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« What do you get out of church? | Main | Bowled over ... not. »

"Complementarianism" is no compliment

I learned from Associated Baptist Press (since I no longer receive unsolicited review copies) that LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention has published a two-volume Bible commentary (for the Old and New Testaments) that's marketed to women. That comes as no surprise, nor is it surprising that the volumes would be co-edited by Rhonda Kelley, wife of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary president Chuck Kelley, and Dorothy Patterson, whose husband Paige is president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

And, it's no surprise that the commentary is designed to promote a "complementarian" view of the genders, a view that really conservative interpreters call "biblical womanhood." At least the volumes are named "Women's Evangelical Commentary" on the Old and New Testaments, lest they be confused with more feminist-oriented commentaries that target women. It's unfortunate that the word "evangelical" has become a virtual synonym for "fundamentalist," but its inclusion (along with its publisher) lets the reader know up front which tack the commentary takes. 

The basic argument of "complementarianism" is that God created men and women with equal worth, but assigned them different roles in which the man is to lead and the woman is to submit, both at home and in church. This is portrayed as the biblical view of womanhood, as opposed to more liberated views of equality between genders that are common to Western culture.

Here's the main problem with the "complementarian" view: biblical stories reflect the prevailing culture of their own time, a highly male-dominant culture in which exceptional women could occasionally shine but were always clearly subservient to men. Even women typically held up as heroes (like Ruth and Esther) achieved their fame by playing along with cultural expectations, dolling themselves up and fawning over the men they hoped to impress.

The problem is that biblical inerrantists, who assume that the Bible way is the only way, assume that male dominance is inherently a divinely-intended biblical value rather than a reflection of the ancient cultures in which the biblical stories took place.

Those cultures also called for regular doses of blood-vengeance, a wholesale acceptance of slavery, and capital punishment for minor offenses. Should we argue that those practices establish biblical standards rather than recognizing them as cultural influences reflected in the biblical world? Of course not.

Neither should we assume that God created women to be subservient to men just because that's the way it was in the cultures of against which the Bible was written, and therefore in the minds of some biblical writers -- all or most of whom were men. 

The world in which we now live continues to reflect a variety of cultures. Western societies acknowledge greater equality to women, at least in theory, though men continue to dominate the economic and political systems, and women's wages for the same work still falls behind those of men. 

Other cultures are unapologetically male-dominant. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women are expected to remain at home most of the time. They are not allowed to drive, and only recently were women given permission to work in sales; then only for the sale of women's lingerie. In Muslim countries dominated by religious fundamentalists, women must cover themselves from head to toe when outside the home, as if they are not truly humans with faces. In some African cultures, female circumcision and other practices are designed to disempower women and keep them under men's thumbs.

The awareness of competing cultural expectations in our own time should help us to understand that the Bible's reflection of its narrow cultural world does not necessarily imply a biblical endorsement or establishment of male dominance. God, whose own "personhood" is beyond gender, created both men and women in God's image, according to Gen. 1:27. That's the ideal: anything less is a cultural corruption, even if it is reflected in the world of the Bible.

Complementarianism is no compliment.

Reader Comments (5)

Thank you, Tony. We should also remember that even in the patriarchal world of the Old Testament women, led by God, stepped out of their assigned "womanly roles" and and stepped into roles that were supposedly only for men. For example, Deborah who was judging Israel. It makes one wonder, who makes the rules? Is it men or God?

Jan 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Ulrich

Hi Tony,
You know if You keep reading till 3:16 God Himself puts the husband in a ruling position in marriage, and in 2:18 ;"And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him". What is your definition of "help meet"? Do You accept God's definition of marriage or the world's?
If we let our "modern worldly view" dictate "God's position" why even open a Bible? I can't believe the presupposition the Bible was written by "bronze age, male dominant, goat herders" would be posted on a "Baptist" blog, I hear that allot on Atheist blogs.
In Isaiah 3:12, is God's observation about "women ruling" a good thing?
Sorry, but "since we all agree it must be true" may work in politics, but not with God.
BTW Susan, Deborah's praise was sung by Barak and Deborah, about how great Barak and Deborah was for Israel, but where was the praise from God?

Jan 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTheophile

Thanks for reading, Theophile, though I'm not sure where you got the goat-herders. That wasn't in my blog, though it would certainly be an accurate description of the patriarchs, whose flocks probably contained more goats than sheep.

As for "help-meet" in 2:18, that's an interesting word, "'ezer" in Hebrew -- particularly interesting in that elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, it is used to describe God, who does for Israel what Israel cannot do for itself. In the same way, I think, women make humankind complete, not by being an aide or a maid, but by working on equal footing with men.

As for Gen. 3:16, it's quite clear that the reference to female submission was considered to be a curse on Eve, a step down from the previous relationship of equality. It was ancient Israel's attempt to explain how things were, to give a divine justification for the male dominant nature of society.

I know that other people of sound heart and sincere mind read it differently, but that's how I see it.


Jan 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTony Cartledge

While I grant that I never took Hebrew in seminary, when I see the word "help-meet," what comes to my mind is that Eve was created to help Adam carry out the God-given mission of caring for God's creation. Nowhere until the Fall do I see any mention of any type of hierarchy or "roles" other than Adam was to care for creation and Eve was to help carry that mandate out. What was there was pure harmony in relationships, between God and humanity, human to human, gender to gender, humanity to creation, in which there was no striving, competition or need for "roles." When I read Paul's perspective in the New Testament, I cannot see anything else other than "redemptive-historical," meaning that it is God's plan to bring things full circle back to the way he created it to be before the Fall. I can't think of the Dutch theologian's name whose work I read in seminary who had this view, but I agree with it because of the way Paul sees Christ as the second Adam. I believe that God has placed his kingdom values in our hearts which are the values that he placed in the garden before the Fall which humanity distorted because of our sin. With the presence of God's Spirit in our hearts, we have been given the job within the church to begin to live out those values in view of the way God intended in the garden. While there is a tension in doing that within the culture in which we live, we must strive to make these values a reality as best as is possible. Jesus did that by elevating the status of women on his culture while on this earth and Paul did as well in his admonitions to the churches in his letters. In our current culture where equality is important, I believe we have been given a wonderful opportunity to see God's values become reality. The church is God's agent today for expressing the values he implanted in the garden at the beginning. Our focus must be on having those values be the goal, not maintaining a cultural tradition of male dominance which is man-made.

Jan 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJim Laupp

Ridderbos was the name of the Dutch theologian I believe

Jan 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJim Laupp

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