Where’s the Line? A Personal Journey Toward Equality

by David C. Cramer | September 12, 2013

A while back a friend asked me my thoughts on gender issues and, particularly, a certain prominent “complementarian” organization. Here’s what I had to share about my personal journey:

In high school and college I was a sure “complementarian,” based on arguments such as those of such of the organization alluded to above and the biblical texts often cited to support such views. I remember having arguments with one of my egalitarian professors about how he could possibly view this issue otherwise. Then in my second semester of seminary in a New Testament epistles class taught by a prominent complementarian scholar, he presented his soft complementarian view, concluding that each of us should decide what the biblical line is for women’s leadership and empower women in every area up to that line (but not to cross it). So, I started looking through the biblical texts. Of course there are those couple of Pauline passages to deal with. If these passages are to be universalized, they seem to indicate that women should be silent in church and keep their heads covered. Certainly that is not the line. So, what is it? Throughout Acts and elsewhere, women seem to be empowered to teach others, including men (e.g. Apollos). Is the line preaching to other men in church? Perhaps, but the first century church had nothing like the polity of our churches, with a clear “senior pastor” and weekly “sermons.” People met together in homes and read the Word and discussed it. So, the preaching pastor line seems somewhat artificial too.

In the end, I found myself having much difficulty finding that elusive line. Even strong complementarian churches often allow women to become missionaries, which more often than not includes teaching men. This strikes me as a clear double-standard, if not downright racism (i.e., it’s okay for foreigners, but not for us).

Since I couldn’t find a biblical line, I took a different approach. I tried to find a solid theological basis for the view. Suddenly my perspective radically changed. I simply couldn’t find a compelling theological reason for not allowing women to teach. Complementarians are fond of quoting their two or three key texts, but they fail to provide the theological motivations underlying those texts. They appeal to Genesis as well, but what exactly is that supposed to teach us theologically? Adam and Eve weren’t preaching to each other. How was I to ground my view that women can’t teach men in the fact that Eve was created second? Does it teach that women are intrinsically spiritually or intellectually inferior? No. That women are incapable of exegeting the Greek or making a solid homiletical outline? No. But they were created second, so that must mean something, right? As best as I can tell, it teaches that they aren’t superior. As Paul continues in 1 Cor. 11, women came from man, but man is born of women. Thus, they are not independent of each other.

Rather, when looking at the entire scope of the gospel message, I think we see some overarching theological themes emerging: unity, equality, and freedom in Christ. Sure, the complementarian will say that “in Christ” we are equal (salvifically), but still we are not equal in authority or whatever. But that doesn’t seem to be the whole of the gospel message. I think we find in Paul’s epistles his reaction to the over-reaction by some to the gospel message. Onesimus becomes a Christian and realizes his equality with his master, yet instead of letting Omesimus continue on the run, Paul sends him back to his master with the message that they are brothers. Some of the women in these early churches realized that in Christ, they no longer have to be held down by social oppression, so they go overboard and start a ruckus in church meetings. Paul writes to tell them to settle down, reminding them that, after all, their new freedom doesn’t make them intrinsically better than men. Rather, he reminds them that like Eve, they are prone to sin (just as like Adam, men are).

All that to say, I respectfully disagree with much of what the complementarian organization has to say. I used to view things precisely through that lens, but I now find that the message of the gospel is much more radical than they are willing to admit. Now, does that mean that women don’t make better mothers and men better fathers? Of course not. On the other hand, do I feel unduly influenced by “liberal feminism” when my wife goes to her job, and I do some of the housekeeping? Of course not. My wife’s position in the professional world and my chores at home do not in any way contribute to the break down of family structures and society. And there isn’t much that complementarians could tell me that would cause me to think differently.