It seems collectivizing the gender debate is the route being taken in Christian circles. Collectivism is the ideology that groups matter over against individuals. They assert that communities, or groups, are more basic to society since individuals depend on them. Collectivist thinking entails believing individuals are the sum total of a perceived group identity. This may be a group voluntarily joined (like a religion), or a demographic over which you have no control (like your ethnic background), but worse is when others assign you to a group. The complementarian-egalitarian debate is already collectivized to some degree according to gender. Complementarians, I think, are mostly responsible for this. Egalitarians are now collectivizing their views according to white supremacy. In this article, I’ll explain why collectivizing this issue is a dangerous proposition.
Illustrating the problem of collectivism
The comp-egal debate is now quite volatile. So to illustrate the problem let’s start with an illustration that isn’t so close to the nerve. Sean Malone is a film maker and producer of a series of video discussions called, Out of Frame. He uses popular films to illustrate real world problems, ideologies, and also solutions. The one I want to call attention to for this article, is regarding The Last Airbender. The Last Airbender is an animated series in a fictional world.
Read More: Fictional author, J.L. Pattison, explains how Reformed believers benefit from fictional narratives.
The video is sixteen minutes, so I recommend taking the time to watch it, but I’ll try to sum up the main points here.
The Last Airbender captures “the importance of judging people on their individual actions and character, not on their group identity or tribal affiliation.” Entailed in the story are characters born with or without skills, element bending. This division between benders and non-benders creates a class system. There are also different kinds of benders; earth, air, fire, and water, which create nations. These nations sometimes war with one another. In this case, the fire benders seek domination.
Without The Avatar revealing how all these people are connected, they’re at the mercy of aggression and dominance. The series deals with ideas of sexism, racism, nationalism, disability, and evil itself. The characters find peace is achieved when they see people for who they are apart from group identity, but not in spite of it either. As individuals, they contribute to a larger community, but one is not subjugated to the other.
One last point from Malone’s monologue. Malone uses The Last Airbender to draw attention to the parallels between the story and the Christchurch Massacre in 2019. For those who don’t remember, two Mosques in Christchurch, NZ were terrorized by an Australian man with a collectivist mindset. If you don’t recall which collectivist beliefs he had, don’t worry. Malone answers this question beginning at 10:30 and following in the video. The beliefs held by the terrorist might surprise some of you reading this. The Massacre was an action taken from collectivist thinking. But to make matters worse, Slate Magazine assigned collective guilt in response. This is exactly how polarization, or tribalism, starts.
Malone asks his viewers this question: How many times have you seen someone determine another person’s status, values, ideas, guilt or innocence, based solely on their presumed collective identity?
We see this problem in many places. Here’s a real world example outside the gender debate. Jordan Cooper is a Lutheran theologian and president of the American Lutheran Theological Seminary. In a public Facebook post, he describes how some pastors from his old denomination attacked him for being an alleged heretic. He closes by saying, “I’m sorry if my anger came through, but when a group of people actively tries to destroy your work and reputation for years, it gets to you.”
I’ve followed Cooper and his Just and Sinner Podcast for a couple of years now. He’s always presented himself as well-grounded and level-headed, even when I’ve disagreed with him. But in my estimation, he’s avoided a collectivist mindset in his presentations. But notice that he was attacked by a collectivist mindset – “when a group of people actively tries to destroy your work and reputation for years.”
This brings me back to the gender debate
This time last year, I read Aimee Byrd’s book Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and interviewed her on my podcast. For me and so many others, her book was a breath of fresh air. In the interview, Byrd and I discussed how Complementarian teaching determines the status, value, dignity, and agency of women as a collective. We also discussed why this is wrong, specifically because Scripture supports the fact we are all individuals with different skills, talents, and gifts to contribute to the world and to the church, the Body of Christ.
I had always intended on writing a review of Byrd’s book, but was never able to do it. Part of my difficulty was filtering through the plethora of ideas presented in her book. In hindsight, part of it was that I wasn’t entirely sure Byrd and I were in fact on the same page. I couldn’t make certain claims of the book, because it was not clear she was making those claims.
Over the course of the last year, I came to realize that Byrd and I were not on the same page about certain things. This isn’t a problem in itself. But, when Byrd endorsed and promoted the book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, I could see there was something wrong. I’m not opposed to the criticism in this book of how Evangelicals have treated politics over the past several decades. I’m an anarchist! I’ve been highly critical for years of how the church has treated politics. But this book takes away from a very real problem, and responds by assigning collective guilt to white people.
Byrd’s own writings and discussions began taking on the presumptions of white guilt. Again, this isn’t to say that there isn’t a problem with the manner in which Christians treat politics, but to assign blame to white people is intellectually lazy. In fact, it’s as intellectually lazy as those who believe that all women have a tendency to be temptresses, deceivers, or usurpers because of Eve’s sin.
If legitimate complaints about how the church treats women are going to be taken seriously, then we are responsible for rising above the collectivist mindset that got us here in the first place.
I’ve already had a brief interaction with Byrd on this topic. Byrd appealed to statistics as sufficient evidence. My response to this is that statistics doesn’t actually determine causation. So in spite of statistics, assigning blame (causation) to the levels of melanin in the skin is erroneous. Causal inferences made from statistics are almost always severely flawed. Here’s another explanation about how statistics doesn’t show causation.
Dangers of collectivizing the gender debate
Collectivist thinking always makes problems where there are none. And it’s insidious when it takes very real, even magnanimous problems, and oversimplifies them. Complementarian teachings on men and women reduce gender to a list of overprescribed characteristics. Though Byrd never called Complementarianism collectivist, collectivism is a process of reduction and Byrd opposed reducing men and women to Complementarian views of manhood and womanhood. If Byrd opposes women being reduced to “wife and mother” (for example) then she should oppose other reductions as well.
So the big question in my mind has been, what is the correct response to complementarianism?
Despite some interesting perspectives offered by egalitarians, they never seem to satisfy my concerns. Feminism doesn’t work, in my view, yet many Christian women are now pursuing it. But why on earth white supremacy is being entertained is beyond reasonable. (Although, that appears to be the point, which ought to be the first red flag.) This creates a problem for the challenge brought against Complementarianism.
Complementarianism was initially a response to second wave feminism. What we think of Feminism also entails a collectivist mentality. Fighting a collectivist ideology (feminism) with another collectivist ideology (complementarianism) is a huge problem in itself. Fighting the collectivism of complementarianism with the collectivist accusation of white supremacy, is not fixing this problem. It’s making it worse!
Tribalism is another danger of collectivism. When Byrd published her book, some patriarchalists and complementarians dragged her through the mud. They called her all sorts of pejoratives, including “ravenous wolf,” for her alleged “sin” of feminism and the supposed threat to the church they believed she posed. It could be said that a group of people actively tried to destroy her work and reputation for years. As of this writing, Byrd has denied being a feminist. (Byrd has detailed her account of this on her website, and I commend my own readers to take a look at it.)
The way Byrd has been treated is absolutely wrong! And I still stand by her against how she’s been treated. But why is it wrong to treat her (or any other woman – any other person) like this? It’s wrong not merely because it was untrue. It’s also wrong because the men attacking Byrd assigned collective guilt based on her presumed group identity: namely feminism. For all the hell that Byrd has been through, I sympathize with her. But her endorsement of books and writers who also take part in collectivist thinking and analysis is also wrong. She’s participating in or turning a blind eye to the kind of attacks that were made against her.
Authoritarianism is the ultimate danger of collectivism.
Authoritarianism is the belief that some people cannot be trusted with freedom, and so others need to rule over and make decisions for them. Authoritarianism is employed if attempts at persuasion prove fruitless. Persuasion is hard work; work most people are unwilling to undertake. It’s especially hard when you know you’re not being heard. And yet, authoritarianism produces a lack of dialogue. It censors, silences, intimidates, humiliates, and ruins reputations to force conformity. How do they force conformity? Manipulation and coercion (ie. abuse), and ultimately physical force and violence. This always happens … unless we take steps to proactively resist it. (And it is currently happening in the larger context of current events.)
Byrd’s detractors are one glimpse of this authoritarianism.
Byrd’s supporters are doing the same things.
Authoritarianism is the ultimate problem we’re facing. It’s the heart of the problem with abuse in the family, the church, in the workplace, and especially the state … and it arises from collectivism.
Avoiding the false dichotomy of individualism vs collectivism
My objection to collectivism should not be read as advocacy for individualism. It’s very easy, especially in polarized environments to believe that if you aren’t promoting one idea, you must be therefore be promoting its opposite. This is flatly untrue. But this pendulum swing is one you must take a conscious and concerted effort to disembark from.
Individualism and collectivism are both false views of society. Individuals are not more basic than groups. Groups are not more basic than individuals.
We are individuals.
We live in community.
This is inescapable.
“Individuals and communities exist in a mutual correlation in which neither can exist without the other: neither is “basic” to the other because neither was ever the source of the other, as both were created simultaneously by God… from a theistic point of view, it is abhorrent to regard individuals merely as parts of any human social community. They are not mere “cogs in the machinery” of the state …” – Roy Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality p. 282
We cannot set individuals and groups at odds with one another and we cannot subjugate one to the other. To do so causes harm to both and is an affront to God’s created order. And even if you believe our society is leaned heavily in one of these directions, leaning heavily in the other direction isn’t a balanced solution. It simply perpetuates the problem. This is the pendulum swing you must free yourself from.
Ultimately, assigning collective guilt to white people is a dangerous distraction. Our message about the respect and dignity for women (and men) as unique individuals, made in the image of God, with unique gifts to offer the church, will be lost … it will be lost to the debate over white supremacy and so-called white fragility, unless this distraction is resisted by those who care about the truth.