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Thursday, May 5, 2016

"Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian" (Michelle Lee-Barnewall)

TITLE: Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate
AUTHOR: Michelle Lee-Barnewall
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016, (240 pages).

In the evangelical debates over gender, there has been traditionally two camps. The first is the hierarchicalists, or commonly referred now as complementarians. Backed by the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), this group insists on gender from the perspective of man's authority. On the other extreme, there is a group that calls themselves "egalitarians," backed by the Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) that emphasizes on women's rights and equality of gender. Due to the strong stance taken by both groups, this issue of gender often forces an evangelical to choose either of these views, which can be very polarising for the Christian community. The reason for the impasse is that both camps argue from strong biblical positions. Both sides have people who love the Lord and who are passionate about the Bible. Both sides are trying to speak the truth in love as best as they can. Yet, the differences do remain. Backed by well-known scholars and theologians, both sides have formidable theological support for the views. Is there another way to view the gender debate? Is there some middle ground that others can identify with? Is there a place where both moderate individuals within the existing camps can come together? According to Michelle Lee-Barnewall, the answer is a clear Yes! Key to the formulation of a third view is this culturally sensitive paradigm, that if the ancient views of gender reflect the cultural norms of that day, then our theologies on gender need have interpretations that reflect modern cultural sensitivities. In fact, Lee-Barnewall argues that both complementarians and egalitarians have incorporated their understanding of cultural nuances into their positions. The former is influenced by rising tides of post-war individualism while the latter's rise parallels the secular feminist movement on the 70s. Some of the key arguments are:

  • Inclusion over equality
  • Emphasize the concept of oneness
  • Move away from earthly status and worldly privilege toward the heavenly authority and divine leadership
  • Focus on sacrifice rather than individual benefits
  • Leadership more of servanthood
  • Be more concerned with kingdom priorities 
  • The importance to be more holy rather than more "right"
  • Respect the more transcendent values instead of earthly positions

It is important to remember that the author is not proposing an explicit third camp but a way to think differently without rejecting the other two positions. Instead, it is to pave the way for people from both camps to think outside the two boxes and to learn to ask different questions. Ensure that our starting points are not the practical considerations. Our starting point must be suspension of our preconceived ideas and reorientate ourselves toward Christ. Step back to let the vision of the Kingdom take root. Recognize how the kingdom of God transcends all human institutions and arguments. Enlarge our perspectives to be more inclusive than before.

Part One of the book goes back to the historical developments of the traditional views. From the mid-19th Century to the beginning of the 20th Century, we see a greater participation of women in bth missions as well as social reforms. Many women who used to be in domestic environments are suddenly ushered into leadership positions. With industrialization, independence, and later on, individualism, women increasingly are seen in areas of public speaking, missions, and social concerns. Cultural norms mean women in the home are virtuous. Those outside the home are not as virtuous. After WWII, even more women are sent to public spheres, whether economic or nationalistic.  By the 70s, the feminist movement has gotten so vocal and prominent that people question the traditional understanding of women in the home. The civil rights movement in the 60s and equal rights for all all create a fertile ground for the change in gender relations. The key take home in the historical survey is this: Public thought influences religious behaviour; Cultural realities of the day impact the interpretation of biblical texts on gender.

Part Two deals with kingdom themes so that we can re-interpret the gender passages from that perspective. The first theme is unity and the common identity as a people of God, in contrast with arguments that emphasize on specific gender roles The second theme is the theological "reversal" which refers to ways in which man's expected ways are upended by God's unexpected ways. Whether we call it counter-cultural or transcendental perspectives, we are reminded that the gospel of Christ will always frustrates those who tries to control God. For the symbol of the servant of God is manifested as the "antithesis of power, status, and domination." Whatever we do, we are to reflect holiness inside and witness outside. Lee-Barnewall compares and contrasts "equality and rights" with "authority and leadership" in the area of ministry. Instead of being stuck in gender roles defined by either complementarians or egalitarians, why not look at the larger concerns of both genders? Why not expand ministries that are inclusive? Why don't we promote the practice of love, goodwill, and holiness in the community? Why not focus more on being like Christ? Lee-Barnewall makes no judgment on the topic of special male leadership. Instead, she affirms both complementary and egalitarian views with specific obedience to the position of Christ. There is something more important than positional authority. It is servant leadership.

She looks at the topic of marriage in two passages of the Bible. The first is Genesis 2-3 about Adam and Eve having a "shared mandate," a togetherness in ruling over the earth, and their unity with regard to obedience to God. The union of one flesh is more important than the specific gender differences. The second passage is Ephesians 5 on husbands and wives. Here, Lee-Barnewall sees kephale as an authority that is "reversed." This headship must be reflected in the context of a "one-flesh" relationship rather than a male superiority perspective. It must be practiced according to the humility that Christ has advocated.

Lynn Cohick, Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College offers a thoughtful afterword that praises Lee-Barnewall's attempt to shed more light rather than to introduce more heat into the gender debate controversy. She acknowledges that the topic is a complex and frequently nuanced by the corresponding culture people live in. After pointing out the salient points of Lee-Barnewall's arguments, Cohick offers up five "avenues of inquiry" to move the discussion forward. Central to her affirmation is the kingdom of God emphasis in all discussions.

So What?

The author is Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Talbot School of Theology in Biola University. She has boldly put forth a new way of thinking so that any impasse encountered by either complementarians or egalitarians will have not just a way out but a way forward. Let me offer three thoughts on the book.

First, Lee-Barnewall is not offering a specific third way, although it can be marketed as such. This is wise, as any specific position will eventually be criticized by both camps. More importantly, it can be embraced by both groups so that they can find their own way out of their theological quagmires. It's Lee-Barnewall's way of telling everyone: "Wait a minute. Let's pause and think out of the box. See if there is another approach to dealing with the differences in opinion." Rather than to be distracted by the need to find a third position, we are encouraged to think differently, so as to reach a position of unity and service.

Second, Lee-Barnewall's position is essentially a way of thinking rather than an explicit position. It is like saying that the "process is more important than the product." Or it could also mean that by following this third process, hopefully there will be an expanded pool of people willing to work and think together to find a new destination. This is helpful up to a certain point. People who tend to sit on the fence will easily embrace this. Those already entrenched will find that Lee-Barnewall did not go far enough. More importantly, this approach is more like a mediator position. On the plus side, it enclogs any impasse which can be liberating. On the minus side, it fails to produce a position that complementarians or egalitarians can be clear about. This can be frustrating.

Third, this book is not for everyone. Honestly, anyone who has not grappled hard enough with either arguments of both complementarians and egalitarians will find it hard to appreciate where Lee-Barnewall is coming from. Thus, it is important for readers to first understand the positions of complementarians and egalitarians first before reading a book like this. Otherwise, there is a temptation to use this book to judge all other positions, which is not very gracious.

I warmly recommend this book as an additional resource to enrich our discussion of gender and sexuality.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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