Complementarianism and Why Natural Law Needs a Community

In the past few weeks, a few Christian bloggers (mainly from the Reformed camp) have engaged each other in a discussion on complementarianism. The discussion has missed, to my mind, a key element and requirement in natural law prauksoldierctical reasoning.

It all started with John Piper who, commenting on women in the workforce, distinguished between “directive” and “non-directive” influence. He said:

To the degree that a woman’s influence over a man, guidance of a man, leadership of a man, is personal and a directive, it will generally offend a man’s good, God-given sense of responsibility and leadership, and thus controvert God’s created order. To an extent, a woman’s leadership or influence may be personal and non-directive or directive and non-personal, but I don’t think we should push the limits. I don’t think those would necessarily push the limits of what is appropriate. That is my general paradigm of guidance. And you can see how flexible it is and how imprecise it is.

Aimee Byrd responded in a post that expressed more bewilderment than anything. She did not address the universality of natural law (i.e., the “created order”), nor the relationship of scripture to natural law. Lily Cherney explained natural law and its relevance in a fine post (here). Doug Wilson also posted on it. Carl Trueman responded (here). Trueman has not, to my knowledge, responded with any discussion on natural law. The failure of both Trueman and Byrd to mention natural law and its universality makes both of their criticisms rather weak and incomplete.

If men and women are different by design, then one could presume that this is relevant to civil society, not domestic society alone. At the same time, we should recognize the complementarianism is really about the man/woman relationship in the domestic sphere; and it goes back to at least Aristotle: men and women “live together not only for the sake of reproduction but also for the various purposes of life; for from the start the functions are divided, and those of man and woman are different; so they help each other by throwing their peculiar gifts into the common stock.” (Nichomachean Ethics Book 8). There is a type of organic relationship in the domestic sphere. But in what way does this transfer into civil society? Do women complement men in this realm to form an organic whole? Even if you hold to an organicist view of society, the complementarity of women to men in civil society is not obvious. I see no indication of this in Aristotle or even Hegel.

It is certainly possible for gender differences to function in different ways depending on the sphere. In domestic society, the relationship is organic and in the civil sphere it is non-organic, though in the latter there ought to be a principle of hierarchy and the type of power structures mentioned by Piper and Wilson.

This has implications for the discussion, for Trueman has established what seems like an Aristotelian mean:

Egalitarianism        Complementarianism              Patriarchy
(deficiency)                     (mean)                               (excess)

We ought to aim for the mean, of course. But it is not clear how this schema can transfer from the domestic sphere to civil society. If gender difference is natural and by design, then it would presumably transfer into civil society, though the schema in the domestic sphere, which is designed uniquely for complementarity to form an organic whole, would not transfer. One must create another mean, which is not easy. Perhaps it would look like this:

Exclusion           Incorporation            Equality
(deficiency)             (mean)                 (excess)

It is not perfect, mainly because the middle term is too ambiguous, but it is a start. The point here is that complementarianism has an underlying principle (based on gender difference) that is not exclusively a principle for the domestic sphere; the principle works itself out in a different way in the civil sphere.

Assuming we believe in natural law, gender difference, and that the former two are relevant to man/woman relations in civil society, I continue my discussion and to my main point.

This discussion on complementarianism and the women’s role in civil society in the Reformed blogosphere reveals how modern we’ve become. We treat natural law as containing within itself the set of practices that fulfill it: If one simply knows the natural law, then he or she knows what to do. But this is the wrong way to go about understanding natural law and how to fulfill it. Natural law is expressed in various particular ways, ways that can be acceptably otherwise given the time, place, and circumstances. In other words, conflicting particulars can be acceptable and be consistent with natural law. Different cultures—rooted in the tradition and history of a people—do things differently, yet still follow the same underlying principle. For example, we can say that a man opening a door for a women is proper as a sign of respect, but there is nothing in the act itself that is unqualifiedly good or bad. It is only good qualifiedly, that is, in reference to the principle of respect for women. Likewise, not opening the door is not in itself good or bad, and a culture that holds to the same principle of respect for women might not have developed such a practice. This culture has other ways to express the principle. So you have two conflicting practices (one that recognizes the custom of opening doors for women and one that does not recognized it) that, nevertheless, are consistent with the same principle.

If it is true that natural law is worked out in a particular way based on a certain context, then we cannot proceed to answer the woman-in-the-workforce question in any practical way without first considering the nature of particulars and how they are established. For we must admit that if a particular expression of natural law could be otherwise and still be consistent with natural law, then particulars, by themselves, could be viewed as arbitrary. One could say, “There is no law. I can do otherwise,” which is, in a sense, true. The way men can show respect to women vary significantly and many can conflict.

Two questions arise from this: 1) How can particulars that can be otherwise be morally binding? and 2) How can this fit with modern pluralism?

The first question is answered by Edmund Burke. Without “prejudices” or the “decent drapery of life” we are left with nothing but “naked reason.”

…prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision skeptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.

According to Burke, these prejudices or particulars, developed and passed down by a people through time, provide a set of common social expectation, manners, and mutual understanding. More than that, the particulars, as ways of life, form habits that become part of one’s nature. They came down from time immemorial. They were refined and deposited in the next generation, providing meaning and social tranquility. The mind might recognize, by the intellect, the natural law, but the habits of the particulars are embodied and give motivations for action. Natural law (viz. the universals) stirs the intellect; particulars stir the affections.

All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society….All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation…

With principles alone we are lost. We need particulars. For Burke, these just customs are binding on each person because they cannot be private. They must be the customs of a community. While there are no specific laws in nature for each custom, prejudice, or particular, the law that is higher than the individual—the good of the community—demands conformity.

I’ve already posted on the importance of social customs in Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin. I’ll just say here that Calvin was firm in calling for the people of Geneva to follow “just customs.” They are necessary for public order.

Of all the commentators, Piper has reasoning most consistent with Burke and Calvin. He offers principles (that they are right or wrong doesn’t matter to my analysis) and refuses to give a list of jobs that women shouldn’t do. And he admits that his principles are “flexible” and “imprecise.” Something prudent in one context may not be prudent in another. Something that works in one culture may not work in another. Something customary in one culture is not customary in another. So Piper seems to be allowing for significant differences.

The problem is, of course, how do we determine the particulars? How do we know which are our particulars? Burke’s treatment of this subject is, in part, a lament that the “sophisters, economists; and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.” They want the “decent drapery of life…to be rudely torn off.” The prejudices that “harmonized the different shades of life…are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.” Trueman’s quips and Byrd’s bewilderment remind one of these Enlightened destroyers, as do those who call Piper and Wilson legalists.

The fall of customs, manners, and traditions—and further, and most importantly, the fall of a united culture—and the rise of pluralism, multiculturalism, and a general Christian social philosophy stressing social (not political) disengagement has created a socio-political environment in which common, localized and particular expressions of natural law are largely impossible. And American Christians today, as part of their war against legalism, judgmentalism and “legal preachers,” are typically against such common culture. Anglo-American intellectual Christianity has accepted diversity as a strength or, in the least, as something we ought not to fuss about.

The diminishing importance of a robust localized culture and the rise of sanctity of diversity sends the message that those particulars are actually arbitrary. There is no united us to which our habits ought to conform. Again, one says, “there is no law.” So our present society undermines the practical outgrowth of natural law, for such growth is the development of particulars that could be otherwise. If anything that could be otherwise is arbitrary, then there can be nothing but arbitrary particulars. Hence, we get the type of responses we see to Piper and Wilson: “that’s legalism,” “that’s patriarchy,” and “that isn’t in the Bible.” These are the responses of those who want explicit commands that cannot be otherwise. The problem is, natural law cannot always work like that.

So even if all people agree on a principle concerning women in the workplace, the way this works itself out practically is not obvious, and it would vary from place to place. And in our day, it would vary from person to person, because we do not believe anymore that cultures can claim a place, nor that we ought to strive for a common, comprehensive and particular way of life. Our devotion to diversity undermines our ability to do natural law practical reasoning.

The contradictions in our reasoning and our confusions are on full display in this debate. You want natural law? You want to know the role of men and women in the workforce and the public? You need a community in which it can be expressed; and it can be expressed only by a people committed to a particular culture and heritage.

Concluding thoughts

What do we do then? If I am correct, then one could think that practical reasoning is impossible. I offer two suggestions.

1. We must stop our celebration of diversity. Rejecting multiculturalism, pluralism, and diversity (whatever you want to call it) is not necessarily an indication of a belief in cultural supremacy, cultural hegemony, racial superiority, or anything of that sort. It is simply (and at its best) a recognition that cultures and people generally flourish best, can act locally, and can have strong fellow-feelings and a culture of care when their culture can claim sovereignty over a place and when their place and the people in it are familiar. They love the place at and in which they dwell because it is lovely, and it is lovely because their people—their ancestors and their neighbors—share a concern for it, especially a concern for its particulars—the things that made it distinct. So we need to dispense with the notion that anti-multiculturalism has necessarily something to do with superiority.

2. But such places are becoming less and less possible, and it seem that Westerners, including many Christians, either want them destroyed by foreign cultures or maybe do not foresee the effects that these cultures will have on the loveliness of their landscape and the loveliness of graceful manners (if even those remain). What I suggest we do is this: do not focus on what particulars we ought to do, but on what we ought not to do. Wilson, for example, says that a women should not be in the military.[1] The way forward is to identify what particulars do not fit with natural law. This can be done by isolated individuals. A positive construction and a good expression of natural law, however, can be done only in and by a community.

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[1] Even this is complicated, because even if you think that women should not generally be in combat, much of the military today is nothing but a massive logistical and support bureaucracy dominated by clerical tasks that actually fit the traditional skills and talents of women quite well, one could argue.