Adj. Pertaining to complementarianism and egalitarianism.

***Working to be a safe place for all sides to share.***


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Tilting in the Lists

This may seem an odd title for a blog post, and for anyone who didn't grow up reading stories about knights in shining armor, it may take some explaining. "Tilting" is another term for jousting, and the "lists" were the roped off lanes through which the knights would charge at each other. What's this got to do with the complegalitarian debate? Well, it strikes me that there is a lot of verbal jousting taking place over the subject of "lists."

Consider the following comment on a recent post:

I believe that if the man has any kind of authority, then he needs a rule book the size of the laws of any civilized country to define this so-called authority. The wife needs something to appeal against. It should define the freedom to vote for whoever she likes, the freedom to exit and enter the house, the freedom to communicate with others, the freedom to choose her own reading material, etc.

In fact, the list would be so demeaning that when it is done, the woman must ask how she can respect a man who requires a list like this. But, then how to live without the list?

Many egalitarians request, or even demand, that complementarians define exactly in what respects a man has authority in the home. This is a perfectly reasonable request, especially given the extent to which abusive husbands claim "authority" over every aspect of their wives' and children's lives. Not only that, but such men tend to be extremely capricious, constantly changing the "rules" so that their wives and children can never succeed in satisfying their demands. This is part of the abuser's strategy, because it keeps those he is abusing confused, unstable, and at the mercy of his every whim.

Complementarians absolutely detest such abuses and are eager to make it clear that this is not the kind of "authority" they affirm. So they sometimes respond with lists of right and wrong exercises of authority.

It's not just egalitarians who ask complementarians to produce lists of dos and dont's. Someone in the comments once wrote insightfully about "immature" complementarians who want to know exactly where to draw the lines in their attempts to live out their respective gender "roles." In response to such well-intentioned inquiries, complementarian authors often oblige with pastoral attempts to lay out what "proper" roles generally look like.

While I understand both reasons why a complementarian author might be tempted to make a list of dos and don'ts, I think it's generally a mistake to do so. First, specific lists of dos and don'ts are incredibly easy to pick apart, which is exactly what egalitarians do with such lists. Second, even if the "list" is presented as a general set of guidelines based on the author's individual experience, such lists typically get received (both by egals and comps) as hard and fast "rules." The inevitable result is that egalitarians will take exception to some of these "rules" and point to people for whom such "rules" would clearly be oppressive. Likewise, immature complementarians will do their best to observe such "rules," even when those "rules" simply do not fit their particular situation. Thus, what may have been intended as guidelines and working examples becomes received as commandments written in stone.

Lists of specific dos and don'ts, no matter how well-intentioned, will ultimately encourage legalism. As 2 Corinthians 3:6 tells us, "the letter kills."

Contrary to what some egalitarians seem to think, complementarian husbands and wives do not generally spend a lot of time dividing up roles and coming up with lists of what's allowed for him and what's allowed for her. In fact, I think many complementarians imagine egalitarian husbands and wives doing that! After all, if every role is nebulous and every decision must be negotiated, there seems to be tremendous potential for bickering and monitoring and drawing lines in the sand.

I think the reality is that most couples, whether they define themselves as egalitarian or complementarian, deal with these kinds of questions whenever some point of contention arises. We don't sit around making lists, nor should we, since "the letter kills."

On the other hand, "the Spirit gives life." As a husband and father, I understand the Bible to be teaching me to love my family and do them good. My goal is their holiness and their happiness. I also see myself as answerable to God for my treatment of them. There's no place for abuse in that kind of understanding of marriage and family life, and it is that understanding which keeps whatever "power" I have in check.

Whether egalitarian or complementarian, we need to stop jousting over our lists of specific dos and don'ts. The "letter kills." Instead, we need to teach both men and women to stop resorting to sinful tactics in order to get their own way. How is that possible? Only by the power of the Spirit, who "gives life."