Adj. Pertaining to complementarianism and egalitarianism.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Engaged in Different Conversations

The comments on my recent post about gender were really enlightening to me. I'm realizing that much of the difficulty complementarians and egalitarians have in communicating is that we're each engaged in different conversations.

It seems clear to me that the fundamental issue with most egalitarians is the eradication of gender-based hierarchies in the church and in the home. I know, I'm displaying a penetrating grasp of the obvious!

But here's the thing. Complementarians are not primarily concerned with maintaining gender-based hierarchies, but with resisting a multi-faceted attack on what they regard as biblical understandings of masculinity and femininity.

In the aforementioned post, I expressed my surprise at how some egalitarians tend to minimize gender distinctions. I made no statements about one gender being more fit to rule another or to make decisions or to fulfill certain roles. Yet that was immediately where most of the egalitarians who commented on that post took the discussion. I was thinking of gender distinctions in a context of facilitating communication and interaction between husbands and wives, but the assumption among many was that I was trying to build a case for male rule. To counter any such tactical maneuvering, several egalitarians responded by downplaying gender differences or by saying that whatever differences exist, they are irrelevant to the conversation.

But which conversation are we talking about? The egalitarian conversation about the evils of gender-based hierarchies, or the complementarian conversation about what it means to be male and female?

Now, please understand me, I am not pretending that complementarians do not assert that leadership in the home and in the church is in some respect reserved for men. We do. But the driving concern for most complementarians is not the narrow question of who is supposed to lead, but the broader question of gender identity and how that plays out in relationship.

Let me also say that I am not asserting that egalitarians are not concerned about gender identity or that they don't focus on that broader question. They certainly do. But at the very least it seems fair to say that they are far less interested in making gender distinctions, and more than a little suspicious that such distinctions might be used to bolster some notion of hierarchy.

For the rank-and-file complementarian, the primary evil to be resisted is a feminist culture which has distorted gender and assaulted the family. For generations, men have systematically been told that their masculinity is a problem to be solved, that they have nothing unique to contribute, that women can do everything they can do and can probably do it better. Conversely, women have been told that working outside the home is more glamorous, rewarding, and fulfilling than working in the home and raising children, that men are brutes who want to take advantage of them, and that dependence on a man in any form will ultimately lead to bondage. Yet in spite of these pervasive cultural assumptions, popular culture continues to traffic in sexual stereotypes, women continue to be exploited in a seemingly endless variety of ways, men have become increasingly childish or churlish, and families have become alarmingly fractured. In short, half a century of feminism has done little to solve the problems it has tried to address.

Personally, I look at the failure of feminism like I do the failure of communism: both fail because they do not take the reality of human nature into account. Communism failed because it removed the worker's incentive to work, and it relied on the innate integrity of government officials to redistribute wealth fairly without abusing their power. Feminism, likewise, fails because it works against, rather than with, the reality of gender differences.

At its heart, complementarianism is an attempt to offer a Biblical antidote to the distortions of feminism, to promote a vision of "manhood and womanhood" which frees us to relate to one another in accordance with our own masculinity and femininity. It is a sincere attempt to be counter-cultural and Biblically based.

Whether or not complementarians succeed at being counter-cultural and Biblical is clearly open to debate, but I hope this helps to clarify the conversations most complementarians are interested in having. We're not talking about gender distinctions and complementary "roles" as some clever way to justify male leadership, but as a solution to the current morass of gender confusion.

Egalitarians, on the other hand, tend to zero in on the singular question of equality in the church and home, and they see anything short of full functional equality as fundamentally unequal. Consequently, when complementarians gravitate toward other questions, it may look to an egalitarian like an attempt to change the subject or to create oblique justifications for hierarchy. The egalitarian therefore tries to sidestep what are perceived as flanking maneuvers and to refocus the discussion on hierarchy. In doing so, they give the complementarian the distinct impression that egalitarians are operating from an essentially feminist perspective.

The more I listen to the arguments and perspectives presented on both sides of this debate, the more convinced I am that each group is engaged in a different conversation and motivated by different primary concerns. As each tries to steer the other back to the issues they regard as central, each gets the mistaken impression that the other is being unfair and stubbornly refusing to listen. Just as husbands and wives must work through countless misunderstandings in order to learn to speak one another's language, it would appear that comps and egals must do the same.