The debate over women’s roles in the home and in the church rages on. A large part of the debate has focused upon the Bible verses that either side raises in defense of their view. Little of the debate has focused on the philosophical implications of either position. Rebecca Groothuis’ Good News for Women offers a different approach. Groothuis integrates extensive philosophical arguments into her Biblical case for the egalitarian position.
Groothuis first turns to a Biblical case for the equality of men and women. She bases this notion on several Biblical texts. She refers to God’s creation of both male and female in the image/likeness of God (21ff). Her argument also goes into Galatians 3:26-28 and notes how it again draws out the equality between male and female. Regarding the discussions of women’s silence in the churches, Groothuis parallels these passages to those about slaves submitting to their masters:
[T]he strategy of the New Testament church was to tolerate the social subordination of slaves and women so as not to risk alienating non-Christians from the gospel, and yet to modulate and moderate these customs, and ultimately to point beyond them to God’s original intention for human relations. Today, however, when non-Christians are not likely to be offended by an equalitarian gospel, but are likely to find a hierarchical gospel offensive, we have no reason to perpetuate the cultural practices that were intially intended for Christians living in patriarchal societies (25).
Groothuis concludes that throughout the Bible, there is a pattern in which male and female are equal in being. They are, in other words, ontologically equal. Neither is more valuable than the other.
It should be noted that most complementarians today are willing to grant this case. They agree that women and men are indeed created equal and should have equal rights. Groothuis then turns to a series of philosophical arguments which seek to demonstrate that the complementarian position cannot consistently hold that women are equal to men while holding that they are excluded from the ministry. Her argument, therefore, goes deeper than an exegetical challenge. Instead, her argument undermines the theological core groundings of complementarianism.
The very core of Groothuis’ argument is that complementarianism is grounded upon an ontological difference between male and female. The reason she holds that complementarinism must hold this position is “[b]ecause a woman’s traditionally inferior status follows necessarily from the single fact of her essential, female nature, her status is itself a function of her ‘being’ [ontology]; it is determined by what she is, not by what she can do” (53). Complementarians hold that women cannot hold certain offices of the church due only to the fact of her femininity. It is not based upon a functional subordination in which the female chooses to take up a role that is subordinate (62ff); instead, it must be grounded upon the female’s nature as a female. There is nothing about the female which limits her from being a pastor, on most contemporary complementarian positions (that is, those which no longer hold that women are excluded from the ministry simply because she is not as smart or gifted as men in general). Instead, it is exclusively her feminine nature which determines her role as subordinate. Therefore, it is part of her essential nature. I have argued this point myself elsewhere: “Women in the Ministry: The philosophy of equality and why complementarianism fails.”
Grothuis continues with extensive argument to rebut the notion of servant leadership (78ff). She also deals with various analogies complementarians use to attempt to ground equality and hierarchy, such as the Trinity (55ff–it should be noted that grounding subordination in the Trinity undermines the doctrine of the Godhead). It should become immediately apparent as to how this leads to a problem for complementarians. Biblically, they are forced to concede that women and men are, in fact, equal. However, their position undermines this Biblical position of the equality of men and women. Therefore, it seems their position fails.
Groothuis then turns to a number of strategies that complementarians have used in order to try to tie the subordination of women in to patterns of the Godhead. Unfortunately, many of these strategies end up making God into a gendered creature rather than a transcendent Creator. Some complementarians, such as C.S. Lewis, actually go so far as to make God male (93). Groothuis points out that this gendering of God cannot be affirmed based upon the Bible. One difficulty is that both male and female language is used of God (93-94). Yet she insists that the debate must not become a simple adding up of verses on either side to see how God illustrates either gender. That would turn God into a “God who suffers from some gender identity confusion” (93). Instead:
The view that God is both masculine and feminine confuses and distorts the image of God in humanity. It requires that the divine image be divided between women and men, such that women image God’s feminine aspects and men image God’s masculine aspects. This sexualizing of spiritual attributes renders men and women spiritual ‘opposites,’ creating a need to compartmentalize aspects of spiritual life and ministry into separate masculine and feminine quarters. (98)
Groothuis also spends some time dealing with some of the odd–and frankly, pagan–ideas used by some complementarians. For example, some argue that God must act as a male in the creation event: one who gives so much, while the created world merely receives. To be blunt, they describe God’s creative act as a sexual act, with no Biblical support. Groothuis rightly points out that this idea is little more than paganism dressed up in theism, but goes on to note that “It seems a good deal of imagination and determination is required in order to characterize the strenuous effort required of a woman’s body in nourishing, growing, and delivering a child as ‘overwhelmingly passive,’ while depicting the male role of standing around watching it happen as ‘active’!” (95). Another abuse of gender in the Godhead involves some complementarians arguing that because Jesus was a man, only men can be priests (109ff). Groothuis points out that “If we are to regard maleness as essential to who Christ is as Christ, not only must we question whether Jesus Christ can represent women as fully as he can men… we must also view women as essentially inferior to men. Women lack the Christlike attribute of maleness that renders men best qualified to represent Christ…” (113). Interestingly, then, complementarians who utilize this argument essentially undermine the doctrine of the atonement: for Christ’s maleness is emphasized to the point that Jesus is not an adequate representation of humanity. He is essentially male.
The second half of Good News for Women focuses upon an evaluation of the texts used to support complementarianism. These texts are examined in light of the theological points already established. Namely, women and men are created equally as imagers/likenesses of God; and that any attempt to ground hierarchy ultimate fails because it undermines this Biblical concept of equality. A full presentation of Groothuis’ analysis of these texts would probably triple the length of this review, and I don’t see any way to sum up these arguments adequately in a few sentences, so I unfortunately must leave it to those interested to read the book to see these analyses.
Finally, it would be remiss to go without mentioning the outstanding contribution Groothuis gives to the discussion of egalitarian marriage. Groothuis discusses marriage in detail for over 40 pages of the book. What is astonishing is how lucidly she lays out the principles of egalitarian marriage. She illustrates the nature of marriage and how it is a give-and-take with both persons involved as opposed to one ruling over the other. She also discusses in detail how such an egalitarian system can work without having anyone to have a vote to “trump” the other’s vote. Frankly, the book is worth reading just for her discussion on marriage.
Groothuis’ most important contribution here is in the first part of her book, which establishes a strong theological and philosophical case for the equality of men and women in teaching roles in the Church and equal roles in marriage. However, there are numerous important insights throughout the text, both into specific verses and into overarching themes in the debate from both the complementarian and egalitarian positions. Groothuis’ discussion of egalitarian marriage provides a way forward for discussion on the roles of men and women in marriage and also helps to give insight into the Biblical view of marriage. Overall Good News for Women presents a strong philosophical critique of complementarianism which people on both sides of the debate must consider. I have read many articles and books on this topic, and frankly I have yet to find a book which goes into the ultimate philosophical and theological implications of complementarianism as thoroughly as this book. I recommend it extremely highly.
See my other writings on egalitarianism on my theology page (scroll to the bottom).
I argue that certain complementarian arguments undermine the Trinity.
I review a book which focuses entirely upon exegetical issues related to egalitarianism: Man and Woman: One in Christ.
Rebecca Groothuis, Good News for Women (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997).
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
If women are excluded from the ministry solely due to their nature as women, then women are ontologically inferior.
The argument entails:
If complementarianism (the position that women should not be in the ministry) is true, then women are ontologically inferior to men.
Some may note that this doesn’t necessarily imply that complementarianism is false, but astute readers will note that there is one further implication, namely:
If complementarianism holds that women are ontologically equal to men, but the position entails that women are inferior to men, then complementarianism holds contradictory propositions to be true.
And this would entail that complementarianism is false.
The argument is directly from Rebecca Groothuis, “Equal in Being, Unequal in Role,” 317 (full citation below). She writes,
P1: If the permanent, comprehensive, and ontologically grounded subordination of women is justified, then women are inferior persons.
P2: Women are not inferior persons.
Conclusion: Therefore, women’s subordination is not justified.
Premise one is contentious. Complementarians often anticipate such arguments and counter by asserting that women are “equal in being, unequal in role.” Groothuis has cogently argued that this is merely a semantics game. First, she notes that “functional differences often are compatible with personal equality…” (“Equal in Being…” 315). The problem for those who wish to exclude women from the ministry is that the role of women is not simply functional. Rather, it “differs from functional subordination in its scope, duration, and criterion” (316). Women’s subordination is permanent, because women are subordinate throughout their life, and it applies to all women at all times (Ibid). The subordination is comprehensive in scope because everything a woman does must be done in submission to males (if one disputes this they need only browse complementarian literature: see John Piper, cited below, 50ff). Finally, the criterion for women being subordinate is not analogous to functional subordination (wherein the subordinate member enters the functional relationship either willingly or through need) because the subordination is based merely on the woman’s unalterable female being (Groothuis, 317).
P2 is almost universally acknowledged as true. Unless the complementarian is willing to swallow the pill and affirm that women are inferior persons, they must grant P2.
The conclusion follows from P1 and P2. Therefore, it seems that women should not be made subordinate to men. There are, of course, many objections to this argument. We shall turn to these below.
Objection 1: The argument above is all well and good, but it is a philosophical argument. We all know that it is Sola Scriptura, and your argument assumes that philosophy can trump the Bible, which it doesn’t.
There are a number of clarifications required to respond to this objection. First, those who assert Sola Scriptura are themselves making a philosophical claim: that Scripture alone is the basis for our faith. Second, if one wishes to jettison philosophy because they hold a position which is philosophically untenable, then they cannot coherently assert “My position is true.” Why? Because when one throws philosophy out the window, one throws logic out the window. Thus, the principle of non-contradiction would also be false. If that is true, then when one says “My position is true” they could be both right and wrong, and therefore their position could also be false. This is absurd, and it undermines every single truth claim. Those who reject philosophy must also reject truth.
Finally, even those who argue that philosophy and logic must have a “ministerial role” implicitly accept that their claims are governed by logic. I can think of at least two extremely plausible reasons for this to be true. First, those who want philosophy to occupy a “ministerial” place argue that because they have come to the logical conclusion that the Bible must govern reality. Here’s the problem: they also seek to reconcile contradictions in the Bible and draw out its claims–and this is a philosophical endeavor. Thus, those who argue in this fashion are, themselves, doing philosophy and logic. Second, those who argue that philosophy must be “ministerial” often do so because a position they hold is logically untenable. But if philosophy (and, by implication, logic) must function underneath Biblical truth, why reject logic to begin with? If philosophy and logic don’t apply to Biblical teaching, then there’s no reason to reject it, because things can be true and false! Yet those who argue this way realize that their claims are philosophical (without using that word), and so reject the counterarguments by trying to make the logical move of throwing philosophy out the window. It’s incoherent.
Objection 2: P1 is false because ontologically grounded subordination does not imply inferiority.
Clearly, this objection is more thought out than objection 1. Those who object in this way accept that logic governs these disputes, and instead set on rejecting a premise of the argument so that the conclusion will not follow.
I cannot answer this objection without a bit of philosophical development, so my readers will have to forgive me.
Adam Omelianchuk addresses this objection head on in his article “Ontologically Grounded Subordination” (full citation below). He writes that “the central metaphysical concern is over whether subordination is essential to the personal identity of woman” (169). He goes on to introduce the notion of “proper function” (well known in philosophy due to Alvin Plantinga’s series on “Warrant”). Proper function “means something is functioning properly if it is doing what it is supposed to do” (170). Now, on complementarianism, women are designed in such a way as to be subordinate to men, while men are designed to be the leader. Thus, the woman’s proper function is to be subordinate by nature, while the man’s function is to be leader by nature. When a woman tries to become a minister, she is violating her proper function. She is, by nature, only functioning properly when subordinate. Now, we’ve already addressed the notion of unequal roles, but here we are trying to establish that a woman is, in fact, ontologically inferior if complementarianism is true. Omelianchuk writes:
[I]t is not plausible to believe that men and women are ontologically equal, because manhood and womanhood are not ontologically equal. Obviously, manhood and womanhood are “different,” so they are not equal in the sense that they are not identical. But if we differentiate manhood and womanhood by hierarchical features essential to manhood and womanhood themselves, and if we maintain that God designed men and women to fulfill these functions of manhood and womanhood, then we have a prima facie reason to believe that women are essentially inferior to men. Hence, complementarianism fails. (174).
In other words, the very nature of manhood and womanhood is such that man is at a greater position on the hierarchy of authority than woman. They are not equal. Again, as Omelianchuk writes, “[Women] simply are not equal in being, and their ‘role’ obtains just because their being is fit for subordination” (176-177).
Finally, those who continue to object may assert that I have not yet made explicit how women are inferior to men. It seems to me to have already been made fairly explicit–men, by nature, are higher in authority than women–but some persist in this objection. Perhaps a thought experiment may help illustrate my point. Complementarians hold that women should also be subordinate in the home to their husbands. Consider Jackie and Jim. Jim gets a job offer in Alaska which pays about the same as Jackie’s current job, but is something he would enjoy (as opposed to the job he currently has, which he hates and pays much less). Jackie loves her current job, but would have to work at a job she didn’t like were they to move to Alaska. They argue about whether or not to move to Alaska. Finally, they get to the point where they are at an impasse, and neither is willing to budge. Jim, on complementarianism, is the leader of the home, and Jackie is subordinate. So, when push finally comes to shove, Jim decides they will move, and Jackie, on complementarianism, should submit with all due respect and go to Alaska without further debate. Jim has asserted his role as the leader of the home, and therefore they must move.
It seems clear to me that this story may not make explicit how subordination entails inferiority, but it does seem to show that the woman has a clearly inferior position. If an argument comes to the point where neither side will go one way or the other, the man always gets his way. Now I realize that complementarians often argue that men should be loving leaders, should not use their leadership role to trump their wife all the time, etc., but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty details, Jim in the above story was acting in his role as the leader in the home. His decision is the one which must be followed. Perhaps Jim later grants Jackie’s requests to visit friends and family “back home” and does all sorts of other things for her to make her comfortable in Alaska, but that doesn’t change the fact that her position is inferior to his–at least in the sense that whenever a decision is made about which they are split, his choice wins out.
[Thanks to one reader who was kind enough to point out I hadn’t properly drawn my points together, I have added this conclusion a few hours after this post originally went up.]
The argument I have written above shows that on complementarianism, women are ontologically inferior. Why should that entail that complementarianism is false, as noted in the introduction? Well, there are few (if any) who actually assert that women are inferior. In fact, the Biblical teaching on this topic is extremely clear. God, throughout His Word, affirms the equality of man and woman. Galatians 3:28 is one oft-cited example, but one can also look at Genesis 1:26-28, wherein male and female are created equally in God’s image. Groothuis addresses the notion of Biblical equality more in her chapter, so I won’t expand much more.
We therefore have issued a major challenge to complementarians: Women, according to Scripture (and essentially universal affirmation of all involved), are equal to men in being. Yet complementarianism entails that women are inequal in being–they are, in fact, inferior. If that’s true, then complementarianism affirms contradictory truths: women are equal and inequal, equal and inferior. Thus, complementarianism is false.
Adam Omelianchuk, “Ontologically Grounded Subordination,” Philosophia Christi 13-1, 2011, p. 169-180.
John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Comlementarity: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, 31-59 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006).
Rebecca Groothuis, “‘Equal in Being, Unequal in Role’: Exploring the Logic of Woman’s Subordination” in Discovering Biblical Equality ed. Ronald Pierce and Rebecca Groothuis, 301-333 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2005).
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.