The Egalitarian and Complementarian Divide (1)


It has frequently been claimed that understanding the differences in hermeneutical approach is key to illuminating the barriers that now divide the Egalitarian from the Complementarian when it comes to women in ministry.[1] However, the two groups, as Evangelicals, adhere to the same basic hermeneutical principles, but apply them in different ways because the shaping principles that constitute their positions differ as a result of their understandings of specific texts.[2] This paper aims to identify what the different shaping principles and influences of Evangelical Complementarianism and Egalitarianism are in order to understand more clearly how they influence the recent debate.

Differences within a Common Foundation

The “Shaping Principles”

In the midst of all the confusion over the definition of  ‘equality,’ Egalitarians and Complementarians share a common component in their definition. While traditional Christian patriarchy taught that a woman’s nature was ontologically inferior,[3] both Egalitarians and Complementarians believe men and women are ontologically equal in value and worth as persons before God. Egalitarian author Rebecca Groothuis defines equality as “the fundamental biblical principle that every human being stands on equal ground before God; there is no group of persons that is inherently more or less worthy than another.”[4] In summarizing the Egalitarian position, Robert Johnston provides the following as part of how the nature of a woman is to be understood under the concept of equality: “Gen 1:26, 27 recounts how God made male and female in his image. Man and woman were to be a fellowship of equals like the fellowship within the Godhead…and were given joint responsibilities (Gen 1:28).”[5] In 1977, George Knight III was the first hierarchalist to put a Complementarian perspective into print. Based off of the fact that man and woman are both made in the image of God, he articulates: “Thus both by creation and now also by redemption that renews that created image quality, the unity and equality of male and female are most fundamentally affirmed.”[6] Wayne Grudem continues this sentiment when he says, “If men and women are equally in the image of God, then we are equally important and equally valuable to God…God’s evaluation is the true standard of personal value for all eternity.”[7] He lists this idea first among key issues and presentations of the Complementarian view. Clearly, equality in essence is important to both theological perspectives and both would define it in relation to God.

Even though Egalitarians and Complementarians share a common component in their foundations, because of how Complementarians interpret certain passages, an additional premise is included; one believed to further clarify the general principle of equality. The added premise is exclusive male leadership with female subordination rooted in the “created order.”[8] Raymund Ortlund explains this is as a paradox: “In the conspicuous phrase, ‘a helper suitable for him’ (2:18, 20), we encounter the paradox of manhood and womanhood…A man, just by virtue of his manhood, is called to lead for God. A woman, just by virtue of her womanhood, is called to help for God.”[9] This difference is described in terms of “role”, but not in the usual way the term is understood; it is not being used to describe mere routine behavior or function, but ontology.[10]

This ontological hierarchy of gender (rather than personhood) is sometimes affirmed explicitly and at times merely present by consequence. Steven Cowan candidly expresses, “…I will grant (and I think most other complementarians will grant) that woman’s subordination is ontological, being grounded in women’s femaleness.”[11] Where the word “ontology” is not used, other words such as “nature” are. For example, Piper and Grudem state “We are not concerned merely with the behavioral roles of men and women but also with the underlying nature of manhood and womanhood themselves.”[12] How does this square with the Complementarian’s commitment to an ontological equality in personhood and standing before God? The setup is described as: “…The property of being equal in value and dignity to X can be had by an individual who also has the property having a subordinate role to X”.[13] The Complementarian claims men and women are ontologically equal in value and worth as persons and that this equality includes ontological subordination according to gender, without contradiction. Those who would like to say only functionality is in view must explain how the quality of submission can be rooted in one’s essential nature as female for all time and still remain merely functional. In other words, if a woman, as a woman was made to be subordinate in relation to a man who is necessarily her leader, then there is more to the situation than women merely acting subordinate.

My note (in a later footnote): Steven B. Cowan understands the Egalitarian’s critique to be aimed at ontology and not mere functionality, but believes the Complementarian view does not necessitate an ontological understanding of subordination.  One could claim the setup is only temporary and say with Paul “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with glory to be revealed in us (Romans 8:18; cf. 2 Cor 4:17)”. While this would solve the logical problem, it does not account for the reason ontological subordination must be in view—the “created order.”

Cowan believes the problem could be resolved even if subordination was on the basis of ontology. He posits an alien world with amphibious people who have two “completely and different and independent faculties” enabling them to breathe on land and in the water. When one is active, the other is dormant. The problem with this in regards to women is that her “femaleness“ is what subordination is necessarily tied to and it would seem she would have to forfeit her femaleness in order to “breathe” in the afterlife. We would then be moving towards a more androgynous ideal than either position would be comfortable with. See “The Metaphysics of Subordination: A Response to Rebecca Merrill Groothuis,” 46-47.

The Egalitarian does not accept the Complementarian’s additional premise. This is either because he believes the general principle of equality by nature rules out this premise and/or he do not believe Scripture teaches this additional premise. So, the Egalitarian view is best understood as an affirmation of the general principle of equality without the clarifying premise. Most Egalitarians believe the additional premise does not serve to clarify the equality principle; rather it undermines this principle. Groothuis continues from her definition of equality grounded in creation, “It follows from this principle that there is no moral or theological justification for permanently granting or denying a person status, privilege, or prerogative solely on the basis of that person’s race, class or gender….The positing of a universal spiritual principle of female subordination to male authority…runs contrary to the principle of biblical equality” (emphasis mine).[14] Belleville expresses “Does being male and female distinguish who we are and what we can do in ways that are non-interchangeable and divinely ordered—a biblical manhood and womanhood so to speak?…The creation accounts offer no support” (emphasis mine).[15] Usually, a logical connection is made in regards to the general passages ruling out the added premise since the passages giving these general principles are believed to not mention hierarchy. The Egalitarian is not adopting a special secular understanding of equality as is often supposed, but rather rejecting the added premise because of the belief that it is either not found in Scripture or that it is logically ruled out by, and antithetical to, its content.

            [1] The following are a few of the authors where this understanding can be found: Robert K. Johnston, “The Role of Women in the Church and Home: An Evengelical Testcase in Hermeneutcis,” in Scripture, Tradition, and Interpretation: Essays Presented to Everett F. Harrison by His Students and Colleagues  in Honor of His Seventy-fifth Birthday (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 1978), 235., Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Verses the Old (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Pub., 2002), 373., Gordon D. Fee, “Hermeneutics and the Gender Debate,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy eds. Ronald Pierce and Rebecca Groothuis (Downers Grove, Il: Inter Varsity Press,  2004), 364. Also, I. Howard Marshall, Beyond the Bible: Going from Scripture to Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 36.

            [2] Andreas J. Kostenberger, “’Biblical Hermeneutics: Basic Principles and Questions of Gender’ (Ch20) by Roger Nicole and ‘Hermeneutics and the Gender Debate’ (Ch 21) by Gordon D. Fee,” Journal for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood 10, no. 1 (Spring 2005), 90.

            [3] Alan G. Padget believes Complementarianism arose no sooner than 1976. The idea that: “women and men are equal but that their roles are different”, was first put into writing by Knight making Complementarianism itself revisionist of the traditional understanding. See “The Bible and Gender Troubles: American Evangelicals Debate Scripture and Submission,” Wiley Online Library 47, no. 1 (February 24, 2008), 23-24. 

            [4] Rebecca M. Groothuis, Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), 19.

            [5] Johnston, 236.

            [6] George W. Knight III, The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977), 20.

            [7] Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More Than One Hundred Disputed Questions (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Pub, 2004), 27.

            [8] Most Egalitarians and Complementarians agree men could and should be leaders. The disagreement arises when women are excluded.

            [9] Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem  (Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2006), 100, 102.

            [10] “Kevin Giles study: The Word ‘role’ in Complementarian Literature” last modified April 14, 2011,

            [11] Steven B. Cowan, “The Metaphysics of Subordination: A Response to Rebecca Merrill Groothuis,” Journal for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood 14, no. 1 (Spring 2009), 45.

            [12] John Piper and Wayne Grudem, “An Overview of Central Concerns,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem  (Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2006), 60.

            [13] Cowan, 43.

            [14] Groothuis, 19-20.

            [15] Linda Belleville, Women Leaders and the Church: 3 Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 99.

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One thought on “The Egalitarian and Complementarian Divide (1)

  1. Pingback: RHE- “Mutuality 2012 Synchroblog” | Christian Egalitarian Marriage

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