Thursday, September 04, 2014

Karl Barth on Gender Relations: Complementarian, Egalitarian, or Something Else Entirely?

Photo from The Center for Barth Studies
I have been pondering the following excerpt from Barth's Dogmatics on and off for the past couple years. It is trademark Barth: He checks out both sides of an issue and then ends up taking neither (or is it both?). In this case the issue is gender relations--and while today's categories of 'complementarian' and 'egalitarian' had not yet been coined, they certainly come into view.

Were this excerpt ripped out and inserted into today's church-debates then Barth would start off sounding an awful lot like what he calls a conservative, and his concern about minimizing difference keeps him from embracing what he thinks of as feminist 'progressivism'. Indeed, his apparent appeal to nature has him lining up squarely with today's complementarian.

However, what has me returning to this text is the subversiveness of it, particularly once the sounds of christology are allowed to reverberate into and rattle the prior categories. By the end we find Barth reaching for what is increasingly being called mutual submission egalitarianism, or 'mutuality' as it is more often called.

This would be something of an anachronistic judgment, but here my interest is not so much to gloss on Barth as it is to find the best foot forward for his most pressing point. Read the excerpt carefully and then I'll give my interpretation:

Is not the community of Jesus Christ itself and as such, as adduced in Eph. 5, the model of the woman who has her κεφαλή [head or authority] in the man, and cannot really exist except in subordination to this κεφαλή [head or authority], but in this way, determined and limited in Him, is exalted above all heavens by His majesty and lowliness, in fellowship with this Head?

It is for this reason that this order cannot be broken in the community; that the relationship of man and woman established in creation, and the distinctions which it entails, cannot be regarded as transitory and accidental and abolished in Christ, as though Christ were not their meaning and origin. 
In the community this relationship cannot imperil either man or woman. It can only be their honour and joy and blessing. There is thus no cause to deny or abolish it as though it were a mere convention. On the contrary, dishonour and harm are done both to man and to woman if this clear relationship is abolished.  
It is quite ridiculous to think that progressiveness should be played off against conservatism in the matter of this relationship. If there is anything which is inwardly necessary and no mere convention, it is this relationship. Progress beyond it can only be regress to the old aeon. It is only in the world of the old aeon that the feminist question can arise.  
And for this reason the Corinthians should accept the custom. It is a symbolic recognition of the relationship, and therefore of the basis, determination and limitation which it has been given in Christ. This recognition may not be withheld. Self-evidently it might have taken a different form in a different age and place. But in Corinth and all the Christian communities of the time (v. 16) it took this form. And as it was called in question in this form it had to be protected and defended in this form, not for the sake of the form, but for the sake of what was at issue in this form.
The fact that it also conformed to natural sensibility, to φύσις [nature] (v. 14), was an additional recommendation as Paul saw it. But this statement was only incidental. The decisive point was that the enthusiasm for equality which outran the form was not particularly Christian, but that the custom should be accepted in Christ. 
We cannot say more than that it should be, for Paul was not arguing from the Law, but centrally from the Gospel. It was not the one who called the Corinthians to order who was thinking legalistically, but the Corinthians themselves, who, armed with a general, liberal, non-christological concept of humanity, thought it their duty to attack this relative and indirectly human order, as though they were all apostles, and as though an apostle were a genius (see Kierkegaard for the allusion here). 
It was as well for them that they had in Paul a real apostle able to maintain an unruffled front against their impulsive genius; and they were well-advised to accept his summons to be imitators of him as he himself tried to be of Christ (v. 1). 
Our final passage is Eph. 5:22-23, the locus classicus for the point at issue. No other passage makes the connection so emphatically. No other is so primarily concerned to make it. No other is so complete in its exposition of the two relationships. And no other refers so solemnly to Gen. 2. 
From it we can survey the whole landscape which we have traversed: the New Testament relationship of man and woman in the light of the relationship between Christ and the community, and conversely the elucidation of the relationship between Christ and His people by reference to the man-woman relationship; the Old Testament marriage between Yahweh and Israel and its reflection in the man and woman of the Song of Songs; and finally our starting-point in Genesis 2, the natural being of man as fellow-humanity, as being in the encounter of I and Thou. Should we really have the courage or find it necessary to consider all these things not only in detail but in their manifold relationships if they were not set before us so authoritatively and perspicuously in Eph. 5? 
But this is an idle question. This passage does in fact make everything clear. And we have only to apply ourselves directly to this text in which everything is set out directly and verbally in an exegetical norm for all other texts. It forms the introduction to the so-called "house-table" of Ephesians, a list of specific admonitions to wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves and masters among the members of the community, all of which stand under the overriding injunction "Be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God" (vv. 18-21). 
This basic note must be remembered if we are to understand the ensuing injunctions, and especially the first and lengthy admonition addressed to husbands and wives. Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in praise of God, not only with your lips but in your hearts, not ceasing to give thanks, and subordinating yourselves to one another as you are engaged in this thanksgiving to God. 
Humanity in the New Testament thus derives directly from the practical experience of the Gospel. And we must certainly not forget the negative beginning to this general exhortation: "Be not drunk with wine." We recall from 1 Cor. 11 that the knowledge of the true relationship between man and wife established and determined and limited by the knowledge of Jesus Christ stands in contrast to an enthusiasm for equality which will not accept the fact that they are both allotted to their distinctive place and way in the peace of God. 
Where it is not a matter of this intoxication but of the fullness of the Spirit, not of the boasting and defiance of man but of the praise of God, not of the establishment of one's own right by one's own might but of constant thanksgiving, there flows from the Gospel the necessity of the reciprocal subordination in which each gives to the other that which is proper to him.
This is the meaning of the house-table: Suum cuique [To each his own]. It has nothing really to do with patriarchalism, or with a hierarchy of domestic and civil values and powers. It does not give one control over the other, or put anyone under the dominion of the other. The ὑποτασσόμενοι [submitting] of v. 21 applies equally to all, each in his own place and in respect of his own way. 
What it demands is ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ἐν φόβῳ χριστοῦ; mutual subordination in respect before the Lord. He is the Exalted but also the Lowly, the Lowly but also the Exalted, who causes each to share in His glory but also His burden, His sovereignty but also His service. And here there is only mutual subordination in full reciprocity. 
In this way order is created within the creaturely sphere, and humanity established. It is, of course, no accident that more than half of the table is devoted to the relationship of man and woman, and particularly their relationship in marriage. This relationship is typical or exemplary for the whole relationship which has to be estimated in the fear of Christ.

- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2, 312-313.
Earlier I said Barth seems to be reaching for mutual submission egalitarianism. That's not entirely accurate. Evidently Barth defends retaining a kind of complementary order between the genders--not because it is the unassailable nature of things but because it is the cultural 'form' in which they [the Corinthians and Ephesians] live.

For me the question is not whether Barth's theology demands a complementarian-patriarchal order today. I don't believe it does. For him, the 'nature of things' is defined by the Gospel, and in this it is not the cultural 'form' but the dynamic of reciprocal fellowship-in-difference that is most important. This cannot be flattened by an abstract appeal to 'equality' but must be lived in a social context.

Speaking of the 'form' our gender roles and relations take, he says 'it might have taken a different form in a different age and place.' Thus while Barth is not interested in changing the form for some some theorized un-Christian reason, given time we might well expect mutual submission out of reverence for Christ to change the form on its own terms.

Indeed, I would contend that when Barth says it is in the old aeon that the feminist question arises it is not because the feminist question belongs to it, but because the old (i.e., sinful) aeon's lack of mutual subordination and reciprocity has made feminism necessary.

That's not to say Barth is a feminist. But if push came to shove we'd see Barth is not a patriarchalist or even a complementarian either. In an increasingly egalitarian 'age and place' Barth's comment takes on a new vitality: For him 'the decisive point' is whether the enthusiasm for equality is 'particularly Christian.' Thus in this time and place it is the egalitarian custom which 'should be accepted in Christ'--that is, on the terms of mutual submission; of reciprocal self-giving love.


Kevin Davis said...

Hey Jon, thanks for this. I have a slightly different take, that I don't have time now to expound in detail. True, Barth doesn't fit either the complementarian or egalitarian forms today, as they are commonly defined and defended. But I would be much more cautious with aligning him closer to the egalitarian side, especially in light of his most extended treatment on the subject in III.4. There's a reason why most Barthians today, except yours truly, are not fond of III.4...or III.1 for that matter.

In III.4, Barth rejects the use of natural typologies (citing Brunner as an example) that are common in what we today call "complementarianism," and he defends Schleiermacher's "feminine" orientation against those who argue that we need "manly theologies." But once Barth makes it clear that he is not advocating for an anthropology of "created orders," he then uses his christologically-defined understanding of the imago Dei (from III.1) as the theological groundwork for a specific ordering of the genders, in an irreversible specification of first and second, supra and sub. Of course, like Paul in Eph 5, Barth interprets the supra-ordinate position of the man as one of self-giving and therefore hardly "machismo." Moreover, Christ defines both positions, the self-offering of the man and the receptivity of the woman, since Christ functions in both roles (respectively, for the Church and to the Father). Not surprisingly, this has not endeared Barth in the eyes of feminists. I think Barth is right because he has ample biblical authority. He does indeed talk about "reciprocal adaptation and obligation," but this is within the ordering outlined above, not as a subversive overthrow.

I have citations and a discussion of all of this here:

Jon Coutts said...

Thanks for that Kevin. I intend on studying this further and was trying to remember where I'd seen someone else talk about it. That link is the one I was thinking about. I suspect you are right about Barth---I need to hit volume III again in more depth. For the time being I will content myself with pushing Barth to a conclusion he may not himself have agreed with but gave the trajectory for nonetheless....