Farmer and Wife. Photo by Irving Rusinow, 1941
A farmer’s wife is a farmer, not a housewife. I know that because my maternal grandparents were farmers. There was a division of labor, of course, but it wasn’t some philosophical self-conscious complementarian structure, but a legitimate division of labor. Pa Clarence didn’t know how to sew, and Nanny Jet couldn’t fix or maintain a tractor, for example. But the men and the women all picked crops (as did the boys and the girls, once they were old enough). Both cooked, at least some: Pa Clarence made the best biscuits I ever ate (and he took the recipe to his grave). Nanny Jet was the cornbread champion, and their chicken and dressing was a kind of joint effort, using his biscuits and her cornbread, though she prepared the dressing itself (a recipe that has been passed down to her daughters, and, through Mom, to me … but Katherine makes it better than I do).
Yes, men and women were different. Men and women are still different, though changing times have revealed some of those differences to be cultural constructions, rather than biological conditions. Perhaps in the future, even more of the differences between men and women will be revealed as nothing more than socio-cultural artifacts. The gospel will endure, even as it endured blue stockings, suffrage, and industrialization, as it survived the birth of pantsuits, career women, and birth control.
The difference between a farmer and his wife and a 21st century complementarian is this: the farmer and his wife did what they did because it worked. They were raising crops and livestock and children, and their life was in the land. Every year, they planted their livelihood in the ground in an earthy leap of faith that most of us have never had to take. They didn’t have time to theorize from their wealthy, government safety-net supported, megachurch attending, paid by a seminary or church, privileged position. This wass as true of first century farmers and shepherds as early twentieth century farmers.
The complementarian movement isn’t returning us to some pre-industrial idyll. At best, it’s sanctifying the white-upper-class privileged gender roles of an idealized 1950’s. At worst, it’s dragging us back to old Greco-Roman house codes. Some complementarians, like Douglas Wilson, Steve Wilkins, and George Grant, have even ventured into slavery apologetics.
As bizarre as that seems in this day and time (paleo-confederate? Really?), it really is the natural, logical conclusion of God-ordained male dominance. After all, the passages that teach women to submit are always located near passages giving slaves the same instruction. The Greco-Roman households Paul wrote to were ruled by men, with wives having more status, but no more freedom or authority, than slaves. Paul’s admonitions to mutual submission upended the heart of this one-sided power-structure, but in the interest of civil peace, he urged Christians not to flout the laws and customs of his day. Twenty centuries later, we can do better.
They quote Paul, but they recreate themselves in the image of Ward Cleaver and seek to forge women into the image of June Cleaver, using the Bible as a hammer and tradition as an anvil. They claim tradition, but in truth, lack all authenticity. Past social arrangements were based on physical and economic necessities. Past social arrangements made survival possible. They may not have been just, but they were necessary. This? This is the retrograde fantasy, a dangerous escape from modernity.