Saturday, May 23, 2009

The "CAN'T" Chant of Complementarianism

“According to the patriarchal paradigm, women do have their own uniquely feminine activities not shared by men—for example, bearing and rearing their young and being submissive and obedient to the master of the home…certainly, it is a privilege and joy for women to bear and rear children. The point is not to DIMINISH the value of motherhood but to note that while childbearing and nursing are distinctively FEMALE capabilities, they are not, in and of themselves, among the distinctively HUMAN capabilities…

Patriarchal men, for their part, govern their homes and churches—making decisions, teaching the whole body of believers, ascertaining and making final determinations of God’s will for their families—and women do not. Furthermore, women COULD bear authority and responsibilitiy for these things EQUALLY WITH MEN, but they do not because they are not permitted to do so. Men, by contrast, do not bear or nurse children, simply because THEY ARE NOT ABLE TO DO SO. The one is the ‘CAN’T’ of permission denied; the other is the ‘CAN’T’ of personal inability. This is not a case of equally dividing different opportunities and abilities between the sexes” (“Discovering Biblical Equality,” page 309).

I am still diving into Rebecca Groothuis’s chapter on “Equal in Being, Unequal in Role: The Logic of Woman’s Subordination.” Today’s post will tackle the above quote.
What is it that makes people look at women as just wives and mothers? As I’ve stated in the last two posts, Genesis 1:26-28 tells us that man AND woman are created in the image of God, and bear His likeness. The last post talked about the Declaration of Independence, that Thomas Jefferson believed “all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain UNALIENABLE rights…” If all men ARE created equal, and man and woman are created equal, then surely, this means that both man and woman have equal intellectual capabilities and should have equal opportunity to exercise them. Even in cases of differing intellectual capability, such as a group of students in a classroom, the students still deserve to have the same opportunity for success (even if one takes it and the other doesn’t).

Most people will affirm that everyone deserves the opportunity to prove their abilities. When we apply for jobs, we believe that we deserve the same courtesy for the job as EVERY OTHER APPLICANT. We deserve an interview for the same amount of time as the other applicants, and we deserve the same respect and consideration for the job as the other applicants. But imagine walking into a job interview and being told that, while you have all the qualifications for the post and that your resume is impressive, you still won’t get the job because…YOU’RE A WOMAN?

Does that really make sense? No—of course it doesn’t!! And yet, when we get to the church, suddenly, it becomes OKAY to discriminate in this manner. We tell women what they can and can’t do, while the men get to do EVERYTHING they could ever imagine doing.

And this is where Groothuis’s above statement rings true. Somewhere along the way, the church has taken 1 Timothy 2 out of context and told women that they can only be wives and mothers. But is this consistent with Scripture? What are we to do with other passages of Scripture that are in stark contrast with the complementarian interpretation of 1 Timothy 2? I’ll provide an example:

“I want you to be without concerns…an unmarried woman or a virgin is concerned about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the things of the world—how she may please her husband…now I am saying this for your own benefit, not to put a restraint on you, but because of what is proper, and SO THAT YOU MAY BE DEVOTED TO THE LORD WITHOUT DISTRACTION” (1 Cor. 7:32, 34-35, Holman Christian Standard Bible).

What about the passage of 1 Corinthians 7? Paul clearly contrasts the SINGLE woman and the MARRIED woman—and says that the single woman does better to remain in that state, since she can be fully devoted to the Lord without having split loyalty between a mate and her God. If Paul is here entertaining the possibility of a woman remaining single, then on what authority do great theologians and the Body of Christ tell women that they were only made for the kitchen and nursery?

So if Paul is talking to women about the duties of mother and wife, then he must be talking to MARRIED women about fulfilling their responsibilities. I’ll print the 1 Timothy 2 text here so that you can read it for yourself:

“A woman should learn in silence with full submission. I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead, she is to be silent. For Adam was created first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and transgressed. But she will be SAVED THROUGH CHILDBEARING, if she continues in faith, love, holiness, with good sense” (1 Tim. 2:11-15, HCSB).

A good principle for biblical interpretation is that Scripture is not contradictory in anything it says. Therefore, if two passages “appear” to be at odds, one is to be interpreted IN LIGHT OF the other. Since a single woman having children out of wedlock would be sin, we can assume that 1 Tim. 2 should be interpreted IN LIGHT OF or THROUGH the passage of 1 Corinthians 7.

Therefore, if a woman is married, her first duties are to the home. But if a woman is single, then what is she supposed to do? She is to follow the words of 1 Corinthians 7—be concerned about pleasing the Lord, in whatever capacities God allows her. I have further evidence that 1 Tim. 2 is to be interpreted by 1 Corinthians 7. The evidence is found in the next chapter, 1 Timothy 3:

“Wives, too, must be worthy of respect, not slanderers, SELF-CONTROLLED, FAITHFUL IN EVERYTHING” (1 Tim. 3:11, HCSB).

In 1 Timothy 2, Paul has already talked to the women about dressing in “modest apparel,” which involved treating themselves with respect. They had to treat themselves with respect to receive it from others. But then, Paul mentions the qualifications at the end: “self-controlled” and “faithful in everything.” Paul stated in chapter 2 that the women were to continue in “faith, love, and holiness, with self-control” (other translations render the words “good sense” with “self-control”). Finally, Paul tells the women to be “faithful in everything.” This seems to be what Paul is preoccupied with most—the faithfulness of the women to their household responsibilities. We also see this later in the epistle when Paul writes:
“Thefore, I want younger women to marry, have children, MANAGE their households, and give the adversary no opportunity to accuse us. For some have already turned away to follow Satan” (1 Tim.5:14-15, HCSB).

The word for “women” here is actually widows. The context of the passage shows us that Paul is contrasting the older widows from the younger ones. This is why an age to enroll widows on a church list is mentioned (5:9).

Why would Paul list such instructions to the younger widows? Because “some have already turned away to follow Satan.” Some widows have already abandoned the faith because of their lack of self-control. The lack of self-control can be seen in the same chapter of the epistle:

“At the same time they also LEARN TO BE IDLE, going from house to house; they are not only idle, but also are GOSSIPS and BUSYBODIES, saying things they shouldn’t say” (1 Tim. 5:13, HCSB).

These women are out of control. They have nothing to do, and all they can think of to keep them busy is to engage in all sorts of troublemaking. Paul’s instructions to them, then, are to keep them busy in that which is godly so they won’t fall prey to Satan’s devices. He is exhorting them to cling to their faith with all they’ve got—looking at the tragic examples of those who’ve already strayed from their faith. The text in the Greek for 1 Tim. 5:15 says that some younger widows have already “run out behind Satan.” They have left Christ and become followers of Satan.

I think that improper study of Scripture has contributed to the church’s view of women as just wives and mothers. As a result, the church has created what I call a sort of “Biological Calvinism,” a thought that only men are BIOLOGICALLY FITTED to lead. Read the words of Raymond Ortlund:

“A man, JUST BY VIRTUE OF HIS MANHOOD, is called to LEAD for God. A woman, JUST BY VIRTUE OF HER WOMANHOOD, is called to HELP for God” (quoted by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, “Discovering Biblical Equality,” page 310).

The argument of Ortlund and complementarianism itself is that women are biologically inferior to men. I’ll set up the syllogism for all to see:

I. Manhood is the gift of leadership.
II. Women do not possess manhood, but womanhood.
III. Therefore, women are not fit for leadership.

Inherent within manhood is the “RIGHT” to lead, so a woman, by being female, does not have the right to lead (according to complementarianism). It is, in essence, an argument for the biological inferiority and spiritual inferiority of women.
The church’s “CAN’T” Chant of Complementarianism has held women down for too long. If you ask me, it’s time to “march around the walls” and watch them crumble…


  1. Deidre:

    This presentation strikes me as a biblical and sensible solution to the “gender roles” crisis. Contrary to the patriarchal-complementarian (PC) perspective, gender equality and gender roles can readily coexist in real life! Men and women do have different roles. Married women with children are responsible to manage their homes. That is their primary “role.” This role is distinctive of women and not of men. However, this role is logistical, not ontological. It follows from the practical, not from the ideological. Therefore, it does not entail woman’s ontological subordination to man, as does the standard PC view. Nor does it apply to all women, but only to women with husband and children at home. Thus it is not “just by virtue of her womanhood” (to quote Ray Ortlund) that a woman must tend her home, but also by virtue of her family’s need for her. This role does not follow from a unilateral mandate that states (but not by Scripture!) that God created womanhood to be under the spiritual authority of manhood. Rather, it arises out of practical need and biblical exhortation. Such a view is neither feminist (actual feminists would be horrified by such a set-up), nor patriarchal (it does not require that woman qua woman be subordinate to man’s authority over her). Yes, this could be a biblical and sensible solution to the “gender roles” controversy.

    What do you think?

  2. Dear Mrs. Groothius:

    It turns out that this whole paradox could have been easily avoided by understanding that God delegates authority by virtue of the nature of the relation and function in question. If it were 'just by virtue of her womanhood' that a woman is called to be subservient and subordinate, given enough time and recollection, I can prove that this would require EVERY individual woman to be ONTOLOGICALLY INFERIOR to EVERY individual man, and Mary Astell in 1711, in England, herself wrote about the pernicious consequences: it would be sin in ANY woman to have dominion over ANY man, and the greatest Queen ought not to COMMAND, but to OBEY her footman {a footman is a kind of menial manservant}, and no municipal laws or customs of the ages, however ancient and time-honored or of long consecutive continuance, can overturn God's Divine Order of Creation of the Sexes, which is a part of the Law of Nature, and the greatest reigns of queens in England would be wicked violations of the Law of Nature and the Moral Law of God. The logical conclusion is in fact, the Salique Law" --- which is any sort of law which forbids DE JURE any woman to reign or inherit the throne. Any Salique Law is contrary to the English Common Law. The only solution to this predicament is if God delegates authority by virtue of the nature of the relation and function in question and not just sexual essence alone.


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