Gospel Coalition’s Views on Gender, Sex Aren’t “Complementary”

Gospel Coalition’s Views on Gender, Sex Aren’t “Complementary” July 19, 2012

On the one hand, I’m encouraged when Christians can have more honest, open dialogue about sex and sexuality in the public forum.

On the other, I’m more than a little distressed when the matter at hand is about “Biblically-based” sexual submission.

Rachel Held Evans

For those unfamiliar, there are (at least) two camps in the Christian conversation about gender roles, one of which we can call “egalitarian,” and the other calls itself “complementarian.” The implication of the latter is that, though we are not the same, we males and females fit together in many ways like pieces of a puzzle, one complementing something the other lacks, and  vice-versa.

And if the definition of complementarianism stopped there, I would be on board; but in truth it’s a thinly veiled case for women submitting to men. Sorry, but this isn’t complementary; it’s authoritarian.

In a recent post, Rachel Held Evans explained the troublesome issues with complementarianism well:

…For modern-day Christian patriarchalists (sometimes called complementarians), hierarchal gender relationships are God-ordained, so the essence of masculinity is authority, and essence of femininity is submission. Men always lead and women always follow. There is no sphere unaffected by this hierarchy—not even, it seems, sex.

Her post was in response to a recent post by the Gospel Coalition on their blog, which, in turn, was responding to the popularity of a recent novel called Fifty Shades of Grey. The book deals with some tantalizing – disturbing for some – aspects of human sexual expression, including acting out fantasies of various kinds.

The Gospel Coalition responded to the popularity of this book with a post called “The Polluted Waters of Fifty Shades of Grey, etc.” Basically, the vast majority of the post is a large block quote from a book by Douglas Wilson called Fidelity: What it Means to be a One-Woman Man, released in 1999. The book outlines in detail the “complementarian” case, citing Biblical passages to support the argument. Though contemporary Christian leaders like Mark Driscoll and John Piper speak for themselves, one can detect much of Wilson’s ideas in the blog posts and sermons they both have delivered on many occasions about men being heads of their households and women submitting to their husbands.

I have linked to the Coalition’s entire piece, so as not to fall into a trap of “cherry picking” from another’s article. I encourage you to click through and read the whole post for yourself. But there are a couple of passages in particular from Wilson’s book that have drawn the most attention in recent days. He says:

Because we have forgotten the biblical concepts of true authority and submission, or more accurately, have rebelled against them, we have created a climate in which caricatures of authority and submission intrude upon our lives with violence.

…however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed.

But we cannot make gravity disappear just because we dislike it, and in the same way we find that our banished authority and submission comes back to us in pathological forms. This is what lies behind sexual “bondage and submission games,” along with very common rape fantasies.

So in short, the argument is that, because we don’t keep men in a proper position of authority/dominance and women in a position of submission, we corrupt our sexual identities, which come out in deviant ways.

I’ll forgo the typical responses in defense of egalitarian gender relationships; Rachel Held Evans did far better with this than I could anyway. But aside from the brazen misogyny of this perspective, it seems to miss a couple of important points worth noting.

Back in “Biblical times,” and as recounted in the Bible more than once, sexual deviance was not absent from that patriarchal culture. Of course, there are the commonly cited passages about Sodom and Gomorrah, suggesting that it was the moral decay of that culture, giving in to lust and hedonism that led to their downfall. Perhaps, but what about David? He sent a man off to die at war so he could sleep with his wife. From what I can tell, he’s the very picture of Biblical manhood. And of course, there’s the bit about him dancing naked around town in praise of God. Wonder if Driscoll would approve of this at his next Mars Hill service?

How about Noah passing out drunk in his tent with his naughty bits exposed, and then trying to cover up his humiliation by throwing his patriarchal weight around and punishing those who found him that way?

Fast forward a few thousand years. If this complementary family structure is the model that eschews deviance, why did Ted Haggard solicit sexual favors from a male prostitute? Why did Jim Bakker have an affair with another woman? Why did Jimmy Swaggart hire prostitutes? And the list goes on.

Is it possible – just maybe – that the rigid, hierarchic model of gender relationships plays into the real issue at hand in cases of most sexual deviance? Is it possible that rape, adultery and many other forms of indiscretion are actually more about power than sex?

If so, it seems to me that an egalitarian power dynamic, rather than being the cause of sexual deviance, is truly our only opportunity to level the field, empowering women to cease seeing themselves as less-than, subject-to and somehow deserving of the power men lord over them, in bed and elsewhere. Put another way: we’ve lived with the patriarchal model for thousands of years, and in all of that time, we’ve seen no shortage of rape, sexual abuse and harmful sexual deviance in the world. So to argue that the fact it still exists today is a symptom of some other way of thinking about the role of men and women smacks of willful ignorance.

And lest we forget, Jesus himself is a champion of egalitarianism, not just in sexual relations, but across the board. He sought to flatten the pyramid, tear down the hierarchy and even actively empower women to the shock and dismay of patriarchs around him. And unless there are scandalous stories about Jesus and his disciples I’ve missed, that egalitarian model seemed to work out pretty well for them.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Christine Watson

    “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    Doesn’t sound like rigid gender roles being espoused there to ME. But what do I know.

  • joanpball

    I agree with much of what you’ve written here, Christian, however it has left me with a lingering question. Did Jesus come to empower women or to model obedience and submission for both men and women…

    • I’m not sure it’s an either/or. He empowered those without power or voice to bring them to a level of equality. He also taught equal deference/obedience to the vulnerable Law of Unconditional Love.

  • Excellent insight as always Christian. I agree that the egalitarian way would seem the logical way of remedying the problem of rape. But, how do we do that in a physical way? Empower women psychologically, socially, and spiritually yes, but she is still the weaker vessel physically. Perhaps rape then is more than just exerting power, but a feeling of “penetrating and conquering”… the very thing Wilson was promoting. This is why his post absolutely made me sick to my stomach.

    Psst… there are a few glaring typos you might want to go back and check.

    • Fixed, thanks. As for how to better serve women, I think it has to start at an early age. where are the stories of strong women in scripture in our sunday school classes? Where are images of women in our churches? where’s the exploration of feminine wisdom and the feminine Divine? And so on. It has to be so woven into the DNA of our churches that it’s a matter of course.

  • “…that egalitarian model seemed to work out pretty well for them.”

    Well said!

  • Brandan Robertson
  • As far as this goes (“A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives,
    surrenders, accepts.”), my response is: Only because the English language makes it that way! Maybe that’s my linguistics or literary criticisms classes speaking, but seriously. The only reason those words are used is because we have long been a male-dominated culture. And given that a woman can turn on a man whenever the heck she wants, while a man won’t be able to turn her on if she’s determined not to be in the mood…come on, now, who’s the one in control here, really?

    Okay, that was partly just kidding, but linguistically you can tear apart his argument there.

    And as for this (“This is what lies behind sexual “bondage
    and submission games,” along with very common rape fantasies), all I can say is: Moron! This is exactly the sort of thing rapists think. I, personally, have no rape fantasies whatsoever, and the idea that all women fantasize about being raped is one of the reasons why rapists think it’s okay (“she really wanted it, even though she was saying no”) and why society looks at the victim with blame.

    Argh. People tick me off sometimes.

  • Matthew Walker

    Women don’t like egalitarian relationships with men. When men don’t lead at all, that kills the woman’s respect and attraction and love just as surely as an abusive or bullying style of pseudo-“leadership”. And that kills the relationship. She gets irritable, resentful, impossible to please, unable to feel affection for a man she can’t respect. You can observe that dynamic in every relationship you’ve ever had, or witnessed. Some men who try to lead are bad husbands, but they’ll be bad husbands in any case. Turning good, loving men into a different kind of bad husband won’t turn the abusers into better men.

    Call it “misogyny” if you like, but if you’re telling people to organize their marriages in a way that makes women unhappy and want to leave, who’s the one hurting women?

    I repeat, your reccomendations kill marriages. They ruin people’s lives. They blight kids’ lives. I have too many friends who will grow old alone and alienated from their own children because they trusted advice like yours.