One of the complicating factors in the recent dust-up over Trinitarian theology and complementarianism has been the fact that more is going on than trying to justify complementarianism in two different ways. Rather, there is the additional issue of people seeking to justify two different kinds of complementarianism — thick or thin.
Thin and Thick Defined
Thin complementarianism wants to acknowledge the force of certain explicit scriptural injunctions, while trying to carefully limit the intent of such requirements to the pulpit and decisions in the home. In short, women must not be ordained, and the husband is the head of his wife in all familial matters. Outside these two biblical limitations, the sky is the limit. Women can fly fighter jets and they can be the CEOs of tech companies, and there is nothing whatever the Bible has to say about it. This would be thin complementarianism.
Thick complementarians are called this because of that characteristic Neanderthal brow. Heh — just kidding. Trying to relieve the building tension here. Thick complementarians usually don’t like the word complementarian, for starters, but they hold that men are men in every aspect of life, and in the same way that women are called to be women in every aspect of life. This manifests itself differently in different spheres, obviously, but there is never a sphere where manhood and womanhood can be considered irrelevant.
There are no spheres where we just have “people.” It is not the case, when we are outside the appointed task of the pastoral search committee, or outside the big decision facing a husband and wife, that the corporation is populated by generic bi-pedal carbon units. We always have men and women, and so we must always navigate role relationships. The creation design is ubiquitous, and it is not because of prejudice that far more women than men are nurses and far more men than women are doctors.
Now thin complementarianism is largely a modern development. It comes about as a result of Christians trying hang on to certain obvious texts of Scripture, while at the same time accommodating the full court egalitarian press that we are all experiencing these days.
But exegesis under pressure sometimes gets us skewed results. For example, Liam Goligher, one of the participants in the recent fracas over the Trinity, said this:
“I am an unashamed biblical complementarian. The original use of that word took its cue from the biblical teaching about the differences yet complementarity of human beings made in the image of God while not running away from the challenges of applying biblical exhortations for wives to submit to their own husbands in the Lord or the prohibition on ordination for women in the church. With only those two caveats, as Calvin told John Knox, women may be princes in the state, but not pastors in the church. But this new teaching is not limiting itself to that agenda” (emphasis mine).
The occasion was Calvin responding in a letter to the fact that John Knox had published a pamphlet against “the monstrous regiment of women,” and Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant ruler, had taken offense at it. Calvin was trying to smooth ruffled feathers. On another occasion, I described the problem this way.
“In a little known episode from the Old Testament, one time John Knox wrote a small missive aimed at a tyrannical woman, Bloody Mary. That pamphlet was entitled The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Unfortunately, after the rock left Knox’s hand, Mary died and was replaced by Elizabeth, a Protestant. She was a Protestant, unlike Mary, but she was also a woman, like Mary, and when the rock bounced off her forehead, she was displeased, which is something Elizabeth knew how to be. Knox labored to explain and beg pardon, but it was a tough audience. There are times when ‘that’s not what I meant’ is a difficult sell. Oh, well. Church history staggered on regardless.”
Calvin was upset at what Knox had done, but his problems were tactical, and not theological. In short, Calvin agreed with Knox on the doctrine. He did not agree with Goligher, as the full letter cited by Goligher makes evident and plain. C.S. Lewis described the situation this way.
“nearly everyone (except regnant queens) agreed with Knox. Everyone knew that it was contrary to natural and divine law that women should rule men . . . Calvin knew as well as Knox… Bullinger thought the same . . .” (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, pp. 199-200).
So Who Cares?
The statement above was published at Mortification of Spin, Carl Trueman’s site. One of Trueman’s valuable and repeated contributions to the melee that is our ecclesiastical time is his point that Big Men in Evangelical Leadership should not be above criticism, and that we should function like men, and not like celebrities. Trueman is also a Calvin scholar.
But it is simply not the case that Calvin bought into the truncated and limited application of male/female roles that has been argued by modern thin complementarians. It is not true. That’s not what he thought. That’s not what he said. The fact that he objected to picking a fight with Elizabeth was, as noted earlier, a matter of Calvin choosing battles carefully, and not an example of his proto-thin-complementarianism.
Now the question is this. Why won’t Goligher correct the mistake?
Couple this with the fact that this side point (and yes, I know it is a side point) arose in the context of a discussion where other Big Men were being challenged for teaching the “eternal subordination” of the Son, and were being called on the carpet.
Back to the Trinity
One last comment, this one on the Trinity issue. Thick complementarians who agree with Mark Jones’ critique of Bruce Ware (and yes, there are some) want to ask why natural law and the fifth chapter of Ephesians are insufficient to make the role relationships case. It is a fair question. Why must the point be grounded in the Trinity?
First, you don’t ground anything in the Trinity because you think it might be “useful.” You should only do it if you think it is true — as I do believe and as I have explained elsewhere. At the same time, certain practical aspects of the discussion can and should be noticed.
I think the egalitarian atmosphere of our time has blurred the actual question. If the sole question were whether or not we could demonstrate the natural order of male responsibility and leadership, we could easily do it from history, from nature, and from Scripture. But that is not what I want to fight for. I want to fight for a hierarchical understanding of role relationships between men and women, and also the full equality of women.
The current egalitarian mania is not the normal frame of fallen mankind. The equality thing is just a scam, a ruse that is being run on gullible women, just as countless scams have been run on them before. You doubt what I say? Unregenerate men always demand to be at the center, and they will always dominate women in order to do it. Men turn anything into a competition. Again, you doubt what I say? Men can do anything better than women. They are even better at being women than women are. Just ask Bruce Jenner, woman of the year. Touchdown dance. Just ask the men sans surgery who are going to be competing in the women’s Olympics this year. The fastest women in the world turn out to be men. You girls don’t know how to do this thing at all.
So the need to fight for feminine equality is as great now as it has ever been. Greater, in fact. But it must be biblical equality. Feminism is simply the name we give to the views held by female patsies and dupes.
So to my thick complementarian friends, the thing you have to show from nature, and from Scripture, is not the natural order. You do not have to work hard to prove that women are subordinate to men. What you have to show is that they are equal. And I know of no better way of demonstrating this than to point to the ultimate authority — the Father of Jesus Christ, and to His Son, who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. He emptied Himself, and took the form of a servant. That decision to “empty” was ad intra. The decision to take the form of a servant was prior to taking the form of a servant.
I grant and acknowledge everything that has been argued about the unity of the divine will. I believe this to be important. I also believe that certain hierarchical statements in Scripture involving the Godhead are in fact ad extra, that they have the Incarnation in view (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:3). But the Father is eternally a Father. The Son is eternally a Son. Authority and equality are no contradiction.