“If gender is just a term in grammar, how can I ever find my way/
When I’m a stranger here myself?”
–Kurt Weill, One Touch of Venus
What follows is a kind of prolegomena to any future complementarian squabbling, or possibly a groundwork for the metaphysics of tango. It’s very incomplete and I’m extremely aware of the lack of exegesis and of specific prescriptions for behavior. But the former, I don’t feel equipped to do (though not by reason of my sex) and the latter, I choose at the moment not to attempt. This is, instead, an introduction and invitation for further conversation.
Humans come in two sexes, which is a good thing for the magazine industry and so on. It has until recently been an uncontroversial observation, but it’s not uncontroversial anymore in broader American culture, and while the Church generally still would allow it to be true, the implications of the observation aren’t really that much clearer in the Church than they are outside of her.
Christians share with non-Christians the observation itself; we also have other data—with which, too frequently, we lead. St. Paul talked about women, as some of my readers may be aware. But none of us (whether inside or outside of the Church) grew up with 1 Corinthians 11 as his or her primary source of data about what it means to be a boy or a girl.
An illustration of how challenging this topic is can be seen by a recent controversy of sorts. Throughout the end of August the Reformed blogosphere got its collective knickers in a twist, again, about the issue of women’s roles in the church and the household. Aimee Byrd, on the Mortification of Spin blog, took John Piper to task for arguing that there were things beyond raw native ability that should be taken into account when considering “whether a single Christian woman who is a complementarian should be a police officer.” “When I saw the question,” she wrote,
I thought, ‘Well this should be a short episode. Yes, as long as she can pass all of the education, physical, and background requirements for the job.’ But I guess I didn’t realize that there is a biblical manhood and biblical womanhood filter that this question needed to go through.
The idea that there is such a “biblical manhood and womanhood” filter which might impact this question deeply bothers her; that how men and women relate to each other outside the circumscribed world of Church and Christian household might be affected by anything “Biblical” is troubling to her.
That it might not is troubling to me—although the point is not so much “Biblical manhood and womanhood” as it is manhood and womanhood simpliciter. The Bible is God’s word; what it is talking about inerrantly, and what we are all talking about errantly, is, you know, the world. Us. Everything. Reality. Stuff. Therefore the question is not at first, what must we do if we want to “be Biblical” about manhood and womanhood, what rules must we follow?—but rather; “what are we, in reality, all the time?”
I don’t know the answer to the first question. I am very pleased to not offer my opinion about woman police officers, although in general I suspect that on specific questions I may be to the “left” of many in this discussion. But I think I know the answer to the second, at least a bit, and that’s what this essay is meant to be about.
In a later post, Trueman summarizes the Spinner position on these kinds of questions:
Here’s the thing. His distinction in point three—between male-female relationships “elsewhere” which are complicated, and those in the church and household which are, simple?, doesn’t really work; attempting to parse any of these roles at all “narrowly,” along “strict lines of submission” is absurd—no less so in marriage or church than in the workplace.
He is not in his wider point, I think, absurd. His fears, in points 4 and 5 here, are real fears, and point to real dangers. But the way of safety can’t involve a kind of schism at the heart of reality, a separation of the world into “Bible-world” and “ordinary-world.” It can’t involve a separation of ourselves. Holiness is something that implies, and calls us to, wholeness; if we find that our worldview makes us less whole and single-hearted, this must be a clue that there’s something wrong.
Anyway, then Aimee Byrd followed with a post specifically calling out Douglas Wilson as someone in the Piper camp on this issue (if not others) and Wilson got in a riposte. Trueman, in the episode of his Mortification of Spin podcast that came out later that week, summed up their position nicely: “We are complementarians,” he said, “that is, we believe in the limitation of the ordained office to men.”
Byrd and Trueman are arguing for what is essentially an individually-inflected capabilities theory of gender—we find out about the nature of a particular women exclusively by attending to her individual capacities; she should let her reflections on how she ought to conduct herself be guided exclusively by what she is able, personally, to do.
Now of course attending to capabilities is one part of the detective work of metaphysical and ethical investigation. And of course considering what one is able to do is part of the detective work of discerning a vocation—whether to (for example) detective work, to motherhood, to celibacy, to sport-stardom. And we have to be very careful in talking about this kind of thing: a woman who has a teaching gift of some kind can be shattered by a pastor who tells her to sit down and shut up because her teaching gift cannot be exercised from the pulpit and therefore can’t really be part of God’s design for her life, for herself.
But capabilities arguments ought to give any orthodox Christian pause, if she remembers other ways they have been used: it was argued by the philosophically naive and theologically unorthodox of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that black people, having as they believed a lesser “capacity” for reason, participated less thoroughly in human nature. It is currently argued by the philosophically naive and theologically unorthodox in our age that unborn children and young infants, as well as those who are damaged in their capacities (and again, this is often, though not always, a question of their capacity for reason) participate to that degree less thoroughly in human nature. If you find these kind of arguments as your bedfellows, you may want to consider whether you’ve gone wrong at some point.
Byrd and Trueman both argue nearly exclusively from Scripture, and tend to divorce what God’s word says about God’s world from God’s world itself. “I rarely read complementarian literature these days,” says Trueman, “I felt it lost its way when it became an all-embracing view of the world and not simply a matter for church and household.” But this is like railing against legislating morality; arguably if there’s no moral aspect to a question at all, what are you doing legislating it? Likewise, if this stuff isn’t embedded in the nature of reality, what is it doing in the church and household?
In Byrd’s and Trueman’s pattern of argument, Scripture simply says things; God simply lays down laws; and these laws are to be accepted not as clues to the nature of the world that God has made, but as divine fiat. Concomitantly, the laws apply only to the “religious” realm: they are laws for Christians, for the Church, for Christian households. They don’t relate to creation per se.
I’m being a bit unfair here: I’m making Byrd and Trueman stand in for a stronger position than either actually holds, I think. They are both actually coming from a place of caution and modesty, rather than from a real embrace of some kind of divine command theory, or any considered and consistent nominalism or voluntarism, which I am certain they’d both reject.
But nominalism and voluntarism are where this method of argument—I won’t even say leads; it’s truer to say that these are where the argument comes from. Gender is, in this conception, precisely “just a term in grammar.”
Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast — all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient…
–C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost
What’s at issue here is the basis on which God governs the cosmos, and the basis on which we govern ourselves as we make decisions. Does God make arbitrary “rules” that are somehow separate add-ons to his actual creation of the world, like optional apps you can download for your iPhone? Or does God make a world with creatures that are genuine kinds of things, each of which has a nature according to the kind of thing it is, as well as an individuated “selfhood” that it doesn’t share with others of its kind?
The traditional answer is, of course, the latter. At least some of the “rules” relating to men and women that we find in the Scriptures—whether those are Old Covenant laws, Pauline injunctions, or miscellaneous observations—are simply prescriptions that correspond to the accurate descriptions of men and women as they actually are, as they have been created, male and female, to reflect God’s image to the rest of creation; the remainder may be prudential or culturally specific, but even these must be rooted in the nature of the creatures or relationships affected by the “rules,” or the nature of the society made up of these creatures, these relationships.
If this isn’t true—if the “rules” about women and men in the life of the church and the household are extrinsic to what men and women are—then we really are looking at something disturbing in the New Testament’s household codes. If laws—any laws, by a human or divine lawgiver—are made that do not reflect the nature of the thing to be governed, we have words for that: tyranny, injustice. That really does become a kind of divine voluntarism, and the god who is implied by such a doctrine has more in common with the Nietzschean ubermensch than with the King of the Universe Who, as a true king and not a tyrant, makes law for the good of the whole cosmic community, and out of love for each member of it.
And Who (as a separate point) is not ashamed to humble himself, to subject himself to a woman as all children are subject by nature to their mothers, to describe himself as a mother hen, as a Lamb.
This can of course be taken in an unbalanced way: the shepherd in whom our Shepherd chose to prefigure himself was the kind of tough outdoorsy kid who killed bears to protect his sheep, remember, and not a swain from an irritating eighteenth century operetta. Alastair Roberts has pointed this out, repeatedly, over here. Likewise, when we exercise self-control and make decisions every day about how to enact our lives, are we shaping ourselves arbitrarily, recreating ourselves according to low ambition or will—or are we rather attempting to become more truly and skillfully who we already are, to discover rather than capriciously invent what it means to be a human, a woman, this woman in particular? Again, the traditional answer is the latter. And this is very good news. What it means is that who we are—who we really are—is on God’s agenda. No part of you will go unfulfilled, unexpressed, and in the end, unglorified, if you give yourself to the pursuit of God’s kingdom. It is only and always the Enemy who wants to make each of us less than we are.
This kind of skillful enactment of who we in fact are is, I think, one of the ways that we can bear God’s image well: it’s not artificial in the least, in the sense of being an imposition of an alien pattern onto our lives, or a disguise; it’s deeply rooted in what is most instinctive, most visceral to us; but it’s also thoughtful and—as in the quote above—somewhat ceremonious. It might be thought of as the “solempne,” the solemnity, of everyday life–it’s not a special-occasion thing as Lewis describes in the quote above, but it shares that same quality of enacting an archetype. It is the non-ridiculous way to think about behaving towards one’s gardener or mayor in a “complementarian” way. I think it may be something that was once called “good manners,” if we understand good manners to have the quality of play. Does this mean that you never let your hair down? Of course not. What it means, very precisely, is that you get to keep your hair up, and then you get to let your hair down, exactly when you should.
There’s something that men, though, need to understand about how women often hear the discussions about women’s role in the Church, and in the world: it can be terrifying. Why? Because women are just as ambitious as men, just as driven to make and form and do and mend, to gather and order and imagine and act. There are differences in the modes, perhaps, in which we’re drawn to these things, but the desire itself—to bear God’s image towards creation by ruling, appropriately—is there in women as it is in men.
Men who are speaking about this have got to be sure that they choose their words carefully: I’ll ask my Reformed brothers to imagine how they would feel (maybe how they did feel) if they were confronted with a more otherworldly or dispensationalist mode of understanding Christian life, and were told that their job in the world was just to wait for the next one, to be passive. I didn’t grow up in the Church, and after I converted I never was a part of a congregation that had this otherworldly attitude, but even encountering its penumbra in the world of American Christianity, I’ve been stung, I’ve felt stifled and claustrophobic. It’s a gendered version of this same claustrophobia that some women can feel when they hear boorish and inept mansplainations of their “roles.”
Women are, ontologically, receptive. (And that’s all I’ll say about that right now, because literally every time anyone starts writing in these terms, especially John Piper, it just gets awkward really fast; I never, ever want to read John Piper giving his opinion about female weight lifters again. Ever.) They are not, and should not be, passive.
In thinking about roles for women and men, whether in or outside of the Church, it’s helpful to keep in mind a couple of kinds of law that the tradition has recognized. I’m going to discuss these out of order, so sorry about that.
Third, there’s what Aquinas, somewhat confusingly, referred to as “divine law,” i.e. both the Torah and the teaching of the New Testament: the law contained in sacred scripture. This is extremely helpful in that it makes things explicit: it lays out in black and white, in Greek and Hebrew, some aspects of what we ought to do because of who and what we are.
First, however, there’s eternal law—which I understand to be something like God’s practical reason, the pattern by which He governs the Cosmos he’s made according to the nature of each thing as he’s made it. This is deeply linked to God’s omniscience and good will: He knows what things are—He made them, of course!—and so He knows what they are for and how they are meant to be and do what they are made to be and do; he knows them, and he loves them—every rock and fish and quark and man and woman.
And second—second there’s natural law, which often in our writing we conflate with eternal law, but it’s helpful to keep the distinction that St. Thomas himself made. Natural law is essentially that eternal law as it has been implanted in the things that God has made, perceptible by our own practical reason—specifically by the faculty that used to be described as synderesis, this ability we have to perceive “oughtness.” Not conscience exactly, and not reason exactly, but maybe best thought of as the place those two meet—and meet also with our empiricism, our perception of the external world, this good and real world that God has made.
Aquinas on at least one occasion made natural law something perceptible not merely by reason but even by the unreasoning animals, who have the native ability to “perceive something as it is in itself,” though not to hold the pattern of it in their minds in a reasoned way.
A crucial element of law, for Aquinas, is that it be promulgated: that it be put forth in public. I don’t know if this is a standard way to think about all of this, but to me it seems that creating things—rocks and humans and men and women—with publicly-perceptible essences, true natures, was one way that God promulgated His eternal law. Science is a public thing, and this discussion of essences is, for all its quaintness, essentially a scientific discussion–given a proper understanding of the word science.
However, there’s a clarification that needs to be made about the idea of the eternal law, and of God’s right reason (or Wisdom) as it is parsed out in this law. The classical theistic doctrine of divine simplicity (as well as John 1:1) must make us very wary of thinking of that Reason, that Logos, as something separate from God Himself. We’re told that God’s attributes—His love, His power, His justice, His wisdom—shouldn’t really be thought of as attributes the way we have attributes—green eyes, say, or a gift for music. Rather, God, being One, simply is His power, His righteousness, His mercy, His fair-dealing and delight in the good—and His love for us.
Just as we do right when we will according to God’s heart, so also God does right when He wills according to His own heart, His own nature—which is love, which is a delight in the good, which is kindness and might-for-right and glory. When, that is, we stop hearing the word “glory” as a bullying bossiness, as it is so often (inadvertently) used in Reformed circles, and learn to hear it as something rich and worthy of delight, something that calls out our rejoicing. There is no arbitrariness, not the least hint of it, in our God.
To imagine, then, that He could be arbitrary in His “rules” for His people in Church and home, that these rules could fail to relate to the rest of creation, is to imagine a kind of arbitrariness or chaos at the heart of God Himself, in His will. And that—we are now and always passionately grateful to find—is something that can’t ever be.
“I should like balls infinitely better,” she replied, “if they were carried on in a different manner; but there is something insufferably tedious in the usual process of such a meeting. It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day.”
“Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball.”
–Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Can we be specific? Of course, although this will absolutely be the loosest and most objectionable part of this essay; I am arguing against it myself as I write. That doesn’t make me wrong; it’s just the nature of the kind of argument I’m about to make.
One of the methods, indeed a primary method, of discerning natural law is by simply paying attention. And the thing to which I’d like to direct your attention at the moment is the fact of Jane Austen’s enduring popularity. Across divides ideological and political, across centuries, we just keep reading her; we start when we’re young and we continue until we are old, and she doesn’t get any less delicious; she just doesn’t. And however left wing we are, we can’t stop. This is obviously not universally true. This kind of research doesn’t aim at establishing certainty through social observations as uniform as our observations of rocks that fall when we drop them. Rather it looks outwards for patterns, and inwards for inclinations and delights. God has written his law on the hearts of the goyim, and the goyim read Jane Austen. And Jane Austen knows nothing of gender that is just a term in grammar.
This leads me to one reason that beginning with this kind of natural law detective work, rather than with Scripture, can be helpful. I’ll speak to those who’ve grown up in the Church and who may not realize the hunger for reality that’s experienced by those who don’t have any kind of a Christian worldview.
We grow up perceiving certain things about ourselves and our world—that we have selves, for example, which are more than matter in motion; that there is such a thing as a real good, as opposed to mere taste; that there is something—a something we don’t know—that’s worth dying for; and yes, that there are such things as women and men, who are distinguished from each other by something other than simply plumbing, and that this fact shapes our perceptions of each other and our desires—I don’t just mean desire in the obvious sense, but also in the way we really, at the level of our most unreconstructed selves, want to relate to each other. I can testify from my position as sort of not-particularly-deep-cover-agent among the people who have never heard of Wayne Grudem that this awareness of gender difference exists, this desire is there, although it’s subject to a lot of self-conscious self-mockery.
To be able to address people at the level of their unreconstructed human selves, to give them permission to want what they want and love what they love, is what a natural-law path into Christianity can do best. What if… what if all that stuff you don’t even dare hope for… what if it’s true? What if the world really is such that there is a meaning to your life that you didn’t invent, such that your bones and blood are things that are …glorifiable, such that the summer-evening concert picnics at Tanglewood that you go to do in fact point beyond themselves to a music-filled and regal feast—as you always somehow suspected they did?
What if it’s all true?
That it is true is part of the legacy you inherit when you become a believer. I’m always hesitant to apply the word Gospel to anything beyond the news about Christ dying and yet not being dead and what specifically that means, because I think that using that word too broadly can encourage sloppy thinking. However. I can’t really avoid the fact that what I’m talking about here, this whole festal and courtly worldview, comes to many modern secularists as almost impossibly good news.
Not to all. There are those for whom this doesn’t resonate—or doesn’t yet, or doesn’t in the same way. I’m thinking of people—so many of whom I know and love—who are attracted to members of their own sex; I’m thinking of women who have been so hurt by actual sexism or oppression by men that even thinking about this topic makes them feel unable to breathe. To all these I can only say that God is not in the business of squelching us, thwarting us, cramping us. It may be that faith in God’s good character even in the face of a part of the Christian worldview that does not, for you, at the moment resonate is faith that will prove, in the eschaton, to be something strong and shining and brave.
Still, for most people I think there is at least a hint of something good in complementarianism, and that something is linked to a sense of fullness, of a kind of anticipatory richness, of something mysterious at the back of the world, something you’re about to find out. It’s not at all only expressed in gender difference; it has to do with there being kinds of things at all, as well as the qualia in our sensory experiences, the “aboutness” of our thoughts about objects of thought, the intentions in our wills, and even real cause and effect in the material world.
Growing up as a secular person, as a materialist, I didn’t have any category in my world for the existence of real categories, of “natures.” All was one, or all was bits and pieces, or whatever—it was all just matter in motion. The idea that there is some real thing called human nature, and moreover that it gets even more complicated than that and there is a feminine nature and a masculine nature—those were supernatural ideas, as floridly and extravagantly supernatural as unicorns or resurrections or Narnia. That they also, strangely, matched my actual experience of the world more accurately than the materialist story—that they seemed to come with better evidence—was… spooky.
Because the world that we live in turns out to be quite shockingly baroque, really—not just pleasure and pain, but real good to pursue, and real bad to fight as well; not just humans and God but also angels; not just one kind of angel but serried ranks of them, that “differ from one another in glory.” And that’s without even mentioning the number of species of salmon in the North Atlantic, for example. Who knows what else we’ll find?
This division of us into men and women is part of this “moreness,” part of this divine excess and elaboration; part of why the world we live in is not just a formula but a story, and a very complicated story at that.
Caroline Bingley, in the scene I’ve quoted above, agrees with Aimee Byrd: the dance that men and women do—each woman with each man, and yes that includes your plumber and your mayor, because this is not just about husbands and wives, not just about pastors and parishioners—is irrational, in a very limited and somewhat French sense; “irrational,” said in Caroline’s tone of voice, has a pinched, nasal, Cartesian sound to it, to my ear. This dance that we do doesn’t proceed according to syllogisms, it’s not intellectually improving if we take intellect in its modern sense.
It is irrational. But it is profoundly reasonable, and as we participate in it, we do actually participate in the Reason by which God governs the cosmos; yes, there is a link of some kind between how you interact with your boss and your gardener, and how you dance with someone at a party, and how the planets spin. And no, I don’t know precisely what it is. But I think it has to do with the music of the spheres.
This brings us to one other element in the argument I’d like to pitch. It gets a bit odd and speculative. It’s the idea, the observation, that gender—far from being something that applies only to the sexy bits of mammals and certain other chordates—is something that runs right through the rest of creation. Language is important. I cannot quite think it’s a coincidence that the Greek and Hebrew words for Sky, Ouranos and Shamayim, are both masculine nouns; and the Greek and Hebrew words for Earth, Gaia and Erets, are both feminine. There are other examples of these linguistic genderings, but honestly it’s too odd and potentially flaky for me to spend much time on; I’d be very interested to know whether anyone thinks it’s an observation worth pursuing, and if so, how to go about it.
There’s so much more to be said—reams and reams, whole areas I didn’t begin to touch; why Aquinas was deeply incoherent in his actual discussion of women, for example; how thoroughly none of this means that women are ontologically inferior to men; how (as Lewis has said) with regard to our relationship with God, we are all, as the church, in some sense “feminine” because receptive; how Christ Himself was not ashamed to be in submission to His father; how in Hebrew tradition the Shekinah is feminine, and so of course is Wisdom—but this is a start. Women are real.
Lily Cherney is a native Manhattanite living in one of the boroughs. She is not now, nor has she ever been, a Calvinist. Just a fellow-traveler.
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