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