Christian Liberty in the Gender Debate

A few weeks ago, Jen Michel posed a necessary and somewhat surprising question in a piece at Her.meneutics, a blog hosted by Christianity Today. Michel, a self-avowed complementarian, had recently returned from The Gospel Coalition National Conference and was struck by the lack of female representation, both among attendees and speakers. “Where do women belong in complementarian organizations?” she wrote.

Michel’s question sparked vigorous, if not predictable, debate in the comment section and was followed up by questions about the relationship between the local church and parachurch organizations. Some took the opportunity to turn the conversation toward the legitimacy of complementarianism as a paradigm in the first place.

I found Michel’s question fascinating because it hit a point of the debate that is often minimized but is essential to our living and working together: How far does Christian liberty extend in gender applications?

On the surface, the issue of Christian liberty may not be obvious in Michel’s question. But when you begin to understand the cross-denominational nature of parachurch organizations like TGC, you also begin to understand how significant a certain level of tolerance becomes. Differences will either be bridged by Christian liberty (as the questions of church polity and baptism are within TGC) or they will become a line in the sand.

But lest we think that this question only extends to conservative groups, egalitarians must also determine how significant gender applications are to them. Should an openly egalitarian organization consider the effect their stance will have on potential participants who are complementarian? Are they willing to put pressure on more conservative brethren simply for the sake of gender applications? Or, perhaps, more difficulty, will they themselves participate with an organization that is more conservative than they are all for the sake of the gospel?

Part of what makes this conversation difficult is that it has been reduced to applications (e.g. Do you or do you not allow women to preach, be ordained,  etc?) rather than a nuanced discussion of how and why you get there. For many complementarians, egalitarians have been reduced to “liberals” and for egalitarians, complementarians are oppressive chauvinists.
And this is where history and understanding denominational differences becomes helpful. The current debate between egalitarians and complementarians began when feminist theology started making inroads into evangelicalism in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, new theology affected practice and soon churches and ministries were wrestling with the question of whether women could (and should) hold positions traditionally reserved for men. With the lines drawn around applications, folks quickly took sides.

Unfortunately, the current iteration of the debate can obscure how often these applications are influenced, not simply by progressive theology, but by denominational differences in church polity, authority, and history. A conservative Pentecostal woman—who has shunned all things worldly—would be surprised to learn that she is considered a “liberal” simply because her church has been ordaining women since the early 1900s.

If gender roles could simply be reduced to a question of orthodoxy, we wouldn’t have to worry about Christian liberty.  But what if, through the process of dialogue, we discover that some folks hold an opposing view AND an orthodox reading of Scripture? Suddenly the question of who to work with becomes much more complicated. If it is not a question of orthodoxy (which it still may be—on both sides!), then how much liberty can we and should we extend to each other?

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you are? 

Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake?

What is more important to you personally—differences in application or differences in core beliefs?