Rachel Held Evans, Christian blogger and author of the upcoming book “A Year of Biblical Womanhood:How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master,” has set in motion a weeklong discussion of a common debate in evangelical circles today – complementarianism vs. egalitarianism in marriage.
To define terms, “complementarianism” is the belief that the Bible requires women to submit to male leadership in the home and church, while “egalitarianism” is the belief that women enjoy equal status and responsibility with men in the home, church, and society. Believe it or not, this is still a matter of contention in the modern American church.
The scriptural battleground of this debate ranges from the creation stories of Genesis to the New Testament, but perhaps the hottest battles have been waged over this all-too-familiar passage in Ephesians:
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord…Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22, 24)
To be fair, husbands are likewise exhorted to love their wives (though what that means in practice is somehow never quite as clear as the command given to women to obey). Herein lies the crux – for a woman like myself, who seeks a woman with whom to share my life, a gender-based mandate for love/submission in marriage simply doesn’t apply.
Even if my principles didn’t naturally align with the egalitarians, I would find myself siding with them out of necessity. It has been said that asking “who’s the man” in a lesbian relationship is akin to asking which is the fork in a set of chopsticks. Observing this debate, I have come to the conclusion that behind concerns about the supposed sinfulness of homosexuality or the prohibition on sex outside the bounds of “one man/one woman” marriage, lurking in the minds of many conservative Christians is the question, “who submits if you’re gay?”
Unsurprisingly, there is significant overlap between complementarians and Christians who oppose LGBT equality. Is homosexuality frightening to complementarians because it challenges the necessity of distinct gender roles, or is egalitarianism worrisome because it facilitates the idea that for some people, homosexuality is a normal, harmless and morally neutral condition? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Certainly, the deinstitution of complementarianism in the law has helped pave the way for today’s debate over same-sex marriage. The abolition of coverture, the doctrine whereby upon marriage a woman's legal rights were subsumed by those of her husband, made possible the union of two co-equal individuals. As our society came to really believe that men and women were created equal, all that stood in the way of asking “why not a marriage of two men or two women?” was a little imagination. And that’s where things get really scary for some folks.
If you’re a man who treats his wife like an equal, doesn’t that mean you’re treating her like another man? Isn’t that just a little bit gay?
If two women can share a household, raise happy, healthy children, and serve God while serving each other, doesn’t that mean women don’t need men to exercise “headship” in a home?
Whichever way it runs - fear of homosexuality because it feeds egalitarianism or fear of egalitarianism because it undermines the heterosexual ideal - it’s all about fear. This is the fear that drove one North Carolina pastor to instruct fathers that “when your daughter starts acting too butch, you rein her in” and tell her “you’re gonna act like a girl, and walk like a girl, and talk like a girl, and smell like a girl!” When people start policing human behavior that tightly, it’s because they fear the chaos of a world without the rules they understand.
But if there’s one thing that scripture is clear on, it’s that Christians should never be ruled by fear. “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7) “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18) Over and over, from prophets, angels, and Christ Himself, the Bible resounds with the message “do not be afraid.”
It is time for Christians to let go of this fear and step out of the chains of gender roles that have held the church in bondage for too long. The message of the gospel is freedom for all – male and female, gay and straight. Embrace it.
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