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The Gender Conversation We Aren’t Having


Mar 15 2016
Why sexism deserves more attention than the complementarian-egalitarian debates.

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.

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