Ontological Egalitarianism vs. Functional Egalitarianism

I was talking this weekend to a dear Christian woman who objected — strenuously — to my call for an egalitarian Church, according to the Scriptures.

Her examples were along the line of “police officers have authority over the citizen; thus, they’re not equals,” or “some people are better at things than others, so the ‘others’ aren’t equal to their superiors.” This betrays a misunderstanding of terms that I hope to correct here.

I’m talking about ontological egalitarianism — the equality of worth and value, the unchangeable truth of being created equally in the image of God, of every human being. There are people, of course, who don’t believe in ontological egalitarianism; they believe that one race was created superior to another, or one gender created more in the image of God than the other, and they are rightly shunned by most Christians, although distressingly tolerated by some here in Moscow. Most clear-thinking people, though, argue that ALL human beings are EQUALLY made in the image of God and are of EQUAL value and worth to their Creator — even if they insist that roles and functions are always the prerogative of one gender over the other.

Functional differences, or differences in role or position, have to be accepted for society to operate with some semblance of order. If, for example, a police officer yells at me to “Freeze!,” the rules of society, and the testimony of Scripture, require that I do, indeed, stop right there. The cop is in a proper position of authority over me, but that is a function of her operating in her role as a cop. When she is off duty, and we’re both attending a party, she cannot compel me to bring her the clam dip; her authority over me is situational, a function of her role and not of any ontological superiority.

Likewise, as many complementarians like to argue, only women can bear children, which, in their minds, makes men and women “not equal” and thus strikes a blow against egalitarianism. But there is no created superiority in women; our ability to bear children doesn’t make us better than, and certainly not worse than, the men around us. It makes us different, but it doesn’t make us unequal ontologically. Childbearing is a function of gender. Growing a beard is a function of gender. But the ability to use one’s Spirit-given gifts in service of Christ and his Church is not a function of gender, at least according to the Word.

No Biblical egalitarian argues against the fact that men and women are different, or that some people in some situations have legitimate authority over others, or have superior gifts than do others. What we find unBiblical is the use of gender in determining someone’s inherent worth — or their ability to function, all other things being equal, in the Church. Because we take Scripture seriously, we believe that Galatians 3:28 is a mandate for the Church, and we grieve that God’s people today, as in years past, insist on obeying it only two-thirds of the way by not excluding the poor from service, or Gentiles from service, but denying equality of ecclesiastical service to gifted women. We must take the Scriptures literally here; for in Christ Jesus there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female. All are truly — ontologically — equal in Christ and in his Body, and service within it must be encouraged on the basis of giftedness, not gender. Anything less is an example of disobedience to the One in whom all of us were created.

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