Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Language of the Debate (3)

You have three seconds to answer: What’s the opposite of egalitarianism?

Three ... two ... one ... okay, all guesses should be in now. If your answer was “complementarianism”, my first thought is that maybe you’ve been spending too much time in the Recently Released section of your local LifeWay or Family Christian Bookstore — except both those chains went belly-up in the last four years and it doesn’t look like anyone is stepping up to fill their shoes. I guess maybe you could be Reformed ...

Here’s a crazy thought: the opposite of egalitarianism just might be biblical headship. Now there’s a dusty old concept.

A Little Backstory

For those who haven’t read the first two instalments in this series, our subject is the current trend in the media (and now, sadly, among Christians) to manipulate one another with our word choices, using cleverly-chosen heavily-freighted substitutes instead of plain, communicative — and, most importantly, biblical — language. By redefining familiar words and concepts, and by introducing freshly coined jargon terms, the sophists are able to stifle, misdirect and conceal, rather than illuminating and instructing. Poor word choices — whether deliberately or unintentionally introduced — inaccurately frame the issues for us, shape and control the conversation, and lead us to assume conclusions without evidence. Why have a debate at all if one side can win by shifting the goalposts?

Got the idea? Great. Let’s have a closer look at yet another of those wonderfully misleading but increasingly common bits of evangelical terminology:

7. Complementarian

A Little History

The term “complementarian” seems to have originated (or possibly have been repurposed) in 1991’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a book edited by Piper and Wayne Grudem that has been quite influential in evangelical circles. I’ve never read it, but Piper describes what he means by “complementarian” in this 2012 sermon:
“The intention with the word “complementarian” is to locate our way of life between two kinds of error: on the one side would be the abuses of women under male domination, and on the other side would be the negation of gender differences where they have beautiful significance. Which means that on the one hand, complementarians acknowledge and lament the history of abuses of women personally and systemically, and the present evils globally and locally in the exploitation and diminishing of women and girls. And, on the other hand, complementarians lament the feminist and egalitarian impulses that minimize God-given differences between men and women and dismantle the order God has designed for the flourishing of our life together.

So complementarians resist the impulses of a chauvinistic, dominating, and abusive culture, on the one side, and the impulses of a sex-blind, gender-leveling, unisex culture, on the other side. And we take our stand between these two ways of life not because the middle ground is a safe place (which it is emphatically not), but because we think this is the good plan of God in the Bible for men and women.”
It may reasonably be argued that we are better to locate our way of life with reference to the teaching of the New Testament rather than with reference to the historical extremes of Western social interaction between the sexes. There is a significant difference between, on the one hand, expressing an existing scriptural concept in modern language and, on the other, developing a modern concept that you rationalize ex post facto with a smattering of convenient proof texts.

Part of the Vernacular

In any case, Piper was still teaching the things he first articulated in Recovering twenty-one years after the fact, and the term “complementarian” has become an accepted part of the evangelical vernacular. The problem is that not everyone means the same thing by the word “complementarian” when they use it. Complementarian apologist Mary Kassian, for example, says this:
“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.”
Well, uh ... no. Authority is the right to rule. Biblical authority includes the responsibility to serve, but headship is not limited to service. This can easily be seen from the model of the Lord Jesus in the gospels. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples (service), then went right back to telling them what to do (headship). Then he did it again, and again, and again, and again, even associating the keeping of his commandments with genuine love. There was no argument about this from the disciples, and rightly so.

Headship and Service

Further, lest it be argued that only Jesus had the right and ability to wield that sort of verbal authority, it should be pointed out that the apostles tirelessly served the early church, but when questions arose about doctrine and practice, they were not in the habit of submitting such matters to a democratic vote. That was not what they had learned about authority from their Master. So consensus was arrived at not by a show of hands, but out of respect for the wisdom and experience of men who began sentences with phrases like “My judgment is that ...” and about whom it is first said, “it seemed good to the apostles and elders”, before we ever get to the “with the whole church” part. Everyone ultimately agreed, but the apostles and elders initiated and led, not just by example, but also verbally.

They mansplained. Sorry.

Moreover, Paul, a servant among servants, unapologetically wrote letters that said things like “If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” and “if I come again I will not spare them”. It doesn’t sound as if there is too much room for negotiation with the “servant leader” there.

The ill-defined and poorly understood “servant leadership” concept and the incoherent “mutual submission” teaching which plague evangelicalism today are hallmarks of complementarian thinking. That alone should make us cautious about using the word “complementarian”.

Soft-Pedaling a Difficult Idea

But the difficulty with positioning complementarianism as an alternative to egalitarianism is not limited to the elasticity of the term and the ease with which extra-biblical and anti-biblical ideas have been smuggled into evangelical thinking along with it. The problem is baked right into the concept, which is a clever and maybe even somewhat cowardly way of avoiding the potential offense inherent in a biblical concept like headship.

As my co-writer Immanuel Can put it so aptly in a recent post entitled “Protecting People from Truth”, we sometimes feel that God needs to be protected from his alarming tendency to speak too abruptly for our tastes. So we set out to “help the Savior navigate the difficult waters of modern sensibilities, and in the end, still help him make his point”. IC calls this arrogance on our part, and I can’t help but agree. The modern tendency to soft-pedal difficult, politically incorrect and potentially inflammatory concepts like lordship, objective truth, death to self, headship, submission or even eternal damnation may spring from the best of intentions, but it is a dangerous and unproductive exercise, not least for those who are introduced to the Christian faith in a fog of wishy-washiness and bafflegab.

Husbands and Wives

Now, the idea of a wife complementing her husband is not remotely unbiblical; it comes right out of Genesis. Moreover, we are unwise to overlook the importance of the differences between the sexes in God’s design; they are unbelievably practical. There is much good to be said about the complementarity of men and women. But a view of Christian marriage that fixates on the beauty and symmetry of our interlocking design while deliberately downplaying God’s instructions about the mechanics of daily husband-wife interaction may lead its critics (not unreasonably) to suspect its primary purpose is less about unpacking the doctrine of headship in a fresh way for a new generation and more about placating Christian feminists.

In short, complementarianism is a dodge. Saying that the roles of husband and wife are complementary is not saying anything particularly anti-egalitarian. The term has nothing to do with headship or authority at all. Two “equal” partners may just as easily complement one another without contradiction.

So then, introducing complementarian teaching in our churches does not actually provide us with a better answer to the anti-biblical egalitarian view of marriage; rather, it invites us to do an end-around the headship question altogether and change the subject to something potentially less incendiary. After all, no sensitive Christian husband wants to be caricatured as flaked out in front of the football game in his BarcaLounger, stained cotton ‘person-beater’ and all, hollering “Hey woman, make me a sammich!”

That’s not a look modern Christian husbands are keen to cultivate, and the complementarian dodge is a convenient way to signal one’s Christian virtue while not completely giving away the store.

It’s just not the best way.

Service and Sammiches

Interestingly enough, when a husband makes a commitment before the Lord to live out his headship biblically, as a harmonious synthesis of godly decision-making, resolute obedience to the commands of scripture and enthusiastic service to his wife and family, he may be surprised to find his wife makes him that sandwich with a big smile on her face. He may be too busy to do much more than wolf it down on his way to the next crisis or the next opportunity to serve, but he will probably not go hungry. Or unappreciated ... at least, not for long. In God’s economy, a husband may serve his wife sacrificially and tirelessly without turning marriage into a democracy or subjecting every family decision to an endless process of negotiation. Service and sammiches are not mutually exclusive.

Sarah undoubtedly complemented Abraham. She also called him lord, and scripture commends her for it. We need to be careful not to surrender that plain Bible truth in our fear of being labeled outdated, parochial or patriarchal.

Avoiding evasive language may help us do that.

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