It seems there are two rival gangs in the evangelical world: complementarians, who believe that men assume primary leadership in the church and in the home, versus egalitarians, who believe women can share leadership in these realms. Denominations, parachurch organizations, seminaries, advocacy groups, even Christian websites segregate along these lines and can use them as a false litmus test for orthodoxy.
But lately, I find myself frustrated that these terms (which are often left slippery and undefined) obscure as much as they reveal. I want to look at each realm—home and church—to see how these terms can fail us and examine what is lost when these gender role labels dominate our conversation.
First, marriage. Though views of women’s roles can seem straightforward in an abstract theological argument, in the intimate, ordinary crucible of marriage, things are never so tidy. My own marriage began as one that may be described as “soft complementarian”—my husband and I professed a vague notion of male “headship.” Over time, through studying Scripture and tradition, our position changed. We came to see patriarchy as a consequence of the fall and the restoration of parity between men and women as part of the reconciliation offered in the gospel. At this point, if you pressed us, we’d define our relationship as “egalitarian.”
But despite the shift in terminology, if I’m honest, there's basically no difference in my day-to-day married life. We were sinners trying to love each other and submit to each other back when we were complementarians, and we are sinners trying to love each other and submit to each other now. Our views on gender roles never shortcut the difficult, sacred work of dying to ourselves for the sake of loving another, which is the call for men and women alike in any Christian marriage. If the goal of Christian marriage is, as Paul states, to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” it isn’t clear how these labels help us.
Secondly, the church. While complementarian/egalitarian labels can be helpful when discussing women’s ordination, in the pragmatic realities of ministry, these labels aren’t clear-cut either. I am a female priest, so my church may rightly be called “egalitarian.” Still, according to some—like Anglican priest John Stott, for instance—my ordination fits in a complementarian view since I serve under the authority of a male bishop. Other complementarians see female pastorship or priesthood of any sort as impermissible. But the categories become more complex and blurry if we ask about women teaching adult Sunday School, leading worship, writing books, preaching at conferences, speaking at church gatherings, or heading parachurch groups.
The terms themselves obscure the crux of arguments about the ordination of women. “Egalitarianism,” in general use, refers to the belief that all deserve equal rights. Yet, rhetoric over rights fails us when discussing ordination, an ancient practice not shaped by an American notion of individual rights but by the wisdom of the church for the benefit of God’s people and mission. On the other hand, “complementarianism” is an unfortunate word choice given that most evangelicals who’d be called “egalitarian” also insist upon the complementarity of the sexes given in Creation.
To be clear, it’s important to have theological and hermeneutical arguments about gender roles. But the problem with these labels is that they can become a smoke screen and distraction from the true conversations we should be having.
Regardless of our complementarian/egalitarian labels, all believers need to honestly and frankly address the sin of sexism. Sexism is not the property of one theological position; it is a pattern and state of the heart. It’s an often subtle, yet entrenched proclivity to ignore or denigrate voices of women. It’s the insistence that women fit a narrow personality type or mold. It’s an (easily overlooked) idolatry of maleness. And it exists in the church—in both complementarian and egalitarian places.
I have a female friend who is theologically trained, gifted, caring, and getting ordained in a mainline denomination. Yet, in her church, as men around her were asked to preach, lead, and be formed as pastors, she felt frozen out—her pastor never allowed her into the life and ministry of her church. When I questioned my friend and another (male) leader about it, they said the same thing: Though the pastor was, by category, a “pro-woman egalitarian,” the reality is that he developed an unexamined habit of disempowering and marginalizing women around him. His egalitarian label actually served as a way to self-justify and leave deeper sexism unexamined. This could be dismissed as a mere personality conflict, except that it happens so often—I know similar stories from women all over the country.
In the other camp, complementarians can spend their energy arguing for male leadership while neglecting pressing problems of sexism in their midst. A pastor friend told me recently that working alongside a woman in lay ministry convicted him that he had ignored voices of women in his congregation, where pastor and elder roles are reserved for men. He is now trying to actively repent by meeting with female congregants to ask them about their experiences, including women in all church decisions, and learning about the history and current reality of sexism. He’s working to make voices and gifts of women a priority, even while maintaining his stance against female ordination.
If one professes male headship, then it is particularly important to rigorously disentangle that view from sins of sexism and cultural misogyny. Otherwise, complementarianism can become a mere façade to “baptize” the dehumanization of women and self-centeredness of men. It isn't enough to merely argue for male headship without also asking how to create a church culture where women thrive. All churches and church leaders—on both sides of the issue—must actively seek the flourishing of women and explicitly condemn mocking, belittling, or denigrating women as unbiblical.
We can oversimplify arguments about gender roles into two opposing extremes, but reality is that there is a continuum with unbiblical extremes on both ends—denying any gender difference and biological limits on one end or ignoring, abusing, and objectifying women on the other. But in the vast, spacious, variegated middle, there is room for people to come together. Churches and individuals—regardless of label—would do well to meet in this open space with our resources, energy, prayers, best minds, and strategies for ministry.
Despite our egalitarian/complementarian labels, we can support healthier, holier, and better marriages; work toward the ability of women to serve the church with their gifts; foster cultures and laws that allow for safer, more joyful, abundant lives for girls and women across the globe; and seek to reflect Christ’s love and health in our intergender relationships.
Our culture is wrestling with what it means to be male and female, struggling with what marriage is and what it is for, and confused about issues of power and mutuality. The watching world does not need Christians squabbling with each other about abstract “gender roles.” What people will find compelling about Christian marriage and the church—and the gospel these represent—is seeing husbands and wives submitting to each other in every way they can, struggling through dark places of pain in marriage to speak truthfully about our sin and need, or brothers and sisters in our churches loving, listening, and learning from each other, together addressing sexism and seeking repentance and reconciliation. Egalitarianism or complementarianism, as terms and as rallying cries, are helpful only to the extent that they serve these ends.
The brokenness we find in sexism, abuse, and the marginalization of women comes not so much from our stated positions on gender but from our failure to love our neighbor, to take seriously God's call to mutual submission, and the ways these deeply embedded sins play out in systems, cultures, and patterns over generations. Therefore, each of us is called to be part of God’s redemption and restoration of the full human dignity of women.
Tish Harrison Warren is a writer and a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She works with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries at The University of Texas at Austin and has two young daughters. Her forthcoming book "Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life" releases in December. For more, see tishharrisonwarren.com or follow her on Twitter at @Tish_H_Warren.