.[Published a few years back on the now-shuttered Wilson Station]
Well… I lied. I said I’d post an article from Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen last Friday, and here it is Monday already. But better late than never… this was Ms. Stewart Van Leeuwen’s contribution to the 2004 Evangelical Theological Society conference, and one example of why I appreciate both her conclusions and the rigorous way she arrives at them. This is, of course, reprinted here with her express permission and should not be reprinted elsewhere without that permission.
[A few technical problems I’m trying to resolve. Footnote hyperlinks do NOT work, though footnotes are listed at article’s end. Sorry… ]
What Do We Mean by “Male-Female Complementarity”?
A Review of Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca M. Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee, eds.,
Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy
(Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004)
Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen
Professor of Psychology and Philosophy, Eastern University, St. Davids PA
Discovering Biblical Equality is a voluminous (500-page) contribution to an exegetical debate that has been going on at least since the 1989 between the followers of two organizations: The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), and Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE). The basic contours of this debate – at least as it is represented on paper – are by now fairly well-known. CBMW deplores “the increasing promotion given to feminist egalitarianism” and asserts that “Adam’s headship in marriage was established by God before the fall, and was not a result of sin.” Although affirming that “both Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, equal before God as persons,” and that “in the church, redemption given by Christ gives men and women an equal share in the blessings of salvation,” CBMW’s founders assert that “nevertheless, some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men.”
Christians for Biblical Equality has taken a different exegetical stance. In its reading of the Bible, women and men were created for full and equal partnership. Further, Adam’s rule over Eve occurred only as a result of the fall, and “through faith in Jesus Christ we all become children of God … heirs to the blessings of salvation without reference to racial, social or gender distinctives.” Consequently, for the adherents of CBE, in marriage “neither spouse is to seek to dominate the other, but each is to act as a servant of the other … [sharing] responsibilities of leadership and the basis of gifts, expertise and availability.” And in the church, “spiritual gifts of women and men are to be recognized, developed and used … at all levels of involvement.”
Discovering Biblical Equality (DBE) is a response to an earlier (and equally weighty) edited volume by adherents to CBMW titled Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBMW) which is itself subtitled A Response to Evangelical Feminism. The two volumes are organized in rather similar fashion, which underlines the fact that both sides agree as to what are the crucial issues in the debate. RBMW had twenty-six chapters divided into five sections: “Vision and Overview,” (two chapters); “Exegetical and Theological Studies,” (seventeen chapters); “Studies from Related Disciplines,” (five chapters); “Applications and Implications” (six chapters); and “Conclusion and Prospect” (one chapter). DBE has twenty-nine chapters divided into five sections covering roughly the same disciplinary territory: “Setting the Stage: The Historical Background” (three chapters); “Looking at Scripture: The Biblical Texts” (ten chapters); “Thinking It Through: Logical and Theological Perspectives” (six chapters); “Addressing the Issues: Hermeneutical and Cultural Perspectives” (five chapters); and “Living It out” Practical Applications” (five chapters).
The contributors to Discovering Biblical Equality have done a thorough job on the issues represented by the second part of the book’s subtitle – namely, the historical, exegetical, hermeneutical and theological arguments as to why gender relations in home and church should be “without hierarchy.” They represent an international group of evangelical scholars with a high view of all Scripture as God’s word, and academic qualifications that are impressive. The tone of their arguments is mostly irenic. Like their counterparts in CBMW, the adherents of CBE recognize that the issue of male headship vs. gender equality is not a confessional issue – that is, one which can be used as a litmus test to separate orthodox from heterodox Christians – and that they must recognize, in the words of CBMW’s founding statement, “the genuine evangelical standing of many who do not agree with all of [their] convictions.”
The editors of DBE have included two chapters explicitly challenging the assumption that biblical egalitarians are on a slippery slope towards ‘soft androgyny’ – the view that virtually no differences exist (or should exist) between males and females other than the most obvious anatomical and physiological ones. Thus in Ch. 23 (“Gender Equality and Homosexuality”) William Webb shows that while the redemptive-historical flow of the NT passages on gender relations goes in a less restrictive direction than the customs of the surrounding Greco-Roman culture, those on homosexuality point in an emphatically more restrictive direction. This undercuts the accusation that that gender egalitarian arguments are likely to lead to the condoning of same-sex marriage via soft androgyny. Webb writes that
Paul appeals [in Rom l] to God’s intention for male-female sexuality as something that is clearly revealed in nature and thus, by specific inference, within the complementary gender design for men and women … The Romans I ideal that God’s revelation is clear in the created world around us verifies that the core biblical issue is sexuality that accords with God’s creation of male and female. [Three important texts: Lev 18:22, Deut 22:5 and Rom l:18-32] show that the biblical problem with homosexuality is not really about equality or a lack of equality of sexual partners. The deepest issue for the biblical authors is a breaking of sexual boundaries that violates obvious components of male-female creation design.
Secondly, in Ch. 24 (“Feminism and Abortion”) Sulia and Karen Mason document the inconsistency of proabortion feminists’ insistence on rights for themselves that they are not willing to accord to either their unborn children or to the fathers who might like to see those children born. These authors also deny that biblical egalitarianism necessarily leads to an endorsement of androgyny, let alone to the automatic support of abortion on demand. “Traditional society,” they write, “made the mistake of treating women as women without granting them their human rights. A proabortion society turns the tables, treating the woman as a human being without recognizing her womanhood.
Prolife feminists finally get it right: ‘In opposing abortion we stand against society’s devaluation of women as mothers and commit ourselves to giving women the support they need to bear children with dignity.’” This is not the stuff of liberal feminist androgyny: it sounds more like the ‘domestic feminism’ in which many American evangelicals were involved in wake of their participation in the anti-slavery movement. The 19th century domestic feminists of both sexes argued for women’s expanded participation in church and the rest of the public sphere more on the basis of their supposed differences from men (such as their greater nurturing qualities and sexual purity) rather than on their similarities (such as their capacity for rationality and autonomy).
However, on both sides of this debate, the discussion of those so-called complementary differences is nothing if not bewildering. I have already said that I believe DBE’s contributing biblical scholars, theologians and historians have made a cogent case against gender hierarchy in church and family – as much as I am able to judge their arguments as a non-expert in their disciplines. So since I am first and foremost a social scientist, I have chosen to focus most of my attention not on the ‘Without Hierarchy’ aspects of the book’s subtitle, but rather on the vexed issue of the meaning of gender ‘Complementarity’ (the other key term in the book’s subtitle). It’s pretty clear that the authors of DBE agree as to what gender complementarity isn’t: it’s not permanent male headship in church or family, and it’s not the androgynous notion that women and men are actually or ideally interchangeable, except for sexed body parts and functions.
But the authors are hardly of one mind as to what gender complementarity actually is. And if you peruse RBMW and its updates on the website of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, you will find that, aside from a formal insistence on male headship in church and family, these ‘hierarchical complementarians’ are also pretty vague about the actual content of gender complementarity in terms of differentially-gendered traits and behaviors, actual or ideal. Masochist that I am, I did a fine-grained analysis of all the contexts in which the term ‘complementarity’ (of the ‘without hierarchy’ sort) is used in DBE, which turned out to be about forty times – not to mention numerous other places where the idea appears to be under discussion, but without the actual use of the term.
A representative sample of the diversity that I found is included in Appendix C of this paper.
7) Sexuality is irrelevant to the image of God in persons: it is simply one of the God-given functions which humans share with plants and animals, and thus testifies to our creaturehood. But it is in women’s and men’s call to subdue the earth that they jointly image God and transcend their sexed creaturehood.
This diversity of definitions of gender complementarity, while arguably signaling some confusion on the part of DBE authors, also testifies to the complexity of the issue. From a theological standpoint, if, like all other human activities, gender relations reflect a mix of good creation and tragic falleness, then it’s not likely to be any easier sorting out what’s creational and what’s fallen about them than it is in our discussions of politics, economics, the arts, or any other sphere of life. Moreover, if gender complementarity somehow mirrors the relationship of members of the Trinity as they work together in creation and redemption (a point on which both sides in the debate seem to agree) then it is probably not going to be any easier to nail down than our understanding of the Trinity. And as Judy Brown reminds readers in ch. 17 of DBE, “[A]fter we make every attempt to better understand the Trinity, it remains one of the greatest mysteries among Christian doctrines” (p. 299).
However, as unwitting children of the Enlightenment, we seem to have a Tower of Babel-like craving for absolute certainty. And so both sides in the debate recruit biologists and social scientists as latter-day natural theologians who are supposed to help close the theological gaps by telling us, from a ‘scientific’ perspective, what gender complementarity ‘really is.’ Thus, RBMW has chapters on biology, psychology and sociology, and DBE has chapters written or co-written by therapists, a sociologist, and an academic psychologist. But as an academic psychologist and gender studies scholar who did not contribute to either volume, I am now going to try to explain (not for the first time) why this is a misguided exercise. My basic points are these:
1) Research in neither the biological nor the social sciences can resolve the nature/nurture debate regarding gendered psychological traits or behaviors in humans, let alone pronounce on whether any of these should be retained or rejected. In a fallen world – however good it remains creationally — we cannot move from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ on the basis of science alone.
2) There are very few consistent sex differences in psychological traits and behaviors. When these are found, they are always average – not absolute– differences, and for the vast majority of them the small, average – and often decreasing — difference between the sexes is greatly exceeded by the amount of variability on that trait within members of each sex. Most of the ‘bell curves’ for women and men (graphing the distribution of a given psychological trait or behavior) overlap almost completely. So it is naïve at best – and deceptive at worst — to make essentialist (or even generalist) pronouncements about the psychology of either sex when there is much more variability within than between the sexes on most of the trait and behavior measures for which we have abundant data.
3) To adapt one of Freud’s famous dictums, we cannot assume that anatomy is destiny until we have controlled for opportunity. Thus, even when appeals are made to large cross-cultural studies that have found ‘consistent’ behavioral and/or attitudinal sex differences, we cannot assume universality for those conclusions until we have controlled for the existence of differing opportunities by gender across the various cultures.
Let me now address these three points in more detail, after which I will make some modest proposals about how the social sciences might more reasonably be expected to be helpful to both sides in the egalitarian/hierarchicalist debate.
1) Research in neither the biological nor the social sciences can resolve the nature/nurture controversy regarding gendered psychological traits and behaviors in humans:
The crucial terms here are the words ‘human’ and ‘psychological traits and behaviors.’ First of all, we should not be surprised that, given our creational overlap with all other living organisms (strikingly shown in the various genome projects that are underway) much can be learned about the structure, function, and healing of the human body from animal research models. But without doubt the most salient biological feature of human beings is the plasticity of their brains. The legacy of a large cerebral cortex puts us on a much looser behavioral leash than other animals, with the result that, more than any other species, we are created for continuous learning – for passing on what we have produced culturally, not just what we have been programmed to do genetically. We are, as it were, hard-wired for behavioral flexibility.
Indeed, how could we carry out the cultural mandate to “subdue the earth” (Gen 1:28) as God’s accountable regents if this were not so? And at the other end of the biblical drama, how could we “bring the honor and glory of nations” – however suitably cleansed – before God (Rev 21:26) if all the people of all the nations had no more freedom within their common biological form than that which exists in even our closest primate neighbors? And in between, what would be the point of reading and taking to heart Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-20)?
Ah yes, some will say, but the biological and social sciences have shown us that men and women have clearly different talents, and that these are rooted in biology. Really? Well, let us ask what we have to be able to do in order to conclude that biological sex clearly causes even a small, average behavioral or psychological difference between human males and females. First, we would have to be able to manipulate sex as an independent, experimental variable – that is, randomly assign people to be born with an XX or an XY pair of chromosomes apart from all the other genetic baggage they come with. Clearly we cannot do this: babies come to us as genetic ‘package deals’ – who, we should remember, have also had non-random environments for nine months prior to birth.
Well then, perhaps we could take advantage of that marvelous natural experiment known as identical twins, each pair of whom have the same genes, have shared the same uterus, and have been shown to stay pretty similar on many behavioral and psychological measures even when raised in different environments. Surely that says something about the power of biology? Yes, it does – although not as much as you might think – but it explains nothing about the origins of gender differences, because identical twins are always of the same sex.
Well then, perhaps we could randomly assign members of a mixed-sex group of infants to be raised as boys or as girls after they’re born, and see just how much they remain stubbornly ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ despite being raised as members of the other sex. But aside from the fact that this comes close to the sort of science that was done in Nazi Germany, but repudiated in our own society, it wouldn’t even begin to approximate a double-blind experiment — of the sort we use, for example, to test the effectiveness of new medicines — because the cat would be out of the bag (so to speak) as soon as the babies’ caretakers began changing their diapers. And even if we could unambiguously ascertain that boys (for example) are hard-wired to be aggressive, or girls are hard-wired to gossip a lot, this would tell us nothing about the desirability of either state of affairs. In a fallen world, we cannot automatically assume that what seems ‘natural’ is thereby desirable by the standards of God’s kingdom. This is a point repeatedly and cogently made by psychologist Cynthia Neal Kimble in ch. 27 of DBE.
So it is impossible to disentangle biological sex from the other genetic and environmental forces in which it always remains embedded, and with which it constantly interacts. This means that the two essential conditions for inferring cause and effect – the manipulation of one factor (sex) and the control of other (biological and environmental) factors – cannot be met. Consequently, “all data on sex differences, no matter what research method is use, are correlational data,” and as every introductory social science student learns, you cannot draw conclusions about causality from merely correlational data. “[I]n that sense, it is more accurate to speak of ‘sex-related’ differences than of sex [caused] differences.” So let us be very clear: when we read about a study – experimental or correlational — that describes an obtained, average sex difference of such-and-such a magnitude, that’s all it is: a description of the results of a study done in one particular place and time with a particular sample of persons, but unable (even experimentally) to disentangle nature from nurture. It is a description — not an explanation about the origins of any obtained sex differences.
2) On almost all behavioral and psychological measures that have been studied, the distributions (‘bell curves’) for women and men overlap almost completely:
Ah yes, some will say, but look how large and consistent those sex differences are – in aggression, nurturance, verbal skills, spatial abilities and so on. Surely this strongly suggests (even if it can’t absolutely prove) that women and men have innately- different talents – “beneficial differences” in the language of both CMBW and (some) CBE adherents. Everybody knows that men are from Mars and women are from Venus – at least on average. Really? Just how large and consistent are such differences, after a century of measuring them in domains such as aggression, nurturance, verbal skills and so on? In other words, just how much do (or don’t) those ‘bell curves’ overlap for women and men? Because there is so much bad science journalism floating around about these matters (written by people of every political and religious stripe), some more comments on social science methodology are in order.
I begin with what is known among social scientists as the “file drawer effect.” Since the time that psychology journals began publishing over a century ago, there has been a heavy bias against accepting studies on males and females that find no statistically-significant sex differences. In this kind of research, it appears that no news is bad news for your career, because studies finding no effect for sex are likely to remain unpublished (thus ending up in the author’s file drawer). You can see what this means: even when we do a literature review of many sex-comparative studies (concerning any of the usual suspects: verbal or spatial skills, aggression, empathy, activity levels, etc.) done over many years, our conclusions – at least by the reigning statistical criteria — will be selectively tilted towards finding more, rather than fewer, sex differences because of the publishing bias I have just described.
My second – and more important — point has to do with the misunderstanding that continues to surround the term ‘statistically significant.’ Another basic methodological caveat is this: a research result that is statistically significant is not necessarily of practical significance. According to the most common tests of significance, if an obtained, average difference between two groups (e.g., women and men doing a math test, volunteer subjects taking an experimental drug versus those taking a placebo, etc.) could have occurred fewer than five times out of a hundred ‘by chance’ then it is deemed a ‘significant’ difference. However, with large enough samples and a small enough variability among scores, even a tiny average difference between two groups –i.e., groups whose bell-curve scores overlap almost completely — may be ‘significant’ in this statistical sense – whereas (because of the file drawer effect) a much larger average difference that ‘just misses’ being statistically significant will not likely see publication, even though its potentially practical significance may be much greater.
As a result of such criticisms, a statistical technique called meta-analysis was developed in the 1970s, for use in all areas of psychological science, including research on gender. As its name implies, this refers to a ‘super-analysis’: one that can combine the results of many (e.g., several dozen – sometimes over a hundred) studies on sex differences in a given domain: aggression, verbal ability, or whatever. This technique differs from earlier ways of reviewing the literature, which simply gave equal weight to all studies examined, did a tally of how many did or did not show statistically significant sex differences, and came to an ‘eyeball’ or intuitive judgment as to whether reliable sex differences existed in a given domain.
Instead, meta-analysis converts the findings of a large sample of studies into a common metric known as the average effect size across those studies. This is done not just by ‘averaging all the average sex differences’ across the studies, but also by taking into account the size of each sample and the variability of the scores found in each. Meta-analysis allows us to ask, across many studies of sex differences of a certain trait or behavior, just how large that difference (known as “d”) is, or how far apart the tops of the two bell curves are, — the tops representing the place where the male and female mean scores are. In other words, across many such studies, just how much do the male and female bell curves (or ‘distributions of scores’) overlap?
As you can see from Appendix A, even when an average effect size (or d) is 1.00 (as was found, for example, in a meta-analysis of studies comparing self-reported empathy in men and women) the range of scores within each sex is much greater than the average difference between the sexes. But in the many meta-analyses of gender differences that have been done since the 1970s, an effect size (d) even as large as 1.00 is almost unheard of. Most are in the range from 0.0 (no detectable difference) to .35 (a small difference) — and even the latter means that less than 5% of the variability of ALL the scores can be accounted for by the sex of the participants. This underlines my previous assertion: it is naive at best, and deceptive at worst, to make essentialist pronouncements about either sex when the range of scores within each sex is, for almost all traits and behaviors measured, much greater than the difference between the sexes. (See Appendix B for some representative meta-analytic results of studies of behavioral and psychological sex differences).
It gets worse, folks: meta-analysis is full of embarrassments for gender essentialists, but also for ‘gender influentialists’ who think that even small average sex differences are pregnant with interpersonal, ecclesiastical, and policy implications. For example, as previously noted, the meta-analytic d for women’s versus men’s “empathy” scores based on self-report measures is around 1.00, in the direction of women being more empathetic than men. But when based on unobtrusive measures (i.e., studies where people do not know they are being measured for empathy), the meta-analytic d shrinks to about .05. You don’t have to be a professional social scientist to know what that contrast suggests.
Meta-analyses can also be divided according to the particular era in which the studies were done. For example, a meta-analysis of studies of gender differences in verbal fluency done prior to 1973 (when gender roles were more rigidly dichotomized) found an overall, small effect size (d) of .23, in the direction of women scoring higher than men. A similar meta-analysis of studies done after 1973 found an effect size of .11, less than half the size of the earlier one. You do not have to be a professional social scientist to know that sudden genetic mutations in men and/or women since 1973 are unlikely to have caused such a shift. Genes in humans just don’t mutate and spread that fast.
Attempts to Evade These Findings: What do convinced gender essentialists (along with careless science journalists and trendy Mars-Venus advice book writers) do with such findings? The most common strategy is simply to ignore or distort them: to pretend that small, shifting tendencies are absolute gender dichotomies, or something close to it, or to assume that statistical significance is always the same as practical significance. All too many people yearn for simple black-and-white explanations of complex relations, including those involving men and women. (As one of my students memorably observed, “Tendencies don’t sell books.”) A less-common strategy nowadays is to pathologize the findings: to claim that, however much those gendered bell curves do – or can – overlap, we have to pull them apart as far as possible, in order to approximate God’s — or nature’s or optimal society’s — ‘true’ purposes for males and females.
This was the approach taken by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his 18th century educational treatise Emile. Rousseau was convinced that ‘rational, active man’ and ‘emotional, passive woman’ were perfect complements for each other. Thus, though he freely conceded that men’s and women’s natural traits were not rigidly dichotomous, he insisted that if they were not trained to become ‘opposite sexes’ there was no way they would be attracted to each other and be able to pair-bond for life. Two centuries later, this kind of theory was embodied in sociological functionalism, whose adherents maintained that a division of labor by sex – whether or not the corresponding tendencies were enshrined in the genes – was ‘functional’ for the preservation of societies, both past and present, and so should be tampered with only cautiously, if at all.
It is not unheard of for theologians to have taken a similar stance. Abraham Kuyper did so in the early 20th century, claiming (quite ahistorically and with no clear exegetical warrant) that however much men’s and women’s capacities ‘naturally’ overlapped, God had ordained, once and for all, that women’s activities be limited almost completely to the domestic sphere, and men’s to the public arenas of the academy, the church, the marketplace and the political forum. “The woman can lend herself to study [of medicine and law] as well as the man,” Kuyper conceded in 1914. But, he added, because women’s (not men’s) ‘position of honor’ was by divine definition in the home, “whoever has man take his place at the cradle and woman at the lectern makes life unnatural.”
So far, the doctrine of separate spheres is not an official affirmation of CBMW’s gender hierarchicalists, aside from its application to certain church offices. But to the extent that gender-hierarchicalist rhetoric overlaps with romantic Mars-Venus rhetoric, as it does on the shelves of many Christian bookstores, it is a force to be reckoned with in many evangelical churches. And to the extent that the doctrine of separate spheres, combined with the doctrine of male headship, results in the social and economic disempowerment of women (as it has in both preindustrial and industrialized cultures) it does not comport well with biblical notions of justice.
This points to a third strategy, one more frequently invoked in the recent past. Some gender essentialists have reluctantly recognized that neither the Bible nor the natural or social sciences can come definitively to their rescue. Consequently, they take refuge in biblically and empirically questionable Jungian gender archetypes, and their precursors in Greek mythology and Eastern religions.
For example, Elisabeth Elliot, in her 1982 book Let Me Be a Woman warned female Christian readers that Eve, in taking the initiative to eat the apple, was trying to be like the ‘ultimately-masculine’ God – as if God were somehow metaphysically gendered. She also appealed to the ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang to buttress her ‘Christian’ argument for gender essentialism and gender hierarchy. Her brother Thomas Howard, in a 1978 article titled “A Note From Antiquity on the Question of Women’s Ordination,” frankly acknowledged that the Bible does not supply enough resources to justify talking about God or humans in terms of metaphysical, eternal gender archetypes. Undeterred by this, he invited his readers to consider the abundance of sexual imagery in pagan myths, and came to the conclusion that “a Christian would tend to attach some weight to this.” Really? Why?
Joan Burgess Winfrey is thus right, in ch. 25 of DBE, to express concern that “the church may once again opt for a Venus-Mars gender rubbish in the interest of cementing roles and putting up divider walls.” Even if Mars-Venus rhetoric is used only to cement different gender styles rather than roles it gets virtually no support from the meta-analytic literature which, as we have seen, show almost complete overlap in the gendered distribution of traits such as nurturance, empathy, verbal skills, spatial skills, and aggressiveness. The romanticizing and/or rank-ordering of gender archetypes is biblically questionable whether it is done by gender-role traditionalists, by cultural feminists who reverse the hierarchy by valorizing the stereotypically feminine, or by evangelical writers who baptize the trendy Mars-Venus rhetoric with a thin, Christian-sounding veneer. More in keeping with both the biblical creation accounts of humankind and the overall findings of the social sciences is the bumper sticker which reads “Men are from Earth, Women are from Earth: Get used to it!”
Perhaps the most cautious way of responding to the meta-analytic literature on gender comes from behavioral biologists, who (arguing largely from animal research) suggest that both sexes are capable of the full range of human behaviors, but that the thresholds for various behaviors may vary by gender. This would mean, for example, that men and women are both capable of (even violent) aggression, but men would tend to yield to such impulses more readily than women.
This might help explain why meta-analyzed gender differences tend to be smaller for laboratory studies than for ones done out in the real world. Laboratory settings are deliberately shielded from a host of real-world influences, and so may allow for ‘possible’ behaviors to trump more or less ‘probable’ ones in both sexes. But in the end, this distinction about thresholds doesn’t help gender essentialists much, because even in the animal research on which it is based, the thresholds themselves are variable within male and female subject groups, and the resulting distributions overlap, just as they do for actual behaviors. Moreover, as I noted previously, it is always risky to generalize from animal to human behavior, because human brains are structured for much more behavioral flexibility than those of even their closest primate neighbors.
3. We cannot assume that anatomy is destiny until we have controlled for opportunity:
In a final attempt to rescue gender essentialism some scholars claim that if a certain gender difference holds up cross-culturally – that is, across many different learning environments – we can more safely conclude that it is ‘natural’ and ‘fixed.’ But this conclusion is also too simple. For example, in ch. 27 (p. 469) of DBE Cynthia Neal Kimble cites (and seems to accept as accurate) cross-cultural studies showing that men “are more oriented toward promiscuity and finding a younger and attractive female partner” while women are “more concerned with finding older men who have attained financial resources and social status.” Although she does not reference any of the relevant research, the most-quoted study of this sort is a 37-nation survey of mate-selection standards by Texas psychologist David Buss. Buss suggested his findings meant that men everywhere are genetically predisposed for reproductive reasons to look for youth and beauty in a prospective mate, while women are more predisposed to look for ambition and wealth in the men they seek to marry.
But his study made no attempt to control for the differing opportunities that face women and men in many cultures. That powerful, older men marry gorgeous younger women more than the opposite scenario is certainly the case. But as New York Times science journalist Natalie Angier wryly observed, “If some women continue to worry that they need a man’s money because the playing field remains about as level as Mars – or Venus if you prefer – then we can’t conclude anything about innate preferences.”
More recently, social psychologists Alice Eagly and Wendy Wood did control for changing opportunities by sex. They took the 37 countries of Buss’ study and rank-ordered them according to two indices of gender equality devised by the United Nations Development Program. One is the Gender-Related Development Index (GDI), which rates each nation on the degree to which its female citizens do not equal their male counterparts in life span, education, and basic income (which is still the case, though to varying degrees, in all nations). The other is the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), which rates nations on the degree to which women, in comparison to men, have entered the public arena as local and national politicians, and as technicians, professionals and managers.
Using these two measures, they found that as gender equality in Buss’ 37-nation list increased, the tendency for either sex to choose mates according to Buss’ so-called evolutionary sex-selection criteria decreased. Eagly and Wood concluded from this that sex differences in mate-selection criteria are less the result of evolved biological strategies than of the historically-constructed sexual division of labor, which makes women dependent on men’s material wealth, and men dependent on women’s domestic skills. As this wall of separation breaks down — a process nicely traced by the two U.N. measures — both sexes revert to more generically human (and might we add, biblical?) criteria to judge potential mates, criteria such as kindness, dependability and a pleasant personality.
Making Relationships the Unit of Analysis: How the Social Sciences Can Help: So far I have tried to show that the odds are not good for using social science research to define the content of gender complementarity – if by that we mean showing how men and women essentially, or even generally, differ for all times and places. Nor should that surprise us. A responsible reading of Scripture indicates that God has built a lot of flexibility into what we call gender – which is why I always prefer to talk about gender relations rather than using the more static term gender roles. As Richard Hess noted in his treatment of Gen 1 (ch. 3 of DBE) sex is something we share with other, lower creatures. But gender is a part of the cultural mandate.
If we compare Gen 1:20-22, with Gen 1:26-28, we see that God first speaks to both animals and humans in exactly the same terms: “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill [the seas, the earth].” What differs is that the primal human pair are given an additional mandate: to subdue the earth. Reformed theologians have taken this to mean that humans beings – whether or not they acknowledge the divine source of this mandate – are called to unfold the potential in creation in ways that flexibly express the image of God, yet stay within the limits of God’s creation norms. What Christians have too often done instead, under the influence of Pagan and Greek thought and the doctrine of separate spheres is to assign men to subdue the earth while telling women to be fruitful and multiply.
This seems to me to get it quite backward. While the cultural mandate does not require a blanket endorsement of androgyny (another example of rigid, ahistoric thinking) it does suggests that any construction of gender relations requiring an exaggerated, permanent separation of activities and/or virtues by sex is eventually going to run into trouble (as it has within the last half century) because such exaggeration is creationally distorted and thus potentially unjust toward both sexes. Sexual dimorphism is indeed part of our creational framework, but gender is something to be responsibly structured and re-negotiated throughout the successive acts of the biblical drama – not a mystical, rigid, archetypal given.
Thus we need to think of gender as much in terms of a verb as a noun: ‘doing gender’ is a responsible cultural activity whose mixed outcomes need to be critically examined in the context of the continuing biblical drama in which we are all actors. For people with a low tolerance for ambiguity, this can be very upsetting. Many of us would rather be like the “wicked and lazy servant” in the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30), keeping our assets buried in the cold ground of gender stereotypes and a fall-based gender hierarchy, instead of flexibly multiplying them in the service of God and neighbor.
In Ch. 26 of DBE, Jack and Judith Balswick – a sociologist and marriage and family therapist – have perceptively developed a relational approach to gender in the service of just and flourishing marriages. In such marriages, “The locus of authority is placed in the relationship, not in one spouse or the other,” and both independence and interdependence are crucial:
Behind the ‘two are better than one’ Scripture is the idea that two independent persons have unique strengths to offer each other and the relationship. Without two separate identities, interdependence is not possible. Some hold to the notion that dependency or fusion is the ideal … [but] two overly dependent persons, hanging on to each other for dear life, have no solid ground on which to stand when things get difficult or an unexpected stress hits (p. 454-55).
At the other, hierarchicalist extreme, they note, “[t]he dilemma of unequal partnership is that husbands carry the burden of having to know everything and always be right, while wives pretend not to know or suppress what they know is right” (p. 461). In contrast to both these distortions, the Balswicks’ four marital relationship principles – covenant, grace, mutual empowerment and intimacy – focus less on prescribed roles (which are seen to be flexible and negotiable throughout the family life cycle) and more on processes needed for the ongoing flourishing of couples and families. These include that “partners hold equal status; accommodation in the relationship is mutual; attention to the other in the relationship is mutual; and there is mutual well-being of the partners” (p. 454).
Does it matter for these processes that the ‘partners’ are male and female, or does this relations-without-roles model lead to ‘soft androgyny’ and thence to the endorsement of non-heterosexual unions? Clearly not for the Balswicks, since they have included a thoughtful section in their chapter on the demonstrated benefits, for both sons and daughters, of coparenting by fathers and mothers. However, even these gendered and generational dynamics are not as simple as was once thought.
Freudian and functionalist theorists believed that boys, for example, needed to have lots of interaction with their fathers in order to learn ‘correct’ masculine attitudes, behaviors and roles. But there is a wealth of research – both in industrialized and pre-industrial cultures – showing that the more nurturantly involved fathers are with their sons, the more secure those sons are in their gender identity (which is simply the sense of being happy and adequate as a male). At the same time, nurturantly-fathered sons are less likely to engage in stereotypical ‘hypermasculine’ behavior, such as antisocial aggression, the sexual exploitation of girls, or misogynist attitudes and actions.
Similar benefits accrue to nurturantly-fathered girls, who are more likely to show independent achievement and less likely to engage in premature sexual and reproductive activity. Why is this so? In cultures and subcultures where fathers are absent or uninvolved, boys tend to define themselves in opposition to their mothers and other female caretakers, and to engage in misogynist, hypermasculine behaviors as a way to shore up a fragile gender identity. And girls who are not sufficiently affirmed as persons by available and nurturing fathers are at risk of becoming developmentally ‘stuck’ in a mindset that sees sexuality and reproductive potential as the only criteria of feminine success.
The bottom line appears to be this: children of both sexes need to grow up with stable, nurturant, and appropriately-authoritative role-models of both sexes to help develop a secure gender identity. But strong coparenting also allows growing children to relate to each other primarily as human beings, rather than as reduced, gender-role caricatures. Paradoxical as it may seem, those who are most concerned to display rigidly-stereotypical masculinity and femininity are apt to have the least secure gender identities.
Clearly this does not require that children’s role-models always and only be their biological parents. But it strongly suggests there are limits to the diversity of family forms we should encourage around a core norm of heterosexual, role-flexible coparenting, as described by the Balswicks in their DBE chapter. As Genesis l reminds us, sex is indeed something that we share with the lower animals, and as such it is irrelevant to the image of God in humans. At the same time, lifelong cooperation between the sexes is part and parcel — indeed the climax — of the Genesis 2 creation account, in a way that is not required of other animals: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen 2:24).
Sociologist David Fraser notes that this verse holds in tension three essential aspects of marriage: public wedlock (‘leaving’), sexual union (‘one flesh’) and lifelong covenant (‘cleaving’). Yet, he significantly notes, “In this passage the couple is complete without children.” Thus heterosexual pair-bonding is not simply a convenient way to have children – although children are indeed part of Gods’ promised blessing in creation. It is based on the deeper creational truth that women and men are both created in the image of God, derive equal dignity and respect from that image, and are called to be God’s earthly regents – not separately, nor hierarchically, nor in competition with each other, but cooperatively.
This does not mean that all men and women must marry: the New Testament is very clear on the value of singleness. But it does suggest that attempts to form single-sex communities (or to impose a rigid doctrine of separate spheres within families and/or churches) as a way of avoiding the challenges of heterosexual cooperation and gender justice are something less than creationally normative, and will eventually be shown to be so by their results.
An Agenda for the Immediate Future: It is somewhat ironic that neither of the two books (DBMW and DBE) central to the debate about male headship vs. gender mutuality says much about an area of social science research that is vital to this discussion. I refer to the 40-year accumulation of data on the steady rise of divorce and its effects on both children and their parents. America is (at least according to surveys of church membership and attendance) the most Christian of the western industrialized democracies. It also has the highest percentage of people (35%) who have been divorced, and born-again Christians are no less likely to divorce than are non-Christians. A slight majority of born-again American respondents in George Barna’s 2004 national poll even denied that divorce in the absence of adultery should be considered a sin.
Regardless of one’s take Matt 19:8-9, it is obvious that Scripture pays clear and frequent attention to the importance of the marriage covenant, in contrast to less-frequent and less-clear pronouncements about headship in church and family. This being the case, it would seem that many Christians in the gender-hierarchicalist camp are straining at gnats and swallowing camels. The social science consensus on the negative effects of divorce – and the positive possibilities of well-validated marriage education and enrichment programs — cuts across all religious and political allegiances. Yet many Christians in the gender-hierarchicalist camp are ambivalent about any programs based on ‘secular’ social science, preferring to believe that the main experts on marriage are conservative male pastors, theologians and biblical scholars.
Persons and groups on both sides of this debate would thus do well to follow the lead of evangelical journalist Michael McManus, who for the past twenty years has been promoting ‘Community Marriage Policies’ (CMPs) whereby all clergy in a given area agree than none of them will marry any couple who has not gone through a several-month period of marriage preparation using a research-based training program, combined with a mentoring relationship with a more experienced married couple who have also been trained for their mentoring tasks. Since the first such policy was adopted by Modesto, California pastors in 1986, almost 200 communities in forty American states (as well in Canada and England) have followed suit.
And although the divorce rate is starting to decline somewhat in the U.S.A. as a whole, a recent study has shown that the rate over the past seven years has fallen twice as fast in CMP counties (almost 18%) than in non-CMP counties (only 9%), even when county pairs are matched on demographic indices such as population density, poverty, and rural vs. urban location. It should be uncontroversial to those on both sides of this debate that prevention is better than cure when it comes to dealing with the high rate of divorce in evangelical churches. And it should be uncontroversial that, through common grace, God can get God’s work done through whomever God wishes, including careful and concerned social scientists of whatever (or even no) religious affiliation. As Abraham Kuyper wryly observed, sometimes the world does better than expected, and the church does worse.
Finally, a few words are in order regarding another topic little dealt with in either RBMW or DBE: the possible contribution of male headship ideology to domestic violence and other forms of religious abuse, such as male church leaders sexually exploiting women and children over whom they exercise authority. CBE has sponsored conferences and books on the topic of abuse in the church, and CBMW is clearly anxious to show that headship and submission (as they define these terms) do not contribute to “the epidemic of wife abuse.”
But to properly test such a hypothesis, we would need to do what George Barna did to show the relationship between conservative religiosity and divorce – that is, mount a large, representative survey of the entire nation that included very specific questions about both the respondents’ religious practices and beliefs – including those having to do with gender relations — and their experiences with various forms of abuse within church and family settings, both as survivors and perpetrators. To my knowledge such a comprehensive study has yet to be done, though there is one random-sample survey of adults in a conservative denomination (one which did not ordain women at the time of the survey) showing that prevalence rates of physical, sexual and emotional abuse were no lower – but also no higher — within the denomination than in the American population at large.
Sociologist Bradford Wilcox has shown that conservative Protestant fathers are more likely to report using corporal punishment than other groups – but also (in keeping with a ‘soft patriarchal’ ideology) more likely to praise and hug their children and less likely to yell at them than other groups, both churched and unaffiliated. He concludes that
Conservative Protestant fathers’ neotraditional parenting style seems to be closer to the authoritative style – characterized by moderately high levels of parental control and high levels of parental supportiveness – that has been linked to positive outcomes among children and adolescents. In any case, the accusations about authoritarian and abusive parenting by conservative Protestants appear overdrawn. The findings paint a more complex portrait of conservative Protestant fathering that reveals a hybrid of strict, puritanical and progressive, child-centered approaches to child rearing –all in keeping with the logic of ‘expressive traditionalism’ guiding this subculture.
Using data from the National Survey of Families and Households (1992-1994) Wilcox also found that a little conservative religion – like a little knowledge – is a dangerous thing. “Some of the worst fathers and husbands are men who are nominal evangelicals. These are men who have, say, a Southern Baptist affiliation, but who rarely darken the door of a church. They have … the highest rates of domestic violence of any group in the United States. They also have high divorce rates. But evangelical and mainline Protestant men who attend church regularly are … much less likely to divorce than married men who do not attend church regularly.” And conservative Protestant husbands and fathers (including those who espouse, among other things, a traditionalist ideology of gender relations) are – provided they attend church regularly – the group that is actually least likely to commit domestic violence.
The upshot is that we have no evidence so far that a gender-traditionalist ideology – at least of the soft patriarchal variety – is a strong predictor of domestic physical abuse at this time. About its relationship to various forms of abuse (sexual, emotional or physical) in Protestant church settings, we know even less. Does this then suggest that, on issues such as combating domestic violence and lowering divorce rates, groups such as CBE and CBMW might be able to forge strategic bonds of cooperation? In theory, yes, but for other reasons I am skeptical. For one thing, I have rediscovered in the course of doing this review how depressingly anti-intellectual the vanguard of CBMW is. There is much casuistry and hair-splitting about questions of gender as they relate to biblical exegesis, but very little responsible appropriation of best practices and findings in either social science research or its applications. It’s as if these folks really don’t believe in common grace. Moreover, as Gordon Fee notes in Ch. 21 of DBE,
In order to uphold male rule in today’s households [and churches] patriarchalists are regularly faced with the necessity of fine-tuning various rules and restrictions regarding ‘biblical gender roles.’ In the end, the gospel of grace and Spirit is turned into a form of the law, which gives rise to the pharasaic problem of needing to put a hedge around the law, deciding what is or is not ‘allowable’ within its framework.
Peter’s very pharisaic question, ‘How many times must I forgive?’ is now turned into ‘What constitutes [womanly] submission?’ … One wonders whether Paul would laugh or cry. The gospel of grace and gifting leads to a different set of questions: How does one best serve the interest of the other? How does one encourage [not predefine] the Spirit’s gifting in the other? Questions like these cross all gender boundaries.
APPENDICES A – C
Appendix A (to view this image larger requires downloading the entire document in Word format from Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s own website.)
Representative Uses of the Term ‘Complementarity’ in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy
Many have argued that women should participate equally with men precisely because they bring complementary gender qualities to marriage, ministry and society. [But] the most recent [use of the] term has often been employed by those who have held the opposite view [i.e., that gender differences are an argument for restricting, not enlarging women’s activities]. (Introduction, p.17).
The concept of ‘complementarity’ carries with it a wide range of connotations. It sometimes simply conveys [for egalitarians] the idea of ‘beneficial difference’ (without implying male authority) … at other times it is used as a euphemism for a very traditional view of male authority, and yet in other writings it represents a significantly softened male-leadership role that is quite similar in practice to an egalitarian model. (Ronald W. Pierce, ch. 2, “Contemporary Evangelicals for Gender Equality, p. 62, note 26).
[Van Leeuwen’s book Gender and Grace] contended that regarding ‘genes, hormones and hemispheres … the differences [between male and female], when they occur, are both smaller and more complex that we thought. In most cases they are impossible to separate from the effects of learning.’ In short, her book argued that God-given ‘complementarity,’ to the extent that it can be objectively defined, does not necessarily predetermine ‘gender roles.’ (Pierce, ch. 2, p. 70).
[A]rguing in an egalitarian yet ‘complementary’ fashion, [Ruth Haley Barton, in her 1998 book, Equal to the Task] asserted that God created men and women for life together, ‘a mutuality in teamwork’ that enables them to work together in the office and in marriage, parenting and friendship. (Pierce, ch. 2, p. 73).
Since I was raised in a home and church where gifting took precedence over roles, I find the present debate over equality, complementarity and hierarchy to be something of a retrogression …There is no biblical culture (in the sociological sense) that belongs to all human societies. And to give continuing significance to a male-authority viewpoint for men and women, whether at home or in church, is to reject the new creation in favor of the norms of a fallen world …[Yet] I for one have as much resistance to the notion that women ought to be in leadership along with men as to the notion that only males are gifted to lead. The former notion also assumes a gender-based, not gift-based, model for leadership; and both Scripture and common experience give lie to the second notion. (Gordon D. Fee, ch. 10, “Male and Female in the New Creation: Gal 3:26-29,” p. 172, and ch. 14, “The Priority of Spirit Gifting for Church Ministry,” p. 249).
Phyllis Bird argues that gender distinction [complementarity] does not belong to the image of God, or to dominion, but to the theme of fertility that is found in the first chapter of Genesis. Fruitfulness and reproduction are part of the plant and animal world (Gen 1:12 & 22-25) and thus are not unique to the image of God in ‘adam. Whereas … Genesis I emphasizes the role all of humanity has in dominion over creation. (Richard S. Hess, ch. 3, “Equality With and Without Innocence,” p. 81)
The point of Genesis 2:24 about a man leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife … is to observe that marriage achieves a reunion of what God had divided in the creation of the woman … Thus the woman was taken from the man’s body when God created and the man reunites the two when he joins her in marriage. This certainly involved more than physical union, for Hebrew concepts of the person do not recognize a distinction between the physical and the spiritual before sin and death, but it says nothing about a hierarchy between man and woman … [But in Gen 3] a relationship that was once equally shared in a uniquely complementary design would become burdened with a struggle for authority from which the man would emerge the ruler. (Hess, p. 88).
[In the creation account, the first male describes the first female] as ‘woman,’ reflecting unity in personhood and diversity in their gender [Hebrew ‘ish and ‘ishah] … Later he names her Eve, describing the function she would have in bearing children as the ‘mother of all living’ (hence one could speak of a ‘procreation order’ that counterbalances the creation order, cf. I Cor 11:1`2) … The term complementarity is an appropriate description of their created relationship. However, there is neither explicit nor implicit mention of any authority or leadership role of the man over the woman, except as the sad result of their sin in the fall and ensuing judgments. Even the, such hierarchy is not presented as an ideal, but rather as a reality of human history like that of weeds that spring from the earth. (Hess, ch. 3, p. 94).
If it is true that the fellowship between Adam and Eve, and consequently between men and women in general, is a means through which God’s image its to be visible in humanity … then [h]uman sexuality would be at the very center of the Christian doctrine of ‘man.’ Ideally, the equality and dignity of each member of the triune God and the complementarity and unity within the Godhead would be reflected in human male-female relationships. There should be no attempt – by either a man or a woman – to disregard one’s own sexuality or to devalue or degrade the other’s sexuality … In light of these considerations, it become quite clear that homosexuality is a blatant denial of the very means through which an individual is rightly to reflect God’s image. Likewise, the male chauvinism that has been a blight on society since antiquity and the radical feminist that answers back with equal venom are both diametrically opposed to the will of God. Each so disrespects the other sex as to negate any possibility of men and women’s reflecting the harmony that exists within the Godhead. (Judy L. Brown, ch. 17, “God, Gender and Metaphor, p. 298).
‘Complementary egalitarianism’ takes the redemptive movement in Scripture to complete male-female equality and so seeks out contemporary forms that express mutual deference and honor. There are no leadership or role restrictions within the home or church …. (William J. Webb, ch. 23, “Gender Equality and Homosexuality,” p. 400, note 23).
[T]he egalitarian claim that status differences between men and women are a cultural construct and not inherent in the sexual distinction hardly constitutes a move toward wholesale rejection of male-female complementarity … God’s creation design … includes not only undisputed differences in sexual and reproductive function … but also the general psychological differences that can be discerned in studies comparing groups of men and groups of women. One might well argue that the best way to celebrate these general differences is the inclusion of women in leadership position, since women can bring a focus that complements that of men. In an integrative sense, egalitarians are stronger advocates of complementarity than are hierarchical complementarians! (Webb, p. 402, note 1).
A [further] reason underlying [the Bible’s] homosexual prohibitions is the benefit of raising children by a father and a mother who can provide different yet complementary role models for their sons and daughters … a natural kinship setting in which each can derive modeling from and relationship with a parent of their own gender. To this consideration one might add the benefits of having a relationship with and opposite-sex parent, as well as the benefits that different-gender spouses bring to a home through their providing gender-complementary (not monolithic) perspectives and ways of doing things. This latter benefit would extend also to a home consisting of a heterosexual couple without children.” (Webb, p. 413).
The physiological differences [between women and men] are clear. Social differences include level of aggression, language styles and same-sex aggression. It is clear from the cross-cultural and genetic studies that God has fashioned men and women with certain differences. And yet both bear his image … What this suggests is that to appreciate gender complementarity in the church, and in all relationships, is to recognize these differences in a way that will help men and women encourage each other toward the health of both and against the abuse of either. Not all men are aggressive rather than relational. Not all women are relational and not aggressive. Many differences reside within each gender as well. Perhaps true complementarity is marked by an acknowledgement of difference and encouragement for those wanting to grow in both appropriate dominion and sociability [cf. Gen 1:26-28]. (Cynthia Neal Kimball, ch. 27, “Nature, Culture and Gender Complementarity,” pp. 471, 472, 473).