Natural Complementarians or Natural Contrarians?
September 14, 2016
Alastair Roberts wrote a thoughtful response to my First Things article, where I disagreed with Glenn Stanton’s Why Men and Women Are Not Equal. I am thankful for this interaction to my article, and there is much in Roberts’ response that I wholeheartedly agree with. His is the kind of writing on gender that produces real fruit, for which I am grateful to see.
And yet much of his response is a rebuttal to my writing, which I am a little confused about. He makes three points where I failed in my response. He also believes that I misread Stanton and wrongly critiqued him.
Stanton’s article, which I believe Byrd misrepresents as suggesting that women are the holders of virtue, grounds its case in an account of the empirical nature of men, arguing that men have a particular tendency to certain vices, which social relations with women help to curb.
This is where I am scratching my head. I was responding to Stanton’s clear affirmation that, “the most powerful and important influence women have had on our nation’s founding, growth, and success is this: They make men behave. All their other important contributions are secondary.” This is profoundly insulting to read. I recognized familiar evangelical tropes in Stanton’s argument. Even his title, Why Women and Men Are Not Equal, foreshadows his point that women are the more virtuous sex.
Roberts, on the other hand, does not make this argument, but rather wants to uphold the empirical differences between the sexes and the benefits of recognizing them. To that, there is much that we can agree on. Roberts’ article has far different arguments than Stanton’s. Do men and women have different challenges and strengths when it comes to virtue? Do we learn more about maleness as we see them relate to women? This is worth exploring. But I was compelled to counter Stanton’s claim that one sex is more virtuous than the other---specifically, is women’s greatest contribution to society to make men behave?
I would like to respond to the three areas where Roberts observes that I’ve failed:
First, she fails to attend to the pronounced empirical differences between men and women as groups that Stanton highlighted.
Roberts says that while I give the impression that yes, there are differences between the sexes; I downplay this as if our statuses are indifferent, choosing to focus on divinely commanded gender roles. He continues, “Christian teaching, however, is better understood as a clarification and intensification of internal beckonings of being that we experience as men and women within the world, or as the expression of a music for which our natures are discovered to be the proper resonance chamber.”
I will admit that sometimes I do downplay the differences between the sexes, as I am constantly bombarded with a stereotype rather than true engagement. This is where I see a major weakness in the empirical argument. And I disagree that Christian teaching is better understood by clarifying internal beckonings. How is Christian teaching better understood? By the clear teaching of Scripture. The Christian message, the gospel message of salvation, is outside of us. 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 without the Lord. Internal beckonings can get us into a lot of trouble. Even for believers, the Spirit always confirms his leading by the Word. That is how Christian teaching is better understood, by the means of grace God has given his church.*
But I do agree with Roberts that there are observable differences in the sexes, and that our hormonal makeup affects those differences. This isn’t something I addressed in my article. I’ve written a lot, particularly in two of my books, on how women have influence over men. Studies show that we have a relational gift, that people disclose more about themselves and have more intimate communication when women are involved in the dialogue. Our propensity for intimate conversation helps us to be persuasive to others. But this can also be used in a very sinful way. It can be both a strength and a weakness when manipulated to serve ourselves.
Roberts points out an obvious proof that men are more prone to aggressive violence: “the vast majority of every single nation’s prison population is male.” Men have higher levels of testosterone that can perpetuate aggression and they are physically stronger, more able to execute that aggression. Again, this can be both a strength or a weakness, one used to cultivate and protect family and society, or to serve their own passions. Men and women are to help one another, as our differences are both challenges and strengths. But I can’t go as far as to say this:
Tying men to women and children harnesses men’s energies to the construction and protection of society, where otherwise they might run amok. Where men are not tied to women in such a manner, men often try to prove their masculinity in destructive and socially damaging ways.
I guess this is where Roberts is agreeing with Stanton that women make men behave and that is our contribution to society. But this is where his jail argument falls apart. Are these men incarcerated because they didn’t have women to harness their energies? Many of these incarcerated men only have women in their lives, single moms who’ve raised them and likely a girlfriend with babies or a wife. Here are a few statistics I have pulled showing that it is a lack of a strong male figure, their father, which has contributed to their violence:
• 85% of all children who show behavior disorders come from fatherless homes – 20 times the average. (Center for Disease Control)
• 80% of rapists with anger problems come from fatherless homes –14 times the average. (Justice & Behavior, Vol 14, p. 403-26)
• 70% of youths in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes – 9 times the average. (U.S. Dept. of Justice, Sept. 1988)
• 85% of all youths in prison come from fatherless homes – 20 times the average. (Fulton Co. Georgia, Texas Dept. of Correction)
So I do agree that marriage, with both a wife and a husband, is beneficial to society. This benefits singles as well, as they too come from a family. And we see this in the cultural mandate. But it isn’t just because of a woman’s influence or virtue, as these statistics show. We need men with virtue to step up as fathers. This is a real crisis in our culture today. There are many women in abusive relationships who are hurt by this assertion that their virtue should influence their spouse’s sexual impulses and aggressive energies. Rather than inward beckonings, we need to uphold and promote law in society. Marriage between one man and one woman is a part of that. So is incarcerating men who are violent.
I do agree with Roberts’ assertion not to be forgetful of nature. This is why I appreciate a real gentleman, men who use their strength in respect for women. Real gentlemen have more than manners when a woman walks in a room, as Stanton endorses in his article. Men with integrity aren’t to pretend to be virtuous when in front of a woman. And a woman needs discernment on whether that behavior is a reflection of virtue that they are exercising, or if they are instead temporarily pretending. We are not merely sexual temptresses that motivate men to behave. That is not what Roberts or Stanton are saying; however that is a deduction to the reasoning of the power that women supposedly have to change a man’s behavior when they walk into a room. That is a valid empirical observation to the temporary behavior of men around women.
Second, she handles historical understandings of gender roles as if unalloyed ideology, rather than as practical attempts to respond to and address prevailing social realities, realities that arose in part on account of natural differences between the sexes.
I am going to be most brief with this argument, as I can only cover so much in one article. Sure, historical understandings of gender roles may be practical attempts to respond to and address prevailing social realities, but that doesn’t negate the fact that many have fallen into damaging ideologies to which I was contesting. Rachel Miller has already written a good article on this, and I have reviewed an excellent book on one area where it has affected evangelicalism. I saw a lot of that same language in Stanton’s article, and am verifiably concerned that gender becomes an ideological commodity when we frame our arguments this way.
Third, she restricts her biblical analysis to an unclear term in relative isolation, rather than seeking to ascertain the larger biblical picture.
Byrd’s case rests in part upon an interpretation of the Hebrew terms ezer kenegdoin Genesis 2:18. Unfortunately, rendering this as ‘necessary ally’ doesn’t tell us all that much about the way that men and women are actually to relate… It is far more illuminating to observe the manner in which Scripture describes the relation between men and women functioning and failing. As we study this, the manner in which the woman is the man’s ‘necessary ally’ will become more clearly apparent.
Yes, I did not have the space to expand on this important interpretation, where Scripture shows women’s contribution. But I did introduce it to contrast a biblical description with competing ideologies. There is important work that needs to be done here that can’t be covered adequately in a blog article. I write extensively on it in my next book. And yet No Little Women is written in hopes that many others will contribute, as I scratch the surface demonstrating how Scripture further reveals women functioning as both allies and opponents.
Women do have moral suasion over men. But it can go either way. Women are indeed necessary. Our sexuality is necessary. We shouldn’t flatten our differences. I agree with Roberts’ exhortation here. But in a gender neutralizing society, Christians need to turn to God’s Word, over and above empirical observation, to how we are called to contribute.
John McKinley outlines seven ways in which women functioned as necessary allies in Scripture, and conversely when sin caused them to function as opponents instead. I expand upon and interact with these in a chapter of No Little Women.
Roberts concludes reiterating that he is not claiming that women are more virtuous than men. I wish Stanton did the same. That is why I wrote my original response. Scripture doesn’t tell us who is more virtuous, or to look to a particular sex for this virtue. We are all told to look to Christ for what we so desperately need. Stanton’s assertion then distracts us from these other important discussions on gender that Roberts wants us to have.
*Thanks to E.J. Hutchinson's critique on that paragraph that led me to add some clarification.