A More Egalitarian ComplEmentarianism?

crowe and house011Last week’s women’s roles study group was interesting. While the first week we’d read a good introduction to the more traditional perspective (often known as complementarian) that a woman was naturally designed to “complement” a man with her unique gender-based giftings and abilities, this last week we read more about the other side of this discussion– what is known as the egalitarian position which essentially holds that peoples abilities are not always limited by gender and that women should not be limited in the roles they fill at church or in society simply because they are a woman.

We had three readings. The first was basically an overview of the egalitarian movement, and the egalitarian-complementarian debate, in the 20th century. One interesting facet of this reading was the realization that until pretty recently, the more traditional position in this debate was known as the patriarchal or hierarchical view. Egalitarianism is sometimes characterized as ‘christian feminism’ by its opponents.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to me from this chapter was the fact that so much has been written on this topic in the last 60 years and there has been some significant shifting of position and the egalitarian position has made some progress in at least getting acknowledgement of women’s leadership roles in the church by the more traditional complementarians– even so that the name of the view has been softened to ‘complementarian’ rather than hierarchical or patriarchal.

One other interesting point to me in this chapter was that the egalitarians believe in some sense that women complement men, but not always in a gender specific way. Some women, for example, might make for very good leaders, and so complement the church in that way. I think about the many different leadership theory styles– and it seems like some women would match certain leadership styles better than some men, and some men would fit other leadership styles than most women (although there are always some outlyer women who are great in leadership styles that usually men are better at) and so when you acknowledge that there are different ways to provide leadership, the question of whether men or women make better leaders becomes maybe too simple. It may depend not only on the individual, but on what type of leadership style you are even talking about. Some are good mentor-leaders, some are better at taking-the-reigns leadership, some are better at servant leadership– but maybe not simply on the basis of their gender…

The second chapter we read was about women leaders in the bible.

There was discussion of female prophets and judges, and it was pointed out that often the female prophets were very powerful as contemporaries of other prophets (thus undermining the notion that women were leaders only when there were no good men around).

Some significant space was given to the discussion of Junia, mentioned in the New Testament by Paul, who seems to be pointed out by Paul as an apostle and leader in the early church, although by most accounts of the early church fathers (including St. John Crysostom) she was a woman. If she was in fact a significant leader in the early church, it would provide a significant counter-example to the view that women were not to be leaders in the early church.

Many other examples were pointed out.

The third chapter was about hermeneutical principles, and in it the author provided 6 principles for reading scripture, which he then applied to the discussion of women’s roles in the Bible. (In stating them no one is supporting them necessarily, and their application at any rate is debateable)  They were a. you have to make a distinction between literal and figurative meanings.  App he made: God is spirit and so nonsexual, and so any gender reference to God is distantly figurative, at best.  B. Prescriptions vs descriptions.  App: “though the patriarchal society in the OT serves as a background of much of Israel’s history, this does not imply a diveinley sanctioned order.” (357)  and “Paul’s description of male authority in the ancient Greco-Roman household does not attain to a prescription for all times.” (358)  C. Individual, collective and universal references.  app: some commands of Paul in I Timothy seem to be directed towards a specific background with specific problems, not meant as general universalizable commands.  D. Peripheral vs Central concerns.  App: He said that “one would think that Spirit gifting, which receives considerable attention in the NT with regard to the ministry of the body…would be more central than church order [and gender specificity of specific positions, etc]” (359)  E. Fragmentary vs Canonical Interpretations.  App: read things in context, and avoid proof texting.  Ex: “some…forbid women to teach men on the basis of ! Tim 2:11-12 but in so doing are dismissive of the evidence that stands on the other side….Others, on th ebasis of I Cor 14:34-35 either disallow women to speak at all in a church gathering or severely limit which speaking is allowed.  But to do so they must reject not only the surrounding context of I cor 14 but also the evidence of ! cor 11:4-5, not to mention much else in the NT” (360)  F. Situation of those being addressed.  App: “Cultural differences demand of us a double shift: we must ascertain the principles at the root of cultural mandates made in antiquity in order to perceive their significance in relation to our own time and place; and we must beware lest we present as divine mandate what may be only a cultural feature of some part of our own Christian environment…” (361) 

In response to those in the complementarian/hierarchical camp who say that egalitarianism in Christianity is motivated primarily by wanting to be like our secular culture he says, “The great problem for Christianity is not that biblical egalitarians have been carried away by their desire to emulate secular feminism.  Rather, the problem appears to be that Bible-believing people have permitted themselves to fall below biblical standards because they were unduly influenced by surrounding societies in which oppression prevailed in spite of centuries of Christian witness.” (361-2)

So this second week was a nice counterpart to our first week where we looked only at the complementarian viewpoint of piper and grudem.  Questions were raised about some of the arguments of the complementarian authors, and we look forward to reading the two viewpoints and their interpretation of Genesis 1-3 and I Cor 14 this next Saturday.


5 responses to “A More Egalitarian ComplEmentarianism?

  1. as far as discussion of gender roles and expectations at church, i’d be interested in hearing how men feel about the roles perscribed traditionally. i’ve also heard some men complain that modern churches today are too touchy-feely for their taste. a lot of church groups i’ve gone do tend to have more women than men–what’s up with that. are churches becoming increasingly irrelevant to men? good posting andy!

  2. To Lainey, there is indeed a problem with more women than men in churches, especially in black and African churches. I think it’s less so in white, middle-class churches.

    There’s probably a reason for that. I’ve lived in Alaska and talked with Indian/Eskimos there. I’ve been to Africa (we have a church there), and I’ve read a lot about primitive tribes. The fact is, when white people come in, conquer a tribe, and bring in “civilization,” we usually destroy their culture and their men are left with nothing to hold onto. Alcoholism is very, very common in such situations, and in all such situations there are a lot more women than men in churches.

    On the general post, it’s nice to hear people discussing such things. There are definitely two sides. Paul definitely says some things about not letting women teach and lead, but then there’s Phoebe and Junia.

    I don’t know that God wants things as defined as we like to make them. I think God wants every person, man and woman, following his Spirit and serving him wholeheartedly.

    If men want to lead, let them rise up, know God, and have authority that God himself gives by his Spirit.

  3. Oh, and it’s complement, with an e. Compliment with an i means to say something good about someone. Complement with an e means to fit in with or mesh.

  4. simplefreechurch

    thanks paul. you’d think i’d know how to spell by now 🙂

  5. Nothing else was misspelled. I’m a good speller, but I nonetheless occasionally type “write” for “right” or vice versa, and I regularly find a word I thought I knew how to spell that I didn’t.

    I almost didn’t say anything, but since it was in your title and is something that will likely turn up in search engines …

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