On Complementarianism and Modernism

Pre-script: This post is a bit unusual for this blog, which I intend to focus for the most part on particular works rather than broad issues. However, this post is an impromptu and tentative articulation of a lot of things I’ve been reading about and thinking about lately. Relevant works include Passage to Modernity by Louis Dupre, The One, The Three, and the Many by Colin Gunton, Personal Knowledge by Michael Polanyi, After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre, and several works by bioethicist Gilbert Meilaender.

There are several reasons why the complementarian/egalitarian controversy cannot be settled simply by pointing to a few Bible verses. Of course, the Bible is the beginning of a Christian approach to life, but our understanding and application of the Bible does not stop with the final period of our proof text. Popular complementarians seem to me to be fixated on a few specific issues – women pastors, women in the army, etc. These issues are often discussed in isolation without an appreciation for the broader social and intellectual context, which would be substantially changed if the logical consequences of complementarianism were embraced.

Complementarians hold that men and women are “equal in essence but different in function.” However, since the Enlightenment (and a wee bit before), ontological categories have been suppressed in favor of functional ones. You are what you do. You are defined by your function. You are valued by your performance. We know longer look at things, people or inanimate objects, and inquire into the essence that lies mysteriously “beneath” the matter. Rather, reality consists almost exclusively (or for some, entirely exclusively) of atomic data, matter in motion. This is the legacy of the scientific revolution’s massive shift from privileging teleological causality to enthroning efficient causality. So, a thoroughgoing complementarianism repudiates this equation of being with function, and will consequently repudiate the modern view of self.

Furthermore, the very notion of personhood, since the Enlightenment, carries the ideas of autonomy and self-creativity. In the ancient world, biblical and non-biblical, human nature was a given. Humans were placed in the universe by God or by gods and their roles, spheres of control, and ultimate purpose were thereby circumscribed. In the Renaissance we see the first glimmers of an alternate conception of the self. Man views himself as not only a created, but a creative creature. Art is not only an imitation of nature, but a recreation, a going beyond, a perfecting. Astrology wanes not because it is perceived to be irrational, but because man now thinks of himself as a being in control of his own destiny. He will impose his will on the cosmos, not vice versa. The concept of freedom, the right to make the choices that will determine one’s place in the world, even one’s identity, becomes central to the definition of a human.

The convergence of these forces can be seen in two contemporary arguments for abortion. The “personhood” argument holds that personhood consists in a number of static qualities, such as self-awareness, conciousness, and productivity. Notice how this defines persons in terms of their function – there can be humans (that is, lifeforms with identifiably human DNA) who do not qualify as persons due to a lack of certain abilities, not only in the womb but in other stages of life as well. Ontology is sacrificed to functional characteristics. The second argument, often reinforcing or reinforced by the first, is the viability argument. Briefly put, this argument recognizes the inability of the fetus to survive on its own and announces that the mother does not have an ethical responsibility provide the care that the fetus requires, especially since that care is often burdensome and dangerous. As Gilbert Meilaender has pointed out, “[The viability argument] accepts and is based upon an individualism so thoroughgoing as to suppose that we have obligations to others only if we consent to them.” Although this paragraph is simplistic and certainly not intended to be a critique of abortion, it points to how the modern conceptions of the self as functional rather than ontological and as self-creating rather than teleologically directed underlay much contemporary moral controversy.

So, to tell a modern woman that she cannot be a pastor may at first appear to be a simple statement from a Scripture text. On observation, it is much more. It is an assault upon her personhood, at least as conceived in the modern era. It is likely to be perceived a power tactic, an expression of a values system that was designed precisely to propagate the subjection of those without power. To be fair to these critics, such systems have existed and do today exist in the world. It is also an inversion of modern values. It declares that the freedom to be whoever you want to be is not, in fact, an unqualified good. There is a clash between Augustine’s definition of freedom as willing what is right and the modern naked will. The ideas that complementarianism undermines are so woven into the woof and the warp of our culture that it is difficult to imagine the consequences if Christians were to follow complementarian logic to a complete overthrow of modernism. Our legal and political systems are founded on modernist ideas of personhood and autonomy. Most likely, even our relations with spouses, parents, children, churches, and communities drink heavily from the modern well. What do we currently value as good would we lose, and what new goods would replace them?

There is another realm which would be heavily affected, and that is reason. The Biblical arguments for complementarianism may have resonated strongly with mythopoeic cultures, but they largely leave moderns puzzled. Ancient cultures, both biblical and non-biblical, believed in an underlying reason that connected all kinds of truths, mechanical and moral. So one could discern guidelines for human life and behavior from observing the order of nature or meditating on intellectual realities, such as number proportions. One of the last examples of this among self-professing moderns that I recall is Thomas Paine’s argument that the American colonies should not remain under the authority of Britain because it is unnatural for a large mass to orbit a small one.

Consider 1 Timothy 2:12-14, ESV: ” I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” Paul evidently thinks that the prior creation of Adam to Eve forms a basis for his prohibition, but this is a strange argument to modern ears even in the abstract. The idea that a particular historical event could establish a perpetual relationship between two classes, irrespective of their present consent, is emphatically denied by modern political theory, such as Thomas Paine’s response to Edmund Burke.

Another example is 1 Corinthians 11. After a very complementarian-friendly statement that the man is the head of the woman as God is the head of Christ, Paul delves into some unusual (to modern ears) argumentation. 1 Corinthians 11:7-10: “For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” There is an assertion that man is the glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. How do we know that? Because woman was made from man. Furthermore, because of that, women should cover their heads. And don’t forget about the angels.

Now, I believe in Scripture. I hold to a traditional evangelical view of inspiration. But to take these statements as simply a string of divinely inspired assertions is to miss the point. Paul was reasoning with the Corinthians. He understood this argument and expected that they would as well. He was not teaching them something new but explaining the importance of an already existing tradition. It was reasonable to him that because man is the spiritual head covering of the woman that women would acknowledge this with a physical head covering. Invisible spiritual truths and visible moral obligations go hand in hand. To do otherwise would scandalize the angels. The other argument in this chapter bears the same character. “Nature” teaches that women should have long hair, and the perception of this natural covering is supposed to lead women to recognize they need a further covering, a symbol of authority. I suspect that most moderns, including myself, are somewhat perplexed both as to how exactly nature teaches this and how women were supposed to draw that particular conclusion. All this is to illustrate that the conclusions of complementarianism cannot be divorced from the biblical argumentation which supports those conclusions and that these biblical arguments sound irrelevant, even absurd, to the modern ear.

As a life-long complementarian, then, I am beginning to grasp the immensity of the social and intellectual consequences of embracing complementarianism thoroughly. The very society that I inhabit is declared, in many ways, groundless. Foundational concepts such as the self, the meaning of freedom, and the interrelation of knowledge and reality in the cosmos are greatly modified. Until Christianity is able to articulate a holistic way through and beyond the modern era, complementarian theology will be isolated and inconsistent, detached from the broader context which can truly receive it. Complementarians will live as moderns in most ways, fighting only those battles which are seen to directly contradict explicit prohibitions in Scripture. I do not know the solution to this problem, but I am sure that it will be more comprehensive and theologically integrated than selective appeals to the Trinity and convenient proof-texts.

Post-script: I am aware that some Christians have tried to settle this issue by suggesting a return to pre-modernism. Certainly there are elements of pre-modernism that are attractive, but it does not seem possible to me simply to roll back the clock. There are elements of modern society that I very much value and would not want to give up. So, I refer to a way through the modern era, not a passage back or an escape out of it.

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Published in: on January 17, 2010 at 11:42 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. Bart Ehrman attempts to get out of these difficulties by assuming Pseudonymous authorship of the Pastorals, and tying in the 1 Corinthians passage as an insertion due to later scribal influence. I believe your observations are more in line with Scripture. Keep it coming!

    • It is interesting that some people who don’t believe in inerrancy nevertheless feel the need to tailor Scripture to their sensibilities. Sadly, evangelicals sometimes do the same. Check out Gordon Fee on 1 Cor. 14:34-35.


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