Across the great divide: The Complementarian – Egalitarian war

wedding picture

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.)

wedding picture

Chelsea Beatty Ritz, me, Jeremy Ritz (Image: The Ritzes)

Complementarians, as far as I can ascertain, hold that the gender roles of men and women are separate and complementary. In the home, husbands and wives complement each other. (Not compliment. We are not talking about how to address one’s wife’s new hairstyle.) The idea is, “Complementarians believe that God created male and female as complementary expressions of the image of God—male and female are counterparts in reflecting His glory. Having two sexes expands the view. Though both sexes bear God’s image fully on their own, each does so in a unique and distinct way.” The differing roles undergird and support the other spouse, and the marriage as a whole. This is a very simplistic definition and necessarily so. Cs themselves do not necessarily agree on how to define their entire system, though they will gladly claim the Bible as authority for the position.

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, 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.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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  • Marty – three quick things…

    – The main driver of this fiasco, as Doug Wilson pointed out, was that Jared’s blog post publicized comments that Doug Wilson originally warned were “a blunt instrument” and “straight talk for men” and that “may be offensive to some women”. Then RHE took those comments and shoved them into the faces of the exact people Wilson warned they would hurt the most – sexual abuse victims who were women.

    As you know, there are many things that are true that must be nuanced or avoided altogether for some audiences, but that doesn’t mean those comments aren’t true or cannot be made to the right audience at the right time. No one – Doug W included, obviously – thinks those are helpful comments to be putting in front of sexual abuse victims (like RHE did).

    – I think you’re misreading the intent of Wilson’s quote. He’s not saying that those (infamous) words characterize the whole tenor of sex. The beginning of the quote frames the following sentences: Wilson is describing how the design of sex (“the way the world is”) is inherently complementarian. He’s pointing out the particular ways in which the design of sex makes it intrinsically impossible to turn it into an “egalitarian pleasure party”. I point this out because it seems a lot of people, you included in the above post, are reading the quote as if it’s a directive to men on how they should think about sex and then they’re reacting to that. As a result, a lot of people are reacting to something that’s not there: an encouragement for men to think about sex only in terms of “penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants” and for women to think about sex only in terms of “receives, surrenders, accepts”. Those are only a few specific aspects of the design of sex that demonstrate its design as inherently complementarian, Wilson is saying.

    This is why you resonate with the Wild at Heart quote more than the Wilson quote: because one *is* trying to describe the tenor of sex and the other is doing something completely different.

    – Last short thing: Doug Wilson wasn’t doubling down on the acceptability or helpfulness of sticking his quote in the faces of sexual abuse victims. Again, RHE (cruelly, I think) did that. As he stated over and over, he was defending their truthfulness with their intended purpose and to their intended audience, which the preface to his book he pointed to states.

    Love the blog, Marty. Svoboda and I are constantly enamored with your writing greatness. When do I get to tag along for lunch!?

  • Marty Duren

    Hey man! Thx for honoring us with your presence ;^)

    As for Wilson, try as I may I cannot get your interpretation out of Wilson’s words. I’m aware of the intent of the book; as stated I’m far enough in to know why he wrote it.

    It’s a poor choice of wording all the way around: it took you a full paragraph to explain what Wilson meant. That really is not good on his part. Neither my daughter (who leans E) and my wife (who definitely does not) got that meaning from it. Nor did I and I’m the target audience! To say a book is written to men with men in mind should not mean women cannot get the meaning. Wilson himself even said women should read the book if their husbands read it first.

    You last point I don’t see at all, or perhaps we are viewing it from different lenses. Wilson actually doubled down a third time in the comments of the original post by–very condescendingly–noting the historical usage of the words he chose. One even had to do with slashing in a Haitian cane break. Oh, yeah. We’re all familiar with that.

    Do you defend his use of “faux mourners” in mocking to those who opposed him, or do you think that’s good, holy and right?

    Lunch anytime, bro. We probably need you to keep us in line!

  • Oh, yeah man! That’s your issue then. He’s not meaning what you’re reading into those words. I never understood them to mean what you’re implying in this post.

    Other stuff you mentioned: I probably disagree but love and respect you too much to blog-comment-argue :)

  • SM

    Josh: “Wilson is describing how the design of sex (“the way the world is”) is inherently complementarian. He’s pointing out the particular ways in which the design of sex makes it intrinsically impossible to turn it into an “egalitarian pleasure party”.”

    While the sexes certainly are physiologically complementary, Wilson’s description of the design of sex is wanting. Can the female not initiate and invite causing the male to respond and accept? Does the female not “conquer” by enveloping and enclosing. Does the female not “colonize” by surrounding and taking the “surrendered” masculine form captive? The mutual giving and receiving, the mutual taking and being taken, and the mutual doing and being done inherent in sex between complementary sexes is what makes it an “egalitarian pleasure party.”

  • SM – I do get you. However, you made Douglas Wilson’s point in your first sentence: “the sexes are certainly physiologically complementary”. This is Wilson’s general point, which you see also. Sex itself points to complementarity.

    On your points…

    – “Can the female not initiate and invite causing the male to respond and accept?” Yes, she can. But that’s not the way that God has designed human sex drives in general. I think we’re all on the same page that, generally, men are the partners who initiate and pursue in sex.

    – “Does the female not conquer by enveloping and enclosing?” A response here could get awkward, but I’d say the analogy definitely lends itself better to that which penetrates being the thing which “conquers” rather than that which is penetrated.

    – “Does the female not colonize…” Again, I see what you’re saying, but that which “enters” again seems more naturally to be seen as the thing which does the colonizing.

    – I don’t think you had any question with “plants” or “penetrates”. They’re unavoidably obvious.

    Again, Wilson’s general point is the one you affirmed: because of physiology, sex itself points to complementarity.

  • Beth L.

    Those who have complementarian sex view it from a complementarian lens; those who have egalitarian sex view it from an egalitarian lens. Funny how men are seen as conquerers from the viewpoint of some Cs, but yet few would argue that women can be very seductive. Do they seduce or do they not seduce? How can a woman seduce a man and yet still be the one “conquered?” Just because a person only sees sex through a C lens doesn’t mean that’s how sex is.

    • Sonya

      Unfortunately, too many men are “conquered” by their own unrestrained lust which is evident in the carnage left when families are broken because of affairs, pornography, etc. I wonder if this is one of the reasons some fundamentalist muslim men in the Middle East demand their women to be covered from head to toe and even going so far as having the woman murdered when she is raped by one of their own. In my mind, these actions shows how weak they really are.

  • SM

    Josh, historically female sexuality has been viewed as equally powerful as male sexuality so much so that some cultures have sought to constrain it while others revered it for its power. Our culture appears to be in the former category.

    And, I could just as easily say that I think the analogy definitely lends itself better to the female form “conquers” because she surrounds, encases, and takes captive the “conquered”. The female form, more naturally, is seen as the thing which “colonizes” because it circumvents, surrounds, and envelops.

    However, I think my point must have been missed–male and female “conquer”, “colonize”, “submit”, “surrender” and contribute seed in an “egalitarian pleasure party” of complementary sexes.

    Moreover, Wilson’s general point is not one I affirmed. Wilson’s point was not sex itself is physiologically complementary.

    Wilson’s point was that because male and female are physiologically complementary (form) male and female must function with unilateral male authority and female submission *even in the marriage bed*. The function of male authority and female submission are “erotic necessities” because of form. You may think he is speaking strictly about inherent physiologically nature of sex, but wait.

    If he is speaking strictly physiologically, then what is he claiming is “suppressed” or “banished”? Are married couples not having vaginal/penile sex? Of course, they are. So, what then is being “suppressed” or has “banished” from the marriage bed that “comes back to us in pathological forms,” and as he says, “lies behind sexual ‘bondage and submission games,’ along with very common rape fantasies. Men dream of being rapists, and women find themselves wistfully reading novels in which someone ravishes the ‘soon to be made willing’ heroine.” (There’s more that’s wrong with this statement than what I’m touching on here.)
    If married couples are having vaginal/penile sex, and they are, then what is “suppressed” and “banished” from the marital bed that causes rape fantasies?

    I do not believe he was giving a lesson on the physiology of sex.

  • SM

    I posted a comment in reply to Josh, but it’s not showing here. I am hoping it does as I don’t want to try to duplicate it.

    • Marty Duren

      Sorry, SM. Not sure why it moderated.

      • Maybe it was your blog’s first ever comment that included the phrase “vaginal/penile sex”. Just a theory…

        • Marty Duren

          lol. Indeed. Two “moderation” words in the same phrase.

  • Matt Svoboda

    This blog post has really penetrated my mind. It has really got the juices flowing. It is almost as if I am being intellectually conquered and colonized. I wish you could plant some of you seeds of wisdom in my mind.

    Nonetheless, it appears that I simply must receive and accept the words you have written. I surrender to your intellectual superiority over me.

    • Marty Duren

      This should probably be reported to your boss.

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