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5 False Assumptions About Egalitarians

On August 31, 2016

I’d like to correct some of the most common false assumptions about egalitarian theology. I hear these a lot, but they’re simply not true.

1. Egalitarians don’t respect Scripture.

It’s time to debunk the notion that egalitarians do not uphold the authority of Scripture. That we do not have a wild, reverent love for the Good Book.

Egalitarianism is an interpretation of Scripture. So is complementarianism. And when we interpret Scripture, we do it with the millstone of bias around our necks, the same millstone the skewed the interpretations of Augustine, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, CS Lewis, Óscar Romero, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Sojourner Truth, Aimee Semple McPherson, and every Christian who has ever lived. Even these giants of the Christian faith could not escape the challenge of reading their experiences, preferences, and fears back into the Bible.

It’s easy to convince ourselves that we’re uniquely objective, able to separate our worldview from the way we read the Bible. That we alone see the bigger picture. That Scripture is clear. But we’ve been wading into the Word for centuries and we’re still in over our heads.

That’s okay. God is a lot bigger than our bias. And he sent the Holy Spirit to help us tread water.

But here’s what’s not fair. It’s not fair to assume that egalitarians do not love and respect Scripture. That we don’t live and breathe the gospel. That we’re playing fast and loose with God’s Word.

Because we’re not. Egalitarians believe in the authority of Scripture. We think the Good Book is, well, good. But we also know that the Bible was written by imperfect people, in an imperfect time, in an imperfect culture. Our hermeneutic acknowledges that reality.

2. Egalitarians are wishful thinkers when it comes to the Bible.

Egalitarians are often accused of capitulating to culture. We want the Bible to agree with our so-called “social justice agenda,” so we force it. We ignore the “clear Scripture” (that has been debated, interpreted, and reinterpreted for thousands of years), and go with what feels right.

This is just not true. The Bible is the tale of a liberator God. It’s the story of a God who chooses women, reconciles races, and denounces prejudice, injustice, and inequality. The leather bindings of our Bibles can’t begin to contain a God who is making all things radically new. A God who leaps off the pages to reconcile all things to himself, including the collective sin of patriarchy.

The Bible is the story of a God who died on a tree so that the invisible could be visible. Jesus demonstrated a radical preoccupation with the least of these, which culminated at the cross. He built his life around relationships with those society deemed unworthy, ill-equipped, and “other.” And that’s what egalitarians see in the text.

We don’t have to wish for a God who will liberate the oppressed, eat with the “least of these,” and raise up the rejected and marginalized. Our God is that God already. The church is just scrambling to catch up.

3. Egalitarians don’t understand complementarianism.

Obviously, some Christians from egalitarian backgrounds have embraced complementarian theology. But this seems to be a pretty rare occurrence. Mostly, it seems like Christians move the opposite way, toward greater freedom for men and women and away from the restrictions of complementarian theology.

 Many egalitarians are acutely (painfully) aware of complementarian theology. We were steeped in it. Some of us were served that meal for a long time before we got the nerve to send it back. And now that we know what liberation tastes like, it’s pretty hard to swallow that old meal.

So we get it. Many of us aren’t at all fuzzy about the “beauty of complementarity.” We just didn’t find it all that beautiful. We went looking for something else, something we thought looked a little more like Jesus. And we found it. It’s imperfect, but so is everything on this side of heaven. We still think it’s good.

4. Egalitarians deny that men and women are different.

I can’t do a one-handed push-up, lift one hundred pounds, shoot a gun accurately, or win at darts, but I also know of women who can do all of those things. Not to mention the multitude of women who can lead a nation, a community, and a church, and the load of men who can’t and shouldn’t. So I don’t really see what general biological differences can tell me about whether an individual man or woman can do X task, head Y committee, or plant and lead Z church.

But many people use any evidence of biological difference to justify gender essentialism, or essential differences in the nature of men and women, and then limitations based on those supposed differences. For example, men protect and women nurture, say the gender essentialists. But egalitarians ask both whether this is even true and if it is nature or socialization that yields that supposed pattern.

From the day a little girl or little boy is born, they are trained to manifest certain traits and suppress others. Boys are encouraged to manifest strong leadership skills and confidence where girls are encouraged to submit and self-question. And even then, a lot of boys and girls find the costumes of gender essentialism ill-fitting.

Egalitarians are not blind to any differences between men and women, but we don’t believe that gender differences are innate or universal, and we recognize the role of culture (and the church) in manifesting and suppressing certain traits in boys and girls.

I don’t know any men or women that fit the gender essentialist narrative perfectly, and that tells me that it is essentially flawed. Egalitarians make the case that men and women are both able, competent, and gifted for many different tasks. Ultimately, we’re just arguing that men and women both be allowed to reach their full potential. And honestly, we don’t think biology has a thing to do with being a competent leader.

5. Egalitarians undermine the church.

Like many egalitarians, I got burned by the church. Many of us are a bit jaded, it’s true. Our exposed hearts took some hard hits from the very body we believed would sustain us through anything.

It’s not easy to walk back into the same sanctuary where you were once knocked flat on your back.

But we’re still here. And we’re asking the church to do better. We’re asking each other to do better. To love more authentically. To seek Jesus more ferociously. To protect the vulnerable more faithfully. To use all gifts more wisely.

Egalitarians still crave the bread. We still long for the wine. We still need the holy embrace of others trying to do the Jesus-thing. But we also have a great vision for a church free of patriarchy. And we’re going to keep chasing it. 

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