Thursday, June 21, 2007

Egalitarianism, Complementarianism, and Ministry

I've been following discussions of women in ministry on such forums as Jesus Creed, and Better Bibles Blog. It's rather a tangential issue for me: my fellowship doesn't prevent women from ministerial licensing or ordination; on the other hand, there are not a lot of women who are in positions of senior leadership in my fellowship either. Having watched this debate in as close to a position of objectivity as is possible, it seems to me that the debate is framed in terms of a significant misunderstanding of one another's positions, and a significant misunderstanding on the part of both sides of what ministry is.

The two primary terms in this debate are complementarianism and egalitarianism. The egalitarian position asserts that it is part of God's overall plan to erase distinctions of status and authority among the people of God. The key verse here would probably be Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." The argument here would be that what God has accomplished ontologically, as a spiritual reality, He also would want to make a visible reality in the lives, relationships, and organization of those who compose His Body.

The complementarian position acknowledges that with regard to our status before God, we are indeed equally sinners and equally saved by the mercy of God and the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf. Nonetheless, complementarians would argue that there remain positions of authority and submission, even within the Godhead, and our human relationships reflect that. There is no one passage that epitomizes this point of view, but a good contender would be 1 Corinthians 11:3: "Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God." Without getting into the thorny issues regarding what headship means in this verse, it seems to imply some sort of relationship other than mere side-by-side equality. Complementarians would argue that the relationship between Jesus and the Father was, among other things, one of authority and submission, and that that same relationship would exist among men and women, or at least among husbands and wives specifically. The central idea is that we do not image God as mere individuals, but in relationship with one another, and the relationships that image God are, once again, not merely those of side-by-side equality.

The reason why I say that the debate is framed largely in terms of a significant misunderstanding of one another's positions is this: egalitarians do not seem to be able to conceive of the complementarian position as describing any relationship other than authoritarian domination and abject submission, and complementarians do not seem to be able to conceive of the egalitarian position as anything other than radical individualism, an insistence that there cannot and must not be any differentiation between any two persons, and that each person has an equal right to any position and any measure of authority. Both views are mischaracterizations.

One thing that the Bible focuses on very strongly is our mutual interdependence. That's precisely what the metaphor of the "body" of Christ is used for. We are not pennies in a roll, equal and undifferentiated; we are various "members" with differing gifts, gifts which make us interdependent, since no one person has them all. That is God's design for His people; quite frankly, He wants to force us to be dependent on one another. The odd thing about that is that it is mostly egalitarians who emphasize this mutual interdependence, even though it implies something of a complementarian position. Because the main point of complementarianism is (or should be) not dominance and subservience, but the fact that we complement one another to form a whole that none of us can fill on our own.

Egalitarians will respond: "We agree that all this is true. What we deny is that God does not give the gifts that imply authority only to one gender." And they may be right. I happen to think that they are right. But they are not necessarily right; that is to say, gifts are gifts, and God can give them to whomever He pleases, for whatever reasons He sees fit. Nobody has a right to a gift; the two terms are mutually exclusive. Egalitarians commonly argue, regarding 1 Timothy 2:12, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent," that Paul is dealing with a local issue involving women at Ephesus. What this implicitly acknowledges is that under certain circumstances, God may in fact rightly place restrictions on one group that He does not on another. Because after all, they are His gifts to give, His ministries to fill.

And this is where I think that both sides misunderstand what ministry is. Ministry isn't about authority; it's about service--that's what the word means. And it's not about the right to self-expression on the part of the one ministering; it's about meeting the needs of those who are being ministered to. As someone who has been in and out of a few different types of formal ministry, I hardly know what those who are agitating for their "right" to minister are after. The best medicine might well be for them to get what they want. The slings and arrows of ministry--the second-guessing, the opposition, the pettiness, the politics--fall on anyone who ministers.

I find it an odd little contradiction that those in the emerging movement tend both toward affirming women in formalized positions of ministry and being skeptical of formal ministry itself. Perhaps we need to stop focusing on formal ministry and simply focus on service. Serve however we can, wherever we can, whatever our individual circumstances. I know that this doesn't answer all the questions people have, and they're worthwhile questions to explore. But it seems to me that whether Junia was an apostle or what exactly head coverings meant might be less important than asking myself the question, "What can I do, here and now, today, to represent Jesus to my world?"

Come to think of it, Jesus never had a position of formal ministry. And He managed to accomplish a few things.

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  1. Good post. In my experience, moderate egalitarians and moderate complementarians are nearly identical in practice. Much like moderate Calvinist ad moderate Arminians. As it is with most of these arguments, a little humility would do both sides a world of good.

  2. Keith,

    I am a bit disappointed in how you represent my posts. My main concern is about trying to find a literal Bible. I wonder why so few people wish to have an accurate Bible when it comes to the verses concerning women.

    Now you may say that I should not spend my time on worrying about Bible translation but on Christian ministry. But this is my hobby - I work with the learning disabled by day. I blog about my concern for a common Bible for the church.

    I know many people feel this is a waste of time because most people really are theologically motivated to choose a Bible which accords with their beliefs and don't care about whether it is literal or not. What do you think? Is this a concern or should we just read any Bible and get on with it.

    I often think that myself and at school I use a Good News Bible. How do you choose a Bible?

  3. Hi Suzanne,

    I'm quite sorry; I wasn't trying to represent your posts, in particular, at all. I was just throwing a link back to a few places where I had been reading about the topic. I chose WLBA as the topic heading at BBB because I couldn't find a better overarching category, and I didn't want just to link to the blog itself, since it's larger than just this one issue. As a matter of fact, I rather like where you've landed in this whole thing, and I think it's interesting that an old standard does better than most modern versions, possibly because the issues hadn't come to a head, so the translators could just translate what they saw, and not worry about what would be the implications if we translate this way or that.

    You write that your concern is trying to find a literal bible. Just as you wrote on your own blog some time ago that you're not clear on what "word for word" means, I'm not clear on what "literal" means. Usually, when people talk about a literal translation, they mean something rather wooden and non-interpretive (e.g., NASB). I think that what you mean is whatever expresses the original intention of the author most accurately and clearly. I agree with that ideal, although it's a subjective criterion. If we always knew what the author's original intention was, there would be no problem.

    I use a variety of translations, although I've generally stayed away from the most recent wave of translations, mainly because they all seem to have some axe to grind. But I think most people's problem isn't having a good translation to use; it's living out what they already know, and what is perfectly obvious from any translation.

  4. Hi Keith,

    I agree wholeheartedly with your comment about living out what we know. I can't think of anything essential to the Christian faith that stands or falls based upon differences in accepted Bible translations. And I only use the word "accepted" for the purpose of excluding the Jehovahs Witness New World Translation which denies the deity of Christ.

    That being said, I've also found it useful in my own study to know what style or method the translators of a given version were using. I've had a book since the 80's called Words About The Word, by John Kohlenberger. He goes into detail regarding the goals of the publishers and translation teams of the dozen or so Bible versions that were widely available at that time. He divides translations into two styles, which he calls Formal Equivalence (FE) and Dynamic Equivalence. (DE)

    As you might guess, FE translations attempt a word-for-word translation from the original languages, and sometimes end up with sentence structure in english that is nearly unique to Bibles, and sometimes awkward to a modern reader. These include the KJV, RSV, and NASB.

    DE translations then are those that attempt to accurately capture the meanings of phrases and the actions of verbs in the original languages and express them in modern english. This sometimes results in phrases that seem at first seem jarringly unbiblical, mostly in places where the translators abandon victorian euphemisms for sex. The two best known DE translations are the NIV and the TEV. (Today's English Version, also known as the Good News Bible) Another is the NCV, (New Century Version) a translation for adults that grew out of the ICV (International Children's Version) which is a Bible translated into english at a 3rd or 4th grade reading level.

    As you know, I like both the FE and DE styles, and am considering a project on the computer to get my favorite version of each (NASB and TEV)into a printed parallel edition to replace the NASB I used for 20 years that was stolen when my work truck got broken into earlier this year.

    I hold to the thought that anyone reading and applying to their life any Bible version is a VERY GOOD THING. As GK Chesterton said, "it's not that the Christian ideal has been tried and found wanting, rather that it has been found difficult and left untried."

    Grace and Peace, Dave

  5. Keith,

    This particular issue seems to wreck many of our relationships in Southern Baptist life right now. Officially, our current Confession is decidedly Complementarian. Personally, while I tend to hold that position, I wish a clear position on it were never a part of our Confession.

    I think your focus on ministry and service is a laudable position to encourage. Some things are just more important than others. We Baptists have a hard time making those careful distinctions sometimes.

    Grace, Keith. With that, I am...