N.T. Wright’s Complementarianism
There has been a lot of talk in the blogosphere, and here at BLT, about the Interview with N. T. Wright on First Things on the subject of sexuality. I have read several of N. T. Wright’s books and lectures and have found him to be in general an articulate scholar and a convincing writer on Christianity and the Bible. The interview linked above is a portion of a longer interview, and it focuses on Wright’s (negative) views on gay marriage. The puzzling thing about the interview, as others have pointed out, is how it departs from Wright’s usual reasoned discourse to compare those who believe marriage can and should be extended to same-sex couples, to Nazis and Stalinists. This is not the kind of approach I’m used to reading from a man I highly respect. Several other blogs, such as Sarah Over the Moon and Slacktivist, have taken issue with this approach.* Several posts here at BLT, such as this one by Suzanne McCarthy and this one by J. K. Gayle, have focused on some of the implications of Wright’s thinking, focusing in particular on this quote from the interview:
With Christian or Jewish presuppositions, or indeed Muslim, then if you believe in what it says in Genesis 1 about God making heaven and earth—and the binaries in Genesis are so important—that heaven and earth, and sea and dry land, and so on and so on, and you end up with male and female. It’s all about God making complementary pairs which are meant to work together. The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.
This paragraph from Wright’s book Surprised by Hope is also appropos:
Heaven and earth, it seems, are not after all poles apart, needing to be separated for ever when all the children of heaven have been rescued from this wicked earth. Nor are they simply different ways of looking at the same thing, as would be implied by some kinds of pantheism. No: they are different, radically different; but they are made for each other in the same way (Revelation is suggesting) as male and female. And, when they finally come together, that will be cause for rejoicing in the same way that a wedding is: a creational sign that God’s project is going forwards; that opposite poles within creation are made for union, not competition; that love and not hate have the last word in the universe; that fruitfulness and not sterility is God’s will for creation.
Wright’s views against same-sex marriage, then, are rooted in his insistence that the very meaning of marriage is about male and female– and that men and women, males and females, themselves are representative of something larger, some overarching pattern of complementary binaries in God’s plan for creation and re-creation, and there can be no deviations from that pattern:
If you say that marriage now means something which would allow other such configurations, what you’re saying is actually that when we marry a man and a woman we’re not actually doing any of that stuff. This is just a convenient social arrangement and sexual arrangement and there it is . . . get on with it. . . If that’s what you thought marriage meant, then clearly we haven’t done a very good job in society as a whole and in the church in particular in teaching about just what a wonderful mystery marriage is supposed to be.** Simply at that level, I think it’s a nonsense. It’s like a government voting that black should be white.
It’s not my purpose here to give a complete Scriptural and philosophical defense of gay marriage. Though I am no longer at all convinced that the passages of Scripture that are used to deny gay marriage address committed, faithful same-sex unions at all, I think I’ve got a lot more still to study and learn about that topic.*** But I do want to talk about the subject of binary thinking and exclusionary definitions such as Wright displays in the quotes above, and how they relate to the concept of “complementarity” in male-female relations, particularly in marriage.
We are suspicious of binaries. And we are suspicious not because binaries cannot or do not exist in nature. But we are suspicious of binaries because the binary is the fundamental structure of patriarchy. The would-be pure and precise division of the binary helps and has helped and will continue to help males to be dominant over females. In contrast, there’s feminine discourse, which tends not to be reduced to the “either / or” but, rather, tends to be “both and” and “more.”
[A]lthough we in the west tend to speak in terms of categories, that are binary, as if they are natural, our practices are ancient, going back to the man Aristotle, who profoundly believed that females naturally were inferior to males.
The idea of binaries as exclusionary, either A or Not A, shows more the influence of Aristotelian categories on Western thought than it reflects the mindsets of either the ancient Hebrew or New Testament Greek writers. This Aristotelian way of thinking is certainly not the only way to approach the texts. Even if not consciously intended by Wright, the Bible’s concept of binaries brought into union definitely implies a “both-and” kind of relationship in many instances, rather than the exlusionary either-or. As Rabbi Rachel Barenblat says on her blog Velveteen Rabbi:
This is what it means to say that the Jews accepted the Torah for real at Purim: we accepted the deepest Torah, the highest Torah, the Torah in which there is no longer a distinction between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” because to God on high it’s all one. At this level of spiritual elevation, there’s nothing which the sitra achra, the “other side” — in a word, evil — can grasp. Once you get to this high place, evil has fallen away. This is the point at which we’re connecting not with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (which presumes binaries) but rather the Tree of Life.
The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was what kept Adam and Eve away from the Tree of Life. God did order the world in Genesis 1 through binaries, but that doesn’t mean there’s only “either/or” and never “both/and” or “more.” The presence of a pattern does not exclude combinations or exceptions. Also, the binaries of Scripture are generally principles or patterns, not laws or rules. There are very real, very human humans who have an extra X chromosome, or who present as one sex but have the hormones of the other. And God created them.
I must disagree with Wright that presence of an exception or combination somehow denigrates or damages the pattern or principle. Just as the existence of the platypus is not bad just because it doesn’t fit the pattern of either a land creature or a water creature, the existence of humans and human relationships that don’t fit the male-female pattern do not destroy the pattern. The Genesis binary patterns are beautiful, but they are not set forth as law, and not fitting into them is not disobedience.
If those in Christ are the true family of Abraham, which is the point of the whole [Galatians 3] story, then the manner of this identity and unity takes a quantum leap beyond the way in which first-century Judaism construed them, bringing male and female together as surely and as equally as Jew and Gentile. What Paul seems to be doing in this passage, then, is ruling out any attempt to back up the continuing male privilege in the structuring and demarcating of Abraham’s family by an appeal to Genesis 1, as though someone were to say, ‘But of course the male line is what matters, and of course male circumcision is what counts, because God made male and female.’ No, says Paul, none of that counts when it comes to membership in the renewed people of Abraham.
But sometimes we don’t notice what Wright is not saying in that essay. He’s not saying he’s an egalitarian. He’s only saying he doesn’t think women should be restricted in church ministry. He makes it clear, though, that he is not saying anything about his views on marriage, and that “ticking the box” of women in church ministry does not necessarily meaning “ticking a dozen other boxes down the same side of the page.” In fact, when it comes to marriage, this piece written by Andrew Wilson on the Confluence Blog defines Wright’s view as follows:
Wives and husbands, along with everyone in the church, are called to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, but not in identical ways. The church submits to Christ by recognizing him as head, and following his leadership. Christ submits to the church by loving her, taking on the form of a slave, giving himself up for her, and presenting her holy and blameless. So when Paul compares the wife to the church and the husband to Christ, he is saying that the ways in which their ‘mutual submission’ is expressed will be different: the woman will follow her husband’s lead, and the man will exercise his leadership by serving his wife, as Christ-like leaders always do. (This view is very simply expressed by Tom Wright in Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters).
Wilson then directly quotes Wright:
Paul assumes, as do most cultures, that there are significant differences between men and women, differences that go far beyond mere biological and reproductive function. Their relations and roles must therefore be mutually complementary, rather than identical. Equality in voting rights, and in employment opportunities and remuneration (which is still not a reality in many places), should not be taken to imply such identity. And, within marriage, the guideline is clear. The husband is to take the lead – though he is to do so fully mindful of the self-sacrificial model which the Messiah has provided. As soon as ‘taking the lead’ becomes bullying or arrogant, the whole thing collapses.
This is a very “soft” complementarianism to be sure, but it is complementarianism all the same. And Wright does insist in his “Women’s Service in the Church” teaching that there must be no blurring of the male-female binary:
But once we have grasped this point we must take a step back and reflect on what Paul has not done as well as what he has done. In regard to the Jew/Gentile distinction, Paul’s fierce and uncompromising insistence on equality in Christ does not at all mean that we need pay no attention to the distinctives between those of different cultural backgrounds when it comes to living together in the church. . . the differences between them are not obliterated, and pastoral practice needs to take note of this; they are merely irrelevant when it comes to belonging to Abraham’s family. And this applies, I suggest, mutatis mutandis, to Paul’s treatment of men and women within the Christian family. The difference is irrelevant for membership status and membership badges. But it is still to be taken note of when it comes to pastoral practice. We do not become hermaphrodites or for that matter genderless, sexless beings when we are baptised.
And yet in the very same essay, Wright says this:
I notice that on one of your leaflets you adopt what is actually a mistranslation of this verse: neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. That is precisely what Paul does not say; and as it’s what we expect he’s going to say, we should note quite carefully what he has said instead, since he presumably means to make a point by doing so, a point which is missed when the translation is flattened out as in that version. What he says is that there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no ‘male and female’. I think the reason he says ‘no male and female’ rather than ‘neither male nor female’ is that he is actually quoting Genesis 1, and that we should understand the phrase ‘male and female’ in scare-quotes.
So does Paul mean that in Christ the created order itself is undone? Is he saying, as some have suggested, that we go back to a kind of chaos in which no orders of creation apply any longer? Or is he saying that we go on, like the gnostics, from the first rather shabby creation in which silly things like gender-differentiation apply to a new world in which we can all live as hermaphrodites – which, again, some have suggested, and which has interesting possible ethical spin-offs? No. Paul is a theologian of new creation, and it is always the renewal and reaffirmation of the existing creation, never its denial, as not only Galatians 6.16 but also of course Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15 make so very clear. Indeed, Genesis 1—3 remains enormously important for Paul throughout his writings.
What then is he saying? Remember that he is controverting in particular those who wanted to enforce Jewish regulations, and indeed Jewish ethnicity, upon Gentile converts. Remember the synagogue prayer in which the man who prays thanks God that he has not made him a Gentile, a slave or a woman – at which point the women in the congregation that God ‘that you have made me according to your will’. I think Paul is deliberately marking out the family of Abraham reformed in the Messiah as a people who cannot pray that prayer, since within this family these distinctions are now irrelevant. . .
Remember that the presenting issue in Galatians is circumcision, male circumcision of course. We sometimes think of circumcision as a painful obstacle for converts, as indeed in some ways it was; but of course for those who embraced it it was a matter of pride and privilege. It not only marked out Jews from Gentiles; it marked them out in a way which automatically privileged males. By contrast, imagine the thrill of equality brought about by baptism, the identical rite for Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female.
Wright is saying that men are still men and women are still women in Christianity, and that they should be fully who they are; that women should not try to be just like men in the way they minister. But he is also saying that the whole “there is not male and female” is a reversal of the text of Genesis 1, “male and female He created them.” He uses this as justification for Paul’s support of women in all areas of ministry. The distinctions that would make a man say, “I thank God I was not born a Gentile, a slave or a woman” are all distinctions of privilege, whether of race, economics or gender. These privileges must now be laid down, for they are irrelevant. Equality has been brought about by the substitution of baptism for circumcision.
And yet it is that very privilege, that very distinction, which Wright upholds in male headship in marriage. If the husband, despite being “fully mindful of the self-sacrificial model which the Messiah has provided,” still assumes that leadership belongs to him by right, he is acting according to a distinction of privilege which man assumed over woman as a consequence of the Fall in Genesis 3:16. We read in Philippians 2 that privilege (as the equal of God) was the very thing that Christ laid down, in order to take the form of a slave– which constituted, at the Crucifixion, a complete emptying of privilege. Galatians 3, as I have insisted elsewhere, cannot mean something different for women than it means for Gentiles and slaves. If a free Jewish man could not say to a Gentile or slave, “Be happy with the level ground at the foot of the cross, but being free and Jewish means the privilege of leadership belongs to me alone,” then a free Jewish man could not say it to a woman either. Not even if she were his wife.
Like Wright, I see a pattern of binaries in Genesis 1, and I also see a pattern throughout the New Testament of things that have been separated brought back together. What I don’t see is exclusive binaries that deny the right to exist of anything outside them. Nor do I see God endorsing the upholding of patterns of privilege and marginalization– which must die if the promised union is ever to be complete.
I know I don’t have Wright’s credentials or education, but Paul did say God had chosen the foolish and the weak things of the world to confound those who are strong and wise. Sometimes not having privileges also means we are free from being blinded by them.
I very much appreciate the opportunities I’ve had to learn good things from Dr. Wright. There have been logs in my own eye that he has definitely helped me to remove. So I feel emboldened to point out this speck in his. May God be gracious to us both.
*Sarah Over the Moon wrote a very good follow-up piece yesterday. Suffice it to say that I agree with her whole-heartedly that no matter how much many of us may like and respect N. T. Wright, Christianity has no superstars other than Christ, and no Christian leader should ever be considered exempt from examination and critique of his or her views.
** Here, I think, Wright misquotes the passage, for Paul never says marriage is a mystery. He says the union of Christ and the church is a mystery. Human marriage is supposed to look towards that union, but it is not that union.
***My basic approach to the gay marriage question is to rely on the litmus test once set forth by Augustine. “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.” Love of my LGBT neighbors means listening to them and trying my best to understand their perspective. The question in my mind in regards to any practice must be, “Does it harm the self, the other, or the creation?” And if not, is it not love of my neighbors to allow them to enjoy the same kind of committed union that gives me such comfort and support?