Complementarianism: Will to Power

The following is part of an ongoing response to Roger E. Olson’s critique of extreme complementarianism. For the origin and nature of these posts, see Complementarianism: A Defense from a Nobody.

I suppose there is very little to offend in my previous thoughts about the theoretical value of understanding men and women as different but equal. After all, even Dr. Olson admits that to one degree or another this is a universally recognized truth. What was controversial, and will be addressed at greater length here, is the suggestion that those difference cannot be neatly compartmentalized into the incidences of anatomy. There are, to put it crudely, substantial economic distinctions between males and females that cannot be reduced into prescriptions about whether God intended semen to come out of your or go into you. It is a tragic inevitability that more time should need to be spent on this latter fact than on the former, since the truth that God is a God who delights in constructive difference ought to be (and in my experience is) the focal point of complementarian thought. I regret that by focusing on the secondary, pragmatic aspects of complementarianism I legitimize, in a sense, Olson’s complaint that for complementarians the “emphasis is not on males and females complementing each other but on females being submissive to males.” Yet it should be recognized that this criticism is self-propagating. After all, if egalitarians and complementarians disagreed about value and function rather than on women in the pulpit then the conversation would be dominated by the former issue and the latter would be ignored. It is out of polemical necessity more than anything else that the debate has been translated from the core issues into mere accidents. Insofar as complementarians through repetitive arguments and microscopic focus on application forget to stress the essential truths of what is a more comprehensive anthropology, that shortcoming is ours as humans not a flaw in the truths which we feel compelled to express.

With that said, the other shoe is ready to drop. I believe that wives should submit to their husbands and that women should not exercise authority over men in the congregation. These do not encapsulate my complementarian beliefs, but they are nevertheless an undeniable product of them. From here, there are countless directions I could go. I might attempt to counter Olson’s assertion that only unabashed and “never really consistently” literalism can produce complementarian readings of Scripture by pointing out how theologically dangerous it is to excise under the guise of “cultural particularity” commands which are rooted in creation and yoked with soteriology. I could talk about the countless other social norms which Jesus and Paul were willing (even eager) to transgress and contrast it with their marked reluctance to do so with certain features of gender economics. I could trace the full and rich biblical picture of complementarian gender relations as they are depicted as fruitful and righteous throughout Scripture, demonstrating a marked consistency between Old and New Covenant gender economics. But I won’t, in large part because my point here is not to prove complementarianism. It is to demonstrate that there can be and are complementarians whose interests lie beyond (and even exclude) the end of subjugating women, to correct Olson’s egregious characterization that in complementarianism “adult women have pretty much the same role as children vis-à-vis adult men.”

Ultimately, I think the concern most egalitarians express (by which, I of course mean the revulsion most egalitarians feel) regarding complementarianism is born out of a capitulation to modern ideas of rights, authority, and power. In essence, there is a suggestion that unless women are given authority, they are somehow devalued. Unless they are presented with a full compliment of rights, they are second-class citizens. Unless they have power, they are helpless and destined for abuse (a specter Olson proves all to eager to conjure). In short, it is hard not to be left with the impression that, whether consciously or unconsciously, many egalitarians have bought into the anthropology of a post-nietzschean West which glorifies the will to power. If women are fully human they must have the opportunity to pursue their ambition to seize the highest clerical offices, command the most powerful pulpits, vie for control in their marriages, and to become the Übermensch (rather than, as in Nietzsche, simply to birth the Übermensch).

Egalitarians, I imagine, would balk at that depiction of their beliefs and particularly its marriage to so dark a figure as Nietzsche. (Though, for my part, I find it less offensive a picture than that of complementarians as domineering patriarchs seeking eagerly to have paternal authority over all 3.5 billion women in the world.) Certainly, I am open to the idea that the above has at least as much rhetorical flourish as it does substance. Egalitarians would surely not debate, however, that there motivating impulse is equal rights, rich as that term is with savory left-wing utopian connotations. The problem arises, however, in that I don’t believe in rights. I don’t believe we have them, and I certainly don’t think it is expressive of the Christian ethos to pursue them for ourselves. The quest for power, authority, and rights–which I will from here on collapse into the concept of authority, since it is primarily the right to have authority and the power derived from it on which the debate centers–is found nowhere in the Gospel. Instead, all authority is derived from God and given, qualified as it is, as a gift from Him. It is not a right to be seized but a commission to be accepted.

Instead, the Gospel is a narrative of submission and self-sacrifice. Jesus Christ, to whom all authority had been given, is the prime example of this. Consider the way he exercised his authority throughout his ministry. It was not in dictatorial commands to his disciples (male or female). It was not in domination over them. Instead, he assumed the role of a servant: feeding the hungry, encouraging the downtrodden, forgiving the sinner, and washing the feet of his disciples. The same ethos will carry into the earliest church. Though we occasionally see Paul making appeals to his authority (acknowledging always its derivative nature), the overwhelming example given by the apostles is one of unqualified service and the exhortation for Christians to do the same. Christ foreshadows and Paul recalls the cross as the central image of power, ironically redefined by the Gospel, for the whole Christian system. It is in dying the Christ ultimately defeats death and in our participation in that self-sacrificial act that Christians ultimately free themselves from it. Christian virtue is defined by and emulates this core self-sacrificial act. It does not strive after positions of power; it deliberately eschews them, allowing Christ to become a new kind of king. If our understanding of authority–its scope and function–were genuinely cruciform, then the Bible could place women in a perpetual and inviolable state of servitude and, far from making their position lamentable, it would glorify them in so doing.

Of course, it doesn’t and no self-respecting complementarian thinks that it does. The biblical picture of gender economics is one of mutual self-sacrifice and voluntary submission, because the virtues embodied in the cross are by no means exclusive to one sex. The most complete and wonderful picture is in the much maligned household codes in Ephesians, which gives two interrelated commands: wives submit to your husbands (as the church submits to Christ) and husbands sacrifice yourself for your wife (as Christ sacrificed himself for the church). It is important first to note that all submission and self-sacrifice is related directly back to Christ as the exemplar. It is not the Christ came and made himself a servant because he was less than those he came to serve. He humbled himself in spite of his superiority. Moreover, Christ did not sacrifice himself as it suited him and to the degree it suited him but completely and in ways which most profoundly effected him. What is depicted in the relationship between Christ and the church is not the degree of authority which is being conferred upon husbands but the nature of the relationship. What is being prescribed for wives and husbands is, in its essence, a common disposition toward one another. After all, Christians are exhorted to submission (the same kind of submission that wives are specifically enjoined to choose) to all other Christians in the verse immediately prior. The image is of a husband who empties himself in the act of sacrifice for his wife so that there is nothing in him that self-centered. He acts purely in love for his wife. The wife, in turn, empties herself in the act of submission to her husband so that there is nothing in her that is self-centered. She acts purely in love for her husband. The beauty here–and the implicit critique of systems which are overly concerned with assigning rights–is that the focus and the blessing here is not on who has authority but on who is the greater servant to his or her spouse.

There is no domination in this. No women being treated as children relative to men. There is no concern for authority at all, and the obsession with who is “in charge” is a contemporary battle being waged because we have forgotten that self-sacrifice is a Christian virtue and equal rights a secular one. I do not believe that women should be in the pulpit. I don’t pretend to understand why, entirely, Scripture indicates that, but I can see fairly clearly that it does. Certainly, I can imagine a comprehensive Christian theory of gender which validates that viewpoint without creating a value disparity between the sexes. Ultimately, if there is some person (of either gender) out there who is indignant over his or her inability to rise through the ecclesiastical ranks of power, my concern is not with whether or not the individuals rights are being protected but with whether or not that person (and our church culture as a whole) has a firm enough grasp on the central tenets of the Christian ethos. We certainly ought to stand up for what is right and there are battles worth waging. It is my belief, however, that more pernicious than the threat of patriarchy–which I contend our culture has put aside in all its darkest forms–is that of self-motivated ambition and the undeserved sense of entitlement. Without putting too much rhetorical weight on it, I dare say that rather than lamenting the prospect of women being treated like children we ought to all rejoice at the idea that we may humble ourselves and become like children so as to enter the kingdom of heaven.

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4 thoughts on “Complementarianism: Will to Power

  1. […] and Function Will to Power Olson’s Gordian Knot Spread the Word:EmailFacebookTwitterRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to […]

  2. swallison50 says:

    You said “In short, it is hard not to be left with the impression that, whether consciously or unconsciously, many egalitarians have bought into the anthropology of a post-nietzschean West which glorifies the will to power.” I had never had any idea of the connection of egalitarianism and the will to power. Must ponder it further.

    I used to think Nietzsche was crazy and not worthy to waste time on. However, he and others, like M. Foucault conveyed important things about power and how it is used/abused. The knowledge and recognition of power games that thanks to them is now no longer below the surface of western civilization’s consciousness is a step in being able to counter them. Nowadays, of course, I still think he was crazy but I keep running into pithy, insightful quotes from which I learn. Tried reading Zarathustra but got bogged down. So like everything else except my own field, I rely on others’ explication of him. Have you ever been to the web page “Nietzsche Family Circus?” They mix up N’s quotes with Family Circle comics. It’s a riot.

    The integration of women into all vocational locations has to do with expedience it seems to me. We no longer live in the medieval power pyramid with the head dude at the top followed with minions below to whom other minions report and on downward. We live in a web of interdependence. My personal physician of fifteen years just recently left to take a teaching position. She was my doctor for that long and it never occurred to me to think of our relationship in terms of power or that she exercised power or authority over me. And so it goes with so many other relationships and interactions in my life. It is ironic to me that so many of the people who would have loved for Sarah Palin to be Vice President or even President, would balk at her speaking in their church. It is perplexing to me that one would be OK but the other not.

    I was on a search committee at church a decade or so ago and one applicant we were told was recommended by the lady who was speaker of the house of some midwestern state. I was not able to verify her name or the state but the chairman of the committee asserted that. I thought how ironic, that her calling involved the word “speaker” but she would not be allowed to speak in our church or teach in our classes at church. There used to be a Martha’s Night Out program at our church. One of our ladies was and still is on the board of a local mental health organization and had interesting things to say and I wished I could have been there to benefit. She is a talented person of uncommon virtue. I thought then what a shame that us guys could not be in her audience. Now I suppose she and many other women like her would be uncomfortable with that. And that is OK too. It is their choice. So my theory is that if a person has talent and something to offer, why shouldn’t we be allowed to be blessed by them?

    I loved what you had to say about the submission and self sacrifice of Jesus as his way of asserting power. Love the irony in that. Beautiful, true and well stated.

    Sorry, I’ve said too much tonight. One more thing though. I love Len Hjalmarson’s site Next Reformation. He had an article on Postmodern Possibilities where he discusses some of the distinguishing characteristics of today young pilgrims and includes their “rejection of authority in position and acceptance of authority in relationship”. Seems Christ is the model for that.

    • First of all, thank you for pointing me to that Family Circus site. That was ridiculously funny.

      And also, thank you for the calm and openness with which you approached this. It was the kind of decorum that I had expected, to my disappointment, from a scholar of Roger Olson’s station.

      With that out of the way, there is a certain intrinsic emotional appeal to egalitarianism today, and I am no less sensitive to that than anyone. Women are professors, doctors, lawyers, police officers, and vice presidential candidates. You’re certainly not going to hear me argue that they shouldn’t be. What I will suggest is that you could have used similar evaluative criteria one thousand years ago to reach the opposite conclusion. The premises and effects of egalitarianism would have been so repugnant to the medieval mind that affirming them would have been unthinkable (and of course was). I look out at the milieu in which I was raised and I feel what you do. I admit above (or perhaps in another entry in this series) that I don’t pretend to fully grasp the import of the applications of biblical gender economics. But I also recognize that this no more proves egalitarianism than their complementarian culture proved complementarianism. What that historical perspective should do, however, is force us to look at what motivates the impulses of our culture. I dare say that Christian ethics were not the dominant driving force in either time, and I think that Olson makes the mistake of believing that to reject religious applications of our cultural egalitarianism is to embrace the medieval cultural complementarianism. It’s not.

      That, of course, is the point of this. I don’t expect to convert egalitarians to my viewpoint so much as I hope to demonstrate that there is a vision for complementarianism that is not culturally dependent on feudal power structures, or even patriarchal power structures. I won’t say it isn’t culturally conditioned at all; I’m not that naive. I will say that it makes an effort to peel back some of the more obvious contemporary ideological biases to get to the real radical message of Jesus who said (and instructed others to say) exactly what he intended and who expected people to conform to the truth he offered and not to conform the truth to themselves.

      I liked that you alluded to some of the implications, if indirectly, of this line of thought beyond the realm of gender economics. There are Christians who are in and who pursue positions of power precisely because they are positions of power. Forget the cognitive dissonance regarding women in church and politics. If people understood power the way I have outlined above, could they imagine any Christian presidential candidate who would be invited to speak in their churches?

  3. […] Meanwhile, all I ask for is the simple right to find those qualities unattractive. If the idea of my home becoming a staging ground for working out gender equality doesn't comport with the notions of domestic bliss that I developed when I was a little boy playing house and you were a little girl playing sister suffragette, I trust you won't think me too primitive. While you are off pursuing your dreams, I ask only that you don't count among your goals the wholesale destruction of my dream of enjoying a wife who makes me feel like a man, the sort of man Nick Charles was in the 1930s with his young, rich, opinionated, strong-willed wife who adored him. I have never, nor would I ever, force a woman to do anything, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t buy into the newest, shiniest model of woman just because you’re telling me she’s the wave of the future. The old model works just fine, the kind who recognizes that the quests for love and equity are sometimes adversarial. […]

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