To rage or not to rage: that is the question you always have to ask yourself when Satan strikes in the form of evangelical sexism, unimaginative biblicism, and the fresh propaganda of The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which never fails to condemn Christian persons to sex-based behavioral prisons that make the regular old gender binary look as lush and liberating as the Promised Land.

It may be that rage is a more merciful form of hostility; it is certainly a more honest reaction, however infantile and unpleasant to endure. It may also be a safer form of emotional ventilation than other more elaborate methods of confrontation intended to keep others in submission. It was Anna Freud who expanded her father’s idea of intellectualization as an ego defense, claiming that the primary function of this unconscious mechanism was “the thinking over of instinctual conflict.” Britzman states that intellectualization can also function “to berate others, to punish others with moral discourse.” When Piper came out last month with his latest “biblically-based” article that argued against women holding teaching positions in seminary not because the bible outright forbids it, but because it contradicts the complementarian “pastoral vision,” full-fledged suspicion kicked in. There was some psychological mischief happening here, as the usual prohibitions denying women access to the pastorate now suddenly applied to women who aspired to teach theology. Call it concern for ideological consistency or historic Protestantism all you want, the end result is the exorcism of every contaminating she-demon from important vocational offices.

After reading that piece, there was only indifference where there might have been rage a year or two ago. It is hard to be sincere about a certain matter once your perception of it clarifies, when the grandiosity of its supposed seriousness fades to absurdity. I felt forced to question my own (and everyone else’s) intellectualizing habits, feeling that “the complementarian position is patriarchal and misogynistic” was off the mark, and too banal and impotent a rebuttal anyway. The truth is that complementarianism probably has little to do with a “high view of scripture” or a continued faithfulness to church tradition, at least not for its foremost architects and advocates. Some of them are apparently just as gender obsessed as Judith Butler, postmodernism’s evil queen who said that gender is arbitrary and entirely performative. Biblical literalism is cool and all, but have you tried devising soul-suffocating systems of gender ontology using God’s Word as your theoretical ground? When you wed this delightful pastime to your inner sense of Christian calling, it’s easy to allow your fleshly, subconscious gripes about emasculation and women’s wavering enthusiasm to incubate your progeny to transfigure into something more spiritually acceptable, so that to preach on gender improprieties is actually to carry out Heaven’s work.

Theological conservatism is typically very good at using Christian principles to shut down political struggle, and usually it’s progressives who fixate on materiality, social liberation, and the realities of human embodiment. But something about today’s complementarianism doesn’t stick to the typical conservative script. Its ethos feels fiercely political, though many find this hard to see because it still maintains a smokescreen of spiritual devotion that presents male-female relations as a matter of piety or orthodoxy rather than gender politics proper. Committment to the later would be to make the progressive’s error of using Christianity to further agendas which are not properly Christian. I really do not see why this needs to be so. I do not understand why conservatives cannot care about people’s social lives without the veil of spirituality. Regardless, complementarians need to confess their preoccupation with gender itself (especially given our contemporary context where traditional, inherited notions of gender have undergone such profound changes), not just proclaim adherence to biblical teaching or church doctrine alone.

I think we must do more than question the theological or ethical validity of complementarian teaching. We need to probe beyond the surface concern for scriptural fidelity, and ask why the constant commentary on what it means to be a godly man or woman is not viewed as an inherently political and gendered activity. And we need to ask why it is wrong or insufficient for Christians, particularly Christian men, to care about their gendered existence outside the protective intellectual walls of their religion. We should be very leery of the habitual invocation of “the biblical worldview” or “the pastoral vision” as a proxy or veneer for one’s grapplings with the reality of fluctuating gender norms, especially if it involves a loss of personal power. Theologically speaking, we need to assert our Christian right to know how such innocuous preferences like loving rugged landscapes or being passive while dating confirms Christian obedience or contributes to one’s sanctification.

And, while we’re at it, we should start understanding complementarianism as a men’s issue rather than a women’s issue, since it is mostly men who seem to instigate these gender debates about how women practice ministry. Even assuming complementarians are correct in their interpretation of certain biblical passages regarding what duties women can and cannot perform in the church or in the seminary, or what attributes of Christ each partner in a heterosexual marriage should reflect, rooting these interpretations in identity-based theologies about gender is definitely an extra-biblical project that’s being sold as biblically nonnegotiable. It’s these cultural qualities of complementarianism that are lacking an explicit scriptural basis. There’s no vision about what the modern pastorate should look like in 1 Timothy 2:12, so let’s not make it do more work than it already does.

4 thoughts

  1. I spent many years being angry when I was a young minister. I finally realized that my rage and arguments could not make a difference in people’s opinions on the roles of women–Rather, that depended upon the Holy Spirit at work in the sexist heart. In fact, my anger was seen as my grasp for personal power and my own lack of love. I found ways to teach and serve God so that I could feel the joy of God’s call in my life, instead of being mad about it. Forty years after my ordination, there are many people who have accepted my ministry, and too many remaining needs for me to allow myself to be diverted(as you rightly described it) by Satan and sexism.

  2. Wow. This was awesome. “we should start understanding complementarianism as a men’s issue rather than a women’s issue, since it is mostly men who seem to instigate these gender debates about how women practice ministry.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s