And in outlining these objections, I’m trying to imagine a robust debate with people I know and respect who don’t agree with me, not a war with enemies.
For Christians from both sides can agree on a lot: men and women are different(!); they are equal, both created in the image of God; both sexes are gifted by the Spirit for ministry; and no-one, whether male or female, has any ‘right’ to leadership. Leadership is a gift and calling of God to a life of loving and serving others under the shadow of the cross.
That said, this is not a trivial issue. It fundamentally touches upon understandings of leadership, ministry, Bible interpretation, the dignity and value of women, and whether half of the global church is permanently barred from serving the Lord using their gifts of leading, preaching and pastoring simply because of their gender.
9. Philosophically confused
What is to be made of the C-H argument that men and women are equal but have different ‘roles’?
As I mentioned in an earlier post, we need to be clear that gender roles within C-H are not complementary, even if men and women are equals. Women are permanently and innately subordinate to men in the church where it is men who lead and preach. At home, wives are under the authority of their husbands. Regardless of who she is, her gifting, experience and ability, she is to follow, he is to lead. In other words, there is nothing a women can do that a man cannot also do within the church, but there are specific roles only a man has the opportunity to do because he belongs to the right gender.
Sarah Sumner in her excellent book Men and Women in the Church, makes some telling and important points on this ‘equal but different roles’ philosophy. Underneath this debate is an argument about what constitutes ‘proper order’. And behind this are different philosophies of order. She unpacks two different models of order at play in this debate.
A Scotist View:
God’s commands simply need to correlate to God’s will for God orders the world as he wills. We don’t have to understand it, we have to obey it.
A Thomist View:
There will be a correlation between God’s commands and reason. God does things for good reasons that are understandable. There will be a link between divine law and natural law, between God’s will and creation.
People like Wayne Grudem and Claire Smith insist that women are fully equal with men in terms of status, image, and significance – it is just that God has ordained that men take the lead in family and church life. Equality does not mean equality of opportunity, it means ‘difference of role’. The fact that many women are gifted to lead and preach etc is also irrelevant in this thinking – giftedness is not the last word above God’s revealed will.
Egalitarians who point out the lack of rationale, the inconsistencies and weaknesses in the C-H argument (like I’ve been attempting to do in these posts), tend to be ignored by complementarians because they are perceived to be diluting Scripture and using human reason or ‘feminist thought’ to question God’s ‘good design’.
Complementarian-hierarchialists also argue that their position is traditional in the church and egalitarians are trying to introduce novel ideas (feminist influence again).
Yet to talk of ‘full equality’ combined with a hierarchy of function (or different ‘roles’) within home and the church is itself, as Kevin Giles has argued, a fairly new idea in the history of the church. Until fairly recently, the most common reasons given for women’s secondary roles was that they were more prone to be deceived and/or they were created after the man are so are secondary in rank. Within much of church history women did not have equal roles because they were seen as inferior to men. This at least was consistent!
Here’s Sarah Sumner’s main point: complementarians have changed the premise of church tradition (from ‘women are inferior’ to ‘women are equal’) but have maintained the conclusion (‘women are subordinate’). This is confusing and illogical – hence the mixed messages and the bewildering mixture of subjective complementarian practice.
In philosophical terms, C-H is a therefore a confusing mixture of Scotist and Thomist thinking.
Take the example of people like Claire Smith, Wayne Grudem, John Piper and Thomas Schreiner.
– As Scotists, they say women as equals should assume subordinate roles simply because it is God’s will. It’s a ‘creation ordinance’ and we are not to argue with God’s ‘good design’ or look for reasons why.
– As Thomists, they try to find logical reasons for this permanent universal subordination.. Some say women are equal ‘before God’ but should assume subordinate roles based on a (bad) quasi-analogy with the Trinity (where the Son is equal but subordinate to the Father).
– As a Thomist, you have John Piper proposing that mature ‘femininity’ itself is a predisposition to be subject to the leadership of the man. Mature ‘masculinity’ is a predisposition to lead well. In his words ‘a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women.’ In other words, the identity of men and women does NOT have a shared essential quality. And this is a ‘reason’ for female subordination.
– As a Thomists some (increasingly scarce) C-H arguments still try to find reasons for female subordination in the idea that women are more easily deceived or are innately not suited to lead or preach etc. Whatever the precise proposal, it is a search for logical ‘reasons’ for female subordination.
Notice what is going on here. The mixture of Scotist and Thomist ideas are self-contradictory.
On the one hand, the Thomist arguments are finding reasons why women should be subordinate to men. Inevitably this leads towards hierarchy and superiority, however much this is denied.
On the other hand, the Scotist argument asserts that men and women are equal.
Whatever you may think of egalitarian arguments, they are at least philosophically consistent. Equal status is linked to equal roles (for those gifted and called, either men or women).
So, despite complementarian-hierarchialists’ affirmation of women’s ‘full equality before God’, it is logically impossible to affirm that a woman is at once spiritually and ontologically equal to a man and at the same time permanently, comprehensively, and necessarily subordinate within a faith that is innately ‘masculine’. The talk of full equality with ‘difference in function’ is an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable.
Final word here to Sarah Sumner and it’s worth reading carefully I think,
No wonder conservative Christians are confused. We are given so many mixed messages. In one long breath, we are told that women are not inferior but that “the permanent facts of creation” reveal that women should assume subordinate roles; yet women are equal to men just as surely as the Son is equal to the Father, even though we don’s share the same status with men as the Son does with the Father; and men are not superior to women because both are created in the image of God, although men are uniquely designed (though not necessarily gifted) to be women’s leaders; and women are uniquely designed to nurture and affirm men’s leadership over them even if they themselves are more spiritually gifted than the men who oversee them. All this, we are told, to be honored – unless certain male leaders commission women to be exceptions.
By simultaneously adopting two theories of natural order that are mutually exclusive, some of us have promoted a lack of logic. It can’t be true that the only reason women are to assume inferior roles at church is because God said so, if indeed the permanent facts of nature also explain the reason why. I believe it’s unintentional, but many of us Christians in the evangelical community have unknowingly adopted a Scotist-Thomist view and called it biblical. With that, we have trumpeted a mixed-up view that says women, as equals, are allowed to speak and lead, but only unofficially as subordinates. (293-295)
Comments, as ever, welcome