Sunday, November 14, 2010

egalitarian? complementarian?

I've just read Jean's Sola Panel post and most of the 239 comments. Phew!

Some thoughts.

1. The whole debate gets on my nerves. We have so much wonderful, rich, exciting goodness in the gospel... Why must we spill so much ink and so many tears over a handful of verses? [Yes. Yes. I know why we must. I just wish we didn't have to.]

2. I'm in the complementarian camp but often I want to go pitch my tent elsewhere. Here are some reasons why.

a. Complementarians often talk about male headship as leadership. The man needs to be the one driving things and making the decisions. He needs to have an alpha male personality - be driven, competitive, bold, confident, aggressive (of course, in a loving, serving way) - in order to be godly. Not so. Many men would need a personality transplant to achieve this. Teaching along these lines makes wives discontent with the very okay husbands God has given them.

b. Complementarians can similarly reduce godly femininity to a certain personality type. Women were not created in such a way as to be able to be driven, confident, assertive, responsible, bear heavy burdens etc. The godly woman will find herself at home. She will have a personality that complements the alpha-male - needing his decisiveness, direction etc. But many women naturally have drive and ambition and are capable of heading up multi-national companies. What are such woman to do on conversion? Repent of their capabilities?

c. A sector of complementarian women are so obsessed with home and kids you'd be forgiven for thinking they are wives and mothers first and christians second (or fifth).

d. Too much talk about male/femaleness makes contentment tricky for single friends. My humanity is more important than my gender. There are more than 5 chapters of the bible that apply to women.

e. The feminist movement was largely a good thing. I'm thankful for my education, my pay, my contraception, my vote...

f. The application of the complementarian position is far from simple. What is prophecy, anyway?

3. But I won't pitch my tent in the egalitarian camp, because

a. I think they are wrong. The bible does say that the husband is the head of the wife. Can't wriggle out of that even if it grates. Need to work out how God can say that and mean it and still be good and fair.

b. Egalitarians can be far too preoccupied with power issues.

c. Feminist readings of ... well, most things... make me groan.

d. When I hear women preaching to mixed groups I feel that they have given in to something I've had to fight in myself. This makes it difficult for me to listen well.

e. If it hasn't already, I think an egalitarian interpretation of Eph 5 etc, will eventually lead to liberalism. At some point we need to work out what we do with parts of the bible that we don't like. Will we accept that God is good and that he has said x even though we don't like it? Or will we try to argue that he couldn't have said x?

4. I appreciated Mark Baddeley's comments. I wish he would become a presbyterian. Please Mark? Please?


  1. And this is why I read this blog. Intelligent, fair, and a teeny bit feisty.

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  3. These are helpful reflections Simone - I find it all a bit overwhelming to be honest.

  4. Thanks Simone. Points 2b and c struck particular chords with me. I don't necessarily see myself as being capable of running a multi-national company, but I often feel that the subtext of conversations I have with some (though not all) women in my church is that it is not quite the right thing to be using the gifts and skills God has given me beyond the home context (ie. in paid work).
    And re 2c obsessing about my home and the kids would just about drive me up the wall. You're right, we are Christians first and that should be our first priority.
    I feel like I want to say more but when I try to put it into words, it doesn't quite come out right. So I'll second Jenny and say thanks for those helpful reflections. I tried to read the 245 responses on the Sola Panel and just got lost so well done for cutting through all the wordiness to give us some good stuff to think about.

  5. In reply to 1 - we don't. Seriously. (I bet you never thought I'd write this.)

    In my (low church) Anglican upbringing this wasn't even a big deal to harp on about - there were other more important things to focus on, like living a Godly life by letting the Holy Spirit change you. In general, the Baptist and Churches of Christ churches I've been in also have bigger things to go on about.

  6. But I think it is wrong to ascribe motive to the egalitarian camp as not 'liking, being grated by' the offending, ahem, particular verses... The stereotyping and reductionism that goes on in this 'dialogue', especially in terms of motive, really lets things down. It is a bit like me, an Egalitarian Light, suggesting that complementarian men are all power hungry misogynists, and complementarian women - women who don't like other women. Well, not quite, but I do like a bit of hyperbole at this time of night.

    There are plenty of other passages in the Bible which make me more uncomforable than the Women Bits... I think that most earnest egals are motivated by a) the strange inconsistencies in the conservative complementarian position, and b) a desire to do something about injustice against women (yes, clunky)- which we see as akin to the 2000 year Generally-Church-Sanctioned perpetuation of slavery.

    And on Ephesians 5, etc, see the brilliant and non-liberal, Roger Nicole. It's on Google Reader.

  7. Yes, the assumption that egalitarians are beholden to 'the culture' and that complementarians 'just read the plain text' gets up my comp nose - as if there isn't a tribal Christian sub-culture in which you get brownie points for being a complementarian.

  8. Hi anon. I think we need to speak out against the still-continuing injustices against women. And I'm aware of the strange inconsistencies too. I'll look up Roger Nicole.

    Michael - yes. Being complementarian does score well.

  9. Once you set up a dichotomy (egalitarian/complementarian; conservative/liberal; classical/rock'n'roll presbyterian/not-presbyterian) you ensure people will place themselves on one side or the other and debate fiercely with each other about the things that divide them, and then debate fiercely within their own camp about exactly where the line is. I read stuff recently which suggests the c/e debate was alive and well in the first century church and this accounts for the somewhat confusing biblical picture. I guess agreeing with this would put me on the liberal side of that dichotomy?

  10. Simone, I totally agree. It was on the tip of my tongue to say something like 'I wish the comp camp would speak out against injustice more', but, then, I am sitting here in my Country Road thongs made in Bangladesh. We all need to do that more!

    Great post. And well done to you for making it through the two hundred and something comments... INFP over here. I would have to superglue my head to the computer screen to finish it.

  11. Almost completely agree. (Except with e. But we won't go there today!)

    I found your point d. interesting, though - why would you see it like that? I mean, single people are still male or female too. Maybe the problem with a lot of complementarian discourse (oh the joys of applying literary criticism to theology...) is that it defines masculinity and femininity as existing only in marriage. And this is where your point c. and b. come in. (Femininity is about being a wife and mother; femininity is about being x sort of personality.)

    Not that I still don't have my questions about the trickiness of defining femininity and masculinity. And so I agree with this:

    My humanity is more important than my gender.

  12. being an obedient human in the face of Scriptural commands (including "wives obey your husbands") comes before wondering about the "essence" of godly womanhood. Because the latter (I assume) will work itself out based on the former...

  13. I won't say anything constructive - it's all been said here - but would just like to thank Jon for the image of a rock'n'roll presbyterian!

  14. Ha ha - insert semi-colon as appropriate; or not.

  15. With regard to 3a - you have to accept that God isn't 'fair' as we in the 'West' would have that term immediately spring to mind. Was it 'fair' for Esau to be 'hated'; was it 'fair' for Pharaoh to have his heart hardened before the question was asked; was it 'fair' for Judas to be the betrayer (someone had to be)? However, in the context that He is our maker and is sovereign, all these things are 'fair'.

    Now, if you're going to go for a 'plain reading of Scripture' without cultural context on this issue, then you also have to accept that Paul (a Pharisee Hebrew of Hebrews) called Nazirites (those who took a vow unto the Lord and didn't cut their hair until it was completed) shameful (1 Cor 11:14) and not only this, but Samson, by following God's orders (given before he was born) not to cut his hair, was committing a shameful act by doing so!

    You could then get into a long and pointless argument about how long is 'long' hair and whether a man's was short enough. Any woman with (what the rest of us would call) short hair who has been told by a hairdresser that it's long knows the futility of this one. Or go back to encouraging women to wear hats during a service or....

    There are better things to be spending one's time on than this. :-)

  16. Simone, (though this may seem off thread)
    I just want to apologise for not getting up at GAA and point of ordering that fellow from Sydney who gets up every three years and says that no young women or people of intelligence would be associated with the Presbyterian Church because of its position on gender.
    Given that it's such a minority (and shrinking) point of view, that has no relationship to the experience of so many congregations, we generally listen in some sort of patient silence.
    There are women in my congregation who'd quite happily enlighten him as to the offensiveness of his demeaning and ignorant words in no uncertain terms, so, if I'm there in three years and repeated, they won't go unchallenged.

  17. Hi Simone,

    Glad you appreciated my comments - now that I'm six or seven weeks into spilling ink/photons on this topic (and it's going to take up lots of my blogging next year) I'm pretty well ready to sign off on your point 1. So, nice to hear you found some of my thoughts useful.

    For what it is worth, if you liked some of that stuff you might want to wade into the last 1/3 to 1/2 of the thread on post three of my recent series - I'm discussing some of the issues in the debate with a very thoughtful and gracious egalitarian woman and I think we're getting a bit beyond the normal attacking each other's fixed positions. Some of what I'm gonig to be trying to do next year in articulating a constructive view of authority, love, responsibility, equality and gender - more than just "here's what women shouldn't do" should be at least hinted at there. But it's even more demanding than Jean's thread, so you may not want to as well :) .

    And pressie? Well, a Brisbane style "We hold to the Westminster Confession but are happy to supplement it" approach would probably be my second choice after being Anglican in a "Sydney" kind of way. So nothing's impossible.

  18. Anika - I think problems come when the complementarian application to life for women is little more than wifedom and motherdom. Got to train up your daughters for life at home with kids. Where does that leave the single woman? Or the woman who can't have kids? In a perpetual state of waiting for something that may never come. The world is big.

  19. Mark and Simone, I am really struggling to get through the Sola Panel posts at present, way too busy to keep up, but I am feeling deeply grateful and relieved at the possibility of a conversation that can create a 'moderate' working position on this as we try to find our way forward. At the same time, Mark, I'm so glad you are tackling some of the deep inadequacies in the way that the comp position is often stated. As someone who has wavered back and forth on this over the past few years, I often find myself unconvinced by both positions and I'm not sure where that leaves me.
    I would also like to make a passionate call for better history on all of this - history gets brought in in the oddest and most inaccurate ways to this debate, with very little understanding of the way that 19th century evangelical assumptions about gender were built into first-wave feminism and the ongoing impact that has had on both evangelicalism and feminism.
    Finally, I think there is much to learn from missionary societies on this - many evangelical missionary societies have had comps and egals working alongside each other for years in relative harmony (partly because they are not ordaining institutions, of course) - not to say there is never conflict over this, but perhaps it is a little easier to keep first things first.

  20. I think problems come when the complementarian application to life...

    My point exactly - or at least I thought it was! (What I was trying to say was that not only is the world big, but masculinity and femininity too. Obviously, you can be a godly, happy and masculine man without being a husband or fatehr; you can be a godly, happy and feminine female without being a wife or mother.)

    Hey, if you ever want to read a book even more infuriating than any book on introversion can ever be, I'd (in all seriousness) be happy to lend you my copy of this...

    and/or...from a slightly different angle, and even more infuriating still:

  21. I went through a buy/read infuriating books stage last year. :)

  22. Hey Joanna (that feels weird), good thoughts. You're welcome for my attempts to tackle some of the inadequacies of a lot of complementarianism. I'm hopeful that at least some of the problem is people feeling as though they are being forced to choose between two options, neither of which really gel for them. While I'm not going to be sketching out a 'moderate' position (not really my style :) ) I'm hopeful that some better thinking and clarity about some of the key terms might enable a form of complementarianism to be articulated that might seem less problematic than how some people find it at the moment.

    I should probably have a bit of a chat with you about this:

    history gets brought in in the oddest and most inaccurate ways to this debate, with very little understanding of the way that 19th century evangelical assumptions about gender were built into first-wave feminism and the ongoing impact that has had on both evangelicalism and feminism.

    before I embark on the next big phase next year of trying to deal with what I see as some of the more fundamental principles in the debate next year. I might drop you an email after I've had a break from this issue for a bit (as I've got another warm up series on the matter coming, that probably means not until next year).

    My sympathies on being swamped by the comments. Even putting Jean's ubermonster thread to one side, my stuff just exploded. I think there's good stuff in there, thanks to some good interlocuters, but the investment cost is high.

  23. Would love to discuss this further, Mark! Women's & feminist historians have been doing fascinating (& often reasonably sympathetic) work on this for ages but it rarely gets a mention by those on either side of the divide.
    And 'Jo' is still fine!