4 Common Misconceptions About Egalitarianism

This is the second post in our series, One In Christ: A Week of Mutuality, dedicated to discussing an egalitarian view of gender—including relevant biblical texts and practical applications.  The goal is to show how scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all support a posture of equality toward women, one that favors mutuality rather than hierarchy, in the home, Church, and society. Morning posts will generally focus on biblical texts. Afternoon posts will generally focus on practical application. (Check out the first post:Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?)

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Just as no two complementarians are the same, so no two egalitarians are the same. (See our definition of terms, if you’re already confused.) And so what follows is an imperfect list, based solely on my own experience. The purpose is simply to expose what I’ve noticed to be recurring assumptions about what it means to be egalitarian, assumptions that do not reflect my own views as someone who believes men and women should work together, without hierarchy, to grow the Kingdom in the home, church, and world. The most common assumptions regarding egalitarianism that I’ve encountered include: 

1. “Egalitarians don’t believe there are any differences between men and women.” 

This point is probably the most controversial because egalitarians differ among themselves regarding the degree to which differences between men and women are socially constructed. But it’s also the most common response I hear from complementarians when they find out I’m egalitarian. “I can’t be egalitarian,” they say, “because I believe there are differences between men and women.” (We saw this in the comment section earlier today.) 

Well, here’s the thing:  I’m egalitarian, and I believe there are differences between men and women too. Some are (clearly) biological, others are (possibly) biological, and still others are socially conditioned. What makes me egalitarian is the fact that I do not believe those differences to be universal, prescriptive, or indicative of hierarchy. 

For example, I believe it is fair to say that men are, generally speaking, physically stronger than women. However, I would never say that a man who, for whatever reason, cannot do as many pushups as his sister is not a “real man.” That men are physically stronger than women is not universally true (some women are stronger than some men), nor is it prescriptive (men don’t have to be physically stronger than the women in their lives in order to please God), nor is it indicative of hierarchy (the fact that many men are stronger than their wives does not automatically endow them with more authority). 

One of my biggest concerns about literature coming out of the contemporary “biblical manhood and womanhood” movement is that it tends to relegate certain traits to certain genders, and then pit those traits against one another. “Real men” are supposed to be “strong,” “responsible,” “sacrificial,” and “protective,” while “real women” are supposed to be “gentle,” “compassionate,” “nurturing,” and “meek. “ But if you’re like me, you know plenty of strong, responsible, and sacrificial women, just as you know plenty of compassionate, nurturing, and humble men.  (One poor commenter generated a firestorm a few weeks ago when he said that men are specially called by God to “do the hard things,” much to the chagrin of every female reader who had given birth to a baby!) 

In fact, contrary to popular belief, the Bible not only instructs women to nurture a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:4), but also men (Galatians 5:23; Philippians 4:5). Jesus himself is described as having just such a spirit (Matthew 11:28).  This is why John Piper’s call for a “masculine” Christianity and Mark Driscoll’s warnings against a “feminine” worship are so distasteful and confusing. Masculinity and femininity are fluid, relative, and difficult to pin down. And, contrary to what many of these leaders seem to be suggesting, one is not preferable to the other, in the Church or in worship.

 As an egalitarian I believe that a truly complementary relationship is one in which differences are celebrated, but not forced. If your marriage is like mine, this means that the complementary differences between you and your spouse often fall into gender stereotypes (I am more emotional; Dan is more even-keeled), but not always (Dan is better at nurturing relationships than I am; I am more competitive). Rather than trying to force our personalities and our roles into prescribed molds based on gender, it just makes more sense to allow our natural difference to enhance and challenge one another. We lead where we are strong; we defer where we are weak. 

(For more on this, see my post, “It’s not complementarianism; it’s patriarchy.")

2. “Egalitarians are against traditional gender roles.” 

This is probably the second most common assumption people make about egalitarianism, and it simply isn’t true.

I have many female friends who have assumed more “traditional” roles as stay-at-home moms and homemakers, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for them. They are doing important, God-honoring work that undoubtedly shapes the Kingdom. 

But so is my friend who is a full-time pharmacist and mother of two. So is my single friend who teaches art at the college level. So is my sister who works, often overtime, for a nonprofit organization. So is my mom, who is the best fourth grade teacher in the history of the world, (not that I’m biased or anything). Being egalitarian doesn’t mean being against traditional gender roles; it means being for the many roles through which women can bring glory to God and love to their neighbors. 

Simply put, the difference between my views and those of most complementarians is that I don’t believe God requires women to assume “traditional” gender roles in order to please Him. (I put “traditional” in quotes because our conception of what constitutes “traditional” is typically influenced more by our Western, relatively privileged, culture than that of the ancient Near Eastern world in which the Bible was written.)   Furthermore, as an egalitarian, I don’t believe that household chores must be assigned based on gender. One of my concerns about some expressions of complementarianism is this idea that“male leadership” somehow precludes the washing of dishes, folding of laundry, changing of diapers, etc., so that such work is the exclusive responsibility of women.  This notion is completely contrary to the teachings and example of Jesus and is found nowhere in Scripture—not even, as it often assumed, Proverbs 31.  (I’ll be writing more about this on Thursday.) 

Furthermore, as an egalitarian, I am troubled by the common teaching from the Church that “motherhood is a woman’s highest calling.” A woman’s highest calling is to follow Jesus Christ. End of story. And she can do that if she is married, single, divorced, widowed, a mother, or childless. (And I suspect there would be quite a few complementarians who would agree with me on that!) 

(For more, see my post, “Finding God’s Presence in the Kitchen and the Board Room”)


3. “Egalitarian marriages suffer from lack of leadership.” 

Actually, the research seems to suggest that the opposite is true. Multiple studies indicate that couples who describe their marriage as “egalitarian” are more likely to classify it as a happy one than those who describe their marriage as “traditional.” In some cases, the differences are significant. (Dennis J. Preato presented a paper summarizing several of  these studies at the 2004 Evangelical Theological Society Meeting, which you can read here.) 

Dan and I are often asked by complementarians how, without a hierarchal structure, we make difficult life decisions together. “When push comes to shove,” they ask, “who gets the final call?”  

We never really know how to respond to this question because, frankly we don’t do a lot of “pushing and shoving” in our relationship. We’ve never reached the great hypothetical impasse that folks seem so curious about. Even when we disagree, we find compromises based on multiple factors, not a gender-based trump card.  After nearly nine years, this team-based approach does not seem to have had any negative consequences on our marriage. If anything, I’d say it has strengthened it. I can’t speak for every egalitarian marriage, of course, but I can honestly report that our marriage is a happy one. 

This doesn’t mean that all egalitarian marriages are healthy and all complementarian marriages are unhealthy. By no means! Many of my complementarian friends seem incredibly happy in their relationships. It just means that egalitarian relationships do not appear to suffer from a lack of hierarchy; if anything, they benefit from it. 

(For more, see my friend Sarah Bessey’s beautiful post, “In which love looks like real marriage...” as well asPreato's analysis of the marriage data.)


4. “Egalitarians don’t take the Bible seriously.” 

I confess this one kinda gets under my skin, so much so that I wrote a post about it last year entitled “Complementarians are selective too.” Here’s an excerpt from what I say there: 

Complementarians often say that what’s at stake in this debate is the authority of Scripture, an authority that is compromised whenever Christians fail to live by “every word” of the Bible. But Piper’s response reveals that not even complementarians live by every word of the Bible. Complementarians do not require women to cover their heads in prayer (1 Corinthians 11:5), or remain entirely silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34, 1 Timothy 2:12) or  abstain from wearing jewelry (1 Peter 3:3), or abide by the Levitical Purity Laws that make them ceremonially unclean during their periods. 

We need to get to a point in this debate where we can start with the presupposition that 1) both Christian complementarians and Christian egalitarians respect the authority of Scripture, and 2) both complementarians and egalitarians are selective in their application of Scripture.

We don’t disagree on the value of Scripture; we disagree on exactly how to apply it. 

This is not mere “picking and choosing.” Our rationales for selectivity are often thoughtful and reasoned. I think most complementarians would agree that Christians don’t need to live by “every word” of the Bible, that there are things to consider like Old Law vs. New Law, universal commands vs. culturally specific commands. We are all selective, so let’s stop accusing those who select differently than we do of usurping the authority of Scripture.

It seems to me that the actual debate is not between those who support the authority of Scripture and those who reject the authority of Scripture, but between those who believe that Scripture most consistently presents hierarchy as the ideal and those who believe that Scripture most consistently presents hierarchy as less than ideal. This leaves BOTH sides with some explaining to do...because neither position is air-tight.

For more, see my posts, “Better Conversations About Biblical Womanhood, Part 1” and “Better Conversations About Biblical Womanhood, Part 2”)

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What other common misconceptions have you experienced—about either complementarianism or egalitarianism? (I realize I may have made some of those assumptions here myself. So, if I have, please let me know!) 

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1.  Write a post around the theme of mutuality in the Church, home, and world. 
2. Share your post on Twitter using #mutuality2012, and it will show up in the live scroll here on the blog.
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