After Patriarchy, Part 1: Now What?

The curtain has been drawn. The questions have been sharpened, the stakes clarified, and the issues focused. And the dust is starting, it seems, to settle. Now — now — is the time to stretch our reading to the other side of this debate, to add Davidson to Davenant, Block to Bavinck, Collins to Cyril, Milgrom to Monothelitism. Now, in short, is the time for those who are able to begin to attend to the large and important scholarly literature in the areas of gender, sexuality, marriage and divorce, abuse, and related areas in the same way we ordinarily attend, with delight, to the literature on other theological topics.

The discussion underway, after all, needs to go somewhere constructively. Having worked in these areas intensively for the better part of the last decade, I can’t help but hope that many will do so. Has this debate led to better reading in the doctrine of God? Likely so. But those who now know Ayres on the trinity might also consider picking up Loader on sexuality. Have we rediscovered the deep wisdom of the early Reformed orthodox who taught with profound nuance about trinitarian relations? Undoubtedly. And those who know Muller on Reformed Orthodoxy might now also take some interest in the longstanding scholarly discussions over the status of women in biblical legal texts. Those who know Gregory of Nyssa on the trinity could now also read him on gender. And so on. No, not everyone needs to become a scholar of such things, but some familiarity goes a long way. Pretend it has to do with the extra Calvinisticum if you have to, but take an interest. Become generally familiar with a body of literature that is arguably at least as relevant and useful for everyday life as most of the other things we study. The fruit of many years of scholarship are ripe for picking, and the ears of many have been newly opened to the urgency of these topics. Having been awakened to the importance of these areas of life and fellowship, perhaps now is the prime opportunity to advance understanding along positive lines.

It is important to remember why this recent trinitarian debate began. The original concern was not trinitarianism per se, or more specifically subordinationism as a lone controversial idea, but the translation of trinitarian subordinationism into prescribed norms of marital, domestic, ecclesiastical, and societal patriarchy. As the subordinationism debate now seems to be resolving somewhat, I suggest that we keep in view the need to be positive rather than only negative. Rather than content ourselves with having learned more of what we should not say and do along these lines, I ask us to account now for the great need of our time, which is to take steps in the direction of what we should say and do.

This is all the more important in light of the collapse of complementarianism as a useful category. Like some others, I no longer identify myself as a complementarian, not because I reject the complementarian conclusion on ordination to certain church offices, but because the term itself has come to include many ideas and commitments I do not and cannot share. Whatever one’s position in these debates, the usefulness of “complementarian” and “egalitarian” is now rather narrowly limited to the question of female ordination to certain church offices. Even then, however,  the terms are arguably far too risky to be serviceable because they are regularly confused with certain specious arguments used in support of those conclusions. Much complementarian scholarship has proven to be question-begging and weak while other examples have been strong. Yet the same can be said of egalitarian scholarship in both respects. Rejecting bad arguments for complementarian conclusions on the ordination question, therefore, is not the same as rejecting that complementarian conclusion. Again the same holds for egalitarian scholarship which one may find compelling on any number of points without thereby being “egalitarian” as a result. Sound scholarship cannot hesitate in the very democratic rejection of bad scholarship of any sort and from any source. It proceeds with a willingness to be perhaps most critical of those with whom we know we agree in the end. It is not only the conclusion that matters, after all, but the way there as well.

What now, then? I offer a few remarks here to open a series of posts on our thinking and practice “after patriarchy,” itself an idea which requires careful explanation (and will receive it starting in the next post).

Firstly, the positive alternative to complementarian patriarchy as a program or vision for gender relations must be driven by careful, informed thinking of a biblical and theological sort, and fueled by wide reading, humble conversation, and patience in prayer. As I have said on many occasions in conversations with those who labor in church contexts, the debates over gender relations, spousal abuse, divorce, and the like are among the most immediately consequential debates the church has. Unlike certain debates over, say, the varied functions of the Mosaic law or even subordinationism itself, the outcome of these debates immediately affects real people on the proverbial ground. We must tread very carefully, for lives are ruined or reclaimed by our behavior here.

For this reason among many others, the positive alternative we propose in the context of this recent subordinationism debate must be of a certain sort. Most urgently, perhaps, it must not be driven by cultural pressures, as reactions to complementarianism often are. Critics of those who demur from complementarian patriarchy often assume that objections to that model must be driven by the sexual revolution of our day and age. “There you go again,” they say, “letting the world tell the Church how to think.” Usually they are wrong, but sometimes they are right, and the possibility is always there to err in this direction. I cannot put this strongly enough: in proposing a better way, we must not be driven by mere cultural pressures toward inclusivism, gender confusion, and the like. To listen to the cries of the culture is one thing, to have our thinking determined by cultural pressures is quite another.

Neither do we have to be in order to point to the better way. The positive alternative to complementarian patriarchy is better, but not because it is more fitting in our world today, not because it is more agreeable to contemporary sensibilities, and not because it solves all our problems and answers all our questions. It is better because it is more faithful to Scripture and the gospel. Only if this is true can it be better at all. And in fact a vast amount of solid biblical and theological scholarship over the last several decades warrants — no, demands — the responsible and patient reconsideration of some ideas the complementarian patriarchalists have taken for granted. Not only is it possible to suggest ways forward that are more faithful to Scripture and our Christian confession in biblical and theological terms; it is also a wonderful time to do so. The nature of recent research across the confessional spectrum, the advances in understanding of the tradition and of certain key biblical texts, and the astonishing availability of high quality resources put us in a position of great opportunity to do this work. (See the bibliography to come here soon.)

Secondly, we must not forget that arguing biblically and theologically, in a relentlessly humble and listening way, means being willing for Scripture to require the conclusion we least wanted to reach. This is the way of integrity, and I have been blessed to see it happen in many brothers and sisters who have revisited these questions themselves in recent years. (Speaking for myself, I have often been haunted by mistakes made on this front in the first years of my own pastoral ministry. I have also learned I am far from alone in this.) This is also the way of lasting success: rather than simply translating the gender idols of our society into Christian terms, speaking and thinking responsibly with the grain of Scripture puts the Church in the best possible position of strength for dealing faithfully with those rapidly changing cultural pressures.

Thirdly, the positive alternative must be restrained and careful, not reckless and reactionary. The destructive effects of patriarchy in recent decades have left our churches full of wounded, confused, and hurting men, women, and children. The faces of the problem we have on this front are very, very many. Yet we must take great care not to confuse the painful anecdote with the theological answer. Given the recent interest in rejecting unhelpful and unpersuasive models of complementarian patriarchy, we should acknowledge the temptation to identify with every idea, book, blog post, or social media remark which affirms women in some way, no matter the context or circumstances. Sometimes those affirmations are useful and sober; sometimes they are not. To avoid the dangers of reactionary error, the most responsible and well-informed voices need to be clear that, for example, our rediscovered sensitivity to the dark reality of spousal abuse does not mean we do not need to be very careful in identifying spousal misconduct as “abuse.” Our most responsible reading of what “submission” does and does not mean should not somehow entail, for our thinking or our rhetoric, that Scripture does not in fact teach that wives should “submit” to their husbands in the Lord. The fact of nuances and richness in biblical teaching on the grounds for a valid divorce does not mean divorce has limitless grounds (it does not), that divorce is no longer a significant problem in our day (it is), or that divorce ever takes place without the serious sin of at least one, though maybe only one, spouse (it only ever does). In these examples and many others, we must be painstakingly careful not to confuse our rejection of a bad idea or framework with the acceptance of every possible opposing one.

Put differently, it is important not to over-reach in interpreting the recent exposé of the deficiencies of subordinationist trinitarianism. Importantly, the rejection of subordinationist trinitarianism as a ground for male-female relations does not entail the rejection of any theological rationale for gender relations. Related to this, our vigorous rejection of distortions of headship need not include our rejection of the very notion of head or the neologism of “headship” itself. In my view, it requires instead our thoroughgoing reformation of the notion in the plentiful light of authoritative Scripture.

The opportunity is before us to take steps in the direction of humble faithfulness which serves Christ and his church well. We must remember that the most faithful thinking and practice in service of women and children in the church is also the most helpful and faithful service to its men. To a great extent, the reformation of our thinking about women and children in the home and church, marriage and divorce, and many related issues, is also the reformation of our thinking about Christian men. There are theological reasons for this which we will soon explore.

Next in this series, we will look at what has happened to the idea of marital and societal “patriarchy” in biblical and historical scholarship, its origins and elusive meaning, and why patriarchal complementarians are apparently the last to realize that this social-scientific convention has been abandoned (and rightly) by just about everyone else.


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