A ViewPoint by Liz Cooledge Jenkins
In a recent Christianity Today book review, Branson Parler suggests that Christians who argue about gender roles in church leadership are perhaps a bit too “concerned about who’s in charge.” Perhaps it’s time to “move beyond the decades-old framework of complementarian versus egalitarian when it comes to matters of gender and gender roles in marriage, the church, and society.” Parler suggests that perhaps it is time to change our mindset so the “focus is not about who gets to be in charge but how men and women are called to serve, using their gifts to build up the church and communicate the love of Christ.” In this view, we can move forward together without resolving the questions of complementarianism versus egalitarianism. We can refocus our attention on higher and better things than gender equality.
This type of call to a “third way” approach can sound like a noble one. Look at this debate that has been going on in the church for a while now, people say. It is not good for us. There has been division, and the church has been weakened. But there is a better way. There is a way to balance the concerns of both sides—to move beyond them, really. There is a way to refuse to align ourselves with either side but to choose something higher and better instead.
Rhetoric like this may sound entirely mature and reasonable. It may sound even-handed and level-headed. It may sound holy. But the problem with the idea of “rising above” or “moving beyond” is that it assumes that the stakes are equal on both sides of the debate.
This is far from the case.
A church’s decision to move toward—or simply to maintain—complementarianism has a drastically different impact from a church’s decision to move toward egalitarianism. It is not just that people have different views and someone is going to be upset no matter what you do. Rather, complementarian practice means that an already marginalized group—in this case, women—is further marginalized. Women experience restrictions imposed on our lives that we did not choose. Our value as full human beings and our agency as sacred beings created in God’s image is not affirmed.
This is an act of violence. Complementarian practice does violence to women. Egalitarian practice, on the other hand, might feel upsetting to those who disagree. Some people might be disappointed, but no one’s opportunity to fully flourish as a human being is diminished.
The cost of complementarian practice is drastically different than the cost of egalitarian practice. Both sides are not equal. And because of this inequity, we cannot move beyond the debate without resolving it. (Not that every individual ends up thinking exactly the same way, but that the church as a whole removes any gendered restrictions.)
Those pleas that we refocus our attention away from debates about gender equality to “how men and women are called to serve” are not helpful. They also are disingenuous. The reality is that in complementarian settings, by definition, women are not free to “[use our] gifts to build up the church and communicate the love of Christ.”
How can women explore and recognize what our gifts are if certain gifts, like leadership and preaching, are taken off the table from the start? It is not logical, let alone right, to restrict the ways women can serve and then turn around and tell us we should not be concerned with those things but only with how we can best serve.
The egalitarian struggle is not to reverse the existing power dynamic so that women are in control instead of men; rather, it is simply to remove restrictions from the ways women can serve and lead. Egalitarianism is a prerequisite to the possibility that women and men and people of all genders could actually use their gifts freely. Complementarianism precludes this possibility.
The people who want to “move beyond” debates over questions of equality and inclusion are, most often, the people who already hold power. They do not see a significant problem with the status quo because the status quo is not holding them back from pursuing their goals, using their gifts, or leading and serving in the ways they want to lead and serve. They think we can simply move past questions of “who gets to be in charge” because they are, in fact, already in charge, and they are quite comfortable with this reality. Often, it is all they have known. It feels natural to them. It is easy to condemn the struggle for power when all the power is already yours.
Those who claim that men and women can simply focus on how to serve are essentially claiming that we live in a post-sexist world. We do not live in that world. Our churches do not exist in that world—and the complementarian ones are actively pushing back against the emergence of that world. Just as those who claim that we live in a post-racist society are failing to listen to the testimony of people of color, those who claim that we live in a post-sexist society are ignoring the voices of women.
As the apostle Paul wrote, church is like a human body, and if one part of the body suffers, all parts suffer with it (1 Cor 12:26). When women suffer, the whole church suffers. When one part of a healthy body is suffering, the rest of the body does not say, “Let’s not focus so much on this suffering. Let’s just look beyond it. Let’s think about other more important things.” Rather, the body gathers its resources together to identify the problem and fix it.
In the complementarian versus egalitarian debates, the problem is complementarianism. The problem is patriarchy. These things cannot be moved past or looked beyond. They must be eradicated. Holy-sounding talk of refocusing on how we serve functions only as a mask and a cover for oppression. It functions as a minion of the forces that continue to do violence to those already marginalized in their faith communities.
Egalitarianism is not a way of wrestling to be in charge but a way of fighting for the chance for all humans to flourish. May individuals, churches, and church leaders become brave enough to tell the truth about the harm complementarianism causes rather than ask those harmed to just “move beyond” it.