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  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.”