Three Perspectives on Gender Roles

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Any church relying on Scripture as a guide for faith and practice will eventually need to decide how to interpret and apply the Scripture’s statements about gender. What I’d like to do in this short post is to outline three schools of thought with as little of my own biases as possible (but I’ve got lots of them, so I’ll not likely succeed). For each, I want to set forward briefly their point of view, consider their heavily relied upon passages, and then state some strengths and weaknesses. I fully admit that each view has more articulate spokesmen than me and that each camp will consider itself poorly represented by this summary. But what is a blogger to do?

The three basic schools of thought on gender roles are Traditional, Complementarian, and Egalitarian.

Traditional

Traditional views on gender roles rely heavily, as you might expect, on what has been done in the past. They will often deny this, of course, claiming their position to be a clear result of applying Scripture. The church and Western civilization as a whole have leaned in the direction of patriarchy and male leadership until recent history. Notable exceptions can be cited, but the overwhelming trend has been that of male leadership in the church, the home, and the society at large. Traditionalists argue that this reflects the will of God as revealed in Scripture. Important passages for this school of thought include biblical household codes (Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18-25) and discussions of church gender roles (1 Timothy 2:8-12, 1 Corinthians 14:33-35).

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. (1 Timothy 2:11-12)

Traditionalist arguments often follow the “slippery slope” line of thought. “If we allow X, then we would eventually have to allow Y.” As long as you agree that Y is a traditionally forbidden practice, then X must be as well. Because this school of thought is shaped heavily by tradition, what is prohibited by such phrases as “usurping authority of man” is conditioned by what has been done in the past.

The strength of this school of thought is in its reliance on a fairly straightforward reading of the pertinent texts. It also has the advantage of being supported by much of church history. The weakness of this position is first in not recognizing the role of the church as a partner (or at least accomplice) in the oppression of women in history. The historical church can be wrong. Second, the position does not do a sufficient job of substantiating its definitions. No clear litmus test exists for determining what actions are authoritative, forcing an “I know it when I see it” criteria that is subjective at best. The result is a frustration for women who view their role as determined by what man and what tradition happens to be in the room.

Complementarian

Complementarian views on gender roles rely primarily on the observation that gender is present in the creation in its pristine state. Differentiated gender and, therefore, differentiated vocation is part of God’s design for humanity. However, the complementarian point of view also recognizes the consequence for gender of the fall of man. Sin resulted in a tragic realignment of gender relations including the tendency of women to find their worth in relationship to men and of men to find their worth in dominating women (Genesis 3:16-19). In this view, gender roles are created by God, marred by sin, and redeemed by the gospel.

To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)

Complementarians acknowledge the household codes and church gender passages as authoritative, but they interpret them with considerably more restraint. They recognize the role the church has played in some parts of history of hindering the formation of women as disciples and recognizing their worth as creatures in God’s image. They also acknowledge that the church has at other times developed women with vitality. Important passages for this school of thought would include the Genesis creation and fall accounts (Genesis 1-3) and the various examples of active women in the early church and the ministry of Christ (primarily found in the Luke-Acts narratives).

The strength of this position is in its articulation of the created purpose of gender and the embrace of a broader range of passages than those employed by Traditionalists. Complementarians are able to reject examples of past practices without dismissing all of Christian history. The weakness of this school of thought is in applying the position at the congregational level. They have struggled to consistently explain in what ways women are and are not limited in practice. It is difficult to explain the distinction which allows women to serve communion, read announcements, or serve as deaconesses but does not allow them to preside over and bless the communion, preach a sermon, or serve as elders. Every complementarian seems to have a slightly different line of demarcation and as a result, the entire position is difficult to maintain.

Egalitarian

Egalitarian views on gender roles rely on the observation that the Scriptures are strongly conditioned and interpreted by biases of the past. However, even within the masculine leaning text, a time-bomb awaits set to detonate gender boundaries. In much the same way the gospel subverted the practice of slavery, egalitarians see it overthrowing patriarchy. In Christ, all persons share in equality (Galatians 3:28). This principle is seen as the true thrust of the gospel, and any passage appearing to state the contrary is either in need of reinterpretation or in some cases rejection as authoritative witnesses of the will of God.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

Egalitarians believe the church has historically been complicit in the subjugation of women and that its purpose today should be to reverse that wrong. Women are fellow-believers with men, and all believers are to be included in all parts of the work of the church. While egalitarians differ on whether or not the early Church ever practiced this radically equal society, they believe that it is the intent of the gospel to shape the church into a free and equal body today.

The strength of the egalitarian point of view is in its recognition of many of the church’s past wrongs and its willingness to address them. The position also offers voice to the dramatic freedom offered in Jesus, freedom that subverts cultural boundaries. The weakness of the point of view is in its tendency to dismiss the authority of the entire canon. It is difficult to interpret Paul in a way that is entirely gender-equal, and as a result, the apostolic authority of his voice must be diminished to maintain this view.  The position forces the Christian to distinguish the true gospel intent from the writings of the earliest and most profound gospel interpreter. In some cases, such as in the Corinthian epistles, it forces the interpreter to pit Paul against himself.

Conclusions

Reduction of this debate to stubborn women-haters and hippie bible-haters is harmful to understanding. The debate exists in at least three layers, and each position is nuanced and supported by important Christian ideals. Attempts to demean any position as either feminist, patriarchal, or compromised is a tragic shortcut around a much-needed conversation. The church should be discussing this issue openly and without hostility rather than belittling the proponents of the opposing views.

May God grant us the courage to understand those with whom we disagree, the conviction to maintain our faith, and the willingness to pursue the gospel wherever it leads.

Follow Benjamin Williams:

Pulpit Minister for Glenpool Church of Christ (Glenpool, OK); BS in Astrophysics from University of Oklahoma; MDiv in Ministry from Oklahoma Christian Graduate School of Theology

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