Thursday, June 28, 2012

Evangelicalism and Complementarianism.

I have been meaning to write a blog post about the recent debates concerning complementarianism that have been surfacing in evangelicalism lately for the last six months or so. Truth be told, I've been at such a loss as to what I really wanted to say. There is so much to say that it seems it is one of those topics where one doesn't quite know where to even begin. This post is a modest and short attempt to voice some of my main concerns and grievances that surround the entire debate.

Over the past however many months (perhaps even years now), Rachel Evans has been attempting to respond to the complementarianism popular within certain conservative groups among evangelicals most notably found in the Gospel Coalition. Evans has written far too many posts to discuss. But she has consistently shown that complementarianism, based upon certain supposed biblical notions of authority and submission, is a direct result of patriarchy. While I deeply appreciate Evans continual and unwavering courage to shed light upon the misguided assumptions of complementarianism and want nothing more than to support her efforts and goals, I remain dissatisfied with the entire ethos of the debate. Here are just two of my concerns:

It needs to be said from the beginning that it is fundamentally wrong that the burden of proof, at least implicitly, is laid upon Evans by these complementarians to show how women are given the freedom in the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be equal ministers to men in every way. The fact that Evans and women everywhere must continually defend and justify themselves as equal in Christ to serve in all roles inside of the Church and the home is simply demoralizing and humiliating. The reality that women must prove to these men that they should have the opportunity to preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments, and have a true partnership in marriage where submission is a mutual reality communicates to women that we are still not considered equal to men in Jesus Christ. Even after the repeated prophetic witness of Evans and countless other women, complementarians say that these women should realize their beliefs, concerns, and convictions about their full equality to men in the Gospel are utterly misguided. Why aren't more individuals speaking out about the utter scandal that this debate is even occurring in the first place?

Second, I grieve that egalitarians continue to play the same methodological game as complementarians. I fully support the understanding that the biblical witness serves as a methodological authority in the theological task. But is the best that we can do for women is to mine the Scriptures for all the instances where women are discussed in order to show that these examples are proof that women are fully equal to men in Jesus Christ? Is the best that can be done is that there was this female leader here once and then this female apostle here? Is that what our arguments about half of humanity are reduced to? Is the best that the Church can offer to women the reality that the Holy Spirit in Hebrew is a feminine word? Are these arguments really where we really want to invest our support for the full inclusion of women in the ministry of the Gospel? To me, it seems that evangelicalism has failed to take this opportunity to think anew about what it means that in Jesus Christ, there is no male and female. All humanity is one in Jesus Christ. What would it mean to begin thinking christologically about these issues? What would it mean to ponder the radical message of the Gospel that in Jesus Christ, there is now no distinction between any persons? What would it mean to understand these distinctions as belonging to the old cosmos that has been crucified in Jesus Christ? It seems that only when evangelical women begin to think only in terms of Jesus Christ when discussing these issues can we even begin to have the chance to receive the radical freedom that the Gospel brings by the grace of God to all persons regardless of gender.


Matthew Frost said...

Right. The question of examples means nothing by itself, without a theoretical framework. You can throw all the examples you want against the complementarian framework, and not break it. And egalitarianism isn't going to break it, because the two have been formed against one another. It requires a theology of gender, and both have that, but that doesn't mean that one or the other is going to win.

It seems that the game is to do well at both theology and gender—in the sense in which Barth does well at theology but poorly at gender, and we have some who do poorly at both, and others who do well at gender but poorly at theology.

As usual, I think you're asking the right questions.

Brian LePort said...


This is an inspiring post. I caused my mind to run asking "Where to from here?" I am tired of tossing texts back and forth. I have my views and I am sure that complementarians are committed to their's. So we may as well begin working on something good and true instead of always being on the defense.

Do you recommend any particular scholars or other authors to help someone begin thinking in this new direction?

mbeal.logos said...

Brian, I'm not sure if this is the sort of text you have in mind, but I always recommend Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy edited by Pierce, Groothius, and Fee. It's a good introduction to several issues important to Evangelicals. For the more liberal side of the spectrum, you could check out Rosemary Radford Ruther, and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. Also, I really enjoyed reading Zoe Bennett Moore's work, Introducing Feminist Perspectives on Pastoral Theology.

Rod said...


I affirm most of what you have said, but your argument against using Scriptures to validate women's position is quite confusing in the U.S. context. The Bible has been on the front line of the offensive in the oppression and silencing of women (our current topic at hand). Now, in the 19th century, for example women evangelists relied on Bible passages and characters to debunk myths about women's leadership. I think that these "Bible wars" are necessary, as Frederick Douglass said, no struggle, no progress. Also, let us keep in mind the words of Karl Barth, whose last words of advice for theologians, "Exegete, Exegete, exegete."

Finally, I do not think one can do a Christ-centered theology of gender without looking at these texts. Christology involves Scripture and tradition, where else would Christology come from right? I don't identify as an evangelical, but I do see the narratives within the canon as pointing to Christ. We cannot get to the Gospels without getting to Huldah and Isaiah's wife the prophet first.

This is my initial response, I was gonna post earlier but I wanted to sit on it. I look forward to a response

Bobby Grow said...

I think Matt is right.

Justin said...

What do you make of § 45 in the Church Dogmatics? That's a pretty strong attempt to 'think christologically about these issues' that comes down on the side of gender hierarchy. I'm interested to see how you might dismantle Barth's argument (assuming you disagree with it).

Kait Dugan said...

Brian -- I am still thinking through a way forward myself. I gain a lot of hope when I read Bonhoeffer, Barth, Kierkegaard, Coakley, Moltmann, and Kasemann. I also get encouraged by the work of J. Louis Martyn and his Galatians commentary. These thinkers aren't exactly thinking with me in terms of the complimentarian issue, but they provide helpful ways of thinking christologically, which provides the necessary conceptual framework for thinking constructively about gender in light of the Gospel and the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. I find that the task is very open-ended and involves a lot of constructive work on the part of future theologians, but that is something to be excited about! Hope that helps.

Rod - I never said that I am against using Scripture to validate the role of women in any context. I am rejecting a specific *way* of reading, addressing, viewing, and using Scripture namely the kind I see in conservative evangelical circles. I don't like the proof-texting I witness constantly. The sort of posture I see towards the text of Scripture doesn't seem to properly witness to the living God that we serve revealed in Jesus Christ who offers a new and fresh command to us here and now. That's all I meant to say.

Justin - You touch on the part of Barth that is probably the most disappointing in his entire CD. I think that Barth isn't consistent here with his own actualism that arises in every other area of his theological corpus and he essentializes gender in a way that contradicts the rest of his project. I actually think that this is a place where other parts of Barth (his christology) can be used in constructive ways to show how you don't have to come to his same conclusions about gender. I think Barth's christology, ironically enough, offers rich conceptual resources to think anew about gender in light of the Gospel revealed in Jesus Christ.

Justin said...

Thanks for the response, Kait. For what it's worth, I don't think Barth 'essentialises' gender in that passage - mostly because his definition of humanity as male/female is derivative completely (i.e., actualistically) on the relationship between God and humanity established by divine decision in Jesus Christ (via the analogy of relations). In this sense, it seems like it's pretty directly related to his christology. In any case, I happen to be egalitarian, but I don't think it's quite as easy to extricate Barth's anthropology from his dogmatics. It is post-II/2, after all.

ἐκκλησία said...

You wrote. "But she has consistently shown that complementarianism, based upon certain supposed biblical notions of authority and submission, is a direct result of patriarchy."

That's a fairly sympathetic view. Has Evans really addressed the possibility that patriarchy is a result of extant biblical notions in any objective sense?

No. Her conclusions nicely match her presuppositions, and her fans make for a nice cheer-leading gallery; especially in the blog-sphere.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

If I may . . .

There are Christian denominations that accept women in leadership positions. There are Christian denominations that do not. If you accept that women can serve in such positions, stop telling folks who cannot so accept they are wrong, pack up, and go where it's comfortable. No amount of exegesis or theological reflection is going to change anyone's minds. They aren't "wrong", and you "right", or vice-versa. That's the game they want to play, and by and large they're better at it. Smile at them, express your love, and move on.

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