A recent post by a friend about the new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans sparked a lively debate concerning the relationship of evangelicalism to the feminist movement. Within evangelicalism, two competing positions have developed: complementarianism and egalitarianism. Egalitarianism holds that all people are equal before God and in Christ. All have equal responsibility to use their gifts and obey their calling to the glory of God. God freely calls believers to roles and ministries without regard to class, gender, or race. There are equal ministry opportunities for both genders. A complementarian is one who believes in the full equality and worth of every believer, male or female, but still affirms that Scripture commands specific roles in the marriage, family, and church relationship. Ministry roles are differentiated by gender. Within the following discussion are both complementarians and egalitarians. The discussants here include Austin DeArmond, a graduate of Southeastern Bible College (SEBC) who is working on his masters at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; Jennifer Hardy Lusher, a graduate of SEBC who is working on her masters at Beeson Divinity School; Luke Gossett, an undergraduate student currently at SEBC who will graduate in May; and myself, Alex Marshall, another SEBC alumni who will be finishing his masters at Yale Divinity School in May. We hope many others will join the conversation.
This all began with a post by Austin which implied that Evans’ book makes a mockery of biblical teaching on gender roles, representing a “regressive” and liberal position rather than a genuinely evangelical view, and extolled his egalitarian friends to avoid taking their cues from Evans. I then chimed in with a defense of Evans’ project as a critique of complementarian theological hermeneutics (particularly pointing out the intentional selectivity of the complementarian view of “biblical womanhood”) and then we were off to the races pretty quickly. After a lengthy discussion we have decided it best to move the conversation to a different forum. This series of posts is meant to organize the ideas touched on in the discussion into a more logical presentation before we delve into areas of further discussion.
The conversation has become very multi-faceted. Over the next few days I will put up topically arranged posts, offering quotations from each of the authors represented that summarize their perspective on a particular facet of the discussion (and attempting to follow as much as possible the flow of the conversation). Before we get into that, here is a pretty good introduction (written by Austin) to where this discussion comes from, why it is important, and what we hope comes out of discussions like this one:
I came across this quote this morning in my reading of Wright’s book How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. The context is Wright discussing the Church’s overemphasis on the creedal formulations of Jesus’ relationship to the Father to the detriment of the Gospels’ kingdom theme. He is discussing reactions within liberal Christianity that emphasized a social gospel with a strong ethic, overshooting and again missing what the Gospels are actually attempting to convey. Wright says:
One might even state it as an axiom: when the church leaves out bits of its core teaching, heretics will pick them up, turn them into something new, and use them to spread doubt and unbelief. But the proper reaction to this, whether it’s in the second century or the twenty-first, ought never to be simply to dismiss the heretical teaching outright and continue as before. The proper reaction is to look carefully to see which flank has been left unguarded, which bit of core teaching has been left out, where canonical balance has not been maintained. Only then might one set about reincorporating that within a fresh statement of full-blown Christian faith. After all, another axiom might well go like this: when the church leaves out bits of its core teaching, it will inevitably over-inflate other bits of its core teaching to fill the gap…that doesn’t mean that the overinflated core teaching is wrong. In the strange providence of God, this might even be seen as a means whereby people have been led to concentrate more intensely on vital areas. By all means park the New Testament in a safe spot and go for a walk to pick flowers nearby. But make sure you return to the New Testament when you want to continue your journey.
The quote obviously isn’t analogous to this discussion in every way. I’m not so sure Evans would merit the title heretic for her egalitarianism. Bare with me please. But what I think has happened is that there has been a revival of complementarian thought because of the “neo-Reformed” movement or the emergence of the religious right within the last 35-40 years. There’s a new wealth of books, articles, ministries, and sermons attempting to articulate what the complementarian vision actually is and attempting to counter the growing tide of evangelical feminism that has emerged. Because of these factors at work, TGC and others have made complementarianism a forefront issue (their discussions on why here) despite it not necessarily being an overtly primary issue. It’s not a “keep you out of heaven” type of issue, but it has immense importance because it’s such a practical concern in daily family and church life. Like the Calvinism/Arminianism debates, it’s not a primary issue but becomes primary because of practical and pragmatic matters. It has pragmatic prominence (just coined it here. You read it first haha).
How the Church goes forward and how it deals with those who disagree will be a test of its unity. But, I think it’s important to point out that the unifying element within the Church is the white-hot worship of Jesus Christ as he has revealed himself through his authoritative word. Doctrine destroys disunity. This is the point of some of Paul’s statements in Ephesians 4. The apostle noted,
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. (Eph. 4:11-16).
Paul believed the Church was gifted with special teachers whose goal was to come alongside them building them up in the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God. His goal is maturity, a believer knowing what they believe in such a way that they are satisfied in all that Jesus is for them in view of God and can help spread God’s redemptive victory to the four corners of the earth. That cannot be done outside of doctrinal truth gleaned from and buttressed by what scripture teaches (regardless of if we find it congenial to the way we think marriages and churches should be ran). If all Evan’s book does is create dialogue such as this one, it has not been a complete waste.
I may quibble a bit with some of the points that Austin has made (as I’m sure will become apparent as the discussion goes on), but I agree that the issue is an important one and that I hope there can continue to be fruitful dialogues (such as this one has been thus far and I hope continues to be) about this issue.