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The Great Debate

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Are you a complementarian or an egalitarian?

I cringe every time I hear that question. It feels like I am passing through an airport security checkpoint, and security guards are trying to determine if I pose a risk to the safety of the church.

Since the late 20th Century these two polarized groups have defined the evangelical landscape for women, and we are often pressured to declare where our loyalties lie. Taking a stand can be costly. Joining one side can cause estrangement from the other and friends to become foes.

Complementarians believe the Bible establishes male authority over women, making male leadership the biblical standard. Accordingly, God calls women to submit to male leadership and take up supportive roles to their husbands and to male leaders in the church. Egalitarians believe leadership is not determined by gender, but by the gifting of the Holy Spirit, and that God calls believers to submit to one another. At the heart of the debate is whether or not God has placed limits on what women can or cannot do in the home and in the church, although the discussion bleeds into other spheres of life.

What gives me heartburn about this debate is the fact that after years of careful study, highly respected evangelical scholars can’t agree. These are godly men and women who hold firmly to orthodox Christianity and staunchly defend the authority of Scripture. This stalemate alone ought to inject a strong measure of humility into the discussion. For many women it creates a boatload of uncertainty and anxiety: Are we over-using or under-using our gifts? Are we too independent, too competent, too strong?

Add to this the fact that personal circumstances often make it impossible to live consistently within one view or the other. What’s a woman to do if she doesn’t have a husband? What if a husband is unwilling or unable to lead? What about the single mom? Is she forced into a man’s role? Does a woman’s giftedness doom her to a perpetual state of frustration? Is she biblically obligated to challenge the local status quo or leave?

From a global perspective, Western women occupy a rather privileged social status. In many parts of the world, women are human property to be bought and sold in the sex trade. Islamic fundamentalists beat women in public when a gust of wind lifts the hem of their burka to expose ankles. They throw acid in the faces of young girls who dare to be educated. At the opposite extreme, radical feminists want to reorder society by redefining the concepts of femininity and masculinity. Males are viewed as oppressors, and abortion is a matter of civil rights.

Is the gospel message Christians are proclaiming nothing better than a “kinder, gentler” version of the way the world does things?

Not according to Jesus. His gospel takes men and women beyond these old debates to a radically new way of relating. He calls all of us away from grasping equality or authority to follow Him by pouring ourselves out for one another. He calls all of us to expend ourselves and our gifts in the global rescue effort He has launched. Our mission dwarfs our resources and demands a caliber of unity unlike anything the world has ever seen.

From the beginning, men and women have been God’s A-Team—a Blessed Alliance to advance His kingdom throughout the world. When He created male and female, Genesis says, “He blessed them.” Jesus’ deepest desire was for His followers to enjoy unparalleled oneness. Paul followed-up with the language of anatomy, describing us as one Body. What binds Jesus’ followers together is not our sameness, but our firm allegiance to Him and to His cause in the world.

Differences will always exist among Christians. But those very differences demonstrate the transforming power of the gospel—that Jesus is making a difference in our lives. How else can anyone explain how hopelessly diverse individuals can become one united Body?

So don’t expect a security checkpoint at Synergy conferences. We are not playing the debate game. Complementarians, egalitarians, and the undecided are all welcome. We have kingdom work to do, and we are forging strong relationships with each other and our brothers as we answer Jesus’ call on our lives.


Reprinted with permission. This article was originally published in the Synergy column for FullFill Magazine (Winter 2009). This edgy magazine takes women seriously with thoughtful articles by women leaders for “women of all seasons of life and leadership,” but men too will benefit from reading it. There’s even a “Male Box” column with contributors such as Dan Allender and Rob Bell. If you don’t already subscribe, you should check it out.
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