Speaking of Beautiful Things in a Beautiful Way: Complementarianism “New” or “Old”

My friend Kevin DeYoung beat me to the “post” button with his question and concern on “New Wave Complementarianism.” Kevin is always thoughtful and helpful with a wonderful ability to take complex things and make them simple.

If you’ve read his post, you know that he responds to another post entitled “New Wave Complementarianism” written by Wendy Alsup. I don’t know Wendy personally but I’ve appreciated her courage and her insight over the couple years I’ve been reading her books and blog. In her post, Wendy (as I read her) attempts a framework for describing a phenomena she sees among many women who (a) love their Bibles, (b) are themselves unashamed complementarians, but (c) sometimes find themselves uncomfortable with what Alsup calls “old school complementarianism.” In reply, Kevin asks the question: “What was the old wave” of complementarianism?

Definitions Matter

When Wendy offered her post a couple weeks back, I was one of Kevin’s friends who tweeted an appreciation for it. That’s not to say I agreed with everything in the post. But I resonated with its spirit, which I’d tried to express in my own terms some time back in a series of posts titled, “I’m a Complementarian, But….”

If we’re to have a fruitful conversation, it seems to me we need to start with definitions, with Kevin’s question. Otherwise we’re bound to talk right past one another. When Wendy wrote of “old school complementarians” and “hard core complementarianism/patriarchy” I think she made at least a rhetorical error. I don’t think she means to equate patriarchy with complementarity (I trust she’ll be able to speak to that herself), but putting these things on par creates some confusion and probably the male counterpart to what some women feel when they hear feminism treated as an unmitigated evil. We ought not conflate patriarchy (often a pejorative synonymous with oppression of women) with either “old school” or “hard core” complementarianism (a biblical understanding of our humanity and how our genders relate in home and church).

As I see it, two problems result. First, we simply and harmfully mis-define and misrepresent both patriarchy and complementarity. Being too casual or too sloppy at this point risks setting up “sides” in a discussion that ought genuinely feature partners–especially if we’re legitimate complementarians. Second, not drawing clear distinctions between patriarchy and complementarity prevents us from benefitting from both history and our contemporary discussion. We miss each other.

What We Could Miss in This Discussion

I’m excited for what could happen in this conversation. It could result in fresh and joyful wind filling the sails of complementarian practice. We could learn to speak and live this vision of our shared humanity in a way that makes God’s wisdom and creativity beautiful inside and outside the church to some measure. But for that to happen, we have to be careful to hear the “gist” of what conversation partners are saying.

Missing Our Sisters’ Perspective. For example, I read Wendy’s post and others around the same time with appreciation and hope in part because I heard something very different than Kevin. Kevin heard in the post a kind of apologetic against egalitarianism that ceded too much ground. Witness his concluding sentence: “The impulse to rescue counter-cultural doctrines from their own unpopularity is one of the first steps to losing the doctrine altogether.” I think that sentence is true. Making tough doctrines “prettier” to their “cultured despisers” does tend toward the loss of the truth itself. But is that what is happening here?

When I read Alsup and others, I heard a collection of sisters serious about the faith, embracing the Bible and complementarity (sometimes admittedly against their sinful inclinations), who want to be useful to the Lord and His church, but who also have a critique to offer. I hear some women who have had sometimes painful experiences with malpractice. And I hear some women who are telling us that they’re picking up messages that major on exclusion and weakness–what women cannot do and what some teach as inherent feminine gullibility and debility or disability. I’m hearing some women telling us that some fundamental affirmation of their beauty, dignity, purpose, and usefulness as women goes lacking in our teaching and our community. They are listening to us as women—as God has made them—and they are endeavoring to tell us something about that experience of hearing our teaching and receiving our leadership.

To borrow from one sister who I thought at points wrote beautifully and helpfully of this critique:

“We want you to understand that male is not the default setting for human existence. That being female was not an afterthought or a derivative. We want you to understand that we happily defer to you, but not easily. That submission is a sacrifice we gladly offer but it is a sacrifice nonetheless. It is a sacrifice precisely because we are equals. And deferring to you in our homes and churches requires a strength that only God can provide.”

We need to hear these critiques even if we don’t agree at every point along the way. We need to treasure this precisely because we are complementarians of a biblical variety, whether “old school” or “hard core.” I think we need to hear it because I’m certain we’ve all seen and heard enough of the malpractice to know that our sisters’ critiques are not unfounded. It would be to the blessing of our sisters in our churches if we could mine everything that’s good and necessary from this perspective so that we might speak of and live out complementarity beautifully.

What Some Women Miss. On the other hand, I long for some sisters to hear some very real concerns at both the broader cultural level and at the most practical level of home. Culturally, we are still in the battle for a vision of flourishing gender in biblical roles. But the battle lines have shifted in some regards. When some of the “old complementarians” took up arms in this fight, there were snarling opponents outside the church and inside the church. To them it seemed an almost lost cause from the beginning. Their leaning into the storm was a tremendous act of courage and faith. Many of the chief opponents held influential pulpits and presidencies at Christian institutions. I hope they might be forgiven if sometimes the tone they use seems battle-hardened, perhaps more fitting for that “old” struggle against those “old” enemies.

Many of these stalwarts are, frankly, surprised that so much ground for complementarity has actually been warn. Yet some of them (or more accurately, their followers) may not have realized that they don’t have to capture the same ground twice. They don’t have to respond to sisters on the same team with tones and comments similar to how those developed over years of strife and conflict. But I hope they might be forgiven if they sometimes react with a little PTSD when they hear sisters “inside the camp” seemingly evoking the arguments of “enemies” long declared opposed to a biblical view. When you’ve been fighting on one front for so long you can begin to respond to every front much the same way. Everything looks like a nail to a hammer. But these men and women are not calling for an oppressive patriarchy as I understand it. To equate them with patriarchal oppressors of women does them a significant disservice and fails to pay proper respect to the gains they’ve won for us all. Hence, again, the need for definition and carefulness.

Moreover, I long for some sisters to hear the argumentation for the typical understanding of Genesis 3:16. That understanding best represents the general state of things when it comes to the typical experience of breakdowns in of complementarity in the home. I don’t doubt for a moment that there are plenty of women who do not wish to rule over their husbands. We don’t want to stereotype. But my pastoral counseling experience teaches me that the woman’s “desire for her husband” all too often does, in fact, look like a usurping of roles, a grasping for authority and control. What I see in homes isn’t just “idolatrous desire for a husband’s affection” but also a strong craving to “rule over the man.” And in surprising ways those two sinful inclinations tend to twine themselves together. The more she grabs for rulership, the less affection she receives from a retreating husband. The more a woman craves that affection but doesn’t get it, the more she defaults to control as a mechanism for coercing it. And on it goes. Pastorally, I think the “new wave” interpretation of Genesis 3:16 really misses the experiential mark for tons of women. Since Alsup’s interpretation of Gen. 3:16 is foundational to her description of “NWC,” it seems further thought and adjustment is needed at precisely this point. This is, after all, where the rubber most painfully hits the road and burns our dreams.

Speaking Beautifully about the Beautiful

Let me say that I mostly agree with Kevin’s response to points 4-6 of Alsup’s articulation of “New Wave Complementarianism.” As already mentioned, I think the typical interpretation of Genesis 3:16 is more compelling. I’m less negative about feminism than Kevin seems but also less sanguine than Alsup. What I appreciate about feminism is what perhaps Alsup appreciates—it was an effort to correct oppressive actions against women. I think we’re all against such oppression. But I’m less sanguine than Alsup (perhaps?) because feminism responds to oppression by placing an explosive charge at the very pillars of a biblical understanding of gender and gender roles. That’s been far more destructive in its effects than seemingly acknowledged in Alsup’s appreciation.

But, honestly, from my vantage point, our debate about those things feels and seems much less important than our ability to describe and live a complementarian vision with beauty and dignity and grace—on the ground. If we don’t learn to speak of a beautiful thing beautifully, we won’t make much more progress in either direction. If our practice isn’t our apologetic (1 Tim. 4:14; Titus 2:405, for ex.), then we won’t really have anything to commend.

In some of the “New Wave” posts, wonderfully poignant points were made. But they would also be marred with a kind of agitation and advocacy that I’m sure felt necessary but to me marred the beauty. You could leave feeling like you were the enemy rather than the complement. Likewise, in the counter responses, to the extent that they miss the “gist” of our sisters’ concerns, it’s not difficult to see how some women might go away feeling as if they were just tagged with the “egalitarian,” “feminist” or “problem” label. What they felt could be beautiful might seem trampled upon with slippery slope warnings.

It seems to me that we need a lot more work on describing the essential beauty of femininity and complementarity. We need to repeatedly point to that almost ineffable quality of womanhood that makes it regal, splendid, alluring, and necessary in essence. Womanhood is not an afterthought or a surplus. I know everyone knows and understands that, but do we make it a major point in our teaching and treatment of each other?

We need a lot more work on describing the functional beauty of femininity and complementarity. How womanhood works is in itself beautiful. Women are not men with different reproductive organs. They are, as God designed them, uniquely capacitated to work and do. We ought not be afraid of the phrase “women’s work,” because I suspect God did have in mind a “women’s work” that uniquely belonged to them, not in  the sense of relegated insignificance but in the sense of a fuller and distinct revelation of something about himself. And that’s beautiful. It’s Satan’s work to make us think otherwise.

We need to discuss the spiritual beauty of femininity and complementarity. I find the invitation to think about the imago Dei more frequently in these discussions an attractive opportunity. I’m no Barthian or neo-Barthian and I don’t feel myself in danger of Kevin’s concern here. But I’m certain God had intention, purpose, design beyond body when in infinite wisdom He decided to make woman. The spiritual qualities of womanhood and how they are both similar and dissimilar to manhood could use more treatment, especially as it beautifies those qualities rather than obfuscates them.

Finally, we need to discuss the moral beauty of complementarity and femininity. It’s good and right to be a woman who embraces both the limits and the freedoms that God gives. That goodness and rightness needs articulation. We need constant description of how moral flourishing happens when we abide in this vision of our humanity.

I wonder if we might be able to seize this opportunity to think and write beautifully about a reality that is itself beautiful. Or will we miss this potential because, truthfully, miss the opportunity to be complementarians?