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Three questions for egalitarians on headship, submission and domestic violence

Cards on the table: I belong at least loosely in the complementarian camp, though most people we meet are surprised by that, which is either an indictment of Arthur and me as complete hypocrites, or a wonderful compliment because in our view, good complementarians should look like egalitarians (and the labels are all a bit superficial anyway). I am also deeply sympathetic to egalitarian readings of Scripture though I still haven’t embraced them. Arthur and I generally try to look for the log in our own eye before the speck in someone else’s, so in asking questions of egalitarians today, I’m doing something slightly outside our usual practice and I hope that’s OK.

I say this because the egalitarian/complementarian split which fractures some parts of the Christian world has had a public airing recently. It’s come in the form of discussing the role of doctrine in domestic violence. Julia Baird suggested in her first article that a doctrine of submission and headship lends itself to excusing or upholding domestic violence. There was a massive reaction, prompting her second article, and then is was on, with various Christians weighing in on the doctrine of submission: Karl Faase, a response to that, Claire SmithSarah Colyer, Sandy Grant, Johanna Harris Tyler. The stakes are obviously high here: domestic violence is horrific, and Christians ought to welcome any chance to expose sin so that it can be dealt with.

But this debate hasn’t exactly been about domestic violence in the church or Christians asking, ‘what can we do about it?’ It’s been about some Christians pointing fingers at other Christians, arguing that their churches are fertile breeding grounds for abuse because of headship and submission, while those Christians try to claim that they’ve been misunderstood. I haven’t seen this debate rise much above doctrinal point scoring.

But my egalitarian friends and colleagues have always been far more concerned with the welfare of women than with simply winning a debate. And none of them are naive enough to suggest that getting rid of the doctrine of submission would see domestic violence eliminated. While a lot of effort goes into the targeting of complementarianism, the egalitarian agenda is constructive as well.

So if you’re an egalitarian, here are three genuine questions for you about how your ‘camp’ relates to this issue.

1. I take it that part of the reason to publicly argue against complementarian theology is apologetic: to say to a watching world, ‘Hey, not all Christians believe this damaging doctrine.’ I think that’s a pretty fair claim to make in the west, but the west is no longer the majority of Christians. So how do you think about our global fellowship? What do you do with the more conservative views found across majority world churches? Are they the result of a lack of education, as one leading Australian egalitarian scholar once told me, or are they sober biblical interpretations within their culture?

2. How are you different from the status quo? Australian society assumes gender equality and practices gender inequality. That’s why we have a societal system where domestic violence flourishes. It’s not only complementarians who are party to domestic violence, but average Aussies who say their marriages are equal. You guys have that same language of equality – how do you set yourself apart from Australian society? This is not an argument that egalitarians are sold out to culture, but the exact opposite. I know you’re not! So how do you make that difference heard?

3. Can you lead us in repentance? I don’t mean telling others where they need to repent. I mean, can you show us what it looks like to repent when it comes to the issue of domestic violence in the church? Could you write me an article with the brief, ‘I hate the pernicious doctrine of submission just as much as any other egalitarian, but when it comes to come to domestic violence, let me name the ways my camp need to do better’? What would you say?

I’m really hoping to get some good interaction here, that moves beyond ‘who’s right’ and offers us all a chance to learn from egalitarian brothers and sisters.

Categories: Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

10 replies

  1. I’m not sure I’ve ever really identified those two terms or identified myself with one of them. Perhaps there are other options? On the one hand, I think it is obvious that women give birth and feed babies, which leads to a totally different way of being in the world and in society in terms of communication, types of knowledge and intelligence, economic interactions and more. And this is God-given. But then this is enculturated on a grand scale even by those women who do not have children — and this is pretty consistent across the globe with the specific details changing depending where one is. I’m not so sure all that is God-ordained. Perhaps if I lived in a women’s world more obviously I’d be a complementarian because it might bring me peace — but since I am the breadwinner in our family many things have just had to change over time (and I have had to face all kinds of discrimination both within and without the church). For example, I have to make many decisions that affect our entire family because of my career. I do so in consultation with my husband, but since it is my job, I have to make the final decision about what is best and sometimes he doesn’t like it. This doesn’t seem to be complementarian? Jury’s out…

    But if I am an egalitarian, perhaps my answers would be as follows:
    1. global fellowship — we start where we are (2nd wave feminism!). How can we live the best life and help women live the best life possible in the context in which we/they now live. And that may be a context with a totally different view on women and submission and that is OK, as long as we are moving forward and not backward, in love. The feminists of the Western world/minority world in the 50s and 60s were mostly complementarian, I would say. It wasn’t until the 80s that the hardcore egalitarian view came out? But anyway, women started with their own home, the personal as political, and tried to enact change right where they were, step by step. Just as Western feminists need to take seriously the diverse views and experiences of women of colour and of the ‘global south’ or majority world, so too do egalitarian Christians need to accept that the global fellowship of Christianity is diverse, and that equality might look different elsewhere. It is not the job of egalitarian Christians to tell the global fellowship how Church should look — it is the job of women within each context to work it out in partnership and in love (and sometimes in loud revolution!?). We gotta listen…

    2. Not sure I really get this question. I am different from the status quo in that my family messes with the ordinary order of things. But many things are still status quo — as I have written about in my blog, I take up most of the emotional labour in my family and I can’t see any way to equalise that. I guess we set ourselves apart from Australian society by trying to work out equality in love and honesty. We are quite open about the ways in which our marriage is unequal, and open and honest about the struggles that poses for us as Christians and humans. As a mother, I can see that equality is certainly not practiced by the majority, and I don’t think the majority of mothers with young children would even try to claim that. One thing we do stand out with is that we are committed to having a parent at home every day, and taking responsibility for our children’s care and education because of wanting to transmit our faith. This is different from (some) egalitarians in the non-Christian world, I think, whereby both have a right to a worklife and childcare may be commercialised or outsourced. In contrast, we both forfeit our ‘right’ to a worklife. (Currently I do 4 days work and 1 day care of the workweek, and husband does the opposite. But normally I work fulltime).

    3. Hmm, need to think about this. Are we talking about domestic violence in the church? I mean, the research really shows that domestic violence is closely linked to poverty and stress,and is a class issue also linked to power relationships and a feeling of a lack of control over one’s life. So how about repenting for not doing all we can to fight poverty, reduce workplace bullying, and assist migrants and others living in stressful circumstances, and instead wasting time blaming complementarians on the internet? How about repenting for not being there, for not asking ‘are you ok?’ and for picking the easy way out of blaming ‘the church’?

  2. Cards on the table… I think most sexism is really either racism or culturalism or classism in disguise.

    Neither ‘complementarianism’ nor ‘egalitarianism’ as the frameworks we understand them to be can be located in scripture. They are two of the many are ‘best guess’ outworkings of some of the writings of different scripture contexts. From this perspective they are both of equal merit in my view.
    Much of the egalitarian view is based in the presupposition that the first century world was more sexist than the 21st. I don’t think that’s a sustainable case. Women i the 21st century are widely demeaned in public in ways that were unheard of in the Roman world. Jewish Synagogues had female rulers. This was nothing about ‘working full time’ or neglecting family. It simply meant that women exercised leadership in some synagogues, because, like men, they were able.
    Complementarianism and egalitarianism are extentensions of two political models into gender relationships. If you live in a political heirarchy, or a sub-culture that thinks its a good model (like syndey anglicanism) complementarian relationships between men and women are logical, even necessary, or you will have gender anachronisms with the politcal order. Similarly egalitarian gender relationships belong in flat, socialist (in the proper understanding of that term) orders of society. If you try and impose complementarianism in a social order that thinks every human is equal, you willl have a disjunction of ideas that are unreconcilable. Thus in Victoria, where there is a strong heritage of anti-empire, anti-monarchy, anti-british-colonial sentiment historically, and a number of church tradtions also that represent ‘free’church practice in whihc the heirarches of society are resisted in the church (thus believers baptism, not state-registry infant baptism, for example), the complementarian model is anachronistic.
    What I am trying to say here is that both/neither models especially represent a unilateral scriptural view – but are based in culture. Thus I support Complementarianism in cultures where it is appropriate, but resist it as a global theological imperative.
    As 1 Corinthians recommends to those who are virgins, slaves, (inc. prostitutes) freedmen, betrothed, married to unbelievers…’whatever social condition you were in when you were called, stay in that condition.’

    1. Brilliant Beth. Thanks. We western theologians need to hear this as we go about our own discussions, and we need to work hard at giving space to majority world theologians to do their own theological and cultural work on gender.

  3. Tammie – I’ve found reading your blog really fascinating, albeit, sometimes confusing:
    “2. How are you different from the status quo? Australian society assumes gender equality and practices gender inequality. That’s why we have a societal system where domestic violence flourishes”
    Do you really believe that our societal system allows “domestic violence to flourish” more than or in comparison to other societies where there is a greater ‘power difference’ between men and women etc.?
    I would suggest that the figures on both are hard to determine, but, surely there is a greater respect to women in the Australia (on whole) than many other nations that have less equality – consider Papua New Guinea. At the end of the day, violence against women is always wrong, however, surely creating a culture of equality should lead to change (hopefully!).

    1. Hi Rob and thanks for the comment. The question of how violence against women in different cultures is an interesting one. My experience here is that Tanzanian women are limited in many ways that Australian women are not – and vice versa! I often tell my Tanzanian friends about advertising billboards depicting women’s bodies in sexual ways in Australia and they are horrified that we would be so disrespectful to our women and womankind generally! That kind of constant public devaluing of women’s bodies is simply not part of life here.

      So when I say that domestic violence flourishes in Australia, that didn’t mean it flourishing in Australia more than other places, but rather that the flourishing it does is in part attributable to our hypocrisy around the way we Aussies talk about and practice gender equality.

  4. Hi Tamie, may I suggest you follow some of the material, ideas, people of Christians for Biblical Equality. This is an international bunch with strong academic rigour and recognition, and a significant presence in Africa. For others who are interested, you will find a CBE group in both Sydney and Melbourne. CBE has been in conversation with Julia Baird as the public discussion around domestic violence and theology progressed.

    1. Thanks Sarah! I know CBE a bit especially from when we were in Melbs, and I like a lot of what they’re doing. However it was also one of their leaders who told me that conservative views of Africans come from a lack of education, and I found that pretty hard to swallow. I know some Tanzanian pastors who espouse egalitarian views, but it’s for very different reasons from the academic line that leader was driving. Who are the African writers you’re thinking of?

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