Natural Complementarians: Men, Women, and the Way Things Are

In a post over on The Calvinist International, I interact with Aimee Byrd’s recent First Things article, ‘The Taming of the Beau‘ and argue against the ideological turn in some quarters of contemporary complementarian thought. Biblical teaching regarding men and women is primarily descriptive of the natural differences between the sexes: its vision for relations between the sexes always remains firmly grounded in the way that things are.

[T]he focus in the biblical teaching on sex is less upon gender roles and rules than it is upon the fact that men and women are created differently, for different purposes, with different strengths, and with different natural orientations. The teaching is principally descriptive, rather than prescriptive: men and women have different callings because they were created as different ‘genres’ of human being. For instance, the fact that, across ages and human cultures and down to the present day, men have dominated in the exercise of direct social power is not a result of ideology or even of sin, even though in our world it is invariably adumbrated and attended by both respectively. In speaking of man as the ‘head’, Scripture isn’t primarily saying that the man should be the head: it is saying that the man is the head. Although such statements are not merely descriptive, we should never miss the descriptive force that lies at their heart.

Read the whole thing here.

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.
This entry was posted in Bible, Controversies, Creation, Culture, Ethics, Genesis, Guest Post, Sex and Sexuality, Society, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Natural Complementarians: Men, Women, and the Way Things Are

  1. Paul Baxter says:

    All well said!

    Your quoted paragraph here highlights a position I’ve come to myself, that generally speaking scripture has very little to say about prescriptive gender roles. Paul’s teaching on the matter could be pretty well be summarized as “men should act like men and women like women.”

    I have a half remembered anecdote for you, so take it for what it is. I don’t remember who the speaker was, but it was someone who frequently spoke to mixed groups of men and women on some sort of gender related topic (likely marriage improvement). He would ask the men in the room if they could recall a time when they had been truly afraid. After a few minutes a few hands would go up. When called upon, the men would mention some incident from years past.

    He would then address the same question to the women in the room. All of the hands would go up. He would then ask who had been truly afraid in the previous week. Again, nearly all of the women would raise their hands.

    I found this fairly shocking, though on reflection it was believable. Exactly how to interpret this “fear gap” is beyond me, but women seem to inhabit a very different world in this respect.

    • Thanks, Paul!

      The ‘fear gap’ you mention is an important reality that isn’t discussed much. However, there has been some interesting research on the subject, perhaps especially by Anne Campbell, who works in the Psychology department here in Durham. See, for instance, this, this, and this.

      • p duggie says:

        This is frequently expressed in the aphorism:

        “Men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them”

      • It is, although the research goes further than this, to show that women are more fearful generally. Besides, statistically speaking, men have much greater reason to fear that men will kill them, so, even if we were only talking about fear of men in particular, we would still have to explain the disparity.

  2. p duggie says:

    Meador writes marriage is “A natural institution hard-wired into creation by God in Genesis”

    You write (quoting Gilder) “‘The most important and productive roles—husband and father in a durable marriage—are a cultural invention, necessary to civilized life but ultimately fragile.’”

    Does Gilder’s frame of marriage as a post-fall cultural invention have a connection to the hard-wired creational marriage. Did we lose the one and replace it with the other? I was struck by the constuctivism of the account of marriage you used in your article and I didn’t see a reckoning with Meador’s frame. Does that change anything?

    • Yes, there is a connection between the two. However, the ‘naturalness’ of marriage is less a matter of the typical way that nature will play out than it is of the form in which nature achieves its appropriate telos. The problem is that, while motherhood tends to play out quite directly, the connection between the man and the proper (and ‘natural’) object of his sexuality and maleness is much less immediate, but needs to be assisted by the midwife of culture.

      Furthermore, while the bond between mother and child has a greater commonality of character across cultures, marriage itself and the bonds tying fathers to their wives and children are far more heavily socially constructed. Of course, this is a social construction of nature, but a social construction nonetheless. Marriage and models of fatherhood vary much more between cultures.

      While the creational root of marriage may be shared across cultures, it is conjugated in radically differing ways. For instance, marriage can differ between cultures on issues such as: 1. occurrence of consanguineous marriage; 2. form of consanguineous marriage (e.g. cousin marriage on the father’s side); 3. forms and levels of exogamy; 4. strength of extended family and kinship structures; 5. inheritance practices; 6. the strength of relations between the generations; 7. patriarchalism; 8. age of marriage and differences in age between marriage partners; 9. degree of parental involvement in arranging marriage; 10. levels of reproduction; etc., etc. Marriage is the fundamental glue of society, but each culture employs this glue in a slightly different way, and creates a different form of larger society as a result.

  3. cal says:

    Thank you for your level-headed post Alastair. You are absolutely right that the concept of “Nature” is one that has been internally eviscerated. We cannot return to pre-modern utilization of the idea, naive and ignorant, but it must not be rejected or gutted either. The quest to avoid metaphysics or the fear of biology as determinism must be soothed over with the good grace of God in the fact of creation.

    But, I’m curious with the notion of ‘telos’ in order to direct the sexes. An above comment collapsed Paul’s comment into “men be men”, but given the teleologic of sexedness, that’s either redundant or, if we allow for cultural constructs of gender to need to be built, it’s tautological or non-sensical. But of course, Paul does not give sexed advice, but focuses on particular acts and social roles (e.g. imperatives to wives and husbands, social form of Church etc.)

    So, if this notion of the telos of sexedness is true, what use is the category of gender in the long run? As per the reality in many disciplines, the focus on culture has run out of steam, becoming all-encompassing and meaningless in a simultaneous move. Yet the Church has not caught up with the exhaustion in some ways. I don’t know if you want to weigh in on ‘culture’, but if the teleological nature of Humanity in genres is true, it certainly diminishes the role we attribute to it.

    But of course, the general wariness that the modern world exhibits about ‘Nature’ is that is gets rid of historical contextualization and creates ‘just-so’ stories. Your comment about the different forms of marriage and marriage-regulation is responsible in a way that a lot of neo-Victorian gender arguments are not. I think Stanton’s article is inept, but because he’s irresponsible. I think your use of evidence does a better job. It doesn’t need to be a morality tale. And while Byrd mischaracterized portions, I think she still understood the implications.

    Maybe the multiplication of genders is a good thing in the long run. Perhaps it will implode upon itself, and what will be left is a harrowing of ‘culture’ whereas we’ll be left with questions about the social necessities of the natural reality of two sexes. If there is a telos, perhaps this is a time to take a deep breathe and get out of the debate. If men will be male and women female, then why the anxiety that men will be womanish? We can obscure or cover-up the reality, but the reality will take its shape no matter what. It’s not retreat but confidence in a particular shape of reality, one that exists by the fact the Logos created than man’s need to uphold a particular formation of symbolic gestures. What do you think?

    But this leaves me questions about St. Paul’s argument about headcoverings. If you could interject some comments, Alastair, that’d be helpful for me.

    2 cents,

    • Thanks for the comments, Cal. This will have to be a fairly brief response.

      My intention is to show that biblical teaching concerning the sexes is firmly grounded in a descriptive account of nature, not to claim that it is reducible to such an account nor to eliminate any element of prescription. We need to develop a confidence in the world that God has created, recognizing that his word will ring true within it.

      This natural reality, however, needs to be permitted and encouraged to unfold and develop in a healthy manner. Manliness is not merely masculinity in its raw form, but masculinity moulded by culture and virtue into a praiseworthy maturity. This is what the masculinity looks like when it flourishes and comes into its own.

      Unfortunately, it is possible to have societies in which masculinity is twisted or distorted, or cultures where it is stifled and suppressed. Macho cultures may love untamed masculinity, but the result is ugly and against God’s good purpose. On the other side, societies that seek to suppress or feminize men can produce withered and stunted men, men whose masculinity is damaged, who have been prevented from coming to maturity. The vast majority of men cannot simply be squeezed into a feminine mould, but they will often be preventing from attaining to healthy manliness in a culture that seeks to do this. In calling men to ‘be men’, we are calling men to attain to their full stature, to exhibit a male nature harnessed and elevated by virtue.

      As for headcoverings (like sexually dimorphic clothing more generally), they are an example of a cultural expression of our welcome of God’s created order. God’s creation of humanity as male and female is not just presented as a natural reality, but as corresponding to a deep reality of divine symbolism. We are to respond to the natural impulse of sexual difference and personally and culturally articulate that difference on a symbolic plane. Sexual difference is not to be resented as a natural reality, but to be joyfully celebrated and explored. As we relate as man and woman, we participate in the deep music of creation. Rather than simply grudgingly acknowledging sexual difference in prose, we should delightedly proclaim it in poetry.

      • cal says:

        So, I suppose the “nature” of a hand is to be celebrated and blessed through the fabrication of the “culture” of a ring or a glove that honors it? Thus, culture is to be judged by a “fittingness” between nature and the contingent culture under analysis? Would this be an adequate metaphor to describe your description?

        If so, I think that’s a good path. But I’m not sure how we are to avoid just-so for any particular constellation of social acts and moods as what is Nature. I suppose that’s part of what makes up Byrd’s ideological suspicion, especially given particular Reformed theological commitments. The eye of our mind is blinded by sin, and it’s quite understandable for non-Christians to look upon the world and see distinction as division and binary as dualism or dichotomy. And they’re not wrong.

        If we’re to posit creation as possessing nature than I think it’s unjust to maintain it as a static thing that is upset and harassed by troublers, particular any of the villains that a typical First Things article will list. But this is untrue to the Biblical narrative of spiritual warfare and agonism that is present. Things weren’t fine before the “liberals” and the “secularists” or whomever. Thus, the spirit of Feminism is not wrong to raise hackles, even if particular Feminist solutions or particular readings are wrong.

        So yes, Nature, but it’s a Nature that is not fully visible, as the World is threatened with the possibility of sliding into non-being, that formless void, symbolized in the Deluge. The anchor of the Creation’s salvation is Christ, in His vanquishing of Death. Thus, I would argue any affirmation of “Nature” needs to Christologically conformed, preferably through Maximus’ conceptual use of the ‘logoi’. In fact, Bulgakov’s doctrine of Sophia might be able to do more work, but I’m unsure. At least with Bulgakov, there’s more “natural” synthesis between Nature and Culture, with the latter as necessary completion of the former. But I digress.

        Anyway, this is just in addition to your thoughts, not in contrast. The danger is reducing woman to mother, with man as responsible for practically everything else. As comments on Byrd’s article point out, this leaves a gap around the possibility of single woman in a way that is not as complicated for man.

      • Comparing the relationship between nature and culture to the relationship between my hand and my development of dexterity might be more apt than the hand/ring comparison. Culture is not primarily the extrinsic clothing of nature, but a development or channelling of the potential of nature in a particular direction. Culture is not narrowly determined by nature, but is more akin to improvisation on nature’s themes, some good, some not so good.

        And, yes, feminism does highlight genuine injustices, and also inequities that have emerged as society has been reshaped by various economic, technological, and social developments over the past couple of hundred years. Women’s place within the world much less certain and much more contestable today in many respects than it was traditionally.

      • p duggie says:

        “Manliness is not merely masculinity in its raw form, but masculinity moulded by culture and virtue into a praiseworthy maturity.”

        That’s a helpful summary and point. A&E were to mature together, and their sin is a false seizing at instant maturity, as are many vice-ridden ways masculinity is expressed today.

        This clarifies what seemed to me a deficiency, in seeing marriage as a fall-oriented institution (fixing men’s vice tendencies) rather than deriving its nature from a pre-fall state: a realm for maturity and flourishing of virtue.

        I note the word “maturity” does not occur in your original article.

  4. cal says:

    I’m not sure that’s an adequate metaphor either. I’m not sure dexterity makes sense of the man-made quality, though it does involve Nature more intimately. This is the problem with using culture, it’s defining it. Many accounts slide towards all/nothing approach. Especially in Christian circles, where it’s in vogue, culture is dangerous. It needs rigorous definition, and the Geertzian approach needs refashioning.

    • No, it isn’t an adequate metaphor; like the hand/ring metaphor, it is very limited. However, I believe that it better captures the primary dimension of the relationship, which is what I was focusing upon.

      My point is that culture isn’t primarily external artefacts placed over nature, but a development of nature’s intrinsic potential and tendencies in specific directions. This is, of course, productive of many artefacts and institutions, which in turn reinforce the shaping of nature. That said, there’s not a great deal of clarity to be found in discussing culture at such a level of abstraction (the concept itself probably obscures at least as much as it illumines).

      • cal says:

        I think you’re right about the hand/dexterity. Thanks for engaging with me. Your comments were very helpful and food for thought, despite their brevity.

  5. Alastair, thank you. I’ve read the whole of your article “Natural Complementarians: Men, Women And The Way Things Are” at The Calvinist International site, and I submitted a comment there — but Disqus being the way it is has probably designated my comment as spam (arggh). Thankfully you use the WordPress platform here so my comment will probably not be seen as spam. 🙂

    Glen Stanton says:
    “Women create, shape, and maintain human culture. Manners exist because women exist. Worthy men adjust their behavior when a woman enters the room. They become better creatures. Civilization arises and endures because women have expectations of themselves and of those around them. …[T]he most powerful and important influence women have … is this: They make men behave. … Husbands and fathers become better, safer, more responsible and productive citizens, unrivaled by their peers in any other relational status. Husbands become better mates, treating their wives better by every important measure—physical and emotional safety, financial and material provision, personal respect, fidelity, general self-sacrifice, etc.—compared to boyfriends, whether dating or cohabiting. … Woman is the most powerful living force on the globe. She creates, shapes, and sustains human civilization.

    Byrd responded:
    “Stanton is right to disagree with the feminist message that women should become more like men. But he is wrong to idealize women by ascribing to them such virtuous power over men. … Woman was not made to save civilization, nor to civilize man. She was made to be a companion to him, a necessary ally. … Both sexes are dependent for virtue not on the other, but on God. …Women don’t need to play the virtue card to have a seat at the significance table. …”

    You, Alastair, have responded
    “[Stanton’s] argument is not that women are more virtuous than men, but that they are differently virtuous and that the flourishing of male virtue is catalysed and encouraged by the presence and the activity of women.”

    Me: I didn’t see anywhere in Stanton’s article where he spoke about women and men being DIFFERENTLY virtuous.

    Note: I am in agreement with you, Alastair, that –generally speaking– women and men are differently virtuous (and different in their vices). But I don’t believe Stanton was saying that men and women are differently virtuous. All Stanton was doing was pointing to the virtuous influence of women upon men: that “women make men behave.” And I think that is what Aimee Byrd was reacting against. She was objecting to Stanton’s idea (phrased in woman-glorifying terms; but nevertheless implicit) that the correction of men’s bad character is the job, the responsibility, of women.

    To that extent, I agree with Byrd’s critique of Stanton’s article.

    Let me now, if I may, tell you my thoughts on YOUR article.

    I fully agree with what you say here: —
    “Scripture isn’t primarily saying that the man should be the head: it is saying that the man is the head. Although such statements are not merely descriptive, we should never miss the descriptive force that lies at their heart.”

    And I agree with you that—
    “biblical teaching on sex … is principally descriptive, rather than prescriptive: men and women have different callings because they were created as different ‘genres’ of human being.”

    I would like to hear your thoughts on the descriptions of masculine vices run amock in the Bible. For example, the Levite who mistreated his concubine in Judges 19-20 and who conned the men of Israel to make war against their fellow Israelites, all to evade the potential opprobrium of being seen as a wife beater.

    Stanton’s article seemed very much to ignore these descriptions.
    And your article seemed only to touch on them.

    I agree with you that — “the violence of dysfunctional masculinity is far more of an immediate threat to civilization than dysfunctional forms of femininity: women’s violence is more likely to be directed against their own bodies.”

    The problem that I see frequently —my area is domestic abuse in the evangelical church — is that of dysfunctional masculinity in marriage, where men get to wreak their dysfunctional masculinity (evil wicked behaviors) on their wives and children. In those circumstances, women and children do not get to “exert a centripetal social force upon men, drawing them towards the service and protection of society, directing their self-transcendent sacrificial urge to the benefit of those who are weaker and more dependent.” Instead, women and children in those circumstance are systematically disassembled and controlled by wicked men.

    I”m not saying all men are wicked. But I think that in looking at the Bible for descriptions of maleness and femaleness in both the vices and virtues characteristic of the each gender, then we need to look at ALL the things which the Bible narrates and describes.

  6. I have now read Aimee Byrd’s post ‘The Taming of the Beau’ , Alastair’s response to this here, and Aimee Byrd’s response to Alastair’s post, all of which give us a lot to think about, and I am still thinking about it!
    I have asked myself a couple of questions, not specifically about the themes of the articles, but about the ways in which God created Adam and Eve and the timing of these creations. No doubt the questions I am asking have been asked many times before, possibly even by children in Sunday School classes, and I’m sure that many reflections have already been uttered and written on these questions, but then I am still a learner in this area, and these questions are new ones for me!
    Firstly, why did God create Adam first and Eve second? Adam (with the possible exception of MacBeth 🙂 ) was the only man not born of woman. That said, I realise that Eve was also the only woman not born of woman, yet in a way she was born of man, because God formed her from one of Adam’s ribs, which brings me to my second question:
    Why did God use one of Adam’s ribs to create Eve rather than create Eve in the same way as He created Adam? A beautiful answer to this question is in Genesis 2:23, yet I still keep coming back to my first question: why did God create Adam first?
    I have speculated a lot about this, but I won’t speculate here. I would really appreciate it if any of you could enlighten me about this.
    Thank you.

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