Overreach and unintended consequence are dangers that all of us face, risks that all of us run. When the Apostle Paul instructed Titus about the elders who should minister on the island of Crete, the self-control he urged was one of moderation, of knowing how to avoid extremes. That virtue should be the aspiration of every Christian, but often its benefit gets lost in the mechanisms of how we live, feel, and make decisions.
An area which has suffered terribly in this regard is that of understanding biblical manhood and womanhood. Recent events, and reflections on them on social media, have shown some of the fallout of an over-realised complementarianism which has found implications in Scripture which are not inherent in the text. The fruit of this has been a crass misogyny, an authoritarian animus which bears no resemblance to the biblical picture. In the worst of cases it has enabled, and even sponsored, abuse of the worst kind. It is right to bring these things into the light, and show the consequence of exegetical exaggeration and cultural appropriation. Satan didn’t merely question God’s speech in Eden, he added to it and made it more cumbersome than the Creator had stipulated – we must always guard against the same sin.
That is also true, however, in terms of the reaction to this position. Twitter and other outlets are alight with debate and disagreement about what can and ought to be salvaged from the wreckage. Of deep concern is the dismissive proof texting which simply asserts that this is an arcane debate, a throwback from yesterday, an aftershock of patriarchy, a hegemonic system of control which has run out of fuel. This is less than what a balanced and scholarly espousal of egalitarianism offers, and it gives away considerably more than it intends.
Top among the texts to proof is, ‘there is neither male nor female’ (Galatians 3:28). This is often offered on the assumption that its truth and implications have not been factored into complementarian theology, and that it is the final line of the closing credits of interpreting Scripture in that way.
Not only is this an ill-quoted text, but it is also a problematic path to tread, both within and without the evangelical enclosure. If Paul’s statement is as conversation-stopping as appears to be claimed, if meaningful discussion must end at this point, then Christianity has given away more than it imagines. If Paul is positing a simple collapsing of distinction between male and female, then Christians must grapple with the ontological issues that such a position raises as well as its economic consequences. In other words if Galatians 3 dissolves functional distinctions between male and female then we run the risk of negating that distinction in terms of identity. If the gospel has abolished gender distinctions, if Paul’s handling of the issue here revokes a blind ‘patriarchy’ which had hitherto held sway, then we may have lost our voice in a world which is crying out for clarity in this very area.
Male and female are part of the glory of God’s original creation, and a relationship of sweet harmony was part of his order before the Fall. Adam found himself in the joyous and perfect paradox of distinction from Eve, and union with her. Anatomically and psychologically God implanted difference and deep communion into this most basic of relationships.
If we now see Paul as stepping that distinction down, if we are positing no difference, then we need to reckon with where the pieces of this position fall. The wider world is also crying ‘neither male nor female’, but in a much more logically coherent way than Christians are. Part of the cannibalism of third wave feminism is that it’s derision of gender distinction is now taking the gold at field and track, and ideologically what can be said in response?
Complementarian theology may have its issues and bitter ramifications when not consistently understood or applied, but a theology which can biblically balance equality of status with difference in function, which can reckon with biblically binary relationships, will be in a much better position to protect the creation realities which face such heavy cultural bombardment in the present day.