How to Fix the Debate Over Gender Roles

How to Fix the Debate Over Gender Roles February 21, 2023

woman preaching
Image Credit: Pavel Danilyuk / Pexels

Over the last 100 years, the role of women in the church and home has emerged as one of the leading issues dividing Christians. Some churches ordain women and teach mutual submission between husbands and wives. Others insist that the Bible teaches a traditional pattern of male leadership that must be preserved.

And, while Christians have “agreed to disagree” on many issues (e.g., baptism), each side of the church’s gender debate has found it incredibly hard to overlook the disagreement. In fact, if my Twitter feed is any indication, many Christians struggle to believe that somebody who holds a different view on gender roles could possibly be a faithful follower of Jesus!

So why is this issue causing so much strife? Well, last week, I laid out a theory of why I believe the church struggles to disagree constructively about issues where her historic practice has been called into question. This week, I want to illustrate how that pattern of misunderstanding between progressives and conservatives plays out on the issue of male headship. And, as I do, I want to challenge all of us to find ways to disagree lovingly with our fellow believers.

The Bible and Gender Roles: Four Stances

As I argued last week, I believe there are at least four common stances that Christians tend to take on subjects where one side has questioned the traditional view of the church. Each of these map neatly onto the debate over women’s roles. And they help to explain the heat between the sides, as I’ll show in just a minute.

Stance #1: Rejecting

When it comes to the role of women, those who take a rejecting stance would have no trouble saying “all that patriarchy stuff in the Bible is oppressive and outdated, and it’s high time we moved on.” They therefore reject the traditional view of the church and the authority of scripture.

Stance #2: Reforming

Those who take a reforming stance would argue that the Bible has always taught the equal authority of women in the church and home. They would say, further, that several key texts have been misinterpreted over the centuries, causing the church to err in its affirmation of male headship. They therefore want to reform the traditional view of the church to bring it in line with the authoritative teaching of scripture.

Those who take a “reforming” stance on this issue would include scholars like Beth Allison Barr, Philip B. Payne, and N.T. Wright. All three hold to a high view of scripture. (Payne, for example, was an original signer of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy). And yet all three argue, on the basis of the biblical text, that the Bible consistently teaches an egalitarian approach to gender issues.

Stance #3: Conserving

Those who take a conserving stance would argue that the Bible has always taught male headship in the church and home. They would say that, therefore, the church has been right to affirm such headship as well. They therefore want to conserve the traditional view of the church and the authority of scripture.

Such a position is held by scholars like Tim Keller and John Piper. Both of these men are motivated by sincere pastoral concern for those under their care, and neither has been dogged by accusations of discrimination or abuse of power. And yet they both affirm a traditional approach to gender roles.

Stance #4: Abusing

Finally, on the issue of women’s authority, one can easily imagine someone abusing the traditional teaching of the church for their own gain. For example, a husband who takes this approach might pay lip service to the church’s teaching on male headship in order to justify selfishly doing something he wants over the objections of his wife. And, in more extreme cases, someone might twist the words of scripture to justify verbal, physical, spiritual, or sexual abuse. Such a person abuses church teaching and scriptural authority to serve their own purposes.

As I argued last week, I believe these four stances help to explain many contentious debates in the church. In fact, I believe much of the heat in these discussions is generated when reformers and conservers misunderstand each other and question each other’s motives. In particular, I’ve noticed that conservers frequently suspect reformers of secretly taking a rejecting stance. Similarly, reformers suspect conservers of secretly taking an abusing stance.

These misunderstandings and mischaracterizations affect many issues, notably including the discussion over gender roles.

Piper, Carson, and “Sidestepping” Clear Teaching

The tendency of those who take a conservative stance to mischaracterize those who take a reforming stance was illustrated perfectly in a 2012 conversation between D.A. Carson, Tim Keller, and John Piper. They were seeking to explain why The Gospel Coalition makes a point of teaching male headship, even though the organization doesn’t take a position on other issues of secondary importance, like baptism. And their answers show just how easy it is for those who take a conservative stance on gender issues to slip into questioning their opponents’ motives instead of engaging their arguments.

Here’s what Carson said about why the Gospel Coalition teaches male headship, for example.

“We’re often using hermeneutics today as a way of sidestepping what scripture unambiguously, repeatedly, and clearly says, by trying to locate the rationale in some alleged reconstruction of the background of 1 Timothy or whatever it is instead of listening to what the scripture actually says on its own terms.”

There’s at least three things to note about what Carson says here.

  1. He acknowledges the existence of scriptural arguments against male headship in the church. (In particular, he references the idea that the context of 1 Timothy 2:12 demonstrates that it was a unique and temporary restriction intended to deal with a problem in the Ephesian church, not a universal prohibition on women teaching.)
  2. Despite acknowledging the existence of an argument from the text of 1 Timothy against male headship, he dismisses the argument as an “alleged reconstruction… or whatever it is.” He therefore passes up an opportunity to address the argument and explain why he disagrees with it.
  3. He instead attacks his opponents’ motives, accusing them of “sidestepping” what scripture “unambiguously teaches” because they don’t want to “listen” to what it says.

In other words, Carson is suggesting that his opponents are really rejecting biblical authority, and that their biblical arguments against male headship are all for show.

Piper had something similar to say.

“When you handle 1 Timothy 2:13 in a way to dodge [male authority] or, even worse, when you handle Ephesians 5 in a way that dodges headship and submission, you are handling the Bible in a way that bodes ill for gospel texts… Culturally, if you aren’t willing to stand against the tide on this issue, you’re probably gonna cave on some other important ones that may be closer to the gospel… There’s this courage issue that bodes ill for standing on other issues.”

Piper’s response mirrors Carson’s in a lot of ways. But he actually takes it one step further! He questions the character of his opponents, suggesting that the real problem is that they lack courage, not that they’ve come to a different conclusion based on their reading of scripture. In other words, he believes that they are capitulating to cultural pressure and giving up on biblical authority.

Surely, such rhetoric is frustrating and hurtful to those who have come to different conclusions about what the Bible teaches. And surely the conversation is not advanced when we question one another’s motives while refusing to acknowledge or respond to their arguments!

Beth Allison Barr and Patriarchal Power

Of course, the flip side of this is that those who take a reforming stance often misunderstand and misrepresent the conservative position. In particular, reformers tend to confuse a conserving stance with an abusing stance. In other words, they often tend to suggest that those who affirm the church’s traditional interpretation on an issue are doing so for their own benefit, or because of their own prejudices—not because they genuinely believe that’s what scripture says.

On the issue of gender roles, such a misunderstanding cropped up frequently in Beth Allison Barr’s 2021 book The Making of Biblical Womanhood. Barr’s thesis was summed up well in the introduction.

“Ironically, complementarian theology claims it is defending a plain and natural interpretation of the Bible while really defending an interpretation that has been corrupted by our sinful human drive to dominate others and build hierarchies of power and oppression.”

From the get-go, then, the book sought to argue that those who take a traditional position on gender roles aren’t really seeking to defend what they think the Bible says. Instead, they’re actually trying to preserve oppressive power structures.

And Barr questioned the motives of her opponents not only in a general sense, but also in the specifics of the debate. In fact, she did so quite often. For example, she objected to the ESV’s rendering of Ephesians 5, arguing that the translators placed a heading between “submitting to one another” (verse 21) and “wives, submit to your husbands” (verse 22) in order to “highlight female submission.” She then went on to say the following:

“The subjection of women is highlighted in the ESV translation of Ephesians 5, and the call for husbands to submit is minimized—not because Paul meant it that way but because the complementarian translators of the ESV wanted it that way.”

Of course, how we should interpret “submitting to one another” and Paul’s specific call for wives to submit to their husbands (which isn’t repeated for husbands submitting to wives, by the way) is the question at hand in this debate, not some glaringly obvious truth that the ESV translators were doing their best to hide. Moreover, it’s worth noting that the NRSV (the ESV’s significantly-less-conservative sibling translation) also chooses to put a heading between verse 21 and 22. So it’s not as if the ESV made a radical choice when it opted to do the same. And we could make similar observations about several of Barr’s other attacks on the ESV and its translators.

Finally, Barr concludes the book with a dramatic statement. “Complementarianism is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither have ever been about Jesus.” Surely, such a statement is hurtful and bewildering to anyone who genuinely believes that the Bible teaches complementarian theology! Surely, they’d be offended to be accused of playing abusive power games rather than seeking to honestly understand what scripture says. And surely they’d beg to differ with Barr’s statement that their beliefs have nothing to do with Jesus!

We Must Do Better

Last week, I argued that pursuing unity in the body of Christ in spite of the issues on which we disagree is absolutely crucial to living out the New Testament vision for the church. That means that, when discussing topics like the role of women in the church and home, we must seek to avoid tearing down our fellow believers, and instead seek to create mutual understanding and respect.

And that means doing a few things in particular.

  1. Attack arguments, not people. Attacking the motives and character of our opponents is not an act of Christian love. And it’s not persuasive either. We must respectfully engage one another’s arguments, not question each other’s faithfulness.
  2. Remove the log from your own eye. Those who take a conservative stance on male headship should check their motives to make sure they’re not compromised by sinful prejudices. Those who take a progressive stance should make sure they’re not motivated by a desire to follow cultural trends. We should all be examining our own hearts, for they are deceitful above all else (Jeremiah 17).
  3. Assume the best. And, while we should turn a critical eye to our own hearts, we should strive to assume the best about our fellow believers. We should assume that they too are guided by the Holy Spirit and seeking to live out what scripture teaches in the best way they know how. And we should have the intellectual humility to consider the possibility that they might be right about some things.

Of course, none of this means that the debate over gender roles in the church and home will be solved overnight. This is a complicated topic, and we’ll likely be debating it for decades to come. But I do hope that we can collectively learn to discuss it in a more loving and constructive fashion. And that means thinking the best about our brothers and sisters—not assuming the worst.

Got any questions or comments about what I’ve said today? Do you think I was fair to both sides? Have you experienced these kind of misunderstandings in your own spiritual journey? I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment down below. You can also find me on Twitter.

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