Could the evangelical gender debate be depolarised?

Posted on November 22, 2011


A conversation that some of us have been involved in privately has spilled over into the blogosphere and twitterverse in the last few days. It concerns attempts to get past the hard lines on gender roles in (family and) church that are being drawn within British evangelicalism. (There is of course a similar discussion in America; it seems to me that the lines are rather differently drawn there, however.)

Krish Kandiah has published a couple of blog posts here and here; Jenny Baker has made some comments in response here; Vicky Beeching has commented here and here; Hannah Mudge, who I don’t know, links to a number of other posts here. I won’t attempt to link out the twitter debate…

I have also seen comments to the effect that it is astonishing that anyone thinks this is still worth arguing over; I simply note that, in every tradition of Christianity (I know of) that can even plausibly claim to be growing, this is presently a live issue in some sense: not just evangelicalism; but old Pentecostalism; the broadly Pentecostal churches of the global South; British Baptist life; the Chinese house churches; confessional Catholicism (& confessional catholic churches out of communion with Rome); the Black majority churches in Britain; the ‘new-church’ charismatic networks in Britain and Europe; … If the job of a theologian in any way includes being responsible to the life of the churches, this issue should be near the top of our theological agenda. I would love to have a doctoral student or two working seriously on it.

The evangelical debate is routinely presented as being polarised between ‘complementarians’ (who believe that men and women are created equal in value but different and complementary in role, and so see certain roles available to men that are not available to women – none the other way around, curiously) and ‘egalitarians’ (who see no necessary distinctions between the roles men and women may play in any area of life). It is routinely noted that these terms are ugly, unwieldy, and unhelpful (in that ‘complementarians’ protest their belief in gender equality, and (some) ‘egalitarians’ believe that men and women are created to be different, but that this does not impose any bars on the exercise of ministries in the church); I want here to challenge it as an inadequate typology of positions, which overlays a false polarity on a much more nuanced debate. To the extent that some of the immediate debate (posts above from Krish, Jenny, and Vicky Beeching) is about the possibility of finding a practical ‘middle ground’ between the two poles, if I am correct, there might be a chance of moving the argument forward.

The debate turns on appropriate gender roles in family and congregation (the American tradition of letting it spill out into society more generally does not seem to have many serious proponents on this side of the Atlantic). However, already there is the possibility of complication: in a recent post on the New Frontiers theology blog, Andrew Wilson pointed out some of this complexity; in particular, he suggests (on the basis of quoting commentaries on Eph. 5) that several leading ‘egalitarian’ writers in fact hold a ‘complementarian’ view of marriage. If he is right (and even if he is wrong, he raises the potential of the position…), then we already need to distinguish ‘church-egalitarian’ from ‘family-egalitarian,’ and similarly with ‘complementarian’; there are four positions, not just two, and those who agree about church life might disagree about family life, and vice-versa.

To complicate further, it is not news that the ‘church-complementarian’ position in fact covers several different claims. The most obvious, perhaps, is the distinction between ‘teaching’ and ‘exercising authority’; whilst some would argue that  the two are indifferently prohibited to women by Scripture, others – particularly, in my experience, conservative evangelical Anglicans, find the exercising of authority to be the crucial point, and would allow a woman to exercise a teaching ministry, even an ordained teaching ministry, so long as she was not the minister of the congregation. (Clare Hendry, who with Lis Goddard wrote the excellent Gender Agenda (IVP, 2011), which is the best non-technical introduction to this debate that I know, is an Anglican deacon who preaches regularly in her congregation and lectures in a theological college, roles she finds compatible with her commitment to Biblical complementarianism.) In British Baptist life we have fairly often moved in the other direction over the past century, allowing female leaders in the congregation whilst restricting the pulpit to men. Again, the Anglican move is often to insist only that the senior leader is male; New Frontiers argue that all elders should be male; these are different positions, and should be distinguished.

Another complication: I noted above that the extension of complementarianism to the wider culture, which has been fairly common in the USA, is relatively unknown over here (at least in any circles I have tripped over); one consequence of this is that mission societies and other parachurch organisations fall into an ambiguous category. Many (church, leadership) complementarians will argue that, because they are not churches, they may have a female chief executive without any theological problem being raised; if they run meetings in which people preach, however, (church, teaching) complementarians would presumably want to insist that the preachers are male.

What of egalitarianism? With regard to church-egalitarianism, there is some more distinguishing to be done. One form of the position, which we might call indifferent egalitarianism, is ‘gender-blind’: leaders and preachers may be male or female, indifferently; a team ministry should be made up of the best people; if they happen to be all women, or all men, that is irrelevant. Increasingly, however, a ‘shared-leadership’ position seems to be emerging, which would hold that, because women and men bring different perspectives and (perhaps) gifts, a team which is single gender is necessarily imperfect (this would be my present position, as it happens). Ironically, the underlying theology here is profoundly ‘complementarian’: it holds that there are basic gender distinctives which can never be regarded as unimportant. Again, we might imagine (I’ve never seen it worked out, although I think I’ve detected it being assumed in conversations), a distinction between ‘shared-leadership egalitarianism’ and ‘shared-teaching egalitarianism’: someone might hold that it is important that the church eldership be mixed gender, but that it is not a problem if the preaching team is all female; someone else (me…) might disagree.

So what?

1. The debate in the blog posts above is about finding a common ground; as Jenny points out well, there has been an evangelical tradition in Britain of finding common ground by defaulting to a practice acceptable to complementarians, on the basis that complementarian practice is also acceptable to egalitarians. If I am right to see a real rise of a ‘shared-leadership’ and or ‘shared-teaching’ egalitarianism, then, increasingly, this will no longer work as anything other than a brief one-off ad hoc arrangement. I actually see this as a good thing: it will make life more complicated from time to time, but there are British evangelical organisations that have ducked this issue, insisting they have no position, whilst in practice organising themselves on complementarian lines; the debate will proceed better and faster when such ducking is no longer possible.

2. But – and the point of all the distinctions above – if we get beyond the ‘I’m complementarian’; ‘I’m egalitarian’ polarisation, and recognise that there are lots of different ways of holding these two positions, and that these different ways present different practices as unacceptable, then we can start to explore the possibilities for shared spaces which are adequately respectful of everyone’s ‘red lines’. This will necessarily be a complex case-by-case negotiation (suppose we are forming a local mission organisation; one of the partner-congregations is committed to senior leaders, even in parachurch organisations, being male; another to ‘shared-leadership egalitarianism’; this is workable – the steering group will be constitutionally required to be mixed gender, with its chair always being male; both sides have accepted a restriction that they see as unnecessary, but both have protected their core theological values, and shared mission is enabled).

3. Yes, there are straightforwardly incompatible positions above. Even then, however, they are not a reason to break fellowship in every way. I have very good friends who practice infant baptism and so are clearly amongst the vilest spawn of Satan; I would not want to be part of a baptismal service that one of them was leading (I might make exceptions, but, in general…), but I find it possible to work with them in all sorts of other ways. I can even imagine a context in which, for good reasons, we would share in a service, in which case I might quietly absent myself for a few minutes at the crucial moment.

4. But the point will come; we are planting a new congregation; I will insist on mixed-gender leadership; someone else will insist it is male only. There is a specific and unavoidable difference, and so we cannot work together on that project. This is not unique to the issue of gender, of course. In this case, we commit to speak well of each other, and wish each other well as we work and walk apart.

5. That acknowledged, we should not rush to assuming that this is the position too quickly; we do not refuse to work together and to walk together because we disagree about something – if that were reason to divide, we would all be in congregations of one – but only because we have found a specific issue on which we hold incompatible positions and neither of us can, in good conscience, give ground. By distinguishing generic positions (‘egalitarian’) into specific claims, as I have attempted to do above, we create the possibility of discovering whether we really do disagree about something, and if so, what, and thus the possibility, at least, of creating some shared spaces.

6. The distinctions could and should go deeper: what does ‘authority’ mean? Is taking the chair at a meeting an exercise of authority, or merely an administrative role? (It depends a lot on the meeting, in my experience…) If I hold to a ‘shared leadership egalitarianism’, what precisely does ‘leadership’ mean? In a Baptist church with pastors, elders, and deacons, do we need male and female pastors, female and male elders, or just a gender mix somewhere in those structures? And how do I justify, to myself, being argumentative and obstructive at this level of detail? Am I genuinely convinced that it is a Biblical principle, or a gospel issue, which I am contending for?

There’s lots of shared space out there; if finding it is hard work, that should not put us off.

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