Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian by Michelle Lee-Barnewall

One of the most fun things about my kids getting older is them asking me questions about what I’m reading…which is how we wound up discussing complementarianism and egalitarianism earlier this week.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the terms, let me assure you that you are familiar with the concepts. Biblical egalitarianism essentially teaches that women should have the same “rights” to positions of authority and decision making that men do. Biblical complementarianism, on the other hand, maintains that some rights and roles are reserved for men. (There is much more to it than this, but this is what drives the debate.)

However, this particular book has another word in the title that my daughters wanted me to explain…and that was the word “neither” – as in, “Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian”. After hearing the explanations for both egalitarianism and complementarianism, it initially didn’t make sense to them how someone could be neither. When I explained to them the problems that I saw with both positions…as well as the narrow cultural issues that have shaped the debate…young as they are, they were able to step outside the debate. As they get older, they’ll probably get sucked in again, but I’m going to do my best to keep pulling them out.

I’m sharing this conversation – and this book – with you because I want to encourage you to take a step back from this debate as well. Let’s face it, egalitarianism, soft complementarianism, and hard complementarianism are positions that many people have strong feelings about (anyone else been following Southern Baptist twitter lately?) Emphasis on the word feelings here. Even the strong insistence on the objectivity of our respective interpretations often belies that this debate is way too personal to be as objective as we want it to be. This debate has been framed in a way that is too “close” to us.

I also know that, like me, many of you have strong critiques of both sides of the discussion as it is currently framed.

Imagine going to an art gallery and there is this tiny picture with this really thick frame around it. It’s one of those pictures where it looks like a blue and black dress to one person and it looks like a white and gold dress to the other person…and neither can see it in the other color. However, one day, the museum curator discovers that the frame was obscuring huge parts of the picture and gives it a new frame. The next time you see the picture, not only is the dress not the focal point of the picture, you realize that it isn’t a dress. And it is surrounded by colors that make that part of the painting take on another color altogether.

In short, we would all benefit from stepping back and allowing this discussion to be reframed. This is exactly what New Testament scholar Michelle Lee-Barnewall has done in Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate.
Since I know that most of you aren’t going to have time to read this book, I’ve done my best to summarize it (see below). However, I strongly encourage those of you who find yourselves navigating these issues often to read the book.

I’ll warn you ahead of time that Lee-Barnewall doesn’t give a straightforward critique of either side. She also doesn’t attempt to make practical applications. I consider this one of the strengths of the book. She does what she set out to do – she provides a much-needed Kingdom-oriented framework that encourages both sides to take a step back and ask more (and different) questions. I hope that the following challenges you as it does me.
Book Summary: Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian by Michelle Lee-Barnewall
(Note: this book contains more than I can realistically highlight so despite my efforts to focus on her main points, I’m undoubtedly injecting personal bias in sharing what I found most interesting and relevant, whereas she presented in a way that was more carefully balanced.)

There is a conviction on both sides of the debate that this is a vital topic for the church to navigate. However, there is also a growing perception that neither position has accurately illustrated a Biblical picture of gender.

Social trends have always impacted how Christians have understood and talked about gender. Accordingly, designations of “masculine” and “feminine” traits fluctuate throughout history and change with culture. By extension, the historical roles of Christian women fluctuate throughout history and change with culture.

The rise of individualism “helped to shift evangelicalism from being driven by a core concern for the good of the larger society to the quest for personal fulfillment as seen in the immediate family and then the acquisition of individual rights” (p. 8). Accordingly, the debate as we presently know it was instigated from the culturally relevant issue of “rights” and “roles”. The questions of rights and roles provided the framework, the language, and the focus on adopting definitive gender related policies. However, if we were to engage with the topic of gender from themes more central to the gospel (such as unity, relationships, and power manifested through weakness), the discussion would be more nuanced and in greater alignment with the perspective of the Kingdom of God. The apostle Paul often “asserts that the critical topic is not our rights…but how the giving up of rights can be necessary for the gospel and for the sake of unity…The gospel redefines considerations of power and authority in terms of humility, sacrifice, and suffering, not simply as qualifiers but as essential components, even starting points” (p. 13).

”The purpose of this book is to demonstrate how the debate as it is presently structured, as a choice between the two current sides, can benefit from a different framework and additional questions” (p.7)

Part 1: Gender in Evangelical History

Analyzing three recent time periods in American history, we can see how dominant cultural issues influenced perceptions of what was appropriate for both males and females and illustrate how our framework for understanding gender can be influenced by social concerns.
In post-Civil War America through the turn of the 20th century, ideas about “authority” and “equality”, while present, did not dominate the discussion around gender. Industrialization and urbanization separated the world into public and private spheres that were previously much more enmeshed. Women became associated with the role of “domestication” and, by extension, became known as the morally superior sex (which was not previously the case). Accordingly, women were now seen as “guardians of the nation’s virtue”. Because the nation as a whole was viewed as the larger communal home and it’s corruption (most notably, drunkenness) was in need of domestication, women had a responsibility to this larger household to be leaders in moral reform.

Meanwhile, American Christianity was characterized by a millennial fervor that corresponded with a belief that this type of reform could usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. While there were initial concerns about women engaged in public speaking (including speaking from the pulpit), these were largely connected to the idea that public speaking was a masculine action. When these women were both observed to conform to feminine norms and yield effective results, public opinion shifted. This conviction was also reflected in how women used their gifts in preaching and ministry. Charles H. Pridgeon, founder of the Pittsburg Bible Institute, stated, “The question of the ministry of women is more than just an academic question. The force of men who offer for His service is inadequate. Souls of men are perishing. There is no time to argue whether it be a man or woman that performs the service. The need must be met.”

After WWII (hot on the heals of WWI), Americans were desperate for a sense of control. Because there was a lot of uncertainty and change in the world, there was a great desire for security (as well as doubt that peace would last). This engendered a focus on the security of the family home and on the individuals who lived there. Life became more individualistic than communal. The security and comfort of the home was seen as vital to the successful social readjustment of soldiers…with the woman of the home playing a key role. Evangelism also took on this individualistic emphasis and “the spiritual growth and empowerment of individuals became more valued than constructing the moral community” (pp. 41-42). The woman’s sphere of domestic influence effectively shrunk from the nation/world to the immediate household, with extensions into overlapping spheres in the local community. Therefore, greater emphasis was placed on her role of supporting her husband and training godly children. During this period, the theological discussion revolved around a concept of “order” that required male leadership and female submission in order to maintain a sense of control in an otherwise uncertain time.

As noted, the larger culture was experiencing an increased emphasis on the individual and personal fulfillment. Because many women found fulfillment in the workplace during WWII, “the 1960’s saw a strong reaction against the domestic expectations placed on women” (p. 49). Thus, in contrast to the first wave of feminism (which focused on women’s moral obligations to society), the second wave of feminism focused on individual rights and personal fulfillment. (Interestingly, when the issue of “individual rights” occasionally surfaced during the turn of the century, Christian women largely rejected this emphasis as being “too oriented to themselves rather than the larger concerns of society” [p. 51].) Notably, this emphasis on individualism was not limited to women. The rise of consumerism and a focus on the perceived needs of individuals shaped evangelicalism as a whole. Lee-Barnewall notes, “While evangelicals were not unaware of the inherent dangers of a theology focused on the self, they continued to emphasize applying the Bible to meet these perceived needs” (p. 58). There was also a backlash against the concept of “order” that effectively limited ministry opportunities that women had previously engaged in. However, “the type of equality they fought for concentrated on what benefited the individual”, as opposed to the turn of the century emphasis that was centered on the good of the greater society (p. 63).

Lee-Barnewall concludes this section by emphasizing her thesis that “cultural values have had a profound impact on the way evangelicals talk about gender. The impact of culture in setting the interpretive framework is important because the questions and concerns with which one approaches the Bible play a large role in deciding what types of answers one finds” (p. 63). She continues, “If we can see how this rising individualism impacted the way that evangelicals thought about gender, it is worth considering whether we have adequately examined the biblical view of gender…If we only ask ‘Who has authority?’ or “Is there equality?’ we may miss deeper and more foundational aspects of understanding gender in the kingdom” (p. 65). This is especially significant in view of Jesus’ teachings on the first and the last and servanthood as well as Paul’s continued elaboration on laying down our rights.

Part 2: Reframing Gender (Note: this section is very heavy on scriptural exegesis, but my summary will focus on conclusions rather than exegetical details).

This section begins with a quote from George Eldon Ladd: “Modern scholarship is quite unanimous in the opinion that the Kingdom of God was the central message of Jesus”. Agreeing with this, Lee-Barnewall suggests reframing the biblical study of gender around the themes of unity and reversal within the community of the Kingdom of God. (Reversal refers to how God repeatedly juxtaposes human wisdom with His wisdom by doing things like choosing the younger brother, using the weak instead of the powerful, and saying that the last shall be first and the least will be the greatest.) (Note: do I think she could have chosen additional overarching themes? Yes. But demonstrating how these themes reshape the study get the ball rolling. Additional themes to consider would be the missio Dei and the imago Dei.)

Noting that the church represents Christ on earth, she calls attention to the point that 1 Peter is not focusing on the priestly role of individual believers so much as it is an emphasis on the priestly role that the entire community of believers plays as we represent Christ in our relationship with one another and the world. This elevates the importance of our unity as well as how we relate with one another in love, exhortation, encouragement, and humility. One of the core ways that God accomplishes unity (and thus teaches us to seek unity) is through “reversals”: instead of exercising his privileges, Christ “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped”, and took the opposite course of being a servant. “Thus the concept of reversal speaks on issues of identity found not in oneself, one’s position, or personal power, but in dependence on God. It refers to a profound willingness to sacrifice what gives people status and meaning in their current context for a value that comes from God alone…When applied to the community, it results in the deep unity of his people as they consider others before themselves and challenges leaders to be primary examples of this submission to God” (p. 81). Accordingly, we see that time and again, one of the main results of this reversal is increased unity.

While the current debate is largely concerned with how we understand and apply the concept of equality Lee-Barnewall notes, “The concept that all people are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights comes from the Enlightenment and would have been ‘thoroughly alien’ to the ancient world [in which the Bible was written]. The predominant belief instead was that people were by nature created unequal, as evidenced physically (males as dominant and females and inferior), social (parents would be superior to children, freeborn superior to slaves), and ethnically (Greeks vs. Barbarians) (p. 85). What set the ancient Christian communities apart in this context was their inclusivity and the teaching to love and submit to one another despite these differences. One notable example of the reversal principle here is how Jesus was unique among rabbis in that he allowed women to be disciples. While all of the 12 were men, the account of Mary sitting at his feet instead of helping Martha is culturally shocking because of how it affirms her as a disciple. While our contemporary emphasis is often on “rights” and how we parse out and understand “equality”, they orient us towards individualism in a way that takes our focus of being an inclusive community that seeks the cohesion and unity of its members.

We must also reframe how we understand authority. The historical understanding of authority had many similarities with our concept of climbing the ladder. Everyone wanted to climb higher. This concept is ingrained in us so much that we have become accustomed to thinking of servant-leadership as leaders who practice servanthood. Robert Greenleaf, however, notes that it should instead be understood as an example of the reversal principle: It is those who practice service who should then be elevated as leaders. Lee-Barnewall summarizes the biblical intention that “Leaders teach and demonstrate the new way in Christ, a way that depends on power through weakness (reversal) and results in the loving unity of God’s people” (p. 117)

The final two chapters of the book focus on marriage as described in Genesis 2-3 and the Eph. 5 commentary on Gen 2-3. The thesis is that Ephesians 5 is about unity more than it is about authority. Significant attention is given to the observation that Adam was the only one charged with disobedience. It is also noted that he failed on two counts: both eating the fruit and failure on his part to reinstate the unity between male and female that was separated at creation (think “one flesh”). Indeed, he defends himself to God by focusing on the separateness between he and his wife. The exegesis of Eph 5 gives significant attention to the word kephale and the concept of headship. The head-body metaphor is recognized as a very common metaphor in antiquity. In all of the other metaphorical usage, the body is understood to serve the head. In culture, not only did they understand that the body’s role was to protect and serve the head but that the head’s role was to serve and protect itself. (This was the case for government, marriage, business, etc.) Paul’s usage is extremely unique and downright culturally shocking because he employs the reversal framework and stands the metaphor on its head (pun intended) so that the head serves and protects the body. Readers would be expecting Paul to instruct the wife to be willing to sacrifice for the sake of her husband. The injunction to submit makes it appear that he is going along with cultural values, but then he gives the injunction for sacrifice to the husband instead, even while maintaining that the husband indeed has the role of the head. However, the bigger picture is that Paul uses this as a metaphor between Christ and the church, once more emphasizing that this one flesh type of unity that Adam failed to achieve is achieved through this reversal principle that is exemplified in Phil 2: “For Paul, the head is also the source of unity, but only as the head acts in manner that is very unheadlike, by not exerting power or privilege but rather doing the opposite” (p. 162). The irony of Paul’s proposal is that it would have been perceived as disrupting social order, whereas in the context of the Kingdom, the opposite – greater unity – would be achieved instead.

Final Thoughts

While many people want the answer to question “So, what can women do”, Lee-Barnewall purposefully does not answer this question because that will take away from the purpose of the book, which is to argue for a need to reexamine the debate and propose a new framework that will allow us to move forward without so much divisiveness. In this reframing, she urges us to “consider God’s purposes for his people and how these are accomplished in the new age” (p. 167) “New age” here refers to the age inaugurated by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ which serves as signposts to and overlaps with the eschatological “age to come” that is both “here” and “not yet”.

She cautions us in how we use terms like patriarchy, feminism, and equality in our communication since they often lead to misunderstanding. She also encourages us to further explore the concepts of servant-leadership, mutuality, power manifested through weakness, and the willing non-use of rights and privileges as we commit ourselves to greater unity in the body of Christ.
And here is my final thought: I try to be extremely careful with how I both personally and publicly engage with this particular issue. This book is incredibly close to my heart because I’ve increasingly found myself navigating ministry – as a woman – as neither an egalitarian nor a complementarian. I greatly appreciate how this book encourages me to stay focused on service and fostering unity. I pray that posting this helped further this goal.

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