Women in the Church: Why I am an Egalitarian
Part 2: Clarifying Terms
Before continuing with my series on why I am an egalitarian, let me pause briefly to clarify terms. Terminology is tricky. Terms are useful, in fact necessary; but they can also be misleading.
The terms ‘egalitarian’ and ‘complementarian’ are no exception. Potentially useful, but also potentially misleading. For example, most evangelical egalitarians affirm the notion of gender complementarity and most evangelical complementarians affirm the equality of all human beings in terms of their basic dignity as creatures made in God’s image. Egalitarians do not seek to erase all gender differences. And the complementarians I know do not wish to endorse gender discrimination, authoritarianism, or abusive forms of patriarchy.
Having said that, there are important differences of opinion between egalitarians and complementarians concerning the meaning and practical outworking of gender equality in the home and in the church.
So what do I mean when I compare these positions?
When I speak of the complementarian position I am talking primarily about the view that certain ministry positions and activities in the church are inappropriate for women and should be restricted to men. In particular, I am referring to the belief that women should not hold positions of authority over men or lead activities that imply such authority (e.g., many would include preaching in this category). Complementarians differ over what roles and activities should properly be deemed authoritative in this sense, but what they hold in common is a basic conviction that the male-female relationship is hierarchical in nature by God’s design. Thus, husbands have authority over their wives and men should occupy key positions of leadership in the church (note: most complementarians do not believe that men in general have authority over women in general in a collective sense). John Piper is a good representative of the typical complementarian position. He asserts that male authority and female submission are of the essence of “what true manhood and womanhood are” (John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood [Wheaton: Crossway, 1991], p. 34). Complementarians are quick to assert that they do not regard women to be of lesser value or dignity than men; rather, they believe that God designed women to be subordinate to men with respect to certain roles and functions. (I am not convinced this distinction holds up philosophically, but that’s another conversation).
In contrast to this view, I believe that women should be welcomed and encouraged to serve in positions of church leadership and authority, and that giftedness and not gender should determine any person’s qualification to serve. That is what I mean by ‘egalitarian’.
This does not imply that I believe in abolishing all gender differences. It simply means that I do not regard gender, or gender differences, to be a relevant factor when assessing a person’s qualifications for and calling to ministry and leadership in the church (unless, of course, gender is intrinsically related to a particular kind of ministry, for example one might require a women to lead a women’s ministry or a man to lead a men’s group).
To further clarify my meaning: I like the subtitle of the book Discovering Biblical Equality, which is Complementarity Without Hierarchy. Actually, I would qualify that subtitle even more and say that I affirm complementarity without arbitrary hierarchy. Hierarchy itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It becomes a bad thing when it is imposed arbitrarily and uni-directionally (i.e., always in one direction, male over female). Authority itself, it seems to me, makes sense when it is based on things like competency, expertise, maturity, wisdom, experience, character, spiritual giftedness, and so on. It doesn’t make sense to me as an arbitrary characteristic attributed to one gender alone.
A couple of personal examples. In the context of my own marriage, my wife and I share authority. Each of us takes primary responsibility over things that fit our relative strengths and weaknesses, interests and non-interests (and even this is not absolute; sometimes we swap responsibilities just to give each other a break). We don’t assign responsibility based on arbitrary, abstract gender roles regardless of personal fit or ability. As another example, one of my good female friends is a chartered accountant who also holds a PhD in tax policy. Would it make sense to assign financial authority to her husband simply because he is male? That strikes me as arbitrary and irrational.
The examples I just cited are in the context of the marriage relationship between husbands and wives. What about the church? What do I mean by arbitrary gender hierarchy in that context?
To illustrate, consider these words written by “RJS”, a scientist and contributor to Scot McKnight’s blog (Jesus Creed):
“My general experience … I can speak to large audiences, organize seminar courses, design curricula, chair committees including search committees, hire, fire, write scholarly articles, conduct research, write proposals, supervise and mentor graduate students, be responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds, serve on major University-wide committees, hold leadership positions in professional organizations, be one of the 2-5% of Christian faculty, Monday-Saturday … but none of this matters at church.” (RJS wrote this as a comment to this post)
Indeed. When considering the giftedness of women like RJS, it just seems so arbitrary and unjust to prevent them from serving in significant roles of leadership within the church.
As another example, one of my friends is a gifted musician. She has a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance and a master’s degree in choral direction from McGill University. She’s also passionate about her faith in Jesus, a good critical thinker, a very capable planner, and an articulate speaker. For a long time, she was involved in a church that allowed her to plan and arrange all of the music, select Scripture readings, guide the worship team in preparation and practice, and prepare the ‘liturgy’ of the church’s worship service. But she was not allowed to lead the worship service. Her husband was required to step into the leadership role in her place to be the mouthpiece while she served in the background. Again, arbitrary!
Sometimes the New Testament, particularly Paul in some of his letters, places restrictions upon women—or at least upon certain women at certain churches. But I don’t think that these are arbitrary restrictions based on an abstract gender hierarchy. His reasons are contextual and have to do with particular problems he was observing in the churches. His instructions are pragmatic, practical solutions to concrete and specific problems that were threatening the unity of the church and the integrity of the gospel message. His concern is not gender differences or hierarchy as such. But we’ll get to that in future posts!
To sum up what I mean by complementarity without arbitrary hierarchy: the criteria we employ to assess a person’s qualifications for ministry and leadership within the church should be intrinsically related to the requirements of the position or task. Wisdom, character, maturity, experience, skill, giftedness, Christ-likeness, relational and leadership ability . . . these are the kinds of things that matter. And, if you read beneath the surface, these are exactly the kinds of things the NT requires of leaders in its lists of qualifications for elders and deacons. In contrast, a person’s gender is not intrinsically related to leadership and ministry positions and tasks (generally speaking). As a measure of fittedness for leadership and ministry it is an arbitrary and thus inappropriate criterion.