The future of complementarianism (4): things people do and don’t fear

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

This debate between complementarians that the Piper incident has helped highlight has reinforced my growing impression that there are significant differences between the egalitarian and complementarian “sides” in how they approach ‘in house’ differences. Some reflections on this is my fifth and final observation and will take up the whole of these last two posts.

As anyone who has engaged in online debates on this issue, or who has read around the literature at all is probably aware, egalitarians seem to easily make common cause with other egalitarians across widely differing views—this egalitarian thinks that Paul said women should not have authority over men and that he gave substantial Scriptural arguments for that, but that Paul was wrong and misunderstood things at that point; this egalitarian thinks Paul never said that women should not have authority over men and has been misunderstood until now when political liberalism and then feminism have enabled us to read him better; and this egalitarian thinks that Paul did say that exegetically to the people of his day but doesn’t say it hermeneutically to us now (and then the reasons why Paul’s words don’t say the same thing to us now as they did to the original readers then can vary tremendously between egalitarians in this camp and often contradict each other as well).

All of that very big difference to get to the egalitarian position on the practical question (that women can lead and preach to mixed congregations and don’t submit to their husbands any differently from how their husbands do to them) doesn’t seem that important compared to their agreement on the end result. Egalitarians can ‘play nice’ with each other across those paths. In my observations, egalitarians usually don’t rush to distance themselves from other egalitarians with a very different path to get to the egalitarian position, and when they do distance themselves from each other there is usually little heat or tension about it, “I wouldn’t follow them at that point” or “I wouldn’t put it that way”, is usually the strongest language that gets used.

Cut to the complementarian ‘side’. The response to Piper’s quote reinforces my overall impressions that complementarians divide off from each other relatively easily and often with a fair degree of heat in our comments about each other. When I enter into a debate on the internet with egalitarians (as I’ve done from time to time) I can be sure of a couple of things. Among the different egalitarians there’ll be a variety of completely different arguments for their views—each of which will need to be addressed separately (and no egalitarian will join with me in fisking another egalitarian’s views, even if they agree with me that that view is wrong and agree with why it is wrong). In addition to this, sooner or later, I will likely be challenged by another complementarian (sometimes who enters the discussion for the sole purpose of challenging me rather than the egalitarians) who considers my position either too extreme or too close to egalitarianism (and you can flip a coin as to which way that goes). But you’ll almost never see the egalitarians challenge each other—to this point, I never have. If you make the mistake of thinking they all agree with each other, because they haven’t distanced themselves from another egalitarian’s argument, they’ll inform you differently, but you wouldn’t be able to guess it from their silence about each other’s arguments.

This suggests to me two important differences between the two ‘camps’. The first important difference is that egalitarians tend to dismiss as politically motivated, and get annoyed about, complementarian charges that the egalitarian approach is either inherently liberal or encodes an approach to Scripture that fairly naturally heads in a liberal direction. But complementarians take seriously, and are somewhat anxious about, egalitarian charges that complementarianism is either inherently abusive of women or encodes an approach that leads in that direction. Complementarians (except for those on the margins) are almost always watching to make sure that their position, in theory and practice, genuinely upholds women’s dignity and flourishing and isn’t a cloak for misogyny.

Hence, complementarians tend to react very strongly to another complementarian whose views are even more radical in their take on gender difference than their own. “Bad” complementarians make many complementarians do some soul-searching as to whether the complementarian view is all it’s accused of being by egalitarianism. It also means that complementarians are relatively quick to throw each other under the bus for either giving too much of the game away to egalitarianism, or for being too restrictive or too dishonouring of women in the restrictions on women’s authority it holds to, or in its explaining the rationale for the restrictions on women. When someone like Piper says something other complementarians don’t like, the reaction will often be either dismissal of the view as strange and chauvinistic and so somewhat ridiculous, or distress at how much harder he’s made it for other complementarians to stay in the camp.

For their part, by and large, egalitarians don’t seem to think there is any validity at all in the idea that there is a link between their approach to reading the Bible and liberalism, so they generally don’t react badly to coming across egalitarians who are more liberal than themselves. It raises no broader questions for them about egalitarianism as a whole and their place within egalitarianism. When a notable egalitarian says something or does something ‘extreme’—declares themselves for liberalism, or states that there are absolutely no significant differences between men and women apart from plumbing and reproduction—the reaction from most other egalitarians will be muted, and be more sorrow for that individual, rather than a concern for the damage they’ve done to egalitarianism and the cause of women’s justice and dignity.

I’m not sure that there’s any value to be placed on either of those dynamics in and of themselves. One doesn’t have to take seriously all the charges of one’s opponent; one can dismiss an opponent’s concerns as being without merit. Egalitarians don’t have to be scared of incipient liberalism in the way that complementarians seem to be scared of incipient misogyny. The conservative in me thinks that taking a position that reflects the cultural values of the day and that breaks with how Christians have read the Bible at that point means that one should be all but paranoid in one’s concern about incipient liberalism in oneself and one’s allies. I also think that everyone should be aware that their views will have an inbuilt weakness towards something bad theologically and be on guard against that, and so the lack of concern among egalitarians about an inbuilt weakness towards liberalism (for they’re hardly in danger of becoming fundamentalists) does send alarm bells. But that’s part of what makes me a conservative evangelical rather than a moderate evangelical, still less an open evangelical, and so is actually part of this debate, it’s not a commentary on these two dynamics in comparison to each other. That is, I think it reflects well on complementarianism that it’s scared of its shadow. I don’t think it reflects well on egalitarianism that it doesn’t seem to believe that it even has a shadow. But those are two separate and distinct evaluations, not simply a comparison of each with the other. And moderate and open evangelicals are going to disagree with that assessment for reasons to do with why they are moderate and open evangelicals (rather than egalitarians per se).

As it stands then, there’s two dynamics because, by and large, the complementarian ‘side’ is scared of the shadows around their position and the other ‘side’ is not scared as it doesn’t agree that its view has any downsides. That’s something to be aware of and should inform us complementarians in how we approach this issue, but I think it’s a fairly partisan approach that would see that that demonstrates an inherent superiority of one side over the other (either way). As I’ve said, we might make that judgement, but it involves a few steps, many of which are themselves part of the debate. We need to speak and act realizing that many complementarians are really concerned about encroaching misogyny within complementarianism, and most egalitarians are not at all concerned about encroaching liberalism within egalitarianism. That’s not ammunition for the debate (although it should be food for thought) but it should shape how we conduct ourselves.

Comments are closed.