There’s a common mistake at work in the debate about women in ministry, one that infects people arguing on both sides of the issue. And, while fixing the mistake won’t end the debate, it should provide more clarity about what’s involved in the conversation, which can’t be a bad thing.
Confusion at Work
The mistake I have in mind is a common one that affects many arguments. So before we look at the gender debate specifically, let’s take a brief look at the problem in general.
In its simplest form, the mistake involves thinking that one concept (A) requires another concept (B) in such a way that if B is false, then A must also be false. That’s often a valid way of thinking. For example, if I believed that (A) the tooth fairy exists and (B) she puts money under pillows in exchange for teeth, disproving B would be a pretty strong blow for my belief in A. (Technically I could still believe that she exists and just drop the belief that she’s involved in the tooth/money deal. But why would I want to?)
The argument becomes a problem, though, when we’re wrong about the relationship between the two concepts. If A and B just happen to hang out together a lot but A doesn’t depend on B in any meaningful sense, then disproving B doesn’t really have any affect on A. Sure A will get a little lonely now that it doesn’t have B to hang out with on Friday nights, and it will probably end up watching too much TV and eating bad ice cream. But it will get over it eventually.
Consider an example from another contentious discussion: the relationship between (A) biblical inerrancy and (B) a “literal” reading of Genesis 1 (young earth, six 24-hour days, etc.). I often hear people present these two arguments as though they are logically linked in such a way that you can’t drop one without losing the other. And people on both sides of the discussion do it. So the more conservative side thinks any attempt to read Genesis 1 differently is actually an attack on inerrancy. And people on the other side agree, thinking that if they can prove Genesis 1 shouldn’t be read literally, then they’ve somehow defeated inerrancy. When the simple truth is that both concepts can survive just fine on their own. They’re related historically (i.e. they’ve often been held or rejected by the same people), but not logically.
Once we’ve recognized that, we’re now free to have an interesting discussion about either concept without undue worries about how the discussion will affect the other one.
Confusing Concepts in the Gender Debate
So what does this look like when we turn our attention to the gender debate in particular? Here as well people on both sides of the discussion have assumed that two concepts are logically connected when they’re not. As usual, that’s not helpful.
Here are the two concepts, rather loosely defined:
Complementarianism: The belief that there is at least one role in the church (e.g. elder) that has a gender requirement such that only men are biblically qualified to fill that role.
Gender Essentialism: The belief that each gender has some attribute or set of attributes that belongs to that gender essentially and thus should characterize the genders at all times and in all places (e.g. “aggressiveness” is essential to being male or “nurturing” is essential to being female).
There are actually two different problems that I often see in the gender debate relative to these two concepts. The first is a simple failure to realize that these are in fact different concepts. It’s not unusual to see people slide seamlessly from one to the other in the same argument without any apparent awareness that they’re talking about two different things.
For our purpose, though, the main problem lies in thinking that these two are logically connected such that complementarianism requires gender essentialism to work. So egalitarians invest considerable effort in defeating gender essentialism, and complementarians conversely go out of their way to defend it. As interesting as that conversation might be, though, both sides need to realize that complementarianism does not require gender essentialism.
The Faulty Connection
As far as I can tell, there seem to be two reasons that we’ve connected complementarianism and gender essentialism so closely. The first is purely historical. The church has a long history of grounding its complementarianism in gender essentialism. Indeed, several early theologians explicitly argued that the priesthood was limited to men because of weaknesses that were essential to being female. (Some even described redemption in ways that made it sound like women had to have those weaknesses fixed by becoming more masculine.) Given that historic connection, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that people wanting to challenge complementarianism felt it necessary to challenge the gender essentialism with which it had so long been associated. And, as a consequence, complementarians came to associate egalitarianism with a rejection of gender essentialism.
But I think there is also a subtle logic at work that makes people think that this historical relationship is actually a logical one. And the arguments seems to move something like this:
1. The Complementarian Premise: God decreed that at least one role in the church has a gender qualification such that only men are biblically qualified to fill that role.
2. The Gender Explanation: It would only makes sense for God to do this if there is some essential difference between men and women that would explain the gender qualification.
3. The Essentialist Conclusion: Therefore, gender essentialism must be true.
Conversely, if gender essentialism is false, then complementarianism must also be false because there would be no basis for the gender qualification.
I’m not aware of anyone who has made this argument explicitly, though something like it seems to be at work whenever someone tries to explain complementarianism by appealing to gender differences. There’s an implicit expectation that such an appeal gives us a way of understanding why God gave the gender requirement. And that seems to be why gender essentialism is attacked/defended so heatedly in the debate about complementarianism.
Summarized like this, though, the problem should be obvious: step 2. There does not need to be any essential difference between men and women for God to decide, for example, that only men can be elders. He can decide this for any reason he wants. He is, after all, God.
People might worry that eliminating step 2 would render God’s decision somehow arbitrary, as though he simply flipped a coin to determine how the gender qualification would work. But that doesn’t follow either. The fact that God’s decision does not necessarily rest on some essential difference in human persons does not make his decision arbitrary; it just means that his decision rests on something else, possibly even something he hasn’t told us about.
Once you’ve removed step 2, though, there’s no logical connection between complementarianism and gender essentialism. God could determine that only men should be elders even if there’s no essential difference between men and women that would explain that decision. That doesn’t either concept false, it just means they’re not connected the way people often think. They remain two concepts with a strong historical correlation, but no logical connection. At least not one that I can see.
Does the Bible Connect Them?
Of course, even if we can’t argue on a purely logical basis that complementarianism requires gender essentialism, it still might be possible to make that argument on a biblical basis if the Bible relates the two concepts in that way. But does it?
It would take too long to walk through all the relevant passages and explain why I don’t think there’s any biblical basis for connecting complementarianism and gender essentialism. But the simple fact is that even if complementarianism is true, it’s hard to find the Bible giving any clear reason why certain roles/offices are limited to men. Some might point to 1 Timothy 2:11-15, a notoriously difficult passage. But whatever Paul intends by his explanation there, he doesn’t point to any essential differences between men and women. However you understand the reference to Adam being created first, that’s not an essential difference. My brother was born before me, but that doesn’t make his humanity essentially different than mine. And my parents may well give him greater authority in the family because he came before me, but that’s not an essential difference either. The same holds true for Adam and Eve. Adam’s being created first doesn’t present some kind of essential difference between men on women on the basis of which God decrees male headship. If the order of creation is significant for understanding gender roles in the church, a question for another time, it would only be because God decided to do it that way for reasons that he has not ever explained to us, not because mere temporal order establishes some kind of essential difference between the two genders.
Again, I’m not going to walk through all the relevant passages. If you think there’s a passage that might be a problem for my argument, or if there’s one that you just have questions about, let me know in the comments. Maybe I’ll do a follow-up post. But for now I’ll leave it with saying that I don’t think there are any biblical passages that even complementarians should read as grounding ministry roles in some kind of gender essentialism.
Does It Really Matter?
To summarize my argument, then, complementarianism and gender essentialism are distinct concepts that are not logically or biblically related to one another. Thus, it’s entirely possible to hold to one without the other.
But does that really matter? It might be interesting to notice that the two concepts aren’t related in the way many have assumed, but I’ve said nothing to this point about whether either of them is actually true. And I’m not going to since that’s not the focus of this post. But even without addressing whether either concept is true, I think people on both sides of the debate can benefit from the distinction.
Complementarians have a lot to gain because complementarianism has a stronger biblical basis than gender essentialism. Even if you don’t agree with complementarianism, you can’t avoid the fact that there is a legitimate exegetical argument to be made. (You can reject the argument, but you have to admit that it’s there.) But it’s difficult to find much in the Bible about gender essentialism. Beyond the mere fact that humans were created male and female, the Bible doesn’t say much about what attributes might be essential to maleness and femaleness and thus characteristic of men and women at all times and in all places. So arguments for gender essentialism quickly move beyond exegesis and into the complex territories of cultural anthropology, sociology, psychology, and biology, among others. That doesn’t make it wrong, just difficult. Separating the two concepts, then, means complementarians don’t have to make the far harder argument in favor of gender essentialism in order for complementarianism to be right.
Complementarians can also benefit in being less threatened by arguments against gender essentialism. Many complementarians have invested considerable time and energy into defending gender essentialism, writing extensively on “masculinity” and “femininity” as normative concepts that should hold for all people in all places. But gender is one of the most complex aspects of human existence, and there’s a lot of data out there on how culture shapes our understanding of what is “essential” to being male and female. Once complementarians realize that complementarianism does not require gender essentialism, they should experience greater freedom in exploring the implications of that data.
Egalitarians arguably have less to gain from the distinction. That’s partly because, as I just noted, the distinction makes the complementarian’s job easier. But I do think egalitarians can benefit by being less nervous about gender essentialism. Because of its common association with complementarianism, some egalitarians seem to have a knee-jerk reaction against anything that sounds like gender essentialism. But, although I’ve just commented on the important data in favor of viewing gender in cultural terms, there’s also some pretty strong data suggesting that some aspects of gender may be more deeply rooted and possibly even essential. The fact that there’s data on both sides is precisely why there’s a debate about gender essentialism in the social sciences. More clearly separating that issue from the debate about complementarianism should help egalitarians engage the issue of gender essentialism with greater clarity and freedom as well.
In the end, then, clarity matters. At the very least, clearly distinguishing these two concepts and how they are (and aren’t) related, should create a better space for meaningful conversation. It’s hard to have a good disagreement if we’re confused about precisely what we’re disagreeing about. But I also think everyone will benefit from the distinction if it frees us up to engage the complex issue of gender essentialism without thinking that it necessarily impacts what we think about egalitarianism/complementarianism. Those are both important conversations that we absolutely need to engage, and we will pursue each conversation more productively if we can pursue them without worrying about the implications that one conversation might have for the other. Those two discussions will always be messily intertwined, but we will all benefit to the extent that we can realize that they are distinct conversations.