Dealing with our Blind Spots

Posted by Karen Soole Karen Soole
A review of 'Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian' by Michelle Lee-Barnewall, Baker Academic (2016)

“I am grossly disappointed in you for this essay, Mr. Kristof. You have spent so much time in troubled places seemingly calling out misogyny and bigotry. And yet here you are, scolding and shaming progressives for not mindlessly accepting patriarchy, misogyny, complementarianism, and hateful, hateful bigotry against the LGBTQ community into the academy.” [1]

This was one of many similar responses to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof following an article he wrote confessing liberal intolerance [1]. The intolerance that he described is increasingly worrying but what stood out for me was the  insertion of the word ‘complementarian’  in this list of heinous crimes. Are complementarians now persona non grata? Anyone who has read my blog in the past will know that I have both identified as and struggled with the term ‘complementarian’. When I say I am complementarian I generally assume that outside of a few small circles no one knows what I mean. I am also very aware that complementarianism exists on a spectrum and I am on the thin end of it finding some of the expressions at the other end (especially those coming out of the USA) extremely unhelpful. This has not been a concern whilst the discussion is ‘in-house’ but if the concept is understood in the main stream as being lined up with ‘patriarchy, misogyny and hateful, hateful bigotry’ it is a serious problem. It seems the word ‘complementarian’ (a very recently coined term in the grand scheme of things) no longer serves as a shorthand for a biblical understanding that men and women are created equal but different. The ‘different’ aspect is too controversial and understood in so many ways that I have to define what I am not saying before any meaningful discussion can begin. With this in mind you can imagine that I was attracted to a recently published book titled ‘Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian - a Kingdom corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate’ by Michelle Lee-Barnewall.

Lee-Barnewall does not directly address my main concern (which dear reader I go on about all the time in case you have failed to notice) that is how to better communicate the gospel to young women from a feminist persuasion. However she has some important things to say that all of us should heed and will find helpful.  It is worth stating at the outset what she is not doing: she is not giving a line regarding women’s ministry, indeed she does not examine in depth either 1 Timothy 2 or the 1 Corinthians passages. She does however do some important work on marriage from both Genesis and Ephesians particularly regarding how we understand the metaphor ‘head’. From her work on the ancient use of the word she concludes that in antiquity the ‘head’  imagery was used to suggest prominent status and role such as Nero as the ‘head’ of Rome his ‘body’. In this setting the body’s concern was to protect their head at all costs, dying for the sake of the emperor if necessary. She concludes that this is the imagery used in the marriage passage in Ephesians. It was used  not to elevate the husbands status but precisely the opposite calling on the ‘head’ to serve his wife, his ‘body’. She concludes that all the talk of leadership and authority in marriage and the Church completely misses the point. The New Testament is concerned about sacrificial reversals, the head gives himself up sacrificially for his wife as Christ gave himself up for the Church - the ‘head’ is to act ‘unheadlike’. Underlying this is her assertion that the New Testament picture of marriage restores the unity between man and woman that was lost at the fall.

‘According to Paul, headship manifests itself through sacrifice and love rather than having the head preserve its own life and receive love in a self-focused and self-benefiting manner. Ironically, this reversal of expectations is precisely what leads to the fulfilment of the one flesh union of Genesis, for both the husband and wife, and Christ and the church.’ [p.166]
Her description of marriage is beautiful and refreshing.

The book is written in two parts. The first section looks at gender in evangelical history. I found this interesting but as in all retellings it tends to simplify things too much. She has an interesting theory on why the evangelical church has developed into two camps over the last fifty years. She highlights the rise of the cult of the individual post world war two and then the contrasting absorption or rejection of the 1970s feminist movement. She makes a case that evangelical women in the nineteenth century had more influence and a larger sphere than women in some circles in the latter twentieth century who became increasingly tied to their roles as wives and mothers in a narrowed down view of ‘household’.

The second half of her book ‘reframing gender’ is strongest. Despite the title she is not discussing gender so much as challenging all christians to consider the radical reversals that Jesus taught such as servant leadership, humility, self sacrifice and love. Her conviction is that somewhere in our discussions about gender whichever camp we land in we have lost sight of the gospel when we talk about authority and equality and have become caught up in thinking that reflects our response to culture rather  than submitting  ourselves to the heart of  biblical principles.

I would have liked to see her apply these principles to ministry areas but suspect that she was wise in leaving some of the most contentious issues to one side ; we are very quick to dismiss everything someone says when we disagree with part of it as it is clear it is not just liberal atheists that have blind spots. Her core principles need to be heeded and applied to our discussions; more importantly they need to be applied to our lives. If we could learn to have the same mindset as Christ Jesus we might be able to begin to show the world that God’s intention for men and women is really beautiful and He is not an advocate for mindless patriarchy, misogyny, and hateful, hateful bigotry.