Tag Archives: complementariansim

Anarchism and the Just Society

The following is part of the Anarchy in May series which examines Christian anarchism and quotes prominent Christian anarchist thinkers. For a more detailed introduction and a table of contents, please see Anarchy in May: Brief Introduction and Contents.
There is a great deal to commend Vernard Eller’s arguments about human attempts to construct a classless society, but an arguments merits are normally apparent on its face. To that extent, I intend to let Eller’s point speak for itself. No argument, however, is entirely invulnerable to criticism. Two such criticisms came to my mind while I was reviewing Eller’s case that bear engagement. Though I do not think either is ultimately justified, the fact that Eller does not address them specifically compels me to address them.

The first and most obvious criticism that might arise from those who advocate revolutionary attempts to establish equity is that Eller’s Christian alternative does not actually achieve the ends for society that they pursue. No matter how hard we try, simply ignoring social inequality does not resolve the reality of it. As long as the “oppressing classes” continue to have recourse to their means of oppression, the “oppressed classes” will continue to be oppressed.

This is undoubtedly true. It must be remembered, however, that Christian anarchism makes no pretense of trying to reform human society through human effort. In fact, it is predicated precisely on rejecting such a pretension. Eller makes the point quite clearly that all human means for establishing social equity necessarily involve the use of force (in some fashion) which is itself a form of social oppression, even if it is the “oppressed” who are oppressing the “oppressors.” Christian anarchism doesn’t provide an alternative human means for achieving human ends, but a rejection of human means and human ends in favor of divine ones.

The church, in this understanding, becomes the only truly classless, and therefore just, society because it adopts, insofar as it is possible, the divine perspective of unity in Christ. When Paul says that there is no Greek or Jew, male or female, he does not believe that humanity becomes uniform by entrance into the church. Instead, the church becomes the proleptic experience of the kingdom on earth in which the incidentals which assume the status of identity in human society are relegated to their proper sphere.

This provides a perfect segue into the second objection: if classification as a means of domination is eliminated in the Christian community, what is to be made of the various economic recognitions of features such as gender in the church. If anarchism and its attempts to construct an equitable society by divine means is in fact the true means for achieving justice, does it not necessarily follow that people in the church cease to recognize as significant distinctions in gender?

I suspect that for Eller this is not so much an objection as a recognition of his logical conclusion. He appears to be the egalitarian type of anarchist more in the tradition of Garrison than Lipscomb. Being myself nearer to the latter, however, it is important to stress that egalitarian gender economics are only one possible implication to be drawn from Eller’s argument.

Even Eller recognizes that matters of sex, race, or socio-economic status are significant insofar as they are necessary categories by which humanity interacts with the world. For Eller this is an unfortunate byproduct of human finitude. He does not seem to recognize that there are realities which correspond to the categories which are generally labeled “oppressive.” The essence of anarchism does not need to be the elimination of all distinction because distinction is not only relevant and representative of reality but it is arguably the preeminent reality, enshrined before time in the trinitarian God and established as the predicate reality for a creation which is genuinely ex nihilo. (Eller presses this issue to its breaking point, wanting to blur even the distinctions between species as he makes a point to refer to sparrows as “individuals” in the same way that people are “individuals.”)

Instead, what Jesus does and what the anarchist vision of the church does is to divorce classification from value. This is the core of the complementarian argument of ontological equality and economic difference. It is critical to realize that difference in race, socio-economic status, and gender are non-essential, which is to say that they are not of the essence of things not that they are not meaningful. With this understanding in view, Eller’s stress on the church as the congregation of individuals standing equally before God and equally in one another’s estimation can be fully embraced.

Whatever you are, you are first and foremost a child of God, a sibling in Christ, and an expectant participant in the Kingdom of Heaven. That is what identifies us as Christians. That we may function differently in the church on the basis of the incidentals of our existence does not undermine that truth or in any way diminish its supreme importance. (And that stands not just for the issue of gender economics but also for the way people of different socio-economic status function differently but equally in the mission of the church not to mention countless other less controversial economic distinctions).

Undoubtedly, the fact that I agree with so many of Eller’s premises means that I am omitting or overlooking other potential errors in his thinking (any of which I would be happy to have pointed out to me). Nevertheless, it seems hard to contradict Eller’s acute sense of the flaw in historical and ongoing attempts by humanity to imagine and pursue and truly equitable society. The just society will always be out of the reach of optimistic human hands because humanity lacks truly just mechanisms of actualizing its vision, even if that vision were truly just.

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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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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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Complementarianism: Value and Function

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 imagine that many, perhaps even Dr. Olson (who, while a real person, has taken on for my purposes here more the role of a fictional foil against which to cast complementarianism), consider the distinction between value and function as far as gender economics is concerned to be a thin veneer behind which to hide overt sexism. The distinction is, nevertheless, one which I believe to be substantive and necessary for approaching the question of gender economics. In simpler terms, it is the philosophical underpinning for the idea that things can be different but equal. That phrasing has the nasty connotation of racist ideals of “separate but equal” which was in fact merely a façade for separate and deeply unequal treatment. The problem both with “separate but equal” and the distinction between value and function is not in the abstract but in the improper application.

Distinguishing function from value is an assumption that we all operate with uncritically with on a daily basis. For example, consider the question, “Who do you love more, your spouse or your children?” Even as someone without children, I realize that question is nonsensical. The only appropriate, healthy answer is, “I love them equally.” And yet, you do not have the same expectations from your spouse as you do your children. You value them equally and yet you recognize that there is a fundamental difference in the way they operate relative to you. In theory then, at least, I hope everyone can agree to the possibility of ontological equality and economic distinction.

Even Olson admits that essentially everyone agrees that men and women were created for different functions. After all, it is hard not to look at a male and a female and realize that they are not quite the same. On the other hand, Olson’s only practical example of this is to point to anatomical distinctions: “even feminists believe men and women have different roles insofar as only women give birth!” At the core of complementarianism, however, is the belief that God chose to create men and women with more important differences than the ability of men to urinate standing up.

In fact, an appeal to pregnancy—or anatomy more generally—as a key functional difference between men and women seems to treat the problem in reverse. It forgets, in essence, that God was not constrained by the world He had not yet created and the reproductive strictures He would produce. In other words, there was nothing preventing God from creating a vast hermaphroditic biosphere in which there is neither maleness nor femaleness. For that matter, He might just have easily have made all life reproduce by mitosis and save us all the trouble of coupling to begin with. For my part, this realization of divine freedom calls into question any model of gender economics which asks how men and women are different and turns to anatomy for the crucial answers. Instead, we ought to ask, “Given that men and women are obviously biologically different: why?”

It should be striking to all of us that God built inadequacy and incompleteness, cooperation and dependence into the most basic relationship of human existence. There is no sense in which any human is ultimately self-sufficient biologically because God has placed in us an imperative to reproduce and the almost ironic inability to do so on our own. And why shouldn’t He? The cardinal human sin from the garden up to the present has always been a desire for and a false sense of autonomy: the belief that we know better than God, that we can get along without God, and that, given time, we can become gods unto ourselves. Yet the very human condition is structured to teach us that we are incomplete on our own, dependent on another, different someone for ultimate wholeness. This incompleteness and this wholeness, however, are more than a mere physical incompleteness (i.e. the inability to satisfy the biological urge to have sex and reproduce). It is a deeper, metaphysical incompleteness which is touched on with the complimenting natures of the sexes but which speaks to the greater incompleteness of a creation which has forgotten or rejected its Creator.

Lost in all this discussion of difference, however, is a more foundational, more important fact which egalitarians and complementarians agree on: men and women are created equal. It is an understandable oversight. After all, people spend very little time arguing about what they agree on. The comparably subtler and more minor difference about what I and Olson believe respectively is the extent and nature of functional differences between the sexes is a great deal more fun to argue about. Nevertheless, it is critical to realize that a reasoned complementarians (and the only one I have encountered outside the pages of history books) believes no less strongly in the truth that women are of no less value than men (nor, it should be noted, are men of any less value than women).

This equality is not incidental. God did not create one kind of human (male) and then another kind of human (female) and then calibrate their respective values so they would even out. Men and women share a common humanity, bear a common divine image, and have a common genderless standing before God—which is to say that God does not love men and love women, He does not save men and save women, but loves and saves people. Were anyone able to list a thousand ways in which men and women are different, such a list would not begin to compare to the way in which the sexes are the same by virtue of their common humanity. If anything, the ways in which we are different and how that plays out in the economy of the home and the church and society at large are the incidentals, the merely exterior features on the surface of our identical core substance.

We see this reflected in the narrative of creation which first speaks of the simultaneous creation of all humanity, male and female, in the image of God before taking a more precise look at the creation of a distinct male and then, in response to his recognition of his incompleteness, a distinct female. The same will be true of Paul who, in his earliest letter, insists to his audience that there is no male and female, no slave and free, no Jew and Gentile before later writing about the way masters should behave relative to their slaves, how Jews and Gentiles approach God differently, and how men and women should interact in the home and the church. There is reality in the difference between male and female and a divine intentionality which is apparent in Scripture, but always embedded in it is the underlying, overarching (and, yes, I realize those are somewhat contradictory images) truth of the essential equality of the sexes. We are one humanity with a single standing before God.

So, yes, I do believe that men and women are different, even different in ways which transcend anatomy and transcend fluid cultural norms. But even if I believed that God made men to be bankers and women to be housewives (and I certainly do not), a fair representation of complementarianism respects that I can hold such a view without in anyway denigrating women, lessening their value, or making them second-class citizens before God.

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