Some Postmodern Words for the Present State of Gender Relations in the Church Today
by David E. Fitch
In the church world where I come from, people still argue about the issue of women’s ordination and equal participation in the authority of the church. Conservative protestants have virtually beaten the issue to death yet still remain locked into the well worn polarity between the Complementarians, who view women in the church as determined by the NT role of husband ‘s headship over the wife, and the Egalitarians, who point to the plethora of NT evidence concerning women’s equal participation with men in the authority of the church. The “Biblical Equality” position views this newfound equal status for women as part of the redeemed structure of humanity in Christ and therefore it applies to Christian marriages as well. I too believe that woman have equal participation in the gifts of the Spirit given on Pentecost to the church (Acts 2:17-18). I am for the ordination of women in the church as well. I endorse and affirm women’s full participation in the authority/leadership of the church as part of the redeemed structure of humanity inaugurated in Christ. To many of us this seems all too obvious at this point. This last affirmation however is why I see a lack in the Egalitarian option (I see similar issues with the Complementarians). Both positions seem incapable of describing a justice born of the reconciliation God is working in the world through Christ (2 Cor 5:19). And I believe, oddly enough, that a few postmodern critical theorists help us understand this better. In what follows, I offer three insights from Critical theory that reveal the inadequacies of the “Biblical Equality” position and their cousins among the classic protestant modern feminists (as distinguished from the post-structuralist feminists). I concentrate on the Egalitarians because this position is most often assumed to be the position best aligned with gender relation justice. I realize I am characterizing their views in the short space that I have here. I can only hope to be more precise in future writings.
So here goes with three insights from postmodern critical theorists (and friends) that help us see the inadequacies of the so-called Egalitarian position as a way forward in establishing justice and reconciliation regarding gender relations in the church of Jesus Christ.
First, the Egalitarian position (I believe) plays on a Western liberal form of politics, which achieves equality at the expense of difference. In so doing, women are not invited to participate in the authority of the church on the terms of being a woman. Instead they must leave behind any gender specific particularities in order to participate in a flattened structure of equality, which oddly enough, upon reflection, is a structure white men are already well ensconced in.
The classic western liberal version of equality is best known through the work of John Rawls. In my experience even the “Biblical egalitarians do exactly this. This version of justice usually recites John Rawls’ Political Liberalism (and before that A Theory of Justice) and his version of the “original position.” Here Rawls asserts that equality requires that everyone be stripped of all cultural and contingent differences upon entering into the arena of public discourse (or making policy decisions in public discourse). One must wear a “veil of ignorance” towards one’s own and anyone else’s ethnic, economic or historical advantages. The problem is that this so-called “position” dictates rules by which all must become same and in the process obliterates difference. Far from being liberating, it is (as Zizek would say) a “hegemonic configuration of the public discourse.” In order to be equal one must first be stripped of any particular identity including being a woman.
It should be no surprise then that many post-structuralist feminist writers do not see justice in this form of equality. Instead they see the means to sublimate gender into one homogenous looking gender. Or in the Hegelian sense viewed negatively, egalitarian justice is the means to sublate female gender to something useful for the furthering of a Western male democratic discourse. In the process, this discourse subverts all difference into the language of rights, equality, tolerance and respect and creates a politics that looks and sounds very much like a white male logic, disengaged, logical, right brained and bottom line. As such, this is really not a form of justice but a form of eliminating those who would not fit in to the ways of white maledom. To over-simplify, this is why the politics of identity/difference and theorists such as Judith Butler, Luce Iragaray, Julia Kristeva critical feminist have resisted these forms of discourse. Elaine Storky summarizes them well in her Origins of Difference. She says:
“An egalitarianism that rests on the abandonment of difference is the most subtle way yet of making women invisible, for tradition, language, and concepts have for too long all been formed within male dominant framework. Espousing “equality” while everything else stays the same is to give the appearance of empowering women while denying the reality of it. It is in fact to capitulate to the deeper structures of patriarchy in the name of reform. Egalitarianism in effect means the disappearance of women. They are admitted into the structures but only as token or lesser men. According to Iragaray, for a woman to abandon her own sexual identity “represents the greatest possible submission to masculine culture.” Women simply become absorbed within the male gender, into what Luce Iragaray calls the “masculine neutral.” (p.55)
This problem manifests itself in many of the ways egalitarian discourse dominates. American business. It produces women who have full access to the CEO suite but they look and act a lot like white men (see for example Carley Fiorina of Hewlett Packard fame). Likewise, Hilary Clinton is allowed to be a presidential candidate as long as she does not appear in any way too female. I see women pastors in the mega churches acting, dressing and even speaking in similar patterns to the male mega church founding pastor. Is this really full participation in the authority of the church we seek? I know that Biblical Egalitarians have no such intention. I know that gender sublation as I am arguing here is an unintended consequence of Biblical Egalitarianism. Nonetheless, I argue that borrowing the language of equality and rights from the politics of the United States may be dangerous to the justice we seek in the church.
For all of these reasons, we should probably be wary of egalitarian language when talking about justice in gender relations. We should work for a form of gender reconciliation/justice that maintains and respects gender difference. I believe this is one of the main points of the apostle Paul in1 Cor 11:10 where he commands the women who is preaching and prophesying in front of the whole congregation to “wear a head-covering as an authority unto her.” In that she is not recognizing her gender distinction (when she gets up to prophesy with her head uncovered) her authority is in doubt. She is in fact disregarding any gender difference for in the Mideast of that day, going with your head uncovered was the equivalent of a woman pastor getting up and preaching in a bikini. When, on the other hand, she maintains and inhabits her gender, honoring the relationship between herself and her husband, and wears a head covering being both modest and recognizing her marital status, she is given full authority to preach in the congregation. I think Egalitarianism fails in that it does not maintain difference in the congregation, in this case between genders. This then makes any equal participation dubious in term of its value to the Body of Christ because diversity is lost and the Body does not benefit from women in leadership and authority.
Second, the Egalitarian position articulates gender relations as determined by (defaulting to) the individuating terms of liberal democratic forms of discourse. In so doing, the Egalitarian position does not bring the two genders into a unity and peace, it divides and separates male and female into individuals over against one another. Egalitarianism therefore does not aim or approximate the Oneness in Christ that lies at the core of Christian justice and reconciliation (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). As such, it is a justice that is alien to the reconciliation God is working in Christ.
To explain further, the Egalitarian position (I am suggesting) again plays on a politics of political liberalism described above. By using the words “egalitarian,” and “equality” the Egalitarians are in essence defining equality in terms of each individual’s rights. The rights of women in relation to men and vice versa are pitted against one another. It is a politics that sets one against the other in protecting their claims for individual rights. It is not a politics of reconciliation and peace but a politics of managing an underlying and ongoing violence. It therefore cannot approximate the reconciliation of Christ we follow after. This obviously echoes John Milbank and friends who argue that the modern politics of democracy exchanges voluntarist assumptions for a theology of participation (Theology and Social Theory, 11-15). Such a politics according to Milbank denies the peace and unity God seeks to restore by the assumption of all humanity into the Trinity. In short, I believe that Egalitarians, unbeknownst to themselves, create justice among men and women under the assumptions of an “ontology of violence.” And this is unacceptable for those who seek justice based upon the unity in Christ birthed around the mutual participation in the Eucharistic Table.
Having said all of this, I realize Milbank, Cavanagh and other RO folk’s assumptions and accounts of the “ontology of violence” are not accepted by everyone. Their historical constructions of medieval theology are controversial to say the least. Nonetheless, in the local church, I have seen the inherent violence played out again and again in race relations, economic relations and gender relations. Church conflict resolution is turning into big business (which is another problem) among evangelical and conservative protestant churches. The politics upon which the Egalitarian position is built is a politics that divides and separates for the purpose of keeping people from violating each other. It creates a me versus you mentality, which cannot approximate the Oneness we seek in Christ. For this reason I view the Egalitarian position in severe need of revision if it is to become the basis for a politics of gender reconciliation both in the church and beyond.
Instead, I suggest we consider a politics formed around the Eucharist. Here we come together as members re-membered into the One Body. There can be no enmity. Instead we are joined together all participating in the One work of God for the furtherance of His Mission. We all have gifts, but are mutually dependent. Our oneness is a function of our mutual participation in the One Body (Here I recommend we read William Cavanagh among others).
Third, and last, the Egalitarian position leaves us no script for gender performance. The hermeneutic of Biblical Egalitarianism often claims that a specific gender role (the husband as head of the wife for instance) is encrusted with cultural baggage from the first century culture and therefore must be compensated for hermeneutically. From there the Egalitarians often leave us with little to navigate what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man. I have no problem with a well thought out hermeneutic that uncovers the cultural determinacy of particular texts and then includes that in the hermeneutical process (See William Webb’s excellent book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals). I would be a fool to discount that there are indeed many aspects of gender role that are culturally determined. But we must not let this important observation lead us to declare that all gender identity and role is basically a matter of personal choice or preference. For as Zizek has commented, too often sexual preference becomes another market niche for capitalism to exploit. Where then are we to go in order to define gender?
This is where I think Judith Butler might be able to help a conservative protestant pro-women’s ordination evangelical like me. For Butler refuses to ignore that we are all being shaped into some form of gender performance (some version of what it means to be male, female, gay etc.) whether we know it or not. Butler argues in her massive and brilliant work (Subjects of Desire, Gender Trouble, Bodies That Matter, Excitable Speech) that gender is a construct rather than a pre-discursive ontological essence. All gender/sex is a performativity narrated within a discourse. It is not that we can opt out for we are all being narrated. The subject is engendered AFTER rather than BEFORE the discursive act. All bodies are gendered by their social existence. She is so radical in her critical theory that “homosexual” for her must be rejected as a means to name gay sexuality for it depends upon the dominant categories of heterosexuality for its legitimacy. Gender and sex is an effect rather than the causes of discursive institutions.
Obviously Butler offers a virtual hornet’s nest of issues for conservative Protestants. And I have no desire to engage the issue of the ontology of gender here in this small paper. Yet I believe this is enough of Butler to force a different question upon Egalitarians. For after Butler, the question can no longer be whether my gender identity is being narrated and shaped. Rather the question is by which social construct (or discourse or narrative) of gender performance is my gender identity being determined. If Egalitarians wish to maintain a cultural fluidity to what it means to be male or female, I think it would therefore be a good exercise for them to answer this question for their own work: what discourse is narrating our understanding of gender difference? Will it be a form of Western democratic discourse? Will it be the discourse that has been given to us and narrated in the person, work and history of Jesus Christ? Will it be a combination or interrelationship between the two and if so please define that relationship? This to me seems to be where some major fruit can be born towards redeeming gender relations in the body of Christ.
Of course I want to assert that Christians have no better place to go to narrate gender than the Story of Redemption in Jesus Christ given to us in Scriptures. For in the narrative of God in Christ (the Scriptures) we have been given 1.) A marvelous unfolding of salvation wherein women are redeemed over patriarchal history to fully reconciled status in the new Christian community birthed in Christ by the Spirit (Gal 3:28), 2.) The model of Christ giving himself up and dying for the church (Eph 5:25), a performance of the male gender role in marriage that might actually subvert patriarchy, and 3.) A basis for gender relations grounded in the interrelationship of the perichoresis within the Trinity that is simply astounding, mysterious and compelling. These sources for gender narration should not easily be given up for lesser and more parasitic models that expense our differences for a thin justice that is happy if we can just all get along.
In summary, this analysis of what lacks in the Egalitarian positions towards women is unfair because I have not the space to spell out just how egalitarians rely on the Western liberal discourse. You just have to trust me, wait until I write more extensively on this, or argue about it in the comments. I am pro women’s ordination, women’s full participation in the authority of the church and women’s teaching authority over the church including men. But I do believe there is a better and more faithful way for justice and reconciliation among the genders than the two options we have been given, Egalitarianism and Complementarianism. I hope to write about it in the future. Until then I am thankful that some of the Critical theorists mentioned above help illumine why we must look for more from the justice we seek in Christ Jesus.
1 The primary representative text being Wayne Grudem and John Piper, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton IL: Crossway Books, 1991).
2 Here some representatives with various nuances would be Craig Keener, Paul, Women and Wives (Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992); Gilbert Bilizikien, Beyond Sex Roles (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1985); William Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 2001); John Stackhouse, Finally Feminist (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005)
3 And before someone says it is an internal self-contradiction to suggest that both one’s gender is narrated and can be chosen, this is not exactly what I mean although Butler does seem to allow for a moment of agency within the contours of social formation. This too is a topic beyond this paper