Across the great divide: The Complementarian – Egalitarian war
Standin by your window in pain, A pistol in your
hand, And I beg you, dear Molly, girl,
Try and understand your man the best you can.
Across The Great Divide, Just grab your hat, and take that ride
Get yourself a bride, And bring your children down to the river side.
“Across the Great Divide”, The Band
Something of an Internet war broke out last week when a blogger at The Gospel Coalition website quoted an excerpt from Douglas Wilson’s 1999 book, Fidelity: What is Means to Be a One Woman Man. After a somewhat-less-than-pleased Rachel Held Evans began tweeting phrases from the excerpt, it was “Would-Be Theologians Gone Wild” for a couple of days.
For those of you who are unaware there is a sharp and deepening rift in some sections of the American version of Christianity over how husbands and wives are to relate to each other in the home, and the role of women in church. The disagreements are not new. There have always been differences. Over the last few years (I am not sure when this started) each side seems to be running under either the banner of Complementarianism or the banner of Egalitarianism. (I will use C and E occasionally to save my fingers.)
Complementarians would hold the husband is the head of the home, and the wife is to support his “headship.” The role of the husband is to lead, the role of the woman is to support. This is a core principle, one always disparaged by egalitarians and often caricatured by the same. In church the offices of pastor and (usually) deacon are exclusively available to gifted men.
One prominent complementarian group is The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Click here to read their core beliefs. This organization is headed primarily by men: all seven directors are male, and 20 of 26 members of the council are male.
Egalitarians, to my understanding, believe the roles of men and women are equal and interchangeable both at home and in the church. A prominent group for this position is Christians for Biblical Equality. You can download their statement on “Men, Women and Biblical Equality” by clicking here. This organization is headed primarily by women: Eight of the twelve staff are female, the president is female, and eight of the ten directors are female. However, only 14 (+/-1) of the 35 members of the Board of Reference are women. They also gladly claim the Bible as their authority.
“CBE is led by women and men who are passionate about communicating the biblical truth that men and women have equal authority and responsibility to advance the kingdom of God.” Said “equal authority and responsibility” extends to the home and church. Es believe decisions in the home are 100% mutually discussed, agreed and implemented. The husband does not have primary or ultimate responsibility before God. No position in church, including pastor and deacon, is off limits to a rightly gifted woman.
Complementarians place greater emphasis on gender based roles than do egalitarians, and egalitarians place greater emphasis on the mutual authority of both genders than do complementarians.
I recognize the inherent difficulty in examining groups whose members hold, within the framework, divergent views. I have tried to be very general so as to include most who would self-identify as either a C or an E. However, there could be some who take exception. (“I’m a complementarian, but the CBMW does not speak for me,” for example.) This is one reason I prefer not to self-identify closely with any theological system beyond that of “Christ follower.” As the two sides bear these nebulous labels it has become discouragingly easy to have macro-degeneration of meaningful discussion. They remain ready at the plate throwing stage.
In the Great C-E War of July 2012 most who defended of the original post and excerpt seemed to be C men, while the detractors from the E side were split between the genders. It was fast and furious with blog posts being written and the twitterverse aglow from digital shock and awe. Many women victims of rape and sexual abuse viewed the language as an attack on them, or an unnecessary reminder of their wounds.
As a brief aside, I want to acknowledge that Doug Wilson is an influential thinker, wields an expansive vocabulary, is broadly written and read, and is a leading name in the world of reformed theology. His introduction to me was through his DVD debate with Christopher Hitchens entitled, Collision, which I own. Wilson’s eulogy of Hitchen’s, published on Christianitytoday.com, was far and away the best thing written commemorating the life of the virulent anti-theist. Wilson is not a poorly read loudmouth, a backwater redneck, nor an inexperienced blogger. He has written on writing, for crying out loud.
The aforementioned quote from Douglas Wilson’s book included this paragraph:
When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed.
The larger context was that of rape being the abuse of a biblically defensible position, that of “authority and submission” in marriage. However, Wilson’s careless choice of words were received by the egalitarian community like a patriarchal barrage on a coequal Fort Sumter.
When sex is described by the words “conquer, colonize, penetrate and plant” it necessarily is reduced to the physical act. This is to barely brush against the surface of scripture. The union of a man and a woman is far deeper than the physical joining of bodies like two mutts in the front yard. It is so encompassing, in fact, scripture calls it being “one flesh;” the very act itself creates a union even if one of the participants is paid for his or her part (1 Cor. 6:16). Sex can only be mutual. There are other names for non-mutual sex.
Compare Wilson’s colonialist verbiage with that of another writer many egalitarians love to hate, John Eldredge. His NYT bestseller Wild at Heart contains this very explicit, but much more accurate phrasing to demonstrate the holistic nature of sex:
The man comes to offer his strength and the woman invites the man into herself, an act that requires courage and vulnerability and selflessness for both of them. Notice first that if the man will not rise to the occasion, nothing will happen. He must move; his strength must swell before he can enter her. But neither will the love consummate unless the woman opens herself in stunning vulnerability. When both are living as they were meant to live, the man enters his woman and offers her his strength. He spills himself there, in her, for her; she draws him in, embraces and envelopes him. When all is over he is spent; but ah, what a sweet death it is.
Note the sexual act “requires courage and vulnerability and selflessness” for both the husband and the wife. This is not about capturing the flag; the undefiled marriage bed is the very essence of mutual submission.
On a personal level my 28+ years of marriage finds more truth and accuracy in Eldredge’s words than in Wilson’s. Men who approach their wives like NASA going toward Mars may retain courage, but vulnerability will waver and selflessness will be lost. It is difficult to be selfless when aliens may be just around the corner. Nor does approaching the marriage bed like a conquistador reflect the tenderness and love of Christ toward His church.
Further, that old scoundrel Paul is the very one who says the man does not have control over his own body but the wife, and the wife does not have control over her own body but the husband (1 Corinthians 7:3, 4). The New Living Translation cuts through the Elizabethan sensibilities of the KJV saying,
The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs.
There is simply no room in the Bible for either gender to claim any authority to do with the spouse’s body as they please. Our mandate from God is that each uses his or her body to please the spouse, not themselves. Abuse can be realized from both sides. Men abuse this scripture–and their wives–when using emotional or physical dominance to secure what then amounts to sexual favors. Women abuse this scripture–and their husbands–when using emotional manipulation or physical withholding to control relational situations or as a trade off.
After a few days of argument and name calling, Jared Wilson, the author of the original post, removed it from The Gospel Coalition website, as well as a follow-up that attempted to set context. He then posted an apology which was quickly accepted by many who had complained, though a few supporters insisted neither Wilson had erred.
Doug Wilson, for his part, doubled down, then doubled down again. Thursday he posted a quote from Robert Farrar Capon’s book Bed and Board, which otherwise sounds like a novella of hostel life in Cape Code. Capon writes:
Sex, as commonly conceived, is something a couple do together. But the sexual act itself is not quite like that. It is, and remains, something a man does to a woman. They are not both working at the same thing. He is giving, she is receiving. He is the lover, she the beloved. Now, if they both set out to “have some Sex,” the whole delicate balance is wrecked, and neither can find his own role.
This is quite possibly worse than what Wilson wrote. First, the problem is not that men do not give and women do not receive, but that such reductionism leads to woefully wrong conclusions. Second, Capon refers directly to the wife with a male pronoun. “Neither can find his own role”? He’s positing traditional sex with two “he’s.” This is tunnel vision with not even a glimmer of light at the end.
I mean, c’mon, complementarian men: Do you really believe your wife is not giving herself to you in sex?
Saturday brought a second doubling down from Wilson, who seems assured of his ability to get the river card with his keyboard. The Politics of Outrage opens with, “Gather around, children, and I will try to provide you with a brief post mortem on the recent ruckus created by our professional indignati“. Following that salvo is an analysis of the C-E War in which all blame is placed on his philosophical opponents whom he likens to the paid mourners of the gospels and “bed wetters.” Yes, bed wetters. Very cosmopolitan. On Twitter he accused his detractors of exercising “faux indignation.”
My oldest daughter expressed her actual indignation this way:
When a whole host of women tell you that, as sexual abuse victims they find your post to be incredibly offensive and wrong, you don’t compare them and those supporting them to faux mourners, you shut up and listen to them.
By making these observations about Doug Wilson do not try to paint me into an egalitarian corner. I will walk out over your newly spread latex. My argument is not against Wilson’s book en toto, only that, rather than acknowledging the problems with his choice of language, he defended himself in the comments (now deleted) and wrote not one but two posts on his own blog defending everything on his part. (I have just begun to read Fidelity and find it at this point to be of Wilson’s best efforts.)
As for bed wetting, I leave with Wilson as many bodily function metaphors as he feels must be employed in defense of his words. As for me I stopped wetting the bed with I was a kid.
- 13 November 2012 at 3:11am
- A little context for the complementarian-egalitarian debate | Kingdom In The Midst
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