Sometimes, in the difficult realm of gender teaching, the Church takes some encouraging steps.
One such step is the book by Michelle Lee-Barnewall, Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian, which tries to re-frame the often contentious debate about those two positions. For those needing clarification of those terms, complementarian means men and women are equal but have different roles in family and church; egalitarian means men and women are so equal that there should be no distinction between them in church or home. Beginning with a three chapter section on American history, this popular Biola University professor asks both of those sides to appreciate how influenced by culture, in its discussion of gender, the church always tends to be. That, she hopes, should loosen up the sides a bit. She then seeks to re-frame the discussion by arguing that the more prominent Biblical principles through which to understand gender are reversal and unity (and to a lesser extent used in the book, holiness). There are other beneficial thoughts she gives along the way.
That They May Be One
First, Dr. Lee-Barnewall observes that the burden of the passages she surveys, such as Genesis 1-2 and Ephesians 5, is to bring about unity between the parties. Well said. Whereas readers may import into this goal of inclusion other concerns like rights and equality, they aren’t really the point. So, the author pleas for more kingdom-centered concerns. These observations about some gender intense passages in the Bible take readers in the exactly correct direction. The Church needs a few more steps beyond this, though. If one were to flesh out where this insight leads, one would arrive at the key: gender is about relationship. It is a gift to build intimacy and generate fruitfulness as we bear God’s image together.
The second major thrust in the book is that the Kingdom of Christ comes to reverse traditional expectations (think “My ways are not your ways” Isaiah 55:8 and “The last shall be first” Mark 10:31). So also with gender expectations. Thus, a key passage for Dr. Lee-Barnewall is Matthew 20:25-28, where Jesus teaches that, whereas the Gentile Lords lord it over with their authority, things should be different among you. This leads her to the centerpiece of her work, how Paul in Ephesians 5:22-33 turns Greco-Roman husband headship on its head. She is certainly right. The message of the passage radically challenges the Roman Empire’s shark tank of patria potestas. But that is not all that Paul is doing.
Ne’r One Without The Other
Christian writings on gender do tend to be lopsided. They address one gender’s side alone and skip, or skimp on, the other side. This hinders the reception, by one of the genders, of the often true things being written. This always happens when the rubric is “women’s issues.” But the Bible never does this. The Biblical writers never allow only one gender to be addressed. Why? Because, again, gender is about relationship. And gender is ultimately defined only with the help of the other gender.
On Ephesians 5:22-33, Dr. Lee-Barnewall only addresses one side. She gives us a beautiful treatment of how husbands should lay down their lives for their wives. But, sadly, we get no companion reading for the call to wives. As a careful scholar, she appreciates how erasing all gender distinction does not do justice to the text. Therefore, she briefly mentions how wives really should submit (vv21-22 ὑποτάσσω hupotassoe) to these wonderful husbands who love them so. But she does not venture to grapple with the woman’s formidable task. There is no facing the wife’s φοβέω (v33 fobeoe-to fear) at the end of the passage.
Leading to the Build Up
The book’s lack in this may come from an under-appreciation for how good authority can build up (2Corinthians 10:8, 2Corinthians 13:10). The author states several times that she does not see how authority can foster intimacy or unity. This leaves the impression that the asymmetry of order itself as something bad, rather than a useful bond. In fact, the profound call to the woman in Ephesians 5 is to come to want her husband promoted. It leads to a similarly sacrificial style of living.
Responsible spiritual laying-down-your-life leadership does sometimes need to make a call contradicting the will of the led, which requires explicit submission. Jesus Christ washes His disciples’ feet (John 13:5), but He also must sometimes instruct and even order them to get behind Him (Matthew 16:23). The Apostle Paul makes himself the slave of all and will surrender his rights (1Corinthians 9:19) but also sometimes comes with a rod (1Corinthians 4:21). Authority must be there in order to be relinquished, at times, for a kingdom reversal.
We hope that when a husband chooses to exert a decision in a marriage, trust lives between them. We hope that he has built up enough of it to help his wife to give the sacred gift of submission in faith, that is, with faith in the greater One Who stands behind her husband, looking out for her.
In the end, the wife’s call is just as radical as her husband’s. For an equal to surrender prerogative like this is just as unheard of in this world. Perhaps Lee-Barnewall can give us another book that will encourage the church in this truth.