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 Smith, Sarah 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.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.