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Evolving Evangelical Gender Theology
Back in 2019’s newsletter #30 I wrote an article about why I thought the “complementarian” gender system of evangelicalism was dying. (Note: complementarianism and egalitarianism are defined at the end of this article). I noted that it is a theological and ministry approach largely developed by a specific generational cohort - the early half of the Baby Boomers - and that it is tuned to their sensibilities and the specific circumstances of the era in which it was developed in the late 70s through the early 90s. Sociologist James Davison Hunter accurately categorized it as a third way movement in his 1987 book Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. That is, it was an attempt to steer a middle course between feminism and pre-feminist gender roles. The contradictions necessary to make this happen led Hunter to directly label it “doublespeak.”
I argued that as the early Baby Boomers pass on, complementarianism will be in trouble. This is not to say that the idea different gender roles for men and women will go away, but it will have to be rethought and updated. Additionally, I saw the pressures of today’s world leading towards a fracturing and refactoring of evangelical gender theology and approaches.
Some of what I predicted then is starting to come true now. We see it in Russell Moore’s interesting new column in Christianity Today called “Let’s Rethink the Evangelical Gender Wars.”
In newsletter #30 I wrote:
Egalitarianism, as an accommodationist theology in tune with the spirit of the age, appears to have a bright future. Because it is accommodationist, however, it will need to continue to change going forward. For example, the principal egalitarian book is called Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy (the “red book”). We can see the problem immediately: “complementarity without hierarchy” implies a gender binary. But society is moving beyond that idea towards a fluid conception of gender. Presuming secular culture continues that direction, egalitarians will ultimately need to change as well or find themselves in the same position that the complementarians are in today.
Moore writes about how these new pressures are coming to bear on egalitarians:
Many evangelical egalitarians have found themselves “homeless” too. They’ve been labeled in progressive circles as not “real feminists” precisely because, for them, the issue is how best to interpret inspired, authoritative Scripture—including Paul’s letters—not to deconstruct it. Today, when there really is a slippery slope of gender ideology that challenges the male-female binary, evangelical egalitarians spend more of their time in the outside world defending the idea that there is a complementarity of male and female, just not of the patriarchal sort.
Note the fault line here on the gender binary that I noted.
Egalitarians face some unique challenges. Complementarians were always out of step with the times and viewed by outsiders as reactionary. Egalitarians were able to be in step with the culture. Going from being seen as a progressive to a reactionary is a uncomfortable and can even become a form of “the pain box.” They are going to find this a difficult adjustment. If we simply to extrapolate from historic trends, it would suggest that egalitarianism will split, with one group becoming fully progressive, and the other coming similar to the secular “dissident left” figures who are old line liberals who want to retain that system rather than embrace wokeness.
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If I had to write newsletter #30 over again, I would more clearly distinguish between the so-called “thick” and “thin” camps within complementarianism. The thick complementarians believe in the substantive complementarity of gender rooted in creation. Thin complementarians adopt a de facto stance of Biblical minimalism, affirming complementarity in a general sense, but in practice limiting it to two specific cases: a male only pastorate and men as the head of the home (which both they and the thick complementarians largely define in a manner that essentially inverts what the ordinary person would think that means).
I saw the complementarian camp breaking up, with the thin complementarians largely becoming egalitarian once the founding generation of early cohort Boomer complementarians passes on. And I believed the thick complementarians would need to retool, with some of them embracing a neo-patriarchy approach (which would face major challenges).
Moore’s column does not show this precisely, but does echo this complementarian restructuring. He’s not a thin complementarian who has gone egalitarian. I would historically classify him as a thick complementarian. In fact, he even one wrote a paper that directly said, “If complementarians are to reclaim the debate, we must not fear making a claim that is disturbingly counter-cultural and yet strikingly biblical, a claim that the less-than-evangelical feminists understand increasingly: Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy.” But what he is is a thick complementarian who has shifted in a more progressive direction, affirming egalitarian critiques of complementarianism and calling for putting aside differences with egalitarians.
Here he affirms the validity of egalitarian complaints:
More importantly, recent scandals have demonstrated that the slippery-slope arguments of egalitarians were at least partially right—by pointing out that, for some, what lay behind a zeal for “male headship” was not responsibility before God but a psychologically stunted loathing of women or, worse, a cover for the sadistic silencing of women and girls. We see this not only in the uncovered horrors themselves but also in those who give no evidence of meeting the 1 Timothy 2 requirements for ministry—who, rather than putting away “anger” and “disputing” (v. 8), are the most eager to apply the rest of the chapter to castigate women leaders who’d dare to be a church’s guest speaker on Mother’s Day.
I’d note that his comments about women as guest speakers aligns with the thin complementarian position. The typical thin complementarian argument is that while the Bible says women can’t be ordained as pastor/elder and thus can’t preach from the pulpit on Sunday morning, nothing says they can’t give a plenary talk that is not officially a sermon (or serve as the chairman of a pastoral search committee, or be the president of a denomination, or other such examples I’ve encountered in the past).
Whether this represents a change in his views I don’t know, but it’s not consistent with “a vision of patriarchy.” Elsewhere he does explicitly reject his own past positions:
Last year I came across stinging words of rebuke against the ministry of Beth Moore. Her preaching and teaching was a “gateway drug to radical feminism,” said a young conservative. I found the rhetoric appalling, but I couldn’t tell that to the author of those words because he no longer exists. He was Russell Moore, circa 2004. I was wrong about Beth Moore, but I’m even more chastened by the phrase gateway drug.
He also chastises some of today’s complementarians:
Whatever one might think of the “servant leadership” rhetoric of Promise Keepers a generation ago, we should agree that it’s quite a fall from that to today’s “theobro” vision of opposing such allegedly feminizing attributes as empathy and kindness. Turns out, there really was more John Wayne than Jesus, more Joe Rogan than the apostle Paul, in a lot of what’s been said to be “biblical.”
And then he essentially calls for a rapprochement between complementarians and egalitarians.
Many of us are rethinking who we once classified as “enemy” and as “ally.” Maybe the lines of division were in the wrong places all along. Those who hold to believer’s baptism, for example, have more in common with evangelicals who practice infant baptism than with Latter-day Saints who immerse adults. Those who disagree on how Galatians 3:28 fits with Ephesians 5 but who want to see men and women fully engaged in the Great Commission have more in common with each other than with those who would make gender either everything or nothing.
He doesn’t directly say it, but my impression from this is that as we see the crackup of old alliances (and I’d argue theological positions), he wants more centrist complementarian and egaltiarians to make common cause against the more conservative and progressive factions respectively (e.g., the “theobros”).
There’s additional context we could add here. Christianity Today, where Moore is editor-in-chief, has long been the flagship evangelical publication and represented the broad center. They are basically also an egalitarian publication. So this makes sense institutionally.
Also, as Moore himself directly states, this is taking place against the backdrop of a crackup and re-alignment within evangelicalism. As old alliances dissolve, obviously people will be looking to form new ones. Moore was previously the head of the public policy entity of the Southern Baptist Convention, but left that role and his denomination. He’s also turned against a swath of conservative evangelicalism which might have previously been his default home. They’ve returned the favor. So where does someone like Moore caucus?
It makes total sense that establishment type players would look to create a new center-left/center-right alliance in response to this sort of pressure from the left and right. This is possible in evangelicalism in a way it is not it politics because of the nature of the party system. From a gender perspective, this would include thin complementarians and egalitarians who desire to affirm positions such a gender binary. But such an alliance would be much broader in scope than just that one issue.
So I would see changes in substantive views and positions, not just by Moore but more generally, in light of these shifting alliances and aligmnents.
I personally think it will be hard to sustain such a center-left/center-right alliance at scale because I think generational turnover and the cultural environment lends to a more egalitarian future (among other things). But we will see.
Going back to newsletter #30, one thing I always strive to do is give cultural diagnostics and insight that help you make sense of what’s coming down the pike. Because I haven’t staked myself on many of the positions and affiliations that others have, I’m able to take an honest, independent, and I hope fair look at what’s happening and give you the straight scoop even where it won’t make some people happy.
I can’t predict the future and don’t claim to. When I extrapolate what might happen in the future, I may very well be wrong in how things play out. But I hope that I’m right in identifying the forces and trends that will be in play. Just as with the three worlds of evangelicalism, this is an area where, even if I’m not completely right in every area, I put my finger on something four years ago that’s important and starting to materialize (though still in the early stages).
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Egalitarianism and Complementarianism
For Catholics and others who may not be familiar with how evangelicals discuss gender, evangelicals divide into two main camps in interpreting the scriptures about the nature and role of the sexes:
Complementarianism – the view holding that men and women are created of equal value in the image of God, but have differing, complementary roles in the home and the church, and sometimes the world at large. The husband is the head of the home, and only men can be ordained as elders or preach in church.
Egalitarianism – the view holding that men and women are not only created equally in the image of God but are also equivalent in terms of roles for which they are eligible in the home and church. Traditionally, egalitarians have said the genders are complementary and not simply identical, but that there are no domains in which there is gender hierarchy. Men are not the head of the home and women can be ordained, preach, etc.
Complementarians also split into the “thick” and “thin” camps that I described above.
Cover image of Russell Moore by Theology147, CC BY-SA 3.0