A couple of years ago, I preached on the topic of singleness at my church and during a post-sermon question-and-answer session, I was asked a rather unexpected (given the topic) and baiting question about the merits of egalitarian versus complementarian marital relationships. Clearly, the inquirer wanted me to extol one approach and bash the other (and in all honesty, I could have easily done that). However, rather than choosing sides, I briefly outlined each perspective, citing the Scripture passages that are typically used to support each one—and encouraged people to humbly examine these perspectives in the midst of close-knit, trusted, and diverse community. Not surprisingly, as soon as the service concluded, I was verbally accosted by people from both the egalitarian and complementarian camps who believed that their perspective should have been championed and that the other perspective is ungodly, disrespectful, and just plain wrong. I quickly realized these people were more interested in vindication than in pursuing God’s will together. They were not prepared to engage in healthy or loving discourse on this topic.
Not only is the egalitarian-complementarian battle burdened with the emotional baggage of a long and inglorious feud, it also has extremely high stakes. Both egalitarians and complementarians believe that this issue is of utmost importance in our rapidly evolving world. Among other things, it has far-reaching implications that impact how we conceive of gender and family structures, how we enact social justice, and how we apply ancient texts to our twenty-first century lives. What people believe about this issue is deeply important to us, regardless of which side of the debate we’re on. We believe that we are fighting the good fight as we strive to align ourselves with God’s biblical truth.
But often we simply claim ownership of the truth, rather than seeking God together, in humble dialogue with believers of other perspectives. Consequently, we tend to have a difficult time seeing groups with different perspectives as family members who offer invaluable resources and insight. Instead, we see their perspectives as less valuable, less important, and less correct than our own. Armed with the belief that our faith perspective is entirely right, we easily come up with reasons why other perspectives aren’t valuable and why dissenting voices should be extinguished. How dare they disagree with us, with truth? So we distance ourselves from them while digging our heels even deeper into the ground of our own beliefs. So much for humble examination, dialogue, and mutual pursuit of truth in the midst of diverse and close-knit community!
How conflict gets ugly
Realistic conflict theory offers insight into the messy divide between egalitarians and complementarians by explaining how mere competition often devolves into hostility and disengagement between the competing groups. According to realistic conflict theory, relationships between groups get ugly when groups find themselves in a realistic conflict—one in which they are competing for valuable resources (such as sole possession of truth). Initially, group members are able to maintain an objective perspective and acknowledge that the opposing group is (at least on some level) deserving of resources and respect. However, when two groups vie for limited resources, one group is bound to fare better than the other. As a result, the loser becomes frustrated and resentful and the winner feels threatened and protective. Strong negative emotions such as hostility and prejudice are quick to follow as allegiance to our perspective overrides objectivity, fairness, and benevolence toward those who hold the opposite perspective.
Throughout history, realistic conflict has reared its ugly head. Researchers have found that between 1880 and 1930, the lynching of African Americans increased when cotton prices decreased in the South. This is most likely due to the fact that white and black farmers were competing for the same resource: money earned from the sale of cotton. When the resource became scarce (meaning cotton prices dropped and profits decreased), the stakes were raised. In this case, the hostility became so great that it led to lynchings. More recently, research has demonstrated that discrimination toward immigrant groups increases when unemployment levels are high. When everyone is vying for a small number of jobs, people are less tolerant of immigrants. When we care enough about something, the stakes are raised. And this is when things can start to get ugly.
Acknowledging our biases
So what then are egalitarians and complementarians to do? How are we to go about humbly examining our perspectives in the midst of close-knit and diverse community? How are we to engage in healthy and constructive dialogue with those who hold opposing viewpoints?
We must begin by recognizing that our beliefs about this issue are tainted by our experiences and motivations. Said differently, our worldview (the beliefs we hold and are constantly looking to confirm) greatly affects how we view this issue and its corresponding Scripture passages. Whether we are conscious of this or not, we approach this issue with an idea about what we want to believe. Consequently, we often find what we are looking to find. (Social psychologists call this confirmation bias.) In general, it’s difficult for Christians to admit that their worldview affects their faith-based beliefs. And with this issue in particular, with its intricate layers of emotions and identity questions, I believe it is especially difficult to admit our biases.
But decades of social psychology research reveal that our motivations and experiences greatly influence how we view gender and the roles that we assign (or don’t assign) to genders. For one, we’ve long known that women who possess a traditional gender-role identity are more likely to desire marriage, marry at a younger age, and are less motivated to work outside the home after marriage.1 In other words, our decisions about marriage and marriage roles are motivated by our perspectives on gender roles (which are often passed down to us by our parents).
More recent research has shown that our experiences also influence our gender identities. One study found that school environment influences how much women identify with stereotypically masculine traits (such as independence, assertiveness, willingness to take risks). College women who attended gender-segregated junior high or high school were more likely to identify with stereotypically masculine traits than women who attended coeducational junior high or high school.2 The researchers concluded that in all-female schools, women must take on stereotypically masculine tasks like student body president, as well as stereotypically feminine tasks like student body secretary or liaison to substitute teacher. As a result, they begin to identify with both masculine and feminine characteristics, whereas women who’ve attended coeducational schools typically only identity with feminine characteristics.
This research suggests our perspective on the egalitarian-complementarian debate is heavily influenced by our context and powered by our motivations. When we realize that we bring an intricate web of past experiences and motivations to our examination of issues relating to gender, gender roles, and gender roles in marriage, we can begin to build conversations around self-examination and mutual story-telling, rather than hostile competition.
Honoring the stories that shape us
When we realize that our perspective on this issue is powered in part by our motivations, we are called to deeper humility. When we realize that our interpretation of Scripture is unavoidably biased (and thus potentially inaccurate), we’re more likely to approach conversations with humility, openness, and an eagerness to listen that equals our eagerness to speak. It is with this posture that we must approach this issue.
When we realize that our individual contexts color our perspectives on this issue, we can begin to examine how our personal experiences contribute to our viewpoint (and perhaps become aware of our own biases or inaccuracies). And we can begin to see how other people’s personal experiences contribute to their viewpoint. Theology cannot be separated from biblical context. We see this when we recognize that the entire Christian theology is based on the grand, true story of God and us and that Jesus more often than not communicated theology through story-telling.
And theology cannot be separated from the stories of those it impacts. But more often than not, when mired in debate, we separate theological principles from the their original contexts. Without the context of lived experience, the principles seem naked, insubstantial (through the lenses of our very different stories), and not very compelling. Imagine the irony of slave-holders preaching God’s justice to slaves! When the stories and experiences of the oppressed are ignored, proclamations of justice ring hollow. We must return this debate to the rich world of the contexts that shape us.
Before asking people why they believe what they believe about this issue and before asking them to substantiate their claims with biblical “proof,” try asking them to share their story. And then share your story. In other words, actually get to know each other. Share “brain space” as Paul urges us to do in Philippians 2:2 when he says “be of one mind.” It is from this jumping off point that we can begin to have true relationship-based, empathetic dialogue that can lead to powerful and transformative conversations about gender and marriage.
1. See Bem (1974, 1981, 1985).
2. Katsurada, E. & Sugihara, Y. (2002). Gender-role identity, attitudes toward marriage, and gender-segregated school backgrounds. Sex Roles, 47, 249–258.