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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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, 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.
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 view allows for differences in male and female gifting, but they do not explain the differences in gender roles. 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.)
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). 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? 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. 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.
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. 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).
I don't think anyone has a right to expect ever to hold the position of 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? 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 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.
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.
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 Amazon.com (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.
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.
Happening to have a property everlastingly does not amount to having it essentially. She's confusing something's being essential with something's being true for eternity. 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. 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. 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. 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.