Looking at an image in 2D just isn’t as good as looking at it in 3D. That extra dimension provides a lot of information. I realized this a few months ago when Kanon’s cousin sent a copy of the 3D sonogram of her baby boy. It is amazing what a little extra perspective can add.
I think that the same is true in ethics. When we talk about virtues we often limit ourselves to 2 dimensions, and much confusion ensues. However, long ago, Aristotle claimed that much of this confusion can be resolved simply by adding a third dimension. In ethics, as well as in pictures, it is amazing what a little perspective can add.
One of the more hotly debated topics in the Christian world, especially last week, is the egalitarian and complementarian debate (I’ll define these terms below). However, I think one of the problems is that we typically only look at it in 2D. When we apply Aristotle’s thinking and add a little more perspective, the issue seems much more clear.
Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Means
Aristotle was a philosopher who asked a lot of questions. Perhaps one of his more important lines of questioning dealt with the nature of virtue. He wanted to establish both what made a person virtuous as well as what virtues people should pursue. (Actually reading Aristotle can be a bit tough, but consider picking up J. Budziszewski’s Written on the Heart, it provides the best succinct treatment of this idea that I know of).
Cowardice ———- Courage
Stinginess ———- Generosity
Grouchiness ——– Friendliness
Boorishness ——— Wittiness
Intolerance ——— Tolerance
However, he argued that virtue and vice wasn’t a 2 dimensional issue, but a 3 dimensional issue. That is, every virtue was surrounded by a pair of vices. Rather than the above list, he would have preferred the following:
Cowardice ——- Courage ———– Rashness
Stinginess ——– Generosity ——- Extravagance
Grouchiness —– Friendliness —— Obsequiousness
Boorishness —— Wittiness ——— Buffoonery
Narrow-minded Repressiveness —- Tolerance —- Soft-headed Indulgence
The “Doctrine of the Means,” as Aristotle called it, suggested that a virtue always lies between two vices. The virtue is the middle road.
Budziszewski points out that there are several misconceptions that can arise when people talk about the doctrine of the means. I believe one of these is particularly important for this conversation. Budziszewski explains:
Aristotle does not think it is possible to have too much courage but that courage lies between too much and too little fearlessness. In the same way, he does not think it is possible to have too much generosity; but generosity lies between too much and too little willingness to part with one’s wealth.
With this in mind, as we move to a discussion of authority vs. equality within marriage, the goal will be to identify the virtuous middle ground and pursue it with reckless abandon.
Applying the Doctrine of the Means to the Gender Roles in Marriage
Typically speaking there are two sides to the debate: complementarianism and egalitarianism. Complementarians believe that there is a distinction between genders expressed in the Bible. Though these genders are equal in value, they are designed to perform some distinct roles. Part of these distinctions deal with the issue of authority (male) and submission (female). Egalitarianism believes that there is no legitimate distinction between genders. Not only are they equal in value, they are also equal in function. In fact, many egalitarians say any distinction between male and female, including anatomical and physical distinctions, are purely social constructions and have no basis in God’s original design. Thus issues of authority and submission are not legitimate distinguishing parts of gender identity.
If we were to draw this out as above, it would look like this:
Authority/Submission —— Equality
Complementarians would assert that the first category, authority and submission, is virtuous within marriage. Egalitarians would suggest that it is a vice, and equality is the true virtue.
However, consider if we apply Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Means to this equation. That is, what happens when we try to view this equation in 3D rather than 2D. Then the equation looks quite different.
Domineering Authority/Becoming a Doormat — Loving Authority/Loving Submission — Rejection of Authority/ Refusal to Submit
With this new 3D representation, the complementarian and egalitarian debate looks quite different. The virtuous position is clear because it mediates between two extremes, or two vices.
Vices Have Consequences
It is not hard to imagine the consequences that the vice of domineering authority would bring to a marriage. Intimidation through physical or emotional abuse is legitimately damaging, not only to the marriage, but to the victim of the abuse. For that reason, our government has rightly sought to defend people, especially women, from domestic violence.
However, our government takes few steps to prevent the other vice. There is no law preventing husbands from refusing to accept their rightful positions of authority and responsibility and no laws requiring women to lovingly submit to their husbands.Yet, while it may be true that the government shouldn’t intervene in these instances, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that the consequences of this vice is any less severe. In fact, the most vicious consequence of either vice is the same – it distorts our understanding of God.
The Bible makes clear that authority within relationships is one of the key tools God uses to teach us about Himself. There are several examples of this, but one of the most clear is in Ephesians 5:25-6:9. Paul, in verse 24, called all believers to submit to one another out of reverence for Jesus Christ. Then, he lists three examples to show what this looks like. Husbands and wives, parents and children, and slaves and their masters, are three examples of relationships where mutual submission can happen in a context where authority still exists. Paul’s goal is not to eliminate authority and submission, but to shape it by love so that it reflects the way Christ exercised his authority over us.
Because authority and submission are God’s tools to teach us about himself, it is of vast importance that we act virtuously in this regard. When we fail to be virtuous by practicing the vice of domineering authority, we distort the picture God has given us to know him. We paint a picture of God that is harsh and unloving. Likewise, when we fail to be virtuous by practicing the vice of denying authority and refusing to submit, we distort the picture that God is giving us. By refusing to recognize legitimate authority we are refusing to even look at the picture God is offering us. Either way, we are distorting or denying ourselves one of the key tools that God has provided us to know Him.
Because of this, I find the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate to be insufficient. We have to understand that the fight isn’t simply to have authority, but to exercise authority in a way that correctly teaches ourselves and the world what Christ is like. We must recognize that a man can fail by exercising authority in a harsh, domineering way and by refusing to accept authority and responsibility within marriage. Likewise, a woman can fail by becoming a doormat, rather than loving engaging her husband, as well as by refusing to allow her husband to loving lead her and their family.
The “Doctrine of the Means” suggests that the virtuous path is a narrow one. It is not always easy to recognize the how to lead or how to submit. Yet, there is much at stake. If we desire to know God, we must pursue a loving authority and loving submission with all our hearts.