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Tinker, Tailor, Complementarian, Egalitarian: Looking at our Labels Again

January 24, 2012

As my denomination approaches yet another bi-annual General Assembly in which the biblically debatable question of gender roles may be brought to the table (this time in the context of a re-assessment of ordination policies), I find myself thinking a great deal about how to encourage mutual understanding (and even reconciliation) in this debate. Today I am asking specifically about the helpfulness of contemporary position-labelling: Namely, to what extent do the labels “complementarian” and “egalitarian” hinder discussion rather than enable it? Along with others before me I wish to contend that these labels are not properly descriptive, distort our perspective, and tend to divide us into two ‘camps’ when we are closer than we think.

If one were to visualize all human societies on a spectrum, until relatively recently the majority of them would have taken a basically “patriarchal” structure when it came to gender roles. Where religion gave support to this it would have been assumed that there were divinely-intended norms at play in the societal structures that prevailed. In societies where this developed, women would be nurtured for certain roles and the idea would perpetuate itself that they were less “fit” for other roles. Depending how crucial this was to the fabric of the society it might have been more or less ready to handle or even to imagine any fluidity in this regard. In any given society we can definitely find many cases of outright abuse which took place as a result, but if we look closely we might also find cases of rather redemptive engagement between women and men within the structures that prevailed.

We may (and I’d say should) have our retrospective objections to pariarchalism, but we need not be so anachronistic that we pass wholesale judgements on past societies based on the advantaged situations we find ourselves in today. We might (and I’d say should) frown upon patriarchalism as a rule while still recognizing that in some tribal subsistence societies it may have been healthier for women to live in that system rather than some idealized system we might invent for them but which was not realistically available. Christians in particular need to note that in the Old and New Testaments God saw fit to develop a “complementarianism” of sorts within the patriarchal norm rather than to either recommend a carbon-copy of the predominant norms or to totally interrupt them and plunk in a new system as if from another world. Were these God’s redemptive accommodation to the survival needs of the time or were they God’s perpetuation of a universal created order to be obeyed in all times and places?

This brings us the situation (in the West at least) today, in which we are more and  more accustomed to an “egalitarian” approach which  at least strives for equality of value and opportunity for all regardless of gender, ethnicity, and so on. As a  cultural trend this is relatively new in human history. This is easy to forget, but some of our own grandparents will be able to tell us of a day when women did not have the right to vote in elections. This is important to remember, however, because those who debate gender roles in the church tend to use the word “egalitarian” to refer to only one ‘camp’ when in fact both of the main ‘camps’ within evangelicalism will only make sense within this relatively recent egalitarian scenario.

The word “complementarian” can mean a lot of things, but it has historically been meant in terms of “complementarian equality” because it is all about describing the mode of differentiated equality which is believed to be biblical. The notion is that within the equal worth and and mutual dominion of the genders there are different roles which were created to complement one another to the other’s advantage. We might debate aspects of this, of course -such as whether this differentiation ends up nullifying the actual equality, or whether the creation order in fact recommends this to us at all – but my main point is that “complementarianism” is actually less than 100 years old (see Alan Padgett). So it is a bit of a misnomer that this is the tradition and “egalitarianism” alone is the new development; lured by culture down a slippery slope.  The “egalitarian” label is not very helpful because it plays into this misconstrual and fails to signify its main point of difference.

There are different strains of “egalitarianism” as well. Some are more attached to systems of power than to mutual submission, and in my denomination it is pretty clear that in the 80s when this was hotly debated (see Alex Meek) the perception was that all egalitarians were attached to a sort of “secular egalitarianism” (a.k.a “radical feminism”) that was perceived to speak the language of power, revolution, and militancy without regard for biblical exegesis . This judgement was often unfair at the time, but 30 years later it is even more unfair. Egalitarianism has had a lot of time to mature, and just because there are different types of egalitarianism doesn’t mean that any form or egalitarianism is a slippery slope into the other ones. Those who hold to what I’ll call “mutual-submission equality” don’t discount the fact that there are differences between sexes, they just want to be attuned to the wide variety of ways those differences might work out in self-giving relationships and mutually-attentive roles according to personality, circumstance, gifts and calling where they are not confined by a previous culture’s norms.

Those typically known as “egalitarians” get the reputation for not being attuned to differences between genders and for being way too influenced by culture, but both views have arisen from cultural situations–they just have differing views on how the church has engaged with culture and on what the Bible’s norming norms are in this regard.  When “mutual submission egalitarians” read the difficult biblical texts in their cultural context and submit them to greater norms of self-giving love they certainly make contestable exegetical decisions, but despite what common rhetoric will tell you they are credible, defensible and – in an secularly egalitarian society especially – even rather constructive ones.

In sum, while it is true that all discussion has to have some form of short-hand for the positions being debated, my suggestion is that we choose our words more carefully not only in order to keep perspective and promote accuracy but also to recommend further thought rather than short-circuit it. It is with that in mind that I offer the above suggestions, although I would be very happy to entertain objections to any of the moves I have made.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2012 2:24 am

    Very thoughtful overview of the map, but do you have any suggestions about language moving forward?

  2. January 24, 2012 2:55 am

    Yeah, good question. Even though I would probably want to use a different term I should probably refer to complementarians the way they want me to refer to them. So I’ll usually go with complementarian or complementarian-egalitarian. In my case, I want to see egalitarians described in terms of mutual submission, so I suppose I’m recommending the terms mutual-submission egalitarian. Certainly not very snappy, but then again sound-bytes aren’t really what we’re after.

  3. January 24, 2012 4:17 am

    This is excellent. I have always felt that our debates rarely matched our realities. I know many complimentarians who, looking from the outside, appear to be egalitarian. I should also say that the opposite is true. I know egalitarians who, again, looking from outside, appear to have different roles for each other. It’s only in the middle of debate that lines are formed.

    Somewhat as an aside, I think that the New Testament does not give a straight answer to this issue. If this could be admitted by both sides, perhaps a more fruitful dialogue could emerge. The debate would be centered on how each side gets from point A to B rather than marshaling texts together to use against the other. They might even pray together that God would give wisdom, something which is left out when scripture is assumed to be monolithic.

  4. January 24, 2012 9:16 pm

    Jon, the words that warmed me most in this discussion were these: “(they) don’t discount the fact that there are differences between sexes, they just want to be attuned to the wide variety of ways those differences might work out in self-giving relationships and mutually-attentive roles according to personality, circumstance, gifts and calling . . .”.

    It has always saddened me that we seem to be able to only have interaction after determining what box someone fits into (the terminology), rather than just “receiving” (Rom. 15) each other first (especially those who are one in Christ), and listening to and working with each other in that Holy Spirit imparted and propelled oneness. Ministry in Scripture was only fruitful when it was done in the power of the Holy Spirit – no matter what gender was “leading” or “speaking” or “serving” – Huldah or Steven, Deborah or Paul, etc..

    It is that recognition of the Holy Spirit propelling words and action that I want to, and receive, in the ministry of reconciling the world to God, co-labouring with Christ and my brothers and sisters in Him.

  5. January 25, 2012 2:40 am

    Thanks Isaac, thanks Judy, very well said, both of you.

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