Rachel Evans has written a post entitled “Will the real complementarian please stand up?” [For those who don’t know what this is, in brief from wiki: Complementarianism is a theological view held by some in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, that men and women have different but complementaryroles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, religious leadership, and elsewhere. Contrasting viewpoints maintain either that women and men should share identical authority and responsibilities in marriage, religion and elsewhere (Egalitarianism), or that men and women are of intrinsically different worth (a position usually known as chauvinism, usually male, although female varieties do exist).] In it she talks about how complementarians of all shapes and sizes have criticised her book for various things, including not presenting complementarianism accurately:
The problem with accurately portraying what complementarians believe about “biblical womanhood” is that complementarians do not agree on what they believe about “biblical womanhood.”
She raises a good question:
So my question for complementarians is this: What is biblical womanhood and who gets to define it?
My point here is not to discredit a movement for having a diversity of perspectives within it. (I’m a feminist, for heaven’s sake; I get it!) My point is that, despite insistent claims that they simply follow the “clear teachings of the Bible,” complementarians themselves are not in total agreement on what those teachings are. And despite all these references to a patently obvious and consistent hermeneutic regarding biblical manhood and womanhood, complementarians have failed to produce it. This should call into question the premise that Bible presents us with a single, straightforward blueprint for womanhood and that women who deviate from this blueprint are outside the will of God.
She then goes on to raise a bunch of other questions, mostly relating to what seem to be inconsistent interpretations of the Bible within the complementarian camp. Since the Catholic position is essentially complementarian, I thought I’d set about giving my understanding of the Catholic answers to these questions, which don’t really pose problems for us.
Before I do so, however, I’d like to make one observation: I thought it was interesting that one could pretty much replace ‘complementarian” with “Christian”, and one would have a pretty good summary of why Catholics take issue with Sola Scriptura. For example, taking my first quote from above:
The problem with accurately portraying what Christians believe about “biblical teaching” is that Christians do not agree on what they believe about “biblical teaching.”
My point is that, despite insistent claims that they simply follow the “clear teachings of the Bible,” Christians themselves are not in total agreement on what those teachings are. And despite all these references to a patently obvious and consistent hermeneutic regarding biblical doctrine, Christians have failed to produce it.
My point is this: this is not primarily a “complementarian” problem. It is a fundamental problem with the Protestant paradigm of Sola Scriptura, which is fissiparous [I’ve been wanting to use that word in a sentence for some time!] of its very nature.
Next: a summary of the Catholic view, in comparison to the Protestant complementarian and egalitarian camps (probably grossly over-simplified and generalised, I apologise):
Protestant egalitarian: the teachings and example of Jesus point to a new way of healing, equality, and mutual submission within male and female relationships. There is to be no more power struggle, no more “ruling over” one another. I.e., men and women are equal with (almost?) no difference, or at least no difference in roles
Protestant complementarian (according to Rachel): hierarchal gender relationships are God-ordained, so the essence of masculinity is authority, and essence of femininity is submission. Men always lead and women always follow. This sounds like different and not equal, but I’m not sure how many complementarians would profess that men and women are not equal in dignity.
Catholic complementarian: in the middle. Men and women are absolutely equal in dignity, made in the image and likeness of God, while masculinity and femininity each contribute something unique to humanity, with this contribution able to manifest itself in diverse ways.
So! To the questions!
One thing that frustrates me about complementarianism, as it is often expressed, is that it teaches men and women that God has specific expectations regarding gender roles but then fails to consistently or clearly explain exactly what those expectations are. My hope is that readers will come to the end of the book reminded the Bible—this ancient, diverse, powerful, God-breathed text—is far too complex to be reduced to an adjective, and that womanhood was never meant to be reduced to a list of rules and roles.
But even more frustrating has been a general refusal among complementarian leaders to engage in conversation about what the Bible actually says. For the past three years, on the blog and in the book, I’ve been asking questions about common complementarian positions on biblical womanhood. For example:
- If the Hebrew word ezer is used most often in Scripture to refer to God as a strong helper, why is it said to mean a subordinate when used in Genesis 2 to describe Eve?
Rachel here links to a previous article of hers in which she fleshes out this idea of the “helper”. Catholics agree wholeheartedly with this understanding of “helper”, understanding that God gave the woman to man precisely to be His divine help or strength. While this certainly implies mutuality, harmony, and equality of dignity, I think she leaves out of the discussion another important word: “fit”.
This particular Hebrew words denotes “completion”, or “fitting in the piece of the puzzle that is lacking”. If you look at one side of a valley, the thing that “fits” or completes it is the other side. Thus woman brings something unique to humankind that was lacking in man, and not only is this thing something “extra”, but in fact is the perfect complement, or completion of humanity.
So, basically, we wouldn’t be trying to say that it refers to a subordinate in Gen. 2.
- If man’s rule over woman is introduced in the context of a curse, why would Christians still enforce patriarchy when Christ’s death and resurrection have inaugurated a new creation in which the hierarchal barriers between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female are broken down and redeemed?
I don’t really have the time to read everything Rachel has written about the patriarchy (it seems quite a bit), but I suppose it refers primarily to men having authority to teach, and being the heads of their families. For Catholics neither of these are really an issue, as “teaching” in the sense that Paul talks about it is tied to the teaching of our bishops, who can only be men (for reasons completely unrelated to the complementarian debate), and so we have no problem with women lecturing in theology, leading bible studies, etc, which I understand are considered problematic in some Protestant circles. Family headship is something I might get to later…
- Is Proverbs 31 really meant to be interpreted prescriptively, or does its poetic format suggest it should be interpreted as a celebration of women rather than a to-do list for them?
I think it’s quite obvious that it’s a celebration of the woman who possesses wisdom, and what that might look like in action, and not a specific to-do list for all women in all times. [Well, that one was easy!]
- If it is “unbiblical” for women to teach or assuming leadership over men why are women like Deborah, Huldah, Miriam, Priscilla, Phoebe, and Junia praised in Scripture for doing just that?
Women can be found in the Catholic Church doing all the things these women did. The one thing I’ll be you won’t find any woman doing in either the Old or New Testaments is offering sacrifice, except through a (male) priest.
- Why is “wives submit to your husbands” taken more seriously than “submit one to another.” And if every biblical instance of these instructions for husbands and wives is either preceded or followed by instructions for slaves to obey their masters, (verses that have historically been used to support slavery), might it be prudent to consider the spirit of these instructions in their Greco-Roman context rather than literally applying the letter? (I asked several complementarians to engage in our “One To Another” series and none agreed.)
In the Catholic world, neither is not taken more seriously, they are taken together. My friend Laura has what I think is a great post on submission over at Catholic Cravings.
- Why are Paul’s instructions regarding Corinthian women wearing head coverings dismissed as cultural and specific to a unique audience, while his instructions regarding Ephesian women teaching the Ephesian church considered universally and timelessly prescriptive?
I think that while the head covering injunction is specific in practice, it is not in principle.
The principle behind this was that how a woman wore her hair, until recently, was a symbol of her status. That included her social rank and her marital status. For men, their status was expressed in the kind of hat they wore.
When one comes to Church, social status is irrelevant. All come before God equal. So, how to express this? By having men and women each remove the symbol of their status as appropriate. In accordance with this, women continued to wear veils or hats in the Catholic Church up until about 50 years ago.
At some point, however (I’m being a bit vague because I’m going off my memory and am not certain of specifics), this ceased to be the case: women did their hair just however they pleased, and men, for the most part, stopped wearing hats. This made the wearing of head coverings a bit of a non-issue, although it obviously also coincided with the Vatican II upheavals, which basically meant that what had become a good and valued tradition of the Church was rather thoughtlessly thrown out, simply because it was technically “necessary” anymore. See Laura again for a fun post on this topic.
- How can 1 Timothy 5 be used to characterize stay-at-home dads as “failures” when the context of those instructions is care for widows?
I’ve never heard this, but such an interpretation does indeed sound off.
- Is a single-income household with a father who goes to work and a mother who stays home really the only way to honor God? Is this really a “biblical” concept or does it impose modern Western cultural assumptions onto the text? Can Christians support such teachings when such a lifestyle is out-of-reach for many of the world’s poor, to whom Jesus first brought the gospel? And what about singles and non-parents?
No, it’s not the only way to honour God. But I think there is a place for talking about what constitutes the ideal way to organise family life, and once that’s been established, it puts us in a better position to figure out how to live in the non-ideal situations.
- How does the teaching that women are to be subordinate to their husbands in sex square with 1 Corinthians 7, which says the opposite?
It doesn’t square.
This post is already much too long, so I’ll end it there!!
Update: More of Rachel’s questions answered here: