Egalitarians sometimes promote their point of view by equating complementarianism with oppressive forms of patriarchy. Often this is done through caricature rather than through engaging with mainstream complementarians and their stated beliefs. Unfortunately, another instance of this has happened in a recent article by Jana Chapman Gates.
In an opinion piece for Christianity Today, Gates writes about her recent move from Manhattan to an undisclosed location in the Midwest. She joined a church and enlisted in a small group Bible Study that was going through a series on marriage. She was shocked to discover that her new friends held some fairly disturbing views on gender relations. In short, she learned that they believed that “Christianity subjugates women” because women in general are more prone to sin than men are. Her friends established the point by appealing to 2 Timothy 2:12-15. Gates is concerned that her friends might not realize the implications of their view. She notes that “arguments about the foolishness of women have been historically used to deny women civil rights.”
There really isn’t any new ground covered in this article. Gates touches upon some of the well-worn issues that evangelical feminists and complementarians have debated ad infinitum for decades. Unfortunately, the friends in her Bible study did not present her with a mainstream complementarian interpretation of the text that she stumbles over, so her analysis of the issue is fairly skewed. Although there are some exceptions, complementarians by and large do not believe that women are more gullible or prone to sin than men areâ€”much less do they hold that as a basis for the biblical doctrine of male headship (1 Corinthians 11:3).
For complementarians, headship is rooted neither in woman’s sin nor in man’s. Rather, headship is rooted in the order of creation that God established in the Garden of Eden before there was any sin in the world (Genesis 2; 1 Corinthians 11:8-9; 1 Timothy 2:13). It’s a misinterpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12-15 to say that women are more prone to sin than men are. The classic exposition of this point comes from Douglas Moo (Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, pp. 189-190), and I direct readers there for more on this topic.
Beyond the caricatures, however, there was another important item in Gates’s piece that deserves comment. She not only takes umbrage with the idea that women are more prone to sin; she also disagrees with the notion of headship at all. She does not want to believeâ€”to use her wordsâ€”that “Christianity subjugates women.” She confesses that if that is what Christianity truly teaches, then she doesn’t want to have anything to do with the God of that version of Christianity. That was her response to being “confronted with a notion of God that didn’t match my own.”
I understand why the idea of headship is difficult to accept. It is positively counter-cultural, and no one is going to be able to make nice with mainstream culture if they adopt this view. It’s just too offensive to the spirit of the age. Nevertheless, in approaching an issue like this one, it is dangerous to assume a posture of instant recalcitrance when “confronted with a notion of God that didn’t match my own.” Sometimes such resistance is good. There are many unorthodox “notions of God” that we would do well to resist. But we have to admit that sometimes our own notions of God need to be corrected or refined. When I find in the Bible a notion of God that doesn’t match my own, I shouldn’t go instantly looking for hermeneutical strategies to support my current view. I have to press in to the scripture, find out what it teaches, and then conform my beliefs to that teaching whether I am comfortable with it or not. That’s how the authority of scripture works in the Christian life. It changes us. We don’t change it.
Gates’s article is interesting, but it is ultimately not that helpful. Mainstream complementarians are not making the case that women are more prone to sin than men. They are, however, making the case that we need to submit ourselves to the authority of scriptureâ€”even when it confronts long-cherished beliefs.