And now…on the other side (critique of extreme complementarianism)

And now…on the other side (critique of extreme complementarianism) January 4, 2012

And now…the other extreme from “Christian feminism”

Recently here I critiqued contemporary radical Christian Feminism while applauding egalitarianism. By “radical Christian Feminism” I mean the approach to theology that begins from women’s experience and resymbolizes God away from the predominantly male images of scripture to  female images treated as superior to male images for their social value (e.g., in promoting equality rather than hierarchy). I regard the theologies of Rosemary Ruether, Letty Russell, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Elizabeth Johnson as pernicious to biblical Christianity insofar as they reject scripture as normative and consider women’s experience (as defined by them) as normative for theology.

Radical Christian feminism, however, is not the only extreme form of reflection on gender in theology that I criticize. Just as strongly (and from the “gut,” so to speak, even more strongly!) I reject so-called Evangelical Complementarianism as that is worked out, defended and promoted by some fundamentalist theologians. (Not all complementarians are fundamentalists; my objection here is mainly to those who seem fundamentalist to me in that they appear to adhere to “maximal conservatism,” elevate secondary matters of doctrine and biblical interpretation to the status of dogmas, and reject fellow evangelicals who disagree with them about biblical interpretation with regard to matters about which evangelicals have disagreed for the past century or more.)

So what is Evangelical Complementarianism? I agree with the definition given in a news article by Bob Allen of the Associated Baptist Press published in Baptists Today entitled “Abandoned his leadership: SBC professor says Adam’s sin was in listening to his wife” (November, 2011, p. 8). The article says that “complementarianism” “holds that men and women are both created in God’s image but assigned different roles.” But this needs supplementation (just as a definition of “Christian Feminism” that mentions only gender equality needs supplementation). Mention “complementarianism” in any evangelical theological circles and most people know immediately it is more than merely the belief that “men and women are both created in God’s image but assigned different roles.” For example, even feminists believe men and women have different roles insofar as only women give birth!

A complete (or at least more complete) definition of “evangelical complementarianism” (is there any other kind?) must mention that it holds that women, though created in God’s image, are meant by God to be permanently subordinate to men at least in the church and the family. From there complementarians go off in somewhat different directions, but on that they all agree. (Personally, I think “complementarian” is a misnomer because it does not sufficiently describe what these people really believe. The emphasis is not on males and females complementing each other but on females being submissive to males. Therefore, whenever I hear the label “complementarian” in an evangelical context I think of it as an example of “newspeak” as in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. I put it in the same category as “Patriot Act”—a name for a very controversial law implying that anyone who disagrees with any of it is less than fully patriotic.)

Some complementarians believe women should not hold jobs where they have to give orders to men. Others restrict female subordination and submission to spiritual contexts and the family. But all place the emphasis on female subordination and submission in such a way that adult women have pretty much the same role as children vis-à-vis adult men. So far as I know, all (or virtually all) complementarians believe women should not preach, should not be pastors (except perhaps “Childrens’ Pastors”), should not teach men in church settings or Christian organizations, and should obey their husbands unless they command them to sin. (I have heard some complementarians argue that women should obey their husbands even if they command them to sin, but that is, I believe, a fringe view among evangelical complementarians.)

This has been, for the most part, a civil and respectful disagreement among evangelical Christians. “Christians for biblical equality” (whether members of the CBE organization or simply those evangelicals who believe that men and women should have equal roles in church, family and society) strongly disagree with Evangelical Complementarianism but, for the most part, anyway, embrace complementarians as fellow evangelicals. (I’m not sure they have any choice as complementarianism seems to be the “default” view among most evangelicals.)

Increasingly, however, the views and language among some evangelical complementarians has become shrill and extreme. Some are making it a litmus test for biblical fidelity and orthodoxy. According to the article cited above, one evangelical complementarian  argued at a recent meeting of The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood that Adam’s sin was listening to his wife. According to the article (and the statement is placed in quotation marks in the article) “Eve was cursed on her God-given role before the Fall. She is cursed on her role as a mother and as a helper.” Now this is something new; I have never heard anyone make such an argument until now (assuming the article is correct). Taken at face value, what that Southern Baptist theologians and seminary dean and professor is saying is that just being a woman is to be cursed by God. Also, apparently, insofar as the article quotes the scholar correctly, it is a sin for a man to heed the voice of his wife.

Now, I think there can be legitimate debate about women and men and their respective roles in the church and family, although I am settled about it on the egalitarian side. I can at least see where evangelical complementarians are “coming from,” so to speak, because of their literalistic approach to hermeneutics (which is never really consistently literalistic). I do think most of them are inconsistent insofar as they applaud women missionaries who, of course, evangelized, preached to and taught men in non-American contexts (e.g., Lotty Moon—a Southern Baptist saint!). And I suspect that in the privacy of their own homes many of them actually have functionally egalitarian marriages.

The very ideas that Eve was cursed by God “before the Fall” and that Adam’s sin was heeding the voice of his wife (as opposed to disobeying God’s command not to eat of the tree) seem to me bizarre and weird if not downright unbiblical. They also seem dangerous to me. Such a teaching may be interpreted as giving men permission to be misogynists and to abuse their wives. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the view itself is misogynistic. In preference to such a church (where this is taught) I might be tempted to run to the nearest “Women Church!” (Although I suspect I would find somewhat the same view, only reversed.)

Back to the seminary dean and professor in question. According to the article, he claimed that he believes there cannot be “more important debate” (than the conference topic) (viz., gender roles) and “I contend that if we lose the battle over the gender debate, we lose a proper interpretation of God’s word,… We lose inerrancy. We lose the authority of the Bible, and that is detrimental to the gospel.” Others have said the same about: premillennialism, creationism, restrictivism…you name it. (This is how I identify a fundamentalists—as someone who takes one side of a legitimate debate among evangelicals and elevates it to the level of status confessionis.)

So what is going on when an evangelical seminary dean and professor of theology makes such outrageous statements that go far beyond garden-variety complementarianism into outright misogyny? First, it seems to me there is a competition among especially Southern Baptist theologians (I’m not saying all SBCers are guilty of this, though, and SBCers don’t hold a monopoly on it!) to outdo one another in discovering and promoting conservative views on the pet issues. Second, conservative evangelicals are so driven by fear of liberalism that they tend to tolerate, if not applaud, extreme views that, even if outrageously nonsensical, are perceived as helping hold back the forces of liberal darkness. Third, many fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals have no sense of accountability to a larger religious, spiritual, theological context. Everyone outside the safe and narrow (not necessarily small!) confines of their own hermeneutical and doctrinal circle is unworthy of a hearing.

I suspect such extreme views on the left and on the right have been around a long time. In fact, as a historical theologian I know it. (Not necessarily these particular views but extreme views on doctrinal subjects and matters of biblical interpretation.) Usually, however, moderating voices prevail. That hasn’t been happening so much in the last twenty-five years. People are de-populating the center and rushing (or at least gravitating) to extremes. I look to evangelical leaders, opinion-makers to condemn such extremes (as were expressed in that article in Baptists Today) and make clear they do not represent the mainstream of evangelical theology. I listen; I hear only silence.


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