What is an Egalitarian?
Gender, in and of itself, neither privileges nor curtails one’s ability to be used to advance the kingdom or to glorify God in any dimension of ministry, mission, society or family.
Or, to frame it as a more accessible question: ‘Are there any aspects of leadership denied to women and reserved for men strictly on the basis of one’s gender?’ The complementarian response, as we have seen in Part One of this article is ‘yes’. The egalitarian response to this question is ‘no’.
As I noted in the first article, complementarians believe that men and women have ontological equality (ie, in their being), but not functional equality. Egalitarians on the other hand believe that God’s design for men and women is that they would bear functional equality.
Egalitarians don’t believe that there are no complementary differences between the sexes, but they can’t accept that these differences work themselves out in gender assigned ‘roles’. So Egalitarians would place no mandatory expectations on men and women to fulfil any role that the opposite sex could not also fulfil. The overriding emphasis is one of total equality, in being and in function.
Like the complementarian position, egalitarians believe that their doctrinal affirmations are biblically based, central to creation and pragmatically essential for the health of the home and church. It is believed that restrictive gender roles create an imbalance of power within the church and home and that they do not allow women in particular to flourish to be all that they can be.
A strong case is made by egalitarians against the complementarian position that usually roots itself in an interpretation of the Fall in Genesis 3. Complementarians believe that gender roles were implemented before the Fall and are made obvious by such things as Eve being designated as man’s ‘helper’.
Egalitarians argue that Adam and Eve’s pre-fall existence was a partnership of equals with equal responsibilities, rights and value. As sin entered the world after the Fall, it distorted the relationships between men and women, which resulted in the imbalance of power between the genders. This observation history knows all too well.
So egalitarianism defines itself on the similarities found between the sexes, emphasising an equality between men and women that rests on equal function for both genders. It denies that there is any God-ordained hierarchy that privileges men to certain positions of authority or leadership within the church and family that could not be taken up by women also.
Impact on the Church
Not surprisingly it is a strong affirmation of egalitarians that for the church to flourish and be all that it can be for itself and for society, a recognition of the need for women in leadership is paramount. The agreement of the general synod this year to grant the office of bishop to women is therefore a landmark event for egalitarians.
To sum up, both the complementarian and egalitarian believe that their positions are borne out of scriptural conviction, and that these positions are rooted in the Bible and are God’s plan for mankind and the church. However, to state the obvious – the positions are contradictory.
It is for this reason that the debate tends to come back to biblical interpretation and application. There is a vast array of literature that defends both positions via exegesis of select biblical passages. In order to fully understand this debate, one must come to their own informed position about what the Bible teaches.