4. The Vision of Complementarianism

Piper’s lead article in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBMW) says that the argument for complementarianism can be made either from Scripture or by laying out the vision (i.e. that it is a fulfilling position to live out), which is the approach that he adopts.

While this can be an effective approach, it is problematic because it is hard to avoid fallacious arguments from consequences or problems with cause and effect. Piper needs to show that complementarian theology is actually the cause of the desired consequences and that the social problems he identifies are indeed caused by the alternatives.

the Vision

Most of Piper’s article is given over to explaining his definition of manhood and womanhood; the vision itself is given very briefly. It is largely that men and women, having understood their place in the world, will experience fulfilling and deep relationships in which “there is a harmony and mutuality that is more beautiful and more satisfying than any pattern of marriage created by man” (RBMW, p. 52). This will be true by extension in the church too. “We believe that manhood and womanhood mesh better in ministry when men take primary responsibility for leadership and teaching in the church; and that mature manhood and womanhood are better preserved, better nurtured, more fulfilled and more fruitful in this church order than in any other” (p. 53).

The Problems

If lived out with the self-sacrificial godliness required, I think complementarianism can be a fulfilling and God-honouring system, but there are several problems that I have with his case.

The argument is circular. Piper is attempting to commend his vision to the heart, to show that it is the right way because it is a satisfying way of life (p. 33). However, he hasn’t shown why it produces better marriages and better churches, he just says that it will. The reason is that he thinks it is God’s pattern, whereas all others are human in origin (it is better than “any pattern… created by man”). In effect, he is trying to argue that we know it is true because it is the best way to live, and we know it’s the best way to live because it is true.

In general, he commends his vision of more harmonious relationships without saying how it produces harmony or why the alternatives don’t. Of course, complementarian relationships in which there is no sin would work wonderfully. But why would egalitarian relationships without sin work any worse?

Gender characteristics are not uniform. Piper’s vision is based on definitions of manhood and womanhood that he claims reflect biblical teaching, but which he doesn’t demonstrate:

“At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships. At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.” (pp. 35-36)

Piper’s definition of manhood makes men leaders, protectors and providers. But what about men who have no leadership gifts, or who are not especially brave and strong? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that such men are not really men, or they have to act against their giftedness to fulfill a role that has the flakiest of biblical foundations.

It’s even worse for the women; I’m not sure that I would feel convinced that my womanhood has been fully grasped and rooted in God if I were to read that I am defined as a recipient of maleness. If we set aside for a minute the insistence that this is God’s word and His will for your life, does that really resonate as true on its own terms? Is one’s identity as a woman—something that Piper argues is “essential… to our personhood” (p. 33)—really just following men?

As I argued previously, male and female tend be different from each other in predictable ways, but these are only very general tendencies. To use male and female differences as a basis for a definition of manhood and womanhood is very damaging to those who fall outside of supposedly biblical definitions of their gender.

I came across a recent Twitter comment that made a similar point:

In 1 Corinthians, Paul encourages us to see the value of complementary gifts. However, how do you delineate gifts on gender lines? The Bible doesn’t. And in what way is this the only hope for our churches and communities?

There are several problems with causation. At the heart of Piper’s vision is the claim that complementarianism will cause harmony at home and in church. But identifying the cause of something is fiendishly difficult. Will Piper’s vision come about because of its complementarian structure, or because the people involved are committed to loving and serving one another in a gospel way—a commitment that would lead to harmony anyway?

More pointedly, Piper implies that marriages and ministries don’t “mesh” without a man at the helm. Is this because of how creation is wired or because people have grown up believing in the divine right of men to lead (and so refuse to be led by a woman)? If they were committed to love and serve equally well under the leadership of a man or a woman, would the “mesh” be any different? How do you know?

The second problem with cause and effect is on page 33 of RBMW. Here Piper says that the consequence of “mimimizing the unique significance of our maleness and femaleness… is more divorce, more homosexuality, more sexual abuse, more promiscuity, more social awkwardness, and more emotional distress and suicide that come with the loss of God-given identity.”

More recently, Piper appeared on a desiringgod.org podcast, which introduced the presentation about male and female difference in terms of the sexual abuses brought to light by the #MeToo movement. Piper goes on to say:

“It’s a firm conviction of most of our egalitarian culture that men as men do not owe women a special kind of care and protection and honor that women do not owe men. I believe they do. I believe fifty years of denying it is one of the seeds bearing very bad fruit, including all those sexual abuses you talked about in your question. There are others seeds in our culture, but this is one of the seeds.”

Although Piper at least only cites egalitarianism as one of the causes, is it even true that society is more of a mess now? The #MeToo movement has opened a floodgate because this is perhaps the first time in history that women feel safe enough to report the abuses they suffered without the expectation of further abuse for doing so. It is extremely blinkered to argue as though the movement exists because there has been a recent sharp increase in abuse. These social ills have existed in spades throughout history. This is how men have always been.

Furthermore, society wasn’t complementarian in the middle of the last century; it was patriarchal. Men didn’t love and serve women and value their inherent womanly gifts—only to have the feminists poison our healthy view of social roles. Women were commonly treated as deficient and inferior. Is Piper arguing that the repression of women held all these vices at bay?

Finally, it is deeply insulting to every evangelical egalitarian to imply that giving women equal dignity implies lack of concern for their welfare—as though the responsibility to protect the vulnerable is a complementarian thing. It is a Christian thing. If anything, the #ChurchToo movement is highlighting that complementarian organisations are perfectly capable of covering up abuse and protecting the powerful.

Women follow from the front. In order to insist that women remain followers even when they self-evidently are taking the lead, Piper in RBMW is forced into some linguistic gymnastics that I find absurd.

For example, a woman without a husband can be the head of her household as long as she is “not unduly masculine” in their performance, and “has the sense that this would be properly done by her husband if she had one, and if she performs them with a uniquely feminine demeanor” (p. 37).

Leading and following should even carry through into the bedroom. On page 40, he says, “Mature masculinity expresses its leadership in romantic sexual relations by communicating an aura of strong and tender pursuit.” Even if a woman initiates sex or has her own ideas during intercourse, her leading “is in effect an invitation for the man to do his kind of initiating. In one sense you could say at those times the man is responding. But in fact the wife is inviting him to lead in a way as only a man can, so that she can respond to him.”

You’re free to find the concept of follow-leading not ridiculous if you’re able.

It is hard to be a consistent complementarian. Piper ends his article with a list of ministry opportunities for women under the complementarian system. But there are some inconsistencies between his list and his theology. If 1 Timothy 2 excludes women from teaching and leading, and given that it does not qualify the sphere in which these are exercised, how can Piper allow women to minister as leaders and teachers of college students? College-age males are men, aren’t they?

More to the point, almost everything we do in Christianity is for ‘edification’; there is a teaching component to singing and songwriting, to good public prayer and Bible reading, to translation and writing and evangelism. I am not sure how one practices the rule against female teaching and leadership without either silencing all public female voices or becoming arbitrary in how one defines leadership and teaching.

Conclusion

This post has obviously focused on quibbling with one article from one theologian. As such, it is not likely to represent the only arguments available in favour of the complementarian vision. Nevertheless, it is the lead article in one of the most influential Christian books on gender in living memory. The definitions of manhood and womanhood have been foundational for much Christian thinking on the subject, and the criticisms that it levies against other positions have likewise poisoned the well for many of us (I myself have not considered reading egalitarians in their own words until very recently). I have committed to a frank critique of this article because it is a major piece of the debate and yet it consistently fails to rise above presumption.

I can agree with Piper that there is currently a vacuum when it comes to social identity, especially of boys. Tim Winton, in an excellent piece for the Guardian, bemoans this too, though for different reasons. There is a loss of a vision of strength in humility and virtue these days.

However, I can see nothing that Piper mentions as a good fruit of complementarianism that wouldn’t be true of Christian living in general. Nor does egalitarian theology contribute to the lack of identity that so many people feel. World-class legal and architectural firms operate with partners rather than CEOs—a married couple might similarly operate with mutual respect, communication and recognition of the other’s strengths and without the leader-follower model. Letting go of default deference to the man in favour of equal partnership does not imply chaos in the home.

In summary, being able to describe a beautiful outcome for complementarian theology is worthless if it is an exercise of the imagination. We all want the church to be full of harmonious and effective relationships, but there is no reason given here why complementarianism is uniquely or ideally suited to achieve that.

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3 thoughts on “4. The Vision of Complementarianism

  1. TheUnmaskedAvenger says:

    Complementarianism … not my favorite subject. When I was in church, it felt like it’s central message was boiled down to this: “Women, hide your light behind bushel baskets so that the light of the men might shine all the brighter!” The thing about shining light, what makes it light the way for people in the darkness is that there’s a plethora of sources of light – better to have a dozen candles than just the one, better to have thousands of bic lighters than just a few hundred. The more sources where light shines, the more darkness is driven back. Complementarianism is a teaching of darkness.

  2. authoramandafarmer says:

    For me, complementarianism became a problem when I realized that I was being treated differently in the church than the men who held similar leadership positions. I have written the story of my husband and I in a church for 25 years that flipped to being Calvinistic, Complimentariam and authoritative. It has resulted in a faith crisis that I am not sure we will ever recover from. You can read our story in Once an Insider; Now without a church Home: One Couple’s Faith Crisis Due to the Infiltration and Spread of Authoritarianism, Calvinism, Complementarianism, and Covenants in the Am Evangelical Church. It can be bought via Kindle or softcover at Amazon.com

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