Let's Talk About (Complementary) Sex
On the one hand, I’m encouraged when Christians can have more honest, open dialogue about sex and sexuality in the public forum.
On the other, I’m more than a little distressed when the matter at hand is about “Biblically-based” sexual submission.
For those unfamiliar, there are (at least) two camps in the Christian conversation about gender roles, one of which we can call “egalitarian,” and the other calls itself “complementarian.” The implication of the latter is that, though we are not the same, we males and females fit together in many ways like pieces of a puzzle, one complementing something the other lacks, and vice-versa.
And if the definition of complementarianism stopped there, I would be on board; but in truth it’s a thinly veiled case for women submitting to men. Sorry, but this isn’t complementary; it’s authoritarian.
In a recent post, Rachel Held Evans explained the troublesome issues with complementarianism well:
…For modern-day Christian patriarchalists (sometimes called complementarians), hierarchal gender relationships are God-ordained, so the essence of masculinity is authority, and essence of femininity is submission. Men always lead and women always follow. There is no sphere unaffected by this hierarchy—not even, it seems, sex.
Her post was in response to a recent post by the Gospel Coalition on their blog, which, in turn, was responding to the popularity of a recent novel called Fifty Shades of Grey. The book deals with some tantalizing – disturbing for some – aspects of human sexual expression, including acting out fantasies of various kinds.
The Gospel Coalition responded to the popularity of this book with a post called “The Polluted Waters of Fifty Shades of Grey, etc.” Basically, the vast majority of the post is a large block quote from a book by Douglas Wilson called Fidelity: What it Means to be a One-Woman Man, released in 1999. The book outlines in detail the “complementarian” case, citing Biblical passages to support the argument. Though contemporary Christian leaders like Mark Driscoll and John Piper speak for themselves, one can detect much of Wilson’s ideas in the blog posts and sermons they both have delivered on many occasions about men being heads of their households and women submitting to their husbands.
I have linked to the Coalition’s entire piece, so as not to fall into a trap of “cherry picking” from another’s article. I encourage you to click through and read the whole post for yourself. But there are a couple of passages in particular from Wilson’s book that have drawn the most attention in recent days. He says:
Because we have forgotten the biblical concepts of true authority and submission, or more accurately, have rebelled against them, we have created a climate in which caricatures of authority and submission intrude upon our lives with violence.
…however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed.
But we cannot make gravity disappear just because we dislike it, and in the same way we find that our banished authority and submission comes back to us in pathological forms. This is what lies behind sexual “bondage and submission games,” along with very common rape fantasies.
So in short, the argument is that, because we don’t keep men in a proper position of authority/dominance and women in a position of submission, we corrupt our sexual identities, which come out in deviant ways.
I’ll forgo the typical responses in defense of egalitarian gender relationships; Evans did far better with this than I could anyway. But aside from the brazen misogyny of this perspective, it seems to miss a couple of important points worth noting.
Back in “Biblical times,” and as recounted in the Bible more than once, sexual deviance was not absent from that patriarchal culture. Of course, there are the commonly cited passages about Sodom and Gomorrah, suggesting that it was the moral decay of that culture, giving in to lust and hedonism that led to their downfall. Perhaps, but what about David? He sent a man off to die at war so he could sleep with his wife. From what I can tell, he’s the very picture of Biblical manhood. And of course, there’s the bit about him dancing naked around town in praise of God. Wonder if Driscoll would approve of this at his next Mars Hill service?
How about Noah passing out drunk in his tent with his naughty bits exposed, and then trying to cover up his humiliation by throwing his patriarchal weight around and punishing those who found him that way?
Fast forward a few thousand years. If this complementary family structure is the model that eschews deviance, why did Ted Haggard solicit sexual favors from a male prostitute? Why did Jim Bakker have an affair with another woman? Why did Jimmy Swaggart hire prostitutes? And the list goes on.
Is it possible – just maybe – that the rigid, hierarchic model of gender relationships plays into the real issue at hand in cases of most sexual deviance? Is it possible that rape, adultery and many other forms of indiscretion are actually more about power than sex?
If so, it seems to me that an egalitarian power dynamic, rather than being the cause of sexual deviance, is truly our only opportunity to level the field, empowering women to cease seeing themselves as less-than, subject-to and somehow deserving of the power men lord over them, in bed and elsewhere. Put another way: we’ve lived with the patriarchal model for thousands of years, and in all of that time, we’ve seen no shortage of rape, sexual abuse and harmful sexual deviance in the world. So to argue that the fact it still exists today is a symptom of some other way of thinking about the role of men and women smacks of willful ignorance.
And lest we forget, Jesus himself is a champion of egalitarianism, not just in sexual relations, but across the board. He sought to flatten the pyramid, tear down the hierarchy and even actively empower women to the shock and dismay of patriarchs around him. Unless there are scandalous stories about Jesus and his disciples I’ve missed, that egalitarian model seemed to work out pretty well for them.
Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He is Director if Church Growth and Development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date."
Images: Couple in bed by mast3r/shutterstock. "Lot Fleeing Sodom" painting by anonymous Low Countries (early 16th century) painter, taken from a collection at the Louvre museum in Paris via Wiki Commons.