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Published Date: January 17, 2011

Published Date: January 17, 2011

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Unity in Difference

Equal and Complementary was a hierarchical-complementarian conference held recently in Melbourne, Australia and organised by an informal working group.

Kevin Giles, a prominent evangelical-egalitarian, has written a lengthy response to the conference.

Giles spends a lot of time discussing Greek words like exousia and authentein. It may seem that continued discussion about such words won’t move the discussion forward. But Giles’ definition of ‘moving forward’ may differ from how others see it. He sees the issue as having the same impact in our society as slavery did last century. Retrospectively, we would not say slave owners and liberationists agreeing to disagree about slavery (but affirming their shared belief in the glory of God, reflected in humanity), is evidence of ‘moving forward’. Likewise, we must do more than simply agree to disagree on different interpretations on the Bible. The slavery example can be called an emotive and inadequate comparison, but ‘the woman issue’ looms large for many women and men in today’s churches.

Giles turns to the Bible, the site of the disagreement, because he must use it to challenge the source of hierarchical-complementarians’ views. As Giles says, ‘To settle the matter the two sides need to sit down and honestly assess the [Biblical] evidence” (p. 34).

As highlighted in his response, some of the Reformed slave owners wouldn’t have changed their views without the convincing presentation of a different interpretation of the Bible.

In egalitarian/complementarian discourse and that of other so-called ‘secondary’ issues, it seems that a dichotomy between unity and truth exists. Evangelicals are wary of unity with other Christians when it seems truth may be compromised, emphasising verses like 2 Tim 4:2-5. On the other hand, other evangelicals and, at the extreme end, liberals, prioritise Christian unity e.g. John 17:21-23. The challenge is: how can we be unified yet hold onto truth?

People on both ‘sides’ emphasise that the truth of their interpretation must supersede unity. People closer to the ‘unity’ end of the spectrum use Paul’s language of ‘first importance’ in 1 Cor 15:3 to differentiate between ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ issues. They label the Gospel a ‘first order’ concern, and the place of women, a ‘second order’ matter. This seems like an apt solution to being unified but not losing truth.

But what happens to a distressed individual when we are unified in our difference of opinion? Discussions of first and second order fail to validate their being. For instance, let’s take Giles’ example:

“Let’s imagine what the Black man would think when a Reformed and evangelical white man in the Apartheid days said to him, ‘the Bible says we are truly equal but your role must always be subordinate to mine. I am born to lead; you are born to be under my authority. Simply because of your skin colour given in birth you can never have a leadership role.’ I suspect the black man, would say to himself, ‘This is a funny kind of equality: it has no content in the world in which I live’” (p 28).

Accordingly, I remain unconvinced by hierarchical-complementarians’ insistence that the nature of a woman’s being, as equal with men, has no bearing on their ‘equal but different’ role. I thus support Groothius’ analysis that function and essence have a dynamic and inseparable relationship. In Groothius’ words,

“Regardless of how hierarchicalists try to explain the situation, the idea that women are equal in their being, yet unequal by virtue of their being, is contradictory and ultimately nonsensical” (Rebecca Groothius, ‘Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997, p.p. 53,55).

How then, do we work with someone of a different view?

Whilst each ‘side’ challenges the views of the other, unity in love and in our purpose of bringing the Gospel to others must be expressed more readily by all.

Here are three suggestions we could all agree on

  1. To pray that God would inform our view of Scripture, and change our views as necessary
  2. To be open to changing our ideas through discussion
  3. To refrain from using a particular position as a ‘badge’ of theological orthodoxy.

In the past, my ‘solution’ to working with hierarchical-complementarians has been to humble myself, giving up any roles I’d like to have, like Christ in Philippians 2. I think this is an appropriate response. But this response itself does not change the situation. In certain contexts, I choose to not grasp social equality with men.

Let me make myself clear: making the Gospel known is of primary importance. But once this is prioritised, the significance of the issue of biblical equality requires that I humbly continue to present a different view. Being told that one’s skin colour prevented you from performing certain ‘roles’ had little currency for many black people. I suspect that many women in today’s churches remain similarly unconvinced.

*I’m aware that the language of ‘sides’ in this post is unhelpful for promoting unity. I apologise that I was unable to find a better term.

Elizabeth Culhane was born in Marvellous Melbourne, Australia’s second biggest (but the best) city in the south of the continent. She studies at Melbourne uni, having just completed a BA in History and Politics, and will continue with History Honours in 2011. She is also undertaking some volunteer work for CMS (Church Missionary Society) interviewing and writing up the stories of former missionaries. She loves God, new and challenging ideas, and books, in that order.