel Held Evans (here and here). I have labeled these "The Goofy, the Offensive, and the Obnoxious." In this post I will consider the example of John Piper, whom I have labeled "The Goofy."

Out the outset, let it be known that I have profited considerably from the work of John Piper. His early scholarly writings on the New Testament (his DTheol dissertation from the University of Munich, Love Your Enemies, and his monograph on Romans 9 entitled The Justification of God) remain helpful, and I have appreciated his combination of theological depth and warm-hearted spirituality. Recently, however, he has manifested the unfortunate penchant for saying things that can only be described as "goofy." Case in point: In 2007 he wrote a blog post designed to argue against women serving in combat positions in the military. His main point comes in the opening paragraph:
If I were the last man on the planet to think so, I would want the honor of saying no woman should go before me into combat to defend my country. A man who endorses women in combat is not pro-woman; he’s a wimp. He should be ashamed. For most of history, in most cultures, he would have been utterly scorned as a coward to promote such an idea. Part of the meaning of manhood as God created us is the sense of responsibility for the safety and welfare of our women.
This is just an appeal to societally-dormant chivalrous instincts. As such, it is hardly a solid body blow, let alone a devastating left hook to the jaw as an argument against women serving in combat. Indeed, I too have concerns in this regard (then again, I have concerns about Christians in general serving in combat capacities), though I must say that chivalry plays little or no role in my own reservations. Piper's argument gets interesting, and a bit weird, when he proceeds to illustrate his point with a curious illustration:
Suppose, I said, a couple of you students, Jason and Sarah, were walking to McDonald’s after dark. And suppose a man with a knife jumped out of the bushes and threatened you. And suppose Jason knows that Sarah has a black belt in karate and could probably disarm the assailant better than he could. Should he step back and tell her to do it? No. He should step in front of her and be ready to lay down his life to protect her, irrespective of competency. It is written on his soul. That is what manhood does. 
According to Piper, men are "hardwired" to protect, and women are "hardwired" to be protected. Men are wired by God to lead; women are wired by God to be led and to submit to male leadership. Thus God-ordained chivalry demands that a man step to the plate and protect the woman even if she is better qualified to act. Anything less would just be the result of the "emasculation" of men "by the suicidal songs of egalitarian folly." Better to be dead than disobedient, I suppose. But that begs the question as to whether or not allowing a qualified woman to act would be disobedience. In my view, viewing the matter in this way is just plain silly, both naive in terms of its explanation of the protecting impulse and an impracticable substitution of male machismo and pride for prudence. And it is at this point that Jenny Rae Armstrong perceptively makes the devastating observation that Piper's view is really only a Christianized Platonism:
This is not to diminish the fact that many men would willingly die to protect their wife, or any woman in the vicinity. But is this because he is a man, because sacrifice and protection is what manhood does? Or is it because he has a godly impulse to defend those he perceives as vulnerable, because he was taught that it is the honorable thing to do? And don’t godly women have that same impulse? Is a man more likely to sacrifice himself for a woman than, say, a woman is to sacrifice herself for a child? (Anyone who can convince themselves of that has clearly never been a mother at a crowded playground.)
I would suggest that society has assigned men the role of protector not because of “divine wiring,” not because God designed men to be more protective and sacrificial (and dare I say “heroic”) than women, but precisely because of those competencies that Piper pish-poshed. Men are, on the whole, bigger, stronger, and sturdier than women. They have more testosterone pumping through their veins. It just makes sense for them to be the protectors, until it doesn’t–until the boogeyman jumps out at Black Belt Sarah, and her scrawny date insists on proving his manhood by leaping in front of her, effectively hindering Sarah and putting everyone at greater risk.
That’s not manhood. That’s prideful and stupid, even if it is sacrificial. And it’s almost certainly going to do more harm than good. ...
The really interesting thing here is that while Piper acknowledges that gender stereotypes do not always line up with reality, and that clinging to traditional gender roles is not always the most efficient, effective way of getting things done, he insists that it is right to cling to them anyway, even at the cost of life, limb, and a competent woman’s conscience. It seems to me that this is because he views masculinity, femininity, and the relationship between men and women as symbolic, almost a Christianized version of Plato’s Theory of Forms. In this paradigm, the individual is subsumed by the ideal, the here-and-now human relationship by the eschatological one it points toward. It doesn’t matter if Sarah has a black belt, and Jason is physically handicapped in some way–the important thing is that they live up to some cosmic ideal of manhood and womanhood, as a way of representing God and humanity’s relationship with Him.
This is, to my mind, completely backwards.
Certainly, the masculine and feminine aspects of humanity reveal something beautiful and important about God’s character, and marriage is often used as an analogy of our relationship with God. When masculinity, femininity, or marriage is in some way diminished, our understanding of God is, as well.
The human tendency, however, is to take this too far; to sort and systematize and simplify gender until all we’re left with is a dry list of desirable characteristics and behaviors assigned to each gender. It’s like the stick-figure men and women used to mark public bathrooms; while we can easily identify which gender they are supposed to represent by the characteristics they portray, they fall impossibly short of the breathtaking beauty and complexity of real human beings. While gender stereotypes do serve an important cultural purpose, we should be wary of turning functional caricatures into cosmic ideals.
When we force people into gender-based boxes, insist that individuals conform to our concept of what men and women are supposed to be, we lose the wonder, the mystery, and the full-orbed expression of God’s image uniquely revealed in each human being. God created us male and female, yes, but He didn’t just create us male and female; he created us Jenny and Aaron, and Jason and Sarah, and John and Noel. All of us reflect God’s image in different ways. And it is very good.
Here’s what it comes down to for me. My gender is not something I perform; it is something I am. Womanhood is not something I do; it is something I live. Femininity does not define me; as a woman created in the image of God, I define it, in community with my sisters. When we reduce manhood and womanhood to a list of characteristics, behaviors, and roles assigned to each gender, we are not defending masculinity and femininity; instead, we are diminishing and impoverishing them.
One also wonders what women Piper has in mind that are supposedly hard-wired to submit and be led. In my experience these are few in number. And this is due, not merely to the prevailing winds of modern Western culture, but to a fundamental theological reason as well. Indeed, in the narrative of the primeval fall in Genesis 3, God answers the sin of the first human pair with words of judgment. The judgment on the woman reads as follows (Gen 3:16):
I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.
This text always perplexed me, until I learned in seminary that the juxtaposition of the words for "desire" (teshuqah) and "rule" (mashal) only occurred here and in Genesis 4:7 where, in an identical grammatical construction, God tells Cain that sin's "desire is for you, but you must rule over it." The point could not be clearer: both the woman's desire to dominate and her consequent subordination under the man (i.e., his successful attempt to achieve de facto dominance over the woman) are the result of the fall and not part of God's creation design. Any "hard-wiring" that exists is one in which each selfishly strives to control the other. That is the ugly consequence of innate human fallenness.

This means two things. First, it is at least possible that the strident attempt of certain patriarchalists to maintain clear lines of authority and hierarchy between women and men in the home, church, and (for some) society amounts to an attempt to perpetuate the conditions of the Fall despite the advent of the new creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Messiah. In a very significant text in his earliest letter, St. Paul utilizes (probably) baptismal language to articulate the status of God's eschatological covenant people now that he has fulfilled his covenant with Abraham and brought about the advent of the promised new creation: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28). This is not simply a statement of equal access to the benefits of "justification." After all, were not men and women equally members of God's covenant people under the old covenant? Indeed, the key to understanding the text is that Paul does not write, as one might have expected, "there is neither male nor female" (ouk eni arsen oude thēly), but rather "there is no male and female" (ouk eni arsen kai thēly). What he has done is allude directly to the LXX of Genesis 1:27, where "male and female" defines the "Adam" created by God on the sixth "day" of creation. The point is that the events of the gospel have brought the new creation into being. And at the very least, the perspective provided by gospel must be seen as ultimately overthrowing any pattern of authority or domination consequent upon the Fall.

Second, it suggests that unnecessary patriarchal assumptions lie behind the standard "complementarian" interpretation of the story of woman's creation in Genesis 2:18-25. This intriguing text reads as follows:
The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
    for she was taken out of man.
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
The complementarity of man and woman is clear from the status of the woman as a "helper corresponding to" ('ezer kenegdo) the man. This is not in dispute. Indeed, we ought not minimize the sexual differentiation implied by the expression. The very point is that it is as others that the man and the woman were made for each other. Nevertheless, to extrapolate from this the notion that men and women must have clearly demarcated roles and places in the domestic and cultural hierarchy is to read too much into the text. Likewise, to see in the noun "helper" an indication of subordination ignores the use of the same term with reference to Yahweh's own status as Israel's "helper" (e.g., Gen 49:25). In fact, as the story of the fashioning of the woman from the man's "rib" (tsela') indicates, the emphasis of the text is more on the similarity of man and woman and their possession of an identical nature (so, e.g., Henri Blocher, In the Beginning [Downers Grove: IVP, 1984] 98) than on their gendered differentiation, let alone any hierarchy putatively deriving therefrom. And the "oneness" that results from the marriage of a man and a woman points to a mutuality in which any struggle for domination is absent.

Of course, even though "the present form (schēma) of this world is passing away (1 Cor 7:31)," we still live in it, and some of the structures nevertheless remain, even if Christian adaptation to these structures must at times deconstruct them (more on this anon). But what we can't do is act as if the new creation has not arrived on the scene to provide the ultimate perspective from which to view reality. And so it is with the roles of men and women. The biblical teaching on this subject is indeed a difficult one to sort out, which at least partially explains the flood of literature on the subject. Indeed, I would argue that the different ways various evangelical interpreters understand that teaching is due to different ways of reading the Biblei.e., it ultimately is a matter of hermeneutics rather than one of biblical authority. But one thing we can't do is to confuse medieval chivalry with the Bible's witness, no matter how tempting it might be for some to do so.


  1. Hey, thanks for your kind words, and for this great post! I just linked to it from Facebook. Looking forward to the third installment!