Complementarianism: Olson’s Gordian Knot

The following is part of an ongoing response to Roger E. Olson’s critique of extreme complementarianism. For the ori06gin and nature of these posts, see Complementarianism: A Defense from a Nobody.

Let us shift now from complementarianism in theory and Olson’s critique of it to a subsequent post where Olson attempts to upend complementarianism. He proposes to offer “a true conundrum that exposes the impossibility of consistent complementarianism” and solicits in response possible solutions from “leading evangelical complementarian theorists.” Unfortunately, I am not a leading theorist in any respect, and thus my opinion has only marginal weight for Olson–as I am forced to conclude does the opinions of the millions of regular complementarians who go around every day not treating their wives like children or living in abject, debilitating subjugation to their husbands. Nevertheless, I will present Olson’s Gordian Knot and, with my meager skills, attempt to untie it from the complementarian position I have outlined previously.

Suppose a married couple comes to you (the complementarian pastor or counselor or whatever) for advice. They are both committed evangelical Christians who sincerely want to “do the right thing.” They are trying to live according to the guidelines of evangelical complementarianism. However, a problem has arisen in their marriage. The wife acquired sound knowledge and understanding of finances including investments before the couple became Christians. The husband is a car mechanic who knows little to nothing about finances or investments. A good, trusted friend has come to the husband and offered him an opportunity to make a lot of money by investing the couple’s savings (money for their childrens’ college educations and for retirement) in a capital venture. The husband wants to do it. The wife, whose knowledge of finances and investments is well known and acknowledged by everyone, is adamantly opposed to it and says she knows, without doubt, that the money will be lost in that particular investment. She sees something in it the husband doesn’t see and she can’t convince him that it is a bad investment. The husband wants to take all their savings and put it into this investment, but he can’t do it without his wife’s signature. The wife won’t sign. However, after long debate, the couple has agreed to leave the matter in your hands. The husband insists this is a test of the wife’s God-ordained subordination to him. The wife insists this is an exception to their otherwise complementarian marriage. You, the complementarian adviser of the couple, realize the wife is right about the investment. The money will be lost if the investment is made. You try to talk the husband out of it but he won’t listen. All he’s there for is to have you decide biblically and theologically what she, the wife, should do. What do you advise?

The scenario Olson describes is difficult, admittedly, but perhaps not in the way he thinks. It isn’t difficult to resolve logically; its difficulty lies in the existential turmoil it evokes. The force of his argument rests primarily in its appeal to the universal human inclination to be covetous of what we own. Anyone who has been married for any period of time has weathered some kind of financial difficulty and, in all likelihood, has butted heads with his or her spouse over the proper course to take. When you pair that shared experience with the ubiquitous presence in sinful humanity of a desire to possess and preserve “treasures on earth,” it is understandable why Olson’s straw complementarians have shied away from answering.

The resolution, such as it is, comes first through reorienting the ethical priorities. For Olson, the clear focus is on the ethics of financial stewardship (to use a gross euphemism). When presented with the potential objection that the limit of submission is sin, he counters that “[the complementarian] has to define “sin” in such a way as to exclude from it the wife’s knowing participation in financial ruin for their whole family.” What looms large in the ethical picture then is the suggestion that the possibility of financial ruin is more critical than the possibility that some tertiary Christian principle (something totally incidental like submission) might be violated.

Instead of focusing on the dire prospect that “money for their childrens’ college educations and for retirement” might not be there–concerns which smack of an affluent Christianity foreign to the apostolic age, or to most Christian ages for that matter–the primary ethical question ought to be whether or not the foundational Christian principle of self-sacrificial love is at play. With this being the new focus, there are a number of actions which would be morally virtuous regardless of the consequences (and thus undermining Olson’s utilitarian vision of ethics). For example, it would be morally virtuous for the wife to opt to submit to the husband and allow the money to be invested. If the money should be lost, credit God with using the wife’s sacrifice as a tool for teaching the husband humility. If the investment should prove profitable, credit God with using the husband’s prudence as a tool for teaching the wife humility. In either case, whatever happens to the money is incidental. The wife’s choice to submit is morally virtuous.

Before any objections to this are raised, let me continue by adding that it would also be morally virtuous if the husband opted to forgo the investment out of sacrificial love for his wife. It is a fool (or a polemicist) who believes that true leadership consists of always getting your way. Plato understood leadership to be whatever actions best ensured that all those led were maximizing their potential. Paul had a less calculating but nonetheless compatible vision when he told husbands that they should give themselves up for their wives as Christ gave himself up for the church. If the investment turns out to have been unsound for others, credit God with using the wife’s prudence as a tool for teaching the husband humility. If the investment turns out to have been sound for others, credit God with using the husband’s sacrifice as a tool for teaching the wife humility. In either case, the husband can only ever act virtuous when he sacrifices his will out of love for his wife.

The ultimate issue at stake here is not how to make sound investments but how to have a sound marriage before God. The key to this does not lie in equal rights or even in a calculated, non-traditional division of labor. It lies in the willingness of the spouses to emulate Jesus Christ, who submits himself eternally to God the Father and who gave himself up ultimately for his bride the church. As the hypothetical couples counselor, I don’t care at all what happens to their money. I’m not their stockbroker. My concern is helping them to grow into conformity with the image of Christ, for which submission is essential. Olson frames the question as a conflict between doing what is good and doing what is legal, but in reality it is a clash between doing what is right and doing what is desirable. The focus on the money betrays who our true master is. If it is God rather than Mammon, then the issue comes into sharper focus.

Not, I imagine, for Olson, mind you. It is clear from his proposed dilemma that he sees unsound investment as a sin (a damning judgment on so many in America and the world right now). There is a more unsettling undercurrent to Olson’s argument, however, a response to which may sum up my point here. In his opening salvo, Olson poses this question with apparent indignation: “What is permanent, docile, subordination and submission if not a curse?” I would suggest that it is the appropriate human disposition before God. If submission is a curse, than the Son is accursed of the Father. If submission is a curse, then Adam and all of creation were cursed before Even ever arrived on the scene. If submission is a curse, then Paul enjoins all Christians to be cursed by one another and by God. In fact, the permanent, docile, and voluntary (an adjective that Olson always seems to omit) submission before God is the wonderful disposition in which God exalts and beatifies all creation. That wives may be asked to practice this before their husbands (“as to the Lord”), Christians before one another, congregants before elders, children before parents, slaves before masters, and on and on is not the shame of anyone but to their glorious and eternal benefit.

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