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Published Date: May 1, 2019

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Egalitarians: When Do We Overturn A Table and When Do We Sit At One?

One of the main speakers at a conference I recently attended was a preacher from a complementarian church plant. In his sermon, he delivered a powerful call to social justice. Still, I couldn’t stomach the uneasy feeling that the message was tainted by his theology of gender.

Questions ran through my head as he spoke: How did he view the women whom his social justice programs intended to help? Were there young women in his congregation longing but unable to answer God’s call to leadership? Why had he been invited to speak on social justice when he sustains and promotes an oppressive, unjust theology?

Furious, I challenged the preacher after the service. For fifteen minutes, the conversation went round in circles. We achieved little with our anger, only fueling each other’s hurt and frustration. Though I felt my outrage over his position was justified, I wondered if there was a better way to disagree.

Throughout the New Testament, we see repeated calls to church unity. Perhaps the most famous instance is Paul’s writing in Romans 12:3-8:

“For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prohesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.”

Honestly, I struggle with this call to unity. More often than not, I want to sideline those whose theology says that my worth is tied to my womanhood. When someone says I can’t hold leadership positions in their church due to my gender, the last thing I want to do is accept and love them as a brother (or sister) in Christ.

I struggle, too, with how the body of Christ sometimes misemploys the call to Christian unity just to preserve the status quo. Too often, we the church twist the mandate to love our neighbor to stifle or marginalize the calls of the oppressed. How many times do we use phrases such as “let’s not get political,” “challenging your brothers so aggressively isn’t very godly,” or “turn the other cheek!” to step around the actual justice issue being raised?

Many of us are familiar with Paul’s primary metaphor for the church: one body with many parts. This suggests an exact opposite ethic than we sometimes see in the church: we need not be afraid of disrupting harmony within the body of Christ by graciously challenging and questioning each other.

The body has many parts—it’s full of many people with many different perspectives and gifts. By working together and exposing each other’s blind spots, we can truly learn and grow together. In other words, we shouldn’t avoid necessary conflict just to preserve a shadow of true peace.

Yet, Paul’s metaphor also means that I can’t fully dismiss the parts of the body with whom I vehemently disagree. As hard as it sometimes it to accept, those who believe in Jesus but don’t agree with my egalitarian position are still my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Romans 12 isn’t an easy message to grapple with.

The beauty of authentic Christian unity is that it gives us the freedom to challenge our brothers and sisters when we believe they’re causing harm. It also requires us to listen to the voices who challenge us.

Let me be perfectly clear: unity does not mean accepting complementarian theology or allowing harmful and oppressive ideas to persist. We’re still called to boldly challenge injustice wherever we see it. But it does mean we can’t dismiss as beloved children of God those who disagree with us about gender roles.

Unsurprisingly, Jesus is the best example of how to both love and challenge others. In sheer righteous indignation, Jesus turned tables over in the temple. He also patiently took time to listen and teach people—explaining himself to his followers in relatable ways and gently helping them to see where they were blind to injustices.

Recently, some of my friends prayed for me. To my surprise, they spoke the following words over me:

“I pray Hannah does not lose her anger.”

“I pray Hannah’s heart does not soften.”

“I pray Hannah continues to challenge us.”

Our call to unity within the body of Christ has to be more nuanced than blind acceptance of injustice. It must include embracing difficult, status-quo upending conversations while showing regard for the imago Dei in all people.

It’s okay to be angry at the structural sin that pervades our church. It’s okay to feel the hurt caused by the church. It’s okay to leave a church with a toxic theology. In fact, there are times where we’re called to flip tables.  

Sometimes though, we refrain from challenging something said from the pulpit for fear of appearing too confrontational, ungodly, or even like “hysterical women.” In those moments of silence, we could have and should have spoken up. Other times, we rush into attacking someone without taking time to pause and show them grace. And yet, how many times have others shown us grace in order to help us learn? Shouldn’t we extend that same Christian love to others who want to do better?

Sometimes, love in the body of Christ looks like standing up against injustice—boldly challenging and calling out. And sometimes, love in the body of Christ looks like the fellowship of the last supper—relationship building and allowing space for grace to flow. If we truly believe in both the redemptive and transformative work of the Spirit, we need to develop a more nuanced view of Christian unity, one with space for both grace and prophetic critique.