Saturday, May 12, 2012

When Complementarianism is More Problematic Than Patriarchal Hierarchy

It's been interesting to see the debate on complementarianism take off around the blogosphere lately (see Rachel Held Evan's great post, and another over at Femonite).  Glad to see it happening, as this remains an important issue in the church today, especially for those of us who have a background in evangelicalism.  I have been in conversations many times with well-meaning evangelicals who just don't see the problems with complementarianism, either from a biblical or practical perspective.  In other words, they think that complementarianism 'works' for some couples, so why challenge it? But I think Rachel Held Evans was right to point out that in actual practice, complementarianism is nothing more and nothing less than patriarchy. I've been thinking about this statement a lot for the last week or so and want to add a few theological comments.

If gender dualism is accepted, as complementarianism demands it must be, it raises all kinds serious issues.  It supports the simplistic and dangerous stereotypes of what a 'real man' and a 'real woman' should be.  Any man who is more stereotypically feminine or any woman who is more stereotypically masculine are criticized by complementarians for not conforming to their supposedly God ordained nature - married or not.  Thanks to the dualism inherent in the views of prominent complementarian Christian leaders like Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Tim Keller, and Al Mohler (wow, that's a lot of straight white conservative men!! hmmmm...), both sexism and heterosexism are alive and well in the evangelical culture today.  It seems to me that complementarianism simply can't handle the actual multiplicity that is characteristic of real life.  Its advocates fear genuine difference because their simplistic ideology is grounded in a Western theology obsessed with order - especially that sticky order of dualism or binaries.  But as Brazilian liberation theologian Vitor Westhelle writes, order is "most often an ideological disguise for domination, repression, and persecution."

Catherine Keller
When you think about it, Christian theology is often saturated with an obsession with order - but why is this so, and how can we move beyond it without creating a nihilistic mess?  Feminist process theologian Catherine Keller shows in her book Face of the Deep how the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo can in fact be used to legitimate gender dualism by creating an ultimate foundation: an absolute cosmic origin and a dictated order of nature from an omnipotent deity.  The problem is that there actually isn't such an absolute order/origin to be found in the Genesis narrative (nor in the views of postmodern science, for that matter).  In fact, what we have in Genesis is God's creation out of the Deep, a dense multiplicity that is always already there, and God lures it toward greater harmony and intensity: and God said "Let there be differences! But the difference itself will have preceded its Word."  The biblical word for this Deep is tehom, as in "the earth was tohuwabohu and darkness covered the face of the tehom."  As Keller writes, "Might tehom henceforth suggest the chaoid (so not necessarily chaotic) multidimensionality of a bottomless Deep: the matrix in which the creation becomes?  In which the strange inter-fluencies of creatures - in ecology, predation, genetics, cultures - crisscross the abyss of difference?"  She brands homogenizing ideologies like complementarianism that fear the "chaoid multidimensionality" of creation as tehomophobia, while on the other hand calling for a more tehomophilic theology that can embrace the multiplicities of life.

Joerg Rieger
Another important critique of complementarianism that I want to mention is from political theologian Joerg Rieger in his book Christ and Empire, who sees this ideology as a symptom of the 'Spirit of Empire.'  He points out that while Paul largely affirmed the equality of men and women in his writings, as in Galatians 3:28, his egalitarian views often were distorted when read through certain Deutero-Pauline writings, like 1 Timothy 2:12, that are much more patriarchal (I am reminded here of Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan's great book The First Paul in which they argue similarly by differentiating the radical Paul from the conservative and reactionary Paul).  While these Deutero-Pauline texts support hierarchy and/or complementarianism, we might return to the question considered at the beginning (and in the title) of this post: what is more problematic?  We might assume patriarchal hierarchy, but in fact, Rieger points out, complementarianism can be worse because it conceals unequal relationships by naturalizing and absolutizing gender differences.  It uses softer language ("complement") that takes some of the edge off of a troubling perspective.  I conclude with Rieger's provocative response to our initial consideration:

"Complementarity in this context is a more insidious concept because, like the idea of hierarchy, it naturalizes differences, but unlike hierarchy, it tends to hide power differentials.  If women and men are seen in hierarchical relationships, the power differential is clear; if women and men are seen in complementary relationships, however, each appears to fulfill an important role as part of a larger whole and even the most subservient roles of women are justified.  The question of power is thus covered up."