Cultural-crusading complementarianism

The issue of complementarianism, for some reason, keeps hitting my Twitter timeline. It seems to have been a regular theme for the last few months and seems worth (briefly) revisiting again. In the latest iteration, it came up in this tweet from Shelia Gregoire:

I have previously commented on this here, here and here. If you can’t be bothered to read those, I still broadly share Carl Trueman’s view on this issue as outlined here:

The whole piece also indicates the problems that occur when the issue of male-female complementarity is detached from the specific issues of marriage and church. Once you try to extrapolate to the world at large, three things follow. First, you find a proliferation of questions such as this and indeed even more trivial ones – for example, how a woman should answer a man asking for directions when he is lost.  Second, you become increasingly dependent upon subjective and vague criteria for making decisions, criteria which are as malleable as those in positions of (sub)cultural authority – formal or informal — wish to make them. Third, the consequent complication of even the most routine male-female encounters creates a world where people are practically infantilized. They are ever fearful of doing the wrong thing even in situations of no real consequence, and always dependent on the advice of the gurus who own the criteria mentioned under the second point – and who now have power and influence way beyond the bounds of that ministerial authority given to the church and her officers.

I rarely read complementarian literature these days. I felt it lost its way when it became an all-embracing view of the world and not simply a matter for church and household. I am a firm believer in a male-only ordained ministry in the church but I find increasingly bizarre the broader cultural crusade which complementarianism has become. It seems now to be more a kind of reaction against feminism than a balanced exposition of the Bible’s teaching on the relationships of men and women. Thus, for example, marriage is all about submission of wife to husband (Eph. 5) and rarely about the delight of friendship and the kind of playful but subtly expressed eroticism we find in the Song of Songs. Too often cultural complementarianism ironically offers a rather disenchanted and mundane account of the mystery and beauty of male-female relations. And too often it slides into sheer silliness.

Sheila Gregoire’s comment related (I think) mainly to the question of headship – as defined by John Piper – in terms of marriage and, as Trueman put it, ‘the broader cultural crusade which complementarianism has become.’ Again, for completeness, my view on how complementarianism ought to work out within marriage is best expressed in this post replying to some question from Beth Moore.

As a complementarian, my issue with this wider world-encompassing view of this doctrine is its over-application of what the biblical text actually says. And so, if we take Piper’s now infamous comments on female police officers, I am immediately driven to the question: where did he get that from the text? I see nothing there about police, so there’s no direct line from headship to certain occupations. I see nothing there about being given directions from a woman, so I’m struggling to draw the link there. I see no comments about broader relational questions of directions being personal or direct at any point. I am left wondering where on earth this stuff comes from in the text and ultimately conclude that it isn’t there to be found.

This seems to be the problem for a lot of complementarians. They divorce the text from its moorings – church and marriage – and apply it well beyond the context to all manner of scenarios that simply aren’t mentioned. Within the text itself, they land hard on the submission of the woman to the man, but often overlook the mutual submission at play (which is all the more ironic from Reformed believers because this is Calvin’s line on the matter). There is a lot of focus on how women are to submit (in their view) with far less attention given to how men are to love their wives and Christ loved the church and how that should play out. All of this, I think, leads to a super-abundance of total nonsense.

In fact, I think this sort of the hardline, all-encompassing complementarianism does something that those selfsame advocate accuse others of doing: they are reacting to culture. Just as they insist many egalitarians are listening to the culture and adopting a view based on what they prefer in light of it, I find it hard not to see the cultural-crusading complementarians doing exactly the same thing. They are taking particular positions that are hard to justify from scripture, but that do seem to owe a lot to a particular reaction to the culture they are in. They argue many egalitarians are reacting to the culture by reading scripture in light of their cultural values whilst, as far as I can see, pretty much doing the same yet taking an inverse stance. As Trueman notes, ‘It seems now to be more a kind of reaction against feminism than a balanced exposition of the Bible’s teaching on the relationships of men and women.’ Feminism might be what started the crusade, but I struggle to see us laying all the blame at its door for the wilder and more unhinged forms of cultural-crusading complementarianism.

The biggest issue of all is that many hear these things, see these cultural-crusading complementarians express views that blast well beyond anything in scripture, and wash their hands of the doctrine altogether. The instinct – which I can empathise with – is this: if that’s where complementarianism ends up, egalitarianism is the place for me. I do not think that is biblical reasoning – not least when cultural crusades are not the logical end of complementarian theology at all but the over-application of a particular group – yet I admit it is understandable. It is precisely the same logic when people reject the gospel altogether when they see some lunatic fringe and conclude, if that’s what Christianity is, I’m better off out of it. Faulty logic for sure – the truth of the gospel isn’t determined by the behaviour of nutbars – but entirely understandable nonetheless.

The issue – so far as I can tell – is not with the complementarian over-reachers hermeneutics. I think, when it comes to questions of church leadership and marriage, they rightly discern what the Bible teaches on that in essence. Their hermeneutic does push them to recognise what the Bible actually says here. Their problem does not lie in what the Bible says, but in their own application of that which the Bible very much doesn’t. The issue isn’t so much hermeneutics, but wild over-application. To get from ‘the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church’ (Eph 5:23) to women shouldn’t deliver post and can’t be police officers, you are making quite a few logical leaps that are difficult to maintain from anything actually written. I think there are quite a few false logical leaps being made by many who have certain views of what submission looks like in the family home (again, for my view on this, see here). Getting from ‘as Christ is head of the church’ and the following statement ‘as the church submits to Christ, so also wives are to submit to their husbands’ to that means women have to do all the cooking, cleaning and their endless obsession with making sandwiches (what is that about?!) is quite some leap. None of these things are there. It is over-application of the worst kind.

Whilst there are some who hear the word ‘head’ and ‘submit’ and work themselves into a raging lather, we have to accept that these things are written here. We either accept the Bible at face value or we don’t. The issue for the cultural-crusading complementarians is that they are very quick to fill in the blanks of what ‘head’ and ‘submit’ definitely mean in ways that bear no resemblance to anything else the Bible says and that seem far more culturally bound than they are ever willing to admit.