Last week, a Twitter friend told me how shamed and berated many blogs made her feel for her complementarian theology.
That made me so sad.
I mean, I get it. Egalitarians are a minority in the evangelical world, and are often treated like theological scapegoats by their more traditional brothers and sisters. Women still lack functional equality in most churches, and many women and men have been deeply hurt by patriarchal attitudes and practices. As the underdogs, egalitarians are apt to defend their online spaces like fierce mama bears defending their cubs from spiritual, social, and even physical (through ideologies that empower abuse) threats.
But that’s no reason to be ungracious.
Part of the reason smart, godly women who self-identify as complementarian feel misrepresented can be traced back to the label itself. “Complementarian” is a trash-can term, eagerly claimed by everyone from Quiverfull moms who suggest women stop “whining” about their husbands holding knives to their throats, to world-famous female preachers who claim their husbands’ “covering.”
I mean, huh?
Egalitarianism is simple by comparison. There are only two types–those who believe in full functional equality in the church (women can fill any ministry role), and those who believe in full functional equality in the home (no hierarchy between the husband and wife). Many egalitarians believe both. Many complementarians live both.
The fact that some egalitarians are theological liberals and some are theological conservatives muddies the waters a bit. But the same can be said of complementarianism. True, the noisiest advocates for both positions tend to come from theological extremes. But I’m hopeful that as those of us occupying the middle ground begin to speak up, the spotlight will move from the mavericks on the edges, and spread out to illuminate the common ground most of us occupy.
And that common ground is that we want our lives and relationships to reflect our relationship with Christ.
Since talking about egalitarianism and complementarianism so often starts blood pressure soaring, verses flying, and heels digging into the dirt, I thought it might be helpful to take a step back and look at the differences from a more objective point of view.
We’re talking about two different controversies here: a theological one, and a sociological one.
Let’s tackle the theology first. Here are the questions, as I see them:
Theology of Creation: Did God mean for Adam to “rule over” Eve? Or was that a consequence of the fall? Do the words ezer kenegdo, “helper suitable,” imply a secondary or subservient role for women?
New Testament Household Codes: Were the household codes given by Peter and Paul meant to be universally prescriptive, a pattern for all people in all times to follow? Or were they socially descriptive, illustrating what Christ-centered relationships should look like in the context of first century Rome?
New Testament Teaching Prohibitions: Were the instructions Paul gave regarding women teaching and “usurping authority” meant to stand as a universal prohibition of women teaching or wielding authority? Or were they instructions specific to that context, perhaps even addressing a particular problem in the Ephesian church? If Paul did mean that women should not teach or be in positions of authority, where should we draw the line today?
It’s worth noting that while egalitarians tend to have a consistent interpretation of these issues, complementarians are all over the map on them. For instance, I grew up believing that the subjugation of women was a result of the fall (quasi-egalitarian), that male leadership and female submission was the biblical pattern we were supposed to follow (complementarian), and, in typical missionary style, that women had better darn well fill any ministry role God called them to (egalitarian). Complementarianism is a bit like a salad bar that way–different people use different combinations and amounts of different ingredients.
Honestly, if “complementarian” and “egalitarian” were extremes on a spectrum, most evangelicals I know would be somewhere around here:
But linguistically, this is what we get:
Complementarian Complementarian Complementarian X Complementarian Egalitarian
It’s rather confusing.
Because of this, it’s easy for complementarians get (understandably) defensive or hurt when they’re lumped in with complementarians of an entirely different stripe. No one likes to be misunderstood or misrepresented, based on some label that has been applied to them willy-nilly. (And I hope complementarians remember that next time some aging Christian leader tries to label egalitarians as raging feminist rebels who reject biblical authority and are pulling society down around our ears. Sheesh.)
Then there’s the sociological controversy.
What does it mean to be a woman or a man, and what roles should each gender play in society?
Honestly, this is not a complementarian/egalitarian controversy, although it does play into the conversation.
I think this is more of an issue for people in their late forties and beyond, people who are old enough to have felt the sting of second wave feminism’s derision toward traditionally feminine roles. For the rest of us? I’m old enough to have caught the tail end of the “mommy wars” in the late nineties, but I truly think American women have managed to bury that axe. While there are exceptions, most complementarians have no problem with women having a career, and egalitarian mommies are just as likely to stay home snuggling babies and baking casseroles as anyone else.
What about the differences between men and women?
Okay, honestly? No one is saying that men and women aren’t different. Most of us figured that out sometime after diapers and before preschool.
The question is, how much power should we give gender norms over individual autonomy?
For example, women are typically more verbal, while men are more technically-minded. Does that mean we should think there is something WRONG with male English teachers, or snicker at the idea of a woman being an engineer?
Most of us wouldn’t go that far, of course. But a question many egalitarians (and complementarians, for that matter) would raise is whether emphasizing the differences between men and women is more likely to be helpful or harmful.
So, if you give a lot of weight to the presupposition that girls are verbal and boys are technical, are you going to buy your math-whiz daughter dolls instead of Knex? Is your son going to feel pressured to take physics, when he’d really shine in debate?
Our spoken and unspoken expectations of people shape their identity and their lives. That’s why, while most egalitarians readily acknowledge that there are differences between men and women, they are cautious about making a big deal out of them. Sure, it can be helpful to know what the “norm” is, especially if you’re struggling to understand someone of the other gender. But we can’t let the norm overshadow the individual.
Here’s what this all comes down to for me.
I believe that women should be encouraged to minister in whatever capacity God gifts them for and calls them to. To limit women’s ministry is to limit the pronouncement of the gospel. And that is not okay.
I believe that Christian couples should submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, serving one another instead of using manipulation and power plays to serve their own agendas. And I believe we need to confront teachings that enable abuse, perpetuating sinful patterns in Christian homes.
Those are things that I will go to the mat for.
And those are things many of my complementarian friends will go to the mat for, too.
Let’s stop eyeing each other’s theological labels, like snotty teens trying to decide who to sit with at lunch, and work together toward our common goals and purposes, for the glory of God and the good of the kingdom.