“Just pick a side.” This message has come to characterize the intermural, evangelical debate over gender roles. Complementarians versus egalitarians. Choose a team; fly your flag; toe the party line. Only two options. Choose carefully.
Complementarians believe that though men and women are equal in worth, men alone should hold leadership roles in the home and in the church. Egalitarians believe that women and men can share leadership in these roles. There can be an unstated belief that these terms, though unrecognizable to most Christians historically and most non-evangelicals currently, are the sole ways of approaching questions about gender and power. But perhaps there is more to sussing out complex truth than just choosing a side.
The complementarian/egalitarian debate has become so stagnant, entrenched, even predictable, that it feels like a stuffy room, windows pulled tight, dim and dusty. In Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate, New Testament professor Michelle Lee-Barnewall seeks to open the windows, let some fresh air in, and set a table where the conversation can begin anew—with new starting points and new questions.
Lee-Barnewall’s analysis of the blind spots that arise in fixed arguments is indeed helpful, not only in the complementarian-egalitarian debate, but in any debate that has become over-brittle and calcified. She writes: “If the question is ‘Is it A or B?’ then there is no option to answer ‘C,’ or even ‘5’ or “blue.’ As a result, there is little room or inclination to explore areas that may provide a different or more nuanced answer.” If we approach the subject of men and women in the church and home only asking, “Who has authority?” or “Is there equality?”, we miss asking deeper, more complex, and more foundational questions.
Lee-Barnewall reframes the conversation about gender in two ways. First, she traces the role of women in American history. She begins with early first-wave feminism, when women were seen as moral guardians and social reformers and suffragettes sought the vote, not so much to achieve individual equality as to advance their favored reforms (think: prohibition). Then, she looks at the post-World-War-II era and the rise of individualism, when an emerging June Clever-esque ideal pictured women as homebound and oriented around husband and children. Finally, she moves into the 70s, with the dawn of second-wave feminism and women’s liberation. In each period she looks at how the church often adopted the assumptions, questions, and trends of the broader culture. And how, in later feminism, questions about authority and equality became the crux of broader movements in the culture and, thus, in the church.
Lee-Barnewall then turns her attention to new questions—and new lenses—through which to approach these debates. She reexamines biblical gender roles using what she terms “kingdom themes,” primarily unity, which focuses more on inclusion and “oneness” than equality; and “reversal,” the shocking reality that, in the kingdom of God, leaders take on radical servanthood, even suffering. In this view, “servant leadership” cannot be blithely bandied about as a softer version of a secular model of power, but instead challenges and changes the very nature and meaning of authority. In her discussion on marriage, Lee-Barnewall challenges the reader not to approach the story of Adam and Eve looking for clues about authority or equality, but to let the narrative call forth its own kinds of questions, which lead to a very different focus on obedience verses disobedience to God. Then, in a chapter I found particularly helpful, she turns her attention to Ephesians 5, where she explores the meaning of kephale (or head), and the ancient medical and cultural literature around this term.
All of this helps to call readers out of over-simplified categories. But that would not be enough without showing other ways of approaching these questions. Lee-Barnewall’s suggestions of unity and reversal as new conversational lenses offer a needed way forward. In that sense, Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian is a great starting point for a new conversation.
We Can’t Just Change the Subject
However, the book falters in a few key ways. Notably absent is an attempt to address directly the damage caused by the sin of sexism. The changing views of women in the church aren’t only due to mimicking cultural and secular “progress.” They also represent, at least in part, a move towards repenting of denigration and abuse of women. As Christians, we must acknowledge that for much of the church’s history, women were considered not only different, but actually inferior. Because she doesn’t name or address misogyny or sexism directly, Lee-Barnewall’s conversation about oneness is weakened. Does the history (or current reality) of sexism shape how we think about oneness and unity? Should men lay down authority not simply to honor the reality of kingdom “reversal,” but also to repent for generations of domination and abuse?
If my oldest child has all the candy and my youngest has none, it would be fine, perhaps even right, for me to say to my youngest, “Do not focus on equality, but instead lay down your desire for candy in order to love your sister.” But we must acknowledge that that is a different ethical message when said to the child with the candy deficit rather than the child with the candy surplus. What if we lived in a culture where, for millennia, youngest children were considered inferior and therefore undeserving of candy? Would that context change the way I call my eldest daughter to share her candy or my youngest to forgo it? And, of course, when talking about gender roles, we aren’t merely discussing perks and privileges (like candy), but vital issues like physical safety, legal protection, and access to education and employment.
It’s not that, after calling for a change in conversation, I want to slip back into merely discussing questions of equality and authority. But once these questions are raised by history, we can’t, as a church, simply change the subject. New ways of speaking about gender roles are deeply needed, but they cannot ignore context, history, and pain and abuse borne by women. Faithful and nuanced conversations about gender roles have to explicitly address the irrational ways we’ve been conditioned to regard women as inferior, unworthy, or less human than men.
Down to Brass Tacks
Since Lee-Barnewall’s goal is to begin a new sort of conversation, she avoids coming down on a “side” as either a complementarian or egalitarian. The choice to remain ambiguous complements her desire to break out of deep ruts in the evangelical conversation. But because of the theoretical and academic nature of the book, I found myself wanting more brass-tacks examples of how the church and home might embody her “kingdom themes.”
The problem with this lack of example and specificity is that these kingdom values can easily become an inkblot in which both sides see their own assumptions affirmed. As a pastor in a denomination currently divided on questions of women’s ordination, I wondered if, without concrete examples of ways forward, Lee-Barnewall’s calls to “oneness” and “reversal” might become weapons against the “other side” instead of spurs to new forms of conversation. Here, I should offer a warning: A friend of mine was under the impression that the book comes down on one particular “side” in the end. This is simply not true. Part of the discipline this book requires is to let Lee-Barnewall speak on her own terms without trying to enlist her argument for our own complementarian or egalitarian “teams” (a constant temptation to resist while reading).
I hope this book is read and discussed by anyone who wants to think biblically about gender roles, particularly by those of us well-versed in both sides of the evangelical dispute. It likely won’t make many switch “sides,” but that’s not the point. Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian, first and foremost, calls us out of our chosen foxholes into more nuance, thoughtfulness, and charity. The more we learn to ask the right kinds of questions, the better our chance of arriving at answers that help all of us, men and women, live and serve together in ways that image and honor God.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and works with InterVarsity Women in the Academy and Professions. Her first book, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (InterVarsity Press), releases in December .