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Neither Complementarian Nor Egalitarian: book review

Simon Chan once said, “True theology occurs when the faithful respond with ‘amazed recognition’ to the theologian: You said for us what we had wanted to say all along but could not find the words to say it.” This was my experience reading Neither Complementation Nor Egalitarian by Michelle Lee-Barnewell. At every turn, Lee-Barnewell articulates the disquiet that I have held with both egalitarian and complementarian approaches, and puts forward categories that to me seem far more biblical than either side has been able to offer. This is a brave book, one that is liable to be set upon from every side if it were not first so reasonable, and second so biblically argued.

The book is split into two parts. The first charts how both complementarians and egalitarians have been influenced by socio-cultural movements. Lee-Barnewell isn’t judgemental about this — none of us theologise in a vacuum — but noting the historical context helps us to see where we may have been blinkered. There’s a tonne of gold in these chapters worthy of much more reflection, but I will just note two of her insights here.

On the conservative end, she shows how the definition of women in the home has narrowed. While women have long been seen as the guardians of virtue, it is only after the Second World War that the woman is seen as promoting this virtue through the shaping of her children, and the providing of refuge and support for her husband. Prior to that, she had a much more public role, as ‘the home’ pertained to society more generally, propelling her into social advocacy roles which the domestic sphere was believed to include.

On the egalitarian end, she discusses how ‘rights’ is also a relatively new currency for discussing the contribution of women. Prior to the 1960s and 70s, it was women’s special contribution to the common good that was so compelling – this contribution was framed as a duty and responsibility, not a fulfilment of personal rights or interests. In other words, the scandal of women’s non-participation was not the injustice of limitations imposed on her, but the impoverishing of society by not bringing that which only she could.

These arguments resonate with the discomfort I have felt with the individualism I have felt pervades and shapes both ‘sides’ of this debate. Lee-Barnewell writes, “The correspondences between larger cultural trends and evangelical movements do not necessarily negate the significance of the latter since there is nothing inherently contradictory about holding a biblical belief that is also reflected in some way in the contemporary culture. However, they should at least give us pause to ask whether this influence is hindering our ability to see other ways of understanding gender.”

The second part of the book is devoted to asking some questions that may help us to do this kind of re-framing from a biblical perspective, starting with an exploration of the unity and corporate identity of God’s people, and second the way in which ‘reversal’ features in the kingdom of God as a demonstration of God’s power and glory.

In Part Two, Lee-Barnewell argues convincingly that we have approached the Bible with our own questions – like ‘what can women do?’ and ‘are men and women equal?’ – and that in doing so we have missed the emphases and main themes of passages like Genesis 1-3, Galatians 3:28, Acts 2 and Ephesians 5. For example, she argues that neither Galatians 3:28 nor Acts 2 are first and foremost about equality, as egalitarians have argued. She thinks inclusion is a better term: the emphasis is on cohesion, and rights given up, not rights grasped. She argues the texts allow space for hierarchy, though hierarchy re-imagined through the great biblical theme of reversal. Likewise, when we come to the concept of servant leadership, so cherished by complementarians, she says we have seen ‘servant’ as a qualifier, something along the lines of ‘lead, but in a nice kind of way’. This radically misunderstands the nature of the term according to Lee-Barnewell, because it refers to nothing less than the humbling of one’s high position.

Her narrative treatment of Genesis 1-3 is outstanding as it unpacks the asymmetry of the relationship between Adam and Eve, and how its goal is unity between the two. Startling, and yet satisfying to me, was her observation that it is Adam who is given the responsibility for maintaining unity in the marriage. Far from the idea that Adam is to rule (whether well or poorly) and Eve is to fall in line for the sake of unity, Lee-Barnewell argues that it is Adam who is to pursue unity, harmony and intimacy with his wife. The same idea is on view in Ephesians 5, where the mystery of Christ and the church that marriage is to emulate is about Christ’s pursuit of the church, and his giving up of himself to make her his body.

If you’re looking for a book that outlines in great practical detail what the responsibilities of men and women are, and what women in particular are allowed to do, you’ll be disappointed. But that is not Lee-Barnewell’s intention. She offers something more foundational, and far richer. As Lynn Cohick says in the afterword, Lee-Barnewell “is asking for a paradigm shift at the level of mind-set or worldview, not adjustment to existing ideas or practices. It makes sense to ask readers to sit a bit with these new ideas and let them infuse their entire outlook.” I for one will be ruminating on this for many days, weeks and months to come.

Categories: Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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