For a complete Table of Contents for this Journal, click here.
By Jonathan Leeman
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.
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.”
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.”
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.