Defining The Terms — What is "Egalitarianism" And Why Should We Care?

THE CONDENSED VERSION:

EGALITARIAN: Leadership and roles in Church based on Spirit-gifting

COMPLEMENTARIAN: Leadership and roles in Church based on gender.

ONTOLOGY: Who you are from and at birth

FUNCTION: What you do, how you serve

BUT, IF YOU’VE JUST POURED A CUP OF COFFEE AND YOU’VE GOT SOME TIME:

There’s been quite a discussion locally and on Prevailing Winds regarding the role of women in the Church, something that anyone who’s known me for five minutes knows I’m passionate about. But somehow the waters here have gotten a bit muddy.

When discussing evangelical Biblical feminism, or EBF (hey — my little fingers are arthritic; I need an acronym here), it’s important that specific terms be denied so that they are understood not only for what they represent, but for what they don’t.

Egalitarianism, for example, does not mean “equal before the law.” That may spring from it, but equal rights is not the same as “egalitarianism.” Further, egalitarianism has two uses in the debate surrounding women and the church. In a sociological sense, egalitarianism is that philosophy that denies that there are God-ordained, or man-ordained, natural hierarchies or stations that result in greater privilege and access to power for some than for others. It’s a rejection of the philosophy of the League of the South, for example, which contends that God has ordained certain people to occupy stations or hierarchies in life over others. This idea is rejected by egalitarians; the view that God has ordained eternal and irrevocable stratification of persons is repugnant. It naturally places some people (white men) in a social position or hierarchy that by intent and definition results in others (black men, women, immigrants) being in a lower strata. It differs from racism but always encourages it; arguing that God has naturally and eternally set some groups in a hierarchical position over others inevitably leads to identification, privilege, or subjection based on ontology.

Egalitarianism, sociologically, rejects that there exists a God-ordained, necessary, and eternal stratification or hierarchy of persons. Egalitarianism is the philosophy that all human beings are intrinsically valuable, that no one is essentially “more valuable” because of his gender, race, or ethnic origin, and that necessary social hierarchies must be grounded in individual merit, organizational efficiency, and social equality. It recognizes the ontological uniqueness and inherent worth in persons and rejects any social hierarchies that deny or confer power to an individual or social group based on ontology, not merit. Egalitarians are vehemently opposed to racism, sexism, and other social views that elevate or denigrate an individual or group of individuals solely on their gender, race, or origin.

Egalitarianism is the social theory that comes from, and most perfectly expresses, the unity of all people in the covenant with our Lord Jesus — “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). The Gospel of Jesus Christ does not eradicate gender, social, and racial differences — it renders them irrelevant to full fellowship within and service to the Church and the world around it in Christ’s name. The Christian faith makes no accommodation for hierarchies based on gender, race, or other ontological factors, and it is blasphemy for anyone to contend otherwise.

So let’s talk about what DOES rightly result in the correct social order of our times. The egalitarian rejection of stratification based on essential, unchanging traits — gender, race — doesn’t mean that there is no place for law and order, authority and submission. It simply rejects that ontology is never, in and of itself, a criteria for membership in the hierarchy or access to its power, and differentiates between proper function and ontology. What is ontology, though? Ontology, loosely described, is that which is essentially “of” a person — her race, her gender, her ethnic origin. Function describes a role, occupation, position, or vocation. It’s the difference between “Keely being” (ontology) and “Keely doing” (function). So I am ontologically an Anglo female human being; functionally, I’m a mom, wife, writer, and lousy tennis player. And you wouldn’t call me to fix your plumbing.

When “egalitarianism” is used by Christians, it’s the application of social egalitarianism to the Gospel, reflecting Galatians 3:28, for example. It argues, Biblically, for full access to fellowship, leadership, service and authority to all who are in Christ Jesus — based not on race, not on gender, not on ethnic origin, but based on the work of Christ in establishing his church and his covenant relationship to his people, and on the gifting of the Holy Spirit to those believers. That gifting then results in proper service and order in the Church and is a gifting that, Biblically, is never based on gender. Nowhere in the Bible is even a hint that the gifts the Holy Spirit bestows on the Church is based on gender. Therefore, I not only reject all service among and authority over the Church that comes not from Spirit-giftedness, but from gender. The Lord requires that I graciously submit to all around me; their gender is not a condition for nor grounds for the denial of my lovingkindness to them.

Those Christians who oppose women’s full service in the Church and who deny them functional roles, regardless of giftedness, simply because they’re women, are called “complementarians.” The word comes from the belief that while men and women are ontologically of equal value and equally bear the image of God, they are always, inherently, unchangeably, given different roles or functions that complement each other. Complementarians believe that God has ordained men, as a characteristic inherent of their being men, to leadership over women, and has created women, as a characteristic solely of their being women, to serve in positions always under the authority and position of men. The necessary stratification the complementarian implements in the Church is one based on ontology, not function realized by merit or giftedness, and one that egalitarians reject based on our understanding of Scripture.

Women, ontologically, can bear children. To deny them access to Church leadership, and then to insist that they are ontologically equal to men, is a fallacious argument. If ontology — being a woman — is in and of itself the reason I can’t be a pastor, then I am not rejected on the grounds of “proper function,” but because there is, to the complementarian, something in my essential being that prohibits me from serving thusly. If function is consistently denied on the basis of ontology, then, logically, it is difficult for the Christian man to argue convincingly that I am ontologically, essentially, equal to him. Most complementarians don’t say that women are inherently inferior, and probably don’t believe they are, but the insistence on conflating function with gender comes very close to a conclusion that there is something about men that’s just different — but different in ways that perennially, perpetually, keep them in hierarchy over women. That’s the crux of the debate, and those are the definitions that I hope we can stick to when discussing it.

In other words, let’s stick to EBF and its proponents, who are numerous and whose scholarship reflects a deep reverence for Scripture. In other words, if they all had a party, Mary Daly wouldn’t be at the top of the guest list.

5 Responses to “Defining The Terms — What is "Egalitarianism" And Why Should We Care?”

  1. Dontbia Nass says:

    As there is a hierarchy in the Trinity (even if it does not mean Son or Spirit are less divine than Father), for us as God’s images “hierarchy” is essential to humanity, There is no ontological ranking among men; all are equally human. But one can speak of an “ontological” hierarchy in the church insofar as headship is off limits to women.

    Equality before God is irrespective of power, prestige or ability. (We have unequal physical, intellectual and creative abilities.) All Christians are equal in how God loves, forgives, redeems, sanctifies and imputes righteousness. We all have equal access to God’s grace. We are all transformed into a new humanity in Christ. The gifts of the Spirit are distributed as God wills without partiality regarding sex, race, ethnos, or wealth. Each has his own calling. None is more essential or dispensable than another. No man is called to be an overseer of the church by birth. However, none of this changes the fact that God has assigned a hierarchy in the church that includes a sexual aspect. We cannot tamper with this without violating Scripture.

    The fact that the Bible disallows a woman to teach and exercise authority over men in church does not imply male ontological superiority. It would be a huge unwarranted leap to say that all men are over all women. Contrary to Keely’s claim, I deny my position inevitably leads to stratification of society based on gender, race, etc. Much of Keely’s post is based on a false dichotomy such that one who disagrees with her regarding egalitarianism must conclude some people are less valuable based on their gender, race, ethnic origin, etc. That is simply not so. Keely’s definition of “complementarian” certainly does not describe Doug Wilson. Where does he teach that God has ordained “men” to leadership over “women”?

    Keely tries to be fair, but misses the mark: “Most complementarians don’t say women are inherently inferior . . . but the insistence on conflating function with gender comes very close to a conclusion that there is something about men that’s just different . . . in ways that perennially, perpetually, keep them in hierarchy over women.” Coming close counts in horseshoes, but not here. A mature Christian can keep that distinction clear.

    Paul does tell us to submit to one another, but he does not tell us all to submit symmetrically. Parent does not submit to child the way child does to parent. Master does not submit to slave like slave does to master. A wife is to submit to her own husband as to the Lord. There is no command for a husband to submit to his wife “as to the Lord.” The wife is never called the “head” of the husband, and husbands are never told to submit “in everything” to wives. Where is the symmetrical mutuality of submission in our relationship with Jesus, our covenantal head? When we get to Heaven are we to say to Jesus “eternal and irrevocable stratification of persons is repugnant; as men we are equals”? The husband is the head of the wife in a manner analogous to the way that Christ is the head of the church. The church is never the head of Christ and the wife is never the head of the husband. Any allowance we might make for mutuality in relationships needs to be tempered by the realization that much “mutuality” is highly asymmetrical.

    Extrapolating from a strained interpretation of Galatians 3;28, Keely claims leadership in the church is based on gifts of the Spirit apart from any considerations of gender. The route to female church leadership involves crashing through the road block Paul has erected in 1 Timothy and elsewhere: the requirement that the leader be a “one-woman man.” (It cannot accommodate a “one-man woman.”)

    Keely rightly understands the biblical position that “something in my essential being prohibits me from serving thusly”: the need for male headship. Son and Spirit are both equally God; why don’t they send the Father? “Full access to leadership and authority in the church without regard to sex“? — Not if Scripture is to be respected.

  2. Confederate says:

    The be-all,end-all treatment of the God-hating doctrine of egalitarianism can be found by Dabney: The Public Preaching of Women. The easy to read (html) edition is here, and the original (pdf) is here.

    See especially number 3 where Dabney answers Mr. Mix’s emmbarassing argument that church office (and political function) should be based on the spirit’s calling. Notice that he answers it in once sentence–which is all it takes to answer most pagan doctrines.

    See, too, his Women’s Rights Women.

  3. No, no, no!!!!

    You are committing what has traditionally been referred to as the doctrinal heresy of intra-Trinity subordinationism. This is what Athanasius attempted to correct in the creed that bears his name. The Church has always taught that there is no hierarchy in the eternal Trinity and that Christ was only subjected to the Father in the Incarnation. The Trinity is a bond of co-equal Persons in mutually loving relationship; the hierarchy implied by “Father and Son” stems from an unfortunate literalness of what is clearly metaphor — again, Jesus wasn’t the kid who was fathered by the Eternal One, appearing in the Trinity from a begottenness expressed in time. The pre-existent One who is the second person of the Trinity is described, imperfectly and humanly, as Son because he was “begotten” of Yahweh while existing eternally alongside him. It’s not “father and son” as we think it; our God graciously describes the incomprehensible through metaphor, and I’m dismayed that you think of the Trinity in terms of what is described as “father-son” relationship. In the eternal, non-Incarnation Trinity, there is no hierarchy — something the Church has taught, and fought against, for two millennia.

    I recommend to you Anglican Vicar Kevin Giles’ Book, The Trinity And Subordinationism. Complementarians of late have nabbed subordinationism from the mangled jaws of aberrant doctrine to present it as a lovely model for male-female, God-Christ relations, but any male-female construct based on a false idea of hierarchy between Father, Son, and Sprit is as dead wrong as the heresy behind it. You can argue for complementarianism, but you cannot rightly argue for it from a theologically heretical basis, such as subordinationism in the Trinity. The conclusion then is just as wrong, and just as damaging, as its seed.

    Keely

    Further, I don’t believe that “all men” are over “all women.” I made it quite clear that I, a woman, can choose, from a position of God-given authority and volition, to choose to submit to any single person, or not. If my deference to another glorifies God, I will show deference. If it doesn’t — if it’s conditioned on wrong models of “headship” or “submission — I won’t.

    I think I’ve exhausted this particular thread, and Confederate’s comments regarding racist theologian R.L. Dabney’s view on women preachers won’t be dignified by me with comment. All I’ll say is that Dabney wrote at a time when many current, non-egalitarian denominations were ordaining women or, at least, sending them to preach. That he missed the mark and missed the boat as well is of spectacularly little interest to me.

    Keely

  4. Confederate says:

    “That [Dabney] missed the mark and missed the boat as well is of spectacularly little interest to me.”

    Translation: Dabney’s rebuttal to my premises are of spectacularly little interest to me.”

  5. Why, yes, Confederate, that IS another way of saying it.

    Have a lovely day and thanks for writing,

    Keely

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