The most common understanding of both Complementarianism and Egalitarianism goes something like this:
Complementarians: Do not let women be pastors over men.
Egalitarians: Do let women be pastors over men.
Complementarians: The husband is the leader of the family.
Egalitarians: The husband and wife co-lead the family, with no priority.
Complementarians: Wives submit to your husbands.
Egalitarians: Husbands and wives are to practice mutual submission.
While I think that these are characteristics of both groups, they are not foundational characteristics that define each group. In other words, I don’t think that they are helpful in defining what it means to be a complementarian or egalitarian and they serve to cause a great deal of misunderstanding that leads to emotional bias that is very difficult to overcome once set.
In fact, I am going to say something very radical here and then explain. Here it goes:
It is possible to be a complementarian and believe that a women can serve in the position of head pastor over men.
Did you get that? Reread it. Reread it again…
Complementarianism is not first defined by it view of the roles of men and women in the church, family, or society.
Here is what Complementarianism is:
Complementarianism is the belief that men and women have God given differences that are essential to their person. Men and women are ontologically (in their essential nature) equal, but often, functionally, take subordinate roles (like the Trinity). These differences complete or “complement” each other. Due to these differences, there will be some things that women are predisposed and purposed to do more than men. As well, there will be some things that men are predisposed and purposed to do more than women. Therefore, there are ideal roles for both men and women that should be celebrated, exemplified, typified, and promoted in the church, family, and society. To deny these differences is to deny the design of God and thwart his purpose.
Here is what Egalitarianism is:
The belief that God has created men and women equal in all things. Men and women are ontologically and functionally equal. The way the sexes function in the church, society, and the family is determined by individual giftedness, not role distinctions according to the sexes. Therefore, each person should be judged individually when being placed in a particular position. We should exemplify this reality by overcoming the stereotypical placement that has traditionally been a part of societies in human history, thereby giving freedom to individuals to follow the path that God has uniquely created them for, whatever that may be. In doing so, we should no longer educate or indoctrinate according to any of the former stereotypes, including those of basic masculinity and femininity.
These, in my opinion, are the foundational tenants of each position without giving examples on how this plays out in the family, the church, or society.
The case I am making here is that in order to be a consistent egalitarian, one must deny virtually all differences that typify men as men and women as women. It is not just about getting women behind the pulpit or the concept of mutual submission in the family. It is much more complex and, in my estimation, more difficult to defend with sensibility.
I had a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary who was an Egalitarian (he left because of this—I won’t mention his name). I loved this guy. Still do. Great teacher, thinker, and Christian. In fact, I had him come speak to our pastoral staff at Stonebriar to challenge us on why he became egalitarian and to defend his position. I wanted the staff to understand the “other side” from a very able defender. During his presentation, he painted himself into this very typical corner that I find most all egalitarians end up.
He was advocating a foundational principle of egalitarianism: there are no essential differences between men and women other than reproductive stuff. We were all quite taken aback. Every example we brought up, he shot down by giving a counter-example in the form of an exception. His basic argument turned on finding exceptions to everything. Whether it was that men were less emotional, more aggressive, more one tracked in their thinking, less tender, more competitive, unable to nurture as well as women, or even liked the color blue more, he brought up exceptions that he believed neutralized the “pattern”. Finally, I thought I had him. I said “What about physicality? Men are stronger than women.” He would have none of that. He then brought up examples of German women who were stronger than men! We could not stump the guy!
The problem is that in order to defend egalitarianism consistently, he had to deny all of the common sense distinctions that people have made about men and women since the dawn of time. I won’t get into the science or psychology of this issue as there are many very good resources that do this. To me, it is rather bizarre that one would actually be inclined to produce evidence to prove that men and women are different!
I am of the opinion that many egalitarians would have been appalled by Peter who said that women are the weaker of the sexes (1 Pet. 3:7) siting every exception to this rule and bemoaning this stereotype until Peter cried “uncle.”
Complementarianism says that men and women are different by design. We are different and God did it. It is that simple.
However, most people would not be willing to go as far as my former professor. They realize that sustaining a proposition that men and women have no essential differences is a battle that cannot really be sustained in real life (only theoretical ideology). Men and women are different. Even most egalitarians that I know would give me this. Hear this again. Most egalitarians that I know would admit, when push comes to shove, that there are some essential differences between men and women. Most would even say that there are essential differences that go beyond reproduction and physicality. But I would argue that these people are not really egalitarians, at least in the way I have defined it. They would be complementarians because they would have given up what I believe to be a central driving tenant of egalitarianism and embraced the central tenant of complementarianism: men and women are different by design and their differences complement each other.
Now, having said this, I believe that it is theoretically possible to be a complementarian and yet not take a traditional complementarian stand on the issue of women in ministry. In other words, someone could believe that men and women are different by design yet not think that these differences have any bearing on women in leadership in the church. They may be convinced that the Bible does not really teach that women should not teach men, and yet be complementarian in other issues and, broadly, in their theology of the sexes.
I am interested and committed to complementarianism for more than just the women in ministry issue. This is just one application. But (and here is where I get in trouble with fellow complementarians), I don’t think that it is the most important issue in this debate. Neither do I think that it is the most “damaging” issue.
You see, when people are truly committed and consistent egalitarians, they have to defend their denial of essential differences. In doing so, they will advocate a education system in the home, church, and society which neutralizes any assumption of differences between the sexes. In doing so, men will not be trained to be “men” since there is really no such thing. Women will not be encouraged to be “women” since there is no such thing. The assumption of differences becomes a way to oppress society and marginalize, in their estimation, one sex for the benefit of the other. Once we neutralize these differences, we will have neutered society and the family due to a denial of God’s design in favor of some misguided attempt to promote a form of equality that is neither possible nor beneficial to either sex.
We will have troubled men and women groping to find their way and feeling pressured to repress their instincts and giftedness. We will no longer be able to train up men and women in the “way” they should go since there is no “way” they should go. Women can act masculine and men can be feminine. Men can retreat in the face of responsibility because, in truth, they don’t have any “responsibility” other than the one that they choose. This is to say nothing of the implications this has on the issues of homosexuality and gay marriage.
But in a complementarian worldview (even one that allows women to teach men in the church), men are taught to be men and women are taught to be women. They both have defining characteristics. Masculinity and femininity find their place and are exemplified and celebrated. Men protect women from physical danger and take their positions of leadership seriously, without trepidation or fear that they will be seen as power mongers. And women support this. Women take up their positions of nurturing and supporting the emotional well-being of the world. And men support it. No role distinction is seen as inferior because in a complementarian worldview both are seen as essential and of equal importance. Only in complementarianism do we not define the rule by the exceptions and bow to the least common denominator. Only in the complementarian worldview, in my opinion, can freedom to be who we are supposed to be find meaning.
The true spirit of complementarianism is that God has intentionally created men and women with differences and we are to celebrate this in every way. The true spirit of complementarianism is never domineering (that is a sinful corruption). The true spirit of complementarianism provides no shame only freedom. The true spirit of complementarianism speaks to God in appreciation.
When we attempt to neuter this design, we have lost much more than authority in the pulpit.
Complementarians, while I believe that the Bible teaches the ideal that women should not have authority over men in the church, let us promote the true spirit of complementarianism then simply defending its particular applications.