Finding Common Ground: Can complementarians and egalitarians flourish together?

By Darrell Yoder on April 13, 2016

In today's post, I'd like to highlight the Intercultural Lecture Series event that took place last month. Carolyn Custis James spoke on "The Blessed Alliance," which asked the question: How does the Gospel transform relationships between male and female and restore the "Blessed Alliance" that God envisioned for his sons and daughters from the beginning?

If you have wrestled with the role of women in the church for any length of time, I think you will find Carolyn's talk refreshing. She frames the issue in a way that seems more faithful to the Gospel than the narrow discussions about leadership roles and ordination usually heard in the American Church. Here's the audio:

To be honest, I wasn't sure what to expect when I sat down to listen to this talk. Other than her book on Ruth (which I found helpful), I wasn't very familiar with Carolyn Custis James or her work. I am, however, quite familiar with the contentious debate about women in leadership. I've studied the issue from both sides of the discussion, and I wondered if this lecture would rehash what I've heard before or offer something new.

I was encouraged and challenged by what I heard in this lecture. Carolyn is committed to biblical authority and provides perspective that is vital for the church to wrestle with.

Here are three reasons why you—complementarians and egalitarians—should listen to Carolyn's talk and seriously consider her vision of the "Blessed Alliance."

1. She provides a global and cross-cultural perspective we seldom consider.

In her introduction, Carolyn makes the comment that we often discuss the relationship between men and women from a North American, Western and largely wealthy perspective. She points out that the Bible is a global book, so we need to communicate the message of the Bible in a way that applies to any context. That point seems obvious at first, but it caught my attention because she went on to describe realities for men and women around the globe.

Currently, some women around the globe are powerless and repressed, while other women lead whole nations. Likewise, some men have been beaten down by life, lost their jobs, families, homes and sense of manhood, while other men wield extreme power.

Men who have lost their families cannot lead their families. Do they still have purpose as men?

Women who live under fundamentalist Islam have little or no freedom. Do they still have purpose as women?

Carolyn argues that if our vision for men and women focuses primarily on who can have leadership positions (i.e. who can have power), we don't have a message that can help people in all contexts—and it may not be helping us either.

2. She challenges the complementarian-egalitarian "continuum."

Carolyn refuses to choose a "label" in this debate and makes two observations that challenge us to get out of the complementarian vs. egalitarian mindset as well.

First, she argues that the complementarian-egalitarian debate is inadequate because it only encompasses certain areas of life. As noted above, if the key question is, Who should lead in the church and in the family?, many people are left out of the discussion—singles, children, people without leadership gifts, etc.

Does our message about how God wants men and women to work together help these men, women, boys and girls understand and embrace God's vision for them—as males and females? I agree with Carolyn that if our message is only about leadership roles, we're not addressing many aspects of life.

Secondly, Carolyn argues that a continuum with radical feminism on one extreme and religious fundamentalism on the other isn't a place for Christians. "The Gospel takes us off that continuum,"she argues, "to a completely different way of being male and female and of relating to one another." Her critique of the current debate seems helpful because it draws our focus to a larger biblical vision for humanity—perhaps even a vision that allows room for different opinions about leadership. More on that in a moment.

3. She casts a vision for the male-female relationship that can inspire all of us.

The starting point for Carolyn's vision for the male-female relationship is not to describe a leadership structure but rather to ask about human flourishing. Every person, male and female, is created in the image of God with gifts and callings to contribute to God's Kingdom. The question for church leaders, then, is whether or not our practices help both men and women flourish, and if the practices help them flourish together. A good complementarian will say that male headship helps women flourish, and a good egalitarian will say everyone can flourish when there are no restrictions. What I love about Carolyn's vision is that it leads us to evaluate how we're doing. Are the men and women in our churches flourishing as males and females? Have we even asked them? If not, why not?

We also need to consider whether or not we are embodying the mutually dependent relationship depicted in the creation story. Men and women are created to need each other. Adam didn't need Eve to contribute in ways he could do himself (she didn't just multiply his efforts). He needed her because she offered something unique, something he couldn't provide.

The biblical term ezer or "suitable helper" in Genesis 2:18 sheds light on what women provide, and Carolyn offers an insightful description of this term. She notes that all of the uses of ezer in the Old Testament (usually referring to God himself) have a military context. Ezers help in battle by providing something desperately needed to defeat an enemy. Even the Garden of Eden is a soon-to-be warzone that will leave humanity and creation ravaged. So God provides an ezer, a fellow "warrior," for the man. The coming battle would demand the full strength of both man and woman.

This perspective on ezer as "warrior" is worth considering. Even if you prefer another way of reading the term, the fact that it is most often used to describe God's powerful help to Israel should shape our understanding of womanhood and what women have to offer. One may conclude that Paul's comments about headship in the New Testament imply an order of authority, but I do not believe we can take this Hebrew term seriously and not be convicted to empower and encourage every woman and every girl in the church. I don't believe we can take it seriously and not seek out the wisdom and insight of godly women, not just for our children's and women's ministries, but for all ministries in the church.

Pursuing the Blessed Alliance: What's next?

I want to close by posing a question that stirs in me whenever this topic is raised. Churches may wrestle with this, but it's especially poignant in an academic setting like seminary: Can more than one view of the leadership debate co-exist and we still experience the "blessed alliance"? Is there room for disagreement on leadership roles and still be a reconciled community?

I preached a chapel message recently from Ephesians 2:11-22 about reconciliation. I chose that topic because I am convinced that the Church, from the beginning and in every generation, has been an awkward, clumsy body of diverse believers with a propensity to offend each other. Jews and Gentiles united in Christ after generations of mutual contempt, and we have no reason to think they ironed out all their differences right away. In fact, the epistles make clear they didn't.

I am praying for an ethos in the Church, and in the seminary where church leaders are trained, that allows for awkwardness and tension while still calling for respect and peace. As leaders in the church, it is on us to learn how to be diverse and reconciled at the same time. It's messy, but in Christ, I believe it's possible.

We're already experiencing a taste of this at GRTS. Men and women are working together and studying together in fantastic ways. But we do have room to grow. I appreciate Carolyn Custis James' teaching because it leads us to engage relationships, to hear each other with new, humble ears. As she says, it's not just about who can have authority; it's about depending on each other, valuing each other and helping each other flourish.

Categories: Culture, Theology