Thursday, June 25, 2009

Complementarian or Egalitarian?

It's hard to talk about this subject without everyone agreeing on the definition of each word. For example, the words "head," "authority" and "submission." These three words can get bandied about and change definition from person to person.

So for "head," I see the man as the "head of the line" in his family, not like the head on top of the neck (reference "My Big, Fat Greek Wedding"). He leads the way, but not because he is better, or smarter, or anything-er. He and his wife are in fact both foot soldiers of equal rank and the general is the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ has put one of His foot soldiers at the front of the line. In fact, the smart man has his wife right next to him, not stuck behind him, as they go along the way. In a healthy marriage, in my opinion, there is no need for the man to pull rank (since he has none), or to demand that he get the heavier vote when there is a dispute (as submission is so often described to me). In a healthy marriage, both foot soldiers inquire of the general when there is a dispute and wait until both agree they've heard Him "rightly."

For "authority," I see Jesus carefully pointing out that arguing about who gets to be at the top of the pyramid really doesn't "get" what being in Him is all about. We all of us would actually be already "eldering" each other and not really concerning ourselves at all with who is eldering more, who has been noticed as an elder, or anything like that. As to making decisions for a group...whatever way we believers do this, it really is not to look like the way the pagans do it; that's what the Lord Jesus told His disciples. But we've adopted the way of the pagans anyway, some lording it over others, creating these man-made authority structures.

People gravitate towards those who have a natural authority in them. We've all met people like this, who are good at leading, building up the group, drawing out the best in everyone, making being a group together something bigger than the sum of its parts; someone who people enjoy following. A leader of leaders is the same way, though that kind of leading is different than a leading a group of followers. Getting a diploma, having hands laid on, neither of these things make a person a leader. People naturally follow real leaders, and the love it. That's organic "authority," as to mechanical authority which is contained in a role that can be filled by anyone (whether well, or poorly)

In the microcosm of a family, the natural leader may very well be the woman. If she is worth her weight, she will bring out the best in her husband, and build him up in faith, and help in every way she can to reach his full potential. And if he is a wise man, he wil recognize her strengths and celebrate them. I think that's what David saw in Abigail. I think that's what the writer of Proverbs 31 saw in his wife (I know, I know, Solomon. But perhaps he collected these sayings, and remembered many of them from his own father). Perhaps that's what Lappidoth saw in Deborah, and Aquilla saw in Priscilla, and Andronicus saw in Junia. I think it takes a powerful man who is settled in who he is to be able to do that.

As to submission, this word has often been used as a club (as in heavy item with spikes on one end to pound down the impertinent) in my hearing. Sometimes heavy handedly, and sometimes ever so gently. But still.

All the effervescence, joy and sheer thrill of living by faith and love is gutted from this word when it becomes a legal transaction. I don't think this word means the wife has to "give in" to the husband's decisions. The way it's taught, even if the wife is the one who is educated in an area, has experience there, has connections, or ability or domain in a particular are, it's her husband who lands the decisions, and she must "submit" to what he wants. But he's the man, you see. he's the head. He has authority. So she, with all her experience and education, is shut down. She has to "submit."

This kind of "submit" is bereft of all the beauty I see elsewhere in the description of living by faith, abiding in Christ, Philippians 1 and 2 and so on. The church has done a real disservice to this otherwise intelligent and God-fearing woman and her husband. How much better for them to explore this idea one step at a time, asking God to show them each next thing to do, and wait for His response.

Submission is mutual in a marriage. One to another, Philippians style. If a husband and wife are in every way seeking to build each other up in the Lord, helping each other, and together looking to Christ as their mutual Head...this is what I think best illustrates the living parable that marriage is. What Jesus did for His church was set aside all the privileges and dignity of His glory, became a servant and lay down His life, for He loves the church so much. Husband lays down his life. What the church does in response is to become vulnerable to Christ, setting aside all ego to belong entirely to Him because she can trust Him. Wife does that. Neither one "stands on their rights," but rather sets all that aside to be one with each other, serving each other. If this dynamic were always in play, there would never need to be an argument about who gets to make the decisions, pull rank, be the boss, "submit" to the club and so on.

So in the whole complementarian / egalitarian thing, the questions of authority and submission, and who can hold office and so on revolves around this man-made structure of roles in the church. The reason why Phoebe is an outlier is right there in many translations of the Bible, notably the NIV, where she is not acknowledged as a deacon, but as a servant. Stephen is a deacon because men can hold the man-made role of "deacon" in today's church structure; but since women can't in several denominations, Phoebe can not be a "deacon."

Junia can't be a woman if Paul is talking about apostles because women "can't" be apostles. Therefore Paul (or somebody) made a typo and it's "Junias," or "Junia" was simply highly regarded among the apostles.

Lydia is an outlier if she was one of the leaders of the church who met in her home.

I've had my emotional upheavals, trying to come to grips with the teaching (today teaching) on these passages. It's a relief to know that there are strengths and weaknesses in both the complementarian and egalitarian approaches, and probably, as with many things, the truth is somehwere in the middle!

If this post got you to thinking, please leave a comment and join the conversation


  1. The King James Version was translated with a bias to hierarchy and the male gender. This was because King James would not approve nor allow it to be any other way. Most of the other translations of the Bible have been translated from the King James Version. This is why we need to know the Greek and Hebrew in order to get a true reading and understanding. The entire Bible is about Christ and His Bride. They are one body, and as far as I have always known, a body only has one head.

  2. Amen to that! Any time we insert a human being as our "head," between us and the Lord, we've erred against God.


Thank you for sharing your thoughts