Since our founding, TCI has been committed to affirming the natural family and varieties of “household economics” as essential components to any sort of Christian political vision. Given the confusions of our day, this has required us to interact with both the push for modern egalitarianism and the reactionary “recovery” movements that have arisen to combat it. It’s hardly revolutionary to say that egalitarianism is incompatible with Biblical teaching and traditional Christianity, but, unfortunately, many of the attempts to recover “masculinity” or “gender roles” are deeply problematic as well. In an effort to advance the ongoing conversation about these topics in the contemporary Reformed world, we have published several essays on “complementarianism” and the recent criticisms of it coming from the “Mortification of Spin” writers. This is both a promising but delicate opportunity: promising because of our admiration for the work of MoS and our friendship with Dr. Carl Trueman, but delicate because of the important nuances and implications of intersecting controversial themes, namely the role of natural law, the proper understanding of the doctrine of the “two kingdoms,” and the right way to affirm sexual identity in all areas of life without giving license to physical or emotional abuse. While acknowledging and, at times, emphasizing our disagreement with the MoS writers, we should also express our gratitude for the continued opportunity to discuss these topics in a charitable and intelligent manner. They are worthy interlocutors who give us all the chance to have this conversation in the right way.
Most recently, Dr. Alastair Roberts wrote a critique of Mrs. Aimee Byrd’s interaction with Focus on the Family’s Glenn Stanton. This generated some amount of interest and, eventually, a response from Mrs. Byrd. After reading and discussing Mrs. Byrd’s response, we thought it would be good to expand upon Mr. Robert’s initial essay and to further scrutinize some of the underlying exegetical and theological assumptions in this wider conversation. Thus, what follows is a two-part essay, written by Dr. Alastair Roberts and Dr. Eric Hutchinson. Both authors are in substantial agreement, but they wrote their installments individually. For the sake efficiency, and in the hope of promoting the broader topic conversation, we have combined the two responses as a joint post. ~SW
I am grateful for Aimee Byrd’s response to my earlier article on this site. This broader conversation has been an encouraging demonstration of the possibility of mutually sharpening arguments among complementarians and the potential benefits of exploring the significant differences that exist between us.
By far the most significant point of difference between us, presuming that we are not speaking past each other, concerns the relationship between our natures and God’s moral command. I see a very close bond between nature and virtue. Virtue is the realization of the appropriate telos of our nature and is about us attaining to the full stature of what we are. It isn’t merely about obeying external commands. Virtue is seen when man is fully, truly, and gloriously man and woman is fully, truly, and gloriously woman. It relates natural appetites, impulses, and inclinations to their proper ends, through the exercise of wisdom and the cultivation of character over time. Christian ethics takes confidence in the correspondence and unity between the word of God’s moral address to us and the Logos by which we were formed, which structures our existence and that of the creation. The word without us is the same Word as that which uttered our inner being. As we attend to God’s word we are moving with the grain of creation and can rise to a state of freedom and flourishing, rather than being stunted or damaged in our moral development. Considering the great importance of this point, I will defer in Part 2 (below) to my friend Eric Hutchinson, who will ably address some of the issues that are at stake.
At the outset, I ought to clarify where I stand with regard to Glenn Stanton’s article. Stanton cites and implicitly generalizes Gail Collins’ claim about the importance of the influence of women upon men’s behaviour with regard to the founding, growth, and success of the US, a contribution that supposedly outweighs all of their other contributions.
Although I agree with Stanton that women have a pronounced effect on male behaviour, I strongly disagree with the priority that he grants to it in the estimation of women’s contributions to society. I do not think that the effects of changing the gender ratios of a society are quite as straightforward as he suggests. Nor am I persuaded that the development of manners is as simplistically attributable to the influence of women as he seems to suppose.
A serious potential danger of Stanton’s position, if it is not handled with extreme care, is that of framing women’s task principally relative to men’s vices, rather than relative to their weaknesses or differences. Such a move would seem to throw into question the place of the woman in a pre-Fall order. However, an unfallen Adam would still need the ministry of Eve for his maturing into virtue (although Adam hadn’t fallen, he hadn’t attained to the maturity of virtue). His weaknesses relative to Eve’s strengths do not need to be regarded as vices. Eve’s counsel and influence could still serve Adam in his growth into wisdom. Part of the import of Genesis 3:16, I believe, is that the man would be would be less receptive to the influence of his wife and less attentive to her counsel, frustrating her in that dimension of her vocation, much as the man would be frustrated in his relation to the earth. The importance of the woman’s influence and counsel isn’t something new that is added after the Fall in response to the man’s sin, but a dimension of the good order of created relations between the sexes that is distorted and weakened by sin.
The unctuous encomium to women’s virtue and power with which he concludes seems rather incongruent with his earlier suggestion that their primary contribution is domesticating men. I have little taste for such sentiments: whatever Stanton’s intentions, such florid excesses of praise can all too easily function precisely as a sanitising façade over the less pleasant dynamics of the relations between the sexes.
My disagreements with Stanton were not at issue in my response to Byrd and it was never my primary intention to defend him. Nonetheless, I believe that Byrd misreads Stanton or, at least, advances a questionable reading of his piece that unhelpfully shifts the accent of his argument. Stanton’s point about equality does not principally seem to me to be a claim that women are the more virtuous sex, but that men and women are different in ways that have a direct bearing upon the shape that virtue takes for each of them and, in particular, the way that male virtue is developed.
Furthermore, whatever we believe about men and women’s relative degree of virtue, his empirical points need to be addressed. We can’t just assert the equality of male and female virtue without wrestling with the realities he highlights, nor object to his conclusion without accounting for the evidence he offers in support of it.
Besides, even claims about the greater virtue of one sex seldom demand to be read as generalizing claims. Rather, they can be read as claims about specific virtues in specific contexts. Many men will readily and truthfully acknowledge, for instance, that women greatly exceed them in the virtues and skills required to produce a healthy and happy home. This is not calculated self-denigration, but the appreciation and admiration of strengths and virtues in many women that many of us find lacking in ourselves. Our more typical virtues as men are not thereby denied: they just lie elsewhere.
Whether affirmed or denied, the term ‘equality’ seems to be the mischief-maker here, as it implicitly invites us to regard men and women as straightforwardly commensurable. Insistence upon the ‘equality’ of men and women can leave us incognizant of the peculiar strengths and virtues of each sex, or of the unreasonableness of holding one sex to the other’s standard. It can be freeing to acknowledge the greater strengths of the other sex in particular respects and learning from and being shaped by their exercise of those virtues, without assuming that you are thereby relegating your own sex to a lesser moral status. Manliness exhibits strengths of its own. It is elevated by womanliness, rather than stifled or denigrated by women’s ministry to our weaknesses. Mutatis mutandis, the same holds for women.
Exaggerated stereotypes can indeed be a problem. However, stereotypes are typically more accurate than supposed and are a natural and, indeed, necessary way of forming good judgments. Inaccurate stereotypes aren’t a problem with empirical arguments; the problem with such stereotypes is not that they are empirical, but that they are not empirical enough.
In emphasizing the importance of the bonds tying men to women for the development of men in virtue, I distinguished between the subjective influence that women exert upon men and the more objective influence of institutional and cultural bonds binding men to women. Cultures of fatherlessness are cultures with weak institutional bonds between the sexes, where women don’t have the influence upon men enjoyed by women within a strong culture of marriage and chastity. Boys in such a culture don’t just lack fathers, or even fatherly role models: they lack the role of fatherhood that will bind them to women and children. However, the word ‘lack’ can be misleading here: such kids don’t ‘lack’ fathers, but have fathers who model unstable and dysfunctional bonds with women to them. Their primary bonds are almost certainly with their male peers, who relate to women dysfunctionally and intermittently, rather than in a committed manner.
Men altering their behaviour when women enter a room should not be confused with a feigning of virtue or dissembling of true character. As men we act differently around women because women are different from men and the sort of manliness that is exercised around male peers can feel threatening and stifling to women. The same interactions that men generally thrive upon and delight in often feel hostile or demeaning to women. For instance, the cut and parry and competitiveness that many of us delight in within male conversation are perceived to be dismissive or hostile if we employ them with women. On such occasions manliness is displayed in holding back and altering one’s behaviour when a woman walks into the room (unless you know for certain that she wants to participate in such an interaction).
There are definitely dangers of falling into unhealthy ideologies in response to prevailing social realities. My article addressed particular dangers that face us on this front in the contemporary context. I believe that the dangers don’t merely lie on Stanton’s side of the conversation here. Once again, I think that it is important to engage with male and female nature in the specificity of our historical contexts. We are not dealing with mere ideologies, but with material and ideological realities in dialectical interaction. The danger here is that we dismiss ideologies and propose alternative viewpoints while largely ignoring the material realities that provide much of their purchase upon society’s imagination.
Ideologies resonate and are adopted for reasons and it is these reasons that we need to be more attentive to. The shifting views of female virtue in previous centuries were not merely arbitrary changes in official ideology, lacking any connection with women’s actual nature or social reality, thereby proving that all such designations of virtue are entirely baseless. They were deeply contextually rooted and they were held because they rang true to many in the relevant contexts. Different cultures emphasize different virtues. Sometimes the church is culturally aligned with the domestic realm and is dominated by women, their virtues, and their more common forms of spiritualities: sometimes the church is more aligned with the public realm and male virtues and characteristics come to the fore.
A culture facing a crisis of violent and wayward masculinity may highlight the virtuous effect that women can have precisely in order to equip church-going women who struggle with their drunken, improvident, and irreligious husbands to recover a sense of agency in their marriages. A church that is overly aligned with women’s spaces and which fails to attract men may have to rediscover some of the more ‘muscular’ dimensions of Christian spirituality to rectify the situation. Although we might call these ‘ideologies’, I suspect that they are often much more modest than this. They do not presume to provide global and objective accounts of reality, but offer conceptual frameworks within which, and exemplars who display how, marginalized subjects can find personally resonant moral meaning and give sense and structure to their particular agency.
In conclusion, I want to reiterate the importance of giving more attention to nature and social reality in our thinking about the sexes, something which is less about biological and social science studies than practical attentiveness to our lifeworld. In a fallen world, where the differences between the sexes have often been the occasion of abuse, oppression, and denigration, it is not without cause that we should want to avoid or suppress this reality and only approach the subject with the greatest trepidation, especially in mixed company.
However, as Christians I believe that we would be mistaken to do so. Far from downplaying this reality, maleness and femaleness are tightly woven into the deep structure of the biblical narrative and symbolic world, because they are so woven in the world God created. They are differences to be celebrated and rejoiced in, aspects of the life-giving playfulness of God’s world. Throughout Scripture, each sex is prominently displayed in those very respects in which it most stands out from the other. These differences are not so much differences from each other as they are differences for each other. Nor are these differences that constrain us; instead, they empower us. As we discover ourselves as man and woman and thus discover the wonder of our differences in relation, something of the richer life of the creation is revealed to us. They are differences that are best expressed, not in the dense and heavily qualified prose of gender theory, but in the surprise and joy of song. In them we experience something of the meaning of creation as the realm of God’s delight, a delight that brings all else into appropriate perspective.
Thus far a general and global response intended to reconceptualize the frame in which this discussion needs to take place and the sort of texture it ought to have. Now, on to one (very narrow) set of specifics.
As an aside, I should say, first, that I find this discussion profitable and illuminating and, second, that I focus on what I do because it seems to me indicative of a kind of overemphasis or overextension common in these conversations that is finally distortive of what are really some very important fundamentals.
In her recent response to Alastair’s essay on “Natural Complementarians,” Aimee Byrd writes the following (I have numbered the sentences for ease of analysis):
(1) And I disagree that Christian teaching is better understood by clarifying internal beckonings. (2) Christian teaching is outside of us. (3) It is an announcement to both men and women, not to use our virtuous gifting to help the other sex, but of the Son of God coming as our Savior because no one is holy. (4) Internal beckonings can get us into a lot of trouble. (5) The Spirit always confirms his leading by the Word, which is outside of us.
This is a passage with, I think, many problems. It is likely not the case that its author would affirm the implications of what it says, but its implications, in addition to questions with respect to its logical coherence, should nevertheless be noted.
More serious is the connection of the second and third sentences, which conflate “Christian teaching” with the gospel. But surely the category “Christian teaching” is broader than the apostolic kerygma. The Westminster Larger Catechism covers much ground that the Apostles’ Creed does not. Why? Because “Christian teaching” has always concerned itself not only with the proclamation of the gospel, but also with the moral duties that accompany faith. I take it for granted that such a thing as “nature” exists–but if that is the case, it is precisely nature upon which grace acts. Grace does not destroy nature; it restores it, and, eventually, glorifies it. Because that is so, “Christian teaching” cannot escape the realm of ethics; it cannot escape reflection on nature. This is clear already in the Apostolic witness, and it is clear in the entirety of the tradition of Christian thought.
Relatedly, the contention that “Christian teaching” does not instruct us “to use our virtuous gifting to help the other sex” is demonstrably false. It does, and the point is extendable to the way in which we treat our children as well. Cf. Genesis 2, Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, and 1 Peter 3.
The third sentence additionally seems to conflate pre-Christian and Christian statuses, which is to say–though it will sound odd–that it conflates justification and sanctification. It is of course true that everyone is bound under sin in Adam’s Fall, and that for that reason the Son of God became man and died to free those sinners. But that last bit is important, too: he died to free those sinners. No one is holy apart from Christ, but part of the good news is that Christ frees us from the guilt and power of sin. Thus to say that no Christian is holy, which seems to be the only way to construe what this sentence means, is untrue. To be sure, no Christian is holy apart from Christ and the Spirit, and no Christian is completely holy, or even approximately completely holy, for we continue to struggle with sin–with our defects, our blemishes, our remarkable failures, our capacity for unspeakable wickedness. But, still and all, the writers of the New Testament are unanimous that Christians walk by the Spirit and actually become holy, even as they are at war with lingering corruption.
I said above that part of the good news is that God does not leave us in sin, both original and actual, but purifies us by his Word and Spirit. If that is the case, the third sentence too, as well as the first and second sentences together, presents a false dichotomy. It is an odd vision of the Christian life indeed that asserts that we are not to use our virtuous gifts to help one another. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
With respect to the fourth sentence: yes, that is true, which I believe was part of Alastair’s point. “Internal beckonings” need to be clarified, and, I would add, purified. See point  above.
The final sentence is also at odds with what the Apostles say. The Word comes to us from outside, and there is a sense in which it always comes to us from outside, but, at the same time, Scripture knows nothing of pure extrinsicism, full stop. “But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.’” “And he said to me, ‘Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.’ Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.” “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word,which is able to save your souls.”
Finally, I cannot help but note that the most well-known instance of the phrase “Christian teaching” is in the title of Augustine’s four books De doctrina christiana (On Christian Teaching). He provides a good counterpoint to the self-reflexivity found in the paragraph quoted above (i.e., Christian teaching has nothing to do with using one’s gifts for others). In 1.26.27, Augustine writes: “Seeing, then, that there is no need of a command that every man should love himself and his own body—seeing, that is, that we love ourselves, and what is beneath us but connected with us, through a law of nature which has never been violated, and which is common to us with the beasts (for even the beasts love themselves and their own bodies)—it only remained necessary to lay injunctions upon us in regard to God above us, and our neighbor beside us. You shall love, He says, the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Thus the end of the commandment is love, and that twofold, the love of God and the love of our neighbor. Now, if you take yourself in your entirety—that is, soul and body together—and your neighbor in his entirety, soul and body together (for man is made up of soul and body), you will find that none of the classes of things that are to be loved is overlooked in these two commandments. For though, when the love of God comes first, and the measure of our love for Him is prescribed in such terms that it is evident all other things are to find their centre in Him, nothing seems to be said about our love for ourselves; yet when it is said, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, it at once becomes evident that our love for ourselves has not been overlooked.” He thus concludes in 1.36.40: “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”
These passages from Augustine can move us toward a conclusion, presenting, as they do, a much more fully fleshed out picture of the relation of the Word and our common life, and also go some way toward demonstrating why I place so great an emphasis on the problematic connections between so small a number of sentences above. The love of one’s neighbor is obviously not limited to those in one’s household. But it is equally obvious that it does not exclude one’s household. But how do we love our neighbor? Does it not require to some extent a recognition of who they are as creatures–creatures of a particular kind, established as such by God? But to speak of creatures is to speak of creation; and to speak of creation is to speak of nature; and to speak of nature is to speak of ends. But ends are precisely what Alastair’s “internal beckonings” cry out to attain. If that is the case, then we must not say that Christian teaching has no relation to such things.
Have our natures been warped and deformed by sin? Of course; and even when renewed they continue to show its effects. But they have not been obliterated by sin. Our condition, then, makes all the more needful, first, a greater attentiveness to our irreducible and indestructible and natures and, second, a renewed vigor in Christian reflection upon those natures, precisely because human beings are otherwise prone to attempt the impossible: to reduce and destroy our natures.
Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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