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Last week, Rachel Held Evans organized a blogging event to promote egalitarianism titled the “Mutuality 2012 Synchroblog.” Along with other bloggers, Evans wrote a few thoughtful articles on “mutuality” (egalitarianism), including one particularly interesting post on the ways in which Greco-Roman household codes might have influenced Paul’s theology of mutual submission. Mutuality drew responses from Denny Burk (at his blog) and Joe Carter at The Gospel Coalition, who both made their cases for complementarianism.
What interests me about this discussion is the way in which power is often envisioned by both sides of the debate. Egalitarians accuse complementarians of promoting patriarchy, a system which is oppressive and abusive. As Evans pointed out last week, some complementarians admit to supporting patriarchy. And no one can reasonably deny the fact that some who support complementarianism are, in fact, abusive to their spouses. What I would like to explore is how both sides (at least at times) might assume a nihilistic view of power, authority, and headship in their arguments. And that this understanding of power is prominent not only in the way we understand marriages, but also politics.
Specifically, I think that many egalitarians and at least some (if not many/most) complementarians view power and hierarchy as always and necessarily coercive, violent (in some sense), and perhaps evil. Power is oppressive.
For some complementarians, this view of headship sanctions and baptises their oppression and abuse of women. If authority is necessarily oppressive, and the Bible gives husbands headship over their wives, then it is right and good for men to oppress their wives.
The solution for egalitarians like Evans is to abdicate power and to instead find mutuality and harmony. She, and many others, would point to Paul’s teaching of mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21) and equality (Galatians 3:28) as evidence that there cannot be any sort of hierarchical power or authority or headship in a marriage. For example, Evans writes:
“I believe the teachings of Jesus, and their application through Paul, lead us to the conclusion that power is overrated, and that the ultimate goal is harmony, just like we see in Eden.” (Patriarchy)
“If wives submit to their husbands as the Church submits to Christ (Ephesians 5:24), and if husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25), and if both husbands and wives submit one to another (Ephesians 5:21)—who’s really ‘in charge’ here? No one.” (Household Codes)
While she’s absolutely right to point out how countercultural these verses are, we can also see that Christ and Paul do clearly establish hierarchies in their teachings. They both honor and support the hierarchy of the government. Christ and the Apostles establish a hierarchy within the Church. Then there is Christ’s headship over the Church. But most important to this discussion, there is Ephesians 5:22-33, which states that the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church. This chapter is challenging because if we wish to make the case that headship is necessarily coercive, violent, and oppressive, then we must say that Christ’s headship of the church is also coercive, violent, and oppressive.
But, if a leader is a servant to those under him, in what sense is he still truly a leader? Evans seems to answer (in the quote above) that he is no leader: “[W]ho’s really ‘in charge’ here? No one.” But I wonder if we need to complicate our understanding of power a bit and see that it is possible to be a servant-leader. This is, after all, the model that Christ gives. He does not cease to be the Head of the Church simply because He serves those in the Church and sacrificed Himself for us.
What is fascinating to me is that this radical understanding of power mirrors a discussion by James Davison Hunter about the way Christians view political power (See: To Change the World: There Are Better Reasons for Engaging Culture). Hunter argues that we tend to be nihilistic about political power. We assume it is necessarily abusive and violent. So, some Christians argue that we should abdicate politics because to do otherwise would be coercive and violent (Anabaptists). Other Christians agree that political power is always oppressive in some sense, but they feel justified in oppressing, since they are on the good side, God’s side (Theonomists, to pick an extreme example). Just like complementarians believe they are biblically justified in abusing their wives since that’s just what headship looks like, some Christians feel biblically justified in using the State to abuse others because that’s just the nature of political power.*
James Davison Hunter argues that we need to stop accepting the nihilistic view that political power is always and necessarily coercive and violent. We need to find an alternative way of envisioning social actions. Likewise, I believe that Christians need to think more about how authority and hierarchy can be service, sacrifice, self-giving, and gratuitous. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know exactly what this looks like in particular marriages. But I do know my responsibility based on Paul’s teaching. And my responsibility is to love, serve, and sacrifice myself for my wife. I appreciate the aid of wife, friends, family and the Church in discovering what that means each day. And perhaps, instead of reasserting an oppressive and unloving concept of marriage hierarchies (as some who promote patriarchy would do), or denying power, hierarchy, and headship altogether, we could begin to reimagine power through the image of Christ on the Cross.
*For those who are interested, David Bently Hart makes a very similar argument in The Beauty of the Infinite about “difference.” He argues that postmodernists assume that difference is inherently violent, whereas the Christian narrative views difference (think: The Trinity) as good.
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