Several weeks back there was a bit of a dust-up in conservative Reformed Protestant circles over the following simple question: Does being a man or a woman have any ethical significance for the way we live together in civil society? Despite the success of feminism in radically reworking gender roles over the past half century, conservative Evangelicalism has maintained a modest conviction that our sexuality has ethical import. Certain New Testament passages compel conservative Evangelicals to maintain that women should not be pastors and that the husband is in some way the head of the home. The group of Evangelicals who hold to this, which readers will quickly ascertain is simply a boringly normal version of the historic Christian and Jewish teaching on such matters, are commonly called Complementarians. In their view, men and women are distinctive complements to one another rather than identical and universally interchangeable parts.
But, this teaching about the importance of our sexual nature as male and female is generally limited to two distinct spheres (home and church), and generally limited to the barest of convictions (that a man ought to be in the position of headship). Thus far goes the resistance of conservative Evangelical Protestantism against the onslaught of feminism.
Beyond this lies a parting of ways. Some Reformed Evangelicals argue that we cannot go further and develop a broad theological view about the nature of manhood and womanhood. So, Aimee Byrd writes that there is no “biblical manhood and biblical womanhood filter” that our ethical questions need go through. In other words, when asking the question “should I do this?” or “should I be like that?” it makes no difference whether you are a man or a woman. You do not have a male or female nature that would offer you guidance on your basic ethical questions about what kind of person you should be and what kinds of activities you ought to engage in.
On this view, our sexual nature simply does not have that kind of significance. So, Dr. Carl Trueman writes that Complementarianism “lost its way when it became an all-embracing view of the world and not simply a matter for church and household.”
Both Trueman and Byrd wrote their articles because of a podcast posted by Pastor John Piper. In it he offers counsel to a woman who is considering police work as a vocation. Without telling her what she should do, he suggests she at least consider whether her womanhood would be compromised by the kinds of things that a police officer would be required to do. There is such a thing, Piper maintains, as manhood and womanhood. They are not mere by-words for limited scriptural commands, but fundamental elements of what we are. We are not fundamentally asexual creatures who occasionally have scriptural commands on fine points of order. Instead we are fundamentally sexual, diverse; we are male and female.
And so it seems to me there is one simple reason that Pastor Piper gets the better of this recent exchange: our created sexual nature is too basic and too potent a part of each of us to think it is irrelevant to broad swathes of our lives. A Complementarianism that is so thin that it limits itself to a single point circumscribed within two narrow spheres does not do justice to the fact that “from the beginning God made them male and female.” This mysterious and unique human partnership of male and female extends to every part of our lives; it is not limited to small cloisters.
Evangelicals will not be able to successfully navigate a post-Christian world without recovering a broad vision for the meaning and purpose of sexuality. The confusions and perversions of our age require a clear and potent theological response grounded in an anthropology that is sexual. If you tell people long enough and loud enough that being a man or a woman makes no difference for the majority of their lives, they will begin to believe you.
When the next Bruce Jenner arrives on the scene, next time at our high school homecoming rather than our TV screen, a thin Complementarianism will not be of any use. If he wants to be a woman, why not let him? Being a man or a woman doesn’t really matter, does it? And in things that don’t really matter, we let people make their own decisions! When our children write articles about their plans to get married but remain intentionally childless, a thin Complementarianism will not be of any use. If they want to remain childless, more power to them! Being a man or a woman doesn’t matter for having kids does it? In neither of these situations is the one basic tenet of thin Complementarianism compromised.
Thin Complementarianism will founder on questions like these, questions which drive us to recognize that there is something irreducibly significant about being a man or being a woman. Our male and female natures mean something for us and call forth something from us. That something is a something that extends to all of life, since we are male and female in all of life. That something is not limited to narrow hierarchical contexts, but affects our entire mode of being.
As Sherif Gergis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert George note in Chapter Four of What is Marriage?, when there is no rational basis for a norm people will eventually stop following it. Without a broad vision of sexuality to undergird it and make it comprehensible, a thin Complementarianism will falter and fade.
David Talcott is an assistant professor of philosophy at the King’s College (NY).