There’s been a number of posts this last week defending complementarian thought. Most notably, Kevin DeYoung wrote 9 Marks of Healthy Biblical Complementarianism. I’ve had this post in the works for a long time, but Kevin’s post and Aimee Byrd’s response to it reminded me anew of a long unsettled feeling I’ve had with complementarian language.
Many reformed conservatives feel dissonance with the Counsel of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Though we generally identify aa complementarian, this is more a function of the fact that we DON’T identify with egalitarian thought than a hook, line, and sinker support of conservative presentations and applications of complementarian thought. Furthermore, we generally identify as complementarians because we’ve been greatly influenced in other ways by the old leaders of the movement. I was deeply influenced by John Piper’s Desiring God. I find D. A. Carson’s exegeses of various passages incredibly helpful, including passages on women. Tim Keller’s writings on social justice transformed how I think about the gospel applied.
I really don’t want to be at odds with any of these guys whom I respect and from whom I have learned life changing truths. But some of their language around the Bible and gender and the applications of the groups they support leave me uncomfortable. I go back again and again to the word dissonance. Something is not quite right. Something doesn’t fit the rest of Scripture. I think often of a science conundrum that well illustrates the problem (in my humble opinion) with the last 30 years or so of discussion on gender among evangelicals.
Note: if you are of the personality type that curls into the fetal position at the mention of a science conundrum, I’ll try to explain this in a way that is empowering, not frustrating, to you. If I fail, let me know in the comments, and I’ll try harder next time.
Consider for a moment Newtonian physics. Most of us are familiar with it — even you artists and poets who don’t think you are. At least we all live according to it everyday. It centers around the concept of gravity. An apple fell on Sir Isaac Newton’s head in the late 1600’s, causing him to figure out gravity. Large objects (like our earth) pull smaller objects toward them (like an apple being pulled back to the earth or the moon being held in orbit by the gravitational pull of the earth), and the foundation of Newtonian physics was laid. Much in our world fits Newtonian physics, and it has become a great tool for understanding the universe. We all stick to the earth because of Newtonian physics. The moon orbits the earth; the earth orbits the sun. From satellites transmitting data to the earth to ants crawling along the ground, it seems that our universe is fundamentally held together by gravity. I was even taught in high school that electrons orbited around neutrons in atoms similar to the planets around the sun. The idea was that the neutron held the electrons in orbit through the gravitational pull of the neutron.
The problem is that scientists later discovered that electrons and neutrons don’t actually work like that. In fact, you can’t even measure how an electron travels in an atom. All of our world does not in fact obey Newtonian physics, particularly at the micro level. So we have a universe that follows one principle while the tiny parts that make up that universe defy it. Atoms don’t fit Newton’s model. Albert Einstein and others after him sought for a Unified Field Theory, something that explained how the universe worked on a macro and micro level. How could the big parts of the Universe work together in a way that the small parts making them up defied? There has to be a bigger principle at work, one that explains both.
Can you see where I am going here with gender?
In the 70s and 80s, a new conservative model on gender in the Church was codified. Statements were written, councils were established, and books were published. And these statements, councils, and books spoke into a number of problems around gender in the Church. They highlighted the fact that God created two distinct but overlapping genders (though the overlapping part has been sorely under-emphasized), two genders that complemented each other. Complementarian thought was born, and it caught on with many because it explained a lot of our experience to us. For those who value a straightforward reading of the Bible, especially when it comes to submission in Ephesians 5 and male-only eldership in I Timothy 3, it gave us a systematic way to look at gender. It also fit what many Christians were seeing in their homes. Among my generation, it gave many a counterexample to their upbringing shaped by parents of the 60’s who were putting off the conservative social constructs of the previous generation. Ozzie and Harriett accidentally raised the Woodstock generation. Who raised my peers. And many of my peers wanted more stability in the home for their children than they had experienced with their Woodstock parents. Complementarian constructs resonated with children of Woodstock parents.
The problem is that while the complementarian movement explained a lot and defended important Scripture, it still has underlying root weaknesses. The primary one in my opinion is its foundational misinterpretation of Genesis 3:16 that believes a woman’s root problem after the fall is that she wants to take control from the man and dominate him in return. That view put termites in a corner foundation of complementarian thought. You can’t build a solid structure on gender with that kind of foundational misinterpretation of the root problem from the fall for women.
Another root problem in complementarian thought is that the movement was fundamentally a reaction to 2nd wave feminism. It’s obviously a problem to build a system of teaching from Scripture as a reaction against any cultural movement. But it is even more of a problem when you realize that 2nd wave feminism itself was in many ways a white privileged movement. First wave feminism was not, in my opinion. But 2nd wave feminism hasn’t impacted other cultures the same way it has middle and upper class whites because other cultures and other income brackets struggle with a different set of gender issues than those traditionally associated with 2nd wave feminists (like equal executive pay). Gloria Steinhem and other feminist leaders have long been criticized for their overemphasis on equal pay in the upper echelons of the privileged while only paying lipservice to the types of gendered abuse that occurs throughout the world among the poor.
This movement has also allowed for other wrong interpretations in Scripture, for instance that women were created to image the church (Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Mary Kassian) and that all women should submit to all men (John Piper).
Most of all, this movement hasn’t allowed for women to serve in the modern complementarian church the way they served with Jesus, Paul, and Peter in the New Testament church.
So what to do? Well, we need to re-examine some key teachings from Scripture. Personally, I’ve been looking at this from two angles.
1) Re-examining headship through Scripture. I think headship is an incredibly important teaching because it starts in Genesis and extends all the way through the Epistles. Understanding how the Bible uses the concept unlocks a lot around gender. I’ve been looking at headship particularly in reference to I Corinthians 11’s instructions on women and head-coverings. I feel like the light has come on in my head, solidified after reading an article on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. THAT STORY IS I CORINTHIANS 11 PERSONIFIED – it is everything Paul was trying to warn the church in Corinth about. The competing definitions of headship as source on the egalitarian side and authority on the complementarian are equally weak choices. Headship in Scripture is deep and beautiful, and I’m looking forward to publishing that article on Monday — Headship, I Corinthians 11, and Thomas Jefferson.
2) Looking at all the women in the Bible. Conservatives have come up with an idealized womanhood that fits about 50% of the women affirmed in Scripture. Every woman used by God in Scripture gives us a data point for understanding what God did and did not mean by certain words He used. Deborah, Phoebe, Priscilla, and Abigail. Euodia, Synteche, Lydia, and Junia. These ladies aren’t outliers. They are part of the normative plan for women made in the image of God. We must couple them with Sarah and Ruth, Mary and Rachel for a holistic understanding of what God created women to be and how He uses them in His story.
Of course, Einstein never figured out a Unified Field Theory, and maybe we won’t around gender either. But I do believe that God is sanctifying His Church, and I think the next step may be moving us to a better understanding of male and female in the image of God, one that contributes to the flourishing of both man and woman in the Body of Christ as God intended in Eden.