This is the second post in our series, One In Christ: A Week of Mutuality, dedicated to discussing an egalitarian view of gender—including relevant biblical texts and practical applications. The goal is to show how scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all support a posture of equality toward women, one that favors mutuality rather than hierarchy, in the home, Church, and society. Morning posts will generally focus on biblical texts. Afternoon posts will generally focus on practical application. (Check out the first post:Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?)
Just as no two complementarians are the same, so no two egalitarians are the same. (See our definition of terms, if you’re already confused.) And so what follows is an imperfect list, based solely on my own experience. The purpose is simply to expose what I’ve noticed to be recurring assumptions about what it means to be egalitarian, assumptions that do not reflect my own views as someone who believes men and women should work together, without hierarchy, to grow the Kingdom in the home, church, and world. The most common assumptions regarding egalitarianism that I’ve encountered include:
1. “Egalitarians don’t believe there are any differences between men and women.”
This point is probably the most controversial because egalitarians differ among themselves regarding the degree to which differences between men and women are socially constructed. But it’s also the most common response I hear from complementarians when they find out I’m egalitarian. “I can’t be egalitarian, ” they say, “because I believe there are differences between men and women.” (We saw this in the comment section earlier today.)
Well, here’s the thing: I’m egalitarian, and I believe there are differences between men and women too. Some are (clearly) biological, others are (possibly) biological, and still others are socially conditioned. What makes me egalitarian is the fact that I do not believe those differences to be universal, prescriptive, or indicative of hierarchy.
For example, I believe it is fair to say that men are, generally speaking, physically stronger than women. However, I would never say that a man who, for whatever reason, cannot do as many pushups as his sister is not a “real man.” That men are physically stronger than women is not universally true (some women are stronger than some men), nor is it prescriptive (men don’t have to be physically stronger than the women in their lives in order to please God), nor is it indicative of hierarchy (the fact that many men are stronger than their wives does not automatically endow them with more authority).
One of my biggest concerns about literature coming out of the contemporary “biblical manhood and womanhood” movement is that it tends to relegate certain traits to certain genders, and then pit those traits against one another. “Real men” are supposed to be “strong, ” “responsible, ” “sacrificial, ” and “protective, ” while “real women” are supposed to be “gentle, ” “compassionate, ” “nurturing, ” and “meek. “ But if you’re like me, you know plenty of strong, responsible, and sacrificial women, just as you know plenty of compassionate, nurturing, and humble men. (One poor commenter generated a firestorm a few weeks ago when he said that men are specially called by God to “do the hard things, ” much to the chagrin of every female reader who had given birth to a baby!)
In fact, contrary to popular belief, the Bible not only instructs women to nurture a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:4), but also men (Galatians 5:23; Philippians 4:5). Jesus himself is described as having just such a spirit (Matthew 11:28). This is why John Piper’s call for a “masculine” Christianity and Mark Driscoll’s warnings against a “feminine” worship are so distasteful and confusing. Masculinity and femininity are fluid, relative, and difficult to pin down. And, contrary to what many of these leaders seem to be suggesting, one is not preferable to the other, in the Church or in worship.
As an egalitarian I believe that a truly complementary relationship is one in which differences are celebrated, but not forced. If your marriage is like mine, this means that the complementary differences between you and your spouse often fall into gender stereotypes (I am more emotional; Dan is more even-keeled), but not always (Dan is better at nurturing relationships than I am; I am more competitive). Rather than trying to force our personalities and our roles into prescribed molds based on gender, it just makes more sense to allow our natural difference to enhance and challenge one another. We lead where we are strong; we defer where we are weak.
2. “Egalitarians are against traditional gender roles.”
This is probably the second most common assumption people make about egalitarianism, and it simply isn’t true.
I have many female friends who have assumed more “traditional” roles as stay-at-home moms and homemakers, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for them. They are doing important, God-honoring work that undoubtedly shapes the Kingdom.
But so is my friend who is a full-time pharmacist and mother of two. So is my single friend who teaches art at the college level. So is my sister who works, often overtime, for a nonprofit organization. So is my mom, who is the best fourth grade teacher in the history of the world, (not that I’m biased or anything). Being egalitarian doesn’t mean being against traditional gender roles; it means being for the many roles through which women can bring glory to God and love to their neighbors.
Simply put, the difference between my views and those of most complementarians is that I don’t believe God requires women to assume “traditional” gender roles in order to please Him. (I put “traditional” in quotes because our conception of what constitutes “traditional” is typically influenced more by our Western, relatively privileged, culture than that of the ancient Near Eastern world in which the Bible was written.) Furthermore, as an egalitarian, I don’t believe that household chores must be assigned based on gender. One of my concerns about some expressions of complementarianism is this idea that“male leadership” somehow precludes the washing of dishes, folding of laundry, changing of diapers, etc., so that such work is the exclusive responsibility of women. This notion is completely contrary to the teachings and example of Jesus and is found nowhere in Scripture—not even, as it often assumed, Proverbs 31. (I’ll be writing more about this on Thursday.)