Hierarchy and Patriarchy in the Complementarian/Egalitarian Debate

By: Dale M. Coulter
Monday, June 18th, 2012

Hierarchies are almost always symbolized by pyramid structures although both egalitarians and complementarians would be uncomfortable with the cultural way of defining such structures. Should the church and home imitate a business model with a CEO at the top? Should they imitate class structures?

In the previous post, I offered three points in response to Joe Carter’s update on the debate between egalitarians and complementarians. My purpose was to clear away some misconceptions and misperceptions by the complementarians to suggest that these missteps occurred on both sides. I want to continue along the same lines by clarifying ideas surrounding patriarchy and hierarchy.

My central claim is that both egalitarians and complementarians embrace hierarchy and both reject patriarchy albeit in different ways.

Gifts, Hierarchy, and Spheres of Authority

Egalitarians embrace a functional hierarchy in the home that is always shifting. It strikes me as a misconception to claim that egalitarianism equals no hierarchy. It certainly does not mean this in the context of church leadership, whether the pastor is male or female. Neither does the egalitarian model imply that the term head in Ephesians and Colossians and its application to the male spouse does not involve some sort of leadership role. In point of fact, most metaphors allow for multiple meanings to be in play at the same time, which is generally how an egalitarian might approach those passages: source, leadership, and authority all remain in play.

The question is how to ground the structure of husband/wife relations. Egalitarians tend to structure such relations on the basis of gifting. The Christological pole (“in Christ”) denotes equality of relations while the pneumatological pole (“through the Spirit”) denotes hierarchical ordering. On this view, the male spouse is a genuine leader and will assume authority in a number of areas, yet the precise leadership role the male spouse assumes will be connected to his gifts, both natural and spiritual. This is on analogy with leadership roles in the church in general.

There should never be a single dominant voice in husband/wife relations, and it seems to me that this is partly what lies behind many of the Pauline passages directed against women and teaching—the effort on the part of some women to become the dominant voice. It is akin to another Pauline concern that the leveling effect of spiritual gifting does not abrogate gender distinctions.

Egalitarians remain counter cultural in claiming that gender distinctions DO matter (contrary to Denny Burke there is no subscription to a “gender orthodoxy”).  Whatever mechanisms society sets up to establish gender distinctions (modes of dress, behavior, etc.), Christians should attempt to honor those distinctions even as they resist gender models in culture that contradict the Christological pole. Moreover, complementarians would echo the need to distance biblical models from class and business models of hierarchical relations.

The “everything” in Eph. 5:24 cannot be taken in a straightforward manner without running into problems with 1 Cor. 7:4 and whether this “everything” includes control of her body. In matters of sexuality and the body, the husband and wife must share authority with respect to one another’s bodies and needs.

Leadership and authority remain connected to gifting. The practical effect is that the wife’s gifts will mean she takes a leadership role in some areas while the husband’s gifts will determine his roles. The hierarchical structure will remain in place and shift according to the gifts. Men must still assume leadership and authority, but instead of this authority being universal it will unfold in relation to the wife’s authority.

In short, what I am arguing for is spheres of authority that give rise to shifting roles based on gifts.

Trinity, Patriarchy, and Culture

This leads me to a final point that Carter makes about Rachel Evans’ not recognizing that there is patriarchy in the Godhead, a point that he seems to get from Russell Moore’s article. The attempt is to ground familial relations ultimately in the relationship between the Father and Jesus. Patriarchy, ultimately, is grounded in the structured relations between Jesus and the Father. Jesus always does the will of the Father. I say Jesus intentionally, because the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are one.

This is where the theological confusion begins. Egalitarians see the relationship between the Incarnate Son as representative humanity (Jesus) and the Father as applying to divine/human relations in general, not to male/female relations. Moore has drawn the wrong conclusion. All humans should pray the Paternoster, (“thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”), which finds its echo in the Garden of Gethsemane (“Not my will, but thine be done”). To establish the relationship between Jesus and the Father in terms of male/female relations contradicts the universality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus both as savior and model of righteous humanity. The principle is not that all wives should submit to husbands as Jesus did to the Father, but that all humans should submit to the triune God just as Jesus did to the Father.

Moore, Carter, et al. would resist many notions of male headship that the term patriarchy now conveys. Moore wants to reclaim the term patriarchy, but he knows that there are forms of male domination in society that are unbiblical. Thus, he must distance his understanding of patriarchy from broader cultural patterns that the term was originally used to point toward. Egalitarians simply prefer to use patriarchy to refer to sinful ways of construing male/female relations.

The point is that both groups reject the same cultural ways of defining male/female relations and thus would distance themselves from any notion of patriarchy that implies sinful modes of domination. Complementarians simply wish to reclaim patriarchy while egalitarians do not.

In this post, I have suggested that the egalitarian position leads to spheres of authority within the home that are grounded upon gifting and that imply shifting hierarchies with husbands sometimes assuming the dominant role and wives sometimes assuming the dominant role depending upon the issue confronting the couple. I have also suggesting that Moore has misapplied the relationship between Jesus and the Father and that both egalitarians and complementarians share much in common when it comes to rejecting cultural definitions of patriarchy.

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Dale M. Coulter
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One Response to “Hierarchy and Patriarchy in the Complementarian/Egalitarian Debate”

  1. Christopher Wilson says:

    Dr. Coulter,

    I hesitate to make blanket statements, but in this case I have to. In general men and women have different giftings which should be embraced as this is why God made us different. Women tend to have better intuition and be better at soft skills. Men tend to think with more logic and be better at hard skills. It is not that we cannot do the same things if we have to in an emergency. For instance I can and will watch our kids fulltime if my wife is sick, but I have seen men living the role of Mr. Mom fulltime and they look like they were just hit by a truck. We weren’t designed by God to be primary caregivers. I think the same types of analogies can be applied in the egalitarian debate both for church and marriage roles.

    But leaving gender considerations aside and moving into the more general discussion of spiritual giftings I would say that there is at times a hesitancy to see the unique value in each gifting and instead try to force them all into 1 common mold. For instance a person gifted with encouragement cannot be forced into the role of prophecy or vice versa anymore than an eye can become a hand. And yet at times it seems that the general trend is to try to use a cookie cutter approach when it comes to such things instead of embracing the uniqueness of each gift.

    Your brother in Christ,