What the Bible really says about men and women: a 10 point critque of complementarianism (10)

This is no. 9 of a 10 point critique of complementarianism in dialogue with Claire Smith and Howard Marshall’s interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:8-15. 

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

10 thoughts on “What the Bible really says about men and women: a 10 point critque of complementarianism (10)

  1. Hi Patrick
    Thanks for a trememdously enlightening series of observations … I particularly look forward to your concluding thoughts.
    You refer above to the C-H explanation of the basis for subordination of women by analogy with the relationship of the Father and the Son as being “a (bad) quasi-analogy with the Trinity”. Could you expand a little on why you see it a as bad analogy? Your quotation of Sarah Summer, (comparing women’s equality with men with that of the Son with the Father, while their not having a shared status with men as do the Father and the Son), certainly showa a shortcoming in the analogy. But this attempt at rational explanation for the C-H position is a prominent one, so I’d be keen to hear any further critique you might have of the weaknesses of the analogy.

    • Hi Tim. The problem for the analogy is that it breaks down. Some see a pattern of hierarchy within the Trinity – specifically the son’s eternal subordination in role to the Father, but some even say eternal subordination in being as well. This fixed hierarchy within the Trinity is then supposedly mirrored in male – female relationships.

      But to go down this route is to go against Christian orthodoxy. There is not a hierarchy within the Trinity. Father, Son and Spirit are co-equal and co-eternal.

      Arius insisted on the Son’s subordination to the Father, and concluded the Son was ‘lesser than’ the Father (only the Father was truly God. There was a ‘time when he [Jesus] was not’. Jesus is a created being etc). Whereas the great defenders of the Tri-unity of God like Athanasius, Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, and later Calvin all rejected the eternal subordination of the Son. Texts which talk of the Son’s limitations (‘the Father is greater than I’) are interpreted as talking of the voluntary self-limiting of the incarnate Son with the Triune God’s work of salvation.

      In other words, the Trinity is not a basis for supporting permanent hierarchy between male and female. Properly understood it does the exact opposite.

      Kevin Giles is the person who has written extensively on this:
      The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002)

      • Patrick,
        That’s not entirely correct. I’ve done a three-part post on the subject of subordination within the Trinity. This is an orthodox view. As Roger E. Olson has even stated to me, most Christians affirm a subordination in terms of procession. As Fr. Sergius Bulgakov notes, procession isn’t necessarily well-defined in the ancient sources. Craig Keener himself also holds to subordination within the Trinity.

        The Eastern Orthodox have historically maintained the divine monarchy of the Father over the Son. This is not subordination in terms of being though. I know of no one who states the Son is subordinate in terms of being.

        Here is my three-part series on the subject of subjection of the Son to the Father–St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, and others all held to this.

        And lastly, I don’t think the Trinity should be used in this debate by either radical egalitarians or opponents of women’s ordination.

        “The doctrine of subordination, or divine monarchy, is well summarized by Bishop Browne. He says that the orthodox fathers held the eternal generation ‘to be a proof that He was of one substance and eternity with the Father; but the relation of the Father to the Son they held to constitute a priority of order, though not of nature or power. They held, that is, not that the Son was, in His nature as God, in any degree different from, or inferior to the Father; but that, as the Father alone was the source and fountain…of Deity, the Son having been begotten, and the Spirit proceeding, so there is a subordination without diversity of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son.’” (Hall, Dogmatic Theology, v. 4: The Trinity, 238-239)

        “one cannot fail to see in the Holy Trinity, not causality…but a certain ontological hierarchical relation of the equi-eternal and equi-divine hypostases” (Bulgakov, The Comforter, 71)

  2. Patrick, I don’t think we can throw away ‘analogy’ between Trinity and husband wife relationships quiet so easily. Paul does after all speak of the Son finally subjecting even himself to Father at the end of time (1 Cor 15:28). This of course is nothing to do with ontological subordination – but for this reason it begs the question why the Son rather the Father should be the one who does the ‘subjecting’ – indeed why the Son should obey the Father and die on the cross. The term Father-Son is itself revealing. This would have had strong connotations of ‘authority’ in the ancient world – much more so than today. So the question is why if the Son is ontologically one with the Father should the former subordinate himself to the latter’s will? What ‘mechanism’ is at work here? That husband-wife relationships have been viewed analogically with the Trinity makes good sense – espeiavlly as there is biblical warrant for it.

      • There is also a discussion about the use of the Trinity on this website
        The basic point, if I have understood it properly, is that the current use of the Trinity in Gender Relations, both by those who are C-H and those who are egalitatarian, uses an understanding of ‘person’ as in the ‘three persons of the Trinity that is open to the charge of tritheism. Our modern understanding or person is at odds with the Trinitarian debates of the 4th and 5th Centuries.
        So we need to drop this analogy altogether.

  3. *Applauds*

    Thank you for this series, I’m sad it’s come to an end! I’ll be diving deeper into a couple of the topics you’ve brought up here, and I’m really thankful you’ve pointing me to them.

    As for the Trinity thing, this argument always gets me confused (the Trinity *on its own* gets me confused) – I’m no mathematician, but two = three-in-one sounds like a strange analogy to make.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s