A couple weeks ago, author and blogger Wendy Alsup wrote a breakout post titled “A New Wave of Complementarianism,” noting a stirring among complementarians who feel uneasy with some of the beliefs and practices traditionally aligned with that position. The topic generated a passel of exuberant “amens,” some doubtful side-eye glances, and a handful of truly disturbing responses.
I counted myself among the amens. I’m an egalitarian woman, in an egalitarian denomination, who writes for egalitarian organizations, but I only disagreed with one of the eight distinctives Alsup uses to define New Wave Complementarianism–that there are positions of authority only men should hold.
Honestly, I’m a little afraid that positive commentary from egalitarian circles might hurt their cause in some people’s eyes, but I feel like I need to say something. Because sisters, we have a Euodia and Syntyche situation on our hands. We have powerful ministers of the gospel being hampered, divided and distracted by an ongoing disagreement.
Many of the women involved in these conversations are women I am immensely drawn to; women whose work I respect and whose passions run parallel to mine. I imagine we’d be friends if we lived near each other–that we’d get together for coffee to laugh about our kids, talk about God, brainstorm new ministry initiatives, and crack intellectual jokes about our divergent theological leanings. I imagine we’d proof each other’s articles, pray with and for one another, shed tears over each other’s hurts, and leap to one another’s defense when things got sticky.
Reading Alsup’s post and others like it, I was reminded again of how much we have in common. But reading the responses, something else occurred to me. Is it possible that we’re having a hard time meeting in the middle not because there’s such a gulf between us, but because each side is being defined by its fringe?
Here’s the thing. Most of the posts and comments I’ve read regarding New Wave Complementariansism make me want to cheer. I recognize my own heart, hurts, doubts, and hopes in these women’s words. But some (not all) of the negative pushback they’ve received was truly troubling, the sort of cringe-worthy comments that anyone unfamiliar with fundamentalism would hardly believe existed nowadays. We’re talking about ideas that strike at the heart of female personhood, that have women created less-fully in the image of God than men are.
It was like the straw man showed up on their doorstep, live and in person, with his hair on fire.
It kinda freaked me out.
But then it occurred to me. Egalitarianism has its straw men too, and like the ones on the complementarian side, they are very real. There are egalitarians who diminish or deny the inspiration of scripture. There are egalitarians who make more of their freedom in Christ than their obligation to serve others. There are egalitarians who seem more loyal to feminist theory than biblical, Christ-centered theology, and wind up accommodating syncretistic attitudes toward sin.
Now, I could talk until I was blue in the face about how that’s not REAL biblical egalitarianism. I could explain that those views are contrary to the stance of Christians for Biblical Equality, and refer back to Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, as complementarians often do with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. But my protestations won’t make the straw men go away, or keep them from being lumped in with a theological position that I consider to be of great practical importance. And just because someone is on the fringe of a movement doesn’t mean that they don’t have an influential voice within it–in fact, their weirdness draws attention, whether most of their compatriots think they’re nutters or not.
It’s maddening. The labels being used in this conversation are not only imprecise; they can be downright inaccurate and even deceptive. It’s like trying to squeeze into size twelve jeans from Banana Republic because that’s the size you buy from The Gap. They’re owned by the same company, and you’d think they should fit, but yeah–good luck with that.
Anyhow. New Wave Complementarian sisters, I like your jeans. In fact, I have a pair just like them. Aren’t they the best?!
Here’s what I think. I think we should reach across the gender divide, lock hands, and refuse to let go. I think we should speak about our beliefs and experiences with honesty and charity, never forgetting that we are beloved sisters in Christ. I think we should trust the Holy Spirit to lead and convict, and be careful not to disparage the work He is doing in and through someone else’s life, even when we don’t “get it.” I think we should keep the main thing the main thing, and team up for the good of the kingdom and the glory of God.
And I think we should consider coming up with a new label. Barnabas babes? For women who passionately pursue and encourage ministry, even in the midst of controversy, disagreement, and sharp cultural debate?
(Okay, kidding, that’s a HORRIBLE name! But I’m only half-joking about needing a new label, for the five minutes before it’s co-opted, anyhow.)
What do you think?