Not All Conservatives

In order to address Bronwyn’s first question,

To what extent do Piper and Grudem (and the big names at CMBW) speak for all complementarians? How big, and how grey, is our grey area?

we need to clarify something. I believe that part of the “greyness” results from using the term “complementarian” to refer to anyone who holds a conservative view of gender—anyone who sees distinct male/female roles in marriage and church office. But what if not all gender conservatives are complementarians?

Complementarianism might be better understood as one expression of gender conservativism. As a response to evangelical feminism, complementarianism developed and flourishes in a specific cultural context, namely a western, white, middle-upper class context; because of this, it will reflect western, white, middle-upper class assumptions about work, economics, and home. The fact that Pastor Piper is even concerned with answering the question “what jobs can a woman do” reflects this.

Consider how the Danvers’ Statement positions complementarianism against “feminist egalitarianism” (which itself was influenced by 2nd-wave feminism). Insofar as complementarians formed their identity in direct opposition to 2nd-wave feminism, they became a photonegative of it.  None of us should be surprised, then, that complementarians are asking “what jobs can a woman can do” because this is precisely the same question that 2nd-wave feminists asked. But even this question is loaded with assumptions about class, race, and agency.

I grew up in a low-income setting where people didn’t have much choice about which “jobs” they took. Today I live and worship in a working-class community where very few of the women in our church have the luxury of not working outside the home. Even fewer would have the luxury of turning down a promotion if it meant she’d find herself “leading” a male co-worker. And yet, these folks would be the first to affirm that “father is head of the home” and that the office of pastor is restricted to men. (These folks would also tend to be congregational in church polity so women—as members of the congregation—enjoy a form of representation that those in more hierarchical settings would not.)

I am a conservative, but I often find it difficult to identify with complementarianism. Not because I reject gender differences, but because I reject the incomplete definitions of work, home, and economics that are part of the cultural context in which complementarianism developed. Still, it does exists. And because Piper and Grudem were leaders in its development, there is a sense in which I do think they speak for it. But insofar as complementarianism exemplifies a specific cultural experience, I do not believe that they speak for all who hold a conservative reading of gender.

Acknowledging this leads to answering Bronwyn’s second question.

If one does have a general commitment to a difference in male/female roles in church, family and the world… how in the world do we start trying to figure out what that looks like in practice without sliding straight down that muddy slope?

We start in context of our immediate relationships. We start at home. We start with our nearest neighbors. We start in our local churches. We start in our cultural context.

How my husband and I honor the gender differences between us, living here in Appalachia, will not be the same as how a couple in East Africa honors the differences between them. How my local church honors the differences between men and women will not be the same as how a church from a different ecclesiology honors the differences between men and women.

Admittedly, this requires more ownership of the issue as well as more male-female collaboration to honor those differences well. A pastor far removed from my home and local church cannot make a list of how men and women must relate here in my community. But we must wrestle with it. Pastors and leaders here must process it along with a whole host of other questions about human flourishing. And when we do, I believe we will honor these differences in terms of our relationships: my husband and my wife; my elder and my congregant; my brother and my sister.

And when we do this–when we live in community with each other–I believe much of the “grey” quickly comes into focus.

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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?

The Perfect Storm

In the previous post, Alastair brought up an important point about how internal gender dynamics and levels of confidence play into the question of whether male leadership see women as “usurpers.”  I need a bit more time to weigh the veracity and significance of what he wrote, but I wanted to add this additional thought.

Just as men relate differently to each other in terms of authority and “cutting each other down to size” (to compensate for the tendency to overconfidence), women, in my experience, tend to affirm each other to compensate for the lack of confidence that we, as a group, suffer from. This makes for a perfect storm when men and women relate in context of authority and leadership. A woman will expect reception, affirmation, and encouragement because that is what she would naturally do herself. A man may be predisposed to do the exact opposite–to challenge her in order to force her (like he does other men) to prove the value of her ideas. This further exacerbates the problem of female lack of confidence.To my mind, both men and women share in resolving this, but the one in place of privilege (in this case greater authority) has the responsibility to compensate for it. The burden rests on the male pastor to make sure that a woman’s ideas are received; it is not her responsibility to fight to be heard, although she might find that she has to.

As an aside, I would tend to disagree that the conflict Wilkin’s describes is not related to where a man derives his sense of authority. Alastair may be right that men do not consciously identify their maleness as source of pastoral authority, but in a context that is heavily shaped by gender roles, it is inevitable that it will shape him sub-consciously. I have had many conversations with friends and co-congregants about the nature of authority in the church and too often the answer has come down to “Because I’m a man.”

Which Authority?

I appreciate Alastair’s highlighting the question of authority and reminding us that we all–male and female–must relate to church leadership with deference to their positions. I’d like to take this insight and marry it to Brownyn’s original question of

Is it really possible in practice to ask questions about men, women and authority in the church and “banish the ghost of the Usurper”, when deep in your heart you believe that anything other than your position actually would amount to usurping?

It seems to me that the question under the question is this: Where does a man in pastoral leadership derive his sense of authority? Does he see it as stemming more from his maleness or from his office?

If the answer is the former, a pastor will, albeit unintentionally, engage the female members of his congregation differently from the way he engages the male members of his congregation, leading to the abuses that Wilkin notes. This will happen because he will need to protect the boundaries of gender as a means of protecting his own pastoral authority.

This problem will most likely occur, not in conservative denominations across the board, but in those that do not have a strong ecclesiastical framework for ordination and/or definition of pastoral office. If any man (as opposed to woman) can sense a “call” or put himself up for leadership without a rigorous process of examination of his pastoral gifts, the effect is that his maleness has become a major component of his qualification.  In such a context, authority has become deeply invested in gender rather than gender being one of many qualifications for a specific office that is itself endued with authority. And in such cases, women will be seen as an intrinsic threat to pastoral authority.

Introduction: Hannah Anderson

I grew up in a conservative home that was decidedly anti-establishment. (Cue irony.) My parents had met at a Christian university, eventually married, and moved to the country to raise five children. Their vision of the “good life” included hard work, creativity, living close to the land, education, and serving others. It did not include money.

I realize now how significant this was. Because we lived in a rural area and lacked financial resources, we also lacked the ability to participate in mainstream culture—including mainstream religious culture. We lived our lives in our small community of friends and family; our church experience was decidedly local. In many ways, we (almost) missed the gender wars entirely.

It wasn’t until college that I began to hear about biblical notions of “manhood” and “womanhood.” At first, it was refreshing; to an eighteen-year-old on the cusp of womanhood, it was relevant and timely. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been taught a conservative reading of gender—my father was definitely the “head of the home”—but growing up, gender was a minor question compared to all the others. My church would not have ordained women, but women served in every other major capacity of church life. I had also been schooled in the “greats” of the Christian faith. So while I believed that men, like Charles Spurgeon, may be the only ones called to ordination; I also believed that women, like Mary Slessor, could tame the jungles of Africa with nothing more than fierce determination and the gospel.

Having grown up outside the genders wars, I didn’t initially understand the landscape. I embraced a label of conservatism, assuming that a complementarian position best expressed the views with which I had been raised. But the more I listened to both sides of the conversation, the more I realized that few of the definitions and paradigms on either side described my experience or values.

There was no category for my paternal grandmother who was the first in her family to graduate from high school, mothered five children, and retired as a factory worker. There was no category for my maternal grandmother who was the first in her family to receive a college degree but was also a submissive wife and partner in ministry with her husband. There was no category for my mother who, though doggedly conservative, was more likely to quote Abigail Adams or Amy Carmichael than Elizabeth Elliot.

The conflict between the conservatism I’d received from my upbringing and the conservatism being promoted in the gender wars forced me to return to core principles. This meant starting with a clear understanding of what it means to be made in God’s image—what it means to be human. For me, the nuances of being made “male and female” are meaningless if we don’t understand what it means to be image bearers in the first place.

At the same time, perhaps because of my conservative reading of Scripture, I don’t see gender as peripheral to the human experience. I strongly affirm the goodness of gender and believe that God was purposeful in creating us male and female—that gender reflects something about Him that we would not understand otherwise. In the end, the tension between what men and women share in common as image bearers and what differentiates us from each other is, itself, a mystery of Divine proportion.