by Kristen Rosser cross posted from her blog Wordgazer’s Words
I’ll present it section by section, followed by my thoughts.
The issue of gender roles in the church and home is not one of the nine marks. Nonetheless, we thought it would be useful to spend an issue of the 9Marks Journal exploring the pastoral significance of complementarianism. Complementarianism teaches that God created men and women equal in worth and dignity and yet he assigned them different roles in the church and home. Its counterpoint, egalitarianism, argues that you can only say men and women are equal in worth if you let both assume equal leadership in church or home.
It’s nice that he identifies complementarianism (male headship in the church and home) as not being one of the essentials that 9 Marks focuses on in church life. There are some groups that consider complementarianism part of the gospel itself, and question the Christianity of those who don’t agree– but Leeman doesn’t go that far. Also, the basic definition of egalitarianism above, at least doesn’t set it up as a flimsy strawman position. I would add the caveat, however, that there is one way you can say men and women are equal in worth but still restrict women from equal leadership– if you fall back on God’s plan to do this to women as something mysterious that cannot be questioned. As I said in another blog post:
Either women are not equal to men, because God created them with a certain lack of authority over themselves, or ability to lead others, that men do not lack. And this lack is intrinsic to womanhood, while any lack a particular man may have in the area of leadership, is simply an individual characteristic, not intrinsic to his manhood. This makes women, in their essence as women, inferior to men.
Or women are equal to men, but God simply decided that women, because they are women, despite lacking nothing that He gave men for authority over themselves or leadership of others, may not use that authority or leadership. In other words, they are to be under male authority even though God did not design them or create them to be suited for being under male authority. This makes God, in His essence, arbitrary and unjust. He makes rules without good reasons.
The gist of Leeman’s argument, however, takes a third path. He argues that having authority is not actually any different than being under authority, and he does this by seemingly redefining authority. But before he gets there, he offers the basic argument that egalitarians are capitulating to worldly thinking rather than being submissive to the plain teaching of the Bible:
Egalitarianism possesses an obvious appeal in an individualistic age. Like the immigrant parent who abandoned the Old World with its castes or its aristocracies, egalitarianism looks affirmingly into the eyes of the little boy and the little girl and offers that quintessential American promise: “You can be anything you want to be.” Boundaries are gone. Ceilings have collapsed. God has given everyone certain talents. The game now is self-discovery and self-realization. Faithfulness requires us to discover and employ all our God-given potentialities. Like Madeline who says “Pooh pooh” to the tigers at the zoo, egalitarianism’s brave maxim is to one’s own self be true.
Egalitarianism depends upon the worldview of individualism. That doesn’t mean egalitarians are all self-centered. It means that individual desires and talents trump any class or category considerations. So the rule-makers should never keep anyone belonging to the class of “female” from being whatever she wants to be. And complementarians, admittedly, limit what members of this class can be in the home and church. Based on the egalitarian’s sense of justice, this is irrational. It is 2+2=5. Complementarianism is not just a different perspective, it defies an egalitarian’s basic assumptions about what it means to be human and is therefore dangerous. How many of history’s grand exploitations and terrors have rooted in the systemic prejudice of one group over another!
As such, the emotions and the rhetoric run hot, as they always do in political contests where the two sides appear irrational to one another. Why? Because our rationalities always derive from our gods. Or rather, what you take to be “most reasonable” or “most rational” is your god. A god cannot be questioned. A god is the unmoved mover. A god is the word or logic who cannot be overruled. Emotions boil hot because one’s gods hold one’s universe together and gives it meaning, so we go to battle for them.
Precisely here, then, is where the complementarian, in all of his or her worldly folly, leans in toward the egalitarian and warns, “Be careful you are not serving an idol, at least in this one area of your doctrine. You’ll have a pretty good idea that you are if, in spite of the plain teaching of the text, you’ll find some justification for re-interpreting it because your sense of justice can imagine it no other way.”
Let’s examine this more closely. Egalitarians are wrong because of “individualism.” And Leeman defines individualism in terms of individual desires and talents taking precedence over classes and categories of humans. The Bible, apparently, is not plagued by this problem of individualism. This would mean that New Testament doctrines are primarily meant to focus on our identity as members of categories and classes. This raises several questions, however.
Why do Jesus and the Apostles put such emphasis on the necessity of following Christ, trusting Christ, obeying Christ as an individual person? Why didn’t they simply preach to the leaders of the groups they were seeking to convert? Jesus could have talked to the heads of the synagogues in each town, gotten them to agree with His teachings, and then left them to instruct their congregations. Paul could have sought out the governors or the priests operating in Athens, in Corinth, in Rome. The leaders, once converted, could then have ordered their people to report for mass baptism.
But it didn’t work that way. In fact, many (if not most) analyses of individualism agree that Christianity has historically been a major contributor to that philosophy. As Encyclopedia.com says:
Christianity contributed doctrines of the freedom of the will and personal salvation that added a further dimension to human individuality. Created as equal persons in God’s image, human beings enjoy inherent dignity by virtue of the divine flame that burns within their souls. Christian moral teaching replaced status, race, gender, occupation, and all other markers of social difference with one’s individual orientation toward God as the determinant of the ultimate disposition of one’s soul. While Judaism had conveyed some overtones of personal salvation, the dominant relation with God was conditioned by the divine covenant with the Jewish people as a whole. In contrast, Jesus’ message was directed to all people who were open to his words and treated them as individuals capable of receiving divine grace and blessing. Every person, as one of God’s created, could, through individual effort and renunciation of worldly concerns, render him-or herself worthy for salvation. [Emphasis added.]
In fact, the idea of personal, individual salvation is one of the distinguishing marks of evangelicalism, and particularly of conservative evangelicalism– to the point where it has been indicted for its emphasis on personal, individual sin and atonement while tending to ignore many systemic, social evils. So the real issue seems to be not individualism, but a certain aspect of individualism. Should the focus on the individual apply only to personal salvation? Or should the value of the human individual mean that systemic injustices against individuals because they are part of a restricted group should be abolished? In other words, does the gospel apply only to our spiritual state before God– or is it meant to “set the captives free” (Luke 4:18) in our earthly lives too?
A while back I wrote What Galatians 3:28 Cannot Mean, which rebuts the idea that when Paul said that in Christ the category and class distinctions of Jew and Greek, slave and free, and male and female no longer applied, he meant to separate our spiritual state from our earthly lives so that Gal. 3:28 only applies to spiritual salvation. Yet that is the main idea, really, that Leeman’s argument is espousing. Any application of Galatians 3:28 to earthly, human classes and categories, so that women are set free of restrictions that apply to them as a class in their churches and homes, is “individualistic” and thus worldly and wrong. However, individualism in spiritual salvation is wholly embraced by evangelicals, and is in fact central to the “Marks” of Gospel and Evangelism in Leeman’s own 9 Marks of a Healthy Church.
I would contend that the problem American Christians face is not individualism per se, but the sacred/secular split that spiritualizes the value of the individual and sees life almost exclusively in terms of personal sin and righteousness while ignoring or even condoning the unjust treatment of people as members of categories and classes.
The final paragraph in Leeman’s argument above includes this warning: “Be careful you are not serving an idol, at least in this one area of your doctrine. You’ll have a pretty good idea that you are if, in spite of the plain teaching of the text, you’ll find some justification for re-interpreting it because your sense of justice can imagine it no other way.”
Taking a stand on the “plain teaching of the text” and accusing of idolatry those who disagree about how “plain” it is, seems to me to be a kind of spiritual bullying. It invokes the authority of God as a weapon to make sure the writer gets his way on what a particular proof-text means. As Zach Hunt puts it in his blog post Why Proof-Texting is Not Like Other Sins:
This sort of proof-texting – ripping a Bible verse out of context to prove a point – is the traditional weapon of choice in fundamentalism because it allows the soldier who wields it to destroy his or her enemy with a single verse while claiming the impenetrable high ground of clear Biblical authority.
There is, in fact, a principle of interpretation that evangelicals (including, I’m sure, Leeman himself) use all the time: If a particular verse, read at face value, appears to contradict a number of other verses, and especially if it appears to contradict the big-picture meanings of the texts considered together, the particular verse must be re-examined.
Consider, for instance, this individual text:
She will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (1 Timothy 2:15)
The plain sense of this verse is that women are saved through having babies, if they combine it with faith, love and holiness. But complementarians such as Kim Ransleben on the Desiring God Blog re-interpret the text to be about the sanctification of women, not their salvation– presumably because their sense of justice can imagine it no other way than that women, just like men, are saved through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Applying Leeman’s own litmus test to this, re-reading the text in this way is idolatry, plain and simple. And yet an “idolatry” that clings to the overarching message of the gospel over the supposedly plain text of an individual verse, hardly seems unfaithful to God.
So I would say that the problem is not in re-examining a verse that places women as a class, under the authority of men as a class, in light of the gospel message that we are all one in Christ Jesus. The problem is in bullying other Christians with threats of God’s displeasure if they dare to re-examine what you, a fellow human being, have decided is “plain.”
The next section of Leeman’s article goes like this:
Complementarians imagine a different kind of home and church than egalitarians. They are just as acquainted with authority fallen, but they can better imagine authority redeemed. They know that being in authority is no better than being under authority, because both are assignments given by God for the sake of serving him and his praise. They know that redeemed authority creates, enlivens, and empowers, and it’s a shade short of silly to argue over who gets to empower and who gets to be empowered in God’s kingdom. In fact, if there is an advantage to be had, it doesn’t belong to the person called to lay down his life, it belongs to the person who receives life because the first person lays his down.
The calculations of justice change just a bit in a kingdom where the king gives his life as a ransom for many; where he calls all of his citizens to surrender their lives so that they might gain them; and where he calls out a class of his citizens to specially demonstrate this self-sacrifice. Is there any “advantage” to climbing upon a cross? Not by any of this world’s tape measures.
The trouble with egalitarianism is that it continues to measure “advantage” and “authority” and “over/under” with the tape measures of this fallen world. It’s stuck believing that, even if there are occasional advantages to being under authority for training purposes, in the final analysis it is always better to be over. Like the mother of the sons of Zebedee, egalitarianism asks Jesus,
Can my son sit at your right hand, while my daughter sits at your left, when you enter your kingdom?
And Jesus replies,
Ah, my child, you still do not understand how authority works in my kingdom, but are thinking about it like the Gentiles do, where authority is always used to lord it over others, not to give your life as a ransom (see Matt. 20:20-28).
The true danger is that of believing it’s always better to be over. If that were true, its logic would apply to God. Happiness will finally elude us until we are over God, as someone intimated a very long time ago. And so we return to the caution against idolatry, which rests behind all the debates over gender and sexuality hermeneutics. What do the horrors of history really root in? They root in that one moment when all the authority in the universe was turned upside down because a man and a woman believed they could be “like God.” [Emphases in original.]
Here is where Leeman appears to redefine authority (but without actually succeeding in doing so). He says, truly enough, that the New Testament calls those in authority, and particularly husbands in Ephesians 5 (remember that in first-century Ephesus men culturally already had this authority), to lay down their lives, to self-sacrifice, and to raise up those under them. But what he seems to lose track of is that what this actually involves, as described in Ephesians 5, is a surrender of the authority itself. When Jesus allowed Himself to be captured by the Roman authorities and nailed to a cross as a criminal, He was in that act letting go (“emptying Himself”) of all His power and authority (see Philippians 2:5-8). It’s true that God restored Christ’s authority to Him afterwards– but the text of Ephesians 5 does not tell husbands to imitate Christ in the re-assumption of authority, but only in laying it down.
Also, in Matthew 23:11 Jesus did not say, “the greatest among you shall become your servant-leader.” He said, “The greatest among you shall be your servant.” If Leeman believes that those in authority are to empower those under them, the best way to empower someone is to raise them out of subordination to be your equal, not to keep them in subordination to you. Leeman glosses over the subordination of the one under authority, as if it no longer existed in a Christian concept of authority. But if the subordination no longer exists, then in what sense does the authority even exist? Authority cannot simply be redefined so it no longer means authority– and indeed, his emphasis on the danger of wanting to be “over God” makes it clear that this is not what Leeman really means. To Leeman, a wife desiring to be equal in authority to her husband is the same sort of thing as wanting to usurp and depose God. Christians who believe Jesus taught that the family of God consists of equal brothers and sisters, all under one Father and one Elder Brother who are the sole authorities,* are idolators in Leeman’s book.
But if “redeemed authority” is still hierarchical human authority, and those under it are still under it, then there is a real difference, and the one in authority is superior in power and agency to the subordinate. That is simply what the words mean, and glossing over those meanings doesn’t make them go away.
Leeman’s article concludes like this:
I understand that I’m making strong charges. And I hardly mean to indict Christians who hold to egalitarianism with wholesale idolatry. I do mean to indict aspects of egalitarianism as rooted in the gods of this world and the gods of the West in particular. It should not be surprising, therefore, to hear conservative voices characterize egalitarianism as the hermeneutical gateway drug to affirming same-sex marriage, or, ironically, to hear homosexuality-affirming liberal voices agree. Nor is it surprising that the egalitarian PCUSA should decide to affirm gay marriage, or that many of the evangelicals churches coming out now for gay marriage were egalitarian years ago. The same god who prioritizes the self-defining individual over and above 2000-years of Bible reading stands behind both positions. The same god whispers to both kinds of readers, “Surely the text couldn’t mean that. That would be unjust!” But who is defining justice here? Thomas Jefferson? Betty Friedan? Lady Gaga?
Gender roles do not belong to the nine marks, as I said, but we believe they are critical to a church’s submission to Scripture and therefore its health. Fuller defenses of the position can be found at CBMW.org, which is run by Owen Strachan, who helped to compile the articles in this Journal. What you’ll find here are a number of pieces that examine the topic from different angles in the life of the church and church member. We pray they are beneficial.
Egalitarianism, he says, is rooted in idolatry, and embracing complementarian gender roles is crucial to fully obeying the Bible. He throws in a version of the slippery slope argument (that if a Christian ceases to believe the doctrine of complementarianism, he or she will soon slip into worse errors like *gasp!* affirming same-sex marriage). He tosses in the “this is what we’ve believed for 2000 years” argument, and implies that non-Christians couldn’t possibly have any real idea of what justice means.
There is a problem with each of these arguments. First, as to the slippery slope argument: there was an article in the Atlantic last week on How Christians Turned Against Gay Conversion Therapy. The fact is that whether we like it or not, we Christians are having to face the evidence that being attracted to the same sex is not something that can be cured or repented of. This being true, we must rethink our approach towards people who, through no fault or choice of their own, want to marry someone of the same sex– and many of these people trust in the same Christ we do. In light of these facts, it makes sense to re-examine the proof-texts we’ve relied on in this matter. After all, once the medieval church faced the fact that the earth did indeed revolve around the sun and not the other way around, it found that the proof-texts it had used against Galileo really could be read differently.
Perhaps what’s going on is not that in rethinking these things, we’re falling down a slippery slope. Perhaps what’s really going on is that we’re climbing a gradual ascent towards more compassion, acceptance and love towards people who aren’t like ourselves.
Edited to add: That said, the scriptures that have been used to restrict gender roles are of a different nature than those used to condemn gay marriage, and there is no reason to believe that changing one’s mind about the restriction of women, necessarily implies changing one’s mind about this other issue. Many egalitarians remain strongly against gay marriage.
Second, with regards to “2000 years of church tradition” — for one thing, the complementarian position does not actually reflect 2000 years of church tradition. Complementarianism teaches that men and women are equal, but different in roles, while church tradition until recent times held that women were simply inferior. In any event, evangelicalism is usually quite ready to admit that church tradition can be, and often is, mistaken. Evangelicals long ago rejected the longstanding church traditions of the authority of the pope, of infant baptism, and of transubstantiation (that the communion elements become the actual body and blood of Christ). Evangelicals only bring out the argument from tradition when tradition happens to support what they believe.
Finally, I disagree that giving women the freedom to lead** in their churches and homes is a “worldly” idea of justice. As I detailed above, if women are not subordinated because they are inferior by nature, then their subordination is arbitrary and without reason– and it is in clear violation of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which is the ethic taught by our Lord Himself. Who would want to be consigned to a permanent subordinate status based on a purely arbitrary exclusion of one or more of his or her categories or classes of personhood? And if we would not want it done to ourselves, we should not do it to others.
Also, non-believers are just as capable as believers of understanding “do unto others.” Jesus didn’t mean it to be rocket science! In fact, the fundamental knowledge that subordinating women is against “do unto others” is one of the big things that is keeping many non-believers from even considering Christianity. They too are made in the image of God: they have a basic knowledge of what love is and what justice is, and they can see that some of the rules we Christians claim are from God, are neither loving nor just.
So I think I’ll pass on accepting Leeman’s indictment of worldliness and idolatry. And if what I consider most reasonable and most rational is my god, then I will proudly agree that my God is indeed reasonable and rational, not arbitrary, but loving and just.
** I continue to draw a distinction between “authority,” the power or right to be the leader, and simply leading, which can be done by any person or group of persons at any time if they have the skills and inclination for a particular season or role of leadership.
Kristen is a wife, mother and works as a paralegal in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. She’s also written many of the FAQ pages here at NLQ. Kristen blogs from the perspective of a Christian who still believes even after leaving a spiritually abusive environment behind.