The Mortification of Aimee Byrd
It’s possible that you’ve never heard of Aimee Byrd and - even if you have - you may be unaware of the controversy surrounding her recent book, prompting a response from leaders in her denomination. But let me qualify the word, “controversy.” For I’m referring to the generally ungodly way Aimee has been treated by many of those who disagree with her critiques of complementarianism. The title of this post plays on the name of the podcast where Aimee was formerly a co-host: The Mortification of Spin. To ‘mortify’ something means to put it to death. Stopping short of pitchforks and fires, this seems to be the desire lying behind many of the responses Aimee has received online, particularly in the Geneva Commons Facebook group, where she has been reviled and ridiculed. My post is not overly concerned with the complementarian-egalitarian debate. But as someone who identifies as a complementarian I think this quote from Michael F. Bird sums up what is currently happening to Aimee Byrd, “I got the feeling that, in some circles, in order to be a complementarian-approved dude, you had to be willing not only to salute at the complementarian flagpole but also impale your mother, wife, sister, or daughter on it every once in a while to demonstrate your loyalty.”
Let’s not beat around the bush. Countless women have suffered tremendously at the hands of what passes for complementarianism today. This was one of the reasons Aimee wrote her book. One of the great ironies of this situation is that the staunchest proponents of the ugliest complementarianism can regularly be heard appealing to Genesis 1-2. They claim that women will flourish in complementarian churches because it is God’s design for men and women, seen in creation. I agree with the premise—even the thesis. But where much complementarianism goes horribly wrong seems to be in praxis, which is vouched for by the awful experience of many women in proudly complementarian churches. To put this in the form of a question: why are so many women desperately unhappy in complementarian churches, especially those who desire to serve in ministry? If we were fully in accord with God’s created order then this would not be the case. Pause. Experience counts. If women are feeling downtrodden, that group of people Jesus’ heart regularly went out to, we should be slower to put on our boots and more eager eager to listen.
“Well Graham,” I can imagine some clearing their throats, “feminism has corrupted women and distorted God’s complementarian design.” For many complementarians link the growing discontentment Christian women feel towards aspects of complementarianism with cultural trends. But the advent of feminism early in the 20th century only proves that men have spent millennia mistreating women. So while the church should be wary of the coercive nature of social and cultural shifts, we cannot ignore the incomprehensible suffering women have faced since time immemorial. Do we really think that the church has not been party to these abuses? We cannot easily dismiss feminism as a cultural force that has skewed the church’s understanding of God’s complementarian design. Say what you will, our world desperately needed those initial feminist waves. If we acknowledged this then I imagine we would not lazily identify the challenges against certain forms of complementarian as merely cultural or progressive phenomena.
Commenting on the more suffocating and oppressive forms of complementarianism, Kathy Keller reminds us in Jesus, Justice and Gender Roles, that the respective roles of men and women is firstly a theological conversation. Amen. But without collapsing it into a matter of personal experience or justice she correctly insists that marginalising women is an issue of injustice; just as insulting women who disagree with our position is ungodly. Keller goes on to say that marginalisation is often the result of “extra-biblical traditions” and cultural norms. She cites two frankly embarrassing examples:  debating whether a woman can lead Bible studies that have men in them; and  when a teenage boy should no longer sit under the teaching of a woman. Three more arbitrary legislations I’ve encountered are:  forbidding women from doing the public reading of Scripture;  prohibiting female worship leaders from ‘teaching’ between songs; and  male theological students refusing to listen to classroom sermons by women. As Kathy says: embarrassing. These examples reveal that aspects of complementarianism are heavy-handed in their treatment of women, while light on what the Bible teaches regarding the public ministry roles women can fulfil.
Let me say two things in conclusion. Firstly, to the men. Before you turn to the New Testament in search of the the biblical restrictions placed on women, let me implore you to turn up the numerous passages that exhort all Christians to be gentle, merciful, kind, compassionate, loving, meek, humble, patient, peaceful, understanding, gracious and self-controlled. Yes, we should have convictions. For the New Testament addresses these matters. However, to adapt James 3:9, the way we speak about these matters and especially women, who are made in the image of God, should never warrant the description of being malicious. “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?” (James 3:11). Secondly, to complementarians. Taking the above Christian virtues into consideration - especially humility - please recognise that your position as well as its expression is very likely imperfect—possibly even wrong in places. This way, when our position is challenged we will be able to engage in gracious dialogue rather than insecure and aggressive put downs. As Marilynne Robinson writes in her essay Fear, “When Christians abandon Christian standards of behaviour in the defence of Christianity…they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy.” Likewise, when complementarians fail to imitate Christ as they defend their position they do far more damage to it than any egalitarian might.