The Christian Gender Debate: Understanding the Four Perspectives
There has been MUCH written and said on the topic of gender roles in the Bible. Every time I dip into the “The Great Gender-Roles Debate,” I feel intimidated by the complexity of the issues, and the great learning of others who have gone before. This is my blog, however – the place where I (in the words of Augustine) “write so that I may understand.” Thus, here is the latest post in my continuing attempt to pursue truth on this difficult topic.
In the gender debate – as with so many other debates, everybody seems to present the argument in terms of threes: “People on this side of me, people on that side of me, and us here in the middle, who are right!” In contrast to this, I think it’s helpful to think of four perspectives.
These perspectives can be arranged along a continuum: from left to right they are, “patriarchy,” “complementarianism,” “egalitarianism,” and “feminism.”
Everybody in this debate seems to be “far-sighted.” When egalitarians think they are fighting complementarianism, they are really aiming at patriarchy. Complementarians at times protest to this: however, they are so far-sighted, they are unable to draw clear lines of distinction between themselves and patriarchalists. Complementarians likewise attack egalitarians when they are really aiming at feminism. But here again – few egalitarians have the ability or desire to draw firm lines of division between themselves and feminism, so how are complementarians to know any different?
Ignoring these lines of distinction explains much of the confusion and anger inherent within the Christian “gender-wars.” Compelemtnarians fight hard and (at times) fight dirty because they see in egalitarianism the creeping onset of liberal feminism. Egalitarians likewise fight complementarians with vigour and (at times) venom because they see in every complementarian a woman-supressing, chauvenistic ego-centric (etc.) patriocentricity.
If I could communicate nothing else to the readers of this blog, I hope you will get this point: both complementarians and egalitarians are in the “middle” of this discussion! No, I am not saying that the issues which divide us are inconsequential – but the issues which divide us from those on the far left and right of us are far more significant than the issues which divide us from one another!
Liberal feminism is fully prepared, for example, to simply remove the Pauline epistles from the equation. Paul was a misogynist – what could he possibly contribute to today’s discussions? This sort of approach goes far beyond family stability – it cuts to the core of the gospel message, and the authority of Scriptures. The complementarians are right to reject true feminism.
They are wrong, however, to reject egalitarianism along with feminists. Most of the egalitarians I have dialogued with here and in other places hold a very high view of Scriptures – the difference is in interpretation, not in theology.
Egalitarians are also wrong, however, to reject complementarians along with patriarchalists. It is here that I will spend the bulk of my time.
There are four major headings under which I would like to explore the differences between patriarchy and complementarianism: ontology, primacy, hierarchy and priesthood.
Ontology: Many patriarchalists believe that women are “ontologically” (that is, in their very essence) somehow less than men. Appeals are sometimes made to 1 Peter 3 (the “weaker vessel” passage) and Genesis 2 (woman made from a rib, not dirt) and 1 Corinthians 11:7 (the “glory of a man” vs. “glory of God” passage) to support this. Complementarians, on the other hand, stress that while men and women are different, they are profoundly equal, since they were all made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27) and are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). For the record: I do not believe that I am in any way “better,” more holy, or made out of “more God-like” stuff than my wife, just because I am a man.
Primacy: I do not believe that my wife’s role as “help-meet” makes her my personal servant, side-kick, or underling. God has specifically called God has gifted and called my wife to glorify Himself, not merely to serve my needs. A major way that she fulfills this calling is by nurturing and caring for our young family and being a “worker at home” (Titus 2:5): however, I challenge and anybody who says that caring for the tender hearts and minds of our children is a lesser calling than paying the bills. She also is my “help-meet” in that she completes me, aids me, and gives me invaluable support towards my life/career goals: however, I support and love her by providing for her needs through my career, and in the very unglamorous role of making money. The point is not that my needs get met, but that God is glorified in our family. We each have distinct roles in this high calling. For the record, then: I do not believe that my wife exists to serve and meet my needs, but to glorify God by rising to the potential which He has gifted her for.
Hierarchy: Many patriarchalists see headship in the home in secular terms: that is, they believe that their role gives them a right to “lord it over” their families, to receive benefits from them, to have a title denoting power and authority, to be served: however, this is not how the kingdom works: rather, Jesus came as the leader who serves (Mat. 20:25-28, Mat. 10:42-45, Luke 22:25-27). Following in His example, husbands are to lay down their lives for their wives (Eph. 5:25). For the record: I do not believe that my role as “head” of my home gives me the right to bark out commands, to issue threats, or to dole out punishments to my wife. Rather, it is a duty, and obligation, a holy commission to lay my life down in loving sacrifice for her, in worship to God according to the pattern laid out by Christ Jesus.
Priesthood: Most importantly, I do not believe that I act as some sort of “priest” over my family, as though my wife and children need to go through me to find God. Every one of my Christian family members is a “priest,” and is able to access God on their own, through Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5). Spiritually, I see my role as head of the home as analagous to that of pastoring a church. In this, I bear the primary (not “sole”) responsibility to “keep watch over the souls” of my family (Heb. 13:7), to pray for then unceasingly (Rom. 1:9), to be burdened (2 Cor. 11:29) or overjoyed (Phil. 4:1, 1 Thess. 2:19) by their spiritual state, to function as the primary steward of God’s revelation (reading into Genesis 2), and to bear the primary responsibility when our family sins communally (cf. Gen. 3). For the record, then, I do not at all, in any way, in the least, see myself as standing between my wife/children and God. However, I do feel that my role places on me a heightened burden of responsibility for their spiritual well-being.
There is a shorthand way to describe Christian headship, or “servant-leadership.”
First, you must think of the pro’s and cons of leadership. On the one hand, there is a burden of responsibility – on the other, there is the ego-boost of prestige. On the one hand, there is increased workload – on the other, there are increased material rewards. On the one hand there is increased pain and sacrifice – on the other, there is the cool joy of power.
Think now of servanthood. On the one hand, there is the humiliation of being “under” another – but on the other hand, there is a freedom from responsibility. On the one hand, there are fewer material rewards – but then, there is less work involved. There is the frustration of having one’s personal freedom violated – but then there is also a freedom from mental/spiritual drain of worry.
To understand servant-leadership, you must subtract pro’s from both leadership and servanthood, and combine the con’s.
Servant-leadership is responsibility without prestige. It is hard labor without rewards. It is self-death without ego-centricity.
The comment which originally got me into all this trouble was saying that I was finally “stepping up” to the plate: there has been much discussion of my motives, much of my intentions behind this metaphor. In all that has been said, something that I don’t think any of the egalitarians reading my thoughts have yet grasped is that for me, the decision to become a complementarian was a decision of sacrifice. It was moving from a place of coasting, of not really engaging, of being lazy and under-involved to becoming (imperfectly) engaged, purposeful and directional in my role as husband/father in my home.
I believe that understanding where I am coming from may be a significant step towards understanding for some, although of course I am still only imperfectly trying to figure all this out…
On the distinction between patriarchy and complementarianism, there may be no better source than Caren Campbell’s series on “patriocentricity.” The first podcast is especially enlightening.
COMMENTS AND DISCUSSION
I need to preface this with a disclaimer: I am a part-time pastor, part-time student, full-time dad/husband/Christian with a full-time job on the side. Free time is a rare commodity in my life! Although I love responding to comments, I feel the need to set expectations low: if this post garners anything like the attention my last post gathered, I simply will not be able to keep up with responding to comments. Thus, I would like people to see the comments section of this post as: a) a place to provide links and resources to content of interest, c) dialogue and debate with others in the comments who disagree or agree with one another. I would request that all posting show some restrain: try to limit yourselves to commenting on the material posted here: do you think this is a good way to divide the topic? Have I left things out? Are there things you could add? This is probably not the best place to try to solve the entire gender-roles debate: as we have found in the past, even the format of wordpress comments section is frustratingly inadequate for prolonged discussions. People are welcome and encouraged to post links to better forums elsewhere if they are so inclined!
I wish you all the best as you pursue truth along with me!