Friday, May 23, 2008

Actually Existing Complementarianism

Imagine someone who said to you: "I used to believe that premarital sex was just wrong. Then my daughter started dating and got pregnant. Since then our family has been completely overturned, and my Christian life devastated. As a result of all these troubles, I've realized all that stuff about premarital sex being against God's plan for families is just wrong." If you are like me, you'd think the logic was a bit strange. Isn't the trouble that follows from breaking the law you used to believe in normally seen as confirmation of the law's justice? I mean when violating some rule makes for unhappiness all around, we conclude that the rule might make sense. But if the person saying the opposite seems otherwise intelligent, we might assume that there is something else there, some hidden assumption going unexpressed, that makes the logic make sense. And if scores of other people agreed with the person when he said that, we might conclude that these hidden assumptions are actually widely shared. And that would be so even if those assumptions contradict the explicit theology of those persons.

I am thinking about the iMonk's recent post on his agony attendant upon his wife, Denise, becoming a Catholic (he's a Southern Baptist pastor). I would link to it, but it seems to have been removed by him from his site. I don't want to talk about the personalities and rights and wrongs of it all, but as I remember the post, it did have something of the shape: "I used to believe in a man's spiritual leadership in the home; my wife has rejected my spiritual leadership; my life and family are now in complete chaos; so I realize how wrong I was ever to believe in a man's spiritual leadership in the home." Now since this makes no sense at all logically and since the iMonk is certainly an intelligent person, it's clear that there are some hidden assumptions going unexpressed. And I am going to tell you what they are, and why they are there. And I'll start off by saying that those hidden assumptions are not his, but his quite accurate understanding of the sub-text of what "complementarianism"* means in churches that practice it.

Now, in theory "complementarianism" means something like this: "God has given to men a duty to exercise leadership (especially religious leadership) in the home and in the church." Corollaries include the idea that violation of this cause trouble, and so on. Let's call this "theoretical complementarianism."

But that is not all that "complementarianism" means, and not even the main part. It is certainly not the proposition that the iMonk saw completely shattered by his last year as his wife prepared to convert to Catholicism. Rather what was shattered is a quite different proposition: "When men exercise spiritual leadership in the home and church, women will inevitably welcome and follow this leadership." This would have the corollary that "If women deny male headship in church or home, it is all the fault of the men over them." You could also phrase it as "When men exercise spiritual leadership in the home and church, God hears their prayers and makes those who should follow, do so." Practically the result is the same: where men lead rightly women do, in fact and practice, follow. Let's call this proposition "actually existing complementarianism."

Now this would certainly be shattered by the iMonk's experience. He thought he was a good husband and good Baptist pastor -- and now his wife is rejecting his spiritual headship by becoming Catholic. So he now has two alternatives: 1) continue to accept actually existing "complementarianism" (as opposed to the theoretical version in the paragraph above) and take the blame as the bad husband and bad pastor whose failures drove his wife into Catholicism, and prevented God from responding to his desperate prayers; or 2) reject actually existing complementarianism. Now if theoretical complementarianism has been firmly enough linked to actually existing complementarianism, then rejecting the second will mean rejecting the first.

Now, what is the relationship between these two propositions? It certainly isn't some kind of logical corollary. Let's take an analogy: "God had ordained civil authorities as enforcers of the law and all citizens should obey" and "If civil authorities properly enforce the law, all citizens will obey" are independent propositions. None thinks the second follows from the first as some kind of automatic corollary. Likewise, the idea that good parents, for example, never get grief from teenage kids is not part of usual Christian teaching. So how did the Southern Baptist Church, and other churches teaching the same, get from one to the other in the case of husbands and wives?

Even stranger is that "actually existing complementarianism," despite being taught in Christian churches, seems to contradict Christian teachings about human nature. For example, original sin. How can we believe that an original sinner pastor/husband could ever exercise leadership well enough that "actually existing complementarianism" could be anything other than a purely theoretical issue? And how can we believe that even if the pastor/husband is perfect, an original sinner wife/congregant would inevitably welcome this leadership? I mean, does the Bible really teach that when prophets and priests lead in God's way that people always and inevitably follow? In fact, "actually existing complementarianism" is simply an assertion that both men and women can and will fulfill the law of theoretical complementarianism.

Actually existing complementarianism looks very much like Mencius; you know, the Confucian philosopher who argued that human nature is inherently good. Mencius was asked how a prince should get the common people to observe proper ritual. The answer? Just lead and the people will inevitably follow:

The prince said again to Ran Yu, 'Hitherto, I have not given myself to the pursuit of learning, but have found my pleasure in horsemanship and sword-exercise, and now I don't come up to the wishes of my aged relatives and the officers. I am afraid I may not be able to discharge my duty in the great business that I have entered on; do you again consult Mencius for me.'

On this, Ran Yu went again to Zou, and consulted Mencius. Mencius said, 'It is so, but he may not seek a remedy in others, but only in himself. Confucius said, "When a prince dies, his successor entrusts the administration to the prime minister. He sips the congee. His face is of a deep black. He approaches the place of mourning, and weeps. Of all the officers and inferior ministers there is not one who will presume not to join in the lamentation, he setting them this example. What the superior loves, his inferiors will be found to love exceedingly. The relation between superiors and inferiors is like that between the wind and grass. The grass must bend when the wind blows upon it." The business depends on the prince.'

Ran Yu returned with this answer to his commission, and the prince said, 'It is so. The matter does indeed depend on me.'

So for five months he dwelt in the shed, without issuing an order or a caution. All the officers and his relatives said, 'He may be said to understand the ceremonies.' When the time of interment arrived, they came from all quarters of the State to witness it. Those who had come from other States to condole with him, were greatly pleased with the deep dejection of his countenance and the mournfulness of his wailing and weeping.

Now Mencius believed firmly in the goodness of human nature and the naturalness of Confucian ethics. And there is something in this that responds to our usual moral intuitions. If the government is good, people will obey -- generally and as a rule. But conservative Presbyterians and Baptists believe just as firmly in original sin and the unattainability of the Christian ethic. So how did this teaching of actually existing complementarianism get established?

Certainly it is not particularly traditional. I have read quite widely in the pre-20th century Christian tradition, and while theoretical complementarianism is virtually universal in it, the actually existing kind seems nowhere to be found. In other words, a model of family life is set out, but there is no real expectation that just because the husband follows it the wife will -- or the other way around. In general if you act well, the other person in the marriage will frequently respond, but there's nothing inevitable about and nothing shocking when he or she doesn't reciprocate. So why is it so important to insist in conservative Christian churches that traditional sex roles is entirely up to the pastor/husband, and that he alone, simply by personal rectification, can inevitably make them welcomed in his household?

Several reasons, I think. One important one is because of the dynamics of the church teaching situation. Most teaching that takes place in Christian churches in a market environment is men teaching women. When a male pastor teaches actually existing complementarianism, he is doing several things: 1) assuring the women in his audience that they will not be, and cannot be, compelled to submit to their husband's leadership; it's purely voluntary. 2) He is building up his own sense of righteousness and manliness. Look at it this way: actually existing complementarianism has as its corollary that any man to whom women submit is exercising leadership properly (OK, it's not exactly a strict logical inference, but it's close enough for real life.) If I as a Southern Baptist pastor tell my mostly female congregation that they should submit to male headship in the family and church -- but only when the man's leadership is godly --, and they prefer my preaching to that of the Methodist church with a woman pastor down the road or to their own good-for-nothing husbands, well then, then my leadership must be godly than theirs. And godly in a specifically male way.

To a certain degree, then, "actually existing complementarianism" is a way of throwing down the gauntlet to other men: if you are a real man, your wife will welcome your leadership, and if she doesn't -- well then, you mustn't be a real man. Now if the iMonk was raised in this kind of environment it's easy to see why his wife becoming Catholic was a shattering humiliation. He could either live with the humiliation or rip up the whole game. No wonder he chose the second.

But this sort of real man one-ups-manship has been going on for a long time, and actually existing complementarianism is a new thing. So there must be something new in the situation to account for it. Here's the new thing: complementarianism has become an "ethnic" marker, a marker that separates the people of God from outsiders. And it is the distinctive feature of such marker-laws that they have to be attainable. Think of it this way, if not eating pork is the mark of a Jew as one of the people of God, then not eating pork has to be a fulfillable command. If somehow it's not possible to not pork, then all kinds of people who want to be Jews will be turned from Jews to gentiles against their will. And if your life is built around your religious community, that's pretty upsetting.

But the use of marital relations as a marker of being part of the people of God is actually pretty new. In 1858, liberal Episcopalians and evangelical Baptists all had pretty much the same view of family ethics. In 1958, differences were there, but with at a fairly high level of abstraction. But today, views on "complementarianism" vs. "egalitarianism" have becoming major denominational distinctives. If "complementarianism" defines the Southern Baptists, then "complementarianism," (like teetotalling, but unlike loving your neighbor, which all denominations try to do and all fail at perfecting) has to be do-able. Otherwise you won't have any credible "witness." If you are a member of, to chose a different example, a conservative PCA church, and want to remain so, having a good "complementarian" marriage, is as important as not eating pork as is to remaining an Orthodox Jew in good standing. (OK, I exaggerate a bit -- but only a bit.)

Now I can't think of anything less well-suited to be a dividing line between the clean and the unclean than marital relations. An insider/outsider marker should be: 1) easily documented, one way or the other; 2) clear-cut at any point whether you are living up to it or not; 3) Not connected to personality. Otherwise you are saying only one personality type is allowed in this denomination, which is going to drive vast numbers of growing children out of your body each generation; 4) individually determined, so that whether you adhere or not is under your own control, not someone else's. Now, you might point out that kosher rules are set by the family; if a wife refuses to keep a kosher kitchen, the Orthodox Jewish husband's stuck. But in this case, Jewish law allows and would even encourage divorce of a spouse who refuses to comply with membership codes. But in Christian churches, divorce is not explicitly recognized as an option (although in reality it plays an important under the table role in border-maintenance). But what you have in "complementarian" churches is a marker of cleanliness that is hard to check, dependent on endless subtle shades of interaction, determined by the interaction of two distinctive individual personalities, and in the end, out of the control of either partner. This can't help but cause anxiety.

(It is also true that explicitly liberal churches who place emphasis on being progressive have the mirror image problem, giving you the widespread figure of the bossy husband and mousy wife in a UU or Episcopalian church desperately denying that their family order is traditional patriarchy. But since liberal churches are in step with the wider society, are in fact the wider society at prayer, ideological consistency lacks the peculiar imperatives of border maintenance. If you admitted you act like a patriarch, despite believing in "a woman's right to chose", you'd just be a jerk, and not a social outcast.)

In this situation you need desperately to avoid the suggestion that justification by this particular Law is out of your hands. You have to believe that "complementarian" marriages are clearly and easily distinguished from "egalitarian" ones. That conscious belief and will, not the myriad shades of in-born personality types built by each person's unique nature and nurture, determines your interaction with your spouse. That husbands as leaders and wives as followers can indeed be close to sinless enough for actually existing complementarianism to apply.

To admit that these beliefs are obviously false, and would sound as strange and contrived in 1858 as they do today, is hard to bear. (Think of it this way -- have you ever read any good literature built on these principles? I thought not. And if it can't make a good novel, it probably can't be lived out in real life.)

But anything else leads to the dreaded condition of ethical fatalism, the believe that whether or not you are a good person and a member in good standing in the church is out of your hands. And that dreaded condition was what giving your life over to Christ was supposed to get you out of.

So my conclusion is, that "actually existing complementarianism" is created not by traditional Christian doctrine ("theoretical complementarianism") itself, but by that doctrine in interaction with a particular sociological situation: gathered congregations in a religious market in a society with serious conflict over marital ideals . Since those sociological features aren't going away, so too actually existing complementarianism isn't going to go away any time soon. But as you could probably tell, I believe it is overall pretty destructive. That is, however, not because traditional Christian teaching on the family is wrong, but rather because this good Law is being misused. I tend to agree with the biologists that people are mammals, and that means that when males are actually in the pack they generally lead it, and that females have a natural connection with child-raising*. People are overall happier and children are overall better raised where our heritage as a particular sort of mammalian creatures is worked with and not fought against. But daily interaction between husband and wife is just not something that can be legislated. If churches want border-markers between "complementarianism" and "egalitarianism" let them use nice and simple devices that are suited for the purpose, such as wives taking their husband's family name, or including "obey" in wedding vows -- do it once, in public, and then you can forget about it and get on with trying to be a good husband and father, wife and mother, without letting -isms get in the way. That's the approach of conservative liturgical churches and while it is less effective at challenging the broader society, it breeds fewer shattered and bitter opponents like the iMonk.

UPDATE: Here it is in black and white, as another comment of Michael Spencer's troubles.

*I must say, the sheer ugliness of this word is something of a tip-off to the absurdity of some of the views associated with it. It reminds me of what Disraeli once said of "conservatism" back when that new word replaced good old "Tory": "It sounds like something made by a pastry chef."
**Spotted hyenas, where females lead the pack, also have pseudo-male genitalia and aggressive temperaments due to an embyonic bath of testosterone. They are the mammalian exception that proves the rule (more here).

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