When Complementarianism “Slides Into Sheer Silliness” image

When Complementarianism “Slides Into Sheer Silliness”

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When does complementarianism get silly? That's the question raised by an interesting (and at times quite heated) debate in August over women in the workplace. I'm commenting on it, not because it was heated, or because by doing so I'm hoping somehow to ingratiate myself with the arbiters of acceptable thought - I would have thought the ship had pretty much sailed on that one - but because I live under a woman head of state, grew up under a woman Prime Minister, recently voted for a woman Member of Parliament (who also happens to be a member of my church), and have hundreds of women in my church whose jobs and everyday lives often involve them telling men what to do. So here's a quick summary of the back-and-forth, followed by my take on it.

The discussion started with an Ask Pastor John episode, in which the question was whether women could serve as police officers. Building on his book What’s the Difference?, and using examples like postmen, civil engineers and drill sergeants, John Piper acknowledged that his answer would make him look like a dinosaur to many, but responded:

If a woman’s job involves a good deal of directives toward men, they will need to be non-personal in general, or men and women won’t flourish in the long run in that relationship without compromising profound biblical and psychological issues. And conversely, if a woman’s relationship to a man is very personal, then the way she offers guidance and influence will need to be more non-directive. And my own view is that there are some roles in society that will strain godly manhood and womanhood to the breaking point.

That sort of answer is always going to antagonise a lot of people. One widely shared progressive example:

Where could one work, what vocation could one hold, where one wouldn’t be in the position of giving instructions to men? I can’t think of many, and certainly this position would mean that women are not suited for anything other than entry-level positions, as increased supervisory responsibility would undoubtedly include giving directives to male subordinates.

Krish Kandiah, an egalitarian whose disagreement is always flavoured with warmth and appreciation, raised five good questions: Are we submitting to Scripture or hijacking it? Are we acting like Pharisees? Are we making the gospel less attractive? What does this mean in practice? Mission or maintenance? He has a nine year old adopted daughter who wants to be a police officer, which lends his article a certain poignancy.

Even more interesting was the response of other complementarians. Here’s Aimee Byrd:

I am having a hard time understanding these guidelines. My influence in the civil sphere has to be non-personal and non-directive? Or I will upset the feminine masculine dynamic? Should we then get rid of women doctors and nurses? I don’t see how one could do that job without being both personal and directive. I’m sure they have many male patients whom they have to tell what to do. And we wouldn’t want women in any administrative roles then either. There would be so many jobs that “mature” women would not be able to serve in were they to follow these principles.

And fellow complementarian dinosaur Carl Trueman:

I rarely read complementarian literature these days. I felt it lost its way when it became an all-embracing view of the world and not simply a matter for church and household. I am a firm believer in a male-only ordained ministry in the church but I find increasingly bizarre the broader cultural crusade which complementarianism has become. It seems now to be more a kind of reaction against feminism than a balanced exposition of the Bible’s teaching on the relationships of men and women. Thus, for example, marriage is all about submission of wife to husband (Eph. 5) and rarely about the delight of friendship and the kind of playful but subtly expressed eroticism we find in the Song of Songs. Too often cultural complementarianism ironically offers a rather disenchanted and mundane account of the mystery and beauty of male-female relations. And too often it slides into sheer silliness.

Which, unsurprisingly, received a fairly robust pushback from Doug Wilson:

I think some of Piper’s particular criteria for navigating the question (directive authority & personal contact) are not helpful across the board, the way they need to be. More work is needed here. I can easily think of counter-instances where I don’t think there should be any biblical hesitations, but which violate his criteria — e.g. the lady of the house directing the landscapers on where to plant the bushes, or telling the men from the moving company which rooms the boxes go in. But Piper is right that we must function as biblically-minded men or women all day every day, and we must figure out what this looks like in all our daily interactions. This means making judgment calls, and so his interlocutors are hooting at him and conjuring up weird instances where his standard creates weird situations. But what about their standard? If God’s standards for femininity apply only when church is in session, and/or in the privacy of our own evangelical homes, then what do we have to say about women fighting in mixed martial arts competitions?

A few remarks on this exchange, before making my own comments. First, the foundation for John’s answer comes from his What’s the Difference?, which is itself built on his much larger co-edited volume Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and both are free to download online, so if anyone is puzzled by how he gets there, he has shown his working elsewhere. Second, on that basis, some of Carl’s criticisms in particular (which I have not quoted here, but which appear in the article) are somewhat harsh, although I think Carl’s broader point about complementarianism sliding into silliness in places are on point. Third, no I don’t think women should fight in mixed martial arts competitions, but then I don’t think men should either (I refer once more to Liam Thatcher’s excellent article “Who Would Jesus Punch?”). Fourth, Doug is certainly right that we should function as biblical men and women all day, every day - but I am sure neither Carl nor Aimee would deny this, insisting rather that the debate is over whether Scripture constrains the sorts of jobs that women can do, and if so, how. There is a hint of Two Kingdoms theology in Carl’s writings sometimes, but on this subject, I think his appeal is more to the biblical witness than to worldview limitations on the scope of biblical imperatives. Fifth, I have nothing but respect for anybody who writes or talks about this subject online, even when I find myself disagreeing with them; the conspiracy of silence around the distinctiveness of the sexes, which often goes hand in glove with the elision of sex and gender, is exasperating, disempowering, and thoroughly unhelpful, and I’ve previously sketched my own take on maleness and femaleness according to Scripture.

With all that said, I find myself far more in agreement with Carl and Aimee than with John and Doug on this one. The New Testament instructions on how maleness and femaleness should be applied seem, at least to me, to focus almost entirely on relationships in the gathered church and in the household. This could be taken as an argument from silence, but it is a fairly important silence: we have women in the New Testament who run their own businesses (Lydia), act as benefactors to men (Phoebe), precede their husbands when named together (Prisca), have households, presumably including male slaves (Lydia, Chloe?) and act as a “mother” to single men (Rufus’s mother), not to mention the women in the Old Testament who lead Israel into battle (Deborah), kill enemies (Jael), advise kings (Huldah) and save nations (Esther), and there is no indication that any of them shouldn’t have done these things because they were women. When transposed into a modern key, therefore, I cannot see warrant in Scripture for saying that women should not manage men at work, tell men what to do, govern the country, or (in John’s language) influence men in personal and directive ways.

As a concluding aside, it would be fascinating to find out - although I know that thought experiments like this can often obscure more than they illuminate, and they certainly don’t prove my case - what would happen if Hillary Clinton was the pro-life conservative and (say) Jeb Bush was the pro-choice liberal. Would American complementarians then vote for her? In the UK, it is far from a hypothetical scenario: our Queen, our only female Prime Minister and my current female MP have all been conservative and Christian, and presumably it will only be a matter of time before a pro-life, Republican woman has a shot at the Oval Office, even if it isn’t Carly Fiorina. What then, I wonder?

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