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.
As a single believer, complementarian theology leaves me as a half a person even though I am a whole individual. I find the interchanging use of “husband / man” and “wife / woman” to be disheartening; after all, not men are husbands nor are all women wives. Without a spouse, what is my role? All of my gifts and talents come to nothing and serve no purpose; it seems. Call my experiences a misrepresentation if you wish, but I know the truth of it. These churches that privileged marriage and family as the building blocks of community do so by undermining the worth and value of singleness and the individuals that make up a family, community, or group.
Hi Jamie. I’ve never understood Complementarian theology to suggest that singles are somehow lesser than whole individuals. Jesus was single, and lived a full and satisfying life, while glorifying God perfectly in the process. So I would not draw such a conclusion.
It was always preached to me that given the bridegroom metaphors, Jesus was betrothed and Paul was married to the ministry.
As a female, this is really all about ME as my humanity, roles, gifts, callings, and even my Imago Dei are subject to debate and interpretations of the males in power in the institutional church. I used to debate many a complementarian (mainly men who will never have their very humanity or Imago Dei subjected to such intense scrutiny), and I refuse to do it anymore. Many years ago, I unhappily submitted to the complementarian worldview because I did not know there was any other way. Even then, I could see how inconsistent and terribly wrong this whole world view was. I found out about egalitarianism quite by accident, but even then, I didn’t totally embrace it until I thoroughly evaluated the egalitarian views along with the complementarian views. In my views, the egalitarian views align with scripture and Jesus’ example far more than complementarianism. So, I don’t see any reason to debate this topic anymore especially with the rude, nasty, and overbearing men who throw out strawman arguments, resort to gaslighting and ad hominem attacks like “Jezebel” and “Rebellious females” because I debated them in a corner they couldn’t get out of. Or the comp guys who love to show up on egalitarian blogs claiming to “represent the Holy Spirit” while giving each other cyber hi-fives with an “Amen Brother!” while attacking the egals. How in the world do these guys think they are going to change an egal’s mind when they behave like this? And these guys never think about the fact that it isn’t their humanity or Imago Dei under discussion (read attack) here, nor will it ever be. And the comp women can be as bad as the men, but I just feel nothing but sadness when I engage these women-online and in person. The comp women I know personally are die hard complementarian, but I know that privately many of them still struggle as I did with this belief system. My sister-in-law was the biggest comp ever, but she would give herself guilt trips because she “wasn’t always as submissive as she should be to her husband”. Who wants to live like that? Not me. I know the Lord led me to egalitarianism when I was struggling with the spiritual darkness of complementarianism. There is no debate anymore.
Yikes. Lily, your experience sounds awful. That does not sound like it was any fun to go through, and I can’t blame you for feeling the way that you do. I do hope, however, you can find a way to separate in your mind the kind of men who abuse complementarianism and true complementarianism itself. I am “comp”, and also am nothing like the men you describe. Complementarianism for men should be about self-sacrificing love, a giving up of oneself for the good of the family. “Love your wife as Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her”. Anyways, I’m not here to debate, either. I just would rather not be associated with the men who are abusive because they use the same label (wrongly) as I do.
Thank you for your response. I don’t believe all comp men are like those I encountered online or in some churches. However, the good ones I do know who claim to be comp are actually egalitarian in practice at least in the home. So I have doubts as to this being true complementarianism, but I’m not interested in a debate about that either. I just thing comp doctrine in general is not what the Lord intended. Take care.