Complementarianism and Darwinism

The facts are clear: Charles Darwin sketched animal behavior, and one good example is that of how male and female pheasants interacted, in the mode of Victorian theories of the relation of the sexes. Stephen C. Barton, in his excellent essays on “Interpreting Gender After Darwin” (in Reading Genesis After Darwin), quotes Cynthia Russett’s well-known study of the Victorian construction of womanhood, with these words: “men produced, women reproduced…. This was called complementarity” (182).

One should not finally blame the theory of complementarianism on Darwin, nor even perhaps on the Victorians, for it was surely at work in human history before them. What we might need to ponder is if the modern theories of complementarianism owe more to a Victorian construct or a Victorian ideal than to the Bible.

How has a knowledge of history, church history, theological history, ecclesial history shaped your thinking about males and females? Re-shaped? 

So Barton sketches a history worth our pondering. An issue here is reductionism — females reduced to reproduction — and determinism — this is what they are here for. Gender cannot be reduced or become deterministic. Gender has a history, and he explores it.

Classical tradition, biblical tradition, Hellenistic Judaism, earliest Christianity … and draws a few ideas together: the self was gendered in antiquity; the male was valorized positively and the female negatively, leading to destructiveness and impoverishment of women; the female body is marked “as the primary locus of the human quest for identity, meaning, and transcendence” (189); myths of origins were powerfully influential for social patterns of behavior, including what it means to be male or female; in Jesus and the early church possibilities of transformation were opened up — the Body of Christ and male/female.

Late modernity and postmodernity has seen a colossal shift on body and male/female relations. [Here's the irony for so much of conservative Christianity: individualism breeds equality and rights; individualism is the heart and soul of American, Western, evangelical forms of Christianity; therefore, that commitment makes ironic its desire, at times, to establish a less individualistic, complementation form of relations.] The older sex in nature is mirrored in gender in culture has been challenged in postmodernity. Gender is now seen as socially constructed, breaking the connection that was assumed between culture and nature. In fact, nature itself is now seen more and more as a social construct. Put differently, gender and sex are influenced enough by social constructs that we need to do more serious thinking of the relation of our complementarianism and egalitarian postures to social structures and locations.

Now to Genesis 1:26-27: we now know that male-female relations mirror social power structures and we can expect the same of the Bible.  Barton contends we need to read the Bible with Augustine and Barth, that is, both christologically and eschatologically. Here he mentions John 1:13 (“not of the will of the male  but of God”) and Paul’s “one in Christ” theme. There is, then, a new eschatological identity at work in the New Testament. This also means we need to learn to read the Bible together — males and females — to discern what male and female mean.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    Men and women are, I believe, equally fallen and equally in need of grace. Perhaps nobody will disagree with that brief statement.

    And I agree absolutely than men and women are different – physically and emotionally – so much should be self-evident to everyone. But as far as I’m concerned we are fully equal and there is no excuse for attitudes that require any kind of subservience or lordship. So I find complementarianism quite an odd concept.

    Paul Young has spoken wisely about the fall. He points out that when faced with the same question from Yahweh, ‘So, what happened?’, Eve’s answer is honest and honouring, but his is dishonest and dishonouring. She points to the serpent and says, ‘He deceived me and I ate’. It’s the simple truth. But he points to Yahweh and says, ‘The woman you made gave me the fruit and I ate it’.

    In other words, she rightly blames the serpent but he accuses the Creator!

    Not only that, Young argues that she remains in a better place than Adam and that this sets the scene for the way men and women see and think in the modern world too. Adam (not Eve) was driven out of the garden (Genesis 3:22-24). He was thrown out, she went with him. They were intended to find their sense of worth in their relationship with the Creator. But now Adam turned to the dust of the earth to support him. She turned to Adam for her sense of worth, but at least she turned to a person!

    And so it remains. Men look to their careers, the labour of their hands or minds, it’s all about providing by our own effort. Women may be the same, but mostly they look to their man and their family to provide their sense of worth.

    We are both wrong – our worthiness is in Christ and him alone. But women are in a better place for sure, and perhaps that explains why wars are mostly started by men.

    I like Young’s analysis. It seems ‘right’. It fits well with much you have written above about male and female.

  • Jon

    Chris,
    Your comment reveals a lot about what often bothers me in egalitarian circles. There often seems to be this stated belief that men and women are equal, but what is really believed is that women are better than men (I’m taking this from the comment that ‘women are in a better place for sure’). And this thought has influenced the interpretation of Genesis 3 you quote.
    Adam’s answer was dishonouring, but it wasn’t dishonest. God did make the woman and give her to Adam, she did give Adam the fruit, and he did eat it. All of that is true. The problem with both their answers is that they are passing the blame. Now you can say it was worse for Adam to pass the blame on God (and Eve), but still neither one wants to take responsibility for what they did.
    Eve is not some innocent victim in the fall. She may have been decieved, but she still chose to trust the serpent rather than God, just as Adam chose to disregard God’s command. As far as Eve remaining in a better place, do you really believe she could have stayed in Eden had she chose to? Yes the text says the Lord drove out the man, but the man and woman were now one flesh. She didn’t have the option of staying.
    As far as Eve turning to Adam for her sense of worth, the text says her desire will be for her husband. It really isn’t spelled out what that means, but the next time the Hebrew word translated desire is used is in Genesis 4:7 where it refers to sin desiring Cain. It seems to be a desire to control, so that desire isn’t necessarily a good thing. I know the word is also used in Song of Songs 7:10, but Genesis 4:7 is a lot closer in context.
    Now to close, I do want to be clear that I’m not accusing all egalitarians of believing that women are better than men. No doubt there are complementarians who say that men and women are equal but really believe men are better than women.

  • Joe Longo

    I definitely agree with Chris that men and women are fully equal, but so are the Father and the Son. However, in function God is the head of Christ and man is the head of the woman (1 Cor 11:3). Does that make me a C? Not sure, I’m just stating what scripture says. Almost all the judges are men as are all the writing prophets. Jesus chose 12 male apostles. Paul gave instructions for pastors to be the husband of one wife. But Deborah was a judge, Huldah was a prophetess that gave God’s answer to Josiah (2 Kings 22:14ff). Philip had four daughters who were prophetesses (Acts 21:8-9) so one would think they had to be looked upon as leaders in the church. For me this is a difficult topic to come to a clear biblical position and not just going with the flow of culture.

  • http://differentcloth.blogspot.com Jeff Stewart

    The male thinks he is superior and lets it be known. The female knows she is superior and keeps it to herself.

    That is complimentary placing “superiority” is on a level field.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Interesting discussion . . . One more thing, does not the Hebrew text suggest that Adam watched the whole Eve and the serpent thing go down and he did nothing? If this is so, this puts another twist in the discussion.

  • http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    These are some great comments so far.

    Jon (2), I’d like to reassure you that I’m not saying Eve was innocent. In blaming the serpent she doesn’t claim freedom from guilt herself. ‘He tricked me and I ate.’ Adam, on the other hand says, ‘You made her! The one you made gave me the fruit.’

    Nor am I claiming that she was in some way better. When I wrote that ‘she was in a better place’ I mean that her view of things is altogether healthier than Adam’s. Getting your self-worth from a person seems far better than getting it from your own efforts. That gender difference is all too clear in men and women today (not for every individual, but as an overall trend). Men tend to be thing focussed, women are often more people focussed.

  • Luke

    I find the rhetoric of many complementarians troubling, particularly coming from CBMW, Grudem, Mohler, Piper, etc. I get this sense that “biblical womanhood” is nothing more than the baptism of the 1950s housewife who makes the food, cleans, wears a dress, and takes care of the kids. It is June Cleaver somehow twisted to a point where she becomes the “biblical” ideal. “Submission” according to this view looks like the man making the final decision on the furniture, paying the check at the restaurant, and always the one driving the car on family outings.

    However, equally troubling do I find comments and thoughts from the likes of Chris in #1 above. I’m afraid this is becoming more and more common, and it’s not just isolated to elite female scholars any more writing in the comfort of rooms in their ivory towers for the academic guild. Just because women have been the victims of more abuse than men and their voices have been suppressed more throughout history does not give you the right to somehow claim they are the ultimate, superior sex now, better off than men, completely innocent and ever-truthful, righteous in all her ways and ready to usher in utopia if not for wicked, corrupt, power-hungry, abusive, and barbaric man.

    Surely there is a third way; a way more consistent with a Christian ethic of unity and equality in the body of Christ by the power of the Spirit. A way that can highlight differences and similarities in the sexes in a way that is honoring and respectful to both. Sadly, this third way is absent in most discussions I see on this topic. Too much of our discourse on these issues reflects our political discourse. You’re either Republican or Democrat, nothing in between and no compromise, ever shouting at the other side and demonizing them for their inferior intelligence and lack of faithfulness to some written code. Sad…….

  • http://twitter.com/iamstillrob Rob Davis

    If you remove the “biblical” perspective on male and female – obviously shaped by the cultural norms of the times and places in which those texts were written – all you are left with is the scientific perspective. And, that perspective will make you think crazy things like male and female – or gay and straight – aren’t absolute binaries. And that neither is better or “normal.”

    The only people trying to make a case against these realities are coming from a religious perspective.

    Let us all hope, with Frank Schaeffer, that “the church” gives up trying to dictate these things to us…

  • Jag

    I would only turn to complimentarianism if my daughter wanted to marry a complimentarian.

  • http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    Luke (7) – I can assure you I am neither Republican nor Democrat as I’m British, not American!

    You wrote that ‘[you do not have] the right to somehow claim [women] are the ultimate, superior sex now, better off than men, completely innocent and ever-truthful, righteous in all her ways and ready to usher in utopia if not for wicked, corrupt, power-hungry, abusive, and barbaric man.’

    Hmm… Did I claim that?

    Rob (8) – I agree. Let’s treat one another fairly, with a bit more grace. The fruit of the Spirit is always a good thing. Argument sometimes brings out the worst in us. It shouldn’t be so – but there it is.

  • Bev Mitchell

    The discussion needs a little creation biology realism here. He made them male and female is a simple biological statement (at one level) and a claim by the Creator at another. We should never forget the other spiritual bit of prophecy when looking at this, namely, “the two shall become one.” This is not just biology (sex) it is spiritual. In fact, it is covenantal, as distinct from contractual. In fact, ideally, it mirrors God’s covenant with humanity (as opposed to God’s contract, which does not exist). The first sign of this covenant is the promise that came with the rainbow story. It was made specific with Abraham and then, finally, with the Incarnation and all that flows from it.

    If we can keep all of this on the table while talking about male/female issues (especially husband/wife issues) we would be well on the road to better agreement.

    BTW, and somewhat tangential – if you want to read a good analysis of what Darwin thought and did not think about theological matters, have a look at two recent articles by Denis Lamoureux in American Scientific Affiliation (reference follows).

    Denis O. Lamoureux has two papers on how Darwin has been seriously mis-interpreted. They can be found at Perspectives in Science and Faith. Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, June 2012 pps. 108-119 and September 2012 pps. 166-178.

    The first can be had on line at:
    http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2012/PSCF6-12Complete.pdf

  • Jeff Y

    I think Luke is spot-on as to the problem of how this is often discussed. On both sides there is, at times, a kind of arrogance & condescension (Complementarians “C’s” often bury their heads in the sand or are way too draconian; egalitarians “E’s” though often view C’s as ignorant red necks – some of them are, to be sure!). I am open to E or C. I really don’t care – I’m willing to embrace either – whichever the Scriptures bring to bear on the subject. I am bothered by statements / attitudes on both sides (the 1950′s model of women is so culturally infused it is troubling). At the same time, I find very problematic a couple of egalitarian comments above:

    1) Chris: “as far as I’m concerned we are fully equal and there is no excuse for attitudes that require any kind of subservience or lordship. So I find complementarianism quite an odd concept.” First, this equates C with “subservience” and “lordship.” this is problematic. Such language strikes me as incendiary and pejorative not reflective of many Cs. People can be fully equal but have different roles. You can’t play both point-guard and in the post simultaneously in a basketball offense. The PG may run the offense but the best, most important player may be another position (e.g., Kobe Bryant, LeBron James). Second, the above perspective by Christ still begs the question – does C come from the mind of God – or revealed by the Holy Spirit – or not? If it is a model from God then it becomes an “odd concept” only because our thinking is perhaps twisted/distorted; not in line with God.

    2) Rob’s perspective – “the “biblical” perspective on male and female – obviously shaped by the cultural norms of the times and places in which those texts were written – etc.” is pure postmodernism. I have found many postmodern critiques to be quite important and useful; but it ultimately saws off the limb on which it sits. No doubt the “church” can, and has often, become dictatorial and source of power and domination, sadly. This is because all of humanity tends this way. The Bible describes this as carnal/fleshly in origin. Yet, if Rob gives up a “biblical perspective” / “religious” because it is only cultural then forget the church dictating things, someone else will. All that one is left with is power; and postmodern relativism always winds up being reduced to a power play; as well as nihilism. Rob’s perspective also ostensibly says, God cannot in any way effectively communicate to humanity. Certainly, one has to comprehend the cultural perspectives within Scripture (and their reality) – yet that does not reduce all communication there to culturally derived perspectives. Genesis 1 is a perfect illustration. It is given within a cultural framework/understanding (ANE understandings of the cosmos); and this should guide interpretation. Yet, it still purports to be from God and serves as a polemic against the common ANE views of creation. But, that’s far different from arguing that the culturally entrenched perspectives imply that universal normative principles cannot be found – so chuck it. They can indeed be found (in fact, egalitarians believe they are there in texts such as Gen. 1:26-28 or Gal. 3:28). We can know facts and derive facts. We do need a healthy “critical realism” as N.T. Wright puts it.

    As to bibilcal texts – there are a number of passages that speak to C perspectives – and yes, many of those must be read in their historical/cultural perspective of, say, the greco-roman household (but, it is also interesting that our possession of such information is relatively recent; and many still do not have that information so they should not be cajoled for failing to grasp these points). That said, it is not – as many Es have argued – an absolute “slam dunk” that the greco-roman household contexts for certain NT texts automatically subsumes them under an E structure. Even within that historical-contextual framework, and even in light of texts such as Gal. 3:26-28, a C view is still a possibility – C’s don’t just ignore that text; they just interpret it to say that equality does not dictate roll (any more than the fact that I am equally an heir with Paul does not imply that I should be given the same “role” of an Apostle!). Right now, I lean toward a very “light” (for lack of a better term) C view; but I am open to correction as I study through these. I simply don’t think it’s an automatic slam dunk that cultural readings of NT texts undermine complete C views – even though some do. Those texts still are intended as a universal application of principle and I think one can derive complementary principles within the historical structure. Again, I am open to correction. And will continue to search. But like everyone, we have to say, “At the moment I believe I’m right; but I know I’m not always right.”

  • Jeff Y

    Oops – should read, “the above perspective by Chris” not “Christ!” haha. :)

  • http://twitter.com/iamstillrob Rob Davis

    Jeff Y,

    Thanks for the (long) response. I will admit, though, that I’m not smart – or patient – enough to respond to everything you said.

    Postmodern relativism always winds up being reduced to a power play; as well as nihilism.

    I’m definitely not advocating absolute relativism. As Jack Caputo points out, “Relativism is a red herring used by the God-and-apple-piety crowd; it does service for thinking when the discussion gets too complicated.”

    God cannot in any way effectively communicate to humanity.

    I did not say or mean to imply this. I personally don’t believe that “God” does this, but I am not saying that “God” cannot do this. I’m saying that even if he/she/it did, we wouldn’t have purely objective access to that communication. And, the communication that we have from science is much more reliable than from ones interpretation of ancient texts. But, I also don’t believe that science gives us some objective access to reality, either. Better, but not perfect. You seem to have created a false dichotomy.

    Certainly, one has to comprehend the cultural perspectives within Scripture (and their reality) – yet that does not reduce all communication there to culturally derived perspectives… That’s far different from arguing that the culturally entrenched perspectives imply that universal normative principles cannot be found – so chuck it.

    I don’t have a problem with the phrases “culturally derived” or “culturally entrenched,” because that refocuses on our human condition. We cannot escape culture. Interpretation goes all the way down. This is, in my opinion, a blessing not a curse (see Jamie Smith).

    We can know facts and derive facts.

    I’m becoming more convinced over time that if anything is found uniquely in the Bible, it is, by definition, not a fact. That’s History 101.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    Neither Complimentarianism or egalitarianism seems “Right” to me. The Holy Spirit (the animating principle/force/person of Christ’s Way) must be allowed to breate freely in these kinds of decisions.

    I think the guiding biblical principle is pretty clear: those who find themselves under an authority are compelled by Love to seek the good of the other above their own. Those who find themselves in authority over another are likewise compelled by Love to seek the good of th other above their own. Authority is not to be grasped, it is to be freely given. It is not privilege but burden. Likewise, submission to authority is not demanded (this is oppression) it arises naturally in response to being served sacrificially.

    Oppression is always evil, but the only response that will not breed deeper oppression is love.

    Love is the only absolute. Christ is the perfect example of love. The holy Spirit is Love living in us, making known the absokute path of love in every diverse circumstance. If only we would not cling to the doctrines we have already decided are right (in our great and perfect wisdom).

  • http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    Nate (15) writes ‘I think the guiding biblical principle is pretty clear: those who find themselves under an authority are compelled by Love to seek the good of the other above their own. Those who find themselves in authority over another are likewise compelled by Love to seek the good of the other above their own.’

    This is very true and I agree. However, it leaves out the third case of the observer who watches someone in authority harshly treat a brother or sister (in the present case a sister). It’s not enough for that third party to merely stand and watch. What is the loving thing in a case like that?

    I apologise unreservedly if I have sounded harsh, it’s certainly not what I intended. But I have heard elders and pastors insisting that women cannot teach men or speak in meetings. They are entitled to their opinions and, yes, I need to love them. But believing as I do that women have a valuable role in teaching, pastoring, in prophecy and evangelism and all the rest, should I remain silent?

    Love IS the only absolute – indeed.

    Jeff Y (12) – ‘First, this equates C with “subservience” and “lordship.” this is problematic. Such language strikes me as incendiary and pejorative not reflective of many Cs. ‘

    I don’t mean to apply this to all complementarians. Men and women are complementary, that’s the simple truth. We have complementary roles, that’s true too. But I have seen subservience and I have seen lordship and they are not good. There is no place for them in church life. We need partnership and harmony, equality and mutual honouring (very different things from sameness).

  • http://twitter.com/iamstillrob Rob Davis

    Oppression is always evil, but the only response that will not breed deeper oppression is love.

    I used to agree with this, but I guess it depends on what your understanding of love compels you to do. If it compels you to allow an oppressor power over you – to dehumanize you – then your understanding of love fulfills Marx’s critique of religion. And, that is a sorry state to merely exist – rather than thrive – in.

  • Val

    Thanks Chris,

    I like your replies.

    As for your comments that women would be in less wars if they were in charge – I don’t think that is borne out in history (Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Mary, and on and on, even modern women have gone to war – Margaret Thatcher – Falkland Is., Indira Ghandi – against Pakistan). Seems once anyone has a country to defend, they will do what ever to make it secure.

  • http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    Thanks Val :-)

    Maybe you’re right about warlike women leaders. I can add another one to the list – Golda Meir, an Israeli Prime Minister.

    Jeff Y (14) – I’d be interested to know what you think about ‘Debating Science and Faith’ – http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/2012/10/debating-science-and-faith.html

  • MatthewS

    “The older sex in nature is mirrored in gender in culture has been challenged in postmodernity.”

    A challenging sentence to parse – perhaps this calls for another cup o’ joe!

  • Marshall

    @Scot “we need to learn to read the Bible together — males and females — to discern what male and female mean.”

    I still think there is value in temporarily splitting up into exclusive subgroups. There ought to be a right of neighborhood association. We will get together later, but sometimes our side needs to caucus.

    I think it is very telling how regularly and vociferously some men attack the idea of women subgrouping. I think the real harm in liberalism comes from excessive one-side-fits-all-ism.


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