A Travelogue of the Interior

faith questions

A “perverted attack”? A difference of opinion? Or a hill to die on?


A funny thing happened the other day.

OK, maybe not so funny, but it happened.

I wrote a post ruminating on what might be an underlying dynamic contributing to the sex abuse climate extant in the conservative evangelical church at the moment. My post got re-posted at the David C Cook Facebook page and folks started to comment, some positive (agreeing or furthering the discussion) some negative (disagreeing or trying to shut it down altogether). One comment in particular called me out with this:

I have never seen such a perverted attack on the complementarian view of gender and the biblical view of marriage.”

Negative comments don’t bother me. I worked professionally in high tech for 15 years and was on the receiving end of many a negative comment — usually from men because this was high tech 20 years ago and high tech was all men — and can I just say, I love men! I love men for lots of reasons, but one reason that has to be at the top of my list of “Reasons Men Are Awesome” is that they tend to be (and yes, I am making a sweeping generalization) direct, confrontational, emotional-in-the-moment, and volcanic, meaning they blow up, say their peace (or is it piece?) and when its all over, they readjust their clothing, smooth down their hair and quite innocently ask if you want to grab a sandwich. As If Nothing Happened.  Because nothing did. We disagreed, argued about it, moved on. No meta-communicating about the process, no grudges, no social punishment. Just sandwiches.

But, as usual, I digress.

I am quite sure the fellow commenting about my perversion and attack on the Bible loves Jesus as much as I do, submits to God’s word as much as I do, and was contending for the gospel as best he can. And so I got to thinking, what is he reacting to? Why the volcanic blow up (offers of sandwiches notwithstanding).  And I think at least part of what’s happening here is that he’s picturing complementarian theology at one end of a fairly broad spectrum, and I was addressing it at the other.

Here’s where it gets sticky and I ask for help, and friends, this is a genuine inquiry. I’m not trying to advance an agenda, I am trying to understand something and need some help from thoughtful people no matter where on the issue they land today.

Is it fair to put complementarian theology on a spectrum from uber-conservative (let’s say Christian Patriarchy) to fairly liberal? What would exemplify the progressive endpoint of the spectrum? Conversely, does egalitarian theology also exist on a spectrum? If so, what might its end points be?

I and others toy with comparing the current debate about women’s roles in the home and church to the centuries-past debate about slavery, where the Bible was used on both sides of the divide toward dramatically different ends. Ultimately, the liberal/progressive reading of Scripture won.

The thing is, in hindsight, trying to make a Biblical case for a spectrum of possibility concerning enslaving Africans (from the uber-conservative “God approves of African slavery because Ham” to the arguably more progressive end, “benign imperialism in the form of compassionate slavery can be good”) is horribly offensive and so clearly an egregious use of Scripture that I can hardly stomach it.

But here I am, asking if the idea that women are subordinate to men by virtue of a Divine edict of beneficent hierarchy, can be put on a spectrum and patiently waited out while the debates rage and the dust settles.

In other words, is there a Biblically-meaningful difference between The Gospel Coalition vs Christians for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood vs the Christian Patriarchs?

I like to think that had I been a contemporary of famed William Wilberforce, I would not have needed a trip to the slave boats to become an abolitionist, I would not have been someone who politely conceded there are “differences of interpretation and we all mean well,” and turned away while African men, women and children were abused in the name of God. I tend to see the call for women’s full equality in church and home in the same terms. I don’t see nuance, I admit that.

That said, I am also quite aware that using slavery as an exemplar leads to conclusions of this kind.  So I ask, what alternate/other/better/more useful metaphors, historical or otherwise, can we employ in our pursuit of a robust theology of gender?


Author: karen d

Thinker, Dreamer, Traveler. Recovering Pharisee.

26 thoughts on “A “perverted attack”? A difference of opinion? Or a hill to die on?

  1. Pingback: Is there a difference between complementarianism and “Christian” Patriarchy? | Biblical Personhood

  2. Pingback: Gender connections | From guestwriters

  3. Most of the (very wise) comments here focus on intellectual formulations of hierarchy vs. egalitarianism (or my preferred term, Mutuality.)

    I think another way to look at it is to study the actuality, what is existent relationally, between the sexes whatever their stated beliefs are. I have friends who are “hard” hierarchalists intellectually, yet in their marriage and in their friendships / work, they seem to treat women as full equals. This complicates any critique of their position, since (as one who is revolted by hierarchicalism) I want so much to be able to show them where they’re wrong. I should be thankful that often times our intellectual allegiances seem to be Holy Spirit filtered when it comes to our actions.

    That said, I also have friends whose relationships with women are extremely thorny, and nearly *all* of them (I can’t in fact think of an exception) adhere to hierarchalism. One can argue chicken vs egg… did their misogyny result from the intellectual / doctrinal beliefs they hold, or did the beliefs come later as intellectual armaments to justify their piggishness?

    Scripturally, I think we’re faced with the reality that bad thinking does indeed lead to bad actions. Conversely, sinful actions and attitudes lead to intellectual error. It is less important to figure out which came first in any specific context than it is to correct both thought and action by aligning them with the Word and with the Holy Spirit’s leading. I am a fervent mutuality advocate because I believe it alone does justice to not only relationships between the sexes, but (in the larger scheme of things) relationships within the Church overall. No relationship in Christ is a one way streeet, even those between the newest believer and most learned, godly elder / pastor / leader. In Christ, through the fullness of the Holy Spirit, all power relationships are deeply changed. Or at least they ought to be.


    • this is so good Jon, thank you for commenting. I have the same experience you do, namely that many folks think and promote complementarian theology in words, but essentially practice mutuality. I must add the nuance tho’ that more often it is women who think of themselves in submissive terms, whereas the men seem clueless to the entire discussion and just want life to move forward. This was certainly my situation early in my marriage — I finally figured out all my comp ideas were for naught because my husband wanted a partner and then, when i stepped more fully into a partner role, i was shocked at how healthy my marriage became, how much happier both my husband and I were, and how the entire concept gave me a way to think about how to raise my two daughters. I should add that at the time I was probably egal when it came to the church, tho to this day i attend a comp church. Now that i think about it though, much of the praxis of the church is “mutuality!”

      It all raises the question though to me that you posit: if bad thinking/theology leads to bad actions etc, even though we do not experience the egregious edge of hierarchalism doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be assertive in attempting to tear it down. Yes? No?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m increasingly assertive. To a fault, maybe. I’ve alienated enough people over this issue that I’ve at times questioned my approach and even my “angst” which drives such responses. It is good to question oneself. But at the end of the day, I believe American Christianity is terribly broken. It is not my job to fix it… but it is my job (any believer’s job!) to point out that the boat is sinking. We’ve hit an ice berg called “nationalism” and “traditionalism,” an idolatrous ideology that is tearing the Church’s witness to shreds. The world needs us… but they are not going to listen if we offer just one more oppressive ideology rooted in power rather than the surrender of power which is unique to Christ and the Cross. I have to be a feminist, just as I have to be a Christian. I no longer have a choice in the matter. It is no great thing for me to say that… it is a confession of sorts. I am in suffering until my sisters are freed.


        • this is really powerful jon. i’ve been thinking about a post (haven’t started writing yet) about this very thing, the sense that when we step outside our own situation and experience, and we see what is happening to others, we internalize the idea that until everyone’s joy is made full, mine cannot be. We suffer with, alongside, we enter in and look and see and don’t look away because there is “nothing I can do about it.” Part of what we need to do is bear witness, in no small part because in doing so, we take on the suffering of others as our own and are motivated to raise our voices in protest.


  4. IMO, there is a spectrum difference. I think 2 ideas are enough to qualify the holder as complementarian:

    1) The opinion that some church tasks are restricted to men. That is a spectrum in itself: Mild complementarians say that being head pastor is the only thing women cannot do, while others draw the line at all preaching in church. Some say women should not be pastors or elders, others pastors, elders or deacons. Some say women are not even allowed to make an announcement in church.

    2) The opinion that husbands lead, wives submit.
    That is a spectrum too: Some would have wives submitting to everything, even when asked to directly sin. Others pay lip service to submission, but live pretty close to egalitarian. I actually wish the latter will state what the limits of submission ought to be, because if they do not, I think even “mild” complementarianism can be too harsh on those actually practicing it – as opposed to paying lip service. (That is another topic, but I think “mild” complementarianism is still too harsh: http://biblicalpersonhood.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/when-soft-complementarianism-is-too-hard/ – part 1 of 2 parts.)

    Because complementarianism seem to be based on 2 pillars, I see the possibility of being half-complementarian. It is entirely possible to believe in marriage without hierarchy, but in restricted church roles. Or in hierarchal marriage, but to have no problem with women leading in church.

    Christian™ Patriarchy also include these ideas (the more of these ideas someone believe, the more patriarchal (s)he is):

    Home schooling; stay at home daughters; no college for girls, “courtship” that means fathers screen potential suitors even before daughters spend time with them; falling in love as impure; physical punishment from babyhood upwards to break the will of the child; extreme “modesty” rules related to (almost always female) clothing; women not working for a salary; women not involved in politics or even voting; women as a class submitting to men (as opposed to wives submitting to only their own husbands) and even sisters submitting to their brothers; not taking steps to stay away (or keep a wife or children away)from an abusive father because he is their “God given authority” and it will be sin to leave what God gave you; no birth control.


    • Thanks Retha, this is a great summary and I think what you say about being half complementarian is true — I certainly have friends who hold to one of the two pillars but not both. The Christian Patriarchy list is also super helpful to see it all in one place.


  5. Good questions, Karen. I think there is a spectrum, for sure – but figuring out to calibrate it is a difficult thing. Maybe it is less like a ROYGBIV spectrum, with one frequency transitioning into the next one, and more like the autism spectrum – where flagging a combination of any 6 possible “markers” out of 30 possibilities would classify one as having austism. On the comp. spectrum, then, the ‘patriarchs’ might have 25 of 30 possible markers, whereas I would have more like 6. Or 5.

    Thoughts on this version of “spectrum”?


    • this is a really smart way of looking at things Bron. First off, ROYGBIV made me laugh 🙂 I had to stare at it a second to figure out what the heck you were talking about, and then my elementary education came screaming to the forefront of my brain ! So the idea of markers — there’s sort of a “strong” version of complementarian theology (and egalitarian too I suppose) and a “weak” or as another commenter said, a “mild” version. The fewer markers, the more mild.

      i’m not at all opposed to this sort of analysis and like that it creates flexibility. the part I wrestle with is that usually these theologies are constructed as arguments from first premises or causes, EG: a reading of the Genesis story. So when you pull the thread you eventually unravel the entire sweater so to speak.

      I believe however you can pull the thread and NOT unravel the entire sweater, but I don’t know how, and that’s my new question. What is the starting place for a mild version of comp theology? I am clear on the strong version — it seems the argument begins with the conviction that God created hierarchy as good, before the fall, with men first/top and women second/below — and from there you get all the derivatives of patriarchy. Can we, for example, start in the Garden with men and women equally valued and gifted, charged with the same task, and nevertheless end up with a roles-based model for male/female relations?


  6. Thanks. Very helpful…learning lots here. Thought of you, Swinger, when I saw on the national news tonight (which surprised me a bit) that a progressive woman in the Morman church has been “excommunicated” for the year for her pro-woman advocacy.


    • yeah, i saw that too. Those gents don’t like giving up their power position, eh? I’m not sure what excommunication is/does in the Mormon church but it sounds painful on a personal/community level. I find it humorous, however, that the excommunication is for a year. If that’s not an effort to control-by-punishment i don’t know what is. That says to me the issue is not about doctrine but about maintaining control of the rank & file.


  7. Thanks, Swinger….yeah, ur fixin for a fight, as we say in the South, with old skoolers who toe the “man is the head” line. But isn’t this position essentially warranted rather explicitly by Paul in 1 Cor? Cuz I can see said old skooler using the ole argument by authority here. Where is the scriptural warrant for the Egal position, because I can’t recall ever seeing one that’s as explicit as Paul’s in 1 Cor. Just curious to see where the exegesis on this fight lines up?


    • Here’s an article that goes into a bit more depth. focusing on Eph 5. http://www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content/what-male-headship

      There are more at that site you can click around and find, probably covering 1 Cor as well.


    • There are two rather big schools of thought. The mainline position that is largely based on Calvin would say that the “plain” reading of the text is the correct reading, and this approach is dominant in the evangelical church for the most part, at least the conservative portion. The other big school (and there are lots of nuances in both positions of course) is that the plain reading is not reliable without also looking into historicity, genre and authorial intent on a more gestalt basis. So, the Calvinists would agree with you — the meaning is plain, right there for all to see, and the proper response is a glad submission to the authority of Scripture in one’s life. The other approach (usually captured by a big category called “New Perspectives on Paul” asks a bunch more questions first, before deciding on the plain meaning: who is Paul writing to,what genre is he deploying and what didactic model is he deploying, what can we infer from the broad brush strokes of his letter, to whom else does he say similar and different things, what unique dynamics can we glean from history that might shed light on why Paul is bringing this issue up here and now, etc… and perhaps even larger, how do the various genres of Scripture (narrative, poetry and didactic discourses) combine and juxtapose to help us understand how to read the Bible? The “new perspectives” people would say that having asked all those and other questions, the “plain meaning” is now a more nuanced and intelligible thing to which believers then submit as to an authority.

      In the new perspective on paul, these texts are read through the lens of historical context primarily — which in all fairness upsets a lot of folks. Most of Paul’s seemingly restrictive words toward women, when re-examined in this light, come out quite differently and, frankly, quite revolutionary. Consider the household codes in Ephesians — on the face of it they seem restrictive. But take out the male pronouns (they aren’t in the text — only in the translations) and then consider that in the Greco-Roman world these designated roles (husband/wife/child/slave) came with very strict obligations — in Paul’s reordering of the Codes, men are instructed to love their wives (both unheard of and unnecessary at that time), children are to be nurtured (social status for children was a matter of economic contribution) and slaves were to be granted full participation in the life of the extended community (rather than be a low-ranking social group. Revolutionary.


  8. Before I weigh in here, can you give me the cliff notes on Comp v. Egal? I don’t wanna assume too much, but your analogy is a biggie, so we need to get it right 🙂


    • Swinger: Complementarians broadly believe that God through the Scriptures mandates benevolent male authority (usually referred to as “servant leadership”) in all areas of home and church life, both of which are structural hierarchies. Men are uniquely gifted and tasked to lead as head of the home, responsible for providing for their wives and children in life and faith (picture an umbrella with God at the top, then a man below God, and the man’s umbrella covering wives and children who are at the same level in the hierarchy). Men are also uniquely gifted and called by God to lead the church, such that women are not to have positions of authority in decision-making or teaching/interpreting the Scriptures to/for men (women can legitimately teach children and other women).

      Egalitarians believe that God through the Scriptures created men and women as equal partners, not needing a hierarchal structure, who function optimally and by Divine design when they work together in all aspects of life based on gifts which are assigned not on the basis of gender but by the Spirit and without precondition. So, egals would say husband and wife are equal partners who together are tasked with providing for and leading their children in life and faith (in the umbrella, you would have God at the top, men and women at the next level, and children below them, except that most egals try to think outside of hierarchies). Men and women are equal partners in the life of the church too, tasked together to image God on earth, so in an egalitarian church women as well as men can serve as pastors and elders alongside male peers.

      Quick and dirty but you get the drift.


      • Karen, that is a good summary and points out one of the things that a lot of comps won’t usually admit: under their doctrine women are by definition relegated to lesser things. It’s now complementary at all, unless you call hierarchy a complementary structure.


        • thanks tim. I’m really trying to be fair to both positions, in just few words which is tough. But I agree with you that the central component of comp is hierarchy but it is often not understood by complementarian proponents that this is their position essentially. John Stackhouse I think (must go check) basically pointed out that really the words “complementarian” and patriarchy are interchangeable, which offends folks who place themselves on the complementarian side and I understand that. Its not a way people want to describe themselves, can can feel like an insult. That’s kind of why I’m asking these questions tho!


          • Speaking of flat-out patriarchy, I tweaked its nose a bit on the blog today.


          • Read it, loved it, even commented I think! Or maybe my comment to your post became my post … i can’t remember now (it was early!). Actually, now that I think about it, that’s exactly what happened. I started off thinking about can you reasonably compare Piper, let’s say, to Botkin? The more I think about it, the less convinced I get, but I want to hold the tension well rather than go all medieval on those who disagree with me.


          • You did comment! Doh!


          • P.S. let me know when you go all medieval no somebody. I’ll bring the sandwiches.

            Liked by 1 person

  9. I tend to think that comp doctrine is nowhere on the gospel spectrum, Karen. That said, the focus I try to bring is on how comps and egals and people who don’t fit those pigeon-holes talk to one another, because as fellow believers it’s not that we are on a spectrum at all but that we are all one in Christ.


    • Tim, can you say more about what you mean by “nowhere on the gospel spectrum” … like the idea a lot that we can disagree even stridently and still be family.


      • For it to be on the gospel spectrum it would have to be within the gospel itself. I don’t think complementarian doctrine is in the gospel at all.

        An example of a doctrine that does allow for the spectrum analysis would be baptism. It is a highly symbolic and significant act, and I put paedo- and credo-baptism on the gospel spectrum because I think both are within the gospel itself.


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