What would complementarians do with a hermaphrodite pastor?

Posted on 03/16/13 26 Comments

Complementarianism is the theological view that while women and men share ontological equality (i.e. both are made in the image of God), they nonetheless properly have different roles in church, the home and the wider society. The way this often cashes out in church is that women should not teach or be in authority over men. Most complementarians (at least most that I meet) don’t have a problem with women teaching men in areas other than theology and related disciplines. So, for example, they would be open to a woman being an English professor or even the head architect of a new church building project. But they would insist that women should not teach in the church. One of the favorite passages of complementarians comes from 1 Timothy 2:11-15:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

Of course the egalitarians (those who defend the position that ontological gender equality equates to equality of leadership roles as well) have their responses as to how passages like 1 Timothy 2:11-15 are best interpreted. But that’s not my interest here.

Instead, I will argue that the complementarian position becomes mired in hopeless casuistry when faced with the endless complexity of real life circumstances.

Let’s start off with a concrete scenario that I once presented to a complementarian:

The year is 1960. A world famous female Christian professor of the Bible is flying in a Twin Otter in the Arctic with two relatively uneducated non-Christian oil riggers. Suddenly the plane goes down in a blizzard hundreds of kilometers off their planned flight route. The three are uninjured but they recognize it is unlikely that they will be found for months. And so they quickly set up camp. Once they are settled and have secure food and shelter, the professor begins teaching the Bible to the two oil workers. Is that okay?

The complementarian replied:

Yes, that’s okay because the two oil workers are not Christians. But if they become Christians then she can no longer teach them. Instead, they must begin teaching her.

Nothing I said from that point on could dissuade my complementarian friend from this conclusion. He was adamant: Paul was clear that women cannot teach men. So there really is nothing else to discuss.

Perhaps there is a way around my friend’s rigorous stipulation. For example, maybe the professor could write lecture notes to the oil riggers and then the oil riggers could read those notes back to the professor so that in the process of “teaching” the professor they could receive their own instruction. Is this a viable loophole?

Unfortunately, I can’t help but view such reasoning as the worst kind of casuistry.

Another way to poke holes in complementarian casuistry is by considering the blurring of topics. Can a woman teach a man biblical theology? No? What about historical theology? No? What about church history? No? What about secular history with significant tracts of church-related issues?

Can a woman teach a man systematic theology? No? What about philosophical theology? No? What about philosophy of religion? No? What about philosophy with significant sections of philosophy of religion?

Can a woman teach a man presbyterian governance? No? What about the presbyterial roots of modern representational democracies? No? What about modern representational democracy that makes reference to the presbyterial roots of modern representational democracies?

Once again, we are emeshed in endless casuistry.

Finally, what happens to the teaching authority of a “male” pastor who, it turns out, was born a hermaphrodite? What do you do with people who don’t fit into cleanly defined gender categories in the first place?

In comparison to this dizzying complexity we have the egalitarian position that makes a simple observation: If you’re gifted at teaching then teach. If you’re gifted at leading then lead. And if you’re gifted at making endless casuistic qualifications … then become a complementarian.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/david.gray.5836 David Gray

    I have traditionally defended the complementarian view since Paul in that verse refers to the order of creation. I never knew what to make of that. If he had just given instructions, then I would have happily concluded that it was just a patriarchal thing at the time; however, Paul’s referring to creation to his argument made me feel like I would be forced to conclude that Paul didn’t know what he was talking about if I went the egalitarian route. Practically speaking, your view makes more sense. I am a guy, but I am not a leader. There are many women who can lead better than me.

    And I now know what casuistry means. Randal, I have gained about 15 new words to my vocabulary thanks to your blog posts :-)

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      I intentionally steered clear of the exegetical issues. But if one gets into those issues one must balance any claims one finds in 1 Timothy or 1 Corinthians with the practical reality of women teachers and leaders in the early church like Junia and Priscilla. And of course egalitarians have various points to make about the occasional nature of the epistles, the specific contexts in which they were written, the underlying cultural transcendent principle vs. concrete historical exemplification of the principle, etc.

      Here I focus on a different issue: what does complementarianism even mean? I think these difficulties with practical application illumine serious problems concerning what it means to follow complementarian teaching.

    • Crude

      I am a guy, but I am not a leader. There are many women who can lead better than me.

      I know what you mean. It’s like my friend Mike. Mike’s very lazy, which is why he lets his girlfriend handle the whole ‘job’ and ‘paying the bills’ thing.

      • http://www.facebook.com/david.gray.5836 David Gray

        I don’t see it as an issue of laziness versus working hard. It is a matter of natural talent. Are you familiar with Myers-Briggs personality theory? Some personalities are more adept at organizing and leadership, some are more adept at following. I work hard, but I am generally not an effective leader.

        • Crude

          I don’t see it as an issue of laziness versus working hard. It is a matter of natural talent.

          Again, I know what you mean. Mike’s girlfriend told him to get a job, but he explained he has no natural talent for working. She has trouble understanding that. Maybe I should tell her about Myers-Briggs. I mean, it’s not as if personalities can change or anything like that. A person who is inclined towards one role or feels uncomfortable towards another role is utterly unable to change this.

          Mike, among other things, is not inclined towards work.

          • http://www.facebook.com/david.gray.5836 David Gray

            Well, thank you, sir, for your persuasive argument. Having been convinced of my utter laziness, I shall walk away sheepishly with my tail between my legs with the hope that I can one day achieve true Biblical manhood.

  • Crude

    In comparison to this dizzying complexity we have the egalitarian position that makes a simple observation:

    Randal, don’t you think that endorsing a view on the grounds that it’s very simple and clear cut is a poor endorsement, considering the wide variety of views where you decry people oversimplifying what are actually more nuanced matters?

    Your post here amounts to “I can ask you a lot of hypothetical questions about your position. Man, I bet you find that annoying to do, and people would find it difficult to follow. If you choose this other position, I’ll stop. Wouldn’t that be nice?” That’s really not much of a criticism, and really, if it were used as a standard you’d be dead in the water on a number of issues instantly.

    In fact, if the complementarian responded bluntly, ‘The answer to all your questions is no’ and made everything clear-cut, I can bet you’d almost immediately be appealing to the complexity of issues and decrying how people oversimplify things.

    Really, if you had exposed a flaw in complementarian thinking and were arguing for that flaw, I’d have a different response. But right now you’re merely appealing to your ability to ask questions, and gesturing ‘and I don’t really find their replies compelling, but the reasons why aren’t important’. That ain’t much.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      “Your post here amounts to “I can ask you a lot of hypothetical questions about your position.”

      No, my post consists of a reductio ad absurdum for one popular definition of complementarianism. I never objected to complementarianism as defined because it is “complex”. I objected to it because it leads to casuistic absurdities.

      To take a real life example, one well known conservative seminary allowed a female guest speaker to address the student body just so long as a male faculty member stayed on the platform because, according to the school, this meant that the female professor was functionally subordinate to the male professor’s authority. That is a real life instance of the kind of absurdity I’m critiquing here.

      • Crude

        No, my post consists of a reductio ad absurdum for one popular definition of complementarianism.

        It does no such thing. That’s the problem. At no point do your arguments even suggest that no answer is possible or a contradiction will have taken place when a complementarian answers your questions. You lean exclusively on the amount of questions you could ask.”Can a woman teach a man presbyterian governance? No? What about the presbyterial roots of modern representational democracies? No?” And so on. And then you announce that you don’t like their answers and it’s all so complicated, why not just go the easy route. That position has obvious flaws given your own views.

        That is a real life instance of the kind of absurdity I’m critiquing here.

        What you just told me is that you find complementarianism absurd, or particular instances of it absurd. But so what? What you didn’t do was give an argument here, other than to mention that you could ask all kinds of questions that complementarians would have to answer, you don’t like their answers (When all you do is say ‘that response is a casuistric absurdity’, you haven’t really done all that much), and hey, your view is so much simpler.

        Let me stress: it doesn’t matter if you point at such and such anecdote about complementarians and note that you find the view or act absurd. That’s no argument. ‘Complementarianism becomes more difficult to reason about in limit cases’ is no argument against it either.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          For every reductio ad absurdum there is at least one bloke in the crowd who is willing to bite the bullet and say “That doesn’t seem absurd to me.”

          • Crude

            What reductio did you even supply? Please, spell it out. Was it the hypothetical example about the hermaphrodite preacher and the suggestion that complementarians would need to have an answer for that? The rapid-fire questions about what answers a complementarian could possibly have about the rightness of a woman teaching the presbyterian roots of representational democracy? There’s no reductio here. There’s just you saying ‘it’s all casuistry!’ a few times.

            And to what end? The hopes that if you belittle your opponents then you don’t have to deal with them anymore? If so, fine, but the next time it happens to you, I suppose you should grin and bear it for consistency’s sake.

            • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

              It certainly seems absurd to think that there is some precise dividing line where women, simply by virtue of their gender, suddenly become utterly unqualified to speak. Do you think we should have a board of arbiters sitting in every lecture hall with a female professor at Christian universities, ready to buzz in if she wends too closely to theology?

  • Alejandro Rodríguez

    Women not being allowed to teach is in opposition to early Christianity anyway. You have the deaconess that Paul mentions in Romans, Constantine’s mother Saint Helena, you have Saint Nino, Saint Brigid and Saint Hilda, missionaires to Georgia, Ireland and England, respectively. Even if our complementarian tries to get away from this dilemma by saying those are catholic and orthodox and therefore not real christians (thereby committing the no true scotsman fallacy), he still has to deal with the deaconess described by Paul, not to mention that his dismissal of those women is arbitrary because he is uses the same Bible decided by both the Catholic and Orthodox Church minus the deuterocanonical works and the trinitarian theology developed by them.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Of course for years complementarians argued that “Junia” (Romans 16:7) was really “Junias”.

      • Alejandro Rodríguez

        On what basis do they argue that? Didn’t Paul use the feminine form of deacon in the original greek anyway?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          A minority of manuscripts have the masculine Junias but I believe the consensus is that they are later and likely represent copyist emendations of the original text.

        • Syllabus

          I think Phoebe was the deacon, and Junia (depending upon how the Greek is translated, anyway) was the apostle .

  • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

    Board of church elders: “Just one more question, George. Are you now or have your ever been a hermaphrodite?”

    George: “Excuse me?”

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Maybe you should also ask if the individual has Klinefelter syndrome.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Evans/100000619020207 David Evans

    “But women will be saved through childbearing”

    Reading between the lines there, the implication seems to be that a woman should be too occupied with childbearing to even think of learning enough to teach a man. That would remove most of your scenarios.

    • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

      Whatever it means, it’s clearly quite context-driven.

  • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

    Long time no see, everyone!

    I like this last bit. “If you’re gifted at teaching then teach. If you’re gift at leading then lead.” If there’s any part of me that still prefers some semblance of the complementarian view–and that seems less and less likely–this would be where it is. In the culture Paul was writing to, women were rarely if ever given the same education as men, to the point that 99% of men were more qualified than 99% of women.
    With that backdrop, maybe Paul was essentially telling Timothy, “I don’t allow people to speak unless they have some sort of qualifications; otherwise you end up with vacuous speculations and prophesifications that don’t make sense or add anything.”

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Hmm, I wonder what Paul would have thought of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza or Rachel Held Evans or Eleonore Stump?

      • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

        Probably “Wow, they have an education atypical for the women I’m familiar with.”
        Right after “Wow, they bathe.”

  • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

    If I had to guess (which I don’t, but I’ll do it anyway), I’d say the “For Adam was formed first” bit is more of an example than a warrant. Paul did a lot of that.

  • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

    Upon review, there’s one problem with your first counterexample. No doubt your fictitious (I hope) complementarian friend would say that the relationship between the woman and the two men is not an official teaching relationship under the auspices of a church body, and so does not fall within the 1 Timothy 2 proscription.