Q&A: Do Egalitarians Bend to Culture?

Q: Bronwen, when I tell my Christian friends that I believe in the equality of men and women, they say that egalitarians are just bending to culture, rather than being shaped by Scripture. Is this true?

A: In my previous Q&A post, I looked at whether egalitarians twist Scripture to ignore or change the passages they don’t like, and if complementarians just use the “plain and simple” reading of the text. The charge of twisting Scripture often seems to come hand in glove with that of “bending to the culture”. This approach says that complementarianism is the historic expression of the Christian faith, and is shaped only by Scripture, never by the winds of change in a fickle culture.  On the other hand (it claims), egalitarians are uncomfortable when God’s Word seems in conflict with the prevailing secular culture, so they reinterpret Scripture until it fits with the culture’s worldview. Here are my top 5 reasons why egalitarianism isn’t bending to culture, but is instead an attempt to understand and live in the world in ways which are faithful to God and His Word.

  1. Both complementarian and egalitarian beliefs are a response to culture:

If complementarianism were the historic teaching of the church, we would expect to find that the dominant witness throughout church history was of a theology that says men and women are “equal in worth but different in function” (the central, foundational belief of complementarian theology). But this is far from true. Until the 1950s or so, it was considered by the vast majority of biblical interpreters that the Bible (and life) clearly showed that women were inferior and men superior.

Both complementarians and egalitarians reject this idea. Both have been moved to re-examine Scripture in light of the feminist movement and the changes it has wrought for the position of women in our society. In the past, it seemed clear to most people that women were weak (physically, mentally and emotionally), unsuited to leadership, illogical and ruled by emotions, etc. Over time, the world around us shifted in such a way that the belief that women were, in and of themselves, inferior to men became so unacceptable as to be embarrassingly anachronistic, like other old beliefs such as that the supposed inferiority of people of colour meant that they should drink at different water fountains and ride on different buses. It is not “bending to culture” to reexamine Scripture through new ideas and experiences brought to us by culture – the life of faith is always an ongoing conversation with culture.

Complementarianism began to emerge in the late 1970s through to the 80s, trying to hold in tension this radical new idea of women’s ontological equality  with a view that women are forever restricted to certain roles in the home and church. It claimed that men and women are “equal but different,” using the perceived differences to uphold restrictions on the ministry of women and the leadership of men in the home.

So cultural change caused Christians across the spectrum to reevaluate the value of women, leading to the emergence of both complementarian and egalitarian beliefs. Complementarianism sought to maintain traditional social roles for women alongside this belief in equal value, while egalitarians sought to give life to this belief in equal value by opening doors for women to live, work and serve in more equal ways.

  1. Complementarianism bends both to the wider culture and to a Christian culture that’s not always genuinely based in the Bible:

As we’ve already seen, complementarianism owes its existence to the perceived need to reject a traditional belief – the inferiority of women – for one which was more acceptable to the culture – that women are equal. It had become too culturally dangerous to continue to insist that women were, by definition, inferior. They risked total marginalisation.

On the other hand, afraid of the cultural changes that had occurred due to the sexual revolution, no-fault divorce and abortion rights, complementarians tended to idolise a sort of 1950s model of the family that seemed to hark back to the “good old days” and used a form of biblical literalism to uphold this. (I say “a form of biblical literalism” because complementarian beliefs are only selectively literal – for example, those who insist 1 Timothy 2 excludes women from church leadership usually do not insist on men raising their hands when they pray, as they perceive this as a cultural matter.)

Complementarianism has struggled to effectively identify which part of its teachings represent a 20th century Western cultural model and what parts might reflect a genuinely biblical idea. For example, ideas about the inappropriateness of women working outside the home that some complementarians insist on reflect a post-Industrial Revolution society, not the reality of all time. Before the Industrial Revolution, most work took place in the home or in a workshop or field adjacent to the home. The concept of a man going out to work while the woman stayed at home as we understand it was not the reality of most people – while the man was seen as being in charge, for most families, the whole family had to pitch in to work together. It was only among the nobility that women could afford to remain idly at home while the man occupied the public sphere. So complementarianism holds a tension between a new idea – equality – and an idealised and often inaccurate version of old ideas of the family and the role of women.

  1. The witness of history regarding women’s ministry

It is undeniable that men have been the majority of Christian leaders throughout the past two millenia. But women have held significant leadership roles throughout church history. Of course the Bible tells us about women who were exceptions, like Phoebe the deacon who carried Paul’s letter to the Romans and was probably the first person to preach and teach on that epistle, or Junia who was not just a female apostle, but an outstanding one. Those exceptional women who have ministered in diverse ways despite were not just in biblical times, but have existed throughout history.

Moving into the first few centuries, we see Ammia, a renowned prophetess in the immediate post-apostolic period. In the late 300s, Marcella was an associate of the well-known church father Jerome, who referred people on to her to answer their tricky hermeneutical problems. There is a possibilty that women may have been priests, at least in limited times and places. Gregory of Nazianzus said of a woman called Theosebia that she was “the pride of the church, the ornament of Christ, the finest of our generation, the free speech of women, Theosebia, the most illustrious among the brethren, outstanding in beauty of soul. Theosebia, truly a priestly personage, the colleague of a priest, equally honoured and worthy of the great sacraments.”

Moving into the mediaeval period, Bertha of Kent was one of the key figures in the conversion of Anglo-Saxon Britain to Christianity. Hilda of Whitby was one of the chief leaders of Celtic Christianity and led a monastic community of both men and women.

After the Reformation in the 16th century, we start to see some works by Christian women who argued for a stronger role of women in the life of the church. The 17th century Quaker, Margaret Fell Fox, wrote a treatise on why women should preach, which echoes many of our egalitarian arguments today. In the 18th century, Selina, the Countess of Huntingdon founded a Methodist denomination. In the 19th century, Catherine Booth was the co-founder of the Salvation Army with her husband, and wrote about why women should preach. Missionary doctor Katharine Bushnell published God’s Word to Women in 1925 – an incredible work which is a core foundation of modern egalitarian thought.

These are just a few examples – there are hundreds, even thousands, more! Women who strove to listen to God’s calling on their lives lived in ways which were often strongly counter-cultural and sometimes even dangerous. The culture prescribed a strongly defined “place” for women, but God challenged them to a greater adventure.

  1. Early feminism

Early feminism was steeped in Christian thought, with many of its early leaders inspired by their faith. Just as Christians had brought change to slavery laws, Christians were bringing changes to the rights of women for the betterment of society through Christian values. From the late 18th century onward, Christian women led the way in the fledgling feminist movement, campaigning for the vote, for changes to prostitution laws, for women to be able to own property, and more. As with slavery, education and many other pressing social issues of the 19th century, Christians who promoted changes for the role and treatment of women in society were at the forefront of actively challenging and changing the culture, rather than bending to it.

  1. Failure to understand the counter-cultural element of egalitarianism

Patriarchy in a contemporary Western context looks very different to, say, the patriarchy of contemporary Saudi Arabia or of 12th century Britain. This doesn’t mean that our society is not essentially patriarchal in nature. We still have an underlying tendency to elevate men above women – just looking at some of the ways we use language shows that. A man is a “strong leader,” but a woman exercising her gifts in the same way is “bossy.” When we consider whether our church might allow a woman to preach at some point, we are more likely to worry about the possibility of alienating the men who will be made to sit through the experience of having a person of the opposite gender preach to them (after all, men don’t listen well to women! – apparently!) than about the fact that approximately 60% of our congregation only ever gets to hear preaching by someone of the opposite gender – why does it not matter if some women feel isolated or marginalised as a result? The #MeToo movement has demonstrated the extent to which too many men have believed themselves entitled to sexual contact with women, regardless of the responsibility of their position, the woman’s consent or either party being married. Sadly, experiencing sexual harassment and discrimination is still a normal expectation for the majority of women, even in our supposedly enlightened society. The closer we look, the more we find that the evidence shows that true equality is still radically counter-cultural. Egalitarians strive to hold the church to a higher moral ground on the treatment of women than that of the broader culture.

Egalitarianism radically asks what it looks like to live out Jesus’ example of justice and mercy. It asks how we can be part of giving all believers the opportunity to develop and serve in their area of giftedness (and not just the young men). It asks us to stop putting people into boxes and to start seeing people as Jesus sees them. We seek to be transformed by Jesus and the Bible and to apply that to how we live in the church, home and society.

This post was originally presented as a talk given for the Perth chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality on 2nd September 2017.

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