In this post, I summarize a proposal made by Sarah Sumner published last year and entitled “Forging a Middle Way Between Complementarianism and Egalitarianism” (full bibliographical information below). An evangelical with a Ph.D. from Trinity University Divinity School, she makes a bold claim from the start. She sees the controversy among complementarians and egalitarians as a test of the church’s faithfulness to the Gospel. It’s not about authority, as complementarians think. It’s not about justice, as egalitarians think. It’s about the integrity of the church’s life in God and the church's witness to the world [p. 250].
By way of introduction, I would say this: Jews and Christians in general, not just evangelicals among Christians, are not of one mind regarding the respective roles men and women should play in the home, in society, and in the context of worship.
On the one hand, the vast majority of Jews and Christians are affiliated with versions of their faith which sanction the exclusion of women from a number of religious responsibilities reserved exclusively for men. Tacitly or explicitly, furthermore, culture in general and not just religious culture in particular continues to sanction a form of complementarianism in the home, the workplace, and beyond, in which men generally do certain things and are vested with the authority that goes with doing those things, and women do other things and are vested with the authority that goes with doing those things. Radical feminists are quick to point this out. One shouldn’t have to be a radical feminist to see reality as it is, not as one might wish it to be. But I digress.
At the same time, it seems fair to say that Jews
and Christians in this day and age do not generally regard women as inferior to
men. Most are convinced that women should have equal rights and equal protection under the law.
One might consider this an inherently unstable situation bound to veer off in one direction or the other. I imagine “instability” is exactly what it felt like in the first Christian communities as well, with women quickly becoming vested with authority – in line with the prophecy of Joel – that rubbed against established precedent.
Already in the early church, as one senses immediately upon reading the relevant passages in 1 Corinthians, a whole set of discrete issues got mashed together into a nervous bundle. It is no different today.
Sarah Sumner argues that for the sake of the Gospel evangelical Christians need to forge a consensus, or middle way, between complementarians and egalitarians. That consensus, she proposes, will grow out of accomplishing four things (I fill out her bullets [p. 256] in a way I hope catches their spirit):
1. A strengthening of relationships between comps and egals.
2. A reframing of the debate such that it honors God.
3. A capacity to distinguish between God’s work, to which we can only bow in obedience, and our attempts to deal with the consequences.
4. Teamwork across the polarizing divisions.
UPDATE: don’t forget to scroll up and take at look at more recent installments and comment threads, for example, here.
“Forging a Middle Way between Complementarians and Egalitarians,” in Women, Ministry, and the Gospel (ed. Mark Husbands and Timothy Larsen; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007) 250-265
Here is a complete list of posts in this series:
- What is the Debate between Complementarians and Egalitarians really about?
- The Comp Egal Debate: Honesty is Such a Lonely Word
- The Comp Egal Debate: What does it mean that “the husband is the head of the wife”?
- The Comp Egal Debate: A Distorted View of Headship
- The Comp Egal Debate: A biblical definition of a wife’s submission to her husband
- The Comp Egal Debate: A “purely” historical take on Ephesians 5:22-33
- Sarah Sumner on the Need for Integrity in the Comp Egal Debate