Husbands and wives, you want to be happy, right? In that spirit, I offer my thoughts on the kerfluffle unfolding in the Protestant blogosphere between those who call themselves “complementarians” and those who self-identify as “egalitarians.” And, what a spat it is, hot diggity, with plates broken over heads and much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
I will begin by stating what I understand to be the positions of complementarians and egalitarians, then conclude by offering the wonderfully clear and reasonable teaching of Pope John Paul II as a via media between the two poles.
As I understand the complementarian position, it affirms that there are inherent differences between women and men that are divinely ordained and, from these differences, arise masculine headship and feminine submission. This view seems to quite rankle the egalitarians, who characterize it as “patriarchal”, which they equate with “very very nasty.” I assume that complementarians based their view upon Scriptural passages like I Cor 11, as well as I Tim 2, and Ephesians 5. Complementarians, am I understanding your position correctly?
The egalitarians, from my reading, call for equality within marriage and the rejection of gender roles. It sounds like they subscribe to the second-wave feminist philosophy, which rejects any difference between men and women that is not strictly physical. I infer from the use of the terms “equality” and “gender roles” that egalitarians resent traditional divisions of labor in the household. I assume that egalitarians base their views upon verses like I Cor 7:14, Gal 3:28, and Gal 5:1 Egalitarians, am I understanding your position correctly?
What I See
Complementarians, I hear you. You want to stand firm against those who dismiss God’s wondrous design in men and women; you want to affirm that there is a rich harmony that only becomes possible when we live fully our masculinity and femininity. However, it sounds to me that the complementarian position promotes male domination in such a way that female dignity is undermined. The fact that verbs like “conquer and colonize” were used to describe a man’s relations to his wife, even though meant in a poetic fashion, makes the complementarian view sound like that of a big, hairy bully. This harsh tone to male-female relations is not worthy of you, fellow Christians, and I want to present to you a more perfect way. More on that in a minute.
Egalitarians, I hear you, too. You want to come out from under the shadow of a history in which women were often hurt in the name of religion and male superiority. You want to thrive in relationships that affirm the mutual dignity of men and women. However, it sounds like your use of the term “equality” really means androgynous homogeneity, where there is nothing inherently masculine about men and feminine about women. The freedom from gender roles to which you aspire sounds like an uneasy truce between the sexes, rather than a shared life of rich communion. This resentful tone toward authority and harping upon the hurts you have received is not worthy of you, friends in Christ, and I want to offer you a way of peace. More on that now.
The Better Way
Pope John Paul II gave a series of talks from 1979 to 1984 that have been compiled into what is known as the Theology of the Body. These talks are, well, a little dense and incredibly wonderful, and the theology in them will knock your socks off; basically, Pope John Paul offers a complete anthropology of the human person and, through it, a path to fullness of life and blessed peace. My comments here are distilled from his thought, and I definitely encourage you to let this be the beginning of your introduction to his incredible insights into God’s plan for human life and love.
As for the current hullabaloo, please allow me to offer the Catholic understanding of what one blogger called “the male experience of sexuality that sets it apart from the female”, as well as God’s plan for marital relations revealed in Sacred Scripture. Okay, let’s go.
Pope John Paul II taught that a man initiates the gift of self and that the woman welcomes the gift and from it, gives life (we are not necessarily speaking of babies here; new life that can be spiritual, as well). The man is called by God to protect the gift, to lay down his life for his bride in imitation of Christ, who offered himself as an oblation for His Bride, the Church. The woman is not a passive recipient; she is an active welcoming party who nurtures and protects the gift, but even here, our words are limited because, in another sense, the man and woman offer themselves to each other in such a way that their gifts flow in mutual self-donation.
It seems to me that verbs like this (i.e. “initiate, sacrifice, protect”) are more fitting for for married love than ones like “penetrate, conquer, and colonize”. The latter words imply a certain violence to the receiver, rather that a beneficent laying down of one’s life for another.
How, then, does this masculine duty to initiate, protect and sacrifice correspond with the words of St. Paul regarding wifely subordination? Certainly it seems like Sacred Scripture supports masculine domination, doesn’t it? But, if husbands are to lead their wives and be in headship over them, let’s define those words in terms of Christ’s example. Christ led His Bride through serving Her, through washing feet and feeding hungry and dying to set us free. That is the sort of power that Christian husbands ought to have, power to sacrifice for their families, to guard them and lead them in holiness.
And, how does a wife submit to her husband in this model of married love? Through welcoming the gift, through appreciating and affirming her husband as he gives his life for her. That is the sort of subordination that Christian wives practice, to sit under the waterfall of love outpoured on their behalf and to bless their husbands in return.
There is so much more to say and I heartily encourage you to delve into the treasury of Pope John Paul II’s thought. Below is a list of some especially awesome works, for those who are interested. Blessings to you, dear friends, and peace and all grace.
Pope John Paul II: Love and Responsibility (wherein he exhorts men to bring their wives to climax first–this is no boring bluehair Pope), Theology of the Body, On the Dignity of Woman, Letter to Women (please, please, please, read; it’s only 7 pages!), The Church at the Service of the Family
For those who are a little less philosophically inclined: Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love (I know, we Catholics are not big on flashy titles–that’s why we need all you Protestants to become Catholic, so that you can share your media savvy with us), The Theology of the Body for Beginners, Good News About Sex and Marriage (Holy Toledo, this is good stuff!)