18 October 2018

Statement on Social Justice, 10 & 11: Sexuality and Marriage, Complementarianism

Now we come to the sections of the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel that will likely elicit the most discussion between supporters and opponents:

We affirm that God created mankind male and female and that this divinely determined distinction is good, proper, and to be celebrated. Maleness and femaleness are biologically determined at conception and are not subject to change. The curse of sin results in sinful, disordered affections that manifest in some people as same-sex attraction. Salvation grants sanctifying power to renounce such dishonorable affections as sinful and to mortify them by the Spirit. We further affirm that God’s design for marriage is that one woman and one man live in a one-flesh, covenantal, sexual relationship until separated by death. Those who lack the desire or opportunity for marriage are called to serve God in singleness and chastity. This is as noble a calling as marriage.

We deny that human sexuality is a socially constructed concept. We also deny that one’s sex can be fluid. We reject “gay Christian” as a legitimate biblical category. We further deny that any kind of partnership or union can properly be called marriage other than one man and one woman in lifelong covenant together. We further deny that people should be identified as “sexual minorities”—which serves as a cultural classification rather than one that honors the image-bearing character of human sexuality as created by God.
A generation ago, I doubt that the above affirmations would have caused controversy, but developments over the past half century in the larger culture have had their influence even on the church. The most momentous of these is the Sexual Revolution, which originated more than a century ago but accelerated its influence in two waves separated by depression and war: the 1920s and the 1960s. The latter of these decades proved to be the most enduring in its long-term impact and corresponds to the beginning of what I have termed the choice-enhancement state in Political Visions and Illusions. In this stage of the liberal project, human beings are increasingly defined, not by an intrinsic nature, but by their capacity to choose, full stop. What began centuries ago with an effort to reduce political community to a mere voluntary association (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, &c.) has now found its way into our social institutions as well, including marriage and family.


Fifty years ago the dawn of the no-fault divorce régime eviscerated the institutional character of marriage by making it easily dissoluble at the whims of the spouses—or, perhaps more properly, one of the spouses. Five decades later the very idea of marriage as a distinctive community had been replaced in an increasing number of legal systems with a redefinition of marriage as a mere private contract between (thus far) two persons of whichever sex. Moreover, the capacity to choose has tempted many to assume that even the created binary of male and female is "socially constructed" and thus subject to individual choice. The legitimate coming into his own of the individual has tempted many to assume that basic realities of life can be denied if the individual so desires. Those who decline to follow this trend are increasingly tarred with the reactionary label, as if the denial of reality is something obviously progressive and right. Yet no genuine seeking of justice is possible without an anchor in the real world, including the evident sexual differentiation of male and female. Here the statement is correct.

Now we proceed to complementarianism:

We affirm that God created mankind both male and female with inherent biological and personal distinctions between them and that these created differences are good, proper, and beautiful. Though there is no difference between men and women before God’s law or as recipients of his saving grace, we affirm that God has designed men and women with distinct traits and to fulfill distinct roles. These differences are most clearly defined in marriage and the church, but are not irrelevant in other spheres of life. In marriage the husband is to lead, love, and safeguard his wife and the wife is to respect and be submissive to her husband in all things lawful. In the church, qualified men alone are to lead as pastors/elders/bishops and preach to and teach the whole congregation. We further affirm that the image of God is expressed most fully and beautifully in human society when men and women walk in obedience to their God-ordained roles and serve according to their God-given gifts.

We deny that the God-ordained differences in men’s and women’s roles disparage the inherent spiritual worth or value of one over the other, nor do those differences in any way inhibit either men or women from flourishing for the glory of God.

Are differences between men and women due to nature or nurture? Are there differences that transcend the peculiarities of culture and can thus be said to apply to everyone? Or are men and women fundamentally the same except for some obvious differences in plumbing? In ages past it was generally assumed that men and women were different due to their respective distinct natures. Men were generally said to be aggressive and taking initiative while women were more meek and likely to follow the man's lead. Up until a century ago women were denied the vote in most western countries, although in fairness it must be admitted that they were never explicitly disenfranchised at an earlier date, and the vast majority of men could not vote either. Many Christians defended this exclusion of women from public life on what they assumed were biblical or at least traditional grounds. Aristotle notoriously asserted that "the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled" (Politics), an opinion echoed through the centuries.

It is beyond my purposes here to explore the nuances of feminism in its various manifestations, except to note that feminists differ with each other nearly as much as they differ with their nonfeminist opponents. Some will argue that men and women are fundamentally alike and should thus be treated alike in all areas of life. Others will argue that there is a wide gulf between men and women, with men operating an oppressive patriarchy and women functioning as the oppressed class. Both seek equality between the sexes (or genders, the currently favoured term), with the latter assuming that this can happen only by abolishing male privilege. The parallels to Marxist class analysis are evident here, with patriarchy playing a similar role to that of capitalism in the Marxian paradigm.

What about complementarianism? I believe that it is unquestionable that men and women generally complement each other—and, one hopes, compliment each other as well! Humanity obviously could not exist without males and females, and each brings something distinctive to society. We easily intuit that male and female are different, but we cannot always define what that difference is and how it plays out in the real world. On top of that, while every society mandates certain roles for men and women, each does so along different lines according to the varying cultures that people develop over long periods of time. Thus it is somewhat hazardous to claim that men naturally do this while women naturally do something else. While the two sexes may tend to gravitate to different work and leisure activities, attempting to harden these into fast rules may inadvertently create a straight jacket for some who are less able to fit the respective moulds. This is where legitimate male-female complementarity becomes complementarianism. It is not always true, of course, that an -ism brings us into ideological territory along the lines of liberalism, conservatism, socialism, &c., but that suffix may indeed tell us that something is amiss. An ideology usually picks up on one good thing and attempts to subordinate everything else to this one good thing. G. K. Chesterton expressed the matter well:

The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.

I believe this aptly characterizes both feminism and complementarianism. Feminism seeks equality between the sexes, a goal which in their minds outweighs all other considerations. Anything standing in their way is due to sexism, and this colours their analysis of a variety of perceived social ills. If women earn less than men, it cannot be due to women choosing to take extended time away from work to raise children. Similarly if more women than men go into nursing or more men go into competitive sports, this is a problem requiring solution.

A recent TED talk video, while properly focusing on raising girls to be brave, makes this assertion:

Boys . . . are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then just jump off head first. And by the time they're adults, whether they're negotiating a raise, or even asking someone out on a date, they're habituated to take risk after risk.
Anyone who has raised a son will tell you that boys do not need to be taught to play rough; they simply do play rough, and parents can exhaust themselves trying to channel this energy in a positive direction. An educational philosophy which attempts to remake boys to behave more like girls will likely fail both boys and girls. Here is where feminists need to submit their ideas to a reality check. If they do not, and when their efforts to effect social change inevitably run up against the intrinsic limits of male and female natures, they will be unable to admit that their ideological vision may be faulty and that humanity is not as malleable as they think it is. They may be tempted to resort to authoritarian means to get their way in the face of a recalcitrant society clinging to its old ways. Or they may cry backlash! and accuse those less persuaded of their ideas of waging a war against women.

Unfortunately, professed complementarians run a similar risk. Both feminists and complementarians offer prescriptive principles that are not always anchored in empirical reality. I prefer not to get into the debate over women's roles in marriage and the institutional church, as I do not have anything to add that might tip the balance one way or the other. Suffice it to say that the churches are divided in their interpretation of what Scripture actually teaches on the issue. Is Paul's injunction that women remain silent in the churches (1 Corinthians 14:34-35) meant to apply for all time? Or is it meant only for the Greco-Roman cultural setting in which he is writing? Christians differ, and one hopes that the statement's authors are willing to take their own advice on heresy (9) and not anathematize their brothers and sisters in Christ who might differ with them on a matter that does not depart from Christian truth so as to "destroy the weight-bearing doctrines of the redemptive core of Scripture."


Next: Race/Ethnicity.

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