An Unfettered Response to Jeremy Pierce

A while back Jeremy Pierce over at the Parableman blog posted a critique of Rebecca Merrill Groothuis’ argument, though it is apparent he did not read the relevant chapter in Discovering Biblical Equality. Below are my responses in red.

Functional Subordination and Eternal Inequality

Posted by Jeremy at 6:28 PM

In my last post, I argued that complementarians are not subordinationists in the sense of the heresy of subordinationism. There’s one related charge that I wanted to save for its own post. One prominent egalitarian who makes this argument is Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. This gets us more into the human gender roles issue than the previous post, which focused mostly on the Trinitarian issues. [Update: I believe I linked to the wrong essay. I think it’s this one. I’ll leave the other one in, because it’s a signficant discussion by her on the general issue, but this is the one I quote from below.]

Groothuis’ argument concedes that there’s a difference between being and function. She says that something can be functionally subordinate temporarily and not be subordinate in being. What she doesn’t allow is that something can be functionally subordinate for its entire existence without thereby being subordinate in being [This is false. A proper understanding of the argument allows for permanent subordination in function and equality in being if the function is not bound up in one’s being. The example of a blind man being reliant on others for sight or a seeing-eye dog would be one such example. The point of the argument is to hone in on the fact that if a necessary condition of one’s humanity, say one’s sex, is deemed sufficient for one’s subordinate social status, it follows that that condition’s “being” or “nature” is one of inferior status. The two are logically connected. Blindness would not be such a necessary condition, because blindness is not essential to being human.].  She thus distinguishes between functional subordination and female subordination, saying that functional subordination would be fine if that were really what complementarians held, but she thinks the complementarian view, which she calls female subordination, goes beyond functional subordination while claiming to be just functional subordination.

In female subordination, the criterion for who is subordinate to whom has nothing to do with expediency or the abilities of individuals to perform particular functions. Rather, it is determined entirely on the basis of an innate, unchangeable aspect of a woman’s being, namely, her female sexuality. Her inferior status follows solely from her essential nature as a woman. Regardless of how traditionalists try to explain the situation, the idea that women are equal in their being, yet unequal by virtue of their being, simply makes no sense. If you cannot help but be what you are, and if inferiority in function follows necessarily and exclusively from what you are, then you are inferior in your essential being.

For now, I’ll grant her the tendentious use of the term ’subordination’. I think she uses it to smuggle in the sense of inequality that she wants to argue complementarianism is committed to, when complementarians who use that term do not mean what she means by it [There is nothing tendentious about the term since complementarians advocate what amounts to “biblical patriarchy” whereby the man, by virtue of his manhood is the “head” (read: authority) over the woman. Conversely, the woman is in subjection to the man by virtue of her womanhood and nothing else. The difference between the sexes is one of hierarchy and in such a scheme terms denoting authority and subordination are appropriate]. But for now I’ll use her terminology, with that worry in mind. You can’t build into the notion of subordination something complementarians don’t mean by it, without arguing only against a position no one holds [Do complementarians not hold to a hierarchal scheme of gender relations?]. I think I can make my point even using that term, but we must keep in mind that complementarianism isn’t committed to superior or inferior roles, just difference of roles [Yes, but the “difference” between the roles is one of hierarchy, not simply biological necessities or genetic dispositions everyone recognizes. Such language obfuscates and conceals the issue complementarians deem integral to the very gospel itself (see the 2006 T4G statement).]. In the same way that an elder of a congregation is not superior to any “ordinary” member, so too a husband is not superior to a wife [This simply misses the mark. The elders in a church do not posses an essential human quality that makes them authoritative over me above and beyond character and gifting. Elder Bob Jones is not an elder by virtue of his “Jonesness”]. Even if you insist that these role differences involve different levels of authority, it does not amount to a greater or lesser role any more than serving a congregation by occupying a position of teaching and leading does not involve any superiority [If such roles are differentiated by terms of authority, but cannot differentiated them in terms of “greater” or “lesser” then what does authority even mean?]

I know of three positions within complementarianism, and what each will say to her argument will be slightly different:

1. God has commanded gender role differences because of differences of capacity in men and women that God has built into creation [Since the differences are hierarchal and since they are built into creation it follows that the created beings of the sexes are not equal. One superior and the other inferior]. While these aren’t absolute differences, they are general tendencies that ground male headship in marriage and the restriction of eldership to men. This is probably the most traditional position, but it’s falling out of favor nowadays among complementarians, largely because general tendencies can’t easily ground absolute commands. Some women are better Bible teachers than some men, for instance. How can a command that women not teach men be based in something that isn’t absolute? So I wouldn’t recommend this particular complementarian view, but I do know people who hold it.

2. Women are not inherently different as a group from men [this is simply stunning considering complementarians style themselves as defenders of the differences between the sexes], but God has assigned women a position of functional subordination in marriage and in terms of who may occupy one particular office of church leadership (the elder). The purpose for God’s choice is at least partly just for order (someone has to lead in marriage) and at least partly to illustrate the role distinctions of the equal persons of the Trinity. This assigning of gender roles has nothing to do with inherent differences between men and women but results from God’s plan for an ordered society and God’s desire to reflect the unity and diversity in the Trinity in how human beings relate to each other. On this view, it’s almost arbitrary that men can have an authoritative role that women are not given. It’s not entirely arbitrary, because it’s based on men being created first, but those who hold this view do not speculate about why God chose men to be created first. (There’s no assumption that there’s no reason, but the idea is that the reason doesn’t have to do with a superior or inferior nature of one or the other, and it also doesn’t have to do with any particular abilities of one or the other.) D.A. Carson has defended this position, and I think it’s become a fairly common view among complementarians today [This is what I call the decretive view of gender roles. This view seems to avoid the problems of the female subordination scheme, but it is woefully inadequate in explaining why God decrees women to be under men. God could have just as easily put women in charge, or, to use an illustration from race, white people in charge of black people for no apparent reason. Either way it is hard not to see God as sexist in this view due to his preferential treatment (don’t forget we are talking about hierarchy). The concept of “order” is muddled as well. Establishing order means putting things in their proper place, not simply putting things in place for the sake of putting them in place. In terms of men and women there would have to be inherent differences for the order to even make sense].

3. God instituted gender role distinctions because of the order principle and the Trinitarian issue in the previous post, and therefore not based on any intrinsic difference between men and women, but God has fashioned how he made male and female in some ways based on the roles he intended to assign to men and women [This simply amounts to saying God made men and women different because he wanted them to have different roles, but he did not give them different roles because they were different. The sequence of God’s decree of role subordination and the created being of women is prior rather than latter. This seems to be a distinction without difference]. This view allows for differences in male and female gifting, but they do not explain the differences in gender roles [This point escapes me since gifting entails role in this view]. The order of explanation is the other way around. God’s decision to institute role distinctions is the reason for the different giftings (or at least different tendencies among giftings). The first edition of Women in the Church, ed. Kostenberger and Schreiner, one of the strongest defenses of complementarian views on I Timothy 2, took this view, but the second edition of that book leaves that chapter out for some reason. (I’m not entirely sure why, but perhaps not all the contributors agreed with it. Several chapters were removed, so it may have been for other reasons.) [My guess would because it does not make any difference or perhaps any sense. At best, with regard to View 1, it is tautological in that it simply turns things around. At worst it leaves one pondering how differences in gifting do not explain differences in roles. The view describes how God made men and women: God endowed men with certain capacities to exercise authority that he did not give to women. Because men are given a superior being they obtain a superior status]. 

None of the three complementarian views allows for what Groothuis calls female subordination, which she then argues is different from mere functional subordination. On views 1 and 3, there are different abilities (as general tendencies, anyway), but these are not the ground of functional subordination for view 3 (and thus her claim that this is based in an inferior nature cannot follow from view 3) [This is false for the reasons given above. Their lower status follows from their being which lacks the capacities essential to the role of high status]. They are not lesser or greater abilities on any of these views, just different abilities. So the notion of inferiority that she’s building into the term ‘functional subordination’ does seem to me to misrepresent any complementarian view. What’s even worse is that on view 2 there isn’t even a difference in abilities, just a difference of functional roles. That certainly doesn’t involve an inequality of nature, since there’s no difference in nature to ground such an inequality. So how can she think that there’s some inequality of nature here? [The answer lies in the belief that this view is improbable because God’s decrees are not arbitrary. God’s decree is not like the decree of unconditional election in Calvinism (which still entails positive and negative consequences—not merely “different” ones); rather, it is a creational decree that tells us something about the nature of creation. Groothuis gives an example where we learn something about the nature of sexuality through God’s decree to ban homosexual practices. It is not the case that there are no inherent differences between homosexual practice and heterosexual practice, yet God simply forbids one of them by divine fiat. There is a certain order to sexuality that is metaphysically fixed by how it is created. So while logically speaking view 2 does seem to avoid the problems of “female subordination” as Groothuis names it, it is not left without serious biblical-theological difficulties]. She admits that complementarians sometimes don’t acknowledge an inequality of nature, but she thinks they say enough to commit them to inequality of nature anyway:

There are other ways in which female subordination differs significantly from functional subordination. Functional subordination is limited in scope to the specific function that is at issue, or it is limited in duration to the time it takes for the function to be accomplished or for the subordinated person to “outgrow” his limitations. Often, it is limited in both scope and duration. For example, a committee member is subordinate to the committee chair only with respect to the task of the committee and only until the committee has completed its task. The music student is subordinate to her teacher only when it comes to playing the piano and only as long as her piano playing skills are inferior to those of her teacher. By contrast, the subordination of a woman to her husband’s authority covers all her activities, and endures throughout all her life. She never outgrows it, and it never ends.

First, she again assumes that this subordination is bad [No she doesn’t. There isn’t anything in her words that says so. The kind of subordination she is describing is incompatible with equality. It isn’t bad if inequality isn’t bad, but complementarians maintain equality. Her point is to demonstrate logical failure, not moral failure (which is entirely different issue)]. Why is it bad if this subordination never ends? It must be bad to begin with if it’s bad that it never ends. On a committee, no one thinks the difference in roles has anything to do with difference in nature, and that’s not just because the role relation is temporary. It’s because the roles aren’t about differences in nature. It’s simply a structure, an ordering of relationship. There’s a sense in which it’s hierarchical, but it’s not subordination in the sense of one person being lesser than the other. It’s simply a difference of authority, which need have nothing to do with differences of nature [This not controversial. This is functional subordination that everyone participates in and maintains their equality with one another. The issue at hand, however, is a type of subordination that follows from having an immutable human quality like race or sex. The reason women are lower in status to men in marriage and the church is because they are women. Womanhood then is a necessary and sufficient condition for subordination. If this does not mean women are inferior to men in their being, then how are they in any meaningful sense “equal” with men?]

If I think of my not being an elder in my congregation as somehow being inferior, I might someday want to grow out of my inferior position and become an elder in my congregation. But that assumes something false. The elder role is for those God has set apart to exercise a particular kind of leadership in a local congregation, and there’s no assumption in any biblical text that elders are somehow better in their very nature than anyone else [Of course there isn’t, but there is a class of people who are disqualified from being elders by virtue of what they are—women. Men are not so disqualified. Manhood is a necessary qualification for eldership, but it is not a sufficient one. Furthermore, if God called only men who were also white we would wonder how equality could be applied to those who were black]. There’s no assumption that the apostles were better in their nature than anyone else in their time, and yet they had a role that no one else will ever have, the role of leading the church in its foundational stages and completing the canon of scripture. That role is not temporary. Paul and Peter are still apostles, and I am not an apostle in that sense (though I have been an apostle in the missionary sense, which is a temporary role) [Scope and duration are only two of the conditions of female subordination, but there is a third one: criterion. The criterion in female subordination is womanhood. Let me use an illustration I developed using the President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of its New Testament Professors. Al Mohler is not President by virtue of his “Mohlerhood” and neither is Tom Schreiner subordinate to Mohler’s academic policies by virtue of his “Schreinerhood.” In the case of Paul and Peter neither was qualified for their office by virtue of “Paulness” or “Peterhood.”]

I don’t think anyone has a right to expect ever to hold the position of elder [This is irrelevant to women since they have been denied the possibility of being an elder]. I think it may even be immoral to expect such a thing. So why is my current role as a “mere” member somehow inferior? [No one made that claim.] It’s not assigning an inferior role to women by limiting the eldership to men. To think that it is would be to assume that eldership is somehow a better position, as if those who end up as elders somehow have a better essential nature than other people. It’s because of a false view of what leadership is that egalitarians can even get going on the claim that difference of role means inequality of nature. Difference of role doesn’t mean inequality of role, at least in the sense that one role is inferior and the other superior [I fail to see how a position of authority only open to men can be merely described as “different” from one that is properly fitting to women can not be called “unequal.” I contend that complementarians see the moral problem of inequality, yet labor in futility to define their way out of it by using the word “difference.”].

I would say the same about authority in marriage. That doesn’t have the same structural relations, since it’s only two people and not a few men over a mixed group of many, but it does have the most crucial element. In marriage, submission to authority is purely voluntary, with no possibility of anything like excommunication. So it’s less strong even than authority in the church, at least in that respect. Husbands are never told to make their wives submit. It’s simply something wives are told to do. Elders might have to take matters into their hands if someone in the congregation is grossly sinning, causing division, etc. There’s no brute use of power in male authority in marriage in any biblical text I know of [The point is not about brute force or making submission involuntary. In fact, marriage is more illustrative of the point being made: men are qualified for authority based on their sex and women ought to submit to this authority based on their sex.]

Furthermore, not every adult man or woman is married. So it’s wrong to think of this as some absolute, eternal condition that applies the same to all women regardless of their condition and all men regardless of their condition. Male authority applies to men who are elders and men who are husbands. Female submission applies to women who are married and to every member of a congregation, including the elders who ought to submit to the other elders in many cases (and perhaps even to the congregation as a whole in certain instances, e.g. when the elders in my congregation serve on setup teams under the authority of setup team leaders, who themselves are under the deacons’ authority; the congregation may also play a role in removing an elder who has violated the trust of such a position of authority). This complexity makes Groothuis’ presentation of gender roles as eternally applicable in exactly the same ways for all time for every person sound incredibly oversimplified [There is quite a bit of contention in the complementarian camp over this, but I do not see how it effects her argument at all.]

Second, Groothuis makes a major philosophical blunder. Her husband, Douglas Groothuis, makes the same mistake in his Amazon review of a complementarian book that on (scroll down to Februay 17, 2004).] It amazes me that a Ph.D.-trained philosopher doesn’t recognize the problem with this argument, which makes the following inference: If something has a property eternally, then it must have it essentially. [It amazes me that Ph.D grad student could make such sweeping claims about a colleague’s intellectual integrity without ever reading the primary sources of their argument!]

An essential property is something that you had to have. You wouldn’t be you if you didn’t have it. You wouldn’t exist if nothing had it. An eternal property is simply something that is always true of you actually, but that doesn’t mean it had to be true of you. It may just happen to be true of you. Suppose Adam had a beard when he was created, and he never shaved it before he died. When he gets resurrected, he’ll have a beard. Suppose he never shaves it for all eternity. Does that mean he has a beard as an essential property? Of course not. He could have shaved it at any time. He just didn’t [I fail to see how this relevant to what the Groothuises are saying. Womanhood is not like a beard in that one can simply shave it off. I doubt very much the philosophical blunder you describe has been made].

Happening to have a property everlastingly does not amount to having it essentially [No, but it is a necessary, though not sufficient condition for essence. If one is born a woman one stays a woman]. She’s confusing something’s being essential with something’s being true for eternity [No, she is identifying what could be potentially singled out as an essential property if it can be shown to be related to something that is forever true]. Something’s being actually true, even forever, does not amount to its being essential to whatever it’s true of. Her argument relies on a principle that confuses those two things. [To return briefly to the Trinitarian issue, I think it’s worth pointing out that the complementarian view that says Jesus eternally submits to the Father holds that Jesus’s submission is of his own free choice and not because of any difference in nature [Groothuis points out that this analogy isn’t all that forceful since the Son and Father are one being while men and women are a multiplicity of beings. The metaphysics of each are too different to command anything very significant]. I’m currently in discussion with Brandon over whether an orthodox Trinitarian can admit to this sort of thing (he says no, because of reasons entirely unrelated to subordinationism), but I don’t think that affects this question.]

Now this doesn’t mean gender roles are anything like Adam’s having a beard. It’s not as if complementarians think I can just forsake my God-given obligation to lead my family. I have the obligation, whether I recognize it or not. I can shave my beard whenever I want [Yes, but women cannot shave off their femaleness like you can shave off your beard. Sex is not a contingent factor]. Gender roles are more tied to us than beards. But that doesn’t mean they’re part of our essence. Views 2 and 3 hold that gender roles’ basis isn’t in our nature to begin with, so how can their remaining in place everlastingly mean they’re in our nature? That would be nonsense. Even on view 1, it’s not clear if we should count them as essential properties. It’s part of what happens to be true of men and women, and this is grounded in nature in some sense, but is it grounded in my nature as me? I’m not sure [I would say it is because the status of sex is something that is necessary to who you are—though it of course is not sufficient]. But even if it is (and I reiterate that this could only be true in view 1, which I’ve disrecommended), if these role differences aren’t bad then I’m not sure why it would be bad to have them as part of our natures anyway. If there’s no inferiority to it, then it doesn’t amount to inferiority of essence even if it’s part of men’s and women’s natures. So either way there’s no necessary connection with an inferior nature.

So I think her argument just relies on several moves that just don’t follow from the complementarian view, and it seems to me that complementarianism isn’t intentionally or unintentionally smuggling in some commitment to inequality of nature. It isn’t committed to that at all [It has to be committed to inequality of nature because nature is the criterion it structures its hierarchy around].







3 Responses

  1. For the record, I have read her treatment. What she complained about was that I hadn’t read the published version in her book but had read the online version, which wasn’t finalized or something. It turned out the argument was the same in both cases, so it didn’t matter. But it’s pretty low to claim that my not having read the final version that was published amounts to not even reading her argument. How could I have responded in such detail to an argument I’d never read? It’s not just immoral to do that. It’s impossible.

    On the content, I still maintain that having more authority doesn’t make one greater or superior. Your argument assumes that it does.

    I also still maintain that the role differences in complementarianism in its best form are not based on biological sex but are based in a decree of God, a decree that itself is not based on biological sex. That decree is based on the Trinity and how God chose to reflect it. You claim that this is arbitrary. Well, the choice to base it on the Trinity is not arbitrary. Perhaps the choice to have men in one role and women in the other is arbitrary in one sense if it’s not based on intrinsic features of men and women. But it’s not arbitrary completely if there are other reasons for doing it this way, reasons we may be unaware of. Perhaps it leads to a better world to have the sex that occupies one sexual role also has certain gender properties related to this issue. So it need not be arbitrary just because it isn’t based on intrinsic properties that necessitate role differences (the way some complementarians think).

    This is much the same as Paul’s being chosen for his apostolic role not being derived from anything he earned, so he can’t credit himself and didn’t deserve the treatment as different, but nonetheless what God wanted to do worked best because he chose someone with Paul’s characteristics to do what he had for Paul to do.

  2. Jeremy,

    You would be right to say that it is impossible to respond to her argument in such detail without ever reading any form of it, but I still think you are wrong to think that you fully understood it in its best form. The problems I pointed to above show that you didn’t as I referenced her published responses to your objections several times.

    We certainly are at loggerheads on the issue of whether having more authority doesn’t make one greater or superior. But I don’t think my argument assumes that, given that in any of the three views you describe subordination remains ontologically grounded in some way. If it is not ontologically grounded in biological sex, then it is ontologically grounded in the essence of the Son, an idea which I find deeply problematic for the doctrine of the Trinity (though that is another discussion).

    Moreover, the idea that God’s decree for a subordinate sexual role which is related to certain gender properties for a “better world” alludes to the idea of “order”, which I think is deeply muddled in all forms of complementarianism. The point seems to be that utopia would come about in part because women are subordinate to men. This is because their role fits better with their properties of gender. Thus it is woman’s proper function to be subordinate to man. Yet I think it can be established that the proper function of a thing reveals the nature of a thing, because only that thing has the intrinsic properties to perform its function well. Thus, the end for which it is made tells us something about the essential properties it has. You seem to deny this, and may have good reasons for it, but I am not sure what they are.

    One might be rooted in the appeal you make to an individual’s calling like Paul’s apostleship, but I am not sure that will do in mitigating this line of reasoning. It makes a category mistake in that we are talking about assigned roles for an entire class of people, not about an individual’s specific vocation that could be open to anyone. I tried to show from the analogy of race how distorted the concept of equality is within complementarian reasoning. If it is true, then we could theoretically say that blacks are equal with whites and yet maintain a scheme where blacks are subservient to whites for the establishment of a “better world.” Unfortunately, this did not stay at the level of theory in our history of race relations.

    Contrary to what you might think, subordination is not the problem. Maintaining equality in the face of such subordination is where things get difficult.

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