Farewell, complementarianism (pt. 4)

I was sitting in the van with some colleagues from work. We were on the way back from a series of meetings in Chicago. I was newly engaged at the time; the big day was less than a year away.

Seeing as I was the only unmarried person in the van… and it was a three-hour drive back to Grand Rapids… and my coworkers had plenty of marriage advice to dispense, I was in for an earful, whether I wanted it or not.

One of my coworkers said to me, “Look, it’s fine if you want to believe all that stuff about husbands leading their wives. Just don’t try to make your marriage work like that — if you want your marriage to work, that is.”

The advice kept on coming.

Sitting behind me, characteristically quiet, was a man named Stan Gundry. Stan was no stranger to the gender roles debate. I was still in diapers when Stan was forced to resign from his teaching post at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute because of his wife’s egalitarian views.

I had heard of Stan long before we ever met. He’s a well-known biblical scholar, respected by even some of the most dedicated proponents of complementarianism. (It probably doesn’t hurt that he’s their publisher, but still.)

I knew Stan had been a complementarian at one point, and I was curious what had changed for him. But I was also a little intimidated by Stan. Or maybe I was just worried his answer might force me to rethink my views. Still, I asked.

As we broke free of the Chicago gridlock, Stan told me his story. I won’t repeat all of it here, because he’s already shared it at length in a post well worth reading, called From Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers to Woman Be Free.

(In case you’re wondering, the title is a reference to two books — one his fundamentalist father gave him and the other a book his wife wrote, which led to his dismissal from Moody.)

Stan told me how when he was a young pastor, his wife started asking questions about the Bible’s teaching on women. He confessed to being troubled by her questions at first — largely because he didn’t have very good answers.

Inspired by his wife (and by his own desire to read the Bible more holistically), Stan began reassessing his views. Gradually, they began to shift.

The final nail in the coffin came when Stan was researching American church history for his doctorate at Chicago’s Lutheran School of Theology.

He told me how one night, he was studying arguments used by 19th-century theologians to justify slavery…

  • They argued that slavery was sanctioned by Scripture.
  • They said that certain groups of people were intrinsically subordinate to others — by God’s design.
  • They accused abolitionists of capitulating to the worldly whims of a godless culture.
  • They insisted that to reject slavery was to reject the Word of God.

That night, as Stan was fighting his way home through the Chicago traffic, it dawned on him that he’d heard these arguments before. As Stan later wrote:

In fact, at one time I had used [these arguments] to defend hierarchicalism and argue against egalitarianism. By this time I was close to home and I still remember the exact spot on Manchester Road where it hit me like a flash: Someday Christians will be as embarrassed by the church’s biblical defense of patriarchal hierarchicalism as it is now of the nineteenth century biblical defenses of slavery.

By the time we pulled into Grand Rapids, I was an egalitarian. I came to realize that any theology which insists on subjugating an entire class of people cannot be reconciled with “in the image of God he created them.” It flies in the face of “neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.”

Using the same arguments once used to justify slavery should be a huge red flag that our theology isn’t merely flawed. It’s dangerous. It stands against everything the early church stood for: upending the social structures that kept some people down and creating an alternative community where all could stand on equal footing before the cross.

The next day, I told my fiancé about the conversation on the way home from Chicago, and how I felt that I was called to submit to her just as much as she was to me. Given that we attended a church where women were taught to unilaterally submit to their husbands, I wasn’t sure how this would go over with her.

I should’ve known.

She was already ahead of me.

After 10 wonderful years of marriage, I can say one thing: I’m glad I caught up to her.

___________________________

P.S. Matthew Paul Turner’s blog has a guest post on Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers by the great-grandson of the book’s fundamentalist author.

15 thoughts on “Farewell, complementarianism (pt. 4)

  1. Ben, thanks so much for this lovely reflection on egalitarianism. I am also a great fan of Stan’s, and I loved his essay on the CBE web site. I am a grandson of John R. Rice, so I have an unusual perspective on the subject (and on the book on “Bossy Wives”). You may be interested in my own book, published last year — “The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family”

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  2. I am an outsider following your posts, very interesting and thank you for taking the time to give your thoughts.

    I must say though you lost me a bit with this last post. Seriously? suggesting and believing in ‘differing roles’ (as I understand many “so called complimentarians” saying) to slavery? That seems quite the stretch to me?

    In saying that, no doubt there are many men who would hold a twisted and more serious view of women being less then men, and perhaps seeing them as property per se. That seems like the exception to me. That is not what I see the main thrust of complimentarianism as portraying, especially in some of the men you have mentioned.

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  3. Randy: thanks for reading. The point of this last post was that if you read the theological literature of the 19th century, then read some of the arguments put forward by modern-day complementarians, you will find some strong parallels between the theological arguments used to justify slavery and those used to justify a hierarchically-based role differentiation between men and women.

    I think most egalitarians (myself included) accept that there are differences between men and women, and that these differences “complement” each other in some ways. (In fact, I think you could argue the term “complementarian” would be better applied to our view.) But when someone argues that such differences imply the subordination of one to the other and that such hierarchy is etched into the natural order, that’s where the argument begins to resemble the one made to justify slavery (which was also thought to be based on hierarchical differences between people that were embedded into the natural order).

    Tim: indeed.

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  4. Wow! Connecting the dots between to two arguments of slavery & patriarchy is crazy. It really should not surprise me though. In the circles I dwelt in, there were many “southern sympathizers”. Have you seen the movie Gettysburg? Very popular among my patriarchy folks. (A homeschool group we used to be involved with where movies in general were frowned upon, this movie was still okay.) From watching the movie, it seems as if the Southerners were the faithful bible believers, while the northerners seemed more of humanists.
    Anyway – great story of your journey & Stan’s, too. Thanks for sharing!

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  5. Pingback: 50 shades of nonsense (or, where the argument for women’s subordination came from) | Ben Irwin

  6. Pingback: Why I’m a Jesus feminist (yes, even before I’ve read the book) « Ben Irwin

  7. Pingback: Farewell, complementarianism (pt. 3) « Ben Irwin

  8. Ben, after reading all 4 parts of this series, I then went and checked out what Piper said (still haven’t gotten to the response from Rachel Evans) and something occurred to me. We have come to appreciate the teachings of Baxter Kruger a lot recently. Had the chance to hear him in person with Paul Young back in 2010 and it was amazing! If you know anything about Baxter, his whole premise is that Evangelicals have abandoned the Trinity for the one G-O-D god of paganism. As I scanned Piper’s stuff, it occurred to me that if he understood the Trinity at all (he claims to believe in that concept, but no), he might begin to get a glimpse of how men and women were created to operate as equals in unity. I don’t know if that even makes any sense, but somehow in my head, it does. 🙂

    As a co-worker with my husband, I enjoyed your series very much!

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    • P.S. I have to wonder, too, how much the writers of the O.T. were influenced by their culture and surrounding culture in regards to the pronouns they tacked onto God? Just a thought.

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  9. “Stan was forced to resign from his teaching post at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute because of his wife’s egalitarian views.”

    Oh my. This is one reason I blog anonymously.

    “Look, it’s fine if you want to believe all that stuff about husbands leading their wives. Just don’t try to make your marriage work like that — if you want your marriage to work, that is.”

    Exactly! I was just thinking about this today. The best baptist marriages I know give lip service to the whole complementation thing, but they certainly don’t practice it. Silly, all that pretending.

    “(In case you’re wondering, the title is a reference to two books — one his fundamentalist father gave him and the other a book his wife wrote, which led to his dismissal from Moody.)”

    This is why I have not yet published (except locally) the Bible study I wrote on gender 4 years ago. I didn’t want to cause my hubby grief. Didn’t want an angry mob with a battering ram to storm my front door. I am so happy to discover that God has called others to this topic. Phew! Perhaps I’ll book blog it now.

    “Someday Christians will be as embarrassed by the church’s biblical defense of patriarchal hierarchicalism as it is now of the nineteenth century biblical defenses of slavery.”

    Yes. Amen. I see rumblings.

    “any theology which insists on subjugating an entire class of people cannot be reconciled with “in the image of God he created them.” It flies in the face of “neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.””

    Exactly!

    “After 10 wonderful years of marriage, I can say one thing: I’m glad I caught up to her.”

    Bless your sweet heart.

    Sorry for the long reply.

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