Egalitarians, Complementarians, and Other Things That Bore Me

From Kathleen Tyler Conklin on Flickr
From Kathleen Tyler Conklin on Flickr

Voter turnout was exceptionally low this recent election. There are many explanations for this. But I think many have rightly noted a serious level of apathy among the voting populace, as probably the major contributor. From whence comes this apathy? I’m inclined to say a significant culprit is the current meaningless of political discourse. Our politicians toss empty labels around (‘pro-gun,’ ‘pro-choice,”pro-life,’ ‘pro-woman,’ and the slimiest and most deceptive of all: ‘pro-America’). These labels make it easy to develop ridiculous misrepresentations of the others’ position, and avoid a legitimate discourse. Legitimate discourse is a threat to power, so the politicians do their best to avoid it.

What is interesting to me is how these labels become self-fulfilling prophecies: In order to distance myself from ‘the other’ (the other political party) it is devilishly easy to live up to the meaningless label thrust upon me.

Creating conflict and polarization keeps power alive, but also requires running away from the common truths and values in the middle, from whence true work and true progress for the public can come.

We do the same on the level of popular theological disagreements (Calvinism vs. Arminianism, post-millennial vs. pre-millennial), don’t we?

Not unlike the non-voting populace, I’ve found myself rather bored and apathetic with the way we talk about gender in the Church (the favorite seminary lunch-time conversation regarding ‘complementarian’ vs. ‘egalitarian’ perspectives).

I wonder what these labels mean? I wonder what it says when every book on the topic must include a serious attempt to re-define terms, dispel stereotypes, and prove what one or the other label means to one camp or the other.

Where is the legitimate discourse? Why can’t we talk about issues of substance?

Okay, okay. I’m being a little disingenuous, here. I weigh in on these topics quite ferociously, in the right (and often wrong) situations. I’ve been involved in my fair share of online debates (probably ill-advised most of the time). And I absolutely care about these topics. These questions of gender have huge implications for how we live, run our churches, build our families, and relate to the world. I even have my own ‘camp,’ and am involved with some groups that promote this theology and work on projects out of its convictions: I will lay my cards on the table and say that I call myself ‘egalitarian.’ I’m not against using that label for myself. I believe that the gifts and callings of men and women can be equally celebrated and developed in Church, society, and family, without specific rules about gender and social sphere or authority (I see this as a primarily inter-Protestant debate, Catholics and Orthodox think about these things in very different ways than we do, and so my conversation with them would look a lot different).

I’m not against the discussion.

I’m not against disagreements.

I’m not against taking sides, even.

I’m against the way we go about it all.

I use the egalitarian label, because it typically represents a list of arguments that I agree with (particularly in that I believe men and women are to have equal authority in family and church). But when we get too hung up on the labels, we miss out on real discourse, and we end up embroiled in word games (a truly self-fulfilling ‘Derridaian’ philosophy) and polemical gymnastics that keep us from legitimate theological discourse. These games unnecessarily divide the church, and keep us lost in completely meaningless conversations – all while people are outside, dying for a little Jesus in their lives. We have better things to be doing than play with meaningless discourse.

I’m not against theological discourse, even the contentious kind. By no means. But if we’re going to have it, let’s make it substantial and legitimate, otherwise it’s just a clanging cymbal.

I am best in a position to talk about where my position has been misrepresented. And indeed, instances of my own ideas being misrepresented gave rise to this whole thing. But I’m sure it goes the other way too.

A Test Case

(aka, My Attempt To Go On A Partisan Rant While Pretending To Rise Above the Rhetoric, All to Maintain My False Sense of Moral Superiority)

I’ve heard/read some self-described complementarians claim that egalitarians believe ‘men and women are exactly the same.’ I don’t think is fair, and another example of the meaningless of labels (I believe men and women are different and complement one another, therefore someone who is not self-proclaimed complementarian must believe the opposite). I call myself egalitarian, but it’s not because I don’t believe men and women have differences. Of course I believe that they do. And I believe that men and women need each other. But, I personally don’t think it’s Biblical to say that men and women are called to different levels of authority in Church or in the family, or are called to specific, eternally-dictated, social roles; especially since every time we attempt to make such rules, we are always imposing our culture’s authority structures and social spheres back on Scripture (i.e., different spheres of life for ‘work’ and ‘home’ didn’t exist in the time of the Bible, so the man-work/woman-home dichotomy would be nonsense in the Biblical world). I think we need to be careful about having strict rules about the differences between men and women (especially when I don’t think those rules are truly Biblical). And there are many reasons for why I think this is the right(ish) perspective, and why I think it is absolutely Biblical.  It’s not that I believe men and women aren’t different at all.  In fact. I would say that my position requires me to be MORE complementarian than complemetarians (in a certain sense): I believe that men and women are called to liberate, encourage, perfect and yes, complement, one another. But. I believe that all these wonderful things are not as present when one gender is considered superior, or as existing in a higher place of authority than the other, or when men and women are relegated to specific roles where they are separated from one another and therefore can’t challenge and partner with one another as truly complementing equals. 

I believe the Bible undermines the worldly (prevalence does not make right, my very Protestant doctrine of sin tells me that) male-over-female authority structure that marks most of history (which is a result of the Fall), and brings equality, whereby men and women become partners in home and ministry and are therefore truly able to complement and perfect one another in a way they could not when one ruled over the other. I believe the Bible liberates men and women to truly fulfill, challenge, liberate, complete, and complement the other, by destroying the enmity and the unequal treatment brought about by the Fall.

And so, I wonder if we really disagree as much as we think we do? I mean, there are still some serious disagreements here. But, I wonder if we could find some common ground we didn’t think we had?

I find that when people fail to acknowledge common ground, they tend toward more and more extreme and non-sensical views, so they can get as far away from ‘the other’ as possible (as long as my ideas look nothing like THEM. . .). If we tried to have real discourse, not talking past one another with labels and definition-games, we might all be able to grow in significant ways. We might be able to identify common problems, common concerns, common values, and be less likely to abandon the truth in the middle because we’re trying to keep the fight going strong.

I have all the respect in the world for those who believe differently than I, and completely hold our common bond to Christ as above all these discussions. And with all this, I wish we could keep our common goals in mind both in terms of gender and family (we all want to end abuse, don’t we?), and the Gospel (we all want to see the Good News of Jesus be proclaimed among people that would mature into loving, kind, gracious, reconciled people of God?).

These sorts of conversations are difficult when we’re talking past each other with meaningless labels, and assumptions about the beliefs about the other (and, I’m sure I’m guilty of doing the same above…).

If we’re going to have this discussion, let’s actually talk about what we’re talking about.


2 thoughts on “Egalitarians, Complementarians, and Other Things That Bore Me

  1. Reblogged this on Create Parity and commented:
    I enjoyed this post. I’d been trying to figure out a way to broach this topic on my own blog. You said everything I’ve been struggling to and some other things that I hadn’t thought of. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here.

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