Adj. Pertaining to complementarianism and egalitarianism.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Equality or Uniformity?

The other day, Wayne linked to an "open letter to egalitarians" in which a complementarian blogger asked a series of "semi-pragmatic" questions about how egalitarians would react to various situations. The questions he asked all seemed to be aimed at teasing out of egalitarians what they see as appropriate masculine and feminine behavior: stuff like whether the husband or wife should confront a burglar in the house, whether an egal woman would be offended if a man held the door for her, etc.

At first, I thought these questions were largely silly and focused on issues which are not really at the heart of the complegalitarian debate. As Molly wrote in one of the comments on that post, egalitarians do not necessarily deny gender distinctions and are capable of recognizing some form of "complementarity" between the sexes. However, as I read many of the responses by those who identified themselves as egalitarians, I was disappointed to see a vision of the sexes which seemed to blur, minimize, or otherwise gloss over gender distinctions. Perhaps the complementarian blogger's questions weren't as far afield as I had thought.

Wayne then asked his own series of "true or false" questions, the first of which being, "Complementarian husbands do not treat their wives as equals." One commenter responded, "I still think equal but different in practice means unequal. but I do know couples who are comp in theory and egal in practice, so I don't want to go overboard with the generalisations." I think this egalitarian was trying to be magnanimous, but there are two things about this statement that bother me.

First, there's the bit about "comp in theory and egal in practice," which I hear tossed about by egals quite frequently. Basically, this kind of thinking tells me that I have no way of really being heard or taken seriously. If I describe the way I treat my wife, and egals conclude that I really do treat her as an equal, then they will simply conclude that I am inconsistent: that I am a "practical egalitarian" who fancies himself a complementarian. My perspective is that treating my wife as an equal is absolutely consistent with my complementarian understanding. Will that perspective be taken seriously, or summarily dismissed as a logical impossibility?

Second, there's that statement about "different but equal" practically meaning unequal. This is another egalitarian assertion I hear quite often, and it is effective because it has the ring of a truism. After all, in American history, "separate but equal" was the stated goal of racial segregation in education. The idea was that you would have black schools and white schools, and that students at each would receive an "equal" education. The reality of course was that white schools got most of the funding, so practically speaking, there was gross inequality in the quality of education received by black and white students. The idea that husband and wife can be regarded as "different but equal" therefore sounds like another thinly-veiled attempt to justify oppression.

The question I have is this: "Are men and women not different?" If the answer is that we are different in any real sense (beyond genitalia), then there must be some sense in which we should strive to be "different but equal."

Are our only options to downplay our differences in order to pursue a meaningful equality, or to emphasize our differences to the point where equality is impossible? Feminism has tried for generations to minimize the differences between the sexes, to claim that most perceived differences are the result of nurture rather than nature, and to push for a sexual uniformity which is problematic on many levels. At the other extreme, male supremacists exaggerate the differences between men and women, claiming that men are innately superior. As mediating positions between these two extremes, egalitarianism and complementarianism must both come to terms with how we can recognize and celebrate our differences while also affirming our fundamental equality.

In our home, I regard both myself and my wife as equally created in the image of God, so that we have the same intrinsic value and the same fundamental humanity. We have likewise both equally been corrupted by the Fall, so that our capacity for depravity runs equally deep. We therefore have equal need of a Savior, and equal access to salvation in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:28, 1 Peter 3:7). In Christ we have equal access to the Father, so that he hears and answers her prayers as readily as he does mine. In Christ we are both indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and so are equally capable of discerning God's will. When it comes to our essential nature and our relationship with God, my masculinity counts for nothing.

Yet this recognition of our fundamental equality does not mean that I treat my wife (or any woman, for that matter) the same way I would a man. As sexual beings, Lisa and I are built differently, we think differently, we react differently to the same situations. She sees things to which I am blind and vice versa. It is this recognition of profound differences between us, differences rooted in nature as well as nurture, that drives us to try to understand and learn from each other. It drives us to become interdependent, variously leaning on each other's strengths and compensating for each other's weaknesses. Ultimately, we recognize the differences and that affects the way we treat one another.

We need to be careful not to confuse "equality" with "uniformity." Personally, I cannot embrace any vision of gender which tells me that my desire to protect and provide for the women in my life is somehow arrogant, sexist, or paternalistic. I cannot embrace a vision of gender in which treating women as equals practically means treating them as nothing special. I know not all egalitarians promote such a vision, but it surprises and saddens me that many seem to.