Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part III: Thinking it Through (Logical and Theological Perspectives)
Chapter 18 (Part 1) – “Equal in Being, Unequal in Role”: Exploring the Logic of Woman’s Subordination. Rebecca Merrill Groothuis.
(Due to both the length and importance of this chapter, I have split the summary into two parts. Today is the first installment.)
Groothuis' essay addresses the widely held patriarchal teaching that male and female are equal in being but unequal in role. ("Patriarchal" is her term people who hold to gender hierarchy.) She points back to Aristotle and his belief that women were inherently inferior to men and therefore unworthy to rule or lead. This was the Greco-Roman worldview. (And I would suggest it has more or less been the dominant view until very recently.) This new formulation distances itself from the claims like Aristotle’s that women are inherently inferior, while still maintaining gender roles prohibiting a woman from ruling or leading. She writes:
In other words, men are to lead because authority is a constitutive element of masculinity, and women are to submit to male leadership because submission is a constitutive element of femininity. A man is fit to lead by virtue of his male nature. A woman, by virtue of her female nature, is not. (303)
Groothuis raises the question of whether it is logically possible for a person to be ontologically equal but permanently subordinate. She aims to show it illogic of this “equal/unequal” formulation.
I believe we can choose between the two biblical interpretations by assessing each one in light of two fundamental premises. The first premise is theological: according to Scripture, women and men are equal spiritually and ontologically – a point that is uncontested in the gender debate. The second premise is logical: the foundational and indisputable law of noncontradiction, which states that A and non-A cannot both be true at the same time in the same respect. The law of non-contradiction is not a mere human construct that God’s truth somehow transcends. … it is axiomatic that if the Bible contradicts itself, then it cannot be true in all that it affirms. (304)
She writes that:
Either (1) women are created by God for perpetual subordination to men and so are not equal to men in their nature/being/essence, or (2) women are created equal with men and so cannot be permanently, comprehensively and necessarily subordinate to men. (305)
With this in mind, she begins Part One of her analysis. She stipulates the starting point must be Genesis (1:26-28) where men and women are both said to be in God’s image and are called to exercise dominion over the earth. This passage is important to her analysis:
Although there are variations in ability between individuals, the human equality between women (as a class) and men (as a class) assures that women are inherently able to participate equally with men in the various distinctively human activities. Due to both cultural and biological factors, there are some generalizable differences in behavior between women and men, and these difference not only determine different sexual and reproduction functions but may also make certain social roles generally (although not universally) more suitable for one gender than the other. However, these differences do not warrant the traditional notion that women are deficient in rationality and so are suited to be subordinate to men. (307)
She goes on to say:
It should be evident from these observations that egalitarians do not affirm an equality of identity or sameness between men and women. (307)
You may think this is a rather obvious point but it has been my repeated experience that any challenge to the idea of a hierarchical ordering of the sexes is immediately characterized as an erasure of all sexual differences. Equality in rank status is equated to uniformity in being. Groothuis is aware of this critical distortion.
Groothuis observes that what makes us distinctly human beings in the image of God are the capacities that distinguish us from other creatures like the higher intellectual functions of rationality, ethical reasoning and the ability to analyze abstract concepts. If there is equality in being, then there will be no deficiency in women to exercise divine image bearing activities. Yet the patriarchicalists declare “…that woman is uniquely designed by God not to perform certain distinctively human activities.” (308) Patriarchialists frequently assert women have their own uniquely female role which mostly consists of child bearing and being submissive. Groothuis observes:
But note that these activities are not unique to human beings; rather, childbearing and nursing are shared with females of all mammal species, and submission to the household master is shared (albeit in a different sense!) with a wide array of household pets. (309)
She goes on to note that while men can bear children, women can bear authority and responsibility. One is the “can’t” of permission denied and the other is the “can’t” of personal inability. Women being denied the opportunity to engage their uniquely human capacities is a denial of their distinctive image bearing traits.
Groothuis next addresses the issue of spiritual equality. According to some Patriarchalists, a woman’s husband is the one who mediates God and the Word to his wife, thus negating the teaching the Christ is the only mediator between us and God.
In the next section Groothuis examines at length the idea of “role” or “function.” There is one sense in which it is possible to “be equal in being, but subordinate in function. Deferring to a coworker who has more expertise with a particular issue would be one example. But the key here is that the subordination is limited in scope and for a fixed duration of time. This is not what the patriarchalist has in mind. The subordination is universal and for life. Put differently Groothuis distinguishes between necessity and contingency:
Something that is contingent obtains (is the case) only in certain contexts or under certain conditions. It is thus dependent, or contingent, on these contexts or conditions; it is not always and necessarily true. Unlike functional subordination, female subordination is not contingent. (317)
When we talk about “roles,” we talk about taking on a set of behaviors to accomplish a particular function but the role is not defining to who we are. If our behavior is such that it could not be otherwise, then it is not a role but an expression of our being. A woman can have many roles in life but only one “role” is deemed essential to every woman: Submission to male authority.
… this “role” serves the role of constituting the meaning of femininity, of identifying a woman as a real woman. Female submission to male authority, then, is a “function” only in the sense that it is a necessary function of woman’s true being. (319)
Then Groothuis makes what I think is one of her most important observations. Patriarchicalists fear that that loss of the gender hierarchy is a slippery-slope to an egalitarianism that logically leads to acceptance of homosexuality.
Their thinking is that once we say gender is irrelevant for deciding who is to have “primary leadership,” the next “logical” step is to say the gender of one’s marriage partner is also irrelevant. …Patriarchalists believe that gender differences in status and authority are as natural and essential to manhood and womanhood as is heterosexuality. (319)
Because of this (erroneous) logic there is tremendous emotional baggage attached that goes well beyond the presenting issues.
In wrapping up this first part, Groothuis observes:
“Female being” corresponds precisely to “a role of subordination to male authority.” The word role is used in a way that renders its meaning basically synonymous, or redundant, with being. (320) … Thus the theoretical distinction between woman’s being and woman’s subordinate role evaporates under scrutiny. (321)
In the next post Groothuis' addresses the how critics object to her case.
Rebecca Merrill Groothuis is a freelance writer and editor. Here publications include the award-winning Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War Between Traditionalism and Feminism and Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality, as well as articles and reviews in Christian Scholar’s Review, Christianity Today, ReGeneration Quarterly, Perspectives, Priscilla Papers, Christian Counseling Today, Christian Ethics Today, Eternity and the Denver Post. She maintains a website with online articles <RebeccaMerrillGroothuis.com> and lives in the Denver area with her husband, Doug, who is a professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary.
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