[For previous installments in this series, see here and here.]
Owen Strachan is Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College (the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) in Louisville, Kentucky. He earned his Ph.D. in Historical Theology from TEDS in 2011, has written six books, and is the Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He is clearly, with this resume, an intelligent and diligent man with a firm commitment to Christ and the furtherance of the gospel.
He is also just 31 years old. And his public proclamations over the past couple of years have been such that to characterize him as a Neo-Fundamentalist pit bull pup running loose in the Evangelical playground would hardly be an exaggeration. Just last month he hammered Messiah College professor Eric Seibert, who posted a three part series on Pete Enns's blog (for the first installment, see here) challenging the Old Testament's violent portrayals of God (earlier Seibert had written two books on the subject, The Violence of Scripture and Disturbing Divine Behavior). It is not the fact that Strachan criticised Seibert. I, too, though not untroubled by the texts Seibert discusses, disagree with the solution he offers, not least because of the Marcionite tendency he manifests. Rather, it is the way he went about it. As Enns himself pointed out, Strachan implicitly but clearly called for Seibert's ouster at the Anabaptist (!) institution. And, as one who has personally felt the pain of the left foot of fellowship, I consider that to be crossing the line.
But it is Strachan's clearly relished role as defender of traditional—he would say "biblical"—gender roles that calls out for special mention here. My criticism today is not directed against his "complementarianism" per se, even if his brand of "complementarianism" is of the hierarchical, "strong patriarchy" type, to use Bill Webb's taxonomy. Indeed, I myself, while adhering to what I would term "complementary mutuality," don't have too much of a bone to pick with those who, based on such texts as Ephesians 5:22-33, would adhere to what Webb called an "ultra-soft patriarchy" in which vestigial marital hierarchy is deconstructed both by Paul's call for believers' mutual submission (Eph 5:21) and the example of Christ's loving sacrificial service for his "bride," the church (Eph 5:25-33). Where I take issue with Strachan is his insistence on the perpetuation of stereotypical male/female roles and activities within the home—after all, I would argue, nontraditional roles are fully compatible even within a soft patriarchal framework of family relationships—and on the troglodytic legalism with which he would enforce that perpetuation.
Strachan first entered the fray in November of 2011 when he took issue with, of all things, a humorous (and clearly tongue-in-cheek) Tide commercial about a "Dad Mom" who stayed at home "being awesome" while his wife was out working to provide for the family. Strachan, in high dudgeon, termed the bloke a "Man Fail" for abdicating his divinely designed "creational responsibilities." He later fleshed out his criticisms in an essay in the Spring 2012 edition of the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and a Moody Radio Program debate in September of 2012. According to Strachan, "a broad biblical theology" indicates that "men are called to be leaders, providers, protectors and women are nurturers.” Men are to be leaders. Women are meant to be followers, both in the home and at church. Hence, biblically-defined roles are set in stone: "[Christianity] does indeed offer us models for manhood and womanhood, scripts for how we should live out our days to the glory of God in our sex, our gender. Men must not shun the work of provision for their wives and children; this role is given them of God. Women must not demean homemaking and child-raising; such is their inheritance from the Lord." As Christians it is not for us to "re-envision the family ... Our call is to be faithful, to inhabit the part given us to play in God’s cosmic drama. Men can image Christ the savior king by folding laundry on occasion, by getting down on the floor to play with their kids, and by doing the dishes when they can. But they must commit themselves primarily to the work of provision, whether of spiritual leadership in the home or financial breadwinning to sustain it."
In support, Strachan cites three lines of evidence from the Biblical text:
- The man's role as provider and leader is a "creational responsibility" illustrated by his naming the animals and "taking dominion."
- The primary sphere of activity intended by God for men and women is cursed in Genesis 3 as a result of the primeval fall into sin. Man, the provider, had the ground cursed so as to turn his work into painful, sweaty toil. Woman, the nurturer whose "primary sphere of labor and dominion-taking" was the home, was judged by virtue of pain in her childbearing.
- Paul instructs women to be "workers at home" (Tit 2:5), and encourages young widows to “marry, bear children, (and) manage their households" (1 Tim 5:14).
The first of Strachan's arguments is hardly convincing. In the Genesis narrative, the naming of the animals occurs before Eve was even created, and his ultimate naming of the woman, after God had put Adam to sleep, was intended (by the clear word-play involved) to indicate that Eve was like Adam rather than the animals over whom humanity—male and female alike—were given dominion in the creation narrative of Genesis 1. There is nothing explicit in Genesis 1 or 2 that indicates subordination, let alone any type of creational "role" such as male "protection" or "provision" to be played by one partner over against the other. Such things must be read into the text and, as such, cannot be made the basis for legalisms of the sort Strachan advocates.
The second of Strachan's arguments is perplexing on a number of levels. I will focus on but one. Surely childbearing and childrearing are fundamental roles played by women both in the Bible and in human existence over the thousands and thousands of years of human existence. Who questions this? Moreover, the emphasis on woman's childbearing role (Gen 3:16) fits nicely in context as a followup to the Protevangelium announced in the previous verse (Gen 3:15). But does this necessarily mean that childbirth and childrearing (or, "principlized" to refer to domesticity) is woman's primary role, to which everything else must be sacrificed? No doubt the exigencies of life throughout most of human history led to this being the woman's primary, if not exclusive, role in most instances. But what Strachan has not done, and I would argue cannot do, is to demonstrate the prescriptive implications of this text. This is all the more significant if, as I argued last time, the "rule" of the husband over the wife (Gen 3:16) is the result of God's judgment of humanity for the primeval fall. Strachan, as a good Calvinist, might argue that the woman's pain in childbirth and the man's toil by the sweat of his brow are what paradoxically bring God glory. But eschatology—particularly the inaugurated eschatology according to which the curse of the fall is being reversed because of the Christ event—must take precedence here. Perpetuation of the curse is not what Christianity is about.
Strachan's third argument hardly fares any better. To put it plainly: Strachan assumes what he has to prove, namely, that Paul's instructions in these texts are prescriptively and restrictively transcultural rather than situationally-specific. Indeed, the context of Paul's advice in 1 Timothy 5:14 is one in which younger widows were gadding about, on the church's dole, gossiping, desiring marriage (to unbelievers?) and even abandoning the faith (cf. vv. 9-16). In light of this the apostle tells Timothy to instruct younger widows to "marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no room for slander." Even without considering the options available for women in the ancient world, one wonders how "managing a household" (oikodespotein) precludes work outside the sphere of the home any more than a prospective elder's "managing" or "directing one's household" (oikou prostēnai) must demand it (1 Tim 3:4-5).
The situation is likewise with regard to Titus 2:5. Paul instructs Titus to instruct older women to teach young women (tas neas, likely those in their 20s) "to be self-controlled, pure, working at home (oikourgous), kind, and submissive to their own husbands." Certainly it is right and proper to glean from this verse that women ought to own up to their domestic responsibilities. But does this mean that this is the woman's "proper sphere," and that to work outside the home to the extent that her husband must share in household duties is "unbiblical?" Much could be said in this regard. I will limit myself to one point, viz., the reason Paul gives for his instruction both here and in Titus 2:10, where he likewise instructs slaves to be submissive to their masters. Young women ought to be morally upright, attending to their domestic duties, and submissive to their husbands in order that (hina) the word of God may not be reviled. Slaves likewise should be submissive in order that they might adorn the doctrine of God our Savior. The gospel message, in other words, is at stake. In everything we should be careful to act in such a way that we don't give needless offense to the culture in which we live and thus hinder the spread of the gospel. It is at this point that the words of New Testament scholar Craig Keener ring true:
But in our day, what it takes to be a relevant witness has changed. Very few people would criticize a marriage in which a husband and wife lovingly submit to one another, but quite a lot of people have problems with a husband being his wife's master. An increasing number of people, in fact, have come to view Christianity as anachronistic and oppressive, since in their minds it is associated with the latter kind of marriage, even though Paul never taught this even in his own culture. ... At least in the segments of U.S. society I know best, a more egalitarian perspective in the church would substantially improve our witness (Paul, Women, and Wives [Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1992] 231).In a culture in which male/husbandly privilege was assumed, where Socrates was alleged to have said every day that "there were three blessings for which he was grateful to Fortune: first, that I was born a human being, and not one of the brutes; next that I was born a man and not a woman; thirdly, a Greek and not a barbarian" (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers I.33), and where female upward mobility was viewed with suspicion, at best (cf. Keener, 139-56, with primary references galore), Christian women playing fast and loose with social custom would have cast unnecessary aspersion on the fledgling church. Of course, this in itself doesn't prove that Paul's instructions in such places as Titus 2 are not universally applicable (even assuming Strachan's understanding of the text's implications), but it does suggest that the hermeneutical issue of cultural application must be viewed with more seriousness than it has in some Evangelical quarters (on which, see Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals).
Strachan, of course, avers that he in no way intends to demean the status of women. They reach their human fulfillment even as they conform to God's creational mandate for their role in the family. Moreover, he allows that it is OK for a husband to "pitch in" and help with the dishes and asserts that the father must be involved with the training and teaching of his children. He likewise is right to point to Ephesians 5 and Christ's self-sacrifice for his bride to insist that God's calling for husbands is "higher" than what the culture affirms. I would certainly agree with that.
But what Strachan fails to take into consideration are the ambiguities attendant upon modern life, ambiguities that can't simply be ignored. No doubt he would argue that such ambiguities are irrelevant in the light of the gospel and scriptural principle. I would argue, however, that he has not demonstrated that the gospel is at stake in this issue. Indeed, though the numbers of so-called "dad moms" are on the rise, they aren't "proliferating" to the extent he imagines they are. And, by and large, most such "dad moms" don't do it out of laziness and/or willful negligence of what God desires (indeed, most Christians who take this path do so out of a genuine concern for the family and the spiritual development of their children). Likewise, most Christian mothers who work outside the house do so, not because their husbands are "man fails" who are unable or unwilling to provide sufficiently by themselves. Nor do they do it because they are selfishly focused on "personal fulfillment" or simply because, as good materialists, they want multiple cars in the garage or a bigger home, all to the detriment of their kids. They do it because of economic necessity, just like they have done throughout most of history, even in the West.
As I'm sure Strachan knows, most men do not have the luxury of having a job that pays sufficiently to support a family of four or more. In fact, I know he does, because he admits that he "works hard" to provide for his family by working one and a half jobs while his wife stays home as a homemaker. As one who knows firsthand the scholarly and instructional demands incumbent upon a college professor, I cannot imagine he has much time to help out more than a little around the house. I'm not criticizing him at this point. It is a simple matter of necessity, and I commend him and his wife for deciding that their two children deserve a full-time parent at home. [As a personal note, while my children were small, I worked full time while pursuing doctoral studies so she would not have to work full time.] Nevertheless, in today's world, if a couple decides that one parent should stay home, sometimes it is the mother who, by virtue of education and marketable skills, is better situated to work outside the home. And what I am arguing is that such a decision is not necessarily wrong or God-dishonoring. The brute fact of different temperaments and giftedness cannot simply be shunted aside as if they are irrelevant in the glare of Platonic-style, stereotyped forms of masculinity and femininity, conformity to which is the basis on which individual husbands and wives are to be judged. In my experience this fact is understood by most marital partners. Even in so-called "traditional" or "complementarian" relationships, husbands and wives realize they must act together in the family's interests, utilizing the skills and strengths each brings to the table. And so it has been historically, even in the West.
Indeed, the complementarian ideal of the stay-at-home mom as the pillar of domesticity—a Victorian stereotype if ever there was one—may be challenged even from the Bible. Proverbs 31:10-31 provides a memorable poetic portrait of an "excellent woman" whose value surpasses that of jewels. And what a public role she plays! Not only does she make clothes for her family, she rises before dawn to provide them with food. She also buys real estate, plants a vineyard, and produces merchandise and linens to sell for profit, staying up to work late into the night. Indeed, the public nature of this woman's activity is in clear contrast to the private domesticity urged of young women and widows in Paul's Pastoral Epistles, which raises the question to the alert student of cultural context and implicit applicational limitations rather clearly. Strachan seems to realize this, so he counters:
This is true of the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 as well, who though something of a whirling dervish of godly femininity was not, like her husband, by the city gates with the elders (Proverbs 31:23), but working tirelessly to bless her family and manage her home for God’s glory.This simply will not do. Isn't it supposedly the job of the manly "provider" to work the fields and vineyards and support the family by his diligent entrepreneurship? Why, after all, is he sitting in the gates among the elders of the land (Prov 31:23) instead of sacrificially serving her as St. Paul instructs in Ephesians 5? Does his societal prominence excuse him from such responsibilities? Indeed, the implication is that it is the woman's tireless activity on behalf of her family and husband that is the cause of his renown among the elders at the gate. This is poetry, of course, so it isn't meant to be prescriptive of either the husband's or the wife's role. Nonetheless, the cultural context assumed by the text is one in which the patriarchal trappings are even more thoroughgoing than those according to which today's strict complementarians operate. Accordingly, it is hardly a compelling text from which to argue for the normativeness of domesticity as a wife's God-given role.
Strachan's penchant for perpetuating the normativeness of stereotypical roles extends beyond the husband-wife relationship. Case in point: Last month he was at it again, as he took umbrage at a 2011 episode of Sesame Street (!) in which the character "Baby Bear" is told by Gordon that he has no reason to be ashamed about playing with a doll. According to Strachan, this episode constituted yet another frontal "assault" on the "Protestant worldview," according to which "Boys were boys; girls were girls; right and wrong exists; authority figures are good; and so on." Indeed, he sees what can only be termed as an apocalyptic significance to the ideology represented by this show:
The times, how they have changed. We’ve now transitioned culturally to an era in which the basic foundations of the Protestant worldview are under assault. This is true on many levels, from MTV (obviously) to sexual education in public schools to, apparently, the television shows aimed at tiny kids. This episode, “Baby Bear’s Baby Doll,” is subtly but directly overturning long-held conceptions of manhood and boyhood. Boys can play with dolls; there’s no reason they can’t do exactly what girls do.
The boundaries between the sexes are fluid. Behind this teaching is of course the view that there really aren’t what we call “gender roles” given us as a fact of our existence. Gender is a construct, to use academic language; it’s the differentiated vision of boys and girls our society has historically bought into, but there’s nothing fixed or unchanging behind it. We’re free in this modern and enlightened age to blur the boundaries, and to raise boys and girls in essentially the same ways, without specific training of any kind toward distinct manhood or womanhood.The bottom line: "boys playing with dolls is foolish."
This post is already too long, and Strachan has already been responded to more than adequately by Micah Murray and Caryn Rivadeneira, among others. So I will be very brief. Strachan explicitly makes the distinction between "little girls' dolls" and stuffed animals. The latter, apparently, are kosher according to the CBMW. But, to be blunt, that distinction is an arbitrary one. Baby dolls and action figures, to cite another example, are both "dolls," whether one wants to admit it or not. The point, I guess, is that the notion of "nurturing" is considered an insufficiently masculine trait. Boys are supposed to be rough and tumble, while girls are to be gentle and nurturing. Girls play with dolls as preparation for the primary role they will play later in life ... and this isn't the role God has mandated for men. So it is "foolish" for little boys to play as if that is their destined station in life.
Look. I am not claiming that gender is entirely a cultural construct. After all, I have two daughters and one son. Nor, however, do I believe that Sesame Street was desiring to make such a point so bluntly and inelegantly. Yet one is fooling oneself if one sees no cultural component whatsoever to what is considered proper behavior for boys and girls. Stereotypes may be based on broad observations, but they are not universally true, and as such ought not be used prescriptively. For not all boys are the same. Nor are all girls the same. Is a boy less of what God wants him to be if he plays the flute instead of the drums? If he prefers cooking to football? If he would rather read poetry than ride a bike? Does playing with a doll indicate that a boy is on his way to being a wuss rather than the manly man he is designed to be? The answer to all these questions is the same: "Not necessarily." Accordingly, making a big deal out of such things or, what is worse, shaming a boy to switch to more "masculine" play activities can end up doing more harm than good for the child's self-image and emotional/spiritual development.
Indeed, might not one even say that playing with dolls could be a salutary activity for boys who one day will be given the inestimable privilege of having children and raising them gently in the nurture and admonition of the Lord? If fathers, like Strachan rightly believes, should not sit around in their spare time drinking beer and watching the telly, but be active helpers and indeed leaders in the raising of children, then I would suggest that playing with dolls could rather be a positive preparation for this significant role they will play later in life. In my childhood, I never played with dolls. I couldn't get enough balls, cars, and toy guns. But I can't help but feel I could have been a better father than I have proved to be had I not so religiously followed the stereotypes for what boys and girls were "supposed to" do.