Response to a review

Ron Citlau reviewed my new book Bible Gender Sexuality on the Gospel Coalition website recently.  As Ron indicates early in the review, we know each other, and respect each other.  So I want to respond to him, not in a spirit of confrontation or hostility, but in an effort to help others to understand both sides of some complex issues.

I’ll be blogging on a number of the issues raised in Ron’s review, but not all at once.  Here’s the first  one:  Ron objects to the way in which I call into question gender complementarity.  I realize, of course, that the Gospel Coalition website on which Ron’s review is published holds the issue of gender complementarity to be a status confessionis, a fundamental issue of faithfulness to the gospel.  Not only gender complementarity in general, but also more particularly the submission of women to the headship of men in marriage and in the church is a core confessional commitment.  In fact, this is what “gender complementarity” means to those who hold to the theological framework of the Gospel Coalition.  I disagree, and the Reformed Church in America, of which I am a member disagrees.  The RCA has been ordaining women to all leadership positions in the church for over 30 years.

But not all advocates of gender complementarity reject female leadership.  Others argue that “gender complementarity” needs to be understood as the fittedness of male and female sexual organs.  My question, which Ron only briefly addresses, is whether “gender complementarity,” conceived  in this way, is the framework that shapes and motivates the biblical writers.  I try to present a good bit of evidence that this is not the case, that other concerns motivate the biblical writers in Gen 2—primarily a concern over the origins of the kinship bond which constitutes the heart and soul of marriage.  Most complementarians find it inconceivable that Gen 2 is not talking focally about anatomical gender complementarity, but I think this is one of those issues that has to be settled by a careful and close reading of the text itself.  I just don’t see it in the texts.

And this leads to the more basic issue where Ron and I seem  to be missing each other.  I argue in the book that “gender complementarity” really isn’t a basic value or commitment; it is rather a category under which people may speak of a variety of patterns of similarity and difference (see p. 18f.).  This becomes critical, particularly when it is claimed that Scripture teaches a normative gender complementarity.  If we don’t define what we mean by gender complementarity, it becomes a kind of Rorschach blot into which different people, and different cultures, may read their own assumptions about what normatively distinguishes males and females.  That’s why I insist that we need to spell this out in more detail.  And I further argue that neither authority/submission nor anatomical complementarity is normatively taught in Scripture.  So if folks want to insist that the Bible teaches a normative gender complementarity, they need to come clean:  exactly what are the patterns of similarity and difference between males and females that are normatively taught in Scripture, and where are the texts that teach these things?

Ron claims that I “ignore the logic of Genesis 1:26-28.”  But I don’t deny that we are created as gendered beings, as he claims.  I also agree, at least in a qualified way, with Ron that the text presumes that male and female often (but not always) find a significant purpose of their lives in heterosexual marriage—a purpose ordained by God.   I reject the notion that heterosexual marriage defines our gendered existence, since this would leave single people entirely out of God’s purpose in their gendered identity—something Scripture does not do.  The question I raise is whether this focus on gender complementarity (however it may be defined)  is the primary thing that Gen 1:26-28 itself is trying to say.  I suggest that the primary focus in these verses is not on the complementarity of male and female (whether conceived hierarchically or anatomically), but on the fact that both male and female (not just males) are created in the divine image.  So we disagree over the moral logic that underlies the text.  Fair enough.  But that’s an issue that we have to settle exegetically, rather than by simply declaring alternative interpretations to be unacceptable.  Ron is “saddened” by my book.  I am not necessarily saddened, but challenged by how difficult it is for us to communicate clearly across these deep divisions.

As I note in the book, “gender complementarity,”  defined either in terms of male headship or of the fittedness of sexual organs,  is a topic that is completely absent from the entire confessional tradition of the church (p.265f.).  Ron and the Gospel Coalition want to make it a confessional issue.  I don’t think that is a very good idea.

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4 thoughts on “Response to a review

  1. I am on chapter 4 (“Patriarchy”) in your book right now, so I cannot speak to the conclusions of the writing or to all of the points Ron Citlau challenges in his review. However, some thoughts spring to mind that I wanted to share here.

    For some reason, The Gospel Coalition (and many other types of theological or societal groups) define themselves by what they are against, rather than by what they are for. These groups, by their very nature and definition, find false intimacy with one another by rallying around a common “enemy.” As such, there is a great need for them to maintain that enemy, otherwise their entire reason for existence and commonality is removed. The backlash you receive from this book is more about that desperate desire to retain that commonality, rather than out of an honest attempt to understand one another.

    I am deeply appreciative that you have started this blog and that you are willing to have difficult conversations around difficult and intensely personal topics, such as this one. Thank you!

  2. Hence my review of Citlau’s review on Kevin DeYoung’s blog page:

    Strictly on terms of what constitutes a fair review, this doesn’t cut it, imo. Brownson takes issue with Gagnon, for instance. So how is a review helpful when it in essence says, Gagnon is right, Brownson is wrong? It has the character of either preaching to the choir or the playground quality of “is not….is so!” ad nauseam. If you want to review Brownson, demonstrate that you understand his logic, the deconstruct it, either on its own terms, or with a broader argument that clearly delineates where you think he is wrong on foundational principles. I.e., treat him with the same respect with which you want to be treated.

  3. I wanted to add a qualifier to my previous comment. My comments about TGC are not really about the group as a whole. I know many people who belong to TGC who are working hard to advance the Gospel. Many of them are quick to listen, and slow to anger. They display the fruit of the Spirit. My comment is more about those who love being a part of a faction, and take delight in finding ways to wage “war” against those they disagree with. I think that animosity, that intentional, divisiveness is unhealthy and prevents conversation.

    This is a societal problem, too, that I think has infiltrated the church. Before we can address our differences, we need to find a way to collectively lower our defenses so we can listen to each other.

    • A thought regarding this apt comment: “So we disagree over the moral logic that underlies the text. Fair enough. But that’s an issue that we have to settle exegetically, rather than by simply declaring alternative interpretations to be unacceptable.”

      Indeed, a lot that is said in this debate is simply declared and presumed true . . . in a way that reminds me of one of Job’s (36:4) self-assured friends: “For truly my words are not false; one who is perfect in knowledge is with you.”

      Not long thereafter, God admonishes even Job (38:2): “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge.”

      How much better if our conversation could be marked by a spirit of humility and openness, mindful that none of us is God. Such is the “Reformed and ever-reforming” tradition at its best . . . open to new biblical and natural revelation.

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