Celebrating Recent Egalitarian Wins While Still Playing the Long Game

by Jonathan Tysick | June 23, 2021

Despite experiencing a nine-game losing streak, injuries, poor goaltending, and ultimately missing the playoffs, my favorite hockey team (the Ottawa Senators) finished the last ten games of their season with seven wins, giving us fans a lot to celebrate. With the commentators saying we’ll be a playoff contender in the coming years, the club has a lot to strive toward to see this potential become a reality. 

Forgive this Canadian for making everything about hockey, but I think there may be some parallels between the Senators and the biblically inspired gender equality movement in North America. For those of us who believe that patriarchy was a result of the fall and are convicted that churches are healthier when leaders are chosen on the basis of Spirit-laden gifts and not gender, the last couple of months (and years) have given us much to celebrate. 

New research, widely read books, recent events, and changing attitudes suggest that the North American egalitarian movement is experiencing greater momentum now than at any point in recent memory. This current surge has re-ignited the gender-role conversation within broader evangelicalism, leading some of our complementarians siblings in Christ to at least question their interpretations of Scripture and practices as a result. This is worthy of celebration.

However, now is not the time to settle in on the golf course and lose our skating legs. We want the recent momentum to be the beginning and not the end of something. Next season will be here before we know it and there are many improvements to make if we’re going to make the playoffs. The fact remains that even in denominations and movements that ordain women, the number of women actually leading and preaching is minimal. Similarly, while fresh dialogue with complementarians is exciting, egalitarians need to cultivate an attitude of just that: irenic dialogue and not venomous attack.

What We Have to Celebrate

1. There are a variety of compelling new arguments and research in important, high-profile books 

In late 2020 Scot McKnight wrote about recent books that “have deconstructed complementarianism.” These and other high-profile books have advanced the egalitarian movement, putting tired complementarian arguments on the back foot. These books take different approaches, some are historical, some theological, and some statistical. All together, they combat complementarian arguments from multiple sides.  

Leading complementarian Denny Burk recently wrote that several of the above books argue their theses “by appealing not to Bible or to reason but to emotion and experience.” While it is true that most of these books do not primarily engage with the key biblical texts, many of us are of the opinion that these historical, theological, and pragmatic arguments against complementarianism simply confirm what we’ve seen in Scripture all along. On that note, the third edition of Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural and Practical Perspectives (IVP Academic), to be released this November, is sure to be another book worthy of celebration.

2. There have been important changes in famous complementarian churches and with famous complementarian leaders

Three key recent events within North American evangelical churches are also worthy of celebration. Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, the second largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention, ordained three women in early May. These ordinations were in direct defiance to the SBC’s statement of faith from 2000 which posits that “…the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

Just a couple of weeks earlier Imago Dei, a large non-denominational church in Portland, Oregon, changed from soft complementarianism to a “mutualist” position in which “both men and women are free to participate in all ministries and positions, including the roles of elder and Lead Pastor.”

Earlier that same month, Beth Moore, former Southern Baptist, Bible teacher and Twitter sensation, apologized and asked for forgiveness for submitting to, supporting, and teaching complementarianism. She called it “a doctrine of MAN” and lamented the way that it has become (in some circles) a “litmus test” for one’s beliefs regarding the authority of Scripture.

3. There has been a documented change in attitude among Christians

Perhaps these recent incidents are part of a larger wave of changing attitudes towards women in ministry. In 2020, Christianity Today reported the findings of a study that revealed that 72.8 percent of self-identified evangelical respondents endorsed women preaching during Sunday morning church services.

Also of note this spring, the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) in the United States released the findings of a survey from 3,000 members of the denomination on the topic of women in ministry. Sixty-one percent of respondents said that women, who are currently “consecrated” to pastoral-like ministry under titles such as “executive director of ministry,” should be ordained and called pastors. The denomination will vote on these changes next year. In the Canadian CMA, women are ordained at the discretion of each congregation.

What Is Left to Strive For

While these books, recent events, and changing attitudes are certainly encouraging and worthy of celebratory recognition, we dare not lull ourselves into a stupor of satisfaction, thinking that the work is done. For those of us who believe that “both men and women are divinely gifted and empowered to minister to the whole Body of Christ, under His authority,” we have much to strive towards in the North American evangelical church.

1. In practice, women still aren’t placed in many pastoral and preaching positions

However encouraged we might be that over 70 percent of evangelicals endorse women preaching during Sunday morning church services, the reality is that few women do in fact preach and pastor. This is unfortunately true even in denominations that ordain women. In the Wesleyan Church, where women’s ordination (to some degree) began in the 1860’s, just 3 percent of lead pastors in North America are women as of 2019. The Evangelical Covenant Church, which began ordaining women in 1976, reported that only 9 percent of its churches are led by women in co-pastor or lead pastor roles as of 2019. Likewise, in the Christian Reformed Church, which began ordaining women in 1995, only 3 percent of its pastors were women in 2016. 

If “the Holy Spirit indwells women and men, and sovereignly distributes gifts without preference as to gender,” it is surely troubling and unhealthy that there is such a minority of women in leadership. Individual congregations and denominations need to take stock as to why Spirit-gifted women are not comfortable or interested in becoming equipped to take part in church leadership.

2. We still have to work toward unity in the church

Our complementarian brothers and sisters have not ignored the recent events or books outlined above. In recent weeks Denny Burk, Andrew Wilson, Kevin DeYoung, and others have written widely-read articles and tweets defending their patriarchal views. It is deeply frustrating that in these responses some academically questionable claims are perpetuated (are we still arguing over Junia’s gender in Romans 16?). It is also rather annoying that multiple responses to Barr’s book have used slippery slope fear-mongering language, maintaining the erroneous claim that only complementarianism is compatible with a historically orthodox view of Scripture.

These frustrations acknowledged, I would challenge my fellow egalitarians not to embrace an aggressive attitude that manifests in ad-hominem, cheap shot attacks. While we may disagree with their biblical interpretation and even view their practices as harmful, at the end of the day complementarians are still our brothers and sisters in Christ, not our foes.

Given the renewed conversation around women’s equality in the church, let us prioritize civil, familial engagement (publicly and privately) and search the Scriptures and the leading of the Spirit together, even if our arguments, and sometimes our very fellowship, are rejected.

I realize that this call for unity is easier for me to issue as a man than for many women reading this. My own wife and mother have taught me that complementarian settings and affirmations of “equality in value but not role” can be deeply hurtful and attacking of women’s personhood and worth. I offer my challenge therefore with some care and understanding, recognizing that for some women, any engagement with complementarians is triggering. 

Even so, it doesn’t take much time on the internet to realize that many people simply do not understand egalitarian interpretations of Scripture and beliefs. Fewer still have witnessed this vision of church and family life healthily lived out. With sharp minds and kind hearts, let us teach and live out this vision with conviction and confidence. Yes, let’s celebrate our wins, but also push for a long playoff run next season and beyond.