Christian sex and gender conversations are back. They never really went away, but the past few weeks have seen a number of new essays and other contributions on the topic. Recently, Dr. Scott Swain added a helpful essay to this ongoing discussion. In it, he explains the variety of categories necessary to fully understand men and women from a Christian perspective. Using both natural philosophy and biblical exegesis, Prof. Swain attempts to create a systematic theological understanding of the sexes that “will better ground traditional roles” while also “further expand[ing] the vistas of mutual, personal agency for men and women seeking to live a life that is pleasing to God.” We could translate that last clause as stating that these additional categories will broaden our imaginative range of ways that men and women can serve God. The categories provide them ways to think about themselves and how they can do all that they do.
The basic categories of human identity that Swain offers are: husband, father, wife, mother, son, daughter, brother, and sister. To these he adds the social concepts of commonality and equality, diversity and structure, and mutual fellowship. Importantly, he notes that “According to Paul, there is a natural order built into God’s creative design for men and women that the church should reflect in its ministry (so 1 Tim 2:13-14)” (a point I have explained in more detail elsewhere), and then adds that a proper use of “equality” must not “read modern conceptions of equality back into Scripture” but rather understand that modern notions of equality are “corruptions of something originally positive and good” which should be placed back “within the larger economy of God and all things in relation to God” in order to “find its proper meaning and significance.” The equality between man and woman is present in their essence, they are created in the image of God, and in their goal, eternal glory with Christ. This equality exists within a structure of diversity, a diverse order of skills and talents, as well as “domestic and civil roles and responsibilities.” The key to using this diversity appropriately, Swain argues, is to order it “under God” and “to God.” One must recognize who created all things this way and what purpose He has for them.
I appreciated Swain’s argument and presentation, and I would like to follow his example by offering even more categories. I want to highlight the prominent categories used by Paul and Peter, and then I would like to suggest that the magisterial Protestant philosophical concept of the “two kingdoms” or “two realms,” as well as the scholastic distinctions of kinds of hierarchy can help us most consistently harmonize our various ideas.
Paul’s Gender Categories
The Apostle Paul employs two primary paradigms for understanding men and women. He points backwards to the original creation and the figures of Adam and Eve, and he points forwards to Jesus Christ and the Church in their soteriological-eschatological state. The former approach can be seen in 1 Cor. 11:8-12 and in 1 Tim. 2:12-15. The latter can be seen in Ephesians 5:22-33.
With regards to creation, Paul believes that the husband stands in the “Adam” role, while the wife stands in the “Eve” role. This can be seen in the way that he argues “Man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (1 Cor. 11:8-9). He makes the same sort of argument a second time, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2: 13-14). To contemporary ears, this justification appears nonsensical and perhaps even ad hoc. What does the order of creation with Adam and Eve have to do with individual men and women today? Why is this even relevant? And is Paul at all being fair with his use of the deception of Eve?
If one does not believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures, then they are free to question or even reject what Paul says here. For the believer, the task is more difficult. They must not only accept the “letter” of Paul’s teaching, but they must seek to understand what precisely he means by it, and how his argument makes sense. They must submit to his method as well as his conclusion. But pursuing that kind of angle is worth the additional mental and emotional labor. It will helps us better understand the logic and purpose of Paul’s arguments. Doing so will open up even more categories.
The Apostle Paul does indeed teach that all humanity, men and women, are summed up in Adam (Rom. 5:12, 1 Cor. 15:22). Men and women are “in Adam.” And yet, this is not the only protological category Paul uses. Paul also appeals to Adam and Eve, noting their differences. He says that individual men are to understand themselves as embodying a kind of Adam identity and that individual women are to understand themselves as embodying a kind of Eve identity. They are simultaneously “both Adam” and yet also distinctly “Adam and Eve.”
One point of underdevelopment in Prof. Swain’s exposition of the significance of “Adam” on the sexes is the lack of a close treatment of Genesis 2. Genesis 1 certainly does present both men and women as “Adam,” and yet it is immediately followed by Genesis 2, which explains that the original corporate human was a particular male. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it,” “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him,'” and “the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.” Alastair Roberts identifies 9 points of instruction from this second creation action, points which can instruct men and women how to relate to one another and how they can relate to the world. Just recently, Mark Jones has made similar observations, noting:
The bible and particularly Genesis 2 give us many clues about the way man and woman harmonize. Paul explains how the man is presented as summing up the human race in himself (Rom. 5) and who is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of man (1 Cor. 11:7). God creates man before the woman; but the woman, whose being derives from Adam’s, is created to be the helper of Adam. She addresses his problem of aloneness. Adam is first “formed” (1 Tim. 2:13) but the woman is “built” (binah). Adam is created outside of the Garden, prior to its creation; Eve is created within the Garden. Eve relates primarily to the inner world of the Garden, but Adam relates uniquely to the earth outside of the Garden. Adam’s priestly tasks of guarding and keeping the Garden come directly from God. The woman is not priestly. Adam is given from God the law of the Tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, but the woman is not. The difference is one of immediate versus mediate reception. The priest (Adam) guards and teaches (see Mal. 2:7). Priests and Levites were male, and they guarded the sanctuary and taught the law. Adam is given the task of naming; as king he is to rule over the world. Adam names the woman two times. The woman is formed as a helper for Adam, but this is not explicitly reciprocated (i.e., he is not a “helper”). The woman’s commission is defined relative to Adam’s task. Yet, in many ways, her tasks are the reason for his own tasks, and his require hers. The woman is created to do things that Adam cannot do. Adam and Eve sin in different ways. Adam’s is more serious because it is “immediate” whereas Eve’s is “mediate” insofar as she received the command from her husband. It is Adam that God holds ultimately responsible for the Fall, as the priest, prophet, and king. The judgments upon Adam and the woman differ according to the original vocations and origins, which proves that the curses are not egalitarian.
So we see just how vast the conceptual world of Genesis 2 is, and as we meditate upon these points, we can see why Paul felt that the creation order and purpose was such an important model. When he points back to Adam and Eve, Paul is not grabbing a quick prooftext but invoking the whole complex of meaning and principles.
For Paul, it is important that the man was made first (1 Tim. 2:13) and from the ground, whereas the woman was made second and “from man” (1 Cor. 11:8). It also matters that woman was made “for man” whereas the converse is not the case: “Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.” The reason that Paul believes these points to be relevant is because he believes that Genesis 2 provides a distinct protology for men and women. As the first to be created, man has authority and responsibility. The woman was created to be a help to man, to be “for” him in his multiplying, filling, and dominion vocation. This does not mean that “only the man” was given these tasks and that the woman is to be his mere private assistant. It means that the common Adam-humanity was given the task but immediately found to be unsuitable until further separated into head and help, man and woman. The man has a directional “lead” over the whole, and the woman has a supportive “for” directed towards the head.
In 1 Tim. 2:14, Paul will also add a punitive element to this discussion. In addition to being “second,” Eve was also “deceived and became a transgressor.” Many commentators have read into this a sort of essentialist gender deficiency, that women are “more liable to be deceived” and, on that ground, unfit for authority. But I do not believe this interpretation is the most reasonable one. Indeed, if one did take this approach, then they would predictably invite attempts to falsify the claim. After all, women come in many intellectual and emotional varieties, and men can themselves be quite gullible at times. We see a number of “crafty” women in the Bible who deceive men, even in arguably just ways. Rebekah’s deception of Isaac is controversial, but capable of rational explanation. The Hebrew Midwives seem more obviously in the right. Even Jael employs deception to lure Sisera to his death. Rather than feel the need to make a forced and awkward argument about the capabilities of women, it seems that Paul is appealing to the curse placed upon the woman in Gen. 3:16. Because Eve was deceived, she will experience an increased sort of subjection. The fact that Paul goes on to talk about the significance of childbirth in 1 Tim. 2:15 reinforces the fact that he has Gen. 3 in mind. This is also what Paul means in 1 Cor. 14:34, when he says that “the law” states women must be in submission to their husbands. Modern commentators are reluctant to take this approach because they believe that if women are disallowed certain positions because of God’s punishment for sin, that they must then be granted those positions after Christ atones for our sin. But as Calvin points out, “there is nothing to hinder that the condition of obeying should be natural from the beginning, and that afterwards the accidental condition of serving should come into existence; so that the subjection was now less voluntary and agreeable than it had formerly been” (Calvin, Commentary on 1 Tim. 2:14).
Thus, a harsh subjection or a subjection involving conflict is the thing experienced as punishment, whereas a natural and more instinctually agreeable submission was assigned as a creation ordinance. In Christ, the relationship of authority and submission is not undone but rather progressively made more like it originally was, voluntary and agreeable because it is rightly ordered towards an upright nature. These are Paul’s protological categories.
Paul also employs eschatological categories. In Ephesians 5:22-33, he says that husbands are like Christ, whereas wives are like the body of Christ, the church. Just as with Adam, there is a way that both men and women are Christs in Christ (Gen. 3:28). Likewise, as they are considered members of the church, men are every bit as much the bride of Christ (Rev. 21:9) as are women. Just as there is the whole Adam, there is the whole Christ. And yet this does not prevent Paul from emphasizing the specific ways in which husbands are like Christ and wives are like the church. In Eph. 5, the wife is to submit “as the church submits to Christ.” And in this context, it is important to note that the husband actually gets the lengthier command. He is told to love the wife, but in a very specific way, “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27). This means that the husband must “nourish and cherish” the wife, treating her as his own body (Eph. 5:28-29).
And so in addition to those categories of Adamic leadership and Eve-like help and submission, Paul also offers Christological love and ecclesiological obedience. Paul uses both protology and eschatology to guide and direct Christians as they live as man and woman.
Peter’s Gender Categories
The Apostle Peter also employs biblical archetypes as a way for individual Christian husbands and wives to understand themselves. Perhaps because he is the apostle to the Jews, Peter focuses on the characters of Abraham and Sarah. In 1 Peter 3:5-7, Peter points to the manner in which Sarah obeyed Abraham. For the man’s part, Peter instructs him to treat his wife with understanding and special honor. The reason for this understanding and honor is not simply because all people deserve understanding and honor. That is true enough, but Peter has a particular point. The wife is to be treated in a special way, “as the weaker vessel” (1 Peter 3:7).
The language of “weakness” is startling to the modern reader, but it remains the words of Holy Scripture. What does Peter mean? Is this merely a reference to physical stature, or does Peter have something more in mind. Many readers have speculated, but the text makes no attempt to offer extended explanation. He may have something regarding men and women’s “constitution” in mind, but he may simply be speaking of jurisdiction or hierarchy. Perhaps for this very reason, we are safest in assuming that the main point is not the way in which the woman is weaker but simply the fact of it. The man has more power, and for that very reason he is to show the woman special honor. This is a classic point of just political theory, going back to antiquity. The ruler must rule for those under him. He must use his authority for their good.
A contemporary expression is often used to explain this concept. Perhaps it is used too often and is at risk of becoming something of a cliche. Nevertheless “servant leadership” can be an appropriate biblical phrase. The leader uses his leadership for service, as we have said, for the good of those under him. However, we must not lose sight of the nature of this leadership. It is lordship. It is rule. The servant leader is a king who uses his power for the good of those who must obey him. It is precisely because he has the authority that he must take care to use it for good purposes.
The Two Kingdoms
So far I have offered exegetical observations from a mostly traditional perspective, but Prof. Swain was correct to say that these biblical observations must be synthesized in a logical way, taking account of the full content of divine revelation. This is often where disagreements arise. The New Testament especially seems to hold out two potentially competing notions: equality and hierarchy. Hierarchy seems obvious enough in the Old Testament, even appearing in otherwise universal texts like the Decalogue or Proverbs. But the New Testament appears to challenge the old hierarchical world. Is not a major part of the gospel the fact that God is exalting the lowly and humbling the mighty? Doesn’t Paul even say that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female” in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28)?
Yes Paul does state that, and yes the New Testament does have a strong emphasis towards inverting stations and rank. Yet, the same apostle who says “there is no male and female” also has a lot to say about how there are male and female, as we have demonstrated above. How is one to harmonize these teachings? Is this a paradox meant to confound?
While these sorts of conceptional oppositions are certainly intended to humble us and cause us to give up all natural gifts and talents as a means of earning favor with God, they are not meant to overturn the civic order. Paul is clear about this in 1 Cor. 11 & 14. Instead, these truths are spiritual truths, meant to teach us about the inner life of believers and how they stand coram deo. This Christian equality is an equality of soul, equal access to the throne of grace, and equal standing as heir to the divine estate. It points to a future equality, a future which directs the present but does not entirely transform the present. Precisely as a spiritual equality, it can exist in and through the temporal life we live, a temporal life often characterized by diversity and even hierarchy.
Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other magisterial Reformers explained this duality of equality and diversity by way of the “two kingdoms” or “two realms.” In distinction from later developments, this original two-realms doctrine did not identify the spiritual kingdom of Christ simply as the institutional or visible church. Rather, it identified it as the internal forum, the state of the soul as it stood immediately in relation to God. That Calvin meant this can be seen in what he writes in his Institutes 3.19.15:
…in man government is twofold: the one spiritual, by which the conscience is trained to piety and divine worship; the other civil, by which the individual is instructed in those duties which, as men and citizens, we are bold to perform. To these two forms are commonly given the not inappropriate names of spiritual and temporal jurisdiction, intimating that the former species has reference to the life of the soul, while the latter relates to matters of the present life, not only to food and clothing, but to the enacting of laws which require a man to live among his fellows purely honorably, and modestly. The former has its seat within the soul, the latter only regulates the external conduct. We may call the one the spiritual, the other the civil kingdom.
Calvin routinely speaks of the spiritual kingdom as the forum of the conscience. It is certainly concerned with piety and worship, but these must be understood in their strict senses, true piety and true worship–spiritual activities. The temporal or civic kingdom involves “matters of the present life” including externalities and laws of behavior, whereas the spiritual kingdom “has its seat within the soul.”
Calvin applies this doctrine to male and female relations in 1 Cor. 11. He writes:
Here the man is placed in an intermediate position between Christ and the woman, so that Christ is not the head of the woman. Yet the same Apostle teaches us elsewhere, (Galatians 3:28,) that in Christ there is neither male nor female. Why then does he make a distinction here, which in that passage he does away with? I answer, that the solution of this depends on the connection in which the passages occur. When he says that there is no difference between the man and the woman, he is treating of Christ’s spiritual kingdom, in which individual distinctions are not regarded, or made any account of; for it has nothing to do with the body, and has nothing to do with the outward relationships of mankind, but has to do solely with the mind — on which account he declares that there is no difference, even between bond and free. In the meantime, however, he does not disturb civil order or honorary distinctions, which cannot be dispensed with in ordinary life. Here, on the other hand, he reasons respecting outward propriety and decorum — which is a part of ecclesiastical polity. Hence, as regards spiritual connection in the sight of God, and inwardly in the conscience, Christ is the head of the man and of the woman without any distinction, because, as to that, there is no regard paid to male or female; but as regards external arrangement and political decorum, the man follows Christ and the woman the man, so that they are not upon the same footing, but, on the contrary, this inequality exists. (Comment. 1 Cor. 11:3)
So we see how the harmonization is explained. Man and woman are fully equal in the sight of God. They stand equally in the spiritual realm, and this is indeed at the heart of the gospel. And yet, in “ordinary life,” the gospel “does not disturb civil order or honorary distinctions.” Spiritually, man and woman are fully equal. Temporally, a certain measure of inequality exists.
This perspective helps us understand how to make use of the gospel category of equality. Christians are equals in one way, and they are superior and inferiors in another way. This dual identity then instructs the Christian in how to do all that they do. The Christian king must always lead or rule as a servant, and the Christian servant must always carry out his role knowing that he is an heir to the throne. To borrow Luther’s famous line from The Freedom of the Christian, “A Christian man is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian man is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
One particular objection to this Reformed understanding of the two realms can be imagined from the more liberationist point of view. If the equality brought about by Christ, and indeed the kingdom of Christ itself, is of such a spiritual nature, then would it not allow an institution such as slavery to continue (and is that not in itself a sufficient defeater)? One could then imagine a follow-up objection, noting how the traditional understanding of coverture approximated the master/slave relation in regards to husbands and wives, or men and women more generally in their respective domestic arrangements. And there is something to this sort of connection. After all, the various household codes or hierarchies of jurisdiction in Ephesians and 1 Peter include masters and slaves, right alongside parents and children and husbands and wives (see Eph. 6:5-9 and 1 Peter 2:18-25). And if one consults the various treatments of the 5th Commandment in historic catechisms and ethical writers, they will commonly find instructions to master and slave. So modern writers must address such objections.
To properly respond, we ought to handle the objections one at a time. To the basic question about liberation, we should say that the gospel does not teach any kind of necessary or immediate liberation politics. This can be seen simply by the fact that it tells slaves to obey their masters, and it does not tell masters to free their slaves but rather to be a master while knowing that they are also themselves slaves to God and will be judged by that higher Master (Eph. 6:9). This is, in fact, a sort of two realms philosophy at work. Masters are masters in the temporal realm while simultaneously being slaves in the spiritual realm. This understanding might lead the master to then free his slave, but it might not, depending on the particular social and political conditions. There is no immediate abolitionism in the New Testament. And yet, we do see indications of the good of emancipation in at least two places. 1 Cor. 7:20-21 states, “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.)” Here we see a general philosophy of contentment and dispassion– “do not be concerned about it.” Indeed, the first imperative Paul gives is to “remain in the condition” in which a person has been called. But notice the qualification, “if you can gain your freedom.” If freedom is possible and becomes available, then yes, take it. To be free is naturally more desirable than being a slave, and if freedom can be attained in an orderly and safe fashion, one should try to become free. A second place where the New Testament indicates the goodness of freeing slaves is in the Epistle to Philemon, especially vss. 14, 16-17. Paul suggests that he has the ability to command Onesimus to be set free but that it would be better for Philemon to voluntarily free Onesiums. Paul also asks for Onesimus to be treated vicariously as Paul, and Paul offers to pay Onesimus’ debt. Paying a slave’s debt and asking for the slave to be treated as if he were a famous and esteemed apostle, all the while suggesting that a more forceful command could also be delivered, is a rhetorical way to state that Onesimus should be freed. Since he is a Christian and a useful servant in the kingdom, it is most appropriate for him to be a free man. Slavery was not natural but rather an effect of sin, both the general effects of the fall and potentially a specific punishment due to debt or crime. Christ comes to repair this, and Christ also makes us “free men” and heirs of the kingdom. While not immediately abolitionist, the inherent logic of Christianity is towards voluntary and progressive emancipation. A two kingdoms theology would argue for this freedom to be accomplished gradually and by the appropriate civil authorities, but it would not present any obstacle to the freeing of slaves and even the eventual abolition of the institution. And this is what actually occurred throughout much of Europe, and it is why the reintroduction of slavery in the New World was such a moral blight.
The marital estate is different, however. Marriage was not a punishment for sin but was instead instituted in the original state of innocence. The New Testament never offers potential opportunities to escape from marriage. To the contrary, it grounds it in creation and nature, as we have shown. The gospel can transform the internal conditions between man and woman. It can take away their hostility. But it does not, at least in this life, take away the fact of male and female embodiment, nor the respective attributes and characteristics of that embodiment. Families remain the basic institutions of society, and the Apostle will refer to the domestic arrangement as being the most local, having prior jurisdiction to even that of the church’s ministry (1 Tim. 5:8, 1 Cor. 14:35). Marriage is different from slavery in that it is natural whereas slavery is unnatural. Additionally the New Testament does not apply liberationist or emancipatory teaching or direction to marriage. Christians are free to change certain legal and political arrangements as to how households are represented, and to what extent outside civil institutions may have jurisdiction over the family, but these decisions will be based largely on political theory and historical conditions. They are not automatically answered by theology. The gospel teaching which does “change” marriage for Christians is the spiritual one, that the husband is to lead and love like Christ, and that the husband is not to rule with severity and abuse but rather with kindness and understanding. The husband has authority, even hierarchical authority, but he ought not to be an authoritarian. He must not be an abusive lord. Instead, he must be a Christ-like king.
In the above section, I used the language of hierarchy and even superiority and inferiority. These are unfashionable and possibly frightening words today, and so more explanation is in order. Once again, more categories are in order.
To begin, readers familiar with the Westminster Larger Catechism’s treatment of the Fifth Commandment will recognize the language of superiors and inferiors. As explained in WLC 124, superiors can be those who are older, as well as those who have greater giftings. But we can also speak of superiors as simply those who are “over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.” Superiority does not, therefore, mean that someone is better than another. It need not mean that they are worth more, nor must it mean that they more fully participate in some ideal form of a person or office (as various theologians have occasionally speculated, without obvious warrant). It can simply apply to the fact of possessing an office or rank. Indeed, superior and inferior most basically mean “over” and “under.” One can even use these and similar terms to describe order and arrangement, as in the case of a subordinate clause.
With this understanding we can see that parents are superior to children in domestic affairs, that kings are superior to their subjects in political affairs, and that clergy are superior to their laity in ministerial affairs. But are husbands superiors over wives? Again, to ask the question today is frightening. It seems to go against many of our deeply-held commitments. But remember the basic meaning. The point is not worth. It is a relationship of “over” and “under” or antecedent and support. The husband is the “head.” The wife is the “body.” The husband is called “lord” while the wife is instructed to “obey.” The wife is the helper for the husband. These are descriptions and instructions logically having to do with hierarchy.
1 Cor. 11:3 is often invoked on this point, and it does assert a basic hierarchical relationship between man and woman. However, the Greek language invites further question. Does Paul say that “man” is head over the “woman,” or does he say that the “husband” is head over the “wife”? Older translations choose the former, while newer translations tend to choose the latter. The correct answer could be either– or both.
The Greek language does not usually employ a specific term for “husband” and a specific term for “wife.” Instead, “man” will suffice to mean “a man who is married,” and “woman” will suffice to mean wife. English has worked this way in the past. Consider the traditional marriage declaration: I now pronounce you man and wife. This means that no bare linguistic analysis of 1 Cor. 11:3 will answer our question. Instead, the context and larger logic of Paul’s argument will provide an answer.
Paul does not speak of men and women simply as individual people but rather collectively, as embodiments of Adam and Eve. Adam is a corporate person, as is Eve. In the original creation account, it was not good for “man” to be alone, and this original observation takes on a practical value for individual men afterwards. While always reserving a special place for those uniquely called to celibacy, the Scriptures nevertheless presume that the married state is the normal human experience. Indeed, it can and often does serve as a sort of paradigm. Men are future husbands and even future fathers, and women are future wives and future mothers, as Prof Swain’s essay laid out. They contain within themselves that potentiality. Yes, spiritually, men and women are all brothers and sisters towards one another, and they can both collectively and simultaneously be understood as sons of God and brides of Christ. Yet temporally, as understood according to the two kingdoms, the distinct offices of man and woman remain. Men and women are both federally sons of Adam, and yet there is another sense in which men are sons of Adam and women are daughters of Eve. Paul uses this protological-anthropology to instruct men as a class and women as a class. He is therefore addressing both “husbands” and “men,” and he is addressing both “wives” and “women.”
And this helps us understand the role and logic of office. The “office” of husband is not wholly detached from the reality of “man,” nor is the “office” of wife detached from “woman.” It is not floating above it. Rather, the unique features of the office are crafted to fit the more basic natural order. The logic and order are not new but rather flow out of the nature. What is added is the authority. This point is key to understanding how “authority” and “submission” relate to men and women. While it is true that men as a class can be spoken of as a sort of “superiors,” it is not true that all men have authority over all women. They most emphatically do not. They are not husbands or fathers to all women. They are, rather, only husbands to “their own” wives (1 Peter 3:5).
Without Authority and With Authority
James Ussher explains these distinctions in his treatment of the fifth commandment in his A Body of Divinity. Ussher states that there are two kinds of superiors, those “without authority” and those “with authority” (pg. 232). Of the various kinds of superiors without authority, he lists those who are older, those who have “supereminent gifts,” those who hold a particular class status or possess great wealth, and other sorts of social inequalities. Then Ussher states, “the man in regard of his Sex is above the Woman” (pg. 232). Notice that he is speaking of men as a class. But this class of superiors is “without authority.” Interestingly, Ussher then goes on to explain the duties of inferiors and superiors of this sort, and the duties are mostly made up of respect and care. Superiors without authority are to carry themselves in a certain way and use their particular privilege or leverage for the benefit of those under them. We might think of this as a sort of “soft” power, like eminence or gravity. There is influence and the ability to inspire, but there is no “rule.” After these superiors and inferiors “without authority,” Ussher moves to those “with authority.” What distinguishes these is that they “have charge over others” (pg. 233). Those who are inferior or “under” such “superiors with authority” owe them “obedience” (pg. 234). Thus, “superiors with authority” possess the authority to command or require submission. “Superiors without authority” hold a sort of “over” position, but possess no ability to command, and they are owed no submission.
Thus we see that there are different kinds of hierarchical relationships. Some involve respect, esteem, charity, and perhaps sympathy, and some involve rule and subjection, or authority and submission. Men as a class may be said to be superiors over women, but only superiors without authority. Any authority with regards to sex or gender is always found in the particular jurisdiction of the marriage office. Thus while women should treat all men with a sort of respect, they must only submit to their husbands, and while men should show tenderness and understanding to all women, they must only “love as their own body” their own wives, and they must only rule their own wives. This distinction is necessary in order to avoid tyranny and arbitrary power.
Conclusion: What Are You, Crazy or Something?
Now, having made so many distinctions and offered so many important qualifications, the question might well be asked, “Is this worth it?” Aren’t terms like hierarchy and superiority rather dangerous? Isn’t what you are describing a sort of patriarchy?
Yes indeed, such words will startle people, and so they ought never to be used loosely or in a merely provocative way. And it is true that one could justly say that what has been described above is a variety of patriarchy, though of a very basic or natural sort. I have actually not made any political claims larger than the marital estate, and so this paradigm need not necessitate any specific social polity or set of laws (though questions of propriety, efficiency, and safety will inevitably be had). The basic arrangement of man and woman, if it is indeed natural, should be able to exist quite apart from cultural or legal artifacts. Indeed, it must always exist before culture and law.
But having said all of that, these words do have a value which is presently missing from contemporary discourse. These words clarify the concepts of nature in a way that other words do not. Importantly, these words explain how it is that the inequality found in marriage, and also in ecclesiastical office, are in fact just. The reason that husbands are heads over wives and that teaching and ruling authority in the churches is reserved for men is not arbitrary. These political truths are grounded in the way that God has created men and women. They are natural. They are right.
If things were otherwise, then the biblical doctrine of husbandly headship and male-only ordination would be unfair and perhaps even immoral. Why is the husband given the authority and not the wife, and why can’t the two just be equal partners who negotiate any and all conflict in a state of full parity? Why must women agree to subordinate themselves, and why may they not hold church office? Many Christians, being unsure of what to say at this point, content themselves to a “Thus saith the Lord…” explanation. “We don’t know why, but the Bible says so.” This is a pious instinct, but it does not actually provide a rationale, and so it risks opening Christianity up to criticism. If equality is otherwise good, then why would a good God arbitrarily command inequality in fundamental ways? If equality of station and vocation is to be desired in the majority of life, then why is it not to be desired in home or church? This sort of evasive tactic turns “biblical manhood and womanhood” into a kind of Christian kashrut. It makes “complementarianism” a kind of burden or affliction. To refuse to answer these questions is dangerous, and it will encourage people to minimize or ignore these issues. However well-intended, the minimalist approach can actually jeopardize the authority of the Scriptures, as well as Christianity’s moral and intellectual claims.
If the hierarchical relationships in the family and in the church are not arbitrary but rather grounded in the way that God has constituted humanity, then they fit with the natural ordering of creation. They make sense. They “work.” This philosophical account also frees us from having to chase down spurious gender-essentialist explanations (assertions like “authority is reserved for those who are bigger” or “for those who are less emotional.”) Natural ontology is not the sum of contingent physiological observations. It is rooted in both our body and soul. It is grounded in how God has made us.
In addition to this, an understanding of natural gender relations is immensely practical. It helps us articulate the concepts of masculinity and femininity without falling into a sort of legalism or wooden biblicism. All men are not inherently leaders with authority. But all men do have a basic connection with leadership, as it exerts a natural and virtuous pull upon them. The duties of leadership resonate with their nature. It is a part of their creational telos. The deep reality is that, yes, masculinity has a leadership quality not because specific men are necessarily better leaders but because they are men. They are called to it because of what they are. Not every male has authority, nor can every male command others to submit. But every male should be encouraged towards a kind of leadership as something fitting and appropriate for his Adam identity, and young men should be encouraged in tasks and vocations which train and cultivate leadership. Pastors can certainly be clumsy in how they articulate this point, but it nevertheless remains a truth that most people acknowledge. It is a sort of masculine conatus. And it is a truth that seems to bear itself out over the course of time. Instead of being rejected as immoral, it should be understood and then regulated by Christian piety.
The offices of husband or elder, with their jurisdiction and authority, are added to the more basic category of “man.” A man is not automatically a husband or elder, and this distinction is important. Yet these offices are built upon the order of the original creation. Therefore their authority can and will make sense, and submission to this arrangement is not an irrational burden but rather a natural disposition towards the good. As Lewis puts it in his essay “Priestesses in the Church?“, while the secular world may have become something of a neutered machine, “in our Christian life we must return to reality.” Ultimately, Christians insist on a particular order because “we are dealing with male and female not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge.”