Confessions of an Egalitarian Complementarian
by Roger Olson
March 4, 2015
The topic is gender. It’s a minefield. Anyone who dares to step into it must be prepared to be injured. Especially in American academic institutions it’s a minefield. And it is a major point of division among evangelical Christians. I speak from within both contexts.
In academia we are in a time of recovery from rampant patriarchalism and that has led to some over reactions. Two trends are noticeable. First, any acknowledgement of real difference between the sexes—beyond biology and patriarchal oppression—is discouraged. One academic professional society requires facilities where it meets to make all restrooms unisex. Second, insofar as differences between males and females are acknowledged—beyond biology and patriarchal oppression—typically female modes of behavior are to be prioritized. No positive acknowledgment of typically male modes of behavior is permitted. These two trends are in some tension with each other, but both are easily observable in American academia and they filter out into the media, government and business.
Among evangelicals one is pressured to choose between being either “complementarian” or “egalitarian.” There is little room for middle ground or hybrids. Somewhat mimicking secular academic trends, many evangelical egalitarians shy away from any talk of interdependence between the sexes or of differences between them beyond biology and social conditioning. “Masculine” and “feminine” are only social constructions and nothing more. Any mention of innate differences between boys and girls beyond physiology is discouraged. The assumption is that “difference” inevitably leads to hierarchy (read “patriarchy”).
On the other hand, many evangelical complementarians insist that power differentials between males and females are rooted in revelation and the Trinity itself. “Male headship,” it is argued, does not mean male superiority but only divinely ordained male leadership. In reality, however, among evangelical complementarians, male headship always tends to flesh out as male domination and female submission.
I stand (sometimes alone) in a middle space, a liminal space (to use academic jargon), between egalitarianism and complementarianism. It’s often an uncomfortable space to inhabit. What this means is that:
- Among academics I reject the radical minimizing of sex differences. I believe male-female difference is more than biology/physiology and social conditioning. I admit that identifying that difference is never easy, but I believe it is observable in tendencies of behavior well before hormonal influences can account for it. We are one humanity; our humanity is one. But difference does not mean inequality in any other area of human life; we celebrate difference and “otherness” (in academia). We can be and are one humanity in variety. And maleness and femaleness is one of the irreducible manifestation of that variety. It cannot and should not be obliterated by social engineering.
- At the same time I stand together with feminists in opposing oppression based on sex or gender. Females should have every opportunity to fulfill their human giftedness including entrance to every level of leadership in every profession. (On the other hand I think professions commonly considered reserved for females ought to be opened without hindrances to males. If the profession of engineering would be improved by having more women engineers, then the profession of nursing would be improved by having more men nurses.)
- Among evangelicals I stand with the egalitarians in affirming that women called by God to lead should be ordained and recognized as leaders at every level of religious organizations. I stand with egalitarians in affirming that husbands and wives should submit to each other in marriage and that both, together, should lead families. I have been a member of two churches pastored by women (and am now attending a third) and have many women students who will be pastors of churches. I work within a denomination whose executive leader is a woman. My wife is a deacon in our church. My wife and I have for forty plus years made all decisions in our marriage and family together. When we do not agree we do not act in any way that affects both. I do not claim “leadership” and neither does she—except together, as one.
- On the other hand, I agree with complementarians that “manhood” and “womanhood” are rooted in creation and are not reducible to biology/physiology or social construction-conditioning. Although they overlap much (and there’s nothing wrong with that), manhood and womanhood, maleness and femaleness, masculinity and femininity, complement each other. Typically men need other men and they need women; typically women need other women and they need men. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” is not true. Woman is made for man as man is made for woman. The two need each other and complement each other. We should celebrate the difference and interdependence without creating or supporting hierarchy.
- For example: A church for women only would be a travesty as would a church for men only (both exist). Children are best raised, when possible, by both a male and a female. If either a father or mother is not available the single parent should seek out a person of the other sex to co-parent with them (within appropriate boundaries, of course). Boys need both male and female teachers in schools, as do girls.
We need to overcome our polar oppositions and recognize both man and woman as uniquely gifted by God, equal in every way, interdependent, and yet really different ways of being human.