Monday, February 13, 2012

Focusing on can rather than can't

Few discussions in the church generate more heat and less light than gender discussions. As a topic it is heavily influenced by our prevailing culture which makes it doubly difficult to have a calm discussion. This is tragic because it is an important topic to understand, both from an interpretive standpoint (for example why Jesus speaking to the woman at the well was so scandalous) and from the standpoint of practice in the church and in the family. It is easy for me to point the finger at those who I believe are influenced by the prevailing feminism of the day and are trying to force those contemporary cultural mores into the Scripture. I make no apology for that but I also recognize that on our end those holding to and advocating for a more traditional understanding of gender roles have done a pretty poor job of approaching a topic that carries so much cultural and emotional baggage. Part of the problem has been that we somehow have ended up with Mark Driscoll as the most visible figure in the complementarian camp. That certainly doesn’t help especially given the serious scholars and academic work that has been done by less…flashy…spokesmen, men like Wayne Grudem and John Piper. The other problem, and the one that I think is far more crucial, is the way the issue has been framed.

I think we have gone the wrong way by focusing on what women can't do instead of encouraging them in what they are called to do. Most arguments about gender roles, complementarianism vs egalitarianism, patriarchy vs Christian feminism, whatever you call it focus on the negatives and go like this:

- Women can't be elders. Yes they can!
- Women can't teach men. Yes they can!
- Women are to be silent in church. No they aren't!
- Wives are to submit to their husbands as to the Lord. No they aren’t!

Round and around we go, getting angrier and more strident as we do. Whether these are valid and applicable, and I believe they are, it turns discussion on gender to the negative leaving complementarians saying "You cannot" and egalitarians saying "Sure you can!". The debate centers around restrictions on what the church, wrongly, assumes to be crucial functions like "preaching" and often ignores what women are called to do which tend to be overwhelmingly what the Bible values most highly, functions like serving and caring for others.

Let's face it, no one likes to be told what they can't do.

Conversely, telling someone what they want to hear is always easier but it is rarely helpful.

Our sisters don’t need us to tell them what they can’t do as much as they need us to support and encourage and equip them to fulfill the noble calling of being a wife and mother. This requires two steps.

The first is kind of easy, at least compared to the second….

We as men in the church absolutely need to equip and encourage our sisters who are married in their calling as wives and mothers. The Bible speaks both positively about what women are called to, whether through example (like Mary anointing the feet of Jesus with oil and wiping His feet with her hair) and through exhortation (Titus 2:3-5; 1 Peter 3:1-6 ). There is a virtually unlimited need for the sort of service and ministry that women are not only called to but inarguably best suited for. We don’t need more people to give sermons or lead worship music or teach Sunday school. There is plenty of that already going on. We do need more serving of others, more loving homes, more mentoring of younger women by older women. This is not true just for our sisters who are already married with children. We also need to prepare our daughters and other unmarried sisters for this calling, not by sitting around pining for a husband but by ministering in and out of the Body in the ways that honor God and their calling as women and sisters in Christ. Being engaged in service and ministry before marriage is some of the best training to be a wife and mother that serves and ministers later on.

The second step is much harder, at least for me. The church desperately needs for men to step up so women don't have to fill in the gaps. That doesn’t involve watching mixed martial arts on pay-per-view, just FYI. I doubt that outside of a few ideologues who have an agenda to pursue that you would find many wives who don’t wish that their husbands would step up more in the church and the home. I fail at this on a regular basis and I am guessing most other men do as well. For the complementarian position to work, both sides need to be complementing the other and this often is an unbalanced situation where wives carry the lions share of the relationship.

If men would do a better job of encouraging women in their calling and serving as God has called them to do, I think a lot of the squabbling over gender roles would go away. Sure there are always going to be those who have a book to sell but among the "regular" folsk I think the debate would simmer down. A properly functioning, complementary and balanced marriage is one of the best witnesses to the world we have and the very best atmosphere for raising children but that sort of marriage won’t happen on its own. It is not enough and is in fact disingenuous to pound the pulpit about uppity women if we are not going to do everything we can as husbands to encourage our wives and rise to the challenge as men in our own callings.

I am not going to stop writing on this topic although I am aware that it rubs a lot of people who read my blog the wrong way. It is a subject that gets a lot of ink in the New Testament and that is reason enough for us to study it humbly and seek to apply what the New Testament teaches us consistently. I am going to try to spend more time focused on what our sisters are called to rather than what they are restricted from. I have made my position on the boundaries around gender roles very clear and now I need to spend more time working through how we equip women to serve in the vital ways that they have been uniquely called.

Don’t let anyone tell you that “just” being a wife and mother is something to be ashamed of or that you need to "do more" to be a valuable part of the Body of Christ. As I said, we have plenty of “preachers” in the church but we can never have enough wives and mothers carrying out that unique ministry.


Arlan said...

This is a subject where I am sitting on the fence. That particular seat is not comfortable over the long term so I wouldn't mind being talked off to one side or the other.

I'd like to see you phrase your complementarian position in broader terms. I'm inclined to think that you can. You've handled enough topics with an able sense of context and detail I wouldn't expect you to broad-brush your way past this one.

I haven't read all of your earlier essays on this topic, but I'm not able to pick up the kind of consideration I'm sure you've made from the passing comments here.

"We as men in the church absolutely need to equip and encourage our sisters who are married in their calling as wives and mothers." This leaves the impression that those two roles are the only roles women can have. Sure, I agree these are vital (literally life-giving) roles and that we should encourage such. And yes, you have made a parallel statement that men need encouragement to be better husbands and fathers. But a husband/father role is always treated as one aspect of a man's total character, not a man's total identity.

I can't tell whether you meant to provide different scopes to the identity of men and women or if I am merely and ungraciously "reading in" context from other authors. I'm inviting your clarification, if you would please.

In addition to preparing to be husbands and fathers, men are exhorted to train to be kings and soldiers and farmers and engineers and shrewd businessmen and who knows what else. And I agree with the critique that says "Why should women want to be good at the worthless things men are supposedly good at doing?" That is, I see no great urgency for women to be "good" at everything men are "good" at. And sure, women make great wives and mothers.

But complementarianism often seems to reduce, under critical scrutiny, to "Left foot complementarianism" (my own phrase coined on the spot): Gee, that left foot sure does complement the body! Nothing can do quite what the left foot does! Boy we sure would miss it if we didn't have it!

And that's all true. I'm glad God gave us left feet. But it's inadequate to the spirit of completmentarianism, the idea that there are two equal halves to the human equation. And no, I don't mean identical.

But usually when I read complementarian discourses on the virtues and necessity of women, it reads like a microscopic view of women compared to a macroscopic view of men: more detail is applied to the role of women to disguise the fact that they have less scope.

I accept the biological differences. I realize bizarre exceptions can be found/made, but I accept and agree that in God's design it takes both sexes to procreate. No problem there. But it doesn't seem nearly as valid to say that it takes both sexes to raise a child. I'm not talking about lesbian adoption or anything deviant; I just mean in the ordinary mortal course of events, plenty of mothers and fathers have been left on their own to raise their children. Would it have been better with both sexes? Sure. Lots of people would be healthier if they ate more carrots. But again, the argument for balance doesn't seem to add up to the significance it should.

Like I said, I'm not trying to pin you to any of these, I'm just trying to give you the sense of where I'm coming from with the question. Can you flesh out your understanding of complementarianism for me?

Arthur Sido said...

Arlan, I did a series a while back (probably my second least popular series after the one on the sword). Here is the intro post:

I try to walk in that series through the Biblical witness from Genesis through the New Testament and then look at the arguments on both sides of the issue.

I look at the complementarian argument in a totally different light from any other issue. The complementary nature of men and women, specifically in the marriage relationship, goes back to the very beginning and is the critical interpersonal relationship in humanity, doubly so in the church. The deviation from this complementary pattern, a deviation that sees men and women as essentially interchangeable parts, makes a mockery of what I believe is God’s clear creative intent in making men and women and further what we see unfold in Scripture from the creation account to the fall up to the cross and looking forward to eternity.

For purposes of my blog, I try to avoid the hypothetical and focus on the principle. Certainly there are families where the dad stays home and mom works, I have a good friend who does just that and it works out well. Generally speaking, women are more suited to caring and nurturing children. That is not sexist, it is just reality. Women should be encouraged to embrace the way God has made them and be equipped to serve in that capacity, ideally by older women who have experience in raising children (Titus 2:3-5) just as men are called to imitate older and more mature men as elders precisely because of the way they lead their home. When men abdicate that calling and women are left to fill in, we end up with churches full of disengaged or absent men and women who are trying to carry the load as both mother and father.