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The Evangelical Gender Crack-Up

July 14th, 2016 | 9 min read

By Jake Meador

Though it (rightly) hasn't been discussed as much as the actual trinitarian issues themselves, the current trinitarian debate does suggest some interesting things about how evangelicals are beginning to approach questions of gender. The consensus that has existed amongst most conservative evangelicals for some time is beginning to fracture—and in more than one direction.

Problem 1: Has "complementarianism" outlived its usefulness?

As I learned only recently (thanks to Hannah Anderson and Wendy Alsup), the term "complementarianism" only goes back to the mid 80s and the founding of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. As a term, it was intended to do two things: First, provide a useful label for the theological position that rejected women's ordination and second, explain the differences between men and women using positive, constructive terminology. Essentially it seems to have been intended as a short-hand for the Danvers Statement, a document that holds up quite well even all these years later.

So far as it goes, we can probably say that complementarianism served its intended purpose. Women's ordination is a dead issue in much of American evangelicalism, which is highly unusual within the global context of evangelical Christianity. (UPDATE: If you're Anglican or non-denominational don't yell at me in the comments. Ted Olson, Betsy Howard, and Matt Miller have already corrected me on this. Duly noted. In these contexts "complementarian" is still useful, I gather. I was thinking primarily of the PCA and SBC when saying this as well as larger non-denominational networks like Acts 29.) Further, the notion that the differences between men and women are not to be dismissed but are instead complementary to one another and meant for the good of men and women alike is deeply familiar to most evangelicals. So far so good.

But if that battle is won, does the term still have value? The concept of complementarianism was used primarily to combat egalitarianism within evangelicalism. Well, the egalitarians have mostly all latched on to post-emergent liberalism or mainline Protestantism. Now what?

The answer, for the CBMW organization at least, has been to pivot in a more explicitly culture warrior direction. But just as Focus on the Family became less successful as it pivoted in a more explicitly culture warrior direction, so too has CBMW, I think. The problem is likely that shifting away from their initial, narrowly defined brief to a broader agenda has taken them into domains that parachurch ministries will struggle to address effectively and that they in particular are not cut out to address. Strachan's forays into home economics have been clumsy. Ware and Grudem's trinitarian theology has been disastrous.

Here it is perhaps worth noting that the CBMW leadership comes from predominantly free church traditions. The only big name still attached to the organization that isn't from such a tradition is Ligon Duncan. That said, southern Presbyterianism has its own odd congregationalist tendencies. It is entirely possible that CBMW's failings here weren't a function of individuals failing, but were more-or-less inevitable, regardless of who was in leadership. Put another way, the problems they've had in recent years may have more to do with the fact that they're trying to address issues best handled by local churches and denominations, but that their own ecclesiological approach makes it much more difficult to address well—thus the parachurch shift, and thus the problems.

Problem 2: The theological arguments are disintegrating before our eyes.

It'd be easy here to simply harp on the trinitarian question. After all, in the past month Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, the two preeminent theologians of the movement, have both been exposed by the careful criticisms of their fellow evangelicals. At this point it is clear that Ware and Grudem are, at best, sub-Nicean—and the quotes in Ware's 2005 book on the trinity suggest that this is an exceedingly generous description.

But to make the critique on these grounds is to actually stop short. One driving force behind the trinitarian debate is the biblicism implied by Ware and Grudem's repeated marginalization of the creeds and traditional Christian dogmatic reflection on the trinity. One of the movement's great problems in recent years has been that they want to advance arguments about any number of issues where they don't have clear biblical warrant to do so. John Piper's comments about women police officers are one famous example of this, but there are others as well. The complementarians (rightly) want to understand how our existence as male and female is shaped by creational norms, but they struggle to do that well due to their biblicism. The Bible doesn't offer clear teaching on something like women police officers or women CEOs. Instead, you need to proceed cautiously and reason from creational norms, as Paul does in 1 Timothy, amongst other places. But the complementarian movement has, in my experience (and correct me if I'm wrong!), been averse to these sorts of natural law arguments.

At the end of the day, these thinkers are biblicists, but they are biblicists who want to be able to say a great deal more than the Bible explicitly authorizes them to say. Carl Trueman and Aimee Byrd were amongst the first to call foul on this approach, but if they hadn't done it, someone else would have. A strict biblicism simply won't allow you to do all the things that many complementarians want to do. The result of this problem can only be bizarre theological innovation and exegetical gymnastics.

Problem 3: Traditional evangelical discussion of gender roles ignores questions of home economy.

This brings us to the third issue and what may well be the issue that our gender problems hinge on: As best I can tell (and, again, please correct me if I'm mistaken) the traditional voices behind complementarianism as a movement have been largely silent on the question of home economic orders. They've tried, quite clumsily, to address the issue—thus Strachan's "man fail" remark. But they've never to my knowledge gone beyond name-calling on this enormously important issue.

The deepest practical problem facing many evangelicals who wish to apply biblical norms on gender issues to their home-life is economic rather than theological or philosophical. Many younger evangelicals are more-or-less comfortable with the basic ideas that ordination should be limited to men and that the differences between the sexes should be seen as complementary rather than non-existent. Where CBMW has gone wrong is in attempting to apply these truths in a broader way without attending to the economic questions that make applying those truths so difficult.

As I have noted before, we have had a kind of "same-sex" marriage for 50+ years in as much as the structures and rhythms of American family life have flattened distinctions between the sexes. I can only hope that if I link this essay often enough, perhaps evangelicals will read it. Here is Wendell Berry writing in the early 1990s in his essay "Feminism, the Body, and the Machine."

Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate “relationship” involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided. During their understandably temporary association, the “married” couple will typically consume a large quantity of merchandise and a large portion of each other.

The modern household is the place where the consumptive couple do their consuming. Nothing productive is done there. Such work as is done there is done at the expense of the resident couple or family, and to the profit of suppliers of energy and household technology. For entertainment, the inmates consume television or purchase other consumable diversion elsewhere.

Many complementarians, unfortunately, seems to be of the opinion that simply setting the clock back 10 years to the 1950s is a solution: Women should stay at home and manage the house while men go out into the world and earn a living. But this is no solution either.

In the first place, such a lifestyle will be inaccessible to many evangelical families for the simple reason that it is difficult to support a family on a single spouse's income in many cities. Additionally, in a number of cases the wife will actually be better positioned to make a living wage in this economy anyway. If you're the husband and you teach in a local public school and your wife is a doctor, simply threatening the husband with various obnoxious epithets will do nothing to address the basic economic facts facing that family.

Second, accepting the 1950s economic order completely fails to address the fundamental problem here, which is the redefinition of the home in the post-war economy. The 1950s economic order is no less anti-Christian than the post-1960s order in that both orders treat the home as no more than a consumption hub with all the real "productive work" happening outside the domestic sphere. In both cases, the economies assume a deeply capitalistic understanding of the home which has, given time to work itself out, been disastrous for the traditional family and the very idea of "home." It should be no surprise, then, that many stay-at-home parents find domestic work dull and tedious—our economy is designed to make it so in order to incentivize them to go out and work in the world of capitalism, which is where the real "important" work is happening. (If this also forces them to outsource the care of their children to a daycare, even better. Then the raising of children can also be reduced to a function of the capitalist marketplace and their training to one day become servants of that economy can begin even sooner.)

As Berry has noted, once the home ceased to be economically productive, it ceased to be a place of dignifying work. The old ideas of a home economy in which thrift was a primary measure of the work done in it has been replaced by the new idea of home as a consumption center in which convenience is the primary measure of the work done in it. What was once a place of good, dignifying work is now a place of tasks that cannot be avoided but should be completed in the hastiest, most slapdash way possible. It should not surprise us that people would wish to be liberated from such a place.

What is needed from complementarians, then, is not simply a grab bag of biblical texts, but a fairly radical critique of the entire post-war capitalist economy in America and a deep understanding of more family-friendly alternative economic models that once again make the home a place of good and productive work. Put another way, we cannot simply talk about marriage and the sexes and gender roles; we must talk about the place where those things are acted out. That, in turn, means we must recognize the ways that industrialism has destroyed the habitat in which families thrive and the ways in which evangelicals have been complicit in this desecration. This sort of critique, unfortunately, is absent from evangelical complementarian literature.

Conclusion

The future of evangelical reflection on gender may or may not have any use for the label "complementarian." That said, we must say that the complementarian movement did two important things in that it mostly resolved the ordination question and re-introduced the basic idea that the differences between the sexes are both real and good. Ultimately, we must be thankful for the good work this movement has done. The church would be worse off today if it were not for the valuable work the complementarians have been doing for the past 30 years.

However, if the women's ordination issue is largely resolved within evangelicalism and the basic principle of comlpementarianism is broadly internalized, it is not clear to me that the complementarians and CBMW are cut out to address the bigger questions facing us today.

The chief questions facing evangelicals concerned with living out biblical teachings on gender are going to be questions like:

  • What is the significance of nature and created order in understanding the differences between the sexes? (Put another way, we will need to become comfortable with philosophical and natural law arguments that use biblical principles as a foundation, rather than relying on the ham-handed biblicism that has often characterized complementarianism. The biblicism of Trueman and Byrd is mistaken, but it is at least more consistent than the biblicism of the CBMW crowd.)
  • How can Christian families create sustainable home economies that involve both husband and wife in the work of building a home together?
  • How can churches support families wishing to create such home economies?

It's possible that the complementarian label can be adapted to refer to Christians concerned with these questions. In a dream scenario, the leaders of the complementarian movement themselves would be playing a major role in addressing these issues. They have the name recognition, the institutional structure, and the experience that makes them uniquely suited to handling these things effectively. Hopefully, then, they can move beyond their biblicism and do the work needed to address these new questions facing evangelicals.

In any event, our most pressing need is to sort out this trinitarian business, which almost certainly will require some retractions from Dr. Ware. We'll then need to move on to address the gender questions separate from the trinitarian debate and with more attention paid to the economic problems facing Christian families. In an ideal world, the complementarians and their evangelical critics will do this together.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).