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How complementarian theology speaks to the latest Internet meme.

Since the horrific shooting in Santa Barbara, #yesallwomen has trended on Twitter, leading some to call this outcry the “most narcissistic event of 2014,” a meme that has exploited the tragedy and thrived on “gross and untrue generalizations.” Others have insisted on the power of this social media campaign: “It tells the stories that we keep to ourselves.”

There are legitimate doubts about hashtag activism: does it do the real good required for change? Or is it a kind of feel-good act that does more to soothe our consciences than aid real victims?

We may be wary to add our voices to the rallied outcry of #yesallwomen in the wake of Elliot Rodger’s shooting rampage. Nevertheless, Christian theology compels us to denounce his misogynistic blame: “I am the true victim in all of this,” he wrote chillingly in his 140-page manifesto. Eves, all of you!

“The ideology behind these attacks—and there is ideology—is simple,” writes Laurie Penny for New Statesman, in a piece she admits is “full of rage.”

“Women owe men,” she writes. “Women, as a class, as a sex, owe men sex, love, attention, ‘adoration,’ in Rodger’s words. We owe them respect and obedience, and our refusal to give it to them is to blame for their anger, their violence.”

Even though complementarian theology is not on trial in Santa Barbara, some have suggested that our view supports the destructive ideology Penny describes. (According to some egalitarians, our theological claims have terrifying implications for women’s justice issues.)

So when we say God has ordained that men lead their families and their churches, do we mean that men are owed by women? That they are owed respect and obedience? And, should women not give it freely, that they, not men, should be blamed for men’s anger, even violence?

Solidarity and Empathy

I certainly don’t think the apostle Paul made such claims in Ephesians 5, when he commended to men the example of Jesus Christ: “Husbands, love your wives. . . . He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church” (Eph. 5:25, 28, 29).

As Jesus Christ is the compelling example for all complementarian men, entitlement language has no place. In Philippians 2, Paul describes Christ’s deliberate self-emptying, self-sacrificing love. The rights he deserved, he gave up. The entitlements he was owed, he relinquished. As an act of solidarity, he braved the terrors of human powerlessness, “even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).

In the book of Hebrews, the incarnation is framed as an act of holy empathy. Clothing himself with human skin, God entered our weaknesses. He drew near in order to understand the frailty of being human, near enough to die, and his suffering sympathy acts like an appeal: Flee to him for grace! (cf. Heb. 4:14-16).

Following in the example of Jesus who identified with suffering humanity, godly men might reveal God's concern for justice by collecively weeping and crying out over female suffering, whether being gang raped on a bus in India, or giving birth with shackled legs, or being murdered on a college campus. What if they suffered with these women, as if their harm had been done their own? Despite its faults, the impulse behind #yesallwomen seeks solidarity and empathy with the too-frequent terror of female powerlessness. To its credit, #yesallwomen calls each of us to say of injustice, This cannot be.

Don’t the people of God know this agony best of all?

This Cannot Be

One #yesallwomen moment in the Bible stands out from my recent Bible reading. In Numbers 37, the daughters of Zelophehad cry out for justice.

The father of the daughters of Zelophehad died during the 40-year wilderness wandering. Like his entire generation, Zelophehad disbelieved God’s promises and was forbidden from entering the promised land. His daughters, however, could enter and take possession of the land—except that they were women. Land was deeded only to men.

The daughters of Zelophehad appealed to Moses and Eleazar: “Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers” (v. 4). These women appealed on two counts: for themselves (“a possession”) and for their father (his “name”). This was an incredible act of courage and faith! God heard. Moses sympathizes. Justice was done: for them, for their father, and for daughters to follow in succeeding generations. “If a man dies and has no son, then you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter,” (v. 8). #yesallwomen

Other stories in the Bible reveal more of the fallen world than the loving God. Indeed, God's Word includes so much grievous silence when women suffer for their powerlessness. I wish men had collectively wept and cried out when a woman, in Judges, was thrust out the door to feed a pack of sexually ravenous wolves. “They knew her and abused her all night until the morning” (Judges 18:25). I wish Abraham hadn’t so easily let Sarah be taken into Pharaoh’s harem (cf. Gen. 12:15). I wish that Jacob saw how Leah suffered for being ugly (cf. Gen. 29:17). I wish Elkanah had better understood Hannah’s grief of barrenness rather than suggesting to her that, as her husband, he was worth ten sons (cf. 1 Sam. 1:8). I wish these men had been Jesus. But of course the Bible plays God’s story on an imperfect human stage.

Perhaps these stories, however, remind us of the terror when good men say nothing and do nothing. No doubt they return us to the cross—when the Son of God suffered and died, taking upon himself the injustice of every terrible human silence, every neglected act of human empathy. Sin. “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).

The gospel story teaches us to weep. And cry out. This cannot be.