Moving the Complementarian-Egalitarian Debate Forward
I care about a lot of things, three of them being: (1) people, (2) the Church, and (3) good theology. As such, I think it is important for believers to keep the dialogue going about how to understand gender biblically. This is all the more important as our world gets increasingly confused about how to define gender and how genders are to relate to one another. God’s Word is not silent on this matter, and for us to be silent on an issue that has so many significant implications and that the world is putting forth unhelpful and ungodly notions about is to make a grave mistake.
Christians tend to fall into two camps when it comes to understanding relations between the genders: Complementarian and Egalitarian. Though I’m somewhat over-generalizing, these two theological positions make up the vast majority of Evangelicals. They can be simply defined as follows:
Complementarianism is the idea that men and women are created equal in value but with different God-given roles and duties.
Egalitarianism is the idea that men and women are created equal in value and have interchangeable God-given roles and duties.
Though there is much that could be said about how each position works itself out in practical life, these definitions summarize the basic concepts.
Much has been written within the Church about these two positions. A prominent debate continues to this very day over which view better reflects the biblical position on gender. Though I am by admission a Complementarian, my goal is not to sway anyone’s view in this post. Rather, what I would like to suggest is one principle for us to keep in mind when we discuss these matters with each other in thoughtful and loving ways.
I believe that a major reason the debate over Complementarianism and Egalitarianism gets so heated at times is because each side refuses to fairly characterize the other one. It often becomes the infamous “straw-man” argument instead. A straw-man argument is when you paint the opposition’s ideas in such a way that they are easily demolished. It usually involves over-generalizing or mis-characterizing what they actually believe in order to debunk the concept. When two people debating an issue resort to straw-man arguments, they are not really listening to each other and dealing with what the other person actually believes. Instead, they are making up their own version of what the other person believes, which is usually an inaccurate and unflattering version. No wonder it’s easy—after you twist a person’s beliefs into something that they are not—to look at someone and say, “I could never believe what you believe!”
This happens far too much within the Christian community between brothers and sisters in Christ. It is not responsible and it is not loving. It devalues the truth and disrespects those who differ from us. We must avoid painting the beliefs of others in ways that are inaccurate.
Misrepresenting Complementarians and Egalitarians
Beliefs about gender fall along a spectrum. The problem is that many people put Complementarian on one side and Egalitarian on the other, as if they were the most extreme forms of polarization on the subject. But this is not the case! If we assume that at one extreme are Complementarians, and at the other are Egalitarians, then we leave no room left for abuses or mischaracterizations of either position.
For instance, one charge that might be levied against Egalitarianism is that it makes human beings essentially genderless. If men and women have no differences in role or duties, then they are basically indistinguishable from each other! And if that is the case, what prevents a Christian Egalitarian from affirming homosexuality? Or the idea of genderlessness?
Yet this is not true of most, if not all, Egalitarians. Egalitarians still believe there are some distinctions between men and women, though how they define that might be hard to pin down. But to take the position of Egalitarianism and stretch it out to its most extreme form is to do a disservice to the truth.
The same could be said of Complementarianism. One way that position is challenged is to say that Complementarianism puts women in abusive situations (by giving men leadership roles), or that it promotes inequality among the sexes. Yet neither of these are true. Complementarianism teaches that men, like Jesus, are servant-leaders, not abusers. And it teaches that, like God the Father and God the Son, men and women are equal in value but different in function. So to accuse otherwise is also to do a disservice to the truth.
Putting the Truth in its Place
As long as we have these theological differences and refuse to truly engage with one another in a way that is honest and respectful, we will never make much ground in the discussion. We will keep fighting against the mis-characterizations that we have formed about each other, rather than the actual concepts themselves. In my mind’s eye I see reality as something like this:
[Keep in mind this chart is as simplistic as possible. It is designed to make a basic point. For example, it does not include extreme Feminism, another category altogether, and therefore I ask that you give some leeway for unmentioned nuances.]
Complementarian and Egalitarian are not polar extremes. To say that Egalitarians promote no gender distinction at all is to take their beliefs and stretch them out too far. Likewise, to say that Complementarians essentially promote abusive patriarchy is to take their beliefs and stretch them out too far. There is more breathing room in the middle than we realize. If we refuse to acknowledge that and talk about it with precision and clarity, we will never see much progress toward resolution in this area.
People are the Casualties
The world is changing quickly when it comes to our understanding of gender, and into this discussion the Christian community must raise it’s voice. Yet if we are too busy duking it out with one another—especially with unfair characterizations of each other—the people who will suffer are actual people who need help and guidance. The cost of our mistreatment of each other is the loss of thoughtful dialogue and, by extension, the loss of thoughtful and coherent biblical teaching for an entire generation. So what we could potentially have is a Church that can’t say anything helpful to the teenage boy who thinks he was born in the wrong body, or the 22-year-old newlywed wife who is trying to find her place in marriage, or the grade 8 boy who is trying to figure out what it means to be a man. While the world will have plenty of advice to offer, we can’t speak up because of our inability to even dialogue with each other.
Once again, I value people, the Church, and good theology. I think that a healthy church has good theology that leads to helping people. I aspire to be part of that kind of thing. I know that there are fellow believers with whom I would have some disagreement on how gender plays out from a biblical perspective, yet I hope that I never push aside their beliefs without giving them fair engagement or because I casually misrepresented them. A strong Church needs more than that from it’s people and for the people. Truth matters, and if we are comfortable exchanging it for an invented lie about each other we will hinder our ability to share God’s love with a broken world that so desperately needs it.