The “Difference” Between “A and Not-A”

In terms of gender, language is very important. Words carry connotations and definitions of key concepts that ultimately delineate the point one is trying to make. Since the topic of gender is very broad it requires very precise language with very precise meanings so writers will not be misunderstood. One author expressively makes this clear in an 850-page polemic against egalitarianism entitled Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (EFBT)[1].

The author responds to “Egalitarian Claim 10:6,” that reads, “If female subordination is based on who a woman is (as female) rather than her ability or choice, then it is subordination in essence. Therefore the Complementarian position leads to the conclusion that women are lesser beings.”[2] He then cites a paragraph from Rebecca Merrill Groothuis’ Good News For Women:

Regardless of how hierarchalists try to explain their situation, the idea that women are equal in their being, yet unequal by virtue of their being, is contradictory and ultimately nonsensical. If you cannot help but be what you are, and inferiority in function follows inexorably from what you are, then you are inferior in your essential being… A permanent and comprehensive subordination based on a person’s essence is an essential (not merely functional) subordination.[3]

The author then responds in dissent that such a case is only subordination in function, not being. He restates the complementarian position as equality in being (in the sense of equal value, honor, personhood, and importance) with differences in authority and reiterates that greater or lesser authority does not imply an “inferior function” nor a “superior function,” just “different function.”[4]

The author goes on to accuse Groothuis of stating the complementarian position in a misleading way by using the words “equal” and “unequal” with different meanings. He argues that, if her sentence were reworded to represent the complementarian position fairly, it would read, “the idea that women are equal in value and honor and personhood but unequal in authority by virtue of their being women is contradictory and nonsensical.”[5] He objects that this statement is not contradictory nor nonsensical because it does not violate the logical law of non-contradiction: “A and not A.” He then concludes that Groothuis’ usage of “equality” is “simply a word trick” that obfuscates the complementarian position and creates a false contradiction. Moreover, the author presses his case that a woman’s subordination to man’s authority is not based on an “inferior” being but a “different” being.

In response, I will do two things. First, I will examine the key words used in the debate over the so-called “complementarian position” between hierarchalists and egalitarians by using standard reference books such as a dictionary and thesaurus. I will also look at the supporting definitions of “manhood and womanhood” from the standard complementarian volume Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBMW)[6] as well as the statements concerning female subordination from Groothuis’ essay in Discovering Biblical Equality (DBE)[7] in order to represent the language as clearly as possible.[8]

Second, I will offer a rebuttal to the charges that Groothuis has used a “word trick” to obfuscate the complementarian position and show that the gender hierarchalists are in reality the ones who have used word tricks and obfuscating language to conceal the incoherence of their view.

The So-Called “Complementarian Position”
I. Men and women have equality in value, honor, personhood, and importance with differences in authority.
1. Greater or lesser authority implies a “different” function, not a superior or inferior function.
2. Women are equal in value, honor, personhood, and importance, but unequal (different) in authority.
3. Both are equivalent in:
a. value: worth, usefulness, and esteem in life
b. honor: respect, privilege, reverence, admiration,

privilege: favor granted to some, not others, a freedom, an opportunity, an advantage

c. importance: significance, meaningfulness, consequence, magnitude.
d. personhood (as defined as human capacities from the imago dei[9]):

spirituality (capacity to relate with God and be gifted by God
rationality (having reason and understanding, comprehension, logical judiciousness, intelligence, sagacity, capacity to learn
command of language (capacity to read, write, speak, communicate)
agency (capacity to administer control in order to accomplish)
self-consciousness (conscious of one’s self as an object of observation by others)
moral responsibility (accountability to ethical imperatives [God])
political function (men and women are set in dominion over the earth)
volition (will, choice, decision-making, capacity to choose)
sexuality (capacity to relate sexually)
emotionality (capacity to feel emotions)[11]
memory (capacity to absorb and retain information)

4. Both sexes equally possess these capacities; one does not have greater human capacity than the other.
5. The capacities refer to elements (the powers of personality) in the human framework that enables the fulfillment of human function.[12]
6. The male’s function is one of primary authority:
a. responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect (duty, obligation)[13]

lead: guide, show the way, direct, command, manage
provide: supply, give, grant, bestow, impart, endow, make available
protect: prevent harm or damage, defend, guard, look after, care for, shield, shelter, safeguard, and watch over.

b. belongs only to men rather than women (masculine)
7. Woman’s function is to joyfully and intelligently submit to man’s primary authority
[14] and affirm, receive and nurture the strength and leadership of man
a. submit: surrender, yield, accept, acquiesce, resign, defer
b. leadership: management, guidance, control, headship, direction, supervision, regulation

II. Female Subordination and Male Headship[16]
1. Permanent (enduring, lasting, eternal, unending, continuous, constant, perpetual)
2. Comprehensive (complete, full, all-inclusive, entire, total)
a. Comprehensive in scope (range, space, opportunity, choice, latitude)
3. Necessary (essential, required, needed, obligatory, indispensable, vital)
4. Unchanging (static, fixed, immutable)[17]

Analyses and Rebuttal
According to the complementarian position a man’s “role” is one of primary authority. This unique preeminent position gives the privileges of rule and command to influence thought and behavior in the home and church exclusively to men, by virtue of their maleness.[18] Therefore, man is ultimately responsible to guide the woman, family, and church in matters of decision-making. Hence, man is chiefly and principally responsible before God. The authors agree,

Male headship at home and eldership at church mean that men bear the responsibility for the overall pattern of life.[19]

What is being described is no mere occupation; rather it fulfills the real meaning of mature manhood and the fundamental nature of the masculine being, especially in ministry:

We believe that manhood and womanhood mesh better in ministry when men take primary responsibility for leadership and teaching in the church; and that mature manhood and womanhood are better preserved, better nurtured, more fulfilled and more fruitful in this church order than in any other.[20]

The complementarian position also claims that woman is equal with man in personhood. Human personhood includes the essential human capacities of agency, will, command of language, rationality, and moral responsibility. Therefore, woman shares equality in the essential “powers of personality” with man. Thus the complementarian position could read:

Men and women have equality in agency, will, command of language, rationality, and moral responsibility before God, but have differences in authority.

What is the difference? Men exercise their decision-making ability guided by their reason in order to articulate the purposes of governing and commanding the will of the marriage relationship and the direction of the church from a matchless position of authority. The distinction is one of hierarchy where one is primary and the other secondary. A higher position entails a higher responsibility. Hence, man, by virtue of his maleness, is more responsible before God than woman. Nevertheless, woman is said to be equal in personhood with man, though personhood entails moral responsibility before God. Therefore, the complementarian position could read something like this:

Men and women have equality in moral responsibility before God with differences in moral responsibility before God.

But the use of “differences” obfuscates the supremacy of authority held exclusively by the man over the woman, which logically implies a higher degree of moral culpability. If it is said that greater or lesser authority implies a “different” moral responsibility before God and not a “superior” (greater, higher) or inferior (lower, lesser) moral responsibility before God, then either the word “authority” is rendered unintelligible, or the complementarian position is incoherent:

Men and women have equality in moral responsibility before God with inequality in moral responsibility before God.

Either men have greater moral responsibility before God than women or they do not. If they do, then men are greater in human personhood than women, and therefore women are unequal to men in being.

The same can be said about the other two equivalent standards of importance and honor. If the “difference” between the sexes is an exclusive position of authority, credited to the man (by virtue of his maleness), that grants freedom to sanction and regulate the will of the family and church (which therefore entails a greater responsibility before God), than man is far more important to the health of the marriage relationship and the function of the church. Though the woman’s input is respected, the man, by virtue of his maleness, is the person in command and, like a Supreme Court Justice, he makes the final governing decisions as to how the marriage and church will function.

While it cannot be said that man, by virtue of his maleness, merits relevant appeal as an expert on whatever issue is before the sexes, he nevertheless is entitled to such a status. To carry this analogy further, the man, being a Supreme Court Justice of the marriage and church, is so, because he is a man and not a woman. Conversely, woman, by virtue of her femaleness, is relegated to a secondary position whereby she is subject to her sovereign male counterpart and must be subservient to his will.

Female subordination to male headship not only honors the male’s decision-making, but also his agency. Agency is an attribute of human personhood—it is an essential human capacity. Agency simply means instrumentality, the ability to administer control in order to accomplish certain tasks.[21] When painting a general picture of what male headship looks like in the home, one author says the father leads the family in prayer, devotions, and drives the family car to church,[22]

[T]he leadership pattern would be less than Biblical if the wife in general was having to take the initiative in prayer at mealtime, and get the family out of bed for worship on Sunday morning, and gather the family for devotions, and discuss what moral standards will be required of the children, and confer about financial priorities, and talk over some neighborhood ministry possibilities, etc.[23]

He also says,

[I]f a woman undertakes to give this kind of leadership toward her husband she would not be acting in a properly feminine way, but would be taking up the masculine calling in that relationship.[24]

Though these duties are meaningful, significant, important, and vital to the health of a family, it is implied that that women ought not to do these things (though they can) because doing them would go against the “root of our personhood.”[25] But what root is he talking about? It is precisely the agency of the female, and it is by the very nature of her femaleness that she is deemed unfit for such vital and important tasks. Moreover, she must resign and positively declare they are more fit for a man in order to be “properly feminine.” This is because the importance of these duties is fundamentally grounded in the heart of male personhood, something she is incapable of being.

But is it not reasonable to say, “Men and women have equality in importance with differences in importance?” Not if you are talking about male headship and female subordination. Man, by nature of his maleness, is deemed fit to lead, provide, and protect. Woman, by nature of her femaleness, is not as fit for such vital and consequential tasks (like leadership), but is reliant on man to carry them out. Moreover, without male headship, her femininity can never mature or become complete, seeing how there would be nothing to submit “joyfully” and “intelligently” to, nor “affirm,” “receive,” and “nurture.”

Mature womanhood is dependent on following male headship, while male headship can mature independently[26] outside of solely ruling women (no matter how humble) as illustrated poignantly by the exclusivity of leadership in the church.[27]. A complementarian author puts it,

God intends to equip and mobilize the saints through a company of spiritual men who take primary responsibility for leadership and teaching in the church.[28]

The word “primary” signals a higher level of teaching, leading, and responsibility and therefore a higher importance. So, if we go back to our government analogy, the man not only has the decision-making status of a Supreme Court Justice, but also the agency status of a President on head of state—all of which is supposedly natural of, and therefore determined by, gender! Who could equip and mobilize the saints if there were no male leaders? Certainly not women!

Thus, the complementarian position teaches men and women are equal in importance and honor to the marriage and church, but are differentiated by an authority that implies greater importance and honor. Hence, it is not unreasonable to say that that complementarian position is incoherent.

If it is said that greater or lesser authority implies a “different” importance and honor, and not a superior or inferior importance and honor, than the word “authority” is obfuscated and equivocated, rendering it void of meaning. Since we believe “authority” has meaning, it would be more accurate to say that women are equal in importance and honor but unequal in importance and honor. Therefore the complementarian position is shown to be contradictory.

Having plucked three of the complementarians’ four equivalent human standards (personhood, honor, and importance) it only stands to reason that men are more valuable than women. Though it is true that the blood of a woman is equivalent in worth to that of a man’s, it cannot be argued that women are just as useful as men. True, women can do certain things that a man cannot (childbearing and nursing). But, if the conditions of male headship and female subordination are permanent, comprehensive, necessary, and universal then it must be said that this view so stresses the “differences” that it minimizes the equality of men and women at best and obliterates it at worst.

Complementarians would like to believe that they have vindicated their position by denying that men hold a superior function based on superior being by saying that men are neither “superior” nor “inferior,” but “different” beings. However, the obfuscation and equivocation of the word “authority” by the use of the word “different” is the real “word trick” in this discussion and it is ironically made by the complementarian argument, not the egalitarian one. Complementarians need to realize that function follows being, and by advocating for a hierarchy where one universally functions over the other, it inexorably follows that the differentiation between the sexes would, therefore, have to be one of superiority and inferiority.

[1] Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism And Biblical Truth (Sisters: Multnomah 2004)
[2] Grudem, EFBT 441.
[3] Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Good News For Women (Grand Rapids: Baker Books 1994, 55), italics original
[4] Grudem, EFBT 441. Italics his
[5] Grudem, EFBT 442.
[6] John Piper and Wayne Grudem et all, Recovering Biblical Manhood And Womanhood (Wheaton: Crossway 1991).
[7] Groothuis, Rebecca Merrill; “‘Equal in Being, Unequal in Role’: Exploring the Logic of Woman’s Subordination” Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Ronald Pierce eds., Discovering Biblical Equality (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press 2004), pages 301-333.
[8] It should be noted that the definitions are not selected only to fit the intended meaning of the words used in the complementarian proposition, though the intended meaning has been noticed and included. The inclusiveness of other definitions is to show how tricky language can be.
[9] I take a structural approach in defining the imago dei in that I discern with what substances humanity has been endowed that distinguish us from animals.
[10] Capacity here refers to the ability humans possess in relating with God that animals do not have. This must be distinguished from the Pelagian notion of self-sufficiency that can carry out good relations with God.
[11] It is often said that women are more emotional than men. However, this does not mean women have a greater capacity of emotion, but less hindrance in expressing them. Simply put, women are not designed in such a way that they can be more or less happier (emotional) than men.
[12] The functional aspect of the imago dei is where God gives the responsibility of representing Himself to humanity. The structural capacities of the human self are thus given for the fulfillment of this function.
[13] Grudem, EFBT 44; “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity” Piper, RBMW 29-35. Piper says that this protection is not just against mortal enemies but also against “Satan and sin.”
[14] Grudem, EFBT 43.
[15] Piper, RBMW 37.
[16] Groothuis, DBE 304, 316
[17] A good word that describes all of these definitions is “universal.”
[18] As opposed to ability, knowledge, and experience.
[19] “An Overview of Central Concerns” Piper & Grudem, RBMW 59.
[20] Piper, RBMW 44.
[21] It is true that the sexes differ in agency (that is, are not the same) in that the sexes function differently, and in certain situations are apparently better than the other. For example, it is commonly believed that men make better soldiers than women. But this is based upon the ability of the male to fulfill the needs of such a task, and it does not necessarily exclude females from such an occupation. It is feasible that a woman can be a better shot than a man and be selected for an operation requiring her marksmanship. In the church, however, complementarians maintain that, though a woman may be a superb orator, she still must be excluded from teaching because she was born female.
[22] See pages 25, 32 in RBMW.
[23] Piper, RBMW 32.
[24] Piper, RBMW 32.
[25] Piper, RBMW 25-26.
[26] Especially in the case of a celibate male.
[27] Which is not only over females, but also males.
[28] Piper, RBMW 44


4 Responses

  1. […] “Word-Tricks” and Obfuscations Posted on April 5, 2008 by Adam My article The “Difference” Between “A and Not-A”: An Analyses of Alleged “Word-T… is now available online. See the Winter 2006 edition of Priscilla Papers for the published […]

  2. […] an annotated bibliography of gender-related articles of 2006 and included some commentary on my The “Difference” Between “A and Not-A”: An Analyses of Alleged “Word-Tricks” and Obfusca…. There comments are reproduced below and my responses are in […]

  3. that was probably the most delightful read of my day!

  4. You know what I think? All of these paradoxes could have been simply avoided if we had used the proof of George and Dora Winston George that the Bible bases authority, and therefore ALL gender role distinctions of headship and submission, on the inherent nature of a relation and its function, value, significance, and purpose, rather than on essential being.

    The proof of this can be found in Chapter 4 of their book RECOVERING BIBLICAL MINISTRY BY WOMEN, though I do not agree with many of their conclusions about the role of women in the church, particularly because they tend to overlook the Biblically proven fact that the church is God’s household, and whatever role distinctions the family relation by virtue of its inherent nature as a family relation MUST therefore carry over into the church.

    If I have time, I shall send you a more information.

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