You, Me and the Bible

The future of complementarianism (5): caring about your path and not just your answer, and showing charity

This is the fifth and final post in Mark’s series on the future of complementarianism. (Read parts 12, 3and 4.)

We conclude this series by looking at the other reason why I think egalitarians and complementarians react differently to ‘in house’ differences and the need for charity in how we address these ‘in house’ differences within complementarianism.

The other important difference, it seems to this complementarian, is that complementarians care about the path that gets you to your position on the practical question (what women can and can’t do) at least as much as the position on the practical question. While I have met many egalitarians who assure me that they have only come to their view because of the teaching of Scripture, I have yet to meet one who has said that Scripture is the only reason why they continue to hold their view—that if it wasn’t for the Bible then some kind of complementarian position would be their instinct, that their biblically formed egalitarianism really cuts against the grain of their natural complementarian instincts. Yet, something like that claim is quite common among complementarians. It’s not unusual to find complementarians who acknowledge that Scripture’s message on gender roles cuts against the grain of their culturally-formed instincts. The Bible contradicts their instincts and so they’re conscious of just how much they have to submit to Scripture to take up this view and then keep remaining within it. They find it hard work, and something that needs to be constantly renewed by a willingness to trust that God knows better than their instincts.

Hence, while for many egalitarians this is fundamentally an issue of justice—of recognizing the fundamental equality of women to men—and so the agreement at that point enables substantial unity despite different paths to get there, for many complementarians this is fundamentally an issue of submission to Scripture—of reading the Bible correctly. That’s not to say that egalitarians don’t care about reading the Bible correctly (indeed my impression is that they publish more books on that with regards to this issue than complementarians do) or that complementarians don’t care about justice or equality, but that what’s driving both camps as a whole is different. Egalitarians get upset with complementarianism’s dishonouring of women, complementarians get upset with egalitarianism’s lack of submission to Scripture.

Many egalitarians can pass over someone having a very wrong view of Scripture and its teaching (from their perspective) as long as they agree on the justice issue for women. Few complementarians can do that on the other side. For many, if not most, complementarians this question is, first and foremost, a question of one’s doctrine of, and submission to, Scripture. Show most complementarians a hypothetical person who holds that women shouldn’t teach men or have authority over them in church or that wives should submit to husbands, but who seems to have gotten that view from somewhere other than the Bible (or who thought that Paul taught egalitarianism, but that he got it wrong, and complementarianism is right, or that Paul’s words were egalitarian for the original readers on exegetical grounds but are complementarian in implication for us today on hermeneutical grounds) then that hypothetical person would not, I suggest, be recognized as a complementarian by most people in that ‘camp’. Egalitarians want to know if you are an oppressor of women. Complementarians want to know if you submit to Scripture. While that’s not the whole story—and both sides would rightly take umbrage at the suggestion that they don’t care about the thing that I just gave to the other group (complementarians that they don’t care about women’s oppression, egalitarians that they don’t care about submitting to the word of God), it does get at why egalitarians seem to pass over seemingly huge theological differences about the meaning and status of the Bible, whereas complementarians seem to divide over much smaller differences.

That’s why, for example, some complementarians conclude that someone who holds that women can teach men, but not be the senior pastor of a church, is actually an egalitarian and not a complementarian—because for them holding that women can teach men involves the same exegetical and hermeneutical steps as egalitarianism. And it’s those exegetical and hermeneutical steps, and not the final conclusions, that are what really defines complementarianism. So even a small divergence in the final conclusions on practical questions can cause strong distancing—because the different paths one has to take to get to that small divergence are seen to be insurmountably significant. As one person justified their strong negative reaction to Piper to me—the real problems in church comes from preachers with an international profile who teach the wrong kind of complementarianism, not some dusty egalitarian no-one in the pews has ever heard of. (A telling support to my claim that the two sides are undergoing a structural separation if the problem has become variant forms of complementarianism because no-one in the church even reads egalitarian views. And I have no doubt the lack of exposure to complementarian arguments is mirrored in areas where egalitarianism holds sway.)

If you want to put this difference in egalitarianism’s favour you can say that egalitarians are, on the whole, nicer people to hang around. And that complementarians have to always be on guard for cases of friendly fire from other complementarians who think their views have either joined egalitarianism in all but name, or who have moved to a misogynistic view that they’re just palming off as complementarian. It can be a bit wearying be a complementarian—you have to defend your credentials to your ‘friends’ as well as your ‘enemies’.

If you want to put this difference in complementarianism’s favour you can say that egalitarianism shows signs of ‘result orientated reasoning’—that the unity across the differences in the path to get to the egalitarian position on what women can do suggests that most egalitarians intuited the end result first (that women’s and men’s roles should be basically interchangeable, and no authority should be restricted for men only) and then worked out the route to get there. That’s why the final conclusion matters more than the reasoning that gets you there—because the final conclusion was actually the starting point for egalitarianism as a body (although, I’d say, not necessarily every individual egalitarian). And that complementarianism’s position is more arising out of a reading of Scripture and so evidences the fractious nature that Protestantism has always displayed as a consequence of its commitment to sola Scriptura, where minor differences in reading the Bible can result in serious internal distancing. Protestants split from each other and fight with each other at least as much as they do with Catholicism. Complementarianism shows that same Protestant DNA.

These two dynamics—niceness versus theological correctness—are, I would suggest, among the greatest strengths of both sides.  I think many people warm to egalitarianism because it is not the ‘Party of No’—it isn’t that in its substance (it doesn’t place limits on what women can do), nor in its manner. It’s inclusive, affirming, and friendly (unless you’re a complementarian, but that antipathy many egalitarians have towards complementarian views is a legitimate part of the debate). And that’s really attractive to most modern Christians. Niceness counts for a lot. Genuine niceness counts for even more. Egalitarianism’s meta-communication arising from the genuinely nice way it handles internal differences gives it a real edge rhetorically compared to complementarianism.  It wins the debate on the existential side time and again. And in a debate when many Christians throw up their hands in despair about being able to follow the (ever multiplying) arguments, many of which turn on fairly esoteric debates about the structures of books of the Bible, the semantic range of Greek words, hermeneutical frameworks, and the like, many Christians turn to issues like the existential side of the debate as a way to get a ‘tiebreaker’. Winning that side on this debate is more significant than it is for many debates.

However, complementarianism’s theological pickiness produces a level of theological clarity and robustness that often gives it staying power beyond that of egalitarianism. Egalitarians, as a whole, are fuzzy compared to complementarians. Complementarianism’s willingness to turn its guns on itself expresses a commitment to truth, and the importance of theological details, that gives complementarianism a sense of backbone and strength. Movements that are defined by theology are usually healthiest in the long term when they sweat the details of theology, and when they’re even prepared to shed a bit of metaphorical blood (theirs and others) in the pursuit of nailing some of those details. It’s much harder to be nice while doing it, but often those details really matter when it comes to tricky pastoral and theological issues. Complementarianism, at its best, gives the meta-communication that it is confident that Scripture, in its plain sense, speaks to a very wide range of issues in life.  You can have confidence that you are following the Bible on a very wide range of practical and theological issues. Egalitarianism’s tolerance of theological diversity struggles to communicate that the same way, because the ease in which it accepts differences sends a signal that those differences don’t really matter for life.  You can hold different views on such matters trifling matters as whether Paul was wrong or just voicing something that was true then but means something different now or even just very misunderstood, and it’ll all work out okay as long you “don’t oppress women”. I don’t think it’s a surprise that most of the preachers with large podcast ministries seem to be complementarian. That’s not necessarily due to their complementarianism directly, I suspect. But it is due to complementarianism’s tendency to ‘sweat the details’ of theology and pastoral practice and take stands even against one’s friends. It is connected to complementarianism indirectly.

In my view, on this question both sides are basically stuck with their strengths and weaknesses relative to the other. A complementarianism that let it all hang out would become egalitarian fairly quickly, and an egalitarianism that regularly opened fire on its own members, well that would just be weird. Complementarianism will always sweat the details more. Egalitarianism will always be nicer. But complementarians can narrow the “niceness gap”, which will help those who put a premium on niceness (which is most people) to not tune out to attempts to argue the issues at stake. (I’ll leave it to egalitarians to work out what they can do to address the dynamic in the other direction—those who even agree that this analysis has any truth to it at all and isn’t just another politically motivated attack).  And I think it’s important we do that. Some of us complementarians have concerns that others of us have views that degrade women in practice. Some of us have concerns that others of us have views that give too much away to egalitarianism. That’s part of the glory of complementarianism; like Protestantism generally, the search for the One True Complementarian Position is never-ending as each generation opens Scripture, looks at the world around them, and seeks to submit to what they read in the Bible within the situation they find themselves. But we can temper our language that we use on each other. Once again, I’d draw attention to Tony’s article on this.

We can marry a concern for truth, and the details of truth, with generosity towards those with whom we disagree. And the generosity, and the tone, should roughly match the degree of the divergence. We should be much, much nicer in disagreements with other complementarians (even those complementarians, I would suggest, that we don’t consider ‘real complementarians’) than with egalitarians. If we think egalitarianism is bad for people, men and women, and bad for the church of God, and dishonours God, then I think we need to work hard at adding a more generous spirit to our concern for the truth in the way we speak about other self-proclaimed complementarians with whom we disagree.  Even when we suspect them of not being ‘real’ complementarians. Say what needs to be said, “Your view is not the One True Complementarianism taught in Scripture”, if that is what needs to happen. But do it as nicely as you can. Closing the ‘niceness gap’ is one factor in helping people to realize what the Bible teaches on this and submitting to it. People have to be really certain to accept a message from someone who comes across as anything but nice. (And, yes, that means we have to try and work at actually being nice, not just trying to fake it manipulatively.)

So that’s two things I think the Piper ‘Christianity has a masculine feeling’ hiccup suggests that us complementarians need to work hard at. We need to work hard at being clear about where we stand on debates within complementarianism and why. And we need to be as generous as our consciences will allow in dealing with other non-egalitarians who disagree with us on some of these questions that we really care about. Clarity and generosity in addressing ‘in house’ debates is going to be important in the next stage of this debate.

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