Kevin Giles, a Biblical Theologian well known for his carefully researched books on Paul and Gender and the Trinity, has kindly authorized me to post his insightful study, “The word ‘role’ in complementarian literature”:
In post 1970s ‘complementarian’ literature the term ‘role’ plays a fundamental part. If honest communication is to take part between ‘complementarians’ and egalitarians the use of this word must be put on the table and carefully examined.
The word ‘role,’ taken from the French language, originally was used of a part an actor played on stage. It only became widely used in English after the Second World War when it became an important technical term in humanistic functional sociology. It is not a biblical word and the Bible knows nothing of people assuming differing ‘roles’ in a sociological sense. What is more, the word is not found in the theological tradition. If the word is to be introduced into theological discourse in reference to the man-woman and divine Father-Son relationships as a technical term it demands careful definition.
In dictionary usage and in sociological texts the word ‘role’ and its synonym, ‘function’ speak of routine behaviour or acts and so we ask for example, who in the home has the ‘role’ in the home of gardening, washing clothes, doing the shopping, managing the finances, etc? In contrast, in ‘complementarian literature the word ‘role’ has nothing to do with routine behaviour. Rather it speaks of authority, who rules over who. The man and God the Father have the ‘role’ or ‘function’ of leading (headship); the woman and the Son of God have the ‘role’ of obeying – and this can never change. What indelibly differentiates men and women and the Father and the Son is not what they distinctively do, their works, but rather who commands and who obeys. What this means is that for ‘complementarians’ the word ‘role’ is given a meaning not found in dictionaries or sociological texts. It would seem to be a word chosen because it sounds acceptable to the modern ear and obfuscates what is really being argued, namely that women are permanently subordinated to men, the divine Son to the Father.
To prove that this so-called ‘role subordination’ does not imply subordination in being or inferiority in person, carefully chosen illustrations are cited of the ship’s captain and the crewman, the officer and the private and the manager and the worker. In each of these cases the point is valid. These illustrations of differing ‘roles’ do not suggest ontological subordination or personal inferiority because the roles can change and the higher position invariably has some basis in competence, training, age, etc. However, these carefully chosen and selective illustrations in fact do not parallel what ‘complementarian’ evangelicals today are arguing. The exact parallels to their distinctive usage of the terms ‘function’ and ‘role’ are to be found in classic aristocracy, race based slavery and in apartheid where one’s so called ‘role’ or ‘function’ is ascribed by birth and can never change. In this usage the one who rules is understood to be of a superior class and the one who obeys of an inferior class. In these cases, ‘difference in role’ speaks of necessary, essential and unchangeable differences, predicated on the premise that some are born to rule and some obey. The rulers and the ruled are not social equals and never can be. So what George W. Knight III and his followers are actually arguing is that women are only equal in a spiritual sense, not in any substantive way. They are the subordinated sex and this can never change. When the word ‘role’ is used in trinitarian discourse in this sense it thus necessarily involves the ontological subordination of the Son.
The conclusion is obvious. To use the word ‘role’ in a way not given in any dictionary of sociological text, with the aim of obfuscating what is being said simply to further ones political agenda is inexcusable. To do this excludes the possibility of honest and open communication. This means that until evangelicals publically give an agreed definition of what they mean when they use this word, the word should not be used in trinitarian discourse or in speaking of the man-woman relationship. I completely agree with the German scholar Werner Neurer, a supporter of the subordination of women, who says to his fellow travellers, ‘In the cause of truth we should (therefore) give up talking about the roles of the sexes,’ [Man and Woman in Christian Perspective, trans by G. Wenham (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1990), p. 30.] and I would add, and the roles of the divine three.
If we want to be ‘biblical’ in our theological discourse, my advice is that when we want to speak about what men or woman can do or not do in church we use the biblical word ‘ministry/diakoneo’ ; and when we want to speak about who should lead or not we use the word authority/exousia. I can see no merit at all using a word drawn from humanistic sociology, not found in the Bible and ambiguous at best.