Amidst the ongoing waves of schoolwork, I’ve finally found some time at low tide to update this blog. I’m burning with renewed passion and excitement for God’s work on these challenging issues after last weekend, when I attended Ashley Easter’s Courage Conference—a two-day event discussing abuse (especially sexual abuse) within the church, and what we can do as followers of Christ to support victims and disempower perpetrators.
Ashley is one of my personal heroes, and spending the weekend with both her and a whole host of Spirit-filled, achingly honest survivors and advocates was an experience I won’t soon forget.
One of the issues addressed at the Courage Conference was our theology of gender. What we believe about men and women, on a foundational level, affects everything else that takes place beneath our steeples. Given that women make up the majority of churchgoers—and both domestic violence and sexual assault are epidemics—it is inevitable that this darkness should poison our churches, as well. In light of this, our underlying beliefs about gender roles—or lack thereof—are critical to the safety and empowerment of our sisters in Christ.
What we believe about men and women, on a foundational level, affects everything else that takes place beneath our steeples.
Over the next several posts, I will be addressing some of the most controversial Bible passages used to form our gender theology. If you’ve never delved into these questions before, the many layers of the conversation can be overwhelming, so I’m going to start with a bird’s eye view of the relevant questions before sharing my personal journey towards biblical answers.
Comp or Egal?
There are two main “camps” of gender theology: complementarianism and egalitarianism. A believer in the former is a complementarian; a believer in the latter is an egalitarian. These terms can be shortened to comp or egal, which I will be using most often for brevity’s sake.
(Obviously, as evidenced by this blog’s title, I identify as an egalitarian—which I once stood staunchly against, as I will expand upon in future writing.)
There are two main “camps” of gender theology: complementarianism and egalitarianism.
These long, clunky words might sound more welcome in a heavy seminary textbook than a millennial’s blog, but their actual teachings are well within the grasp or an everyday disciple.
Who Preaches This Stuff?
The most prominent comp organization is the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), which is primarily run by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. Piper’s ministry at Desiring God also regularly promotes comp theology. The key text for comp beliefs is “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,” which was written by the aforementioned men and is promoted at both CBMW and Desiring God.
The most prominent egal organization is Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE International). Unlike CBMW, CBE doesn’t have a public, founding pair of figureheads, but rather an organically growing team of men and women committed to its vision. (A list of relevant egal Bible scholars can be found here for additional reference.) CBE publishes scholarly articles in the Priscilla Papers alongside its more contemporary Mutuality magazine. While not directly affiliated with CBE, the Junia Project—an egal blog—follows in CBE’s footsteps, and serves as something of an egal counterpart of Desiring God.
The most prominent egal organization is Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE International).
The key categories of gender theology are creation, fall, marriage, church, and society. Comp and egal Christians are asking the same questions, but they come to radically different conclusions. All of these views are nuanced and warrant posts of their own, but I will do my best to skim the surface here.
The key categories of gender theology are creation, fall, marriage, church, and society.
Comps believe that God created men and women to be equal in value, but distinct in roles. This was God’s divine design for humanity.
Egals believe that God created men and women to be equal in both value and potential callings. God’s divine design was for individual flourishing, not divided along gender lines, with no distinction in roles beyond what is clearly biological (for instance, men cannot give birth!).
Egals believe that God created men and women to be equal in both value and potential callings.
Neither of these positions believes that men and women are the same. Undeniably, there are relevant differences between male and female. Comps believe that there are additional differences in appropriate roles, according to God’s original design; egals do not. Both comps and egals, however, acknowledge and celebrate that men and women are different.
Both comps and egals acknowledge and celebrate that men and women are different.
Comps believe that the fall in Genesis distorted God’s original design for distinct gender roles. As a result of sin, women will desire the leadership roles that were designed for men, and men will tend to use their authoritative headship to dominate and control. Gender roles become muddled and conflict-ridden.
Egals believe that the fall in Genesis distorted God’s original design for mutual flourishing and “subduing the earth” as an equal partnership. As a result of sin, men have historically tried to rule over women. Beliefs in gendered limitations and expectations have hurt both men and women in the following generations.
Egals believe that the fall in Genesis distorted God’s original design for mutual flourishing and “subduing the earth” as an equal partnership.
Comps believe that the husband has a distinct role as the spiritual leader and authoritative head of his family. He is called to initiate, lead, and provide for his wife. The wife is called to submit to her husband’s leadership and authority.
Egals believe that there are no distinct gender roles in a marriage. Submission is mutual between both husband and wife as they both submit first, to God, and second, to what is best for each other.
Egals believe that submission is mutual between both husband and wife.
Comps believe that due to man’s unique leadership role in the original creation order, only men should hold positions of spiritual authority within the church. All pastor and elder positions are for men alone.
Egals believe that both men and women are called to ministry in any and all capacities. Each individual, regardless of gender, should prayerfully follow where God leads them according to how the Spirit has gifted them.
Egals believe that both men and women are called to ministry in any and all capacities.
Many comps claim that male headship theology only affects the church and the home, but this view does inevitably bleed into societal spheres. More hardcore comps have varying beliefs on how comp theology should affect the world at large. For instance, John Piper says that women should not be police officers due to the inevitable exercising of authority over men.
Many comps claim that male headship theology only affects the church and the home.
This is far from a universal consensus among comps—there really isn’t a universal consensus—but it’s a notable example of how beliefs in male leadership and female submission play out across seeming divides and across men and women’s entire lives. I once attended a comp church which, while it did not explicitly stand against female CEOs or a female president, noted that it would be difficult for a woman to truly submit to her husband if she were otherwise in a position of ultimate authority.
As in other spheres of life, egals believe that there are no differences in what men or women can or should seek to achieve in the public square.
Shades of Gray
I want to pause for a moment to acknowledge the vast gulf between traditional comp and egal views. I know and love many people on both sides of this discussion, and there is nothing to be gained by my being reductive. Gender theology is not a salvation issue. The question of gender roles is deeply important for the church, but the gospel is the bottom line.
Gender theology is not a salvation issue.
Complementarian women can be and often are strong, opinionated, gifted, powerful forces for God’s work on earth. They are not a monolith, and treating them as such would be disingenuous and disrespectful.
Many comps believe that the result of male and female marriage roles, properly lived out, is essentially the same as an egal view of mutual submission (with certain qualifiers attached.) Many do not place restrictions on women’s roles outside of the home and church. Many are outspoken, undaunted warriors for Christ. Many expect their husbands to be tenderly sensitive to their wants and needs.
Complementarian women are not a monolith, and treating them as such would be disingenuous and disrespectful.
I do not believe that these women, simply by virtue of being complementarian, are cowering victims of abusive ideology. On the other hand, I do believe that this “soft comp” view of theology is fundamentally inconsistent, dramatically unclear, and still frequently negative in its effects on both women and men.
As I delve deeper into this theology in the coming weeks, however, I wanted to be extremely clear that I would not presume to know any individual’s heart or personal perspective. My critique is of complementarian thought overall; it is not an attack on individual complementarians, and I hope I will be lovingly corrected if ever I sink to that level.
My critique is of complementarian thought overall; it is not an attack on individual complementarians.
Key Bible Passages
The key Bible passages for gender theology, each of which will warrant at least one post of its own in the coming weeks, are Genesis 2–3, Ephesians 5, 1 Timothy 2, 1 Corinthians 11, and 1 Peter 3. I will examine each passage in its own post (or several posts if necessary.)
This concludes “Gender Theology for Dummies.” As a little preview of next post: Eve being Adam’s “helper” is vastly different in the Hebrew than I once presumed from the English. The creation story is a beautiful account of men and women as equals, and I look forward to sharing some of the things I’ve learned with all of you.
Thank you for reading, and have a blessed week!