Monday, May 5, 2008

Differences, Distortions and Definitions

Recently, on one of my rare perusals of the Internet, I came across this account of “complementarians” and “egalitarians.” For some reason I had thought this site would probably be favorable towards biblical equality. I had but to read the (highly prejudiced!) definitions of each position to recognize that my assumption had been way off the mark!

"Complementarians believe that men and women are created in the image of God; equal in their essential dignity and personhood. By God's good and glorious design men and women have distinct, complementary roles in the home and the church. God has assigned to husbands self-sacrificial leadership in the home, and wives a joyful and respectful embrace of that leadership. God has also called qualified men to the burden and responsibility of self-denying leadership in the church, and the entire congregation to respect and submit to their leadership.

"Egalitarians believe that God created men and women equal in all respects, and that no functional distinction exists, only physical distinctions. Male and female roles and functions are interchangeable both in the home and in the church. Male hierarchy in the home and church is a result of the Fall. Basically egalitarians are Christian feminists."

For a minute there I thought that I must be a complementarian after all. Men and women essentially identical and interchangeable except for certain bodily functions? How could the drab sameness of such an arrangement stand up against all that joy and self-sacrifice, respect and responsibility and submission to self-denying leadership? Just consider the joyous state of the women as their self-sacrificing husbands shoulder the burden of self-denying leadership. What a deal! Yes, I definitely need to be a complementarian.

But wait. I am a complementarian—in the true sense of the term. I just am not a patriarchal complementarian (PC). I do believe that God created man and woman to complement, correspond to, and complete one another. Men and women are not the same except for body parts.

However, I do not believe there is warrant in Scripture—or in the empirical evidence provided by actual human beings, for that matter—to conclude that it was God’s “glorious design” from creation to put women under the rule of men (no matter how “self sacrificing” the male rule may be). I do believe the divinely designed complementarity of men and women is far more subtle, delightful, nuanced and interesting than the flat-footed “roles” that lock men into the relentless responsibility of final decision-making authority and lock women into a submission and suppression of many of the distinctively human qualities with which God endowed both men and women at creation.

By distinctively human qualities I mean those characteristics found in humans but not in the lower species (or at least not to the same extent as in humans). Some of these qualities are critical thinking, rational processing of ideas, discerning truth, making decisions based on complex criteria, directing and taking responsibility for one or more persons. All of these distinctively human abilities are either denied entirely or significantly attenuated in the PC definition of properly feminine behavior.

Women are short-changed not only in original creation, but also in the new creation in Christ. The PC parameters of godly female behavior inhibit women from full participation in the gifts, callings and responsibilities with which Christ has commissioned the members of his body. Women thus lack the spiritual authority that male believers have been given. As a result, women may not enter fully into the status and identity that every believer rightly has in Christ, and so are prohibited from fully using the gifts and wisdom with which God has endowed them.

How is this so? The New Testament teaches that God gives believers in Christ the responsibility and the calling to use their gifts, to preach the good news of the Gospel, to teach other believers, to discern and obey the Word and will of God, to serve as priests unto God, to have the mind of Christ, to exercise spiritual authority in the name of Christ and to represent Christ to the world at large. Yet PC doctrine ends up denying female believers a measure of each one of these God-given privileges and responsibilities, and so allocates to male believers the lion’s share of what the Bible speaks of as the status and calling of all believers.

So, as it turns out, the point at issue between patriarchal complementarians and egalitarian complementarians is not whether men and women are different or alike, but whether or not God did, in fact, endow man and woman equally with creational authority, and whether or not God has, indeed, called and commissioned both men and women in the new creation to take up and utilize the authority they have been given in Christ.

(The next-to-last paragraph was taken from chapter 18 in DBE.)


Adam Omelianchuk said...

Ha! I read that definition too and thought the same thing. It's a good thing straw men don't have any authority... :)

Doug Groothuis said...

Traditionalists routinely describe egalitarians wrongly. This is the straw man fallacy, but more precisely, it is the fallacy of "the persuasive definition," as when followers of atheist Ayn Rand define "faith" as the opposite of reason.

Yet Rebecca goes to great pains to accurately define the other side and to understand its reasoning. It takes intellectual virtue to be fair with positions you disagree with. This is drilled into you in philosophy classes.

Beth said...

Rebecca, I have just caught up on your blog, and am enjoying the posts and subsequent discussions immensely. I particularly enjoyed the wit of this post, which smiled at the unbalanced content of the definitions and presented Biblical arguments without attacking the author (how rare that seems to be!). Now that you have answered everyone’s questions, I have one. What do you understand to be the meaning of Genesis 3:16b “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Blessings, Beth

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis said...

Beth, good to hear from you! As I was thinking about your question on how I understand Genesis 3:16b, an idea for a new post surfaced in my mind. So I hope to get that done in a few days. Very short answer at this point: I think that I now disagree with myself in Good News for Women, and am more inclined to accept the explanation Rick Hess offers in his chapter in DBE (see p. 92). To be explained in the promised post!

J.E. McFatter said...

I teach at a conservative Christian prep school in Tallahasse, FL, and this year I have been called a "raving feminist" by numerous students and parents, have been told by parents not to give any of the students advice about relationships or leadership, and told by a few that I would be prayed for in order to see the error of my ways--all because I made a couple of statements in class about "having no problem" with women ministers or women teachers in the church. Never have I been given a forum to express my views clearly or explain the egalitarian position, and I think a few involved with the school view me as some type of pesky, divisive agent.

How do we change this hateful attitude that many in the church have toward Biblical Egalitarianism when we are rarely given a public forum to discuss it?

By the way, my wife and I are loving this blog. Please keep it up. I miss you guys a lot.

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis said...


Sad to say, this is the mindset of many evangelical Christians today. There is an attitude bordering on the fanatical, such that rational thought is disengaged: all that matters is that the so-called “feminist” perspective be eliminated from the discussion. It apparently is viewed as a dangerously toxic element—so dangerous that one dare not even give a fair hearing to the arguments on both sides of the debate. I have a comment under the May 7 post that briefly discusses the larger evangelical climate that contributes to this kind of response. As far as I know, there is only one helpful way to deal with people who hold this view: Avoid the topic altogether!