Slanderous Accusations against Egalitarians

Slanderous Accusations against Egalitarians February 18, 2015

Not all egalitarians like the term “egalitarian.” I, for one, don’t. I like the term “mutualist” but it hasn’t caught on, and one reason it hasn’t caught on is because complementarians have politically, rhetorically and in some ways successfully slandered egalitarians by direct accusation or insination that they are liberals. This is slander in many cases just as it is slanderous in many cases to suggest that complementarians are authoritarian, violent and misogynist.

We can do better. One way to do better is study up on the history of this discussion. Perhaps the most unknown element in this history is that the earliest so-called “egalitarians” were calling themselves “complementarians” (without hierarchy) before complementarians grabbed the term as their own and then turned to call their brothers and sisters who believed in shared and mutual authority in the church and home “egalitarians.” (Which gained traction in a day when the “equal rights amendment” was disputed by some who are now called “complementarians.”) I know this history from friends “who where there” when the name shift occurred, and we will have a post about this topic Friday.

In the most recent Priscilla Papers, Mimi Haddad sketches a history that shows that the so-called egalitarian way of church was “integral to the evangelical DNA” and that it is not a “new path to liberalism” (Priscilla Papers 29 [2015] 14-20). [All citations are from these pages.]

Mimi begins in the right place, by defining terms:

Egalitarians are Christians who affirm that scripture teaches the fundamental equality of men and women, both in being and service, so that gender is not a criterion by which to exclude women from public service or leadership in church, societv, or home.

[Now to the accusation of liberalism by complementarians:] The term “liberal” is used to suggest that egalitarians place their feminist ideals—their demand for social equality with men in any sphere—ahead of a commitment to the authority of scripture. Rather than allowing scripture to shape culture, egalitarians are accused of giving secular culture greater authority than the Bible. The charge of “liberal” has typically implied that the teachings of scripture have been ignored in the wake of self-interest and cultural pressure.

Wayne Grudem wrote a book called “Evangelical Feminism” and the subtitle was: “A New Path to Liberalism?” He turns the question into a declaration in the book.

Haddad proceeds to an informed discussion of Alvera Mickelsen, whose husband wrote one of the most influential books for inductive Bible study (Interpreting the Bible) and they have always been known as a team in writing and teaching, and who has with him just written Understanding Scripture. Haddad quotes Alvera with this: You know, it wasn’t until 1950 that women preachers were considered liberal. Before that, no one thought twice about women preaching.”

Perhaps the most systematic biblical assessment of gender was put forward by Katharine Bushnell (1856-1946),  the youngest graduate of Chicago Women’s Medical College.

Bushnell observed that most religious traditions, including Christianity, interpret their sacred texts to create a gender-caste system based on the assumed innate depravity of females. It is not their character, giftedness, education, or devotion to God bat renders females corrupt. It is their gender—a fixed and unchangeable condition. In such a system, virtue is believed to be the result of gender, and the character of females is deemed incorrigible, irredeemable, and therefore perpetually in need of male superiors. The Bible, the Koran, and the teachings of Hinduism have all too often been interpreted to make this case. For Bushnell, the devaluation of females was the root idea that subjugated females and drove the sex industry.

Bushnell was among the first to reason that male rule is not a biblical ideal. Rather, it is part of the chaos and domination resulting from sin, which Christians must dismantle and oppose. Male authority, privilege, and patriarchy are consequences of sin. They are therefore at odds with justice and the moral precepts of scripture, as Bushnell argued throughout her writings, which represent the first systematic biblical approach to gender justice.

Haddad’s important conclusion, based on far more than Bushnell’s example, is that egalitarianism is not liberalism but at the core of evangelical activism!

Therefore, the egalitarian movement was a deeply biblical movement that began, not in the 1970s with secular feminists, but in the 1800s with evangelicals such as A. Gordon, Catherine Booth, Katharine Bushnell and others. It was on their shoulders that future generations of evangelicals stood in advancing the biblical foundations for women’s leadership.

She then sketches the following:

Frank E. Gaebelein, Stony Brook School, early member of ETS, editor of the famous Zondervan commentary series on the whole Bible.

J. Barton Payne, well-known OT scholar, president of ETS, and father of Philip Barton Payne.

Prairie Bible School, maybe the most prestigious of Bible colleges in North America when it comes to sending missionaries, and heavily shaped by both women leaders, preachers, and missionaries.

Fredrik Franson, founder of TEAM (missionary organization) and many missionary organizations. He was an ardent supporter of women in ministry.

Are these evangelical? To the very core, over and over and year after year, these are evangelicals. All fully “egalitarian” before the complementarian reaction to the ERA movement. It is therefore slanderous to call this kind of evangelical egalitarianism liberal.

What these folks have in common is belief in the Bible, typified in Acts 2:17-18:

Acts 2:17    “ ‘In the last days, God says,

I will pour out my Spirit on all people. 

Your sons and daughters will prophesy, 

your young men will see visions,

your old men will dream dreams.

18 Even on my servants, both men and women,

I will pour out my Spirit in those days,

and they will prophesy.”

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  • Amanda B.

    Could you clarify how the complementarian slander has contributed to the term “mutualist” not really taking off? I totally agree that slander has happened, and that it’s very unfair to egalitarians. I’m just not wrapping my brain around how that contributed to the terminology–I guess I’d assume that it would be easier to adopt a new term if the old one had a bad reputation.

    I’m personally also in favor of using a different name (and “mutualist” works fine for me), due to recently learning that certain anti-feminist groups like to call themselves “egalitarian”.

  • scotmcknight

    They keep calling the other side “egalitarians” so it has become the name of record. Probably the way the word “Christians” stuck.

  • Greg Hahn

    Great points, Scot. I just finished reading John MacArthur’s “Divine Design”. It’s difficult to imagine that the slander against egalitarians in that case is unintentional.

  • Phil Miller

    I guess I’ve never have had any negative connotation with the word “egalitarian” so I’ve never minded referring to myself as one. I’d like to think that even the word “liberal” is losing some of its ostracizing power, but I suppose it depends on the specific crowd someone is hanging with. When I think of many of the people I am around the most, many of whom are actually quite conservative, if I accused them of being a liberal, their response would be, “yeah, so what?”.

  • Philip Fellows

    I will confess that, leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the exegesis, I have never understood the accusation that egalitarianism tends towards liberalism. One excellent case study is pentecostalism which has (in its American and European forms at least) been largely egalitarian since its inception and yet has always had a very conservative reading of Scripture even, perhaps, tending more towards fundamentalism than liberalism. There might be some overlap between groups which have embraced egalitarianism and liberalism but where is the evidence for causation? (For info in the British context Donald Gee’s, The Pentecostal Movement is a worthwhile first hand account)

  • Darach Conneely

    Don’t forget Mary Dyer the Quaker woman preacher hanged in Boston in 1660, and Margaret Fell who wrote Women’s Speaking Justified from prison in Lancaster in 1666.

  • Phil Miller

    Kind of my feeling as well. The Assemblies of God has been ordaining women almost since its inception, and the AoG is one the most conservative denominations in the US. Although, I will say, in practice, the AoG still has a lot of patriarchy going on. Even though they ordain women, it is very rare to see a female senior pastor in a church. There are also AoG churches that still forbid women elders (it always struck me as very inconsistent that a church could theoretically have woman as a pastor but not as a member of the elder’s board).

  • scotmcknight

    Back up to Methodism, which has always (so far I know that history) affirmed women in ministries.

  • scotmcknight

    Phil, I see the term “egalitarian” deriving more from the Western liberal political tradition.

  • As a progressive evangelical I’m used to conservatives calling me liberal. While I know they don’t intend it kindly, I’ve tried to always view it as an effort to simply shut down debate and not take it personally. It’s a cheap shot, sure, but in my mind it says less about me or about liberals and more about the person tossing the term around. While I may not agree with a lot that someone like Marcus Borg said, I still respected him as a Christian and a person, and when I called him a liberal it was always descriptive and never pejorative. Certainly not slanderous.

    So I’m not sure that calling someone a liberal should be put on the same level as calling someone a misogynist. Isn’t that slanderous towards liberals?

    Instead of calling it “slanderous” to call egalitarians “liberals,” perhaps it might be better to simply say that it is both historically and theologically inaccurate to do so. They might intend it to be slanderous, but it doesn’t mean we have to agree that it is so.

  • Philip Fellows

    I’m not an expert but I think that Wesley’s position was slightly more nuanced than straight-forward egalitarianism. He is often quoted as having said that ‘The difference between us and Quakers in this respect is manifest, they flatly deny the rule itself (of 1 Corinthians 14) though it stands clear in the Bible. We allow the rule: only we believe it admits of some exceptions.’ (Wesley’s Letters, (Telford) Vol. 6, p. 290-291)

    Steve Holmes has written about this in a British context:

  • scotmcknight

    That’s fair, at least to me, except that calling someone “liberal” is a way of destroying reputation and the theological safety of another person. I read a post yesterday that went after NT Wright and Tim Keller — at the level of integrity and theology — because they were connected to BioLogos. The intent was to diminish their stature and to defend a traditional view of origins.

  • Yes, I get it, completely, and we need to fight that. We just need to make sure that we don’t have any collateral damage in doing so. I’m a fan, Scot. Keep up the good work.

  • Nathan

    Sure there are broad brushes painted by egalitarians, but the overwhelming sin in this discussion is found in the complementarian camp. They need to lay off the snotty “I take God at His Word” bit (I really can’t stand that), and engage the real issues. There are principled complementarians, but their tone doesn’t really play in the world of click-bait and digital flaming.

  • theblackcommenter

    The difference lies in the reasons why (some) pentecostals adopted what are now considered to be egalitarian positions versus why other groups adopted those positions. For the latter it often resulted from a change in their hermeneutical approach to scripture, one which in many cases (as with Episcopalians for example) seem inexorably to lead away from orthodoxy (for lack of a better term)

  • Greg Hahn

    Personally though, I do feel slandered if someone calls me a liberal. I hold my conservative views too dearly to feel anything less than impugned with the accusation of being anything else. It implies viewpoints about me that I don’t hold.

    Question, Larry: Would you consider it slanderous if someone called you a fundamentalist?

  • Philip Fellows

    That’s a good and fair point, and gets at something that Carl Trueman posted a couple of years ago concerning exactly this issue.
    If what is being said is that a particular doctrine of scripture or approach to hermeneutics tends towards liberalism that argument may be sound (although it would need to be demonstrated as you have begun to do with the Episcopalians). It is quite different to assert that egalitarianism per se tends towards liberalism as if everyone arrived at that position by means of the same doctrine of scripture or hermeneutic.
    There may be some mileage in this type of argument from a complementarian perspective but once it has been conceded that there is no causative link between egalitarianism and liberalism, and that historically no consistent correlation between the two, then I don’t really see its use. In particular it is not helpful as a polemic.

  • Jeff Y

    Great observations about labels. So true. And, very interesting historical points. Especially related to the shift toward more patriarchal systems post 1950.

    Historian Richard Hughes’ Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America, discusses women in that fellowship. Many women in the 1980’s-90’s sought enhanced roles in “serving as deaconesses, making announcements in the context of Sunday morning worship, officiating altho e communion service, passing the communion to the congregation (etc.) … with few exceptions Churches of Christ had restricted all these roles to males for over a hundred years. …”

    “This had not always been the case, however. In the earliest years of the tradition, it was not uncommon for women to preach, exhort, or testify among those Churches of Christ associated with Barton Stone. Isaac Jones told of Nancy Mulkey, who preached powerful sermons in the first decade of the nineteenth century. … [also] the evidence suggests that at least some Churches of Christ influenced by both stone and [Alexander] Campbell utilized both deacons and deaconesses throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. The early ‘creed’ that John R. Howard drew up in 1848, for example, which was designed to explain the ‘original marks’ of the true church, acknowledge both ‘deacons and deaconesses.'” A group of churches in Tennessee, “… issued a report in 1835 with recommendations for proper organizational structures in the churches. Among other things that report suggested, ‘Let us choose Bishops, Deacons, and deaconesses. Let them rule and minister according to the law of God. Let the churches submit to their rulers, as those who watch over them for good.” Hughes also chronicled several women missionaries in the 1800’s sent out internationally in churches of Christ.

    Hughes discusses the decline in women’s roles by the end of the nineteenth century. Among several reasons he suggests for this were, “First, in a society in which the power structure had traditionally been both white and patriarchal, the realities of Reconstruction likely prompted a backlash not only against blacks but also against women. The eclipse of female involvement in souther Churches of Christ, therefore, might have been part of a general reassertion of white, male power in the aftermath of the Civl War.” He also suggests stereotypical beliefs about women being emotional (in a fellowship drawn to hyper-rationalism) was also in play, “Churches of Christ excluded women for the same reason they excluded the Holy Spirit: both appeared unmanageable and therefore threatening to a ‘brotherhood’ that put a high priority on preserving order and control based on strictly rational considerations.”

    (pp. 377-384).

  • My initial reaction when I read this, Greg, was to laugh (not at you but at the notion of being called a fundamentalist), and that’s probably what I would do if someone called me a fundamentalist. There was a time when I would have been sensitive to a label being thrown at me, but for the most part not anymore. I’m just thinking how far to the left someone would have to be to call me a fundamentalist. Someone using a label on me, especially pejoratively, tells me where they are. Mainly it is them telling me I’m not part of their group, as if I interpret Scripture in order to belong to their group.

  • Greg Hahn

    Excellent! And that’s mostly what I do when I’m called a liberal. Because anyone who knows me knows how laughable that is. The problem arises when it begins to happen repeatedly and around people that don’t know me. Then it becomes very damaging to my credibility. It’s unfair and it’s wrong.

    A similar analogy that perhaps you can appreciate: as a conservative Republican I am often called a racist. Anyone who knows me knows that is laughable. But not everyone knows me. But thanks to a very effective political strategy, Republicans have been slandered this way. And it works.

  • chris2002white

    There seems to be some doctrinal positions that are essential to evangelicals. Though some may differ on non-essential doctrine, using the liberal or fundamental tag on those one disagrees with does seem quite outside of charity. Although some evangelicals want to widen the essentials to include their version of non-essentials, that seems to me to be schismatic.

    When dealing with a person, there is no need to adhere labels to her or him; simply discuss the issues with grace–not pigeon-holing the person into one’s favorite bogey-man position. This, of course, takes more effort, to find our what the person really thinks about an issue–it is much easier to assign him or her to “that” position and then whack away with whatever Bible verse one can pull out of context.

  • theblackcommenter

    I agree and add that *some* arguments in favor of egalitarianism tend to be of the ‘well this is what the Bible said but men have been wickedly suppressing women for 2,000 years because they’re sexist’.

    I do think egalitarianism largely emerges as a result of the church’s engagement with the Enlightenment and its corollary desacralisation of reality.

  • Philip Fellows

    Again, that’s a fair point. I used to have a boss who said that it isn’t just about being right – you have to be right for the right reasons. There is a historical argument about which came first – evangelical feminism (eg the Booths) or secular feminism – and whether it is exegesis or culture that is leading now.
    With that said, it is, I think, relevant that the Spirit does stuff that is exegetically surprising to those most familiar with the Scriptures. A classic example is Acts 15 where the Scriptures ended up being reinterpreted (correctly) in light of what the Spirit was doing – by their fruits they were known.
    In some ways I am most disconcerted by the sense that part of this discussion is more interested in defending a position by any means necessary than arriving at a mutually agreed statement of principle. The earlier post concerning the shifting basis of complementarian exegesis was a case in point – it begins to look as if the conclusion (male headship) is fixed and unshakeable and we are then committed to finding a plausible way to argue for it even if that is radically different from our earlier arguments. Again, there is nothing to stop someone deploying two wholly inconsistent arguments in case either is right – as a lawyer I used to do it all the time. But when you do that it smacks more of trying to convince people of your position than get at the truth. The complementarians may well be right but in some cases they are seriously undermining confidence in their arguments by the way they are pursuing this.

  • Kamilla Ludwig

    History is one thing. Current events are another. Considering the number of Egalitarian/Mutualists who embrace same sex “marriage” and less historically rooted theologies like those of emergent/progressive Christianity, I fail to see how any of this is actually slanderous.

    Perhaps if an Organization such as CBE wants to help rid the movement of the taint of liberalism, in the future they will be more careful about promoting books by folks like Rachel Held Evans who now embraces the progressive label and has for sometime associated herself with the emergent movement. Then, too, perhaps they ought to be more careful about vetting their writers and not publish one of the editors of the frankly blasphemous “Christian godde project”.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “Then it becomes very damaging to my credibility.”

    Greg, I have to say I would suggest hanging around different people then. As someone fairly liberal, if someone called me a conservative fundamentalist I would simply respond with bemusement. If they kept at it, I would simply ignore them. That being called a “liberal” is so damaging in a particular social circle that one would feel its destroying their reputation, to me is a rather ridiculous state of events and says more about the insecurities of those leveling “accusations” than the actions of the accused.

  • Greg Hahn

    Thank you, Andrew, but that’s beside the point. I’d prefer to choose my friends and social situations for myself.

  • Seems to me that we need to have a discussion about the assumption that the word “liberal” is, itself, a universally negative thing, that it can be used as an insult so effortlessly.