Clarity, Charity, and Confrontation in the Evangelical Gender Debate

Ronald W. Pierce

Evangelical male-leadership advocates, recently self-labeled “complementarians,” affirm spiritual equality, but with gender differences that lead to an exclusive male leadership in church and home (e.g., J. Piper and W. Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism [Crossway, 1991; hereafter RBMW]). In contrast, evangelical egalitarians, often labeled “feminists” by their opponents, advocate a spiritual and functional equality that calls for the inclusion of gifted and godly women as partners with men in leadership (e.g., R. Pierce and R. Groothuis, eds., Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy [InterVarsity, 2004; hereafter DBE]). Both sides firmly believe their view is biblical. This essay critiques the proposed contrast of “complementarian” versus “feminist,” explores the rhetorical strategies used in the evangelical debate, and poses some challenges for those still committed to reconciliation and dialogue in the community.

In order to be clear, my nuancing of these terms requires definition. Feminism represents a range of views reflecting an emphasis on women’s rights. In contrast, egalitarian refers to a focus on equality of privilege–both spiritual and functional–because of beneficial gender differences. Male leadership, on the other hand, connotes the functional privilege and responsibility often given to men because of gender alone. And, finally, complementarity speaks of beneficial gender differences—recognized by evangelicals on both sides—not necessarily leading to gender hierarchy.

The Complementarian Versus Feminist Contrast

Until the late 1800s male-leadership proponents made no distinction between spiritual and functional inequality. Women were portrayed as lacking the ability to lead men, because they were weaker, more foolish, unstable—even “the devil’s gateway” to humanity’s sin. Men were superior; women were subordinate because they were deemed inferior (R. Saucy and J. TenElshof, eds., Women and Men in Ministry [Moody, 2001] 33-38). At the same time, however, minority voices were heard that respected the personhood and contribution of women (R. Tucker and W. Liefeld, Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present [Zondervan, 1987]), though unlike the varying forms of radical feminism (e.g., advocating female superiority or goddess worship) they believed that they should be included in leadership because of their beneficial gender differences.

Supporters of both positions believed in gender complementarity, but understood it to point in opposite directions: one toward exclusion, the other, inclusion (R. Groothuis, “Complementarianism—What’s in a Name?” Mutuality [January 1999]). Moreover, male-leadership advocates at that time made no distinction between spiritual and functional equality—women were seen as being inferior in both senses.

More recently, in response to the modern women’s movement, a new version of male leadership emerged affirming equality of “spiritual privilege,” and, at the same time, female subordination (C. Ryrie, The Place of Women in the Church [Moody, 1970] 67, 74). Though this view is now referred to as “complementarianism,” the idea of complementarity remains a component of both views (cp. S. Clark, Man and Woman in Christ [Servant, 1980] 23, and M. Evans, Woman in the Bible [InterVarsity, 1983] 132). The most influential evangelical organizations representing these views today are the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (hereafter CBMW) and Christians for Biblical Equality (hereafter CBE). Each provides the church with a plethora of books, articles, and conferences in which its respective interpretations of Scripture are defended.

In short, egalitarians have always affirmed spiritual and functional gender equality. In contrast, male-leadership proponents used to deny gender equality in both senses, but most recently–and in response to the modern women’s movements—have allowed for spiritual equality only. This challenges the argument that evangelical egalitarianism is a novel response to social pressures. In fact, it appears that the “complementarianism” of CBMW in the late 1980s fits that description better. Moreover, it is safe to say that evangelical “feminism” is, frankly, a misnomer. The vast majority of evangelical egalitarians never use the term to describe themselves, because it is not what they believe. Their emphasis is equality of privilege for men and women, not women’s rights.

Evangelical Rhetoric and the Gender Debate

In this section I am deeply indebted to Margaret Cavin’s unpublished essay, “The Rhetoric of the Gender Debate” (2002), which identifies three distinct rhetorical styles evident in the contemporary evangelical gender debate: radical prophecy, persuasive argument, and invitational dialogue. These relate directly to the interface between the two camps and thus are explored briefly in turn.

Radical Prophecy

This closed and polarizing model includes radical opposition, competing zealotries, and loss of common faith in fundamental ideals causing a failure of community. It condemns its opponents without bargain or compromise in terms of truth against evil. Separation is necessary unless repentance occurs (J. Darsey, The Prophetic Tradition and Radical Rhetoric in America [University Press, 1997] ix-x, 9).

Male-leadership advocates employ this rhetoric to accuse egalitarians of engaging in novelty, tampering with the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, myth making, and liberalism (see the chapter titles in W. Grudem, ed., Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood [Crossway, 2002]). Egalitarians are charged with devising a special hermeneutic to reinterpret clear biblical passages, thus undermining the authority of Scripture and accommodating the spirit of the age. The male-leadership view is portrayed as the “complementary” and biblical “middle way,” while egalitarians are labeled “feminists” who go to unbiblical extremes in order to deny gender distinctions (“About CBMW“).

Some egalitarians have responded in kind with an equally aggressive presentation of good versus evil that calls for repentance from pride, cultural prejudice, and a domineering patriarchal attitude, going so far as to suggest that evangelical male-leadership proponents are deliberately deceiving the church (e.g., J. Grady, Ten Lies the Church Tells Women: How the Bible Has Been Misused to Keep Women in Spiritual Bondage [Charisma, 2000] 193-94).

Both present a litany of dangers for church and society caused by the other with a severity of rhetoric that gives them disproportionate psychological weight in the gender-debate literature. The result has been a deep and tragic rift in the evangelical community that has hindered the church’s witness to the world around us.

Persuasive Argument

In this model the listener or reader is engaged with the acknowledgement of common ground, but also with the clear intent to change the other’s mind. Aristotle’s principles of logos (reason), pathos (emotion), and ethos (credibility) become foundational in debates that are passionate, yet academic, seeking to show the credibility of one’s own position, along with the flaws in one’s opponent’s (D. Williams and B. McGee, “Negotiating a Change in the Argumentation Course: Teaching Cooperative Argument,” Argumentation and Advocacy 36 [2000] 130). These encounters focus on issues and arguments, rather than motives or character. They are vigorous, yet respectful (cp. S. Clark, Man and Woman, with R. Groothuis, Good News for Women [Baker, 1997]). Most evangelical rhetoric from both camps falls into this category, which functions as a healthy stimulus for the growth of many believers seeking a personal answer to the gender question.

Invitational Dialogue

Here, in an interactive and relational manner, each dialogue partner is invited to enter the other’s world to appreciate its subtlety, richness, and complexity–perhaps even build on its ideas. Conversation, listening, and common ground are emphasized, while impediments to understanding are minimized. Rhetor and listener negotiate and co-create new ideas together from a mutually vulnerable position in a safe environment conducive to dealing with deep differences. They seek to empower each other in the context of living with the tension of autonomy and connectedness across a dialectical continuum that allows for learning even from extremes (S. Foss and C. Griffin, “Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for an Invitational Rhetoric,” Communication Monographs 62 [1995] 2-3).

In this way, dialogue is reframed and ideas are offered rather than imposed, built up rather than torn down. Passion is expressed in a context of respect for the other’s differences. Change may occur not through debate or radical prophecy, but precisely because invitational dialogue does not interact with the other models on their terms. Instead, partners create an atmosphere of mutuality, allowing for possibilities not available in the other models (Foss and Griffin, “Beyond Persuasion,” 13). Penetrating questions like W. Webb’s chapter “What If I am Wrong?” (Slaves, Women and Homosexuals [InterVarsity, 2001]) encourage genuine dialogue, as do invitations for responses from dialogue partners like that of J.I. Packer in A. Mickelsen, ed., Women, Authority and the Bible (InterVarsity, 1986). Though not as common among evangelicals as one might wish, invitational dialogue has emerged from time to time and hopefully will do so more frequently in the future.

Challenges for the Future

First, as evangelicals we need more clarity (debate) and charity (dialogue) as opposed to confrontation (radical prophecy). Though we need not minimize a sense of God’s calling, along with passion and persuasion, we must also invite each other to sit together in dialogue, acknowledging that our differing interpretations need not lead us to a radical separation based on good versus evil. This must be clearly evident in our book titles and position labels. For the sake of both truth and unity, we need to give up the practice of referring to one position as “feminist” and the other as “complementarian” or “biblical truth” (e.g., W. Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth [Multnomah, 2004]). Terminology like “evangelical feminism” is pejorative, while that of “complementarianism” (unqualified) is euphemistic and ambiguous. Insisting on such prejudicial rhetoric is at the same time unclear, uncharitable, and unnecessarily divisive.

Second, the time has come for a greater emphasis on common ground without trivializing our significant differences. We agree on the inspiration and authority of the Scripture (i.e., “biblical truth”), attempt to interpret the key texts honestly in light of their contexts, and seek to live by the resultant enduring scriptural principles. Neither group is trying to merely impose a cultural agenda on the Bible—whether it is a new feminist or old patriarchal agenda. We agree on basic hermeneutical principles, affirm the core doctrines of Christian faith, affirm at least the spiritual equality of men and women, seek to understand better Paul’s nuancing of “headship” in marriage and ministry, and celebrate the goodness of humanity’s creation in God’s image as male and female. In the end, we must affirm (not merely admit) that both views are, in fact, evangelical, that both draw upon the heritage of church history to some extent, yet both are relatively recent in their present expressions and degrees of acceptance in society.

Finally, character attacks must give way to a focus on positions and issues, along with a renewed commitment to reconciliation. Instead of continuing to paint each other’s motives and intentions in the worst possible light, we need to affirm that more unites us than divides us in God’s family. The apparent lack of effort towards this accomplishment begs the question of whether we are truly committed to reconciliation, or even believe that it is possible. It is always easier to condemn and separate than to reconcile, to rally to prophetic extremes rather than to reason together in constructive debate and dialogue.

I truly believe that our shared commitment to truly biblical complementarity—that is, a God-given unity with gender diversity—can provide us with some common ground as a starting place for genuine dialogue. Moreover, my prayer is that among the radical prophets emerging today some prophets of peace may also appear.

Posted Feb 01, 2006