A Dialogue on Our Design

Oprah asked Rob Bell about God.

In a video interview, as part of a new daytime series on her own network, she posed the question, What is your definition of God? — to which he naturally replied,

Like a song you hear in another room, and you think: Wow, that sounds beautiful, but I can only hear a little bit. So you start opening doors and rearranging furniture ‘cause you have to get in that room to hear that song. And when you get in, you find the nobs, and you turn them all to the right because you’re like, I gotta hear more of that.

That’s pretty poor as a definition of God, and to be sure, I don’t recommend getting your theology from Bell. But when it comes to a picture of beauty, he paints one that might be helpful. That feeling he mentions — that experience of good music in a good moment and the craving for more — that resonates. As C. S. Lewis says, the “commonest expedient is to call it beauty,” though there is more going on here than merely human taste. The ear for that good music in another room taps into the purpose of our being. It reminds us, even at its most mysterious levels, that we were made for more, that we have this taste for harmony, this heart cry for heaven.

And perhaps that point provides a good place to talk about Christian complementarity.

Two Parts, One Song

That is the angle I took in a recent pretend conversation. The dialogue, confined though it was to my own head, was instigated by a speaker I heard at a recent conference. The topic was content strategy on the Web, and the woman doing the talking was a respected author and guru in this particular field. She had brilliant insights on online trends and offered memorable one-liners, and somehow managed to bring up “sexism” at least four times. Her topic had little, if anything, to do with gender, but it became clear that she had been the victim of mistreatment in the past. Her references to gender equality became so prevalent, in fact, that in certain asides it could have passed as a women’s empowerment rally.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering how I would explain biblical complementarity to someone who, by past experiences and projected misconceptions, thinks the idea of distinctive gender roles is utterly backwater, even immoral. I wondered, still jotting down notes and gleaning what I could, how in the world might I explain Christian complementarity to a woman like her? That’s how the conversation started with this talented female professional from Silicon Valley.

SV: So, what is that you call your belief about men and women? Comple-what?

JP: Complementarity. I know, it doesn’t exactly roll off your tongue. But the vision makes sense for what the Bible teaches about humanity as men and women. Complement is the word. If you prefer, we could call it the harmony of manhood and womanhood.

SV: Harmony. Okay, what does that mean?

JP: God is at the center. We Christians believe, as the Bible shows us, that he created everything. And at the pinnacle of his creation was humankind in two distinct genders, male and female. Both men and women were set apart from everything else in the world with the special dignity of bearing God’s own image, which means we “image” God in his world in a unique way, as his special representatives. We get to share in some of the same work he does — work like creating and stewarding and exercising oversight. As you alluded to in your session, men and women have an amazing capacity to build and innovate. We have this wonderful ability to make really good things. I believe God gave us this gift. He gave it to both men and women. And not only that, the reason he gave us this gift is for our happiness. He created us to experience eternal joy, to be glad in who he is and in all the expressions of his worth.

SV: So what does this have to do with harmony?

JP: Well, we Christians believe that inherent to this purpose of joy in God is the fact that he made two different kinds of humans, one male and one female. And because these differences are not happenstance, but integral to his design, there is something about these differences that maximizes our joy. Like music, biblical complementarity, or the harmony of manhood and womanhood, says that something more enjoyable happens when different parts work together as one.

SV: What does this mean for women?

JP: It means for women what it does for men. We see this most vividly in marriage — which Jesus said is a man and woman becoming “one flesh” (Matthew 19:5) — but the differences apply to men and women in general, too. It means there is one song, but that it has two different parts. It means that the woman has one sound and the man has another. Neither sound is greater or more important than the other. In fact, you must have both sounds to get the song. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

SV: What part does the woman play, then?

JP: Without the woman’s part, there’s no music. It’s so important — just as important as the man’s. To oversimplify it, her role in marriage, which relates to femininity in general, is one of affirmation, nurture, and trust toward her husband.

SV: Wait, what does the man do?

JP: Again, to oversimplify, his role, complementary to the woman’s, is one of leadership, provision, and protection toward his wife, and more generally, toward all women and children. In other words, when the ship is sinking, men don’t jump on the lifeboats first.

SV: No, thanks. Women can lead and provide and protect better than most men I know.

JP: I don’t doubt it. The roles are not regulated by competency, though. It’s about the music, about playing your different parts together to make the song. And of course, it doesn’t mean that women never do those things. Yes, women lead and provide and protect in many ways every day, just like men affirm and nurture and trust. The focus though, as it’s seen most clearly in marriage, has to do with the husband’s and wife’s relation to one another for the sake of the music. To make that music, the husband steps out first in leading, and the wife affirms his initiative in doing so. Two parts, one song. The husband takes up the mantle of provision, of figuring out how to holistically care for his family along with her help, and the wife nurtures that instinct and strategy. Two parts, one song. The husband — just like Jesus did when he died for his church — always leans forward in the face of sacrifice, in the name of love, and the wife, in the safety of that love, trusts him. Two parts, one song.

SV: And this is about joy?

JP: Yes, that’s exactly right. That song is part of the joy God created us to know. He made us to shine for him and enjoy him. Sin messed that up, distorting our sense of purpose and our relationship to God. And that’s why Jesus came, to die for the sins of men and women, to conquer death for our sake and restore our relationship to God and the everlasting joy we were meant to experience in him — the joy we were meant to experience as men and women, both created equal in his image to play two different parts of one great song.

SV: I’ve not heard enough of this song. What’s it sound like?

JP: Well, to take one author’s strange and otherwise poor definition of God and apply it to our deep-down sense of complementarity, we might say it’s like a song you hear in another room, and you think: Wow, that sounds beautiful, but I can only hear a little bit. So you start opening doors and rearranging furniture because you have to get in that room to hear that song. And when you get in, you find the nobs, and you turn them all to the right because you’re like, I’ve got to hear more of that.