Time after time, I read complementarian literature that misunderstands what is meant by biblical equality for women and men.
The heart of the misunderstanding appears to be a misperception of what is meant by the term “equality.” Very often, the complementarian literature assumes that egalitarians are advocating for the “sameness” of men and women in the church, rather than for their equality.
For example, in her book, “The Feminist Mistake”, Mary A. Kassian uses the terms “equality” and “sameness” interchangeably (p. 37). She also wrongly assumes that Christian egalitarians want women to be “just like men” (p. 38).
Equality is not blind to the obvious biological differences between men and women.
Sameness suggests that there are no differences between men and women. Numerous complementarian books, journal articles, and blogs expend vast amounts of time and energy refuting this notion of “sameness.” They believe they are refuting biblical equality, but they are wrong.
Equality acknowledges differences between the sexes, but does not support biological differentiation as a basis for subjection. In other words, it does not believe that authority in human relationships should be designated solely on the basis of a person’s sex at birth.
Theologically, the association of “maleness” with leadership characteristics has a long history.
For example, Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.) declared,
Man is stronger and purer since he is uncastrated and has a beard. Women are weak, passive, castrated and immature… His beard, then is the badge of a man and shows him unmistakably to be a man. It is older than Eve and is a symbol of the stronger nature. By God’s decree, hairiness is one of man’s conspicuous qualities, and, at that, is distributed over his whole body. For what is hairy is by nature drier and warmer than what is bare; therefore, the male is hairier and more warm-blooded than the female; the uncastrated, than the castrated; the mature, than the immature” (Trombley, 2003, Who Said Women Can’t Teach, p. 234).
Clement argues that beards, penises, and body hair are a sign of maturity, strength, and purity. Theologians throughout church history have concluded that these qualities make men—and not women—fit candidates for leadership. Clement’s notion that beards, body hair, and male genitalia relate to maturity demonstrates a profoundly androcentric and erroneous worldview. He wrongly evaluates a woman’s maturity in terms of issues related to male puberty.
Is it really true that men are more intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually mature than women?
If you asked St. Augustine, the influential 4th century Roman Catholic Bishop, he would have answered, “yes”. He believed that women must be subject to men because “the weaker brain must serve the stronger” (Questions on the Heptateuch, Book I, § 153).
After immersing himself in Augustine’s commentaries, prominent Protestant reformer John Calvin came to similar conclusions about a woman’s “nature” and how it rendered her unfit for leadership:
[A woman] is formed to obey; for gunaikokratia (the government of women) has always been regarded by all wise persons as a monstrous thing; and, therefore, so to speak, it will be a mingling of heaven and earth, if women usurp the right to teach” (Commentary on Timothy, Titus, and Philemon).”
In the eyes of Calvin, women were created to “obey”, not to lead. He also viewed obedience and teaching as mutually exclusive activities. In his commentary on Genesis, he referred to female subordination as “the order of nature.”
Today, complementarians continue to associate masculinity with leadership and femininity with submission.
One of the founders of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, for example, said that women may not exercise authority because of their “characteristic weaknesses” (John Piper, desiringgod.org, “affirming the goodness of manhood and womanhood in all of life”).
Another complementarian leader expressed this viewpoint more bluntly, stating that women are more gullible and more easily deceived than men (Mark Driscoll, as cited at the wartburgwatch.com, “danger flee churches which teach that women are easily deceived”).
It is not accurate to equate masculinity with leadership. This is really just a mental association resulting from gender-socialization. I don’t believe this particular association is evidence-based, though it has a long history in church tradition.
Many women want to share decision-making authority in their churches and homes.
Some of these women are also gifted to teach the Bible and/or preach the gospel of salvation. Does this mean that they want to be “just like men?” Only if we assume that maturity, leadership, teaching, and preaching are distinctly “male” characteristics…and they are not.
Women can be distinctly female and–of course–spiritually mature; they can share decision-making authority with men, teach the Bible, and preach the gospel. Beards, body hair, and male genitals are not required.
Equality is not sameness.
Editor’s Note: Long-time readers will recognize Bob Edwards as a regular contributor to The Junia Project blog during our first year. He now curates two blogs of his own God As Love (where this was originally posted) and Equality in Christ. Check out his new book: A God I’d Like to Meet.
Read more about complementarian beliefs in these posts: