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.