By Vicki Brown
Does God have prescribed roles for men and women, and does he require those roles to be filled in specific ways?
Many evangelicals, including Baptists, are divided into two camps on this issue – “complementarian” and “egalitarian.” Both base their understanding in Scripture.
Complementarians say men and women are equal in God’s sight but have distinct and complementary roles to fulfill in the church and in the home. They base the approach on passages like 1 Timothy 2:9-15. 3:1-13 and Titus 1:6-9. Some believe the Trinity itself reflects the complementarian view, with each person of the Godhead filling specific and complementary functions.
Egalitarians hold that men and women enjoy full equality before God in creation, salvation, community and ministry, and in the family. They interpret a host of passages, including 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, Ephesians 5:21, 1 Peter 3:1-7 and Galatians 3:28, among others, from a holistic viewpoint.
“Every family has to make the choice,” noted Dorothy Patterson, professor of theology in women’s studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a proponent of the complementarian viewpoint. “I am not God or the Holy Spirit.… You have to make the choice.”
But Patterson, who was instrumental in Southwestern’s offering an undergraduate degree in homemaking, believes Scripture is “clear” and how a woman determines her approach to the family and the church depends upon how she “comes to look at Scripture.”
“If Scripture is the highest authority… the clearest reading is the biblical truth. That is the measuring rod,” the wife of Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson, added. “The heart of feminism is experience.”
She said women need to step back and go back to biblical authority. “The texts that are the most disputed are the clearest,” she said. “First Timothy is in black and white.”
Patterson said many feminists rely on historical or cultural approaches to translation and interpretation of the Bible, rather than dealing just with the text. “How is Scripture going to act?” she asked, “a cultural backdrop … or as biblical principles?”
For Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality, understanding Scripture goes beyond translating words. Raised in Colorado, Haddad often uses rock climbing as an analogy. When a climber pushes her body against the rock, she will fall, the historical theologian explained. To scale the rock, the climber must lean back.
“You have to learn certain rules to understand how a discipline works … but you have to get beyond the artificialness of the rules,” Haddad said. “You must move beyond the grammar rules to allow creativity, imagination to take over … to feel the passion.”
Leaning back and moving beyond the rules apply to interpretation, she argued, pointing to the biblical admonition to cut off a hand or pluck out an eye that offends. If everyone interpreted the passage literally, each would cut off his or her right hand. “You must ask, what is the meaning?” she said.
“We can use the words of the Bible to oppress … to close down gifts … to kill the gospel,” she said. Haddad added the clash among believers over gender issues follows the arguments over slavery. “Theology is a 5,000-year conversation,” she said, that believers must be part of, while at the same time “stepping outside of” to get a broader perspective and understanding.
Effect on young women
Patterson believes young women evangelicals are returning to the complementarian view because they want to be grounded. “It’s just a change we see across the board,” she said, “a movement back to our roots and back to our homes.”
The seminary started the home economics degree “because the home is the first institution God created … and permeates every level of society,” Patterson said. “I think young people are looking at society and seeing the mess it’s in and believe we need to get back to the basics.”
Women will be able to earn a master’s degree in the discipline beginning this fall, and a doctorate will be offered in two years.
While Haddad agreed women may be moving back to a more traditional view of home life, she thinks the reasons may be more personal. An adjunct professor at Bethel College, she said some research shows that many 20-somethings have grown up in fractured family environments. Now they “latch onto tradition and stability.”
“They cling more to these specific gender formulations … espoused by more conservative churches,” she said.
But Haddad believes women can find strong role models by looking to history. Bible institutes, the forerunners of today’s Christian colleges and universities, “trained women for exciting work around the world. … Women went out to dangerous places,” she said. Institutes opened ministry doors to women like Lottie Moon, missionary to China.
Controversies in the 1950s reversed the trend and denominations took control of mission organizations. “The Lotties of this world … are now reined in by male domination,” she said. “Now there are more proscribed gender roles and few role models like Lottie. Women are told now that they must be captivating. … But what’s captivating is the gospel, and that’s not limited by gender.”
The choice “doesn’t have to be either/or,” Haddad insists. “The hardest thing is to really … hunker down and listen to God, seek wisdom from others.”
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