Thursday, June 14, 2012

What's love got to do with it?: Power and Mutuality

Evans and her "year of biblical womanhood"
Blogger Rachel Held Evans recently hosted a "Week of Mutuality" on her blog. In this series, she and others advocate for an egalitarian relationship between the genders in the church and the home, including abolishing separate roles in marriage. She makes a few fine points, especially that, too frequently, complementarians invoke the June Cleavers of the 1950s feminine mystique as the ideal instead of the Ruths or Tamars whose femininity is expressed through complete trust in God; however, I have noticed that the picture of authority given in Evans' posts belies a fundamental philosophical difference between egalitarians and complementarians that goes beyond disagreement about gender roles and feminism's contributions to society.

Throughout the Week of Mutuality, the most common accusation thrown at those who believe men are given special responsibility to lead their families and women are given special responsibility to follow is that they create a power-based hierarchy that cannot help but be oppressive. Evans criticized Russell Moore for embracing the word "patriarchy" because "For patriarchalists, the power struggle between men and women only ends when men win." Patriarchy, she argues, is a result of the Fall. God curses Eve for her disobedience with this: "Your desire will be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." Evans uses this as evidence that all male leadership is a result of the Fall. "It is within the context of judgment, not creation, that hierarchy and subjugation enter the story of man and woman," she writes, dismissing the narrative that, before the Fall, Eve was created as a helper fit for Adam. A power struggle began after the tree and now, in light of the coming restoration of the Kingdom, hierarchy should be abolished because of its perpetuation of sinful power dynamics.

The question I want to explore here is whether the Christian view of authority can allow for equating hierarchy with power-based oppression.

Evans makes it clear she does equate the two, making the jump in her blog post from hierarchical gender relationships to a list of atrocities committed against women that she sees as a result of patriarchy around the world. I would submit that the view of authority presented by Evans and many other egalitarians has more in common with nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy than with the biblical portrait of authority based on love. Michel Foucault's historical methodology took many cues from Nietzsche's "genealogy" of history in which he sought to deconstruct the origins of institutions and demythologize them by turning them into a series of power struggles and clashes of wills. (Evans tries her hand at this type of historiography here.) Foucault sums up this view this way:

Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination. (Michel Foucault in "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" qtd. Foucault: A Very Short Introduction)
Nietzsche understood the power of a mustache
This view is a fundamental departure from the Christian understanding of God's work in history. To Nietzsche, Christianity is rife with power struggle. In The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche explains the poor's attraction to Christianity because it provides them with power: 
Under Christianity the instincts of the subjugated and the oppressed come to the fore: it is only those who are at the bottom who seek their salvation in it. Here the prevailing pastime, the favorite remedy for boredom is the discussion of sin, self-criticism, the inquisition of conscience; here the emotion produced by power (called 'God') is pumped up (by prayer).

I'm not saying Evans is a will-to-power Nietzschean. That would be absurd. But I want to point out how the ideas behind equating authority with oppressive power cannot be appropriated in a Christian worldview. Christianity is, after all, a joyful monarchy. Evans' view of authority - and, indeed, the common contemporary Western view of authority - is summed up nicely by David Brooks in his recent column: "Those 'Question Authority' bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority." There simply cannot be a just or loving authority.

This view of authority betrays a keen lack of trust in its purpose in imaging God's loving sovereignty. Christ did not come solely to be our example, but to become our ever-loving Lord and just King. What makes complementarianism counter-cultural is not its affirmation of hierarchy, but its affirmation of authority based utterly and completely on love. Just as God exercises his sovereignty by leading sinners to repent with grace so beautiful as to be irresistible, so husbands are to lead their wives with authority that is marked by love. The Ephesians 5 mandate to women to submit in marriage is only fundamentally oppressive if you view Christ's relationship with the Church as one of domination. David Brooks ends his column with this: "To have good leaders you have to have good followers — able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it." Our view of authority is essential not only in understanding dynamics between the sexes, but how we view our God. Husbands can have loving authority over their wives because God has loving authority over us. His authority is mighty and awesome in power, but exercised entirely in unconditional love.


  1. How do you reconcile believing in total depravity with this view of benevolent (and gendered) power?

    1. Because I also believe in the mighty power of the gospel to change totally depraved sinners. No true leadership is possible without submission first to Christ because God is the source of all authority. The effects of the Fall has tainted leadership and it manifests itself both in abuse of power and abdication of it. But, within the church, we are a people centered around the authority of God. Elders (who have authority over the congregation), husbands (who have authority over their wives), and parents (who have authority over their children) within the church do not have the final say in their leadership positions - God does. This is the power of the gospel: to take prideful people who want to use authority for their own selfish gain and change them into humble people who desire to use their authority to serve, just as Christ did by laying down his life for them. I see countless examples of this in my congregation.