Not All Conservatives

In order to address Bronwyn’s first question,

To what extent do Piper and Grudem (and the big names at CMBW) speak for all complementarians? How big, and how grey, is our grey area?

we need to clarify something. I believe that part of the “greyness” results from using the term “complementarian” to refer to anyone who holds a conservative view of gender—anyone who sees distinct male/female roles in marriage and church office. But what if not all gender conservatives are complementarians?

Complementarianism might be better understood as one expression of gender conservativism. As a response to evangelical feminism, complementarianism developed and flourishes in a specific cultural context, namely a western, white, middle-upper class context; because of this, it will reflect western, white, middle-upper class assumptions about work, economics, and home. The fact that Pastor Piper is even concerned with answering the question “what jobs can a woman do” reflects this.

Consider how the Danvers’ Statement positions complementarianism against “feminist egalitarianism” (which itself was influenced by 2nd-wave feminism). Insofar as complementarians formed their identity in direct opposition to 2nd-wave feminism, they became a photonegative of it.  None of us should be surprised, then, that complementarians are asking “what jobs can a woman can do” because this is precisely the same question that 2nd-wave feminists asked. But even this question is loaded with assumptions about class, race, and agency.

I grew up in a low-income setting where people didn’t have much choice about which “jobs” they took. Today I live and worship in a working-class community where very few of the women in our church have the luxury of not working outside the home. Even fewer would have the luxury of turning down a promotion if it meant she’d find herself “leading” a male co-worker. And yet, these folks would be the first to affirm that “father is head of the home” and that the office of pastor is restricted to men. (These folks would also tend to be congregational in church polity so women—as members of the congregation—enjoy a form of representation that those in more hierarchical settings would not.)

I am a conservative, but I often find it difficult to identify with complementarianism. Not because I reject gender differences, but because I reject the incomplete definitions of work, home, and economics that are part of the cultural context in which complementarianism developed. Still, it does exists. And because Piper and Grudem were leaders in its development, there is a sense in which I do think they speak for it. But insofar as complementarianism exemplifies a specific cultural experience, I do not believe that they speak for all who hold a conservative reading of gender.

Acknowledging this leads to answering Bronwyn’s second question.

If one does have a general commitment to a difference in male/female roles in church, family and the world… how in the world do we start trying to figure out what that looks like in practice without sliding straight down that muddy slope?

We start in context of our immediate relationships. We start at home. We start with our nearest neighbors. We start in our local churches. We start in our cultural context.

How my husband and I honor the gender differences between us, living here in Appalachia, will not be the same as how a couple in East Africa honors the differences between them. How my local church honors the differences between men and women will not be the same as how a church from a different ecclesiology honors the differences between men and women.

Admittedly, this requires more ownership of the issue as well as more male-female collaboration to honor those differences well. A pastor far removed from my home and local church cannot make a list of how men and women must relate here in my community. But we must wrestle with it. Pastors and leaders here must process it along with a whole host of other questions about human flourishing. And when we do, I believe we will honor these differences in terms of our relationships: my husband and my wife; my elder and my congregant; my brother and my sister.

And when we do this–when we live in community with each other–I believe much of the “grey” quickly comes into focus.