“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.