Why Egalitarianism Hasn’t Persuaded Me (Yet?)

Why Egalitarianism Hasn’t Persuaded Me (Yet?) March 28, 2023

woman's hands on open bible
Image Credit: Aaron Burden / Unsplash

As I described in a recent article on egalitarian arguments I find persuasive, I’ve spent the last several months taking an honest look at what the Bible says about gender roles. I come from a background that teaches a complementarian perspective, but I had never taken the time to listen to egalitarian arguments.

So, I thought it was time I did just that! I read Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood and Philip B. Payne’s Man and Woman, One in Christ. I listened to podcast episodes, read articles, and pondered scripture. And now I’m in the process of evaluating what I heard.

Last week, I described four aspects of the egalitarian interpretation of Ephesians 5 that I found persuasive. This week, I want to turn the tables and summarize four areas where I found the egalitarian approach to Ephesians 5 unpersuasive.

Objection 1: What is Ephesians 5 Actually Saying?

I frequently found myself wishing that egalitarian authors and speakers would offer a positive interpretation of what Ephesians 5 says—in other words, an explanation of what the passage means, rather than a summary of all the things it doesn’t mean.

Obviously, egalitarians argue that Ephesians 5 does not teach that only wives should submit, nor that a “head” must be the leader. Some of their arguments are quite strong on those matters. But I consistently found myself asking “OK, then, but what is Paul trying to say here?”

After all, it’s inescapable that the instructions Paul gives to wives and husbands in Ephesians 5 are different. We can dicker about how much the mutual submission in verse 22 changes our understanding of wifely submission in verse 23, or about the meaning of “head.” But even if we accept the egalitarian arguments, we’re still left with commands that clearly differ by gender.

And we’re also still faced with Paul’s application of scripture’s long-running God-and-his-bride motif to human marriage. Paul says that the relationship between husband and wife is to mirror that between Christ and the church. And the relationship between Christ and the church is, once again, inescapably characterized by the differences between the parties.

Egalitarians are not required to teach that men and women are exactly the same in all respects, of course. But, at least in my view, I would find the egalitarian approach to Ephesians 5 far more persuasive if it could answer three questions.

  1. What marital challenges is Paul trying to overcome with these instructions?
  2. Why do his instructions differ by gender, if not because he’s affirming traditional gender roles?
  3. What does it look like to apply Paul’s instructions in a modern marriage?

A positive egalitarian interpretation of the passage that answered these three questions while maintaining an emphasis on mutual submission would help move my thinking forward. But so far, I have not encountered a satisfying example.

Objection 2: Submission of Wives is Called Out Explicitly

A second aspect of Ephesians 5 I found hard to escape was the fact that, even if Paul affirms mutual submission in verse 22, he nevertheless explicitly instructs wives to submit to their husbands—but doesn’t do the same for husbands. At the very least, he therefore leaves us with a rhetorical imbalance in his instructions.

I could potentially be persuaded to dismiss this as Paul omitting to say something he nevertheless believed. But then, in parallel instructions in 1 Peter 3, Peter tells wives to “be subject” to their husbands—and he doesn’t tell husbands to do the same either. Now we have two apostles, in two different letters, to two different audiences, both failing to give explicit instructions for husbands to submit, even though they told wives to do so.

In my mind, it’s hard to believe that the simplest explanation for these passages is that Paul and Peter both believed in mutual submission, but simply omitted explicit instructions to husbands. In fact, given that submission on the part of husbands would have been the radical position culturally, you would expect Paul and Peter to have given husbandly submission extra emphasis if they wanted to affirm it. And yet they don’t.

(I should mention that I am aware that some argue that the “likewise” in 1 Peter 3:7 implies husbandly submission. Perhaps my thinking will go deeper down that rabbit hole at some point. But it’s worth noting that even many Bible translations favored by more progressive churches don’t translate the verse that way. In fact, the only one I found that applies submission to husbands in 1 Peter 3:7 was the CEB.)

Objection 3: The Multiple Misinterpretations Problem

A related aspect of the egalitarian position that I found troubling was that it relies on the assertion that we’ve mis-translated or mis-interpreted quite a number of different biblical texts. At the very least, it requires believing that the historic interpretation of Ephesians 5, 1 Peter 3, 1 Timothy 2, 1 Corinthians 11, and 1 Corinthians 14 has been incorrect.

While it’s relatively easy to believe that we’ve mis-read or mis-translated a single passage in this list (e.g., to accept the arguments about Ephesians 5), it’s harder to stomach the assertion that we’ve gotten all of them wrong.

Maybe we’ve ignored mutual submission in Ephesians 5. Maybe we’ve imported cultural associations of leadership for the word “head” that wouldn’t have existed in the Greek. And maybe that affected our reading of Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 11. So far, so good.

But then the instructions to women in 1 Corinthians 14 are allegedly a Corinthian slogan, not a Pauline instruction. (Or maybe they’re not a Corinthians slogan, but they weren’t in the original text.) And then we need to buy that we’ve misunderstood the special circumstances which led to Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2. The list goes on. At some point, one starts to wonder how the church could have possibly made so many individual and varied mistakes on this particular topic.

(Of course, I am once again aware that some egalitarians will argue that there’s a clear reason the church made so many mistakes on this topic: they wanted to preserve patriarchal power structures. But, while abuse of scripture certainly happens in the church, I again find it hard to stomach the position that centuries of biblical interpretation by apparently godly and well-meaning Christians has all been hopelessly tainted by their lust for power.)

Objection 4: Complementarianism is not Roman Patriarchy

Finally, coming back to Ephesians 5 specifically, I found that egalitarians frequently emphasize that Paul intends to subvert Roman patriarchy with his instructions in that passage (and others). In other words, Paul’s taking a “progressive” stance over and against an oppressively traditional secular culture. As such, egalitarians argue that the real takeaway from the passage should be Paul’s subversion of patriarchal power structures, not his alleged emphasis on male headship and female submission.

I actually think there’s a lot of truth to this argument. I’m no expert on Roman history, but my understanding is that Roman culture was horrendously oppressive of women. In fact, according to some of what I’ve read, it was simply accepted that a man could force himself on a woman of a lower social class without fear of consequences. I have absolutely no problem believing that Paul would have found such Roman practices abhorrent and sought to overturn them.

Nevertheless, I don’t believe that modern complementarianism is equivalent to Roman patriarchy. In fact, I find it entirely possible to believe that Paul intended to overthrow some of the abuses of Roman culture while simultaneously continuing to teach male leadership in the home and the church.

Whether or not that’s what Paul did is, of course, the question at hand. But saying “Paul was subverting Roman patriarchy and therefore he rejected all forms of male headship” is simply too much of a leap.

So, What Have I Concluded?

If you’ve been following along so far, you might be thinking that I’ve already written off the egalitarian position. But I don’t know that I would go that far just yet. Many that read my previous article likely concluded the opposite—that I had been persuaded to become an egalitarian. But the reality is a little more complicated.

Honestly, while I’ve seen some strong arguments on the egalitarian side, none of them have been a clincher for me yet. But that doesn’t mean I won’t keep considering these issues. In fact, as I highlighted above, there are several aspects of this debate that I want to learn more about. As I continue to pursue those loose ends, talk with fellow believers, and listen to feedback, my position may very well evolve. Or perhaps it won’t.

What I can say is that engaging in this exercise has given me a new respect for Christians with whom I disagree. These aren’t easy issues, and I recognize that those who hold a different viewpoint do so for valid reasons. In fact, I think they make some good points.

My hope is that, if the church can continue to dialogue respectfully and thoughtfully about these sorts of issues, we’ll grow in our unity and mutual understanding. And maybe, one day, we may even find that one side persuades the other. And perhaps I may one day be among those who are persuaded.

Have any thoughts or questions about what I’ve written today? Please scroll down and leave a comment! I love engaging with folks about these issues. I’m also on Twitter, if you’d like to reach out there.

Also, if you’ve noticed that I haven’t been writing as much in the last couple of weeks, that’s true. I’ve had some unexpected family things that have taken a lot of my time and attention. But I’m hoping to get back to being more regular very soon!

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