Of Playing Taboo and Unpacking Suitcases

Steve Holmes has some helpful comments on the complementarian/egalitarian debate here, raising questions about the possibility of forging areas of common ground between advocates of the positions.

It is very late here, and I am not sure how coherent the following thoughts will be, but one thing that I find interesting in this particular debate is the degree to which opposing designations can frequently mask significant similarities in actual practice, especially in the context of the family. When one looks at couples who claim to be egalitarian in their approach to marriage and couples that claim to be complementarian, there is often little difference between the two. I am sure that there are occasions when an objective observer might find it hard to determine which couple was which if not told beforehand. In practice, the differences that these distinctions make (especially within the context of family life) may be relatively minor.

On such an occasion, playing a game of ‘Theological Taboo’ may be helpful. For those who haven’t played it before, Taboo is a game in which you have to get your teammates to guess a word written on a card, without using either the word, or any of the other five associated words mentioned on the card. ‘Theological Taboo’ is a variation on this game, in which we withdraw controversial and loaded terms from circulation within the debate entirely, and seek to say what we wish to say without employing them at all. In the case of this particular theological debate, for instance, in addition to dropping ‘complementarian’ and ‘egalitarian’ from our vocabulary, this could involve forgoing associated terms such as ‘authority’, ‘leadership’, ‘submission’.

Such theological labels can be like different-shaped suitcases. While they serve important purposes, about which more anon, they also can conceal both similarities and differences. When these suitcases are dispensed with we might be surprised at how similar the contents of those with different suitcases have been all along, and how startlingly different the contents of many of those who shared the same suitcase are. An excessive focus upon the suitcases over their contents can lead to a failure to expose the unpleasant ideological commitments and practices stowed away in our theological companions’ luggage. Removing the suitcases from the picture for a while can provide a context in which alliances can be renegotiated and common ground can be formed both within one’s own theological position and also with those without in order to tackle abuses. Too many people are passed through theological customs unchecked simply because they are carrying a friendly looking suitcase.

Now, obviously, the distinction between a suitcase and its contents is far too simplistic an analogy for theology: our theological terms are partly constitutive of the experiences, practices, and realities that they denominate. Nevertheless, our terms do not exhaust or wholly determine the reality of the things that they name, and the complicated relationship between the two is especially fruitful to explore when negotiating such matters of theological difference.

The temporary shelving of key terms in debates can have the salutary effect of helping to reveal exactly what is at issue. I suspect that we would be surprised at how often the stumbling blocks are primarily the terms themselves, rather than the particular ideological commitments entailed by them.

A similar effect can be observed in tests of political affiliation. A person’s particular political views can bear a complex relationship to the political party with whom they identify. There are many people who would strongly support a particular policy until they hear that it is Labour’s policy, or the official position of the Tory Party. It is the identification with a particular party rather than actual policy that can be the stumbling block. The issue may be less with the claims that the position commits you to than with the unsettling fellow passengers with whom it lumps you.

Such self-designations can be ways in which we seek to keep faith with our histories and our communities, which is another reason why adopting a different self-designation can so trouble us, and be perceived as an act of betrayal. For instance, my construction of my theological identity, even if none of my actual theological convictions were to be changed, could take quite a different form had I been raised in a Lutheran context. As it is, however, given my upbringing and personal history, my theology is shaped by a commitment to the Reformed tradition. While I don’t want to be seen to suggest that such commitments are to be regretted, I believe that a clearer understanding of the role that they play can open up the possibility of less adversarial relations between people of various camps.

Names are important, and often they are the sticking point, rather than the practice, reality, set of convictions, or experiences that they designate. Recognizing this helps us to knock many issues down to size.

When everyone has unpacked their suitcases we may well discover that there are different suitcases that are more appropriate to the contents which we seek to pack in them, and that our battles over differing suitcases could often be avoided in such a manner. These more appropriate and mediating constructions will often also provide a firmer foundation from which to recognize and address the abuses of former ideological companions. While names are important and their suspension from the discussion may well often need to be no more than temporary, there are occasions when this suspension may reveal their need to be substituted.

There are many people, for instance, who treat the name ‘baptism in the Spirit’ as if it was exhaustively and inextricably connected with the experiences of which Pentecostals use it to speak. While changing the terminology of the experience would necessarily change the experience itself (as the experience is experienced as an experience of baptism in the Spirit) in key respects, it wouldn’t annihilate the experience. What a Pentecostal would experience as the second blessing of ‘baptism in the Spirit’, other Christians could describe in far less loaded terms, while not denying or detracting from the importance of the experience in its proper place. We may often discover that, provided that such things are maintained, people are quite willing to adopt a different construction.

My own experience might be illustrative in this area. I was raised in a Baptist home and my childhood was shaped by a particular evangelical and Baptist narrative of conversion, a narrative within which I interpreted – and experienced – my experience. Changing my understanding of such things as conversion and the Christian family forced me to unpack and repack my former experience. In the process I discovered that my experience was quite amenable to different constructions and interpretations. The importance of my childhood experiences was not abandoned, just differently understood.

In the case of the complementarian/egalitarian debate, if the distinction is forced upon me, I will class myself as a complementarian. However, I find most articulations of the position unsatisfactory on several fronts, and am troubled by many of those with whom I this classes me. I chafe at being classed as a complementarian, as the use of such terms as shibboleths has often come to serve as a replacement for close examination of the contents of people’s theological suitcases (the term ‘penal substitution’ is another example of the privileging of the ‘suitcase’ in theological discussion). I have huge problems with the contents of many other complementarians’ suitcases, and I would like to believe (admittedly, most of us want to believe this) that the contents of my suitcase merit closer attention than that within which they are carried.

I also believe that this is one debate where playing Theological Taboo, concentrating on the level of actual practices, unclouded by our preferred terminology, might be helpful. Are ministries and gifts being recognized (temporarily leaving to one side the question of what they are being recognized as)? Is sexual/gender difference(s) being recognized? How is authority being practiced? Are persons and communities flourishing in the various axes of their existence? Are we seeing differentiation? Are we seeing subordination? While such an approach will by no means settle such a debate, I believe that the asking of such questions of our own and other communities can prove a profitable route for the revelation of common ground.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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3 Responses to Of Playing Taboo and Unpacking Suitcases

  1. Pingback: On Triggering and the Triggered, Part 3 | Alastair's Adversaria

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