“Today is the completion of what was begun over 20 years ago with the ordination of women as priests. I am delighted with today’s result…The challenge for us will be for the church to model good disagreement and to continue to demonstrate love for those who disagree on theological grounds. Very few institutions achieve this, but if we manage this we will be living out more fully the call of Jesus Christ to love one another... It is not winner take all, but in love a time for the family to move on together.” Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, July 14, 2014
With the Church of England’s recent vote to begin ordaining women as bishops*, the issue of women’s ordination has once again been in the news. Not surprisingly, much of the rhetoric in the blogosphere and social media has been polarized between complementarians who condemn this decision and egalitarians who applaud it. One complementarian blogger characterized the decision as evidence that the Church of England is “spiraling down the burning sewer of apostasy.”
Statements like these fail to recognize the complexity of egalitarian thought. I’ve observed at least two different paths people may take to arrive at an egalitarian view of gender. Failure to understand these two paths can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings, accusations, and pronouncements of heresy. Although the boundary between them can be blurry at times, I think that distinguishing them from each other in broad brush terms might help to deescalate the rhetoric and contribute toward more virtue laden conversations.
THE PATH OF RIGHTS
The first I call “the path of rights.” Egalitarians who travel this path often develop their convictions primarily from social science insights about how patriarchy damages society. They emphasize how women have historically been excluded from society, their social identities embedded within the men they are most closely related to (usually fathers and husbands). The “rights path” is part of a larger social vision that seeks to empower those historically marginalized and level the field of those wielding social power. Egalitarians on this path are quick to notice any area where women are excluded from participation solely based on their gender.
These egalitarians sometimes view the Bible as secondary to their cause. Although they appreciate the fact that careful exegesis can support the full empowerment of women, such arguments are viewed as secondary. In many cases, “rights path” proponents would be egalitarians regardless of the Bible’s teaching about gender. If the Bible supports their view, even better. However, such biblical support is not viewed as essential to their position.
When a “rights path” egalitarian encounters a complementarian, he or she is likey to engage the Bible negatively. “You don’t forbid mixing different kinds of fabric as Leviticus 19:19 commands,” they might say, “and you don’t observe biblical food laws,” they could continue, “so why object to ordaining women?” This stance seeks to persuade the complementarian to abandon their view of gender roles to the scrapheap of other presumed archaic biblical ideas. Such proponents do not expect to find a coherent teaching on gender equality from the Bible, nor do they read the Bible in a nuanced redemptive historical fashion.
THE PATH OF BIBLICAL AUTHORITY
The second path could be called “the path of biblical authority.” For these egalitarians, the unique authority of the Bible is their starting point. Although they appreciate the arguments of “rights path” proponents and the insights the social sciences can shed on understanding the Bible, for “biblical authority” egalitarians the most important thing is the teaching of the Scriptures. Egalitarians on this path engage in rigorous analysis of such biblical texts as Genesis 1-3, Galatians 3, Romans 16, 1 Corinthians 11-14, Acts 2, and 1 Timothy 2.
These egalitarians insist that much of the Church has simply failed to understand the biblical message about gender. Fueled by the Reformation principle Ecclesia semper reformanda est (“The Church always being reformed”), these egalitarians believe that when Scripture is heard in its context and with careful attention to matters of language and culture, readers will naturally embrace an egalitarian view of gender. “Biblical authority” egalitarians expect to find a coherent framework for gender equality in the Bible since they view it as God’s revelation to humanity. These egalitarians would embrace full equality for women regardless of the arguments for equal rights. For these egalitarians, rights are not the primary issue; fidelity to Scripture is.
When a “biblical authority” egalitarian encounters a complementarian, he or she is likely to engage the Bible positively. Rather than relying on rights rhetoric, such egalitarians are likely to use the language of calling, spiritual gifting, mutuality, partnership, and service. For those who pay close attention to such dialogue, it should be evident that “biblical authority” egalitarians and complementarians have a shared ultimate authority, the biblical text. They may disagree (passionately, even) on how to best interpret and apply that text; however, both are convinced it is the final authority.
Complementarians often fail to recognize these two paths to becoming an egalitarian. People following both paths can be found in many churches. When this confusion occurs, complementarians worry that embracing egalitarianism will come at the high price of abandoning biblical authority. On the horns of such a dilemma, biblical authority will always win out.
However, if “biblical authority” egalitarians are careful to nuance their arguments as arising from their commitment to shared biblical authority, such a concern can at least be neutralized. Complementarians who are committed to the Christian virtues of humility, charity, and patience should take the time to distinguish between these two paths and tone down their rhetoric when discussing gender equality with a “biblical authority” egalitarian. Instead of worrying about the erosion of biblical authority, they can then focus on understanding and applying the biblical text.
My hope is that distinguishing between these two paths will lead to more positive conversations between complementarians and egalitarians. I pray that the vitriolic rhetoric that so often characterizes these conversations may cease, leading to a hopeful, productive engagement with the biblical text for our common edification.
YOUR TURN: What path led you to your own perspective on egalitarianism? Did it fit into one of the pathways Tim has observed? Do you think the biblical authority pathway clarification and engaging the bible positively might be helpful in conversations about gender in the church?
*If you’re not familiar with the structure of the Church of England, this post by Ian Paul gives a good overview of the role of bishop.