Friday, February 10, 2012

Complementarianism: Value and Function

The following is part of an ongoing response to Roger E. Olson’s critique of extreme complementarianism. For the origin and nature of these posts, see Complementarianism: A Defense from a Nobody.

I imagine that many, perhaps even Dr. Olson (who, while a real person, has taken on for my purposes here more the role of a fictional foil against which to cast complementarianism), consider the distinction between value and function as far as gender economics is concerned to be a thin veneer behind which to hide overt sexism. The distinction is, nevertheless, one which I believe to be substantive and necessary for approaching the question of gender economics. In simpler terms, it is the philosophical underpinning for the idea that things can be different but equal. That phrasing has the nasty connotation of racist ideals of “separate but equal” which were in fact merely a façade for separate and deeply unequal treatment. The problem both with “separate but equal” and the distinction between value and function is not in the abstract but in the improper application.

Distinguishing function from value is an assumption that we all operate with uncritically with on a daily basis. For example, consider the question, “Who do you love more, your spouse or your children?” Even as someone without children, I realize that question is nonsensical. The only appropriate, healthy answer is, “I love them equally.” And yet, you do not have the same expectations from your spouse as you do your children. You value them equally and yet you recognize that there is a fundamental difference in the way they operate relative to you. In theory then, at least, I hope everyone can agree to the possibility of ontological equality and economic distinction.

Even Olson admits that essentially everyone agrees that men and women were created for different functions. After all, it is hard not to look at a male and a female and realize that they are not quite the same. On the other hand, Olson’s only practical example of this is to point to anatomical distinctions: “even feminists believe men and women have different roles insofar as only women give birth!” At the core of complementarianism, however, is the belief that God chose to create men and women with more important differences than the ability of men to urinate standing up.

In fact, an appeal to pregnancy—or anatomy more generally—as a key functional difference between men and women seems to treat the problem in reverse. It forgets, in essence, that God was not constrained by the world He had not yet created and the reproductive strictures He would produce. In other words, there was nothing preventing God from creating a vast hermaphroditic biosphere in which there is neither maleness nor femaleness. For that matter, He might just have easily have made all life reproduce by mitosis and save us all the trouble of coupling to begin with. For my part, this realization of divine freedom calls into question any model of gender economics which asks how men and women are different and turns to anatomy for the crucial answers. Instead, we ought to ask, “Given that men and women are obviously biologically different: why?”

It should be striking to all of us that God built inadequacy and incompleteness, cooperation and dependence into the most basic relationship of human existence. There is no sense in which any human is ultimately self-sufficient biologically because God has placed in us an imperative to reproduce and the almost ironic inability to do so on our own. And why shouldn’t He? The cardinal human sin from the garden up to the present has always been a desire for and a false sense of autonomy: the belief that we know better than God, that we can get along without God, and that, given time, we can become gods unto ourselves. Yet the very human condition is structured to teach us that we are incomplete on our own, dependent on another, different someone for ultimate wholeness. This incompleteness and this wholeness, however, are more than a mere physical incompleteness (i.e. the inability to satisfy the biological urge to have sex and reproduce). It is a deeper, metaphysical incompleteness which is touched on with the complimenting natures of the sexes but which speaks to the greater incompleteness of a creation which has forgotten or rejected its Creator.

Lost in all this discussion of difference, however, is a more foundational, more important fact which egalitarians and complementarians agree on: men and women are created equal. It is an understandable oversight. After all, people spend very little time arguing about what they agree on. The comparably subtler and more minor difference about what I and Olson believe respectively is the extent and nature of functional differences between the sexes is a great deal more fun to argue about. Nevertheless, it is critical to realize that a reasoned complementarians (and the only one I have encountered outside the pages of history books) believes no less strongly in the truth that women are of no less value than men (nor, it should be noted, are men of any less value than women).

This equality is not incidental. God did not create one kind of human (male) and then another kind of human (female) and then calibrate their respective values so they would even out. Men and women share a common humanity, bear a common divine image, and have a common genderless standing before God—which is to say that God does not love men and love women, He does not save men and save women, but loves and saves people. Were anyone able to list a thousand ways in which men and women are different, such a list would not begin to compare to the way in which the sexes are the same by virtue of their common humanity. If anything, the ways in which we are different and how that plays out in the economy of the home and the church and society at large are the incidentals, the merely exterior features on the surface of our identical core substance.

We see this reflected in the narrative of creation which first speaks of the simultaneous creation of all humanity, male and female, in the image of God before taking a more precise look at the creation of a distinct male and then, in response to his recognition of his incompleteness, a distinct female. The same will be true of Paul who, in his earliest letter, insists to his audience that there is no male and female, no slave and free, no Jew and Gentile before later writing about the way masters should behave relative to their slaves, how Jews and Gentiles approach God differently, and how men and women should interact in the home and the church. There is reality in the difference between male and female and a divine intentionality which is apparent in Scripture, but always embedded in it is the underlying, overarching (and, yes, I realize those are somewhat contradictory images) truth of the essential equality of the sexes. We are one humanity with a single standing before God.

So, yes, I do believe that men and women are different, even different in ways which transcend anatomy and transcend fluid cultural norms. But even if I believed that God made men to be bankers and women to be housewives (and I certainly do not), a fair representation of complementarianism respects that I can hold such a view without in anyway denigrating women, lessening their value, or making them second-class citizens before God.

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