Here are a couple of things I should have mentioned earlier. First, for a more nuanced and detailed discussion of this topic, check out our primary source: Dr. Carroll Osburn’s Women in the Church (ACU Press, 2000). I’m really not doing the conversation justice, just giving my gut reactions to it. Second, the positions I described as “straw persons” in the last post are not “straw” in that they don’t really exist - there are people who have endorsed them. I just think they’re rarely held by the people wrangling over the issue at church (at least the ones I’ve attended).
Now for the positions in the middle ground: let’s get to know the Hierarchical Complementarians (Syllabic overload! HC for short) and Egalitarians (E, a.k.a., evangelical feminism... just don’t get scared away by the ‘f’ word!). The HC are a little right of center on the spectrum. They believe that men and women complement one another, with men providing leadership roles and women support roles (thus 'hierarchy'). A little to the left on the spectrum, the E embrace gender equality and see little or no correlation between gender and what roles a person may fill. What’s interesting is that both groups would basically agree with the following statement: “Women and men are equal, but different.” The primary different between the two is that they emphasize one part over the other: the E stress equality over difference while the HC elevate difference over equality. For the E, the “difference” part sounds like a concession: “Sure, men and women are different, BUT... .” For the HC, equality is primarily spiritual (i.e.,women and men are equal before God), but they’d persistently assert that God has ordained them distinct roles at home and at church. So far so good?
There are other things these two groups have in common. Both are faithfully dedicated to the authority of the Scriptures. They both reject the radical feminists’ wholesale dismissal of Scripture and Christian tradition while also suspecting that the patriarchalists abuse the Scriptures in order to defend their own prejudices. When reading the biblical text, both attempt to use the historical critical approach, trying to analyze the literary and historical context of passages and ascertain the original intent of the author. Both groups care passionately about the church and long to understand the will of God for their communities.
In short, we occupy a lot of the same ground, and that’s why we fight. Ultimately, our distinct emphases, equality v. difference, color the way we approach this matter. Our presuppositions cause us to interpret biblical texts differently, even when we use a common method of study. As often happens, we are ignorant of the way our own presuppositions influence our study of Scripture even as we say, “Aha! You’re blinded by your assumptions!” to our opponent. We look askance at each other, believing each other to be overly influenced by secular culture. (And that's not only the egalitarians, who willingly admit the influence of secular feminism. Patriarchalism and HC are both part of a broader cultural reaction to the women’s rights movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.)
If you’re like me, you’ve been thinking about where you are on the spectrum. It’s probably no surprise that I consider myself in the E group. I find the egalitarian interpretations of the biblical text more persuasive than the HC ones (while recognizing that I too have biases). I appreciate the more positive role assigned to culture by this perspective. For example, during the Civil Rights Movement, a cultural shift challenged Christians and churches to reassess their beliefs about race and segregation. We needed to listen to that call for repentance and change, and we’re still suffering the consequences of doing too little, too late. I also believe that God has given spiritual gifts to women for the sake of the church, and the church inflicts suffering on them and itself by ignoring them. We may unintentionally communicate to our young girls that they are not as valuable to our community (to God?) as their male peers are. It's not what we believe nor what we intend to teach, but all too often that's the message that's conveyed. On a personal note, as a single woman, I want to be accepted as a complete person before God without being married to a “second half”.
There is one thing about the E perspective that gives me pause though. (If I’ve understood it correctly.) It’s the claim that we all relate to God individually. I think this claim is meant to counter the HC assertion that men and women complete each other before God. The HC can sound like they think a person isn’t complete, even spiritually, unless they’re married. Obviously, that sounds bad to me. But the E perspective on this point sounds too individualistic. (Actually, the general evangelical Protestant view of salvation is a bit too individualistic for me.) I think of Christian salvation in broader terms than just personal assurance of a pleasant afterlife. I believe that in Christ, God is putting the world to rights again, reconciling people to God and people to people, making all things new. As the church we’re called collectively (not only individually) to be a part of God’s work of righting the world. The church is a people who have begun this process of reconciliation to God and others in the waters of baptism. We celebrate what Christ has done and anticipate what he’s going to do in the fullness of his Kingdom when we gather together at the Lord’s Table. We’re far from perfect - God’s not finished with us. But if we’re called to be ministers of reconciliation in the world, we’d better learn to love the messy people sitting next to us in the pew. I think a Christian comes to the Lord alongside others, not merely individually.
That explanation isn't really satisfactory to me, but it's what I have today. Interested in a deeper analysis of the HC point of view? How about next time?