Subordinate But Equal (Piper and other Complementarians on ‘Biblical Womanhood’)
The God Card ~ Thoughts on Patriarchal Teachings
The patriarchy camp loves to say that, at the core, it believes men and women are equal. A common phrase goes something like, “Men and women are equal, but simply have different roles to play.” The statement often works like a charm. After all, hey, they just said men and women are fundamentally equal, right?
People playing different roles isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, it’s usually positive. Images of actors on state are conjured up in our minds, putting on a costume to play one role or another—or different occupations people choose, like becoming a teacher, a police officer and a postal worker.
Playing a role is a temporary thing, such as a person’s career. For a time in his life, Brad might be a police officer. He puts on the police uniform and fulfills his role in society, until he reaches retirement. A police officer isn’t “who Brad is” at his core. It’s just the role he plays in society, during his active working years. Roles are generally good things. After all, what chaos our world would be in if people didn’t play their agreed-upon roles in society or in the orchestra or on the stage?
But the thing is, the patriarchy camp has adopted the word, “role,” and uses it frequently…only what they mean by “role” isn’t the same thing that the typical mind thinks of. In so doing, they have been able to soften the blow, hiding the full impact of their message, and thus cause many people to adopt their message who wouldn’t have bought in otherwise…at least, not if there had been a “full disclosure” policy beforehand.
What the camp means by “role” is actually a hierarchical position that one is in from birth all the way to death.
There is no choice in the matter. A woman does not get to “choose” whether or not she will play the submissive role. That choice has been made for her, made by God when He chose her to be a woman—and she is informed that if she wants to belong to God, she will “choose” the submissive position, because not “choosing” it means she has consigned herself to Satan and the fires of an everlasting Hell. For a woman who loves God and believes in the general evangelical/fundamentalist paradigm, this means that there is really no actual choice at all.
Though being female indicates ones lower hierarchical position in a gender-based chain of command, the woman is frequently told that she is equal in the eyes of God. Only, this turns out to be a form of Orwellian double-speak (see “1984” by G. Orwell) because respected teachers like John Piper teach that our sexuality literally permeates every aspect of who we are, all the way down to our core. There is no such thing as a genderless personal essence, they say. Piper preaches that maleness and femaleness are essential to our personhood, physically, psychologically and spiritually (see pg. 15, “What’s the Difference,” J. Piper).
Piper goes on to define “Biblical” manhood and womanhood (in all caps, by Piper):
“AT THE HEART OF MATURE MASCULINITY IS A SENSE OF BENEVOLENT RESPONSIBILITY TO LEAD, PROVIDE FOR AND PROTECT WOMEN IN WAYS APPROPRIATE TO A MAN’S DIFFERING RELATIONSHIPS.”
“AT THE HEART OF MATURE FEMININITY IS A FREEING DISPOSITION TO AFFIRM, RECEIVE AND NURTURE STRENGTH AND LEADERSHIP FROM WORTHY MEN IN WAYS APPROPRIATE TO A WOMAN’S DIFFERING RELATIONSHIPS.” (pg. 18, “What’s the Difference,” J. Piper).
For example, according to such teachings, my femininity is defined by how I respond to and respect the authority of the men in my life. When I am not in a state of humble submission, I am not only disobeying God but I am also no longer fully feminine. I am denying the essence of who God made me to be, when I failt to nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in my life. The gender I was born with requires me to nurture and respond to the leadership that a male’s birth requires him to have. (Actually, “require” is probably a poor word choice, because Piper is asserting that this desire to submit and this desire to lead are supposed to be innate, and that all who are godly and mature will naturally have these qualities).
To actually play out these “complementarian” (or so they have called themselves) definitions and teachings in real life can lead to some serious social gymnastics. On page 42 of the previously quoted book, Piper works through those sticky situations where women might be in positions of authority over men, warning that women in high positions of authority might well “stretch appropriate expressions of femininity beyond the breaking point”—ie., women in positions of authority over men can sometimes happen, but it’s certainly not ideal and may even be dangerous for all genders involved), and then explains,
“For example, a housewife in her backyard may be asked by a man how to get on the freeway. At that point, she is giving a kind of leadership. She has superior knowledge that the man needs and he submits himself to her guidance. But we all know there is a way for the housewife to direct the man that neither of them feels their mature femininity or masculinity compromised.”
In other words, when you give of your superior knowledge to men, make sure you do so in a way that indicates they are designed to lead you and you are designed to follow them.
Piper teaches women that as long as their authority over men is non-personal, it is probably/possibly okay. It’s when a woman is personally in authority over another man that the line needs to be drawn. Piper says (pg. 44),
“To the degree that a woman’s influence over man is personal and directive, it will generally offend a man’s good, God-given sense of responsibility and leadership, and thus controvert God’s created order.”
To be fair, Piper never comes right out and says that a woman should not ever be allowed to be the principal of a school, a judge in a courtroom or a police officer to citizens. Yet it doesn’t take reading between the lines to know that if you, as a woman, are any one of those, you are controverting God’s created order. You do the math.
Yet somehow, this camp can teach such things and, at the very same time, vehemently argue that men and women are equal. Equal? How? Make no mistake about it. What this camp means by “equal” is certainly different than what most people mean by equal, just as what the camp means by “role” is also very different than what most people mean by role.
At it’s heart, even the more “softer” seeming complementarian side of the patriarchal spectrum, is not soft at all. Consider the words of complementarian J. I. Packer (in “Understanding the Differences”),
“…The man-woman relationship is intrinsically nonreversible. By this I mean that, other things being equal, a situation in which a female boss has a male secretary, or a marriage in which the woman (as we say) wears the trousers, will put more strain on the humanity of both parties than if it were the other way around.”
Piper says that,
“The God-given sense of responsibility for leadership in a mature man will not generally allow him to flourish long under personal, directive leadership of a female superior.”
Piper goes on to say that it is not male egotism that would cause a man to not want a female umpire to make calls during a baseball game, or a female superior officer in the military who commanded men. It’s not male egotism, says Piper, but “a natural and good penchant given by God (pg. 45).”
Interestingly, people in this camp often tsk-tsk the sly use of terminology by people they consider to be in cults. For example, they quickly decry Mormon missionaries for using the same terminology as Evangelicals, because it so easily confuses Evangelicals into thinking that the LDS church teaches much the same thing. In reality, what Evangelicals mean by “Jesus Christ, Son of God” and the LDS church means by that same term are vastly different.
Evangelical apologists and teachers tend to be certain that the LDS church uses the same terminology as Evangelicals do on purpose, in order to more easily garner former evangelicals into the LDS church, only later providing full disclosure as to the difference in the definitions, definitions that, if taught during the initial LDS missionary meetings, would have likely caused the potential converts to discontinue any future sessions.
Whether a less-than-honest intent on the part of the LDS church is actually true is certainly debatable (this author actually has no opinion either way—it merely seemed like an appropriate example due to having heard it regularly employed as an example of the dishonestly of those outside of our circle, which was, of course, the honest one). What is notdebatable, however, is how the patriarchy/complementarian camp does this very same thing.
By using words like “equal” and “roles,” only defining them in terribly different ways, the gender-hierarchy camp is able to lull many congregations into believing that the camp stands for something very different that what its deeper teachings actually reveal.
Thusly, many well-intentioned evangelicals believe in the concept of gender roles as appointed by God, though if they were aware of the deeper teachings and the actual meanings of some of the more benign sounding terms, would likely never stand for such a thing. On the positive side, this does not affect many evangelicals in overtly destructive ways (which is not to say it’s not destructive—far from it—but more that it’s a quiet and more subtle danger. …Though, perhaps the quiet destruction is the most dangerous of all). For those women married to abusive or foolish men, however, or those women born with gifts of leadership, drive and administrative abilities, these teachings are terribly destructive to all levels of their personhood and their spirituality.
Did Jesus come to set people free, or put them in neat little “role” categories and shut the prison doors? According to the patrio/comp camp, freedom comes through adopting their gender-based hierarchy.
“…True liberation comes with humble submission to God’s original design.” (Elisabeth Elliot, forward to “What’s the Difference.”)
Methinks they’ve got a different definition for “liberation,” too.
The God Card by Journey:
- Thoughts On Patriarchal Teachings
- Subordinate but Equal
- Thoughts From The Excellent Wife
- Ask Your Husband
A Tale of a Passionate Housewife Desperate for God by Journey:
More from Journey: