Okay, I’ve seen a lot of people saying a lot of things about a specific topic, and I’m going to play referee for a minute… because it is the internet, and I can do that in my corner of it. Ultimately, it seems this topic is getting discussed both often and poorly. That topic, is that of Egalitarianism and Complementarianism.
I apologize in advance to any of my nonreligious readers, specifically because you are going to find this very dull… but if you are still reading this blog after everything else, you must get a kick out of my sardonic sense of humor anyway–thou sicko. Anywho, that out of the way, let’s talk.
Setting the Table
Whenever the conversation of egalitarianism (to the layman, that is the Christian near-equivalent of the Women’s Suffrage movement) versus Complimentarianism (which can be summed up as “traditional gender roles”) comes up, it inevitably devolves into the rudimentary examination of minutiae in various portions of scripture. After a few rounds of unproductive banter related to any of several verses (that usually includes both individuals talking past each other to the arguments they think the other has) the Complementarian accuses the Egalitarian of twisting scripture to fit society and the Egalitarian accuses the Complementarian of shutting their ears to anything that threatens Male dominance of society and both walk away relatively steamed. I’m hoping that this post will help alleviate SOME of the tension and forward these discussions for some to some measure.
The ultimate problem of this discussion is not one of scripture itself. This debate is categorically NOT simply one of doctrine. The debate is about hermaneutics. For those who don’t know, “hermaneutics” is a $10 word that refers to a system of interpretation of written information. While they aren’t synonymous, we could make a case correlating “hermaneutic” with “worldview”. For example, Conservativism and Liberalism are secular political worldviews employing different hermaneutics. The two sides see the same
problems, interpret those problems according to differing sets of evidence and philosophy, and come up with radically different answers to those problems.
Simply put, Complementarians and Egalitarians can’t have productive discussions about DOCTRINE because they are using different HERMANEUTICS. Thus, both sides of the discussion see the same verses, interpret those verses according to differing sets of evidence and philosophy, and arrive at (seemingly) logical conclusions to themselves. Since people don’t generally elevate the discussion
of complementarianism and Egalitarianism to the hermaneutical level, they cannot understand how in the world the other group can be so blinded as to the “obvious” and “plain meaning” of scripture. However, both sides of the argument have difficulties in explaining their existence. I will try to treat both as even-handedly as possible.
The Egalitarian Problem
Egalitarianism is generally supported by conclusions drawn from the “Historical/Grammatical” hermaneutic. What does this mean practically? It means taking the scriptures in the Bible, doing some research on the original author, the original audience, the timeframe the writing is in and the original language to get a fuller understanding of what the scripture said to those it was originally written to, and then applying that meaning to today’s world.
The general metanarrative ($10 word that means “really big story of everything”) of the egalitarian perspective sees men and women created both as the image bearers of God, though as equals and partners without formalized “roles”. At the fall, all of mankind was plunged into sin because of the actions of Adam and Eve (they both sinned) in disobeying God’s directive to not eat from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Thus, the purpose of redemption is for men and women to come out of that original disobedience and be reconciled to God so that we may commune with Him as we were created to do.
The biggest difficulty of Egalitarianism is that it requires more study and scholarship to arrive at the egalitarian conclusion than it does to arrive at the (supposedly explicit) complementarian counterpart. Because the hermaneutic takes great pains to acknowledge the human element of authorship, it means you have to not only be looking at the words, but also trying to piece together the authorial intent of the words and the subjective meaning to the original audience. Because Paul’s epistles are a snapshot of only one side of a dialogue between Paul and whomever he was writing to, we have to infer the audience’s context from the writing itself and compare it with other works of Paul’s to understand the man a fraction as well as his audience did–this phenomenon appearing most prevelantly in the letters to Timothy and Philemon when he calls them both a “true son”. This amount of depth, then, makes the Bible the realm of those who have access to the kind of materials you would need to be able to investigate the audience, culture and author, almost sealing off the people who are in locales too poor or remote to access the information highway. Because the Word of God is meant for all people, this would seem to be a blockade, right?
The Complementarian problem
The difficulty of discussing Complementarianism in a vacuum is that it is near impossible to seperate Complementarianism from its associated hermaneutic. One could make a case that Complementarianism is itself a hermaneutic, in that it often references itself to support its own conclusions. At the base level, Complementarianism sees an overarching metanarrative where God created Adam and then Eve with specific gender roles to represent God to the rest of Creation. At the fall, Adam failed to lead his wife and thus she sinned and led him into the same sin. Because of this, the purpose of redemption at the cross of Jesus was to restore men and women to their original gender’s intention so that they can represent God to Creation as they were meant to do.
Because of this metanarrative, gender becomes a guiding light and interpretive key for the whole of scripture, from creation to redemption to ecclesiology to eschatology. Thus, when Paul in 1Timothy 2 says that he does not allow women to “usurp a man’s authority” but that they should “learn in silence”, Paul is obviously reaffirming God’s commitment to male leadership in the church because leadership is a male attribute, etc.
The biggest problem with this understanding is that it removes from the Bible any amount of scope or perspective because it is establishing a “timeless truth” regardless of anything normal for literature (author, audience, culture, etc.); however, since the Bible is God’s word, this is acceptable because God supercedes time (which is another discussion for another time) and the words being spoken are not Paul’s, Moses’ or Peter’s, but God’s. Thus, the Bible, as it reads on the page, is written to all people in all cultures at all times. This gives the words of the Bible an eccumenical nature that far outstrips any glory for any other piece of literature, and thereby, finds its greatest strength. By taking this view of the Bible, that elimminates the need for “weighty and intense study” that the poor cannot access due to illiteracy, lack of connectivity or simple ignorance. That’s a good thing, right?
The Proliferation of Scholarship
The thing that most people forget is that if they read the Bible at all, they have already taken in a wealth of scholarship… albeit some do so unwillingly. It is a flat out miracle that someone can pick up a copy of the Bible (which was originally written in archaic Herbrew, Koine Greek and Aramaic) and read it in their own language. Whether that person is a missionary, theologian, pastor, lay person or any other category, our doctrines are formed based on the scholarship of others–ranging from archaeology discovering the source texts to Wycliffe Translators coming out with translations of the Bible in languages only a few thousand speak. So no matter what doctrine is getting argued or taught by whom, it is always a matter of scholarship. It is at this point that we run into the greatest difficulty…
Those two words will probably make some people shudder. The meaning is “languages and how they change, develop or evolve”. The fun part about languages is that they are actually a reflection of the philosophy of the people that speak them and how they think about communication. In the modern English lexicon, for example, the words “hot” and “cool” can be referring to temperature or our affection towards people (“he’s so cool!”), objects, places and asthetics (“you’re looking hot!”). The reason these associations were made were probably because “cool” tends to mean “relaxed and laid back” (symbolic of a cool temperature) and “hot” tends to mean “makes me sweaty, breathe heavy and elevates my heart rate” (like a summer day). That is an example of the English language changing and evolving. Because of this phenomenon, however, there is no such thing as a perfect translation from one language to another. This is why Bible scholars have a spectrum for evaluating Biblical translations that compare “thought for thought” translations (like the NIV, NLT, NCV) veruses “word for word” translations (NASB, RSV, YLT). Both have their pro’s and con’s, but that isn’t the point here. The point is that at some juncture, a translator is going to have to make a value judgment on what a translation “should be” because the word they see has no equivalent in the destination language– for example, the (transliterated) Hebrew word “Selah” has no equivalent in English, so the translators left the transliterated version of the word in the text with a footnote explaining what that word meant to the Hebrews. Why is this a big deal to know?
Because the hermaneutic of the translator is going to inevitably influence their judgment on what a translation of a difficult word or concept is going to be. Considering that the idea of Men leading in all facets of society (which is the historical ancestor of modern Complementarianism– formerly known as Heirarchicalism) was a generally accepted tenet of humanity for the vast and overwhelming majority of human society, it is neither unbelievable nor difficult to see how the complementarian hermaneutic would have a distinct advantage in the translation of Biblical texts. Thus, the “plain and simple meaning” of the English Bible will more than likely favor the complementarian hermaneutic. Consequently, the Historical/Grammatical hermaneutic will find itself constantly badgered by the accusation of “going against the Bible” when it begins to question if the Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic has been translated appropriately. However, that inquisition becomes a necessity as we begin to discover more information about the language and culture through continued research (archaeology, academic study, etc.)– because we have to know that the English translations of the Bible are not, themselves, perfect. It is a physical impossibility for them to be.
Thus, the level of scholarship between the two sides of this debate is really irrelevant. What is far more relevant is the prevelance of scholarship that is specifically conducive to the Complementarian hermaneutic. To put it another way, Egalitarianism has to play on Complementarianism’s Home Field with a packed stadium of rabid fans. However, home field advantage is not a harbinger of truth. You cannot simply say “people have thought ‘X’ for _____# of years, and therefore it must be true!” As we see in the Pauline Epistles, it takes fewer than ten years from the initial receiving of the Word for people to start believing goofy things. It took less than 300 years for people to begin to question both the divinity AND humanity of Jesus. Thus, (almost) all doctrine and translations must be held with an open hand, dependant on the information we DON’T have regarding original languages, cultures and authors.
Before anyone, Complementarian or Egalitarian, has any sort of thoughtful and productive conversation related to the topic, we first have to work out our hermaneutical differences. Until two people can have some kind of resolution on the validity or lack thereof of the hermaneutics in play, their conversation on specific doctrine is going to be stuck in neutral with both assuming the other is in theological La-La Land. Discuss your hermaneutics… then worry about what you get out of it.