Monday, May 24, 2010

Controversies: the role of women

The role of women is a controversy that often follows the liberal/conservative divide within Christianity. Within Christianity, it is a given that both men and women are created in God's image and receive gifts of the Holy Spirit. The divisive question relates to whether women should hold positions of authority.


Complementarians believe that men and women have different natural gifts, different roles to which they are called, and different roles which it is fitting for them to hold. Specifically, complementarians believe that women cannot be church leaders above a certain level of responsibility or authority.

Internal diversity: Some complementarians admit women to lower church offices in such roles as serving communion, ushering, acolyting, reading from the Scripture during services, or serving as deaconesses. Others would see these as trespassing across the bounds of leadership offices reserved for men.

Strong points: Many complementarians hold to this view out of a commitment to living God-pleasing lives and out of loyalty to Scripture, where the common understanding of Paul reserves leadership and authority roles to men. People are also drawn to this view by the sense that sexual differences are part of nature and that therefore distinctions between men and women are natural and right. There is a belief that the natural inherent sex differences may affect leadership ability in such a way that there is an inherent rightness to reserving certain positions for men. Some also see the male leadership as representing God, who asks us to refer to him as Father which is an explicitly male term, or as representing Christ who is male in his humanity. Further, for many people -- both men and women -- it is comfortable to live out traditional roles; this is seen as a legitimate point in favor of the "nature" argument by some complementarians.

External criticisms: Whether or not any given complementarian intends to keep women down, the practical outworking of the complementarian view is to deliberately and systematically exclude women from leadership roles. To give different rights to some but not others is seen simply as injustice. To classify people into two classes, one above the other, is by definition to treat the second group as second-class. Additional concerns range from oppression and marginalization of women to a loss of the use of God-given gifts.

Response to criticism: None of the concerns of the egalitarians changes the fact that the common understanding of Scripture reserves leadership and authority roles to men. In Scripture, Paul argues both from the order of creation (that men were made before women) and from the fall (that Eve was deceived but Adam was not deceived) that men should lead (1 Timothy 2:13-14). In Genesis, we see an explicit statement attributed directly to God that the husband would rule over the wife (Genesis 3:16). In the matter of justice, women and men are equal in their humanity but not in their roles. Upholding different sexual roles is seen as healthy and right, while confusing sexual roles is seen as unhealthy. The complementarians are concerned how often the same groups that advocate erasing the lines of sexual roles also advocate the normalization of homosexuality; to a complementarian, this is no mere coincidence but necessarily follows from the removal of effective distinctions between men and women.

The slippery slope: The complementarian view does not apologize for dividing humanity into two classes and assigning one a higher level of authority than the other. Because of this, there have been times and places in Christian complementarian cultures where women could not own property, where many places of higher education were closed to women and many jobs were closed to women. Is there a clear answer as to how it is possible to have two classes of humanity, one above the other, without the lower being oppressed? If not, how is that different from saying the complementarian view has injustice built into it?

Uncharitable moments towards the other side: Complementarians often assume that, because they hold their views out of respect for Scripture, that egalitarians have no respect for Scripture. The rhetoric can be heated and decidedly unkind. It is not unknown for the complementarians to question the morality of the egalitarians or disparage the authenticity of their faith. Complementarians may suggest that egalitarians promote homosexuality.

Charitable moments: Some complementarians may recognize that the egalitarians' driving desire is to apply "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" in the matter of the battle of the sexes. They may also recognize that egalitarians are skeptical about men arguing in their own self-interest, and that this skepticism has some historical basis.

Fair questions from egalitarians to complementarians:
About practice: A woman cannot lead in a complementarian church, but she can lead in business. A woman cannot vote in some complementarian church meetings, but she can vote in secular elections. When women see the secular world treating their views with more respect than the Christian church, what does that do to their view of the church?

About understanding Scripture: The clear statement that the husband would rule over the wife is from God's judgment after the fall. In the age of Christ, with his redemption, is it appropriate to argue for a permanent church institution based on perpetuating punishment for a past sin? All the clear complementarian statements in the New Testament come from Paul, who brought those views into Christianity with him from the extra-Biblical traditions of Judaism. When we evaluate Paul's writings, what should we make of what Jesus said about the extra-Biblical traditions of Judaism being mere traditions taught by men? We see the early church making decisions based on meeting in council and discussion with the consent of all the church. Did Paul have the authority to make a decision by himself that is binding on all Christians of all time?


Egalitarians believe that men and women are fully equal in their humanity and therefore in their roles, and that both are able to serve in church leadership in a God-pleasing way.

Internal diversity:
Some egalitarians believe that the sexual differences between men and women make a material difference, and want to make sure the different views are heard. Others maintain that sexual differences are wholly immaterial to an individual's abilities or performance as a leader.

Among egalitarians, there is general agreement that women should have access to the same roles and jobs as men, but there are some differences in the respect and authority accorded to the Bible. This leads to some differences in how the egalitarian view is framed. For those who have a generally high view of the Bible's historicity and moral authority, different textual arguments have been advanced about whether Paul is being understood as he intended, and whether certain passages in Paul's writings may be later interpolations that were not part of the original text. Others see Paul's argument from Eve's fall as conveniently selective, as there are endless examples of men in the Bible who were morally imperfect, but that has never been taken to mean that men should not lead. Others view the Bible as teaching a moral ideal that we are still realizing over the course of history, that we are on a trajectory towards living out the reality that there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Others note that Paul's arguments rest largely on the Genesis creation account, which they take as non-historical; they see no reason to exclude women from leadership over the account of Eve given their understanding of it as symbolic.

Strong points: There is not even the appearance of injustice, of discrimination against women. The men's arguments cannot be seen as self-serving. Many people welcome the fuller participation of women and value the contributions made by women to the leadership of the churches in which it has been tried.

External criticisms: One common position in egalitarian circles is that the statements of the Bible on men's and women's roles are no longer binding. This is a direct rejection of the idea of a timeless, eternal word of God that guides us steadily throughout all the ages of the world. Other arguments on reaching egalitarian views from the Bible -- that the relevant text says the opposite of how it has usually been understood, and that it is an interpolation -- contradict each other; if both arguments are accepted we would believe that the right understanding of a certain passage is really egalitarian but that it was added at a later date so it is not binding. The two arguments cancel each other, and cannot be advanced in such a way as to take both of them seriously. This makes them appear to be ideologically-driven arguments that put the goal of reaching a pre-determined conclusion (the egalitarian one) above the goal of understanding the original text.

Response to criticism: Egalitarians note that even the most conservative Christian groups will view some teachings of the Bible as being culturally-specific and outdated, whether the law of Moses to drain meat of all blood, or the New Testament note to "greet each other with a holy kiss". The Bible's laws governing slavery are now largely seen as ways to prevent abuses of slavery, but that Christ's call to "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" has been applied so that in most places slavery is illegal. The type of slavery where someone could be involuntarily enslaved for life through no fault of their own is now widely considered barbarous and unChristian. Applying Christ's teachings has been a way to take the world to new levels of justice and equality that Paul hardly imagined. In this way, the proclamation of the good news of Christ, God With Us, has been a humanizing voice for all the oppressed as it spreads through the world. Applying the same teachings to the role of women is proclaiming the forgiveness of Eve's sin too, not just Adam's; it is proclaiming the full redemption and full value of all humanity.

The slippery slope: The complementarians have warned that altering traditional views of manhood and womanhood will lead to the normalization of homosexuality (which is another controversy in itself). In practice, this has often been the case: that groups who normalize female leadership also tend to normalize homosexual practice. Some within the egalitarian camp would not see this is as a problem but rather a further proof of the social justice of the egalitarian camp; others within the egalitarian camp still advocate for traditional expressions of physical sexuality within heterosexual marriage.

Uncharitable moments towards the other side: Egalitarians often mockingly stereotype the complementarians' views of masculinity with caricatures of chest-thumping, beer-swilling men. Too often the egalitarians' arguments address the caricature (i.e. strawman fallacy) rather than what the complementarians themselves believe. While this does reinforce the egalitarians' own views, it also tacitly assumes that complementarians' actual views shouldn't be taken seriously. The egalitarians' attitude towards complementarians is often condescending, tainted by smugness.

The battle of the sexes can lead to heated rhetoric. At the extremes, egalitarians have charged complementarians with turning a blind eye towards violence against women such as wife-beating or rape. This effectively paints a picture of male complementarians as Jack-the-Ripper types, if not the actual perpetrators then at least the apologists and enablers of barbaric and brutal crimes against women.

Charitable moments: Some egalitarians may note that the complementarians' driving motivation is to respect God by respecting Scripture, to keep with their sense of what is right, natural, and God-given. Egalitarians may also note that the complementarian reading of Scripture has been historically well-accepted and is not a controversial reading of the texts at this time.

Fair questions from complementarians to egalitarians: On the matter of interpreting the Bible, the egalitarians' call is to understand Paul in context -- which nobody disputes in principle. In practice, the egalitarian context for Paul, as applied, is often taken to mean that he is no longer applicable in our context. At what point does "understanding Paul in context" become equivalent to "placing him within a context which does not affect us here and now"? Once the Bible is moved to the category of "historically interesting but outdated" rather than "timeless guidance", why follow the teachings of the Bible today?

Related controversies: The moral authority of the Bible. Interpreting the Bible.


Martin LaBar has rounded up links of writings from egalitarian groups. He points out that these groups retain heterosexuality as normative:
Thanks for the additional resources on that perspective.


Craig said...

This is a great, in-depth look at a very complex and emotionally-charged issue.

The most helpful piece that I've found to me personally on this topic was an article from Christianity Today years ago. I looked, but I can't find the article on-line. I kept a copy of it myself in my Google Docs, but I don't want to share it for general consumption it for fear of violating copyrights.

The article is: Jesus and Women: Women in the Early Church: Christian History, Issue 17, (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, Inc.) 1997.

The conclusion from the article might summarize enough to give the idea of its direction:

"On the question of women's involvement in the church, do you start with order or freedom? If you start with 1 Timothy 2:12-14, you will see the creation order prescribing something basic about men and women: Men are to lead. Granting this a great deal of weight, you are forced to find alternate explanations for what seems to be conflicting data. Galatians 3:28 becomes a spiritual truth without any application in the hierarchy of church life. Phoebe was a servant, Priscilla an exception. The "deaconesses" mentioned in early church history held subordinate positions--as Paul intended--and the paucity of references to women in leadership indicates that there were few, as was proper.

But if you start with Galatians 3:28 and the unity of men and women in Christ, you read the data very differently. Paul's theology offered new freedom to women, and many used it to minister effectively. Some, however, misused it, forcing Paul to recommend certain restrictions of female leadership. These were for specific places at specific times, as indicated by the continuing leadership roles of women like Lydia, Junia, etc. Women continued to serve in positions of leadership in the first century or two, but their ministry over time became more and more restricted."

Unknown said...

I guess that you could say that I am a reserved egalitarian. I have been a member of the United Methodist Church for about ten years now, and the Methodists are confirmed egalitarians. However, although our pastor is male, occasionally ordained women from other churches will preach, and I still get an uneasy feeling about it.

With that said, I have found that there are definite advantages to having ordained women in the clergy. I am aware of a number of times when my wife or other women felt much more comfortable speaking with a women pastor than a man. And there was even one occasion when I counseled with one of the ordained women in an area where I think that I was more comfortable speaking with her than I would have with a member of the male clergy.

With that said, I'm still a little uneasy when an ordained woman preaches from the pulpit. Perhaps a little bit of the old fundamentalist teachings that I grew up with? Or perhaps a bit of unexpelled misogyny?

Structurally, I think it's a wash. As Craig pointed out, you can find scripture that supports both views (as is often the case in all "controversies."

Interesting series. I'm looking forward to your next installment.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Craig

Thanks for that CT quote. They're right; most things come down to which principle is greater. From ancient times it's been understood that most controversies hinge on what's greater; I expect that's why there were debates in Jesus' day about what was the greatest law of the Torah.


Hi Randy

Thanks for the encouragement.

The only place I ever went where a woman gave the sermon, she did a truly horrible job. I mean, cringe-worthy. Oh well.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

I recently posted on a subject that I hadn't thought of before, namely that some women in the Bible seem to have exercised spiritual headship in their families, and over their husbands, with God's approval.

Here is a defense of women in ministry by a writer from the Church of the Nazarene, and here is one by a writer from the Evangelical and Covenant Church.

Here is a defense of women in ministry, based on scripture, by a man well versed in scriptural interpretation. The author is a Wesleyan. I'm sure that neither Wesleyans nor Nazarenes are currently anywhere close to considering allowing homosexual pastors, and I doubt if the Evangelical and Covenant church is, either.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for the update to your blog post.

Weekend Fisher said...

Anytime. Seriously, like I said at the outset of this series, I know full well I'm over my head but that's not going to stop me because it's something that I need to do. I'm always glad for your contributions.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF