L. William Countryman on gender equality

There’s been quite a bit of discussion lately in the Christian blogosphere and twitterverse about sex and gender roles, stimulated in part by comments from high-profile preachers like John Piper and Mark Driscoll. Unfortunately, the view that gender hierarchy (or “complementarianism” as its proponents call it) is an essential component of the gospel seems to be gaining ground, at least in some circles. Or maybe it’s the death rattle of an antiquated worldview. Time will tell.

At any rate, I thought I’d offer a contrasting viewpoint, from L. William Countryman’s Dirt, Greed and Sex, which is a study of the sexual ethics of the Bible and their relevance for today. Here’s Countryman on gender equality:

Both Jesus and Paul laid it down as a principle that women and men are basically equal in marriage. Although Paul, in the circumstances of his own times, did not find it necessary or appropriate to carry that principle into practice in all areas of married life, the church today with the shift from familial to individual society no longer has any reason to delay in this process.* Indeed, society has led the way in this matter, and it is entirely consistent with New Testament practice for the church to accept the emerging marital customs of the modern West as the basis for its own usage. This is not to suggest that the situation has stabilized, however, or that the acceptance of equality will be easy either for men or for women.

What is called for is something more than the revision of household rules and the alternation of household roles. It involves new understandings of manliness and womanliness that can come about only with some pain and anxiety as well as some sense of liberation and joy. If the husband gives up the image of himself as sole ruler of the household, waited on by wife and children, his whim the family’s law, he must also give up its spiritual equivalent–the image of himself as the family’s unique sacrificial sustainer, isolated in his moral strength and grandeur. If the wife gives up being the servant of all, with no life or her own except in responding to the needs of others, she must also give up the spiritual vision of herself as the one who gives all for others’ good. Men cannot give up their responsibilities as sole wage earner and still claim the benefits of that position by demanding an uneven distribution of labor and services; women cannot claim equality and still reserve the right to be dependent if equality does not yield what they want. None of this will be easy but the survival of marriage in our society surely depends on it.

Spouses in heterosexual marriages will have much to learn in this process from partners in stable, long-term homosexual relationships. They have long experienced the difficulties of maintaining enduring relationships in a society which is even less supportive of them than of heterosexual couples; and they have had to do it without socially prescribed divisions of roles and labor. If there are useful models to be had, they will probably be found among them. (pp. 239-40)

Countryman’s main argument is that sexual ethics in the Bible largely revolve around concerns about ritual purity (“dirt”) and property (“greed”) that arose in a particular social context, whether it be that of ancient Israel or the first-century Mediterranean world. Consequently, contemporary Christian ethics can’t simply adopt the allegedly “biblical” view of sex without attending to the massive social changes that have occurred in the interim.
*By “the shift from familial to individual society” Countryman refers to the historical process by which the locus of social importance and moral concern has shifted from the family to the individual.

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