There's a story about a Texas rancher who threw a big party and filled his swimming pool with man-eating sharks. When the guests had all gathered, he announced that he would give anyone who swam the length of his pool the choice of $50 million or the deed to his ranch. Before he could finish speaking, he saw someone swimming furiously across the pool. When the swimmer arrived on the other side, the rancher said, "I'm astounded. I didn't think anyone would try that, much less do it. But I am true to my word. Now tell me, what do you want: $50 million or the deed to my ranch?"

"What do you mean?" the swimmer exclaimed. "I want the guy who pushed me into the pool!"

I won't accuse anyone of pushing me into this pool, but I confess that I would not be writing on this topic if I hadn't recently been invited—even prodded—to give a plenary address on it. I am not a card-carrying member of either party in the evangelical gender wars. I have no special expertise in this issue; I have read widely but not deeply in the enormous literature it has generated. I have no new interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 or headship or submission to offer. I am merely a participant-observer in the evangelical family who recognizes that in the polarization over gender, something crucial is at stake.

That polarization is found even in our seminaries. Evangelical theological schools tend to fall into one of three camps. Some are unequivocally egalitarian and would not likely hire a faculty member who did not share this commitment. Fuller, North Park, Palmer Theological Seminary (formerly Eastern), Ashland, and the Church of God School of Theology are among the schools that hold this view. Other theological institutions take the opposite view. Westminster, Dallas, Covenant, and, more recently, the six seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention fall into this group. Beeson, my school, belongs to another group of theological institutions, including Trinity, Gordon-Conwell, Denver, and Regent College (Vancouver), which do not make this matter a test of fellowship but welcome faculty and students who hold differing convictions.

The ferment is further agitated by language changes. "Christian feminists" have become "biblical egalitarians," though the former term is still used by some. Likewise, "patriarchalists," "hierarchalists," and "traditionalists" have become "complementarians." Of course, no one denies that men and women are equally created in the image of God and share an equal access to salvation and Christ. Likewise, everyone in the debate recognizes, in some sense, that there are key distinctions as well as similarities between men and women. We have become all things to all people that we might confuse everybody!

Article continues below

It is well beyond my ken to sort all of this out. What I have to say is more pastoral and theological. I want to draw on my experience in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together project, which over its 11-year history has made remarkable strides in helping us bridge some needless divisions. Here I want to suggest possible, tentative steps forward to what, in God's providence, might become a new ECT—Egalitarians and Complementarians Together.

Understanding the Passion

It is easy to get lost in the maze of exegetical minutiae, the thrust and counter-thrust of theological arguments, and to suppose that this debate among evangelicals has developed in a vacuum. Our wider culture is complex, but let me look at a few historic realities that continue to affect us today.

Let's begin with the abusive sexism that has unfortunately characterized our world. "For more cultures through most of history, the most serious deviation from biblical standards regarding men and women has not been feminism, but harsh and oppressive male chauvinism," writes complementarian Wayne Grudem.

Church history, of course, is littered with such evidence. We can think of Tertullian's notorious statement that every woman is an Eve, the Devil's gateway, the unsealer of the forbidden tree whose sin destroyed God's image, man. Or recall Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, who defined woman as a "misshapen man." Such views, invariably supported by an appeal to Scripture, have led to a pattern of male dominance that continued to the detriment of women in the new American Republic. Even the enlightened Thomas Jefferson held that girls were unfit in brains and character for serious study, forbidding them entry into his University of Virginia.

As historians have shown, women have hardly been inadequate to the mission of evangelicals. Both men and women, often motivated by spiritual awakenings and revival movements, have led the way in bringing about moral reform of society through abolition, temperance, suffrage, and the like. Within conservative churches, however, chauvinistic and traditionalist views of women continued to prevail.

Article continues below

One example is a 1941 book by Baptist evangelist John R. Rice, Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers. Bobbed hair invariably led to bobbed character in women, Rice said. He argued that wives should strictly obey their husbands "in everything," as the Bible literally says. Women are not so much created in the image of God, Rice declared, but in the image of their husbands. Women should not even go to church if forbidden by their husbands. "But what if my husband instructs me to do something sinful like visiting the tavern, going to the picture show, or even having my hair bobbed?" Don't be concerned with such "imaginary cases," Rice advised. If you demonstrate a meek, submissive spirit, your husband will not think of making such outrageous demands but instead, as 1 Peter says, will be won over by the example of your witness.

Rice based his views on 1 Corinthians 11, 1 Corinthians 14, and Ephesians 5, texts that still undergird complementarian views of headship today, though I know of no complementarians in the current discussion who would draw the same conclusions from these passages that Rice did.

The gender issue is also framed by abusive sexism's polar opposite, the ugly face of radical feminism. Feminism covers a wide variety of viewpoints, including those of liberation theologians, mystics, eco-feminists, goddess feminists, women-identified feminists, post-Christian feminists, and some multiethnic feminists who virulently criticize other feminists as white, middle-class American or Western co-conspirators in the oppression of their sisters. What all of these views share, in addition to a severe critique of male domination, is the rejection of the authority and truthfulness of Holy Scripture.

The rise of contemporary feminist hermeneutics can be traced back to The Woman's Bible, a revisionist rendering of the Scriptures edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and published in the 1890s. The purpose of this project was to turn the Bible into a weapon in the struggle for women's liberation. Thus, Stanton boasted that The Woman's Bible would reveal to the modern woman that "the good Lord did not write the book, that the garden scene is a fable, (and) that she is in no way responsible for the laws of the universe … Take the snake, the fruit tree, and the woman from the tableau, and we have no fall, no frowning Judge, no inferno, no everlasting punishment—hence no need of a Savior. Thus the bottom falls out of the whole Christian theology."

Article continues below

Feminist hermeneutics have come a long way since Stanton and today employ a variety of approaches. Many move beyond what anyone in the current discussion would regard as an evangelical view of Scripture. Indeed, in its most basic concerns, radical feminism moves beyond the pale of anything recognizably Christian, as its clearest, most consistent theologians, including Mary Daly and Daphne Hampson, have long sensed. As Mary Daly put it in 1971, "We cannot really belong to institutional religion as it exists. It isn't good enough to be token preachers. It isn't good enough to have our energies drained and co-opted. Singing sexist hymns, praying to a male God breaks our spirit, makes us less than human. The crushing weight of this tradition, of this power structure, tells us we do not even exist."

The fundamental question for radical feminists is not whether God should be called Father, but whether women can be redeemed by a male Savior. Thus the move from Christ to Christa and the oft-quoted statement by Delores Williams, "We don't need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and all that weird stuff."

What this line of thought produces, to quote the title of a book published by feminist scholar Patricia Lynn Reilly, is A God Who Looks Like Me. Elaine Storkey, an evangelical who fully appreciates the profound and valid critique that feminism has brought to our culture, identifies the basic problem with this approach: "Radical feminism wants the fruit of love, but denies the Source. For in the end, the stance of independence is independence from God also and an assertion of human (feminine) autonomy."

The debate between egalitarians and complementarians is carried out against the backdrop of abusive sexism and radical feminism. Many complementarians believe the inevitable logic of the egalitarian view leads to radical feminism. Likewise, many egalitarians see the complementarian position as a slightly updated version of the old chauvinism, an effort to suppress the full exercise of women's God-given gifts. Both fears are motivated by legitimate concerns, and we will not move forward until these concerns are fully heard.

Can We Talk?

Many people are surprised to learn that theologian Roger Nicole is a biblical egalitarian. He is better known as an unreconstructed Calvinist who has defended the Westminster Standards and the Canons of Dort against Arminian detractors of all sorts; as an unflinching inerrantist who helped found the Evangelical Theological Society in 1947; and, more recently, as one who has sounded the alarm against openness theology. Those who know Roger well know that he possesses good humor and an irenic spirit despite the fact that he has become entangled in numerous theological fights throughout his career. This has led him to reflect, perhaps more than other theologians, on how best to deal with those who differ from us. Roger poses three questions.

Article continues below

What do I owe the person who differs from me? We have obligations to people with whom we disagree. We deal with them as we ourselves would like to be dealt with, Roger says. We owe them love. We do not owe them agreement, but we should ever seek to understand what our interlocutor means. We also need to understand their aims. What are they seeking to accomplish in this dispute? What are they reacting against? What are their legitimate concerns?

What can I learn from those who differ from me? "The first thing that I should be prepared to learn is that I may be wrong and that the other person may be right," says Roger. "Apart from issues where God himself has spoken so that doubt and hesitancy are really not permissible, there are numerous areas where we are temperamentally inclined to be very assertive and in which we can quite possibly be in error. When we are unwilling to acknowledge our fallibility, we reveal that we are more interested in winning a discussion and safeguarding our reputation than in the discovery and triumph of truth."

To ask this question is not to relapse into wishy-washy relativism. It is simply to proceed in a spirit of humility, believing, as Pastor John Robinson said to the departing Pilgrims, "The Lord hath yet more truth and light to break forth out of his Holy Word."

How can I cope with those who differ from me? Our theological opponent, our "enemy," may be (and, in the judgment of charity, we can suppose is) a brother or sister in the Lord. Just as in evangelism, where we can win an argument and lose a soul, so in church polemics we can squash an adversary and damage the cause for which we are striving. As Paul says, "And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 2:24-25).

Article continues below

In surveying the recent literature on both sides of this issue, I have found two motifs held together in uneasy equipoise. There is a tendency to be tenacious, unyielding, and unrelenting in critiquing the other side—this is well known. But there is another tendency that gives me hope we are not yet at a total impasse.

Here, for example, is a statement from the egalitarian side: "Evangelicals who promote biblical equality can affirm the core values of fellow Christians who disagree with us on gender equality. What we have in common as Christians far outweighs our disagreements; we must therefore rehearse our shared values frequently and clearly. We must regularly reiterate our support of family values and the responsibility of parents for their children. … By pointing to our commitment to the authority of Scripture, the sacredness of the family, and the centrality of evangelism and missions, we connect to the core values of those who are otherwise apprehensive of biblical equality."

Perhaps the clearest similar expression from the complementarian side is found in the essay "Charity, Clarity, and Hope: The Controversy and the Cause of Christ," first published in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in 1991. "In profound ways we share a common passion with egalitarians: a passion to be obedient to biblical truth about manhood and womanhood; a passion to see men and women affirm the awesome reality of equal personhood in the image of God; a passion to see marriages whole and lasting and freeing and happy for both husband and wife; a passion to resist the moral collapse of our culture in all manner of tolerated abuses and addictions and perversions; a passion to be a winsome, countercultural outcropping of kingdom beauty and truth; a passion to equip all men and women for ministry according to their gifts with none throwing life away in trivial pursuits; a passion to magnify Christ—crucified, risen, and reigning—to a perishing society; and a passion to mobilize the whole church—men and women—to complete the Great Commission, penetrate all the unreached peoples of the world, and hasten the day of God."

The two sides may never come to full agreement, but passages like these suggest that there is no reason we cannot work and pray together on issues we do, in fact, agree upon. This is not a call to give up our distinctives or to cease trying to convince one another. It is, rather, a call to disagree in genuine love and in the context of the greater mission of the church—to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

Article continues below

Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School and an executive editor of CT.

Related Elsewhere:

A Modest Proposal | Nine tasks egalitarians and complementarians can pursue.

Earlier CT articles on gender issues include:

Creating Husbands and Fathers | The discussion of gender roles moves beyond 'proof-text poker.' (July 19, 2004)
Editor's Bookshelf: Raising Up Fathers | An interview with Maggie Gallagher (July 19, 2004)
Affectionate Patriarchs | In the popular imagination, conservative evangelical fathers are power-abusing authoritarians. A new study says otherwise. (Aug. 6, 2004)
Headship with a Heart | How biblical patriarchy actually prevents abuse. (Feb. 10, 2003)
Nuptial Agreements | Two models of marriage claim biblical warrant and vie for evangelicals' allegiance. Advocates of both claim good results. But do we have to choose? (March 15, 2003)
Adam and Eve in the 21st Century | When it comes to gender roles, CT readers oscillate between complementarian and egalitarian ideas. (March 15, 2003)
CT Classic: Adam and Eve in America | In 1990, readers first revealed what they thought it means to be created male and female. (March 15, 2003)
Can We Talk? | We may never resolve all our differences about women in leadership, but we can help each other toward better understanding. (March 15, 2003)
A Different Kind of Women's Lib | A dispatch from the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood conference. (October 12, 2001)
Seahorses, Egalitarians, and Traditional Sex-Role Reversal | A dispatch from the Christians for Biblical Equality conference. (July 11, 2001)
The Next Christian Men's Movement | Just because Promise Keepers no longer fills stadiums doesn't mean men's ministry is dead. Far from it. (Sept. 15, 2000)
What Has Gender Got to Do with It? | Wesleyan-Holiness churches were led by women long before the rise of the modern women's movement. (Sept. 12, 2000)
A Woman's Place | Women reaching women is key to the future of missions. (Aug. 4, 2000)
Integrating Mars and Venus | Gender-based ministries may be effective, but are they biblical? (July 12, 1999)
Finding Power in Submission | Two feminist scholars write about women you'll recognize. (Apr. 27,1998)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.