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Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Problem with the Egalitarian/Complementarian Debate

The other day, Suzanne talked about the need to set aside our pre-existing "paradigms" when it comes to interpreting the Bible. She specifically focused on ways that Wayne Grudem's "male leadership" paradigm influences his interpretation of passages such as the creation narrative in Genesis.

You'll hear others use terms like "eisegesis" (as opposed to "exegesis") to describe when someone reads a meaning into a text rather than deriving it without bias from the text. Still others will speak of the importance of being aware of the "presuppositions" with which we approach the text—that is, our pre-existing notions of what the text says or the way the world works.

Whether we speak of paradigms, eisegesis, or presuppositions, the basic warning is always the same: if we are going to translate and interpret the text correctly, we must do our best to avoid being influenced by our pre-existing assumptions.

That's easier said than done, of course. Like the proverbial log and speck (Matthew 7:3-5), we are very good at seeing when others are reading their presuppositions into a text, but often blind to the fact that we are doing the same.

We become even more blind to our preconceived notions about what the text says when we become embroiled in some kind of theological or interpretive debate. In the process of trying to persuade those who disagree with us, we often become even more polarized in our views. We get so frustrated with the other person for not agreeing with us and so flustered by their arguments, that we begin to shore up our own arguments and press the text to say something more clearly or explicitly than it really does. This is especially true when we see the stakes as being high. If the other person's perceived distortion of Scripture strikes us as self-serving and hurtful to others, we'll combat it with even more vehemence and passion.

As I've observed the gender role debate, I've seen this dynamic played out over and over again. There is a finite set of Biblical passages which the two camps must deal with. The egalitarian strategy seems to be to chip away at anything in these passages which appears to teach that men are to exercise the primary leadership role in the home and church. On the one hand, the best egalitarian exegetes have challenged traditional interpretations and applications of these passages and shown some of them to be Scripturally unwarranted. On the other hand, there are places where the egalitarian arguments are weak and where they seem to be more driven by their agenda than by an openness to be taught by Scripture.

Complementarians are fighting a defensive battle. Consequently, many of them worry that if they give too much ground on any one of these passages, they'll be opening the door to a view of marriage and the church which they see as unbiblical and even dangerous. Most complementarians would be content to ignore Romans 16:7, but because it is held up by egalitarians as an example of a female apostle (who must therefore have had "apostolic authority"), they feel they have to demonstrate that Junia was not an apostle, not a woman, or that the term apostle in that context does not imply the same kind of authority that Paul and the Twelve seem to have had. The length to which they go to defend against the egalitarian view of various passages seems more driven by their agenda than by an openness to be taught by Scripture.

The thing both sides need to realize is that if they are to convince anyone that their view is the "Biblical" view, they need to take extraordinary care to let Scripture dictate their agenda rather than letting their agenda dictate their understanding of the Bible. That means praying for the illumination of the Spirit, doing our best to understand where our theological opponents are coming from, and trying to give their interpretations a fair hearing before we begin arguing against them. Egalitarians need to stop looking for abuse in every traditional marriage, and complementarians need to recognize that egalitarian women are not necessarily looking to "wear the pants" in the church or in the home.

If we fail to approach the Bible and each other with humility and integrity, we're likely to convince people that the opposing view is the right one. In a comment, Suzanne quoted a reviewer who wrote:

This doesn't mean I am simply what Grudem calls an "instinctive complementarian". In fact, my instinctive (or default) position would probably have been more toward egalitarianism. However, every argument I heard egalitarians make sounded "grasping" and flimsy, so I began to view the whole viewpoint with suspicion.

Suzanne then wrote:

She ought to go with her instincts! She knows the Bible, she is a mature and experienced woman. If God puts egalitarianism in her heart, then she should not let anything Grudem says change that.

Suzanne is worried about Grudem's influence over this woman, but look again at who she said moved her toward a more complementarian view. It was not Grudem, but the arguments of egalitarians which sounded "grasping" and "flimsy" to her.

I believe I've seen Suzanne write something similar about her own journey. She became more egalitarian in her viewpoint after reading complementarian authors.

This dynamic of driving people away from our viewpoint should challenge us to be careful not to overreach in our interpretations or be too adamant in our applications. As passionate as we may be and as right as we think we are, we're most likely to convince others if we strive to be sound in our interpretations, charitable to and respectful of our opponents, and careful to question our own presuppositions.


At Sat Sep 01, 08:11:00 AM, Blogger Iris Godfrey said...

Yes! Thank you. Very well stated and very helpful. We must all listen.

At Sat Sep 01, 09:14:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...


Good editorial. No one approaches the Scripture thinking their own paradigm is faulty. So it takes some real shaking and shouting to get through our defenses sometimes.

What's my agenda? I don't have one of course! ;-)

If there is a problem with that debate it might simply be that it can drown out a lot of other interesting topics. I liked the way the debate took us into environmental issues recently and there are a lot of other really hairy theological beasts lurking in the dark that haven't been touched on. Peter tackled atonement but there are many others. The whole issue of inspiration and inerrancy is floating around out there as well. Henry Neufeld has mentioned that on his blog recently.

I'll sign off for now. Thanks for the post.

At Sat Sep 01, 09:15:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

Oops, I meant to sign off as "Ling" your Siamese twin.

At Sat Sep 01, 09:50:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


My brother writes books about the creation evolution debate. I probably could but it doesn't interest me. Many others are writing about inerrancy. I really can't write on that topic. I don't have the background. I am not sure that these are translation issues.

Gen.1-5 is important. It is part of the Colorado Springs Guidelines, that humanity MUST be called Man. This is ahistorical and utter nonsense. But it is an integral part of the translation issue.

The truth is that my former pastor and Waltke both want me to go back to Dr. Packer and ask him to take his name off the Statement of Concern. I can't do that without engaging in this level of analysis. I have to know every tiny detail of where they fell into error. I have to know that the human race was not, in fact, called "Man" except in a vast minority of Bibles.


I would be happy with a KJV, a scripture text we could share. But compelementarians are retranslating key verses. They are introducing something new into the Bible.

I don't care what being an apostle meant to Junia, I have never used it to prove anything, and I don't even make egalitarian arguments from most verses, except to "love your neighbour as yourself." But if Wallace and Burer are going to spread something that is entirely false and I am one of the few people who can see directly through his arguments and cares about the subject, then I think I should deal with that.

I don't see myself, writing what is true, as being on par with those who fabricate.

I was asked to interact with Grudem's books. A persistent commenter implied that I could not stand up to his arguments.

The real truth is that neither eglitarianism nor complementarianism, nor hierarchy can be proved from the Bible.

So when people stop saying that egalitarians are straying from scripture, I will happily drop the subject.

It is simple, I cannot prove egalitarianism, others cannot prove complementarianism, and some of us think that men and women function equally and some of us don't. I accept that. But I am on the defensive knowing that you don't accept women as those who function equally.

I admit I have a paradigm, and that I am quite humanly prone to read things into the scriptures. I do not believe that I can prove egalitarianism from the scripture. When complementarians admit the same thing, then we are on level ground.

As long as egalitarians are uniquely accused of distorting scripture, then we egalitarians are in the defensive camp.

I have to ask outright if you stand by what you have said about me in the past, that my "feminism" is leading me astray from the scriptures. Do you see my analysis of Gen.1-5 leading away from the scriptures or back to what is really there?

That is all that matters.

At Sat Sep 01, 09:57:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


Let me argue with you as if you were my brother - with affection. But as any sister, I was hurt, because I perceived that you did not mean to use the term "feminism" as a compliment.

At Sat Sep 01, 10:26:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

May I jump in here as a tadpole swimming in the deep blue sea of all kinds of more mature creatures, including dolphins and sharks too I suppose?

My first question (or second now) is What's so bad about interpretation? The next question (anticipating the answer "misinterpretation, of course!) is Does God suppose objectivity is preferred to subjectivity? Finally, does the Bible force objectivity (i.e., in questions of
"complementarianism" vs. "egalitarianism") and, if so, then why did Jesus use parables (which require interpretation) in order to teach?

Let me confess, I have fledgling answers to the questions. And, more than that, my questions are motivated by real subjective issues.

I like James K. A. Smith's title and study, The Fall of Interpretation, which suggests that interpretation is not sinful. I appreciate Jaqueline Jones Royster's title and study, "When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own"; she suggests that one interprets best when just being explicit about what subjective position is assumed in interpretation (and she hardly hides the fact that she is African American and she is a woman).

Assuming a Platonic ideal of objectivity seems fraught with difficulties. David Lang is right on calling for humility, but what add: they need to take extraordinary care to let Scripture dictate their agenda rather than letting their agenda dictate their understanding of the Bible?, as if Scripture forces an interpretation on subjective human readers. And Suzanne, in her comment above, uses that phrase "distorts Scripture" as something either side of this "c" and "e" debate is equally prone to. Granted. But isn't Jesus calling his own to interpretation? The first disciples writing the Scritures chose to translate his words into Greek (from his Aramaic Hebrew), right? Now we readers some twenty one centuries later still have his parables, which demand our subjectivities, with our entire heart, entire mind, entire soul, and entire strength. And, as David Lang seems to suggest (and as I interpret him): this requires also loving my neighbor (in interpretation / translation) as I love myself.

Sorry to ramble. Hope that makes sense in the context of the discussion. Really hope that adds some helpfully.


At Sat Sep 01, 12:47:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...


I'm glad to be able to trade comments with you on this. I'll keep talking despite poor communication and hopefully our agape and koinonia will keep it all together.

That Colorado document is cold and old. A decade ago by men in grey suits. So I have a hard time taking it seriously. I know you say people are falling into line behind these guys but it's not where our culture or most of the churches I'm aware of are heading so I don't see a need to pick it apart. Of course, heck, I'm out here in the bush of Africa and maybe this is bigger in the US than I realize. But I was just there last year and I didn't see it.

I gotta go. I'm going to try real hard not to comment again until Monday! But it is always great to chat with ya so it's hard to resist! :)

At Sat Sep 01, 01:27:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

If everyone concedes that the CSG are a bad thing, then I'll be okay with that. I see Grudem as using these guidelines to create a translation from which he can prove "male authority" and that is dangerous.

At Sat Sep 01, 02:12:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Sadly I have to see this as a big thing, because here in the UK there is a resurgent and sometimes militant trend of conservative evangelicals who oppose egalitarianism and insist on Bibles following CSG, as well as on Calvinism and particular views of the atonement. Just look at past posts in my blog, now renamed Gentle Wisdom, but the old name Speaker of Truth was more appropriate for those rather combative posts, especially on the atonement.

At Sat Sep 01, 02:22:00 PM, Blogger David Lang said...

As long as egalitarians are uniquely accused of distorting scripture, then we egalitarians are in the defensive camp.


This is precisely my point. Egalitarians are not uniquely accused of distorting Scripture. In this same comment you accuse Wallace and Burer of "fabricating." Is that not an accusation that they are distorting Scripture?

My point is that you can critique the argument and show an interpretation to be false without accusing the (mis)interpreter of intentional distortion. Too many such accusations have taken place on both sides, and it accomplishes nothing other than needless acrimony.

I have to ask outright if you stand by what you have said about me in the past, that my "feminism" is leading me astray from the scriptures.

I'm afraid you're going to have to help me out here. For me to stand by any statement I've made I have to be sure I remember it, and though I've searched the archives I haven't found the comment you seem to be referencing.

Without seeing the comment, let me just say this. I do remember using the term "feminism" once, but I believe it was because you had used the term in the post on which I was commenting. It was not my intention to be pejorative. (At least, I don't think it was!)

As far as seeing your "feminism" as leading you "astray from the scriptures," I'm not certain that is exactly what I wrote. I think it more likely that I wrote that you sometimes misread complementarian authors, interpreting what they write in the worst possible light because of your own background and experience.

Do you see my analysis of Gen.1-5 leading away from the scriptures or back to what is really there?

I would say that some of what you have written I agree with and some of it I disagree with. But I would never accuse you of intentionally distorting the Scriptures.

But I am on the defensive knowing that you don't accept women as those who function equally

And now I'm on the defensive because you've labeled me as one who "doesn't accept women as those who function equally." At what point did I ever say that?!

The challenge in these kinds of discussions is always to find out what the other person believes and how they apply those beliefs before you go summarizing what you assume they are saying. Otherwise, you merely tear down straw men.

It's that tendency to lump people into a camp and villify them which this post was meant to argue against. We need to give each other the benefit of the doubt long enough to attack the argument rather than the person.

At Sat Sep 01, 02:28:00 PM, Blogger David Lang said...

BTW, I have yet to comment on how much I've enjoyed the whole Ling and Lang Siamese twin joke.

I once got a low-interest credit card offer sponsored by some organization for Chinese Americans. I didn't tell them that "Lang" is also a German name. ;-)

At Sat Sep 01, 05:02:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


I can't reproduce your "feminism" comment so I'll have to drop it. It is possible that you made it on the one post which I subsequently deleted.

I do not think that my stating that Wallace & Burer fabricated the Junia variant is on par with what Grudem & al have said about the TNIV. What is remarkable is that they have not defended the hypothesis and the variant is still in their Bible. Very odd.

I do not rank with Dr. Packer who is happy to try and influence the entire English-speaking Christian commnunity against the translation of his own colleagues, when he said that other translations tend to “deviate from what was said in several thousand places".

It is of note that Dr. Packer is not known as a Biblical lgs. expert, but Fee and Waltke are. So he has taken this into the public arena, the media, against men who work with him in the same building. These men were never given a chance to interact and defend themselves or respond in any way. No one went to them in private first. It is the most remarkably unchristian and unbiblical action. Some of us in this community, both e and c alike are deeply ashamed of calling ourselves Christians if we have to be associated with these actions.

I think it more likely that I wrote that you sometimes misread complementarian authors, interpreting what they write in the worst possible light because of your own background and experience.

Frankly, I do not think that looking words up in a dictionary to see if they have more than one meaning, as I did with "gynecological" is misreading an author. It is reading the author. And that is what I do with all these authors, I ask myself what the plain sense meaning is of what they have written.

And now I'm on the defensive because you've labeled me as one who "doesn't accept women as those who function equally." At what point did I ever say that?!

I'd would love it if you would clarify your beliefs in this regard. I assumed that you believed in unique male ordination, and male authority in marriage, different, and unequal functions for men and women. I would be very happy to be told that I am wrong.

It's that tendency to lump people into a camp and villify them which this post was meant to argue against. We need to give each other the benefit of the doubt long enough to attack the argument rather than the person.

This is why I quote authors by their name. I am very careful not to lump all complementarians together and villify a "camp". I take one author, usually by name, and critique his or her work and note the influence that it has had, which goes far beyond what it should have.

I can't remember when I have criticized anything other than the words someone has written or spoken. I don't think that I have dropped to the level of Grudem and set up charts of people who are, and are not, "attractive to the opposite sex."

I certainly don't think it is right to speak of two camps. Many egalitarians think of themselves as non-hierarchical complementarians. It is only fair to critique the words of individuals. I believe that I only critique what people write and I don't think I have called anyone names, forgive me if I have.

In any case, I am glad that you are here, carrying on this lively debate, and acting like a brother.

At Sun Sep 02, 05:17:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Here in Texas USA, the E/C debate is still going. Says Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson just days ago: "We are moving against the tide in order to establish family and gender roles as described in God's word for the home and the family."

What's "described in God's word for the home and family" (as some interpret it) has led Patterson, in a former role as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, to have the denomination authorize a statement that women should not be pastors and that wives should "graciously submit" to their husbands.

This past spring, the seminary terminated the employment of Hebrew Professor Sheri Klouda because she was a woman teaching men. This fall semester, the seminary introduced a new bachelor of arts in humanities degree with a 23-hour concentration in homemaking, a program for women only.

Klouda has accepted a teaching post elsewhere but has also filed suit against SWBTS and Patterson for damages to her family, for back pay and insurance benefits. And now, concerning the homemaking degree, a local Southern Baptist pastor has blogged, saying, "It's yet another example of the ridiculous and silly degree to which some Southern Baptists, Southwestern in particular, are trying to return to what they perceive to be biblical gender roles."

Furthermore, the conversation on this blog seems as personal. Labels and accusations -- such as "feminist," "e," "c," "old and cold," "men in grey suits," "non-hierarchical complementarians," "gynecological," "most remarkably unchristian and unbiblical," "eisegesis," "exegesis" -- show the debate is alive and, as David Lang writes, perhaps a "problem." Iris is right to add, "We must all listen." And Suzanne is right to ask for clarification and more conversation, as "brothers" and "sisters."

Our agenda (and I'd love to joke with lingamish I don't have one) seems respectively rooted (and profoundly so) in what's at stake for us personally. But rather than aspiring to some God's-eye position of objectivity, why not confess this?: "My interpretation of the Scriptures, especially as it touches on my gender, is deep; and to believe differently would require much transformation. A first step towards loving others who interpret differently than I is to attempt to acknowledge what's at stake for them in their individual belief." And isn't easier for the marginalized (vs. for those in power) to recognize how our bodies (sexed male and female) affect our interpretations?

At Sun Sep 02, 06:24:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

J. K.

I have already confessed this. This is me but it doesn't google with my name any more. And this one. These are my other blogs. No secret. I have admitted openly to the list what is on my table. I was in a physically abusive relationship for almost 30 years, with the added spiritual abuse that, even though the violence was wrong, I wasn't doing my part by "graciously submitting."

I finally had to tell my pastor that he could preach Eph. 5 till the cows came home and it didn't help. Being submissive rewards and reinforces physical abuse.

This is what male authority teaching did for me. I have to ask how treating each other as equal has hurt other people on this list.

Believe me, I know that women are no better than men, but that doesn't mean that women should be held to ransom.

How would a relationship of mutual committment, fidelity and kindness, which is what I see taught in the Bible hurt anyone? I have not kept my own experience secret. David Lang knows all about it. What I want to know is why people want to suppress a woman's ability to interact in society and in the workplace by persuading her that she should live to serve her husband because God has created her FOR him.

I write here just like a former slave arguing for freedom and the abolition of slavery.

At Sun Sep 02, 06:30:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

This is what is at stake for me personally - my whole life. What is at stake for others?

At Mon Sep 03, 10:15:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

"Lang" is also a common Scottish name, more properly spelled "Laing" but pronounced "Lang". I must say I guessed that David's ancestry was Scottish rather than German.

At Mon Sep 03, 12:00:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


I can't find your email, so I just want to say that I regret if you feel put on the defensive. Naturally, I feel that way too. I am not really sure where you stand on these matters, and if you would rather not disclose more of your own position then I will have to accept that.

Peace, brother.

At Mon Sep 03, 10:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"This is what is at stake for me personally - my whole life. What is at stake for others?"


Neither your life nor mine are worth more than the Scriptures and God's glory. Until we learn this first we will not be free from the very things that David has warned us of in this post.

Peace to you,


At Tue Sep 04, 10:19:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

First, Suzanne, thanks for sharing your story, your profound perspective! I am deeply touched, and much saddened by the abuse you’ve endured.

Second, though most of us cyber-conversers are otherwise strangers, I’ll follow your lead in confessing publicly what’s at stake for me.

I’m a grandson, a son, the husband of an amazing woman, and the father of three wonderful people (a son and two daughters). And I write now for all men, saying we are complicit in the abuse of girls and women. (It is a grievous thing that my employer has to offer Rape Defense Classes for women; that my hometown has to have women’s shelters; that life goes on with this as a reality without many of us men crying out for the shame of it all). My own story is that my grandfathers all (the biological and the adoptive) were abusive; my own father was abusive to my mother and siblings. My part in all that is I’ve been passive, and silent. I’ve tried to control (and have been controlling) otherwise. As a little boy (but at the time, of course, not knowing who my wife or my children individually would be), I made promises I shouldn’t have made: “I’ll never treat my spouse or my kids like that!” Hence, in addition to being passive and silent, I’ve been dead-set determined not to abuse or even to allow the mildest expression of anger in my home. Beyond that, I tend to be reactive not proactive, not much of a listener, not responsive much, not one who would deal with hurt and evil as I should. I confess, my spouse emailed me just this morning (about this morning) saying, “you were (and often are in the morning) disconnected.” And I have had to meet regularly with men who will give good honest counsel about the disfunction (inherited) in my household.

So, what’s at stake for me, when it comes to “the Scriptures and God’s glory” (as Jeremy puts it)? I read the Bible as written by males and addressed mostly to males. It’s very easy for us men today to read and to translate the books of this canon as favoring men generally, and even as favoring us specifically in our various particular roles as men in relation to women. We men tend to be complicit in translations and interpretations of the Scriptures that bolster our traditional positions of power. What, really, do we have to be free from? Thus, we view the stories and the epistles as if written for us men as if women really are, in our societies today, to serve us, or to help us, or to complement us in ways that promote our agendas (if we’ll confess them). Such interpretations and translations really do put us at the center (with God’s glory endorsing us) as if this is the way it always was, the way it is, and the way it always should be. I’d like a discussion about William J. Webb’s fascinating book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. Of course, Wayne Grudem has written his book-length response (so I know I’m inviting a rehashing of their arguments). But, if any of you men (and women) would dare confess personally what’s at stake for you individually, then the conversation might be worthwhile. Have the Scriptures, and God in his glory, graciously changed the ways we all, today, ought to consider slaves, women, and gays? Have we really gotten the Genesis creation account right, of male and female created equal? What of Jesus’s call to men and women: μετανοεῖτε (as Matthew, Mark, and Luke translated it)? Especially in light of the gospels’ record of how Jesus related to women and men, what does “re-think everything” really mean to me and to you now?

Favor and peace, to us, women and men,

At Wed Sep 05, 10:47:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

J.K., I was moved by your comments. Thank you for being so transparent. I suspect we are all guilty of abuse of some kind, no matter how hard we have tried not to abuse in ways we have observed others doing. The Bible itself teaches us that we all fall short. Yet it also teaches us that God delights in us. And it teaches us what God's ideals within marriage, the church, and elsewhere can be. We do need his grace to change and move forward. Thank you, again.


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