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Egalitarianism vs. Complementarianism

The feminism of the 1960s has blossomed into an anti-patriarchy that is brilliantly expressed by the Black Lives Matter group (of course, black lives matter because they are created in the image of God—but that is a very different message than is promoted by the group that calls itself “Black Lives Matter”): “We build a space that…is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered.”1 The association of sexism and misogyny with the “man-centered” concept illustrates the negative perception of any structure in which man is at the center. “Patriarchal practice…requires mothers to work double shifts.”2 The nuclear family is a Western prescription that needs to be replaced with “extended families and villages.”3 To be consistent with the anti-patriarchal trajectory, this group seeks to free itself “from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking.”4 This kind of feminist logic ultimately rejects any gender and sexuality distinctions, giving hands and feet to the Marxist ideal: “When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared…we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all.”5 Thus any man-centered construct is ultimately the enemy of progress and development.

In Marx’s diagnoses distinctions celebrated in Christianity are emblematic of oppression and are thus obstacles to be overcome. Despite Marx’s antagonism toward Christianity, it has become increasingly popular for those who broadly espouse Christianity to view the particulars through the Marxist lens, especially when it comes to gender roles. In this perspective the creation account, literally understood, is problematic, as the Bible transparently asserts the man as created first and the woman then created as a complement to the man.6 Hence the term complementarianism has come to signify the perspective that takes these claims at face value, recognizing the ontological equality of man and woman, and holding “that masculinity and femininity were created by God as meaningful distinctions indicating different roles that, when embraced, will lead to the best possible spiritual well-being for believers.”7 When considered in light of Pauline teachings distinguishing roles for men and women,8 by implication complementarianism can be understood to mean that “God restricts women from serving in certain church leadership roles and instead calls women to serve in equally important, but complementary roles.”9 Egalitarianism, on the other hand, agrees that man and woman are ontologically equal, but “goes further to state that men and women are considered equal in role capabilities as well; there are no gender restrictions on what roles men and women can fulfill in the church, home, and society.”10

While Genesis 1:27 provides a summary statement of the creation of man and woman, affirming that both are made in the image of God (and thus ontologically equal), those holding to a complementarian perspective recognize that Genesis 2:20–25 and 1 Timothy 2:13 cite the order of creation as an important basis for differences in gender roles. Genesis 2:20 notes the lack of a helper, counterpart, or opposite (ezer) for Adam to help steward the responsibilities that God had given to humanity. God demonstrated the importance of this helper in fulfilling the grand task by showing Adam that all other creatures had a counterpart, but Adam did not. Once the need was apparent, God resolved the deficiency, and Adam was whole.

Paul acknowledges an element of order and authority when he asserts that “Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of woman, and God is the head of Christ.”11 The complementarian takes the term head (kephale) in the normative sense of the head as that which directs the body,12 while the egalitarian might understand the term employed in relation to man and woman in the same sense that a river has a head—a place of origin. One significant problem with this interpretation of the term as simply implying that man is the source of woman, is that it denies the eternal pre-existence of Christ. Woman began to exist at a specific point in time, but the Bible asserts that Christ always existed with God.13

Those preferring an egalitarian view will further diverge from complementarian thinkers in understanding Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” For the egalitarian this is a proof text that there are no more gender distinctions. The problem with this interpretation is twofold. First, the one who made the statement made clear distinctions between man and woman after writing these words—including statements that based continuing distinctions on the order of creation.14 It is all too clear that Paul did not interpret his own words with an egalitarian perspective. Instead, he was simply asserting that one’s ontological identity does not come from anything or anyone other than Christ Jesus, and that there is total unity for all those in Christ. Ethnic, socioeconomic, and biological distinctions did not disappear (recall that Paul acknowledged that even though Onesimus was in Christ, he was still legally a slave15). The second problem with the egalitarian understanding of Galatians 3:28 is a math problem. If gender distinctions are eliminated within the body of Christ, then so is number, because all are one in Christ. Paul acknowledges this is not the case. He explains that there are many distinct members and yet one body.16 Each has a bond of unity with the other,17 but each remains distinctly individual.

The social pressures toward one view or the other have not been derived exegetically; rather, they have been derived experientially as there are sadly numerous examples throughout history of “heads” and leaders who have failed in the headship and leadership and have instead oppressed and suppressed those they were supposed to lead. We can find examples of poor leadership in every setting—in the home, at church, at work, in society, in government—because everywhere there are leaders, there are humans who are stained by sin. The solution is not to abandon concepts of leadership, but rather to focus on what makes a person a good leader to begin with—to focus on what God has designed people to be.

If men were fulfilling their biblically assigned responsibilities, there would be no need or occasion for women to demand liberation, for they would be neither enslaved nor oppressed—instead, women would be cherished and empowered. But, sadly, history is littered with abuses engaged in the name of piety and religion. It is not surprising, then, that—in part—feminism arose out of a culture in which women were often repressed in the name of patriarchal ideas, but those hierarchical expressions were certainly not reflective of a biblically prescribed model. That women’s right to vote in the United States wasn’t recognized until August 18, 1920, illustrates resoundingly that women were not viewed as truly ontologically equal for nearly 150 years of the United States’ history.

These historical failings caution us today to beware of stereotyping gender roles. Cultural conditioning does not constitute a biblical model—the biblical text does. Just because specific activities may have been associated uniquely with men or women in the past doesn’t mean those functions were ever reflective of biblical ideals. Andreas and Margaret Kostenberger suggest, for example, that “Scripture doesn’t give a lot of detail as to how God’s design for man and woman is to be worked out, so a traditional division of labor (women in the kitchen, changing diapers; men at work letting women do all household chores) doesn’t square with the biblical design.”18

Still, the Bible is clear that men and women are co-heirs of God’s grace19 and that there are some differing roles and boundaries. The question is whether or not we will take the Author at His word, trusting Him as the Creator who designed us, knows us best, and seeks our very best as an expression of His character and glory.

1 Black Lives Matter, “What We Believe” viewed at https://blacklivesmatter.com/what-we-believe/.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1948), 27.
6 Genesis 1:27, 2:23, 1 Timothy 2:13.
7 Alyssa Roat, “What Are Complementarianism and Egalitarianism? What’s the Difference?” Christianity.com, viewed at https://www.christianity.com/wiki/christian-terms/what-are-complementarianism-and-egalitarianism-what-s-the-difference.html.
8 E.g., Ephesians 5:21–32, 1 Timothy 2:12–15.
9 Gotquestions.org, “Complementarianism vs. egalitarianism—which view is biblically correct?” viewed at https://www.gotquestions.org/complementarianism-vs-egalitarianism.html.
10 Alyssa Roat, “What Are Complementarianism and Egalitarianism? What’s the Difference?”
11 1 Corinthians 11:3.
12 As in Matthew 14:11.
13 John 1:2.
14 E.g., 1 Timothy 2:31.
15 In his letter to Philemon, Paul asserts that Onesimus is ontologically free and should be treated as a brother in Christ, while in verse 19 Paul offers to “repay” the legal cost of freeing Onesimus.
16 1 Corinthians 12:12.
17 Ephesians 4:1–3.
18 Matt Smethurst, “It’s a Genesis to Revelation Issue” The Gospel Coalition, October 24, 2014, viewed at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/genesis-revelation-issue/.
19 1 Peter 3:7.

This content last updated: September 16, 2020

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