We tend to describe the debate about gender roles in church and the family as divided between egalitarians and complementarians. However, I have been wondering whether this properly captures the nuances of the discussion. So, here is an attempt to remap where the agreement and disagreement is.
I am starting with the assumption that the word egalitarian may not be that helpful at this point. It suggests that those who own that label believe something that others do not, namely that men and women were created equal in God’s image. It also implies that they don’t believe something which they do, namely that men and women were made to complement each other.
The complementarian label is simply an application of the words in Genesis 2 where God observed that man needed a helper suitable for him, someone to complement him. Genesis shows that the helper has to be like him, there has to be equality. However, the phrase describes Eve as literally “like and opposite to” Adam.
I also think that we need to treat the debate as a spectrum or continuum rather than two binary opposites. This is because we may be surprised at the level of agreement we may sometimes find between those who officially disagree and disagreement between those who officially disagree. So, who will you find along that continuum? Well here goes,
At one outer limit are those who believe that women sit below men in a hierarchy and must submit to them in all respects and in all walks of life. In effect they are pushing the boundaries of complementarianism because they have substantially diminished the extent to which men and women are alike.
These push the boundaries at the other end of the spectrum. They seen no differences between men and women. In effect gender just becomes a label. At the very outer extreme are those who support the concept of gender fluidity.
Then along the spectrum are complementarians. These are people who wish to fully affirm that God made man and woman in his image so that they are equal. They also want to recognise that there is a distinction between the genders so that men and women can complement each other in the work they are called to do as those responsible for God’s creation.
This means that they will acknowledge that Ephesians 5 talks about husbands sacrificially loving their wives which itself carries a sense of submission so that as per Ephesians 5:21 there appears to be an element of “mutual submission.” They will also recognise that husbands are described as “heads” which suggests distinction. What exactly is meant by “head” will however be debated with some arguing for it simply meaning “source” others referring to a hard authority where the husband makes the final decisions and others pushing for more of a soft authority, a leading by servant example, being the first to take risks to defend his family, setting a spiritual tone.
There will be a recognition that there are differences between men and women. Some will be more confident about identifying what they are from Scripture – the potential to find examples of Biblical manhood and womanhood. They are also likely to see those things observed in life examples. Others will be very reluctant to do that. This will be true across the spectrum. At the most they will simply want to limit their observations on difference to physical differences and implications for child-bearing or perhaps to specific role responsibilities – i.e. eldership.
Then of course there are the specific questions about leadership in church. There are different views on this. There are those who think that church leadership itself is a male responsibility but only that, they are happy for women to hold leadership roles in all other walks of life. Some of them will also be clear that they do not see the leadership role in the church as a hierarchical one. Others will believe that eldership is male but believe that women should be involved in the leadership and pastoral decision making of the church.
Then of course you have those who have classically been referred to as egalitarians. They are likely to support ordination of women in contexts where formal ordination exists and in those contexts where it does not argue that women can be appointed to the team alongside male elders or work for churches as pastors. However, to a greater or lesser extent, they are often making a complementarian argument here, not an interchangeability one. The point I have so often heard is that if you rely on male leadership alone that you will miss the vital contribution that women makes. There is often a tacit argument made here that women offer a distinct perspective.
Obviously as someone from the traditional complementarian background, I have gravitated towards that terminology and so I recognise that some of my egalitarian friends will probably be spitting their breakfast out whilst reading this article. In some respects the label is not the important thing.
I also want to be clear that I am not saying that there are not real differences of view between people. There are and if that is so, it is also important to acknowledge that there will be right and wrong answers so that we must seek to find the truth. The debate is not unimportant. However, what I am suggesting is that there is perhaps a greater opportunity for a meaningful conversation than what we have often assumed.