Nate, Austin, and I discussed our next topic of conversation and we have made a decision to discuss Gender Roles. For Austin's sake, I hope this stirs up some controversy, but I'm not so sure, we'll see. Austin describes himself as a "robust complentarian", I would describe myself as a "nervous complentarian" and Nate doesn't know what he is. This doesn't place any of us on the opposite side of the issue but hopefully our nuances and levels of certainty will be good enough for the pugnacious spirit of Austin Surls. They gave me the assignment of introducing the topic. For that I will be eternally bitter.
I am acutely aware of the emotions behind this issue and this probably contributes to my nervousness. Complementarians often accuse egalitarians of compromise and accommodation to the pressures of a very egalitarian culture. Egalitarians often respond by accusing their 'opponents' of sexism, discrimination, and even the oppression of women. Harsh rhetoric.
In some ways, when we consider the wide spectrum of theological opinions and potential disagreements, this is really a very minor issue. The gospel is not compromised, the basic tenets of orthodoxy are not at stake, and no one is about to lose their salvation. But when we consider that over half of most of our congregations are women and the immediate effect this debate has on our everyday praxis, this issue is extremely important and cannot be ignored. On many of these "peripheral issues", I prefer to "agree to disagree" and, without abandoning the dialogue, learn to live and work with those of differing opinions. But it's not so easy with this issue! If I believe it's wrong for a "woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man" and my sister in Christ believes that God is calling her to preach, we cannot easily coexist within the same "church setting." Outside of the "church" (in the sense of the popular misuse of the word) we can fellowship get along well enough, but it is near impossible to live out both of our convictions.
So to begin this dialogue let me make some suggestions about how we ought to approach this touchy and oft explosive issue.
1) For complementarians: let's make an attempt to really hear and understand what the other side is saying before we dismiss them as compromisers. This issue is really about hermeneutics not Bibliology. There are many godly egalitarians who are committed to the Scriptures as the reliable and authoritative word of God. To quote Gordon Fee (thanks Nate), "You don't have the right to disagree until you've understood." I don't think we have to be ashamed of our side of the debate, but let's not cover our ears and scream "heretic" until we really understand the issues.
2) For egalitarians: please do not condemn complementarians as sexists or closeminded ignoramuses. Many, probably most, of us hold to our position because of our interpretation of the Bible and would gladly switch sides if we were convinced we were wrong. I actually don't want to be a complementarian, it makes me uncomrtable. I'm there because of my understanding of Scripture. And if you are a woman on this side of the fence, do not make or take the debate as a personal attack or defense of yourself and your ministry. Many men, myself included, feel nervous enough already discussing this issue because we are afraid of the sexist label. If your goal is honest and constructive dialogue, then distance yourself from the debate. Keep to the Scripture and hermeneutics. This is where the "battle" must be "fought", not with personal attacks or examples.
3) For both sides: this issue should be considered separately from issues of subordination or lack thereof within the Trinity. Egalitarianism and complentarianism do not necessitate a certain view of the trinity and the although some correspondence between these issues should not be ruled out, neither side should argue from any perceived correspondence. We should be careful with too much conjecture.
4) Even if we cannot "do church" together as we would like, Christians who disagree in this issue should be able to dialogue with civility and brotherly (and sisterly) love. Do not make this a test of fellowship.
5) Let's not neglect or ignore the correspondence of other practical issues. If you are an egalitarian pastor in a congregation of complementarians, does it violate Romans 14 to ask a woman to preach? If you are a complementarian, what about women deacons? I think that I Timothy clearly allows for women deacons, and many other softer complentarians agree with me. But where are the women deacons in our churches?! I don't see any! Let's not get too involved and invested in our side of the debate to "right the ship" where and when we need to.
6) Finally, let's be careful not to focus too much upon women and their issues and neglect men in the process. Men are in church less and less. Why? A friend of mine once told me that he feels like single young men are the least important and most neglected people in the church. He's not alone in feeling that way. With all of the attention focused upon the role of women in the church, its easy to not define the role of men. If we are stressing the importance of women and their contributions, let's not stop working on getting men more involved in the church and making it a place that meets their needs as well.
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