Faith & Spirituality

How I Became Egalitarian

I mentioned egalitarianism in my first post, and as it’s a favorite topic of mine, it’s something I’ll be featuring a lot of here. However, it’s likely that not everyone knows what this is all about. I figure a brief explanation of what “egalitarianism” is and how I came to be persuaded of it is in order.

But first, a working definition of some terms I’ll be using:

Egalitarianism: the view that God distributes His gifts and callings without regard to an individual’s sex. “Biblical gender roles” are a man-made construct.

Complementarianism: the view that men and women are assigned by God to certain respective “Biblical gender roles” in marriage and in the church. One’s sex — male or female — is the sole determining factor in which role they must occupy.

I was raised in a church that, like many, espoused the complementarian view. Messages on “the women’s role” were a staple in our weekly sermon subject matter. We were taught that women were supposed to be “submissive” (i.e., acquiescent, obedient, and/or deferential) to their husbands, who were tasked with “leading their family spiritually” and “making the final decision” in a disagreement. Women were not permitted to speak in church or hold positions of authority, because the Bible expressly forbade it. Instead, we were to keep our heads covered and remain silent. Our natural and proper areas of service were the kitchen and the nursery, while the men were the leaders, decision-makers, and oracles of God in the church. Such were our God-ordained “roles.”

The women were cautioned not to view this arrangement as unfair. After all, we were told, our seemingly inferior role did not diminish our personal value and worth. In fact, in the great cosmic drama of humanity, God Himself had designed us to be the followers, the behind-the-scenes-supporters, those “under authority.” Since these were His express wishes, we couldn’t be dissatisfied with our role in the church and in marriage, just as an actor couldn’t be upset with the director of a play for assigning him to a part that is not a “lead role.”

Well, even at the ripe old age of twelve, I knew this analogy was invalid. Being consigned to a “role” in life is nothing at all like being assigned a role in a play.

For one thing, you audition for a role in a play because you want the part; you aren’t born into it. For another thing, your role is temporary — it only happens onstage, and it ends once the play is over. Also, a theater typically houses many different plays and you have the chance to try out for as many different roles as you desire. You aren’t cast in one single role for your entire acting career. And you certainly are never forced into any role against your will!

I pondered these inconsistencies whenever I heard the “role in a play” analogy used in a sermon, but ultimately I didn’t give the matter a great deal of deep thought. I was much too young for marriage at the time, and had no desire for any “men only” leadership role. Besides, my personality conveniently happened to fit the “no women teaching or leading” mold anyway: I was terrified of public speaking, and I didn’t sense any particular calling or gifting to be an elder, pastor, or teacher. By contrast, the “women’s role” seemed like a decent fit. Aspiring to marriage and homemaking came naturally to me; it was all I’d ever known. My mother never had a professional career, nor had her mother before her. I made it through high school, college, graduate school, and some years after that accepting my lot as a normal, natural way of life.

Then I got married, and all of a sudden, things began to unravel at warp speed.

Marriage was where the rubber met the road in applying the “submission” teachings I’d been raised with, but when I tried them, I found them to be sorely lacking in every way. They were an insult to my intelligence as an autonomous, educated human being. Logically speaking, they had more holes than a spaghetti strainer. Practically speaking, they just plain didn’t work.

My suspicion that something was awry began to be stirred while reading Sheila Wray Gregoire’s Nine Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage. I didn’t know of her egalitarian leanings when I bought the book; I had simply picked it up because she seemed like a very “common sense” type of person and I enjoyed her style of writing on her blog, which I followed regularly. Her chapter on submission rocked my world. (I don’t use that expression lightly, but in this case, that’s literally what happened!) It was a completely brand-new idea to me that Ephesians 5:22-33 is not, in fact, a prescription for a hierarchical relationship in which “the husband is the leader; the wife is the follower.”

See, I had never been able to shake the uncomfortable feeling that marriage had put a wedge between God and me, because now there was a third party “spiritual leader” in the mix. My husband was next in the chain of command between myself and Christ, as per this illustration that way too many of us are familiar with. It naturally followed, then, that the quality of my relationship with God hinged on his spiritual fervor (or lack thereof) at any given time.

I couldn’t help but feel something wasn’t right with this idea. So I did what every confused American millennial naturally does: I took to Google with my problem. There, among other things, I found “Demanding a ‘Spiritual Leader’? Then 33% of You Will Not Marry.”

I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me before, but suddenly it made perfect sense: Not only was it unlikely; it was statistically impossible for there to be enough more-spiritually-mature Christian men to go around for all the marriageable Christian women in the world. A great many women would be left with no logical recourse but to (a) stay single or (b) marry a less-mature man and prod him into leading her spiritually. This would actually be a contradiction, as it would make her the leader and initiator.

Adding to this difficulty was the fact that, of the literally dozens of sources I poured through, NO ONE could positively define “spiritual leader.” No one had any explanation as to why the fruit of the Spirit in a man’s life makes him a Spiritual Leader, but in a woman’s life it makes her simply a Good Christian Woman.

At this point I was starting to have vertigo from cognitive dissonance. Intrigued by all the contradictions I was unearthing, I did some more digging and from there I discovered CBE (Christians for Biblical Equality) International. I learned:

That 1 Corinthians 14:35-36 doesn’t prohibit women from speaking in church

That 1 Timothy 2:12 doesn’t prohibit women from being leaders

Why “the husband is the head of the wife” doesn’t mean he is the boss

Why submission in marriage isn’t just for wives

Why ezer means that wives are equal, not subordinate assistants

Why the “breadwinner husband, stay-at-home-mom” model is rooted in culture and personal preference, not the commands of Scripture

That the doctrine of female subordination finds its origin with Plato, not Jesus

That Genesis 3:16 is an effect of the curse, not a command from God

That Galatians 3:28 (“there is neither male nor female”) isn’t just referring to salvation

Even with all of this mounting evidence to the contrary of what I’d always passively believed, what really clinched it for me wasn’t the fresh perspectives on the “problem passages” of Scripture. It was noticing the progression of the whole story of Scripture from start to finish, and how it consistently moves from lesser to greater concepts, from brokenness to healing and restoration:

From enslavement to redemption,

from access to God being limited only to Levites descended from Aaron to all believers in Jesus,

from masters and slaves relating to one another as owner and what is owned, to a relationship as brothers in Christ,

from the recipients of salvation being only the Jewish people at first, and then the whole world,

from an old covenant to a newer, better one. The general “trend” of Scripture (and especially the New Testament) is away from restrictions and limitations toward greater freedom. On such a grand trajectory, the belief that subordination to men is God’s ideal for women, that women must never lead, teach, or speak seems… well, slightly out of place.

A couple of years ago at this time, I couldn’t have imagined that I’d finally be letting go of the idea that God has placed spiritual, ecclesial, and vocational limits only on human beings with XX chromosomes. Of course, a paradigm shift of this magnitude doesn’t happen without its challenges, but I wouldn’t trade my newfound knowledge for anything.

The “role in a play” analogy I’d heard since my youth? This truth (tragically) took me way too many years of my life to realize, but here it is:

If you are in a “role” in which an unchangeable, essential part of you (your sex) determines how much spiritual authority and power you have, then that is not actually a role at all.

It’s a caste system.

And I think I’m pretty safe in saying there are no caste systems in the kingdom of heaven.

[Originally published September 2017. This post has been edited for clarity.]

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