Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Challenge to Egalitarianism

While I don't hold a strong opinion one way or another on the Biblical question of the proper role of women within the church and the home -- complementarianism versus egalitarianism -- I've read some arguments in favor of both, and tend to lean toward the former, but one simple challenge to egalitarianism has recently struck me, and I haven't heard anyone else raise it. Most of the debate on this question seems to center on scripture and what hermeneutical lens you use to view it, and while my challenge also comes from scripture, it comes from a different angle.

For the uninitiated I'll give a very brief overview of what this issue is all about. Egalitarianism holds that there should be no inherent hierarchy within the body of Christ, or within the Christian home, based on gender. That men and women are equal in every way, including what positions and roles they can fulfill. While complementarianism holds that, while men and women are spiritual equals in the eyes of God, there are gender roles within the Church and within the home that are appropriate for men and women. The biggest issues seem to be whether women should be allowed to hold teaching or leadership positions in the Church, and whether they should 'submit' to their husbands in the home -- at least on issues where they can't come to mutual agreement.

Both sides make reasonable Biblical cases and I haven't investigated the issue enough to come down firmly on either side. However, I do have one challenge to the egalitarian view that I would like to raise.

There are many places in scripture where the metaphor of Christ as groom or husband and the Church as bride appears. This is a beautiful depiction that works dialectically to help Christians better understand both the institution of marriage and Christ's relationship to his Church. Christ as the head, bestowing his gifts of love and grace, the Church in submission to him, receiving those gifts and returning them to him by how they show them to each other and the world. Some metaphors, as a tool of illustration, only work one direction. There is one thing that is well-understood, and you use it to illustrate something about another thing that is less well understood. In the case of this metaphor though, it works both directions -- which is what I meant by 'dialectically'. It simultaneously teaches Christians about how marriages are supposed to work, and what Christ's relationship is to the Church. And it doesn't merely teach us that Christ is the 'head' of the Church, but the metaphor also teaches about God's nature, and how he feels towards his 'bride'. In 2 Corinthians 11:2 it describes Christ as a jealous groom. Ephesians 5:25-32 teaches how husbands ought to love their wives, and it is in the same manner that Christ loves the Church.

So my challenge to the egalitarian view is this: doesn't an egalitarian understanding of marriage turn this metaphor into nonsense? If men and women, or more specifically husband and wife, are equal in every way including their roles in the home, then wouldn't an egalitarian read this metaphor to mean that the Church and Christ are exactly identical? Does it matter that Christ is the groom rather than the bride? Shouldn't the roles be interchangeable if egalitarianism is true? And if that's the case, shouldn't the Church be considered the Fourth Person of the Trinity, coequal with the Son?

True, it is also said that the Church is the body of Christ, but Christians generally take that to mean that we are Christ's extension, his representative within the world, the means by which he continues to act in the world. It is further said that through Christ's redemptive work on the Cross the Father sees us, with Christ's righteousness imputed to us. So Christ's Church does have a very close relationship to Himself. Still, even with this in mind, Christ takes precedence in the relationship as the head, and the Church follows and receives his gifts. There is a hierarchy involved here which is inescapable. And if there's hierarchy here, then the groom-bride metaphor implies a level of hierarchy within marriage.

You might say "well, it's just a metaphor." Yes, but it's A) a very important metaphor and B) occurs multiple places in Scripture (2 Cor. 11:2, Eph 5:25-27, Revelation 19:7-9, etc.), which is God's word. So if God didn't want to mislead us about marriage -- which it seems he would be doing if egalitarianism was true -- then he shouldn't use this metaphor to describe Christ's relationship to the Church.

It seems that the question of a Christian woman's "proper" role  usually centers on the question of whether they should hold leadership or teaching positions in Church. After all, whether you're an egalitarian or complementarian in your own home is between you, your wife, and God, and mostly doesn't concern anyone else. But the question of leadership in the Church is a question that is made in larger Christian community and whatever your Church decides can affect other people, one way or another, for good or for ill. Again, I have no strong conviction on this matter, but I do feel that this challenge to egalitarianism as a whole may have consequences that extend beyond marriage. 


  1. Good question. I think building doctrine from metaphor is shakey in general. Here are my thoughts on the subject. Tim and I collabarated on some of this.

    6. There are over-arching New Testament principles to support women being afforded full access to church leadership roles, if they demonstrate giftedness and calling.

    Regarding women in ministry, for many years evangelicals have held the ‘complementary’ position of men and women. If looked at critically, it would appear this position unintentionally marginalizes women in both church ministry and marriage devaluing their personhood and treating them as children rather than adults.

    The ‘DNA’ for the full equality of women is found in Galatians 3:28, as well as both Jesus’ and Paul’s practice, though this passage isn’t specifically written about church leadership (regardless of what you think Paul is saying in 1 Timothy, Chapter 2, regarding a specific problem with gender roles in Ephesus). Equality is an over-riding principle in the New Testament - in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female.

    Most of the arguments used to keep women out of leadership and unequal in marriage sound similar to the kinds of arguments used to support slavery in our country’s infancy. Yet we universally affirm that though the Bible teaches about slavery, its’ tenor is to ultimately abolish slavery. I would argue for a redemptive trajectory in the Bible that ultimately would lead someone reading it closely to affirm the full equality of men and women in marriage and in church leadership.

    Another way to approach this topic is to isolate the issue, using philosophic techniques, in hypothetical situations and see how we react and interpret them. One such situation would be to ask the question, “What would happen with a group of evangelical women if they were shipwrecked on a deserted island with no men?” Would it be wrong for gifted women to step up and be the spiritual leaders of this new community? Would God take exception only in such an extreme situation and not in others? Another question might be, “Could a group of men in a given town be so morally corrupt that the women would have to look for spiritual leadership from among themselves for a period of time – or maybe their entire lifetime?” Could a language barrier create the need for particular women to step up in leadership roles? Could a community of people be so new or small or isolated so as to warrant a legitimate church start without male participation? If the exceptions against a ‘rule’ mount in number the rule itself becomes suspect.

    Certainly the principles found in 1 Timothy regarding individual qualifications for leadership positions could be just as easily prescribed to women as well as men – one spouse, established convert, not greedy, not a drunkard, having a servant’s heart, etc. But the church could not and has not followed the principle of women being silent in all of its’ churches for all time in all places.

    Arguments from a single New Testament case (1 Timothy 2), where Paul is defusing a specific problem, can be weak and easily susceptible to criticism if one fixes an entire scriptural principle on the context of one example exclusively. Certainly Jesus or Paul or any of the disciples could have stated, categorically, that the church never be led by women for all time - but they did not. So why does the evangelical church feel compelled to be conservators of such a position? What benefits does it provide the church? Could it be equivalent to the same ‘supposed’ benefits the Catholic Church receives from compelling priests not to marry – the loss of many gifted people from their calling to church leadership?

  2. Hey dad,

    That seems like the standard defense of the egalitarian position that I've read, and, like I said, I have no real strong objection to it, though I don't find it particularly compelling either.

    But it seems like the only sentence of yours that addresses what I wrote is the one about being wary about basing doctrine on metaphor, which I don't fully accept.

    For example, our understanding of God the father's relationship within the trinity, and toward humanity is based on a metaphor because His true nature is incomprehensible. God isn't a biological male, or 'merely' a father in the human sense, but he is LIKE a loving father in many ways. This metaphor helps us grasp God's nature and is indispensible to our doctrine of the Trinity, for example. It also works in two directions, teaching Christians how to act in their roles as fathers.

    Do you have any thoughts on whether egalitarianism, if true, proves injurious to the Church-as-bride, Christ-as-groom metaphor? I think it does, and you didn't address the issue, which was really the only point I attempted to make.

    1. I have been thinking about this issue allot (mostly from my talks with T. Peck). In my opinion allot of the problems evangelicals have with this issue is that they are starting with the wrong paradigm. And that is minister vs priest. When paul is talking about leadership in the church, he is addressing a specific type of leadership ...the role of episkopos/prespryter vs the more general minister.

      Historically office of bishop and prestpryter have been associated with a very specific type of ministry, that of the priestly one. And it is that ministry that excludes women...among others such men who are divorced, polygamous or have certain physical defects.

      For those who hold that an all male priesthood is unjust or limiting "certain gifted people" have some questions that need to be answered I think. In the OT was God unjust when he limited the priesthood not only just to men but to just one tribe of Israel? Was it unjust to the women and those of the other tribes not to mention the handicaped? There seems to be more a foot me then just the moral qualifications.
      listed by paul.

      In the OT the priesthood was a liturgical role to represent the people of Isreal to perform the rituals of sacrafice on behalf the people. The high priest wore specific items to represent this (the stones on his chest and names of Israel on his shoulders). Also the priest prophetically represented out great and high priest Jesus Christ.

      In the early church it is clear they understood worship in a liturgical sense. They understoood the eucherist as a "pure offering" a sacrafice of the thankgiving (Malachi 1:11 and the didche). If you look at the earliest worship services of the church, they were composed of two parts the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the eucherist ...read st justin martyr circa 150 ad. Also the oldest services are those of st james the just the brother of our lord and st Mark the first bishop of Alexandria and the author of the gospel of Mark. They took the temple sacrafice service and the synagouge and combined them, which became the prototype for all Christian worship until the reformation.

      The OT worship and the NT liturgical services of sacrafice were highly symbolic filled with various forms of icongraphy of which the priest is a part of that icongraphy. The preist representing the church and Christ the great high priest in tremendous visual terms. Why a man? well those who support an egalitarian priesthood have to answer why God chose men as Icons of him in the OT? Why Christ himself only chose men ( I don't think is was because Christ feared bucking jewish convension) (also priestess were plenty full in pagan rome and greece they had no stigma attached to it.

      Do I support women in the "ministiry" and as leaders of course. In the history of the Church there have been many roles for women in the life of the church from empresses all the way down to church council leaders. The church is replete with stories of great woman for Christ, martyrs, confessors, philosophers, teachers, evangilizers, spiritual guides and so on. But I believe God has set the boundires for the priesthood and who am I to move them.

      As far as in the home st john chrysostom among other saints tell us our home is a little church of which the father is the priest as fathers we always need to bear our family like the high priest with them on our shoulders and close to our hears and intercede on there behalf for surly we will give an account of this on the great and fearfull day of judgement.

      Sorry for the misspells and typos I am typing on an I pad for the first time havn't figured out the word processing very well.

    2. Robert,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, and I sympathize with your touch-screen typing woes. Physical keyboards are indispensable.

      I think you're right on as it relates to your point about God, throughout Scripture but especially (perhaps) in the OT, being 'preferential' in a sense and certainly not fitting into the mold our 'democratic' cultural biases would perhaps wish that He did (a point I echo, from a more evangelical perspective here: http://nateduffy.blogspot.com/2011/12/discriminating-god.html ). This in addition to Paul's writings on the subject.

      You also make a strong case regarding the prominence of men in Christ's ministry and the early church. I would even add to that the fairly significant fact that God chose to become a *man* in the Incarnation. Not a woman, not a gender-neutral being, but a *man*, complete with male genitalia (not to be crude, but I think that kind of drives home the point). It's hard for those who are in favor of dissolving the significance of gender in the church, when God Himself became a man. When God desires to be known as our Father. When Christ is the groom and The Church the bride. etc.

      While egalitarians seem to desire to write off these things as expressions of some cultural patriarchy, and not God's will, I find it takes some fanciful, strained exegesis to maintain such a stance. That or a fairly low view of Scripture.

      I love the Orthodox flavor you add to the discussion Robert! Just as you did at Socrates the other night. I hope you get to move back to California.