Steve Holmes on Egalitarianism: An Off-the-cuff Reflection

Steve Holmes recently wrote a post titled “egalitarianism as a slippery slope?” In terms of blog posts, this was one of the better ones I had read on the subject of gender in quite a while and so I decided to forward it to my friend and colleague, Amy Hughes. She has been consistently open and honest about her views on these kinds of issues and so I was curious if Holmes’ post would be encouraging, frustrating, “eh, it’s okay,” etc. The response I received was unexpected: both refreshing and awakening, insightful and bothersome (in a good way), among other feelings. I quickly became aware that I’ve been unaware of so many things she goes through on a daily basis. After reading her email I had a nagging feeling (maybe it was that week-old bagel I had for breakfast) that I should go out on a limb and ask her if I could anonymously post her thoughts so that others might also be more aware. Unexpectedly, again, Amy wrote back not only with a “yes” but with the brave request to attach her name to the reflections – to own the content. Do note: as the title states, these are off-the-cuff thoughts and not a slowly crafted and edited response. So enough of my words…


The fact that something like this blog has to be written is just…well, I have lots of nice words for it. It’s posts like these that remind me just how completely backward the church can be about things. It is so not a discussion for me…especially considering I preached Sunday before last…as did another female colleague of mine. And my church is hardly what you would consider liberal in any way shape or form.

I don’t know what I would say about it besides the fact that I feel ashamed of the Christian community that such a discussion is still up for debate. And…I find it personally incredibly uncomfortable as a theologian to be reminded that I am often in conversation with colleagues who think there is something about my nature that makes me less capable. Or when I tell people I preached a message on Romans that it is a knee-jerk reaction of mine to look at everyone’s faces to see who is judging me as a woman or dismissing me because I am “that weird charismatic” which, by the way, is code for “we don’t take you seriously.” I fight enough battles of my own against my own insecurity and when it emanates from colleagues or books I read or whatnot it just makes me so very tired and feel so very defeated.

The whole egalitarian vs the-word-we-made-up-to-make-it-sound-attractive thing just makes me angry. And as an evangelical feminist (which does not mean what Wayne Grudem thinks it means) whenever I run into this conversation about women in leadership it just reminds me of how completely out of touch we are with our own culture and what concerns them and what I think God wants us to focus on – if I may be so bold. Aside from some of the hot button issues that feminists are associated with that cause division, it seems to me I would rather be known as a champion for domestic abuse victims, education for women, pushing for legislation vs pimps instead of prostitutes, equal pay, etc. This conversation is just so insular and confusing at best to those outside of it. So, this is why I often choose to avoid this issue of women and church leadership because we have to deal with it on a theological and method of biblical interpretation level first. I want to see more work on the imago Dei, what biblical authority looks like (by which I mean what those in authority should be like according to Scripture) about what the differences between men and women REALLY are and if that has anything to do with ministry. But before that…I think we need to acknowledge what this conversation itself is hard on a very personal level. It’s not just about ideas or even what the Bible says for me.

On the biblical interpretation side, I think the post talked around this, but one of the biggest issues is how we read Scripture. To me the stuff I hear in this debate is often completely enclosed in a way of reading Scripture that seems wooden, not canonical, not theological, not historical, certainly without any imagination and also lacking understanding of how the Holy Spirit illuminates Scripture – individually and church-wide.

All of that to say, I love to talk about gender stuff, but if I have to start on the “can/should/have women do ministry/be in leadership/preach” track it isn’t terribly fruitful. I don’t want to have to defend myself…which is not defending an opinion in this case, but literally defending myself as a woman, my person. It’s a hard fought fight and it takes a lot out of me to have it because I end up feeling completely diminished. Paraphrasing Simon de Bouvoir, what’s needed are women who do a damn good job in their field, who don’t question whether they can do it (which women in general do often in careers/callings that are pre-dominantly male), but own it. So that’s what I have been trying to do, luckily and somewhat ironically, patristics is a welcoming field in that regard.

That’s probably more than you bargained for Jordan, but hey, you asked what I thought 😉


About Jordan P. Barrett

PhD, Systematic Theology, Wheaton College
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5 Responses to Steve Holmes on Egalitarianism: An Off-the-cuff Reflection

  1. Peter Green says:

    Jordan, and especially Amy, thanks for these thoughts. They are definitely worthy of careful reflection. As one who holds to “the-word-we-made-up-to-make-it-sound-attractive” position, allow me a brief response.

    First, I sympathize, as much as I am able, with the plight of women in evangelical churches. I had my eyes opened while I was dating my wife who was in the MDiv program at our seminary (though she also holds to “the-word-we-made-up-to-make-it-sound-attractive”). Talking with her and her roommates, several of whom had worked in churches before coming to seminary really gave me a perspective that I hadn’t had before.

    Second, I think the best adherents of “complementarianism” insist that the issue is not one of ability, and this seems to me to be important to assert, both theologically, and experientially. That is, I hold to complementarianism, not because I think men are inherently more capable than women when it comes to preaching. Far from it. Rather, I hold to it, first and foremost, because I believe it to be what the Bible teaches.

    Third, I think this debate has been exacerbated by the lack of clarity/agreement concerning the nature of ordination and it’s relation to preaching. Since so much of evangelicalism has such a low view of what it means to be ordained, there is a lot of confusion about what constitutes “legitimate” (from a complementarian perspective) activities. Here, I think a more robust view of ordination would clarify a lot of things and would actually allow a lot more room for women in churches that hold to complementarianism. I don’t think it would resolve the debate, but it would help. (For instance, my own personal view is that we should by all means encourage women to teach, but that *ordination* should be restricted to men). Holmes’ post is exhibit A, when it comes to muddying the waters by imprecise terminology. He frequently refers to the “ministry of women.” But I absolutely affirm the validity, nay, the necessity of the “ministry of women”! By all means, women should be “ministering.” But, of course, that is not the sticking point–ordination is. Thus, Holmes’ doesn’t help the conversation by casting it as an issue of “women’s ministry,” which it decidedly isn’t.

    Fourth, there is another dimension to this issue. Amy quite rightly brought out the personal aspect, being a woman who has to interact with men (like myself!) who hold to a complementarian position. I can certainly see how that would be… awkward. The other side to this, though, is that in certain contexts, it can be embarrassing to hold to a complementarian position. I don’t like being embarrassed about the fact that I believe the Bible teaches complementarianism. But I am embarrassed, and I do believe it is what the Bible teaches. I can’t change what I think the Bible teaches. I can, however, change how I interact with people who disagree and practice their disagreements. I hope I do it respectfully and charitably. I don’t think this issue needs to be any more divisive than other issues that are important but not vital (like whether one observes the Sabbath or baptizes babies).

    Fifth, a quibble and a frustration with the Holmes post. The quibble: Just because someone *hasn’t* made an argument doesn’t mean the argument *can’t* be made. That is, Holmes puts a lot of weight on the fact that no-one has made a historical argument for the correlation between women’s ordination and liberalism, but this doesn’t prove his point. I don’t put my eggs in the slippery slope basket, which is why this is just a “quibble,” but I thought it was worth noting that logical misstep. My frustration: His list of issues that are “easy to find in the Biblical text but that have been difficult to hold because (Western) host-cultures have found them dangerous” seems flatly ridiculous. Western host-cultures have been hostile to believers baptism? That’s an historical argument I’d like to see. Pacifism? Full ministry of women? Isn’t this begging the question? This paragraph seemed offensively dismissive to one who holds basically the opposite of every position that he lists.

    Finally, I agree with Amy that there are better things we would be discussing and advocating for (or against), like abuse, sex slavery, equality, etc. I hope our disagreement on minor issues doesn’t prevent charitable but vigorous conversation on those issues, and steadfast co-belligerence on the other more important issues.

    • Amy Hughes says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply Peter. By the way, I appreciate your perspective and although we disagree, the awkwardness only really comes in when we cease being thoughtful listeners. For the most part, my experiences with colleagues on this issue with whom I disagree (which is not only men by the way, I certainly don’t claim to speak for all women on this point) has been positive. I do wish it came up more often although I do get why it doesn’t.

      I respect what you read in Scripture, but I do think Holmes hit the nail on the head when he elucidated the fact that an egalitarian position is often viewed as the “wrong” way to read or a more slap-dash-uninformed reading or some such. This is why I think that the discussion is more fruitfully had on the level of biblical interpretation. We have had some experience discussing this topic, but not too much. I should think we would have differing interpretive approaches in some ways and Holmes point is key here – that this doesn’t mean that the other view has a lesser reading of the authority of Scripture. The differing approaches and conclusions are difficult for us evangelicals though, because it circles back around to everything from inerrancy to inspiration to the Holy Spirit’s role, etc.

      This is where I would like to see more provoking conversation as it relates to gender. This issue is not in the same line as a non-vital topic like the Sabbath, because the theological ramifications as to WHY ordination is limited and how that reflects on Scripture and in turn how that reflects on how God views women…well, let’s just say it’s vital because like I mentioned in my original response – this is about my person. Hence why I would say it is vital.

      Like I said, the whole egalitarian/complementarian debate is not of much interest to me and neither is ordination directly. I do think the terms actually mask with preference language a much deeper theological and interpretive set of issues. As a charismatic, I ran into these discussions, but in the particular arena I grew up in there was a strong sense that the Holy Spirit’s call trumped what we thought of ourselves and each other for the sake of going into all the world. The issue was there certainly and I ran into that brick wall a few times, but it was generally minimized in favor of larger endeavors. This is unfortunate though because there is always the nagging in one’s heart and mind that as a woman we aren’t REALLY sure what God thinks of us or what we should think of ourselves. It leaves a gaping hole in the construction of identity that is not easily filled with the simplistic platitudes about how we are loved equally and are just…different.

      Again, thanks for your response, Peter, I appreciate you and think there is room for much fruitful discussion ahead.

      • Peter Green says:

        Amy, I agree that Holmes’ point that egalitarians can have a robust doctrine of Scripture–equally robust, if not more so, than complementarians. I think there is more going on here, though, than he let on. For instance, there seem to be several ways to argue for “egalitarianism” (I agree the terms are problematic, but they are useful shorthand in this case). First, one could say, “This is what the Bible positively teaches.” Second, one could say, “Paul (and others) argued for x, but only within that specific cultural or ecclesial setting.” Third, one could say, “Paul argued for x, which we now know is wrong; therefore we discount it.” The first and the second should be unproblematic for complementarians. Rather, it is the third that I think raises serious issues, and so complementarians can (unfairly) ascribe the problems with that form of argument to all egalitarians. The reality of those who argue in the third way explains, though not excuses, the reactions of the complementarians. Holmes’ argument would have been better served (and received) had he acknowledged that reality, though it was raised in the comments.

        As you note, all of this comes back to larger issues of inerrancy, hermeneutics, the Holy Spirit, and of course the character of God and his relationship to women. And I see how your background as a charismatic gives you a very different perspective and approach than mine as one of the Reformed.

        Also, one point of clarification: by “non-vital” I didn’t mean unimportant, as anyone who knows my position on the Sabbath and baptism would know! 🙂 I meant, specifically, that it didn’t need to be a point at which we break fellowship. But a further example might illustrate what I meant. In my own context, there is a question whether my (baptized) baby should be allowed to have communion. My denomination says “no”; I say “yes.” This is a deeply personal issue to me since I have to bar my son from the Lord’s Table every time we have communion. It infuriates me. It makes me angry both for the sake of my son and because of what I think it says about God. However, I would still consider it “non-vital,” in the specific sense I meant.

  2. Josh Alfaro says:

    I am an egalitarian and I fully support women in ministry and with equal status and roles in the home because I believe the New Testament supports it. However, I am not surprised that others have a different view. There are difficult texts that seem to teach against egalitarianism. I don’t think the complementarian reading of these passages is especially wooden, ahistorical, acanonical, or atheological. They are taking the words of Scripture seriously and trying their best to interpret them. It is a legitimate reading of Scripture that I simply believe is wrong. In many ways I think the egalitarian position is more difficult to defend because it often requires a lot of text critical, historical, linguistic arguments that aren’t apparent on the surface level of the average English translation. So I can understand why some non-egalitiarians would see egalitarian hermeneutics and their view of Scripture’s authority the way they do

    I am also a charistmatic and believe that the Spirit calls women to ministry. But I see why even a charismatic like Grudem or Sam Storms would have a problem with this kind of argument from personal experience. Any of our interpretations of the Spirit’s voice need to be tested against Scripture and that is something all charismatics should agree on.

    Let’s try to be fair to complementarians and admit that the answers aren’t always obvious but require the hard work of exegesis, discussion, and discernment.

  3. Pingback: Theology Round-Up –September 2012 | Cheesewearing Theology

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