Saturday, March 29, 2014

"Equal But Subordinate" and Soft Complementarianism

My analysis of the "Equal but Subordinate" teaching on women in Christianity seems to be turning into a series.  I didn't intend to do this, but I do believe the implications of this teaching in its various manifestations should be addressed fully.  This, then, is Part 3 (and I hope the conclusion!)

My last two posts were on the basic position taught by the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood ("CBMW") that male authority and female subordination is intrinsic to manhood and womanhood, even to the point where it will continue in the new creation.  As I said in Part 2, if the CBMW really believed that male headship was not part of what it means to be a man--
then there ought to be times and places where women are not expected to defer to men or to acknowledge any inborn, natural ability and inclination towards authority in men over women, simply because of being born men.
The CBMW allows for no such exceptions, and thus their position is actually that women are inferior and men are superior, no matter what they may say otherwise.  This harms and damages women and belittles the image of God in us-- and it really isn't great for men either.  So before I proceed, I want to ask my readers to support the Freedom for Christian Women Coalition by signing their petition on demanding an apology from the CMBW for these harmful and erroneous teachings.  I don't think it matters whether this succeeds in changing the CBMW at all (it probably won't).  But we can still make a difference by adding our voices to call the CBMW to account, so that those who have been subjected to spiritual, emotional and/or physical harm will know they are not alone or unheard.

That said, I'll move on to the question that remains:  What about those who don't go as far as the CBMW does, but still believe in some form of male authority and female subordination as God's will for Christians?  People in this camp usually call themselves "soft complementarians," and they distinguish themselves from the "hard patriarchy" of the CBMW.  In general, soft complementarians disagree with the CBMW by saying that women may take positions of authority over men in the world of business or politics without violating their feminine natures.  Soft complementarians also don't generally say that male headship and female subordination in the church and in marriage (which they do uphold as God's will) is "part of the reality of creation" or the "divine principle weaved into the fabric of God's order for the universe," as I quoted the CBMW saying in my earlier posts.

The soft complementarian position is fairly well defined on the Bible Questions Answered!  website.  Here is on women in the church:
God has ordained that only men are to serve in positions of spiritual teaching authority in the church. This is not because men are necessarily better teachers, or because women are inferior or less intelligent (which is not the case). It is simply the way God designed the church to function.
 And here is on marriage:
A wife should submit to her husband, not because women are inferior, but because that is how God designed the marital relationship to function.
Notice how this position ties female subordination to the "function" of the church or of marriage rather than to essential male or female humanity.  When my second blog post on this was reposted on No Longer Quivering, an astute commenter gave me feedback as follows:
[You said] "You can be equal and still in a position of submission to authority if the submission is part of the position, not part of who you are." By this do you mean you are OK with the husband having authority and the wife rendering submission to his position of authority in their marriage?
"Kristen clearly expresses her disagreement with an "ontological inequality" as John Piper teaches it (while denying he's teaching it, of course), but states she has no problem with "functional inequality".  Complementarians teach and practice what they believe to be functional inequality. . . [S]ome complementarians would have no problem working for a female boss, complementarian wives work outside of the home, some as employees and some even as employers or in positions above men. Some complementarian women teach, even at Christian colleges, but they may be restricted from teaching doctrine. It seems like SOME complementarians really do believe in in a more functional and restricted inequality.
So the question is, if I have no problem with "functional inequality," (such as exists between a boss and an employee, related to their functions or positions and not to their being), why would I have a problem with the soft complementarian position that limits male headship to the "functions" or "positions" of church and marriage, and does not support it in other areas of life?

Well, here's the problem.  I disagree that either of these are ultimately about function or position just because they're limited to the marriage relationship or within the church. A woman is not under authority in marriage or restricted in the church because she's married or because she's a church member-- she's under authority or restricted because she's a woman. Hence her subordination is still not related to her position but to her being.

This is clear because when men become church members, they are not automatically restricted from the pastorate. In other words, the restriction from becoming a pastor is not related to one's position as a church member. It's related to one's being as a female. A man is restricted from the pastorate only by his qualifications, training and giftings. The woman is restricted even if she has the appropriate qualifications, training and giftings.

The same goes for marriage. One doesn't come under authority by getting married-- one comes under authority by being a woman who gets married.

The employer-employee situation is easy to distinguish from these.  Either a woman or a man may be an employee or a boss in an employment relationship. The difference is in the position, not in one's being when entering the employment relationship.

Soft complementarianism still says the woman must be subordinate in these two areas-- the church and the home-- without exceptions.  So the equality it grants women in business and politics does not negate the implication of her being-related lack of authority in the home and church.  Although her subordination is limited to those two situations, within those situations it still applies across the board and is related to the woman's being within the function, not to the function itself.

So since this is ultimately about being and not function, the question is why a woman's being would be subordinated in these two areas.  If not because of her essential nature, then why?

What does it say about women when you insist that they are functionally equal only in the more external worlds of business and politics, but in their intimate personal and spiritual lives they are subordinate?  Are you saying something, intentionally or not, about the personal and spiritual nature of women?  Or if you still insist this is not about women's nature, are you maybe saying something unintentional about the nature of the God who would so subordinate her?

I addressed this question some time back in my blog post entitled  "But That's What the Bible Says":
Either women are not equal to men, because God created them with a certain lack of authority over themselves, or ability to lead others, that men do not lack. And this lack is intrinsic to womanhood, while any lack a particular man may have in the area of leadership, is simply an individual characteristic, not intrinsic to his manhood. This makes women, in their essence as women, inferior to men.

Or women are equal to men, but God simply decided that women, because they are women, despite lacking nothing that He gave men for authority over themselves or leadership of others, may not use that authority or leadership. In other words, they are to be under male authority even though God did not design them or create them to be suited for being under male authority. This makes God, in His essence, arbitrary and unjust. He makes rules without good reasons.
You see, you can't tie the fundamentally unequal characteristics of authority to one group and subordination to another group, based on something like the sexes (which people are born with and have no control over), without rendering them as groups unequal.  If you tie the characteristic to the group's very nature (as CBMW does), then you deny the equality of that group in any real sense at all.  But if you tie the characteristic to the group functionally, as soft complementarianism does, even though you say the groups are equal by nature and there is no difference in the group's ability, as a group, to perform the function-- then you have no justifiable basis for the unequal treatment. And if you then claim this unjustifiable, unequal treatment is from God-- you have turned God into something you never intended.  "Because God said so" doesn't exactly glorify God.

Dividing humanity into two subsets based on their chromosomes, and then giving each entire subset a different and unequal status, results in a class system.  If a woman must be under male authority in the church and in the home because she's a woman, then regardless of what she can do in other areas of life, she's in a lower class-- just one with a few less restrictions than the CBMW would impose.

Jesus did not come to enforce a class system. He came to teach mutual service and that "the last shall be first." (Matthew 20:16)

So why am I so angry with the CBMW and not with soft complementarians?

Because soft complementarians, in treating women's inequality as functional and limited, do avoid in practice the harmful and degrading view of womanhood as intrinsically subordinate, as espoused by the CBMW. Soft complementarians do often unconsciously act on the unspoken (and un-faced-up-to) implications of their view in a certain paternalism towards women-- but because they acknowledge that woman are able to lead men at least in the public sphere, they do usually truly respect the strengths, talents and giftings of women.

Also, when soft complementarian men follow the biblical admonitions to love and serve their wives, they often end up, instead of giving lip-service to equality, giving lip-service to headship. A soft complementarian couple may claim the man is the "head," but in practical day-to-day living they function as equals, with the man taking very seriously his duty to serve his wife and put her needs first.  In short, I think they end up where Paul's teaching to first-century patriarchal marriages intended to lead them-- each partner focusing on serving the other, in mutual submission (see Eph. 5:21), without worrying about who was in charge.

Ultimately, "equal but subordinate" as a view of women doesn't work.  It is self-contradictory whether viewed in terms of being or of function-- it's simply more dangerous to women when viewed in terms of being.  In marriage, soft complementarians usually end up acknowledging a watered-down version in theory, while ignoring it in practice.  But the best way to deal with the concept "equal but subordinate" is simply to scrap it.


Eileen said...

In her book, "Good News For Women," Rebecca Groothuis makes this same argument brilliantly. Sadly, she has struggled with health problems for years and is currently rapidly declining. Her book is one of the best written on this subject, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

You said, "Either women are not equal to men, because God created them with a certain lack of authority over themselves, or ability to lead others, that men do not lack. And this lack is intrinsic to womanhood, while any lack a particular man may have in the area of leadership, is simply an individual characteristic, not intrinsic to his manhood. This makes women, in their essence as women, inferior to men."

In the physical world there differences between men and women and to continue a culture or religion children need to be born. Birthing new images of God, if you will, is an inherent characteristic of "womanhood", and one most cultures value by necessity to continue themselves and their culture. From what I can tell, becoming a woman is a big part of 'being' woman. But with men, it is different. Men become men and prove themselves to men (and women) that they are men by their behavior, what they do and the roles they define themselves with.

It is more that men are men by their functions and roles and what they do. And it may possible that men can, at the very least, lead other men in ways women can't because of differences. It appears to me that women already tend to have a more community experience together than men have.

Men have male things they do 'only' together to bond to learn roles, duties, hierarchy, competition/individualism between themselves (and today, to some degree, men having their own spheres is seen as sexist and wrong).

By virtue of difference like this, and other such things which I do not have time to address, I think the notion of male and female equality to be an abstraction. Such abstraction lends it itself more to the essence of equality between genders is in love, rather than legalistic weighing of scales of equality. Being equal in love, and the differences men have from women, such as being defined and valued as men for their gender roles and what they do, maybe ought to be considered more.

This may not appear to relate to your topic but you said, "....And this lack is intrinsic to womanhood, while any lack a particular man may have in the area of leadership, is simply an individual characteristic, not intrinsic to his manhood.". The man's intrinsic manhood has a lot to do with what he does and his role as a man, more so than simply in terms of being a man. When men do not have clearer roles they may not be able to experience their "manhood" simply from being a man.

Just thought I would throw that out there.

rach.h.davis said...

Wordgazer, I really liked your point about how soft complementarianism often leads to functional egalitarianism with lip service to headship.

I liked this comment because it's revealing of how the complementarian movement as a whole isn't one unified body. I've heard some "hard comp" pastors say exactly what you just said, and actually lament that more marriages aren't functionally complementarian. They've called for conservative husbands to stop letting relationships grow so equal in function.

By the way, I'm not meaning to say that just because a group of people (like complementarians) aren't totally unified in their view, they're automatically wrong. I just think it's important to keep in mind because the comp movement often speaks as though it has the power of one unified movement, and it's good to be reminded that this isn't the case.

heather said...

Great! ...I wish there were an option to like it on Feb instead of just +1 on Google

heather said...

Fb not feb

Kristen said...

Eileen, I have not read Ms. Groothuis' book, though I have read excerpts from it. Interestingly, I took a class from her husband when he was a grad student at Univ. of Oregon, before he got married. I was sorry to hear of her health problems.

Anonymous, I agree that men often feel the need to prove themselves to be men, whereas women don't. However, this is not part of the nature of manhood either, but is how young men are socialized to strive for "real manhood" as a gender mystique. Women used to have similar "true womanhood" gender mystique, but have abandoned it over the last 50 years or so. I have a blog post on Christianity and Gender Mystiques that deals with this more fully.

In any case, the physical/biological features of manhood vs. womanhood (for instance, begetting vs. birthing children)are not what is in view here. I agree that there are ways men can lead men that women can't; however, there are also ways women can lead men that men can't. What we need is to stop equating maleness with leadership and femaleness with following. It's simply not true.

Rach, good point! It's actually quite noticeable that no two groups of complementarians seems to be able to agree on exactly where and how far women should be restricted-- only that she should be restricted.

Heather, I don't know how to link Google Blogger to Facebook in terms of using FB "Likes". Maybe it can be done; I'm not sure.

Mabel said...

Awhile back, Wayne Grudem, when asked what can women do in church, came up with a list of 80+ items in a sliding scale of various degree of authority invested in those positions: from senior pastor ( more authority) to secretary (less authority). I have posted that link on facebook and many people are suprised that a founder of CBMW could not draw the line in the sand as to what women can or cannot do in church. I recently heard that CBMW has removed the link. Even with the top "theologian" of CBMW, it is not clear what "complementarian" means, just that it sounds neutral, which it is not. I personally call them hierarchal complementarians.

Donald Johnson said...

Grudem tries to have his cake and eat it too by claiming the gender verses are clear but are also not clear. What kind of interpretation is that? Their arguments are examples of Orwellian doublespeak such as being equal but not equal.

Anonymous said...

I also appreciate your point that soft complementarians actually end up with egalitarian marriages. That's what happened to us. We were taught one way to which we paid lip service until it became abundantly clear to us that we weren't living what we were saying, nor did we want to.

It's not rocket science.

Tega said...

To Anonymous,
Maybe what the problem is, is allowing men be defined by what they do..., if that's what it takes to be a man.

Christ's coming challenges us to radically examine and 'change' our cultural and worldly mindsets. So just because men are expected/trained to be men by fulfilling certain roles/tasks/etc., which subsequently lead to imposing these roles as proofs of inequality, doesn't make it right.

If men are men because of roles they fulfill, what then should we say of women who fulfill these roles? For example, does a woman become a man, because she fulfills the role of father in a single parent home? Do women become men, because they hold positions of leadership, execute skills and abilities that ordinarily were reserved as men's fields?

No, we cannot define equality based on task, but rather on the innate equality created by God. The existing social inequality has no ontological basis, but rather social, and comes directly under the injustices/inequalities/etc., among humans that Jesus came to fix. 'If' Jesus is in the picture, things 'ought to be different.' Thus we cannot argue inequality on any level, while mentioning Christ's work in humanity in the same breath.

For the sake of peace in the home and to prevent revolutional wars, I have often preached/taught women's backing down to allow peace. But, that's because one is up against a whole 'world' structure/mindset of 'male'superiority and I don't see it doing marriage any good to take up arms. Nevertheless, within the community of Christ, we have a responsibility to undo the 'male super ego' world mindset. Otherwise, we cannot truly speak of God's 'love' to all humanity.

Cynthia Kunsman said...

Guess what, Kristen.

The Christian Newswire refused to issue our press release about the petition.

You can get the scoop here if you're interested:

Thank you so much for supporting the effort. It means so much!

Kristen said...

Is the Christian Newswire supposed to be taking sides and refusing to report one side? Hmmm. I'm not really surprised, though.