On a recent episode of the Clear Lens Podcast, we took a few moments to examine two popular views of the roles of men and women in the church, family, etc. They are complementarianism and egalitarianism. Proponents of each view will bring certain verses forward to champion their view. In this post I’d like to take a moment and see how a back and forth might go between the two camps to help us come to an understanding of which, if either, the scriptures support.
On the surface, one might look up the definition for egalitarian and quite like what they read. It’s basically the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities. Who could be against that? You might assume then that complementarianism is the opposite of that; people are not equal and don’t deserve equal rights. You would be wrong. It’s important to note that both views hold both men and women as equal in their humanity, their standing with God, their essence, etc. Men and women are equal before God from both perspectives. The key difference is that complementarianism draws a distinction between men and women in their respective roles in the church and in the family while egalitarianism says there are no distinctions. No one in subjection to the other, but rather both in subjection to each other.
So let’s get into the back and forth. I’ll do my best to meander through this how I think it may go down, using the best arguments from each camp. But, by the end, the side on which I fall will become clear. If I misrepresent either view in any way I’d love to hear your input in the comments. Here we go…
Complementarian: The clear case in scripture is that there is a certain hierarchy among men and women. Paul makes this clear in the simplest of terms in 1 Cor. 11:3, “…the man is the head of a woman…”
Egalitarian: Actually, that’s a misunderstanding of this word ‘head’. We know from other Greek literature that this word is talking more about a source. Like the source of a river. This makes sense when thinking back on the creation account. Eve was made from Adam’s rib.
Complementarian: If that’s true then we would have to hold that interpretation for the rest of the verse. This causes us to say that God (the Father) is the source of Jesus (the son). That has terrible implications for the Trinity and turns Jesus into a created being, directly contradicting John 1. Besides, even in Genesis it says woman was created as a helper for man and that she was suitable, or complimentary to him.
Egalitarian: That’s right! But again you misapply the language. ‘Helper’ in Genesis is more like a life-sustainer. In fact, that word is often used to describe God’s relation to Israel (Ps. 33:20, 70:5). God certainly isn’t in subjection to Israel. I think what we’re seeing here is a perfectly balanced and equal relationship between man and woman before the fall. It isn’t until after the fall when we see this idea of one being in subjection. Jesus came to free us of the penalty of the fall and restore us to our original state with respect to God. It’s clear as day in Gal. 3:28, “…there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Complementarian: I think using that verse to support your view begs the question. Paul isn’t talking there about our respective roles in church or the family. He’s making the simple statement that we’re all one, equal in the sight of God in light of our faith in Jesus. That chapter is about our salvation based on God’s promise. Not about the practical operation of our families and the church.
Egalitarian: It’s just entirely outside the nature of Christ to say that a woman should be a slave under her husband. The time of this type of patriarchy is over. We don’t need to resort to ancient practices of belittling and ridiculing women under the supposed protection of the Bible.
Complementarian: Oh, no, that isn’t my view at all. A woman has as much value before God as any man. I don’t for one second believe that a woman should do whatever a man says just because he’s a man. If we look at Eph. 5 we see a very precious and godly arrangement between the husband and wife that actually reflects Christ’s relationship to the church. I think putting aside our personal preferences and submitting ourselves to God’s arrangement for men and women gives him honor. Sure, the analogy does setup woman as being subject to her husband, but it also calls on the husband to love his wife as Christ loved the church. That means humble leadership, washing of feet, and even death! That’s no small thing. Husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. Such commands should ensure no abuse at any level is going on. But, if there is, check out how Paul began that section. Verse 22, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Those last 4 words are crucial because they relay the fact that a wife is subject to the Lord first and foremost. If there are cases where the husband is leading the wife away from God and into unrighteousness, her subjection to him is trumped by her subjection to God. These are difficult situations, but the husband is not the end all be all.
Well, hopefully going through that short little mock interaction can help you see that each side does try to find scriptural support for their view. But in the end, I believe the complementarian view is handling the word accurately. I think Eph. 5:22-33 makes the most clear case while other scripture (1 Cor. 11:3, Col. 3:18f, 1 Tim. 2:11-14, 1 Pet. 3:1) can be used to shore up that position.
If you listen to the portion of the podcast where we discuss this issue, I gave a bit of a personal perspective toward the end. I want to reiterate that here. If this were Gene’s church, I wouldn’t care much either way who leads or who teaches. I wouldn’t care if a wife has the final say on all things in her family, even over her husband. Whatever works for you, right?. The thing is; this isn’t Gene’s church. This is Christ’s church. Christ is clear on the roles in which his servants, both men and women, are to assume in the church and in the family. A Christian woman will have no problem willingly placing herself in subject to her husband and being seen as precious as Christ sees His church.