Complementarian, egalitarian, Christian feminist, biblical patriarchy…do you automatically attach negative connotations to any of those words? Or positive? Do any of them sound hopelessly arcane, or jargony? I tossed around all of those terms in my last post and I imagine it would be helpful if I explained what I’m talking about. But here’s the up front disclaimer: a word like “patriarchy” or “feminist” may mean many things to many people, and they may all be correct. I can’t define such words precisely and finally for everyone. All I can do is tell you what I mean when I use them.
What we call each other can certainly skew a conversation, and I want to avoid that as much as is possible. My general rule is, I will call you what you choose to be called. I may have violated that in my last post by using terms like “fundamentalist” and “hard right” as I tried to create sense of what I’m talking about. But of course, there are people who are quite content to be called fundamentalists or to be identified with the right. What seems offensive to some may be a welcome identifier to others. Still, I will try to be more precise going forward.
So here we go….
Inside the church, the categories used most in the gender roles debate are complementarian and egalitarian.
Complementarians affirm that “God has created men and women equal in their essential dignity and human personhood, but different and complementary in function with male headship in the home and in the Church.” (Ligon Duncan, Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is the most prominent parachurch organization advocating the complementarian position. See the Danvers Statement for a longer explanation of the CBMW’s core beliefs.
Egalitarians (with regard to the Christian faith) believe that “all believers—without regard to gender, ethnicity or class—must exercise their God-given gifts with equal authority and equal responsibility in church, home and world.” (Christians for Biblical Equality). As you might guess, CBE is an egalitarian counterpart of the CBMW. For more information, read their statement on Men, Women and Biblical Equality.
Between these two broad groups you can see a core difference: complementarians believe that in an essential way, our God-given roles and authority are tied to our gender. Egalitarians believe that authority is to be equally shared, and that roles are rooted in gifts and calling rather than gender.
These have been the preferred terms in the evangelical gender debates in recent years, but they’re unwieldy and confusing. Sometimes complementarians will simply say they believe in male headship, and egalitarians will say they practice mutual submission, to try to clarify the terms.
On to more inflammatory pastures….
I am an egalitarian, strictly speaking. But I refer to myself more commonly as a Christian feminist. For me, that’s just egalitarian with an advocacy edge. I wrote a post explaining my choice to self-identify as a feminist some time back – please read the whole thing if you want understand where I’m coming from. Below is one reason I gave:
Reason #5. There’s work to do. Particularly on a global scale, the status of women in society is still at the heart of many of our problems. Want to address poverty in the third world? Make sure that girls have access to education. Want to fight human trafficking? Provide job training and business opportunities for women. Want to reduce sexual violence, child marriage, and honor killings? There’s no way through but to address the ideologies (some of them religious) that regard women as “weak…manipulative…morally unfinished…at the very least, expendable” (Thanks, Joss). The flourishing of the human race depends on the flourishing of the entire human race, both male and female. This is not the time to worry that someone might think I’m an angry lesbian because I call myself a feminist. When we are living in the fullness of God’s redeemed and restored creation, when “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”, I promise to stop calling myself a feminist. I won’t need to anymore.
In a perfect world, a hypothetical society in which all gender-based injustice had disappeared, I would still be an egalitarian – but I wouldn’t be a feminist. In a basic sense, feminism seeks justice for women where there is currently injustice. To say that I’m a feminist is to identify a struggle and take sides. Because I am a Christian I must constantly work to not take sides against people (we still “wrestle not against flesh and blood”) but against powers and principalities, against ideologies, systems and structures that propagate injustice. Not that it’s easy, or that I get it right. Sometimes I look at the problem and it seems to have a very particular name, or face.
And that leads us to biblical patriarchy.
While feminism is almost a dirty word in some conservative Christian circles, patriarchy is almost a dirty word pretty much everywhere. Consequently I would not blame you if you thought I was taking a cheap shot at my ideological opponents by using the term – but you would be mistaken. These posts are going to be addressing theology and practice that is often identified by its adherents as patriarchy. The difference between complementarian and patriarchal may be a matter of degree, but patriarchy usually has a broader scope. Whereas the complementarian position gives men headship in the church and family, patriarchy gives men headship in society at large. Giving a short definition is difficult, but comparing the Danvers Statement (linked above) to the Tenants of Biblical Patriarchy from Vision Forum will give you an idea of the difference in scope and application.
My friend/blogger Karen Campbell uses the term patriocentrist to refer to the movement within the church in which every area of life revolves around the father. Its a helpful word, but I’m not using it in place of biblical patriarchy in these posts because I’m trying to let people “name” themselves (see my general rule, above).
Ultimately, it’s not what we call ourselves that matters so much as what we believe, and how our beliefs work themselves out in what we do. It’s the beliefs and practices which I think are damaging to people and contrary to the gospel that I’ll be writing about.
Adrian Warnock, a Reformed pastor/author in the U.K., created a Complementarian Vs. Egalitarian Spectrum. I don’t agree with him 100%, but I appreciate his willingness to show the wide array of views within the church. It’s worth your time to check it out. (As a point of interest, on his spectrum I would not be a feminist, but a “strong egalitarian”. These words are so fuzzy…..)
Other posts in this series
Talking back to patriarchy, part 1Talking back to patriarchy, part 3: It all comes down to authority
Talking back to patriarchy, part 4: Joining the great modesty debate
A footnote on modesty: Why no one gets to drop the mic
A footnote on modesty: For my children
I consider myself both a Christian feminist and a complementarian. But you make me wish I were an egalitarian! 🙂
Always forging your own trail, Dave. I appreciate that about you. 🙂
That makes sense to me as well, Dave.
In the section on Moderate Complementarians in the link above, Adrian Warnock said, “The idea here is that if the husband willingly lays down his life for his wife as Christ laid down his life for the church, it should be an easy matter for his wife to follow him.” While this may seem ideal, we have to take into account the fact that it does not always work out that way. If a man in leadership is not behaving as he should, where is the line up to which we should follow him anyway? As Christians, we should “love our enemies” and “turn the other cheek,” but I believe there is a point at which we should take ourselves out of the situation where turning the other cheek is necessary. Furthermore, by entering the dialogue and speak against injustice, the rest of us may be able to help prevent these situations. I know plenty of complementarians who have some things to say that sound quite feministic, in the way that you define feminism. They may not see all that you define as injustice as such (eg the lack of total equality of roles in church leadership), but there are many issues on which the terms “complementarian” and “Christian feminist” are not mutually exclusive.
That’s why it’s so valuable to nuance these things out. Thanks, Sharon, for taking the time and trouble to lay out these working definitions for your readers.
Thanks for commenting! Yes, I can see what you’re saying. And while I would love to see the day when men and women are able to serve alongside each other in any church, that’s an issue I’m willing to “disagree without dividing” over, to quote James Bryan Smith. Fortunately there are options for women who feel called by God.
According to that chart, I would fall under “soft complementarian.”
Good explanations. I have recently discovered, due to your previous blog on the subject, that I am a feminist. 🙂
I’ve never been a fan of the whole husband-head-of-the-household thing. I like equality. I like justice. In the home, in churches, in workplaces, in government, in society, etc.
You – a feminist? That must have come as a huge shock to you. 😉
It did! Really. I had a distorted definition of the word though. 🙂
Well, it’s a word that means many things to many people. Kind of like “Christian” as Tracy pointed out on FB. Some of what passes for Christian is unrecognizable to me – and I’m sure there are people who think I can’t possibly be a Christian. The post-moderns were right about how slippery language is. 🙂
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I think that labels do matter because they affect the way a subject is discussed; for an example Pro Life vs Pro Choice. Labels can be used to confuse and deceive those new to the debate. Propaganda relies heavily on choosing the exact words that will manipulate and deceive its hearers. You are right to use the word patriarchy in describing the topic of these articles, but to make a rule that you will only use the label that other positions give themselves (though it sounds noble and loving) is not necessarily being kind, loving, or truthful. I am an egalitarian and a complementarian. Do I think male and female were created to complement one another? Absolutely! So do most Christians. That is not even the issue being debated so hotly today in the churches. The issue is patriarchy, male rule over female. Is patriarchy God’s original intention at creation or is it a result of the Fall? – this is the question. I think if patriarchists want a less negative-reactive label, maybe they could use supplementarians. They believe females are to help and supplement men in their manly pursuits.
I agree with much that you say, but I’m confused by this line: “to make a rule that you will only use the label that other positions give themselves (though it sounds noble and loving) is not necessarily being kind, loving, or truthful.” Are you suggesting that something I’ve said falls into that category – not kind, loving or truthful? Or just that it could potentially happen? I can see how a label might contradict how a person actually behaves, but I’m not sure that’s happened in this case.
I just meant that though it seems like a good rule to always honor the label an opponent chooses for himself, when that label causes confusion or deliberately clouds the real issue, to still use that label only adds to the problem and can be an obstacle for all involved in understanding the actual disagreements. Complementarian is one of these labels. It does not define the issue anymore than Pro Choice defines the abortion debate. Unfortunately labels are sometimes picked for the emotional impact on the uninformed rather than to clearly define one’s own position. I wasn’t accusing you of being unkind, but questioning the rule you’ve set up for yourself as always a good thing.
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