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Published Date: April 30, 1998

Published Date: April 30, 1998

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Why I’m an Egalitarian

Chances are that being a male, over 35 years old, ministering in a conservative evangelical denomination, and the product of a “dad-works, mom-at-home” traditional family, I would not be an egalitarian. Chances are that I would be a “New Man,” probably of the Promise Keepers variety, whose maleness has recently been reclaimed and revitalized. I would, as chances go, probably be a man who on the one hand is sympathetic to the feminist cause, listening to and understanding the plight of women throughout the centuries, while on the other hand being a man who has decided to follow “God’s plan” and has taken on the leadership of my family in a gentle but firm way.

But I am not, thank God, a victim of chance. Over my lifetime, throughout the many formative experiences, educational meanderings and ministry adventures, I have been led, I believe, and of course have chosen, to adopt a personal and ministry stance that affirms the equality of women and men, girls and boys, both in God’s eyes and in ours. The influences on the development of this stance are varied and complex, and I readily admit that as a counselor my penchant for self-reflection may be too self-absorbing for some of you to handle. But I trust that through having a glimpse into my story you might be able to reflect more clearly on your own and help others who may be struggling with this issue to move toward greater clarity of their own.

Many evangelicals would believe that this issue, like any issue that affects the life of the church, needs to be settled by turning to the Word of God for instruction. How could I disagree? Increasingly over my lifetime, Scripture has become the standard against which all doctrine and practice within the church must be tested. But one doesn’t have to be a thinking evangelical long to realize that Scripture isn’t always as clear as we would like. “Seeing through the glass darkly” clouds our understanding and causes serious divisions among us. The critical factor is how we approach Scripture. Who we are, what we have experienced in life, the friends and family we interact with, all coalesce in a complex web of perception with which we approach Scripture. Whether we like it or not we are never unbiased. Pure objectivity is never possible in any experience in life, let alone when we interact with Scripture which is the precious, life-defining expression of our faith.

One of the fascinating questions for me is how our life experience intersects with our interpretation of Scripture. It is easy enough to understand how a girl, abused by her minister father, grows up to hate men, reject God and embrace radical feminism. More often than we would like to admit, our personal beliefs and even doctrinal positions are formed in reaction to damaging life experiences and the accompanying powerful and painful emotions. However, unlike some of the hurt and hurting people I have talked to, I was rarely the recipient of explicit negative experiences, especially in regard to gender roles.

Sometimes our beliefs and faith stances are formed from the merging of complementary life experiences into a coherent position. It seems to me that my egalitarian position is more of this latter type of belief. Why is egalitarianism a passion of mine? Quite simply it is because it helps me to make sense of my life experience and fits with my image of God.

I wonder how my maternal grandmother would have reacted to reading the above paragraphs. Would she have understood? I doubt that her view of Scripture was as complex as mine. But without ever knowing it, she is one of those significant influences in developing my egalitarian stance. So, how did she understand her role in ministry? I doubt whether she even asked the question. She simply saw the need to proclaim the Gospel to a lost world. In the early decades of this century, as a young woman with a passion to serve, she attended an evangelical Bible college and subsequently entered full-time pastoral ministry with her fellow student and friend, a woman. These two female preachers led congregations in Ontario for a number of years until they each were married. Grandma carried on as sole pastor for another eight or ten years, preaching twice on Sundays and conducting mid-week Bible studies. During services, her husband led the singing while she played the piano. Then, she would preach while he sat in the front pew with their two daughters, my mom and her sister.

After the church had grown to the size that it could afford a male pastor, Grandma continued in ministry in that congregation, supporting the subsequent male pastors for the rest of her life. She was no longer pastor, but was organist and adult Sunday School teacher. However, there were other ways she continued to support women in ministry without, I expect, even being aware of what she was doing. For example, for decades she was the “home-base” for a single woman missionary who is revered as one of the great missionaries of her denomination.

The stories of these early women church planters, women “city mission workers” and women missionaries in many evangelical denominations are one of the best kept secrets of our evangelical heritage. Many of our churches and missions would simply not exist without them.

Grandma had a profound influence on my father (as well as my mother, of course). Dad became a pastor, Bible college teacher and missionary. As long as I can remember I understood that one of his pet peeves was the reluctance of our denomination to ordain women and recognize the historical and present value of female leadership to the church. The confusing thing for me, however, was that while Dad affirmed women in ministry, Mom was shy, quiet, and resisted any efforts to get “up front.” Ours was very much the traditional family. Dad had his ministry; Mom supported him by looking after the home and the kids, and working in support areas of ministry. Years later when I asked him about how he defined husband and wife roles, he described what is essentially the traditional interpretation of Scripture: the husband is the head, the wife submits. This was confusing, and I told him so. “Women should be equals in ministry, but not in the home? To me that is the height of inconsistency. You are too logical for that, Dad!” He has modified his views since then. (Sons can sometimes teach fathers, too!)

In case you think Dad only talked the talk of an egalitarian in terms of ministry, let me tell you about my sister. Personality-wise I take after Mom; my sister takes after Dad. He, in practical ways, affirmed her in ministry. He opened doors for her to be paid pastoral staff in the areas of music and Christian education with full authority to develop those programs. He worked with men who at times had trouble with this young, single, talented female go-getter who insisted on excellence and creativity. They worked together for a number of years in successful ministry. My sister also modeled to me, her younger adoring brother, what it means to be a woman and have a fulfilling and effective ministry.

Other life experiences also impacted me. Again many of them were positive, especially the other warm, caring women who were part of my life. I think of the Japanese nanny who cared for me, the Kenyan dorm mother I had at boarding school, and the special woman teachers whom I fondly remember throughout my schooling. Of course, not all the women in my life were as affirming as these, and neither were all the men negative influences. However, my overall impression from my life is that women are warm, men are a bit cool. Men, in my experience as a child, and confirmed in much of my adult experience, seemed obsessed with competitiveness and control. Although, in order to try to fit into this world, I played and enjoyed football and lacrosse, I wrestled and fought, I never felt that this approach to life fit “me.” Women, on the other hand, seemed less inclined to this explicit aggressiveness, and so women were “safer” to be with. My own personality, in essence, forced me to broaden my definition of maleness, and in so doing opened up my perception of the diverse definitions of femininity available to women.

As a result, the issue of roles in marriage was never a substantial one for me. I guess being on the more tolerant/ passive side of the dominance scale, I never had any strong desire to control anyone, or be responsible for anyone else’s life. As often happens, as the youngest male sibling, I married an oldest female sibling. The power war should have been on, but it never was. Neither my wife, Heather, nor I would have any idea who has more power in our relationship. It is, to the best of our knowledge, an egalitarian relationship.

Feminism was never part of my wife’s agenda; it still isn’t. She was raised in a family with two sisters. Her eastern European father, not having a son, simply gave his girls the message that they could and should do vocationally whatever they wanted. Heather had her MA at age 23 and was working as a therapist within months of graduating. From her life she has two significant memories about the role of women. The first was while living in the Islamic nation of Pakistan. At the age of twelve she remembers accompanying her father to the police station to report a car accident. Chatting with Heather’s father, the officer asked how many children he had. Her dad answered with pride, “three daughters.” The officer responded, “Oh, that’s too bad!” Suddenly, the world was not as affirming as she had thought.

The second incident she remembers was while counseling a pastor. He had to leave the ministry and began to attend another church. The pastor of the new church insisted that if Heather’s client was to attend the church, he could not see a female counselor since this was counter to the authority hierarchy established in Scripture.

Other than those incidents, Heather has felt free to be and do exactly what God has called her to do. She wishes all women could say that. However, to be completely truthful, there is one other incident that relates to both Heather’s and my coming to a deeper understanding of gender. Heather and I get silly every now and again, and sometimes we even play wrestle! A few years ago we were having some fun and I had her pinned to the floor. She clearly made it known that she wanted to stop, and we did. Discussing what had just happened I learned what it was for me as a male to have complete physical power over someone, and Heather learned what it was like to be completely dominated by someone, to be powerless. The accompanying emotions are not uncommon to many men and women in our still too-violent culture, but they were new to us, and new to our relationship. We cannot ignore the fact that in our egalitarian marriage ultimately I as a male am physically stronger. Nor can we, in more recent years (since she spends more time at home with our boys), ignore the fact that I earn more money than she does. We cannot escape the subtle and pervasive ways in which physical strength and money are intricately correlated with power in our society.

How do we still have an egalitarian marriage given these fundamental inequities in our society and between men and women? Thankfully, because of our faith we believe it is possible to transcend, not escape, the influence of culture and biological determinism. As a man, I am more than my strength. As a primary wage-earner, I am more than my earning potential. The values that form the core of the egalitarian worldview are ultimately transcendent values. They are the values of justice, mercy, “the last shall be first,” self-sacrificial love and God-given giftedness to achieve his work. The values of the Christian faith are values that open up new possibilities in relating to others, and overcoming the limitations of the curses in Genesis chapter three.

On a practical level we have an egalitarian marriage because I do not believe I have the right to say to Heather, “you may not do this” or “you must do that.” The foundation of our marriage is to communicate about our differences, to resist the tendency to be intimidated into silence or deception when we know the other will disagree, and to never resort to threat to resolve disagreements. In our efforts at conflict resolution we refuse to use power to make decisions. It means that to this day Heather continues to do things I disagree with, and in my transcendent moments, I can rejoice that she feels the freedom to pursue what she feels God is desiring for her. In my carnal moments it still really bugs me and I wish I could say, “No!”

It is because of these transcendent values that have been pounded into my being over years of family influence, church involvement, theological education, and the joys and sorrows of ministering to hurting people, that I am an egalitarian.

In my work as a marital therapist, I see the consequences of abuse of power in relationships that permeate our lives. It is everywhere, at times obvious and at times subtle. It permeates our churches, our institutions, our society. Power itself is not evil; power over another is. God’s way, expressed in Christ’s life, is to empower others—to give power away so that everyone is free to be whole in Christ. Is this idealistic in a power-hungry world? Perhaps, but I’d rather hold on to the glimpses of the ideal that I have seen and experienced than to succumb to a world in which Christianity believes that men inherently have the right to control the lives of women and children. The Gospel is freeing; hierarchies among equals are at best an accommodation to a fallen world.

These are the “gender lenses” with which I go to Scripture to discover what God says about women and men, ministry and relationships. And what I find is narrative after narrative of how God works in people’s lives to bring freedom from self-centeredness, from injustice, from abusive power relationships and meaning for life in serving God and others. The early church also wrestled with gender issues, and some of their experiences and solutions are highly instructive. Principles like Spirit-giftedness for ministry, mutual submission, peacemaking, unity with diversity, and forgiveness are forged in the early church for us to adopt and implement in our efforts to be the church. It is this vision of Christian faith that motivates me to press onward and to speak up in sharing this vision.