Gender Roles, Submission, and the Image of God: Choose your words carefully


The last few days have seen a small explosion occur online related to a post by Jared C. Wilson on The Gospel Coalition blog site. In what was intended to be a statement against the increasingly popular discussion concerning the sexual practices of bondage and domination that have been poorly represented in works like 50 Shades of Grey, Jared used a quote from a book by Douglas Wilson that was published more than a decade ago. D. Wilson is well known for arguing positions to their logical, and sometimes controversial, end, and he has received a lot of heat for it. You can read Jared’s post, Doug’s quote and the ensuing heated debate here.

This is neither a new nor an isolated debate. In a small part of the evangelical world, it is a long standing debate between two camps concerning the nature of the marriage relationship. What was once a theological debate has become in recent years a smoldering pop culture fire that appears to have exploded in the comment sections of the blog posts of Jared and a writer named Rachel Held Evans. Rachel is a firm egalitarian who has recently become the voice of liberal Christianity in all issues related to gender and sexuality. As I have watched Rachel’s prominence and influence grow over the last couple of years, I have observed her tone shift from being that of one who is offering a grace-filled, alternate perspective to the fundamentalist Bible Belt teaching of her childhood, to that of one who is declaring an all out war on those who hold a complementarian view of gender and the marriage relationship.

Three specific blog posts, Jared’s original post, Rachel’s response and Jared’s rebuttal and clarification of his intent, are a heartbreaking example of the polarization that has developed around this issue.

This current debate reveals, I believe, the telling problem that will leave this issue an open wound rather than a constructive conversation of mutual edification and sharpening. This debate is no longer about the grand theological message of the Gospel and of way in which marriage is to be a picture of that Gospel. This debate has been boiled down to sound bites, generalized points of semantics.

In a Twitter conversation today between Rachel, Jared, and Denny Burke, Rachel tweeted the dictionary.com definition of conquer to which Denny replied, “Did you notice definition number 3?” Rachel and the egalitarian camp are up in arms over the use of the word conquer because they are reading it with the understanding of conquer meaning “to acquire by force of arms; win in war.” This is the first definition listed. Both Jared and Doug have repeatedly responded that this was not their intent in the use of the word, but, as Denny suggested, their intent was more along the lines of “definition number 3”: “to gain, win, or obtain by effort, personal appeal, etc.: conquer the hearts of his audience.” In other words, Doug is not suggesting husbands are to conquer the hearts of their wives by oppression and force, but rather to win them through the hard work of sacrificial servant leadership.

Rachel and her egalitarian supporters are holding to their position that the use of the word conquer refers to definition number one. Jared, Doug, and their complementarian supporters are holding to the fact that they intended the use of the word conquer to imply definition number three. And despite all the clarification offered by Jared and Doug, in this polarized debate, it appears that never the twain shall meet.

Some of you may be thinking, “War of words. What’s the big deal?” But the big deal is that this is telling of a larger trend in our society. Authorial intent no longer bears weight in a postmodern world. Despite the fact that the author has repeatedly clarified his intent, the readers have demanded that their interpretation trumps the author’s intent and refuse to accept his clarification and explanation of intent concerning his own words.

And just as the marriage relationship is described by God as a small picture of the larger relationship of Christ with His Church, so too is this attitude of reader authority a small picture of Rachel’s larger reading of God’s Word. Rachel’s first line in the above-linked post seems to indicate she doesn’t view Scripture as God’s authoritative Word: “Patriarchy is old—so old that the writers of Scripture include it in their creation story.” As far as Rachel is concerned, the Bible, from Genesis 1:1 on, is a collection of writings about God which are written by patriarchal men who have misrepresented what God really meant for His people to know about Him. Apparently, all authors are subject to their reader’s understanding and interpretation, even God himself. And when a reader takes issue with what a writer has communicated, it is the responsibility of the author to acquiesce to the interpretation of the reader. Rachel and others are now demanding for an apology and retraction of something that neither Jared or Doug ever actually said. Because people were hurt and offended by their own misunderstanding of (or disagreement with) Doug’s words. And when Doug clarified what he meant, the clarification was simply not enough for some.

What is most heartbreaking is that, within the the comment section beneath Rachel’s post, Rachel and Jared both expressed that there is much in the debate about which egalitarians and complementarians agree. But, as Nathaniel Simmons noted in a comment on my Facebook page, “It does seem that two sides are largely in agreement, yet feel committed to disagree.” True constructive conversation will never take place if the two sides cannot even agree to the definitions of the words with which they are debating one another.

My thoughts on the whole thing?

The entire debate only serves to confirm that, like it or not, the marriage relationship is THE picture of the Gospel given to us. If relationships and sex were primarily about “mutual pleasure” as some are arguing, we wouldn’t get so up in arms when people disagree with our understanding of it. Generalized statements and polarized debates will never get us to the heart of the complexity of human relationships because those relationships are the image of an infinitely complex God.

Rachel preaches a strong message of “mutual submission” in her mission to redefine the term egalitarian, but there appears to be no mutual submission in her stance that the interpretation of the reader trumps the intent of the author.

Hopefully it doesn’t take a theological scholar to recognize the danger in believing it is the Author who answers to the reader and not the other way around.

UPDATE: Doug Wilson’s response to the “kerfuffle” can be found here.

UPDATE #2: Just to be clear on my own intent, this is not a wholesale attack on Rachel. As I said above, I have followed her work for a couple of years and have interacted with her on a couple of occasions. Her compassion for the bullied, the victimized, and the judged is commendable, and I have appreciated the way in which my own faith has been strengthened and my thought processes sharpened by her work.
That being said, it is with her understanding and treatment of complementarian thought within her campaign of mutualism and with this particular post with which I have the greatest concerns.

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10 thoughts on “Gender Roles, Submission, and the Image of God: Choose your words carefully

  1. Pingback: review of the novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” impact « BLT

  2. Bekah,

    Good observations. We are living in a time in which communication seems to be more and more difficult. Around ten years ago a DC politician used the term “niggardly” to refer to the budget. After the craziness that followed he was forced to resign. The problem is that the term has to do with being stingy, not with making a racist insult.

    As one who has recently celebrated my 27th year of marriage I can’t help but reflect on disagreements I’ve had with my wife over the years. I generally have followed the dictum that “communication isn’t what I think I’ve said but what she thinks I’ve said.” I have come to realize how short that motto falls from working in the real world. I think the only answer is to be careful how things are said initially but once the words come out the only way to move ahead is to clarify, sometimes in great detail, with a lot of patience.

    That said, I do not think the egalitarian camp will be convinced nor satisfied, no matter what is said. After reading the original posts and the comments on a number of sites it is clear they have fire in their eyes. It is so sad to see members of the body of Christ behave in such a way. Mutual submission only seems to work if it starts with you first since I am offended. Tolerance has been redefined in the political realm and clearly it has had an effect on the church.

    Timothy Dalrymple at Philosophical Fragments wrote on “Selling Scorn” last month and one can see much of the same sort of interaction in his comments section (especially since he mentioned R.H. Evans). As I reflect further on the problems in communicating, I just think it is fascinating that in an age where we are able to communicate world-wide like never before, we seem to talk past each other so much. I think this is symptomatic of the deterioration of our culture (but this is another topic for another day).

    • Dan,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I especially appreciate this observation: “I just think it is fascinating that in an age where we are able to communicate world-wide like never before, we seem to talk past each other so much.”

      It seems that some work to set the terms of the debate, defining both their own and the opposing viewpoint, and then launch their attack upon either a straw man or gross caricature of the other side.

      I consider myself a complementarian, but when I read the egalitarian explanation of complementarianism, it is nothing of what I believe. At the same time, when I attempt to engage egalitarians with their own definition of the terms, I’m told I am attacking and judging them. It’s a painfully lose-lose situation. There are so many things about which we passionately agree, but it’s frustrating that the only things that receive air time are the things about which we seem to passionately disagree. And the worst part about it is that our passionate disagreement seems to boil down to meaning and semantics.

  3. Hi Bekah
    Generally speaking it is the responsibility of the writer to communicate effectively. I would like to suggest that both Jared Wilson and Doug Wilson have chosen words that have strong definitions. .Let’s face it, what is the picture that comes into your mind when you read the word conquer is one of aggression. Maybe that’s not what they meant, but I think enough people have expressed strong feelings that I would say that the word choice was very good. People with doctorates (Scot McKnight) have also gotten into the fray. In other words, Jared and Doug communicated a difficult and controversial subject poorly and now want to tell the people that have called them on it, that they don’t understand.

    Sorry, having read through the posts in question, I don’t think that either Jared or Doug communicated what they seem to have wanted to communicate. When a writer deals in controversial subjects it’s really beat that they lay out their words in a plain manner.

    • Point taken.

      Today has made me wonder if we’re so quick to draw sides when we come into a debate because past experience with the argument is fresh on our minds. Of all of the things that have been miscommunicated, it is clear that the explosion today was about more than just that one post. The attack was launched with the angry assumption that they knew where Doug was coming from so when he did attempt to clarify, his explanation was not only rejected it was mocked and ridiculed.

      There have been a lot of emotional outbursts expressed by both sides, and I can understand that completely. The whole thing hurts and angers me for a variety of reasons. Mainly it hurts because I can see that both sides have fruitful ministries in particular areas and those ministries suffer when division like this occur. Right now I’m hoping that emotions will settle and a reasonable conversation that first defines the terms being used in a manner acceptable to both sides can occur.

  4. Steve,

    I hear what you’re saying. There is a high responsibility on one to communicate clearly. It seems there is a responsibility on the hearers too. It’s great that McKnight has a PhD and has weighed in on the egalitarian side. Bekah notes Denny Burke’s contribution on the complementarian side. Having a doctorate does not guard one from having a bias and not listening to the other side. I have a PhD too and I try to recognize my biases and listen to the other side. This is one of the reasons why it is important to read differing points of view.

    I personally would not have communicated using the same words as were originally penned but it is pretty evident efforts have been made to clarify. These words must be heard too, no? Go read the comments at Scot’s blog and you won’t hear him interacting with the furor. This is unfortunate since many contributors might benefit from an attempt to intelligently and charitably respond.

    I do agree with you that plain speech is required. I think this is one of the big lessons I am taking from this. What is it that James says about teachers and a different type of judgment?

  5. Conquer + colonize in close association have strong, unavoidable connotations.

    Wilson and Wilson are trying to claim a post hoc definition, but their attempt falls flat.

  6. Oh, and “surrender” also used in the case of the wife? I find it hard to believe that he didn’t mean definition 1.

    • I understand that, and honestly, I don’t like how he described his stance either. But from what I have read of Doug’s work, he tends to work in the realm of inflammatory absolutes and the reader is expected to work hard to get to the end of the logic row he is plowing. Not charitable, but charity isn’t his strong suit in his writing style. One has to take the time to read the full body of work to get a full picture of intent. Sentences (or whole paragraphs) of a book-length work are never going to fully represent the message of the author.

      Most people who address issues of ethics and logic aren’t exactly overwhelmed with mercy and compassion, but that is not an excuse for treating people as if they are a rhetorical proof to be disproven and dismissed.

      That being said, while it may be hard to believe that he did not mean the first definition, I do believe that Christian charity does require us to, in good faith, give anyone the benefit of the doubt and to accept their clarification as what they meant, even when I wholeheartedly disagree with their approach.

      I’d like to think that there is room to update the language used. We’re past the militant language of second wave feminism, so I don’t believe there is a point to continuing that rhetoric. Maybe this particular issue will draw light to that.

  7. I think this post addresses the issue of the reader trumping the author. http://diannaeanderson.net/?p=1332

    I tend to agree, if the intent of an author’s message is not receive by a reader/hearer, the onus is on the author to make some attempts to change the wording, explain the context, do something that would make the message more clear. If the attempts are not made then I think the author has abdicated some of their responsibility.

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