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The Egalitarian Debate: Finding Truth in the Story

A friend recently sent me a position paper from Redeemer Presbyterian Church of Tim Keller fame on the subject of women in (church) leadership, or what you might call the complementarian/egalitarian debate. To their credit Redeemer are certainly on the "soft" side of complementarianism, they do much to mitigate the potentially caustic effects of the doctrine and I imagine many women would be able to be part of and serve in one of their churches without noticing much, if at all, their complementarian position.  That said, I still don't buy it. 

I don't know how systematically I will be able to work throught a response to the paper, I'd love to do it but my day job these days leaves much less time for blogging than my old one did.  The paper itself has a number of deeply problematic arguments which I'd love to deal to (just so you can see how clever I am of course).  The point I want to make quickly now is simply this that egalitarians (at least the biblical ones) tend to let the narrative of scripture trump the propositional elements, while the complementarians do the opposite.  In some ways this relates to such a deep rooted interpretive bias that constructive conversation between the parties is impossible.  Complementarians simply cannot get their heads round these egalitarians who are ignoring what the Bible plainly says.  Likewise egalitarians cannot get their head round those complementarians who don't see the relevance of the many women used mightily by God in many episodes of salvations history recorded in scripture. 

Now the idea that we have to play off propositional scriptures against narrative scriptures will give most Bible believing Christians indigestion, and I don't believe in the final analysis this is either ideal or necessary.  However, for most people engaged in the debate this is the crux of the conflict (if the argument is based on biblical grounds).

By way of example: In the opening chapters of the gospel of Luke the advent of Jesus the Christ, the son of God, is characterised by the prophetic anouncements and faith of women, Mary and Elizabeth, whose counterpoint is their husbands, one of whom is both rebuked and rendered (temporarily) mute for his lack of faith by an angel while the other barely gets a mention.  In this most momentous moment of salvation history the women lead the charge in both faith and prophecy, this is how the gospel begins. 

So while I am fully aware of some passages that seem to ask women to play second fiddle to men, to be quiet and not to teach, those passages, contained as they are in occassional letters written to troubled churches in complex social and cultural settings, simply cannot carry as much weight as the story we are told.  To say that these passages against women's leadership in congregation of the faithful stand for all time and are universal is to say that God broke his own rules when his only son came incarnate to our world, or at the very least wasn't organised enough to make sure that his own gender role distinctions were properly observed.

Please note that I am not saying that the argument cannot be won by egalitarians on grounds of propositional scripture, they can be, but for most people working with common English translations of scripture and without access to some of the linguistc and cultural subtleties of the epistles this is where the biblical discussion begins, and this is the easiest way for a complementarian to understand (if he or she has an open enough mind) where those stubborn egalitarians are coming from.

Let me know what you think, :-)


  1. This probably doesn't answer your question the way you are looking for an answer but this "narrative" Christian reads the vast majority of the NT as being about God's upsidedownness and inclusivity. Not just of women but also of Gentiles and all sorts of undesirable sinners. The problem with the entire complementarian approach to me isnt just what it does to women, but how it turns Christianity into just another religion of the winners by the winners and for the winners. They talk about going against the world's values and can't see that exclusion and "some folks are more equal than others" is at the very heart of worldly values. It's not just they have "the woman thing" wrong; it's that they have "the God thing" wrong.

  2. I agree Pam, both the micro and macro narrative have the same message. I guess I just didn't want to preempt the discussion by saying that! :-)

  3. Jonathan - I realise you can't dissect the whole paper, but I would be interested to hear your response to 1 Cor. 11:3, which, being based on the Trinity, is obviously not culturally conditioned.

    Pam - I would say that while the complementarian approach has been used as an excuse for the domination of women, that does not necessarily mean that the approach is incorrect. Humanity is sinful, after all. In regards to what you say about the approach turning Christianity into a religion for the winners, doesn't Christ here provide us with the model? One who voluntarily submitted to the Father for the sake of others. In the end, he was glorified because of it.

  4. Hi Jonathan,
    I had tried to comment on this about a week ago but obviously something didn't work! While realising you can't dissect the whole paper, I would be interested to hear your response to 1 Cor 11:3.


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