For the majority of my Christian life, I was built up in the faith and nourished within conservative Pentecostal and Wesleyan-influenced churches. Within those circles, there were a number of topics that were constantly discussed, almost to the point of obsession (such as spiritual warfare, end time signs, dreams/visions, modesty, etc.). As I began to embrace Reformed theology and began to have more contact with the wider evangelical world, I noticed immediately that those aforementioned topics were hardly ever brought up.
Nowadays, the topic of discussion has invariably focused on biblical manhood and womanhood. When my wife goes on social media, she informs me of the proliferation of "mom blogs", which seem to spend almost all of their time focusing on the "pink passages". Along with these blogs are a large collection of books on "gospel-centered motherhood" or "serving God as a single woman". At times, it has given the impression that Christian women can only really openly discuss the safe topics of biblical womanhood, such as childrearing, submission, or serving God in the home.
From the male perspective, I've been introduced to a number of books on biblical manhood in which a Christian father is called to be a prophet, priest, and a king in his home. At various times, this has given me the impression that godliness for a Christian man is very different than godliness for a Christian woman. It has also given the impression that men need to fulfill these roles because women, in general, are delicate, frail, weak-minded, and are prone to deception. After hearing all of these discussions (which can be inconsistent or contradictory to each other), my wife and I asked ourselves the question: Is biblical womanhood and manhood meant to be this difficult? Are we making this a more complex topic than is biblically warranted?
The Marks of Godliness
First, it should be stated that many of the marks of godliness that are geared towards women are also geared towards men elsewhere in Scripture. For example, women are encouraged to adorn themselves with a gentle and humble spirit (cf. 1 Peter 3:3-6), but aren't these qualities simply the fruit of the Spirit for all believers (cf. Galatians 5:22-23)? Furthermore, Christian women are called to be reverent in behavior, sensible, and pure (cf. Titus 2:3-5). However, the same instruction is given to men within the same passage (cf. Titus 2:2,6-8). On the male side, men are encouraged to be sound in faith and in doctrine, yet Paul says throughout the epistles that believers (men and women) should encourage one another, admonish one another, and teach one another (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Colossians 3:16). In other words, the mark of biblical manhood and womanhood is simply this: godliness.
Biblical Roles and Culture
Second, I wonder how much of biblical manhood/womanhood is mixed with traditional American values. For example, many of the popular works on biblical womanhood place the identity of Christian women primarily (or solely) in the home. This is perhaps the strangest idea that has been attached to biblical womanhood because it is largely inconsistent with the history of women in the church and very culturally specific. It has also led to a number of speculative questions regarding biblical womanhood in the workplace (such as should a woman hold a position of civic authority). Within the New Testament church, there are numerous examples of women (such as Lydia, Dorcas, and Anna) who are described as doing significantly more than homemaking. I believe that Rachel Miller has said it best:
"But just as men are more than their careers, women are more than their familial responsibilities. We are believers and fellow heirs. We may well be called to serve God in additional ways. Taking care of our families can include discipling others as part of the family of God."
In this sense, I think there's an inconsistency on how women and men are treated in this area. Christian men are routinely warned of the danger of finding their identity in their careers, and are exhorted to treat their other callings in life (such as their role as husbands, fathers, and church members) as worthy of their attention. However, the overemphasis of the familial responsibilities for women has given the impression that women are defined primarily based on what on what they do. In other words, Christian men are admonished not to be workaholics in their careers (outside the home), but Christian women are generally encouraged to devote their energy and talents solely in the home. This raises some honest questions: Are women useful outside the home? Are women useful after the season of childrearing is over? Are women actually needed in the functioning and edification of the church (beyond nursery and potluck meals)?
Moreover, historical research has shown that women largely worked outside the home throughout Western history. The reality is that many Christian women work outside of the home not because of the appeal of feminism, but because it is necessary. For the male side, the duties associated with biblical manhood seem to have many similarities with stereotypical American chauvinism where men are characterized as quiet, aloof, and dominant. This may explain why there are few sermons at conferences geared for Christian men on developing gentleness and meekness or addressing gossip among men.
The Need for Older Saints
From my background, the question of biblical manhood and womanhood was rarely discussed because we were raised with "church mothers" and "church fathers". These older saints knew their role within the church, and they functioned as the gatekeepers of the local church (under the authority of the pastor). They were the individuals who modeled the standard for godliness. Whereas the pastor's role was primarily teaching and preaching, it was the "church fathers" who gave young men like me clear guidance regarding godly maturity. These men taught me how to be temperate, dignified, and sensible. My wife, like many young Christian women, learned how to be godly through the example of "church mothers". These older women modeled Christian conduct by exuding self-control (particular with their speech) and through their encouragement and exhortations. They also taught young women how to be teachable, how to be useful within the local church, how to be humble without being passive, and how to be confident without being prideful. For us, biblical womanhood and manhood wasn't a topic of endless speculation, but it was a modeling of Christian character as demonstrated by older godly saints. It has been my impression that older men and women within broader evangelical churches do not necessarily view themselves in the same light.
Let's not complicate a matter that is taught in a straightforward manner in Scripture. It is sinful to blur the distinctions that God has made between men and women as if gender/sex is fluid. However, it is also sinful to bind the consciences of men and women based upon extrabiblical hedges and cultural preferences. The pursuit of biblical manhood and womanhood is a pursuit for godliness.
In an online context, where conversations move at a breakneck speed, we so often fail to carve out time for proper deliberation and reflection. After the firestorm of one debate has passed, we can swiftly move on to the next dispute, failing to reflect upon the lessons that can be gleaned from the conversation that we have just had. Disciplined and patient retrospection is, however, a rewarding activity and our neglect of it robs us of much of the potential profit of experience.
In this article, I want to offer an unapologetically 'cold take', a reflection at some distance in time upon some of the principal points that we can take forward from the conversations surrounding the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS).
The prominence of the ESS position owes a great deal to a theological preoccupation with the notion of authority and the relations appropriate to it. Authority has long been a prominent category in evangelical thought, not least in debates about the place of Scripture in the Church. However, as a category it has often been attended by many unconsidered assumptions and has also often been at risk of occluding much else. Both the unconsidered assumptions and the narrow preoccupation have implications for conceptions of divine relations, relations between the sexes, and understandings of Scripture's place in the Church. They represent a constriction of the imagination that often produces damaging and stifling understandings and practices.
For instance, authority is overwhelmingly conceived of both as an authority over and as an authority that exists over against others. Yet there are other ways of conceiving of authority. Authority can be an authority for or involve an authorizing of others. Authority is not a zero sum game in which we are weakened by the authority of another in relation to us. For instance, when speaking about the 'authority of Scripture', we may be inclined to think of that authority purely as something exercised over us to which we must be obedient. We may forget that Scripture is a manifestation and exercise of God's authority for the sake of his saving purpose, a dimension of the ministry of the Father's Word in the power of his Spirit to redeem and renew humanity and the creation. We can also forget that Scripture is an authorizing word, a word that commissions, empowers, and equips us to be God's fellow workers. Similar things could be said about gender relations, where so often an emphasis upon the authority of the man has been at the expense of, rather than in service to, the woman.
The recent ESS debate has exposed significant diversity among complementarians. All too often, the term 'complementarian' has functioned chiefly as a rallying label and shibboleth, serving the purpose of aligning people with one or the other party in gender debates. Indeed, the terms 'complementarian' and 'egalitarian' (and the polarized group dynamics that they fuel) have often so dominated the debate that it has been difficult to discover the actual diversity of positions beneath them.
This debate has made it more apparent that the term 'complementarian' applies to a diverse range of positions, whose differences are sometimes quite significant. It has also revealed that, on certain issues of deep theological importance with secondary relevance to the gender debates, the actual alignments that matter may cut across our divisions in the gender debates, dividing us from people we may have considered to be in our own camp and joining us with people with whom, in the gender debates, we find ourselves in disagreement.
The need to maintain a unified stance in the face of the external challenges of egalitarianism and the shifting sexual and gender norms of contemporary culture has often led to some degree of a self-imposed stifling of disagreement within the complementarian camp. However, a besieged mentality can produce dangerously brittle and unexamined systems of thought and practice and encourage us to turn a blind eye to serious errors. As the polarizing magnetism of party designations is weakened, a far more complicated picture emerges, along with promising possibilities for progress. Complementarians have always had internal debate, but this and other recent debates further unsettle notions of a shared 'party line' and have thereby expanded the scope of such intramural discussion.
The potential of this space remains ambivalent. It could lead to a fracturing and weakening of the complementarian position in general, as people divide into various squabbling camps. Concerns about this possibility may be heightened by the fact that party mentalities are often still very much in evidence among complementarians on either side of these debates. Alternatively, it could make possible a shared commitment to a challenging conversation among complementarians, through which all of our positions are honed and certain errors are rooted out, even if we do not finally align. Within such a space, it is possible to articulate more developed proposals, as we are no longer primarily concerned with defending a narrow party line.
The Crosswinds of the Gender Debates
Throughout the debate surrounding ESS, it has been concerning to witness the degree to which theological and exegetical argumentation has been caught up in the politics, the antagonisms, and the concerns of the broader gender debates. Reading many egalitarians and complementarian critics of ESS, it has often been difficult to tell what is driving the arguments--genuine concern about the proper handling of the doctrine of the Trinity, or animus against the supposed wrong sort of complementarians. My suspicions that this debate has been peculiarly afflicted by motivated and politicized reasoning have been intensified, as people who have not otherwise shown any interest in or extensive study of the doctrine of the Trinity have exhibited a peculiar concern in this particular case, often while still ignoring related errors in their own contexts. This is a time for all of us to examine our motives, to ask whether we are as alert to error in Trinitarian doctrine when those errors are harnessed to the service of doctrines that we ourselves favour. Is Trinitarian orthodoxy merely being weaponized for our squabbles about the theology of gender?
As I have become more acquainted with the writings in support of ESS in the course of this debate, it has been deeply troubling to see the way in which a framework of authority and submission has become almost programmatic for an understanding of the Trinity for some theologians. While there are instances in which the language of authority and submission is employed of the Trinitarian relation between the Father and the Son in the more recent tradition, the prominence that this has assumed more recently--a prominence that threatens to occlude so much else--is, I believe, unprecedented. It is also, in my assessment, a development that almost certainly has been catalysed by the gender debates.
The intense institutional politics and personal feelings that attend the gender debates make it incredibly difficult to have productive conversations and to reason in a balanced and consistent manner on issues that impinge upon them. It should be a matter of considerable concern that the doctrine of the Trinity has been blown off course in the manner that it has, but also that the integrity of the motives of critics of ESS can so often be in doubt on account of party mentalities. Both this distrust and its corresponding untrustworthiness contribute in their own way to the perpetuation of the problems, as most voices that will be raised against it are compromised or easily dismissed.
The progress that has been made in this debate has primarily occurred as the debate has been removed from a realm dominated by the fickle, capricious, and frequently untrustworthy reasoning of partisan antagonists, and has occurred in contexts sheltered from or opposed to such dynamics. It has also revealed the importance of and need for persons who can stand above partisanship and demonstrate the intellectual integrity necessary to criticize their own colleagues and friends. Where such integrity and courage has been lacking, it is not surprising that even genuine warnings of error have been unheeded.
"The subordination/submission of woman and the supremacy/leadership of man are a creation ordinance, God's ideal from the beginning (Gen. 1-2) and part of the fall consisted in the violation of this ordinance when Eve sought to get out from under Adam's supremacy/leadership and Adam failed to restrain her (Gen 3). God describes in 3:16 the results of sin in the continued distortion of God's original design for ontological hierarchy or functional leadership/submission between the sexes--with the man's exploitive subjugation of woman and/or woman's desire to control the man (or her "diseased" desire to submit to his exploitations )"1
The second major view "also understands the hierarchical relationship between the sexes (submission of woman to the leadership of man) as a creation ordinance (Gen 1-2) and agrees that at the fall this creation ordinance was violated (Gen 3); 3:16 is viewed as a divine prescription that the man must 'rule' that is, exercise his 'godly headship'--to restrain the woman's desire, that is, her urge get out from under his leadership and control/manipulate him."3 This was clearly the view of John Calvin who wrote: "The woman, who had perversely exceeded her proper bounds, is forced back to her own position. She had, indeed, previously been subject to her husband, but that was a liberal and gentle subjection; now, however, she is cast into servitude."4"Liberal-critical scholars tend to use the terms 'supremacy' and 'subordination' to describe the relative status of Adam and Eve respectively, arguing that in the understanding of the narrator there existed a divinely ordained ontological hierarchy between the sexes. Most evangelicals who hold this view, on the other hand, argue for an equality of ontological status between Adam and Eve at creation but propose that the text presents a divinely ordained functional hierarchy (their preferred term is that it is a "complementarian" relationship) consisting of the roles of male leadership (or "headship," as many hierarchical complementarians prefer) and female submission respectively."2
This is no novel interpretation. A form of it was also taught by Aquinas in the section titled "Man Made to God's Image" in Thomas' Summa Theologiae, as well as by Ambrose in Hexameron, Paradise, and Cain and Abel."According to the evangelical version of this view, Eve at the fall had broken loose from her role of submission to Adam and is now redirected to her former position under the leadership of Adam, not as a punishment but as a continued blessing and comfort to her in her difficulties as a mother. The meaning of v. 16c-d may be paraphrased, "you will have labor and difficulty in your motherhood, yet you will be eager for your husband and he will rule over you (in the sense of a servant leadership to care for and help and not in the sense of domination and oppression)."6
This should at least give those who enter into this debate pause and encourage a great deal of humility as we seek to interact on these more difficult portions of God's word."All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them" (WCF 1.7).
Before we jettison the classical, catholic, orthodox and reformed understanding of God as He is we need to carefully weigh what is at stake - our own and our hearers' eternal destiny.