A Matter of Justice: My Journey towards Gender Equality

Recently I ran across this article in the Tennessean: “Should wives submit? Debate resurges in some Christian circles”

My initial response was to shake my head and think, “Are we really still dealing with this?” My follow up thought though recognized my hypocrisy in that I once held a similar perspective.

Being raised in the southern “Bible belt” of the United States and having attended a conservative Christian seminary, I once was conflicted about this issue. On one hand, it was clear all around me that women were capable, equal leaders fulfilling many responsible roles and that was a good thing. On the other, my narrower cultural milieu told me to uphold the “traditional” roles of men taking the lead, especially in the home and the church. There are many who have been steeped in some conservative Christian circles who still experience this dissonance: You don’t want to compromise what you’ve been taught what Scripture says on this subject but the reality all around you and what seems right tells you differently.

For me, I tried to strike a compromise between the two positions with what has more recently been called “soft complementarianism”. Basically, it’s an attempt to still uphold that men technically are supposed to lead in the church and home, but that in the rest of the world and even in how that plays out in everyday living there can be equal leadership. So women are encouraged to teach and lead in church in all kinds of capacities but have to stop short of being an elder. In the home, mutual leadership in decision making is the normal way to operate. However, if a husband and wife have tried every way possible to see eye to eye on a decision and just can’t; then, the default tie-breaker is the husband (I even tried to soften this with stating that the husband though, is supposed to put his wife’s needs first when making the tie-breaking decision).

In many ways I still sympathize somewhat with the “soft complementarians”. Realizing that a deeply held cultural religious conviction needs to change is a difficult transition. Often one wishes to navigate the needed social change slowly and with caution; attempting to continue to respect one’s tradition as well as to challenge and modify it. I see many soft complementarians attempting to cross that bridge slowly. This is definitely a better direction than the recent revival of a more hard-core “complementarianism” among many younger, very conservative evangelicals. (Recently a friend told me of a 20-something mom within this movement who had been asked if she could meet with some other moms for a play date. She responded that she probably could, but needed to call and ask her husband if that was permissible!)

But I began to struggle with my “soft” complementarianism. It seemed that no matter how I tried to slice it, spin it or soften it; at the end of the day, however much the gap was minimized, women were inferior to men. By making the husband the default tie-breaker within the home, even in the best of marriages, there is still the subtle message that the wisdom of a woman is less than that of a man. By making the position of leadership within spiritual community inacceptable solely because of one’s gender, a glass ceiling is imposed that speaks volumes to the souls of women and where they stand in social order and even perhaps, before God. Further, while most soft complementarians may virtually be egalitarians in their homes and marriages, the theological position they feel they have to continue to uphold is used in many churches and homes to disempower women and keep them “in their place”. Ideas do have consequences and in my journey, holding this theological position became a problem of injustice for me.

*Image from Hope International website.

Years ago my vocation began taking me to various parts of the globe dealing with issues of injustice. Time and again I encountered cultural practices that subjugated and subverted women, most always justified through long standing traditional or religious values and mores. Whether through a process or an abrupt change, it was not until those values were challenged and replaced that breakthroughs for women were realized. I began challenging my own beliefs.

Did I really believe in a God and a gospel that would subjugate part of the humanity (however so slightly) to another part of humanity simply because of their gender (or race)? Of course not. The Jesus I saw in Scripture consistently disrupted the social norms of his day and empowered the women who followed him. I also came to believe that whatever interpretative Scriptural difficulties there may be on this subject, the early church, based on their experience of Jesus, began to set as their trajectory one overriding principle: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).” No limitations. No subjugation. Nothing less than living in full equality with one another. Complete freedom to be who God made you to be regardless of gender or ethnicity. That’s just. That’s good news. That’s a trajectory worth following.

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3 Responses to A Matter of Justice: My Journey towards Gender Equality

  1. Matt Grimsley says:

    Good narrative, Lance, of your journey with this issue. I am a fellow wrestler with you here. We arrive at similar places that, frankly, make me a little nervous. Your twitter post was titled, “Why I no longer believe what I once taught.” Therefore, the answer to why, if I understand your blog post correctly, is chiefly the experience you have had of seeing the evils that this line of thinking leads to all over the world. You mentioned some Scripture about Jesus trampling on social norms and Paul’s one liner in Galatians. But the primary data point seems to be your life experience. And this is where I get nervous when I find myself in the same place because, in a way, our experience is becoming our norm, our authoritative source on what to believe. And as someone who holds to the chief authority of Scripture, I find it challenging to reconcile at times. Clearly, there are many who are navigating life just fine leaning on the authority of their experiences, even if it is at odds with the teaching of Scripture. And there are many who will hold to whatever Scripture teaches (or at least their interpretation of it) till their death, experience be damned. But I find gender equality a particularly difficult issue because, like you, my experience tells me that subjugation can’t be right, and yet Scripture seems to be clear at times about the husband being the head of the wife and elders only being men, etc. So, that often leaves me looking for that better way, which, for me, looks more like the middle way that you described so well under the name soft complementarianism. I am not throwing the slippery slope argument at you (i.e. if you elevate your life experience over scripture here, what else could it lead to?), but I am honestly wondering how you have dealt/are dealing with the parts of Scripture that seems to be more direct about this. Thanks for entertaining my ramblings.

    • Hey Matt, thanks for sharing your “wrestlings” on this subject. Here’s my response:

      Yes, my experience in seeing the subjugation of women worldwide was certainly a large part of the impetus to reexamine my beliefs on this subject (I had always had my concerns about this subject but the global exposure to the plight of women catalyzed the actual theological move). To say this though, even if experience is “chiefly” a catalyst for reexamination a particular interpretation of Scripture, does not necessarily mean that experience replaces Scripture as the “authoritative source on what to believe” as much as experience, among other things, can often be the occasion for us to re-examine our finite assumptions and interpretations about Scripture. In other words, it doesn’t necessitate that we replace one norm with another as much as a continual willingness to evaluate our assumptions about the nature and meaning of that norm. So I think remaining open to allowing new observations, experiences and information to challenge our assumptions and interpretations of Scripture–whether that is scientific discovery (Galileo) or honestly facing a social injustice (slavery)–is healthy.

      In considering the latter, in my estimation slavery is a good parallel to the present discussion on women. Pro-slavery advocates in the 19th century readily argued for the justification of slavery based on their interpretation of Scripture. They could point to definitive passages that assumed this social ordering and argued that the system was a biblical one. However, others recognized that while slavery was culturally ingrained system of the first century, the transcultural trajectory of the kingdom of Jesus and the teaching and thinking of the early church was to move beyond unjust systems of social order such as this and toward equality and justice. I am saying I see this issue of the role of women the same way. Hope this helps in understanding some of how I arrived at this. Thanks.

  2. Matt G says:

    Thanks, Lance. Great response. The trajectory argument is a strong one. I am just encouraged that you are doing the difficult work of holding Scripture and your experience in tightest tension and looking for true interpretation in the middle of it. In my estimation, it is easy to blindly follow a comfortable and long-held intepretation of Scripture, or to blindly follow one’s recent experiences. But the real work is in the interplay of the two that you have just described.

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