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Can We Break the Gender Gridlock?
Two ends of a spectrum: should females be excluded from certain church leadership roles or might they be called of God to pastoral leadership and authority.

In recent decades North American Evangelicals have engaged in what has often been an embittered debate over "gender."

… it is relatively easy to settle into an "us" versus "them" mentality.

The debate arose in the wake of the massive upsurge in thinking on gender during the so-called "sexual revolution" of the 1960s. While certain radical thinkers would seek either to uphold a form of male superiority over females or, conversely, to abolish every distinction between genders altogether, Evangelicals have tended to recognize the inappropriateness of such extremes.

Instead, the debate has revolved particularly around the question of appropriateness of female involvement in pastoral or ecclesiastical leadership. The two main views, both of which claim to be faithful to the teaching of Scripture, are now conveniently called the "complementarian" and "egalitarian" positions.

Complementarians generally insist God created male and female equal in spiritual standing before God, but are also created to fulfill distinct (complementary) roles or functions. More specifically, complementarians insist females are excluded from certain positions in church leadership.

Egalitarians, in contrast, argue that because God created male and female to be equal, restrictions on females, even in reference to church leadership, have been completely lifted in the age after Christ's resurrection and ascension. Thus, appropriately gifted and called females are free to serve in positions of pastoral leadership and authority.

A glance at the literature produced in past years reveals that despite nuances within each major position, the debate itself has been dictated and dominated almost entirely in egalitarian and complementarian terms.

However, I am doubtful proponents of either position are having great success in persuading those from the other side. The odd "undecided" person might be swayed one way or the other, but once persuaded, it is relatively easy to settle into an "us" versus "them" mentality.

The complementarian/egalitarian debate has not been utterly fruitless. Though there are works by evangelical authors on both sides of the divide (not to be named here) that stand as good examples of bad exegesis and theology, the debate has often helped to sharpen our understanding of crucial biblical texts.

Unfortunately, it is also true that these clarifications have not succeeded in moving the debate forward.

Next steps

So how might we move forward?

… it really possible to get the idea of "equality" or "complementarity" from the Bible itself?

To begin, Evangelicals should admit the complementarian/egalitarian terms of debate have reached the end of their usefulness. Both positions have capitulated to controlling philosophical presuppositions that cannot be derived from Scripture itself. What do I mean by this?

Voices from both sides ironically agree that male and female are equal but different in some way. The only real difference between the positions is whether one emphasizes "equality" of male and female while downplaying their "differences" (egalitarianism) or whether one emphasizes their "differences" while qualifying what it means to be "equal" (complementarianism).

The question is, is it really possible to get the idea of "equality" or "complementarity" from the Bible itself? Or are these simply ways of thinking we have assumed are the only way to make sense of "male and female" in Bible?

Consider the fundamental verse in the creation account that tells us God made male and female in His image (see Genesis 1:27). What can really be said about what this verse means? Is it really possible to insist, as complementarians do, that when God created humans in His image male and female were designed to "complement" each other in their differences?

Or is it really possible to insist, as egalitarians do, that being created in God's image as male and female tells us they are "equal" despite their differences? Are not both interpretations finally plausible? And if so, does this not leave us once again at a theological impasse?

My point here is not to provide a magical solution to this debate—there likely isn't one. Rather, from a practical standpoint, I would like to challenge Evangelicals to agree that the complementarian/egalitarian debate is at an impasse and is unlikely to be broken.

We can continue to sharpen our exegetical scalpels, but let's be honest: the terms of debate, as it has been waged, should be put to rest in anticipation of some much-needed new terms of reference.

New terms

But where might we find these new terms? From a theological standpoint we may need to begin to reshape the gender debate through a fresh look at the Christian doctrine of Jesus Christ as a powerful model of how to think through the relationship of male to female.

… we cannot reduce speech about Jesus Christ to a single word; one is always forced to use two.

The Church through the ages has insisted Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully human. As Karl Barth used to say, we cannot reduce speech about Jesus Christ to a single word; one is always forced to use two. No single concept can be called upon to speak truthfully about Jesus Christ.

His divine and human natures are neither "complementary" (if they were, then His humanity would in some way contribute to "completing" God, (a heretical idea to be sure) nor "equal" (which would be to set divine and human natures onto the same plane, also heretical).

Thus, Christians continue to insist Jesus Christ is both divine and human. To reduce it any further is to fall into false teaching.

Because the relationship of the divine and human in Jesus Christ is utterly unique, I do not mean to suggest the relationship of male and female is to be understood in exactly the same way. However, our attempts theologically to relate male and female together may need to exercise similar kinds of caution as in doctrines of Christ or the Church.

Whether in reference to the relationship of Christ's divinity and humanity and of the relationship of Christ to the Church, the terminology of "complementarity" or "equality" leads to errors. This suggests the use of complementarian or egalitarian terminology in reference to male and female could also lead to problematic conclusions.

We do not yet know what theological solution to the gender debate may arise. But I, for one, think Evangelicals would contribute something vitally important if we resisted the temptation to stake everything upon concepts such as "complementarity" or "equality" that the Bible itself does not necessarily presuppose or support.

In a time when many want to do away with the gender language altogether in favour of an anti-biblical "unisexuality," our theological energy might be better channeled toward proclaiming with conviction that to be human means, at the very least, to be irreducibly male and female.

Perhaps it has been our first mistake to think we can say something better than that.

David Guretzki is assistant professor of theology at Briercrest College and Seminary in Caronport, Saskatchewan.

Originally published in ChristianWeek, June 23, 2006.




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