Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Reading With One Eyeball

Sometimes people get the obvious so wrong you can’t help but wonder if they’re doing it deliberately. Or maybe somebody just poked them in the eyeball.

Mary Kassian was at the meeting of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood twenty-five years ago when the word “complementarian” was coined, so she’s probably not the worst choice to explain it what it means. She attempts to do that here.

My reaction? I’m not so sure it means anything good.

Responding to Equality-Creep

The CBMW’s summary of what the Bible teaches about the roles of men and women remains the most well-known evangelical attempt to address creeping egalitarianism within Christendom. Kassian describes the idea as follows:
“Complementarians believe that males were designed to shine the spotlight on Christ’s relationship to the church (and the Lord God’s relationship to Christ) in a way that females cannot, and that females were designed to shine the spotlight on the Church’s relationship to Christ (and Christ’s relationship to the Lord God) in a way that males cannot. Who we are as male and female is ultimately not about us. It’s about testifying to the story of Jesus.”
In theory that’s not such a terrible idea.

With a Twist

However, Kassian’s take on what the New Testament teaches about headship has a bit of a twist:
“Though men have a responsibility to exercise headship in their homes, and in the church family, Christ revolutionized the definition of what that means. Authority is not the right to rule — it’s the responsibility to serve.”
Hmm. That last sentence seems more than a little arbitrary. Why not both?

I’d stop short of referring to the husband’s authority as the “right to rule” myself, but it’s hard to get away from the fact that in scripture responsibility and authority are two sides of the same coin. You don’t see accountability without the God-given stewardship of something (hint: authority) for which one must eventually give account. And a man under God’s authority does indeed possess the conferred authority to lead his wife. “Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord,” implies both that Abraham gave Sarah direction, and that Sarah willingly complied. Thus the apostle Peter holds Sarah up as a model to godly Christian women.

The Servant Husband Mulls His Options

Like all marriages, Abraham and Sarah’s relationship was imperfect. But it’s notable that their biggest failures came from inverting God’s order, not from adhering too closely to it. In the Genesis account, Sarah comes to Abraham with a really dubious idea: How about you have sex with my handmaid and give me a child through her?

What would Mary Kassian say to the “servant husband” mulling over his options?

I hope she’d agree with me that Abraham would have been better to exercise some of his God-given authority than to respect Sarah’s wishes on that occasion. A polite “No thanks, dear” would have thwarted Sarah’s self-destructive will and given her a grand opportunity to showcase that “gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious”. Instead, Abraham served Sarah rather than leading her, and the result was injurious to both parties and to many generations of their descendants.

A Poor Illustration

That’s the practical problem with Kassian’s revolutionary redefinition of headship. The bigger problem is theological. Characterizing the authority of Christ as “the responsibility to serve” falls far short of an adequate description of the Head’s loving relationship to his Body.

Husbands are to love their wives “as Christ loved the church”. To Kassian, that means serving and sacrificing, which is very true: he “gave himself up for her”. The problem is the verse only ends there if you’ve been recently poked in the eyeball. If you read normally, it continues like so:
“... that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
Christ’s love for the Church was not made manifest in service for its own sake, or service as a mode of being, but in service with a particular point: purifying his bride through the application of his word to her. He has an interest in her perfection, and he is prepared to work away at it until that is accomplished. If I may be gauche and patriarchal, that sounds an awful lot like telling the Church what to do might be involved. The “word” of Christ is useless as a purifying agent if it is not obeyed.

The Head and the Body

In church there is one — and only one — way to do things: Christ’s way. It is the Head that determines the course of the Body, and the Body that responds to the direction of the Head. People who bring ideas into our churches that are not in accordance with the teaching of Christ are described in Colossians as:
“... not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.”
The “nourishing” referred to here calls to mind the language of Ephesians 5:
“For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.”
If we are to use Christ’s love for the Church as a pattern, then the husband is not just a servant, but also mediates received truth to his wife. I’m not sure what else Paul could have meant by “let them ask their husbands at home”. That’s certainly a form of service to Christian wives, but it’s also godly leadership.

Reproof and Discipline

The fact that Christ serves his bride and has sacrificed for her in no way suggests that he ceases to lead, feed and direct her. We cannot conceptualize the husband’s love for his wife apart from observing how Christ’s love for his bride is worked out in real life. Here is Christ addressing his church in Revelation:
“Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.”
Mary Kassian probably hasn’t noticed, but the love of Christ for his bride is specifically displayed in both reproof and discipline, not just the washing of feet.

(How do we apply that in the Christian home? I would suggest very, VERY carefully. A God who instructs a husband to “show honor” to his wife clearly does not condone domestic violence. The Lord’s established pattern is to lead and correct in a spirit of service, not self-will or domination. But it is indisputably leadership none the less, and it turns the Kassian view of husband-as-doormat on its ear.)

When we talk about Christ’s love for the Church as a model for Christian marriage, it is obvious we are not talking about an egalitarian arrangement. Then again, neither are we talking about the complementarian “headship lite” model in which pure service is the mode of expressing a husband’s God-given authority.

Perhaps we could say instead that authority includes BOTH the responsibility to lead (under the appropriate circumstances) AND the responsibility to serve (under the appropriate circumstances).

At least that seems to me to come a little closer to it.

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