Feminist Torquing and the Bird Man

In his “Word from the Bird,” Michael Bird provocatively, and mistakenly, claims that “certain theologies enable sexual abuse”—all this shortly after the SBC independent report revealing sexual abuse cases amongst ‘complementarian’ leaders.

While the argument by Bird is unclear, he is clear that complementarianism (e.g., the view that there is some functional difference between man and woman in the Church, where men are the leaders) is a problem. He is mistaken, but this isn’t the first time. Anyone familiar with Bird’s popular writings is aware that complementarianism has been a hobby horse and an ancillary motivation to a more egalitarian ecclesiology. He makes this clear when he states:

That said, there is something particularly hypocritical and sinister when some church leaders champion complementarianism as good for women, and yet reduce women to either a source of sexual temptation or see them as an instrument for male sexual fulfillment.

His sights for undermining complementarian theology are clear. And, while he does soften his claim toward the end of the article where he states that women (ordained or not) need to be present at every level of decision-making, which may be a reasonable request, his critique is stronger than what is represented toward the end. What is not reasonable, however, is his claim that complementarian theology yields or enables sexual abuse (or the implication that egalitarianism does not). My concern here is two-fold: First, his claim sits uncomfortably at odds with claims or suggestions he has made in the past that Baptists (particularly SBC types), specifically, and free church evangelicals, generally, should adopt an ancient form of liturgy. Second, he claims, or implies, that complementarian theology is intrinsically harmful. On this point, the Bird-man is mistaken.

Complementarian Theology

A brief defense of complementarian theology (or preferably the biblical term patriarchal theology) is in order both in secular society and in the Church. For those who have bought into the notion, along with Bird, that egalitarianism is better, truer, and safer than complementarianism, there is the simultaneous belief that complementarianism purportedly perpetuates the “empowerment of men and the disempowerment of women.” While this is a common assumption in feminism, it is contrary to traditional norms that have placed greater responsibility on the ordering of society according to that which is implicit in heteronormativity as the foundation of marriage. Implicit, herein, is the ordering of a society that places stricter demands on the whole of the family including the patriarch who is called to protect his family and preserve them. In summarizing Dawson’s thoughtful analysis of patriarchal society, R.V. Young states,

Christopher Dawson knew the limitations of patriarchy in its traditional forms, but he also knew that it was an essential element in the rise of civilization—not just a particular civilization, but any civilization at all. Finally, and most important, he recognized that the only alternative to patriarchy that could support a progressive, generous civilization was the transformation of patriarchy in the form of the Christian family—the social institution that has provided the basis for the most magnanimous and abundant society the world has ever known.[1]

In other words, patriarchy is and has been an ‘essential’ element of society and necessary to sustaining the goods of that society. In fact, patriarchy has commonly been perceived as the means for elevating, honoring, and caring for women despite what modern feminists, like Bird, would have you believe. Where patriarchy has been strong historically, women and children have been protected and experienced flourishing. Quite the contrary in a modern, progressive society where a man like Harvey Weinstein (who, under a strong patriarchy would find a punishment far stricter than our enlightened moment) can verbally espouse the very same feminist thesis presumed by Bird, but act in heinous ways behind closed doors. No, it’s not clear at all that patriarchy, complementarity, or traditional views on men and women is the problem. But let’s take a step back for a moment.

Let’s be honest that there is much confusion today centering around gender and sexuality. Let’s also be honest about the trends that are emerging as a result of these confusions and the ongoing revisions of the past. These will work themselves out in different ways. The permutations may result in what is oft a response of “we need to change.” The other response being: “we need to dig our heels in.” Both responses can be problematic. One can lead to a giving up of something true, and the other can be a kind of clutching without adequate understanding.

The Proper Role of Experience

There’s another facet to this discussion. There’s a tendency when considering gender and sexuality issues to change our theology based on our personal experiences and the experiences of the mainstream culture. This certainly brings with it a set of relevant topics, and we ought to think about intersecting theology and experience. Experience is something that should prompt new questions, modifications to our practice, and even, in some cases, possible refinements to our theology. But all too often experience becomes the catalyst for changing theology, even fundamental doctrine. This is certainly the case with recent theological modifications to the view of marriage and sexuality—just take Brownson as a case in point. Brownson is a NT theologian who changed his views about the acceptability of homosexuality as a vocation from a more traditional view. The catalyst for his change is one of personal experience—just consider the way he frames it from the outset.[2] Brownson begins his theological assessment of homosexuality from the challenging and disheartening occurrence of his child’s practice as a homosexual.

Bird’s essay represents a similar case for theological revisionism. While his concern is not with homosexuality per se (although I think there are striking relations that should be expounded in other contexts), it is with a theology of the church, gender norms, and practice. Once again, Michael Bird explicitly claims that certain theologies enable sexual abuse.[3] This is not a claim that is entirely new from him—he’s suggested this in more than one place. But, due to recent events mentioned already, it has provided the catalyst for making public a more explicit claim about these leaders and their theological practices. His target critique really has been of Baptists, specifically, and free-church ecclesiologies generally.

Now, let me offer a bit of preface here. I am not a member of the SBC. I am not a Baptist. I don’t have an institution to protect (at least not an obvious one beyond that of the early Church and the Church Catholic as it has been understood for most of its history). Furthermore, I have had no formal connection to the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood with whom these ‘leaders’ align. What I do share with Bird is instructive and important to this critique—we are both Anglicans. We both share the conviction that the recent revelations are striking, shocking, and overwhelming! We also share the desire to avoid expressive individualism and its varying permutations in the evangelical church (i.e., vestments and the liturgy it represents really matter!). I share his conviction that Baptists, particularly SBC types, need the wider liturgical tradition to avoid certain practical ramifications of its tradition. What I don’t share with Bird is the conviction that complementarian theology is intrinsically problematic or needs to be rejected because of recent revelations. In fact, I believe this sort of motivation is illicit because it utilizes character assassination to motivate a specific theological agenda and resembles the all-too-common practice of the ‘cancel culture.’ So let me be frank, as someone who may have not experienced sexual abuse but abuse nonetheless: This is not the way to move theological opinion, and it has certain costs that—oddly enough—a theologically consistent Anglican should avoid.[4]

Abuse Does Not Negate Right-Use

In a somewhat recent article, I made the argument that evangelicals need the tradition (or Tradition) because they need authority in their life and practice—what they don’t need is authoritarianism—or abuse of any kind. But to conflate an authority structure with authoritarian abuse would miss the great good of the wider tradition and its practice, both of which are rooted in Biblical parameters regarding the Church.

By arguing in the manner that he does at points, Bird not only casts doubt on Baptist practice but on Anglican practice. His aspersion for complementarianism ironically implicates the authority in Anglicanism. The rationale for male-only led ordination is something that has been codified in the wider Church Catholic as necessary to the Church, and rooted, first, in a rounded Biblical conception of the Church.

If one were to take Ephesians 5 seriously as an ecclesial model for gender relations, then it becomes rather clear that the complementarity (and, yes, hierarchy) of male and female function liturgically, and sacramentally, in ways that are similar and different.[5] The model of Christ as the head of the Church becomes liturgically representative in the male as a Father figure (i.e., as a deacon and priest) and the wife as a representative for the Church writ large. To eschew these distinctions is to make a wreck of what has been considered fixed and formative throughout most of the Church’s history. There are specified liturgical (i.e., sacramental) functions that are found both in the home and in the Church that God has designed and blessed. To give up the theological good of what the tradition has held dear because of the potential harm correlated with it would miss its theological virtue by trading it in for what seems expedient. This is not a good trade-off.[6]

Despite Bird’s tendency to weigh the motivations for calling attention to the unbalanced attention given to the platforming of women in the pulpit against the problematic and less attentive focus given to abuse cases by men, it does not yield the conclusion either that one view is not true or that it is not good when practiced in the way God intends.

One could make a similar argument that we should avoid male-led homes if, hypothetically, fathers were statistically more likely to abuse children (whether physically or sexually).[7] It would seem odd to push the line that _ either women would be better leaders in the home or that we should then prefer single-led homes by mothers. A doctrine of sin that takes seriously the fact that what God blesses from the beginning also, used poorly in the wrong hands, has the potential for greater harm.

We can, of course, point to many cases in history, both secular and religious, where men have been harmful. Equally, I think we can point to just as many, if not more, cases in history, both secular and religious, where men have been used by God for the sustaining of goods, the flourishing of the Church, and the means by which God bequeaths the good heritage of the Church to future generations. If in fact, this is the case, it is not an accident merely of an illicit patriarchal society, but it is rooted in a rich liturgical (i.e., sacramental) tapestry that places men at the head by Divine design. So, we need to begin not with the assumption that present churches functioning from male-led places are the result of a flawed system, but the result of corruption within a Divinely designed system. The starting points for assessing recent corruptions will, then, look quite different.

Notes:

  1. Thanks to a pastor-friend, Rich Lusk, for pointing out this helpful article.
  2. Famous philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff had a similar journey to becoming an affirming proponent of homosexual practice: https://calvinchimes.org/2016/10/22/wolterstorff-says-yes-to-same-sex-marriage/ [accessed on June 13, 2022].
  3. In one place he criticizes a well-known advocate of CBMW for exhorting women to not wear tight leggings. https://michaelfbird.substack.com/p/gender-wars-the-week-that-was?s=r [accessed on June 10, 2022]. Look around time 1:57. While one might argue the exhortation from the CBMW leader is over the top in contrast to more significant cultural issues, Michael Bird makes a rather bold claim, namely that this is simply another instance of the problematic patriarchy.
  4. Just consider the clarity of the 39 Articles, see: Articles 23, 26-28, and 32. One could also look at the BCP ordination services, which consistently only includes males in holy orders. We could point to numerous sources beyond these two including The Homilies.
  5. Interestingly, many women have made the claim that there is little-to-no space for women in the church. Aimee Byrd makes something like this claim in her observations and experiences in more than one place, for example: https://michaelfbird.substack.com/p/conversations-with-aimee-byrd?s=r [accessed on June 9, 2022]. This is unfortunate and may represent something of her own cultural experience today and within Presbyterian churches. In an early church understanding, there were two clear sacramental places for women that are upheld in Catholic spirituality, namely 1) the role of deaconess and 2) the role of being a nun—as well as being a wife. About 25 minutes in, Bird (‘beyond rights and roles’) does touch on something that is reflective of deeper more substantive teachings already present in the wider tradition regarding the sacramentality of the men and women in a biological way (albeit not in a reductive way). That said, the early church gives credence to this in its clear distinction of sacramentality.
  6. Mother Teresa, for example, would have never aspired to the preaching role or the role of overseeing the Lord’s Supper because of a felt lack or because of possible corruptions in the church. No, she understood the rich sacramental distinctions between the Father operating in the role of Christ and her role as a Mother and servant-leader.
  7. While it might be a common assumption that Fathers are statistically more likely to abuse, studies are suggestive in the other direction. I had actually assumed this to be the case but a pastor-friend, James Briggs, corrected me and pointed me to an important student that shows that statistically it is more likely that mothers will abuse. See the following: https://childprotectionresource.online/mothers-are-more-likely-to-abuse-children-than-fathers-fact/?fbclid=IwAR18WaRwQLO1P60T2UFlgvkRSwEcDpz5UrgUU–FSk53_F0VmhFgnxb9tMU [accessed on June 13, 2022]. An older study shows that single-parent homes are statistically more likely to be abusive contexts for children. https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/child-abuse-and-violence-single-parent-families-parent-absence-and and https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2817087/ [accessed on June 13, 2022]. Also see: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2043979/ [accessed on June 13, 2022].

 


Joshua R. Farris

Joshua Ryan Farris, Rev, Ph.D, He is Humboldt Experienced Researcher Fellow at the University of Bochum, Germany, 2022-2023; Mundelein Seminary Chester and Margaret Paluch Professor, 2020-2021, March 2020 Center of Theological Inquiry; Director of Trinity School of Theology; International Advisor, Perichoresis, The Theological Journal of Emanuel University; Associate Editor, Philosophical and Theological Studies for the Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies; Associate Editor, European Journal of Philosophy of Religion.


'Feminist Torquing and the Bird Man' have 4 comments

  1. June 18, 2022 @ 9:46 am Fr. John

    Mr. Farris, it seems some clarification is in order. First, complementarianism is anthropology, not theology, correct?

    Second, in Ephesians 5, submission is within marriage. There is not necessarily a universal submission of women (as women) to men (as men) in view. This is a point often lost on Baptists and evangelical complementarians.

    Finally, while I share with you the traditional view of ordination, we should not overlook the fact that, from an Anglican and Catholic perspective, Baptists and other Protestant groups do not have ordinations, properly speaking, and in their zeal to preserve male-headship in the Church without the organ of the apostolic ministry, complementarian protestants actually do bar women from ministries which, in scripture, were rightly exercised by women. Do we gain anything by denying that this practice contributes to a culture of abuse in a sect like the SBC?

    Reply

    • August 12, 2022 @ 6:55 am J Farris

      Fr John,

      Thank you.

      First, complentarianism is a theological anthropology.

      Second, Ephesians 5 has far too many allusions to and rootedness in a bigger ecclesial vision. We must not miss the mystery which places a microscope on the home but more how that is situated in and a pointer to Christ and his bride. This is massive! And it yields a richer ecclesial vision that Catholic readings have taken note of. Levering’s work on Engaging the Doctrine of Marriage is helpful here as we think theologically about Ephesians 5 appropriate it in light of Scriptures wider teachings on marriage and the Church.

      Finally, if you read my article carefully then I think we agree on this point in some ways. I am offering an implicit critique of Baptist or free church ecclesiology. As for defending the Baptists, well in part there is something to be gained, yes of course! They are still brothers and the charges against complimentarianism are overstatements. But the deeper oddity I’m pointing to is Birds ironic critique of them and the way he and other egalitarians go about it. An aside, too think there has been more abuse in complimentary contexts than egalitarian contexts actually is a bit baffling. How that thesis has caught deserves critique.

      Thank you for your engagement.

      Reply

      • August 12, 2022 @ 6:59 am J Farris

        Additional note on Ephesians 5: there is not a universal submission of all women to all men. I don’t think that’s entailed but what I said. There is a familial structure that is an image of the Church and church order, however, so that would entail liturgical difference between specific functions as it pertains to gender as one of the conditions among others. But that doesn’t entail that each women is married to each man.

        Reply

        • January 10, 2023 @ 1:32 am Joshua

          JFarris

          No there is not universal submission in all cases or contexts, but there are clear ordering distinctions that are rooted in the creational pattern of similarity and difference that is reflected in the ecclesial context.

          Reply


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