Review: Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian

Neither Complementarian Nor Egalitarian

Neither Complementarian nor EgalitarianMichelle Lee-Barnewall. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016.

Summary: Argues on the basis of the biblical texts for a reframing of the discussion of the relationship of men and women from one of power versus equality  to one that focuses on the elements in the biblical texts around reversal, inclusion, unity and service.

In the mouthful that is the title to this book lies a heated, sometimes hurtful, occasionally constructive intramural discussion in the evangelical community about how men and women relate to each other in the church and in marriage. Complementarians argue for gender distinctives that are complementary, for some form of male headship, female submission in marriage and that certain roles of leadership in the church are open only to men. Egalitarians argue that the best way to understand the biblical texts is that in creation and redemption, men and women are equal at the foot of the cross, that all roles of leadership are open to both in the church and that husband and wife mutually submit to each other as equals. Both “sides” contend that they are being faithful to the teaching of scripture.

I’ve watched this debate go on through my adult life, although rarely have scholars on one side or the other of this discussion reached out to see if there is some way the two positions can be reconciled. Over time, some have moved to a “soft” complementarian position, while egalitarians have been open to explore distinctives of gender while avoiding any form of hierarchy in marriage or church. What has troubled me is that the discussion has often been framed around authority or rights and hasn’t explored questions of servanthood, inclusion, and the kind of mutual care that ought characterize communities shaped by the crucified and risen Christ.

Michelle Lee-Barnewall has been troubled by this as well and thinks that part of the reason for the impasse to which we’ve come is that the discussion has been framed around categories of roles, authority, and rights that may draw more from contemporary culture that the biblical narratives and that there may be a perspective inherent in the narratives that is missed because of the framing questions we ask.

The first part of the book reviews the evangelical history of women. She breaks this into three periods, the first of which is around the turn of the 20th century when women were significantly involved in many social and mission causes, the focus being on doing one’s duty where needful. The second was a period of retreat, after the turbulence and separation of World War II, emphasizing the role of women in the home and in child-rearing. This transition, in the post-civil rights and feminist era to a focus on equal rights for women, with others holding to a more traditional role, that in contemporary discussion has been framed as complementarian.

The second part of the book turns to biblical theology and the biblical text to develop themes that might reframe the discussion. First she considers the idea of the kingdom of God and the emphases on unity and corporate identity, and on the great reversals of power, including the exaltation of the lowly and the humbling of the exalted. She then goes on under the theme of unity to explore the idea of inclusion and whether this is a better way to understand the place of women than either complementary roles or equal rights, that women are welcomed in Jesus circle and shared in and were included in the blessing of Pentecost. She also explores the radical teaching about leadership as servanthood, or even slavery, which radically upturns for both men and women, the hierarchies of the New Testament period.

In the latter part of this section, she considers two passages, Genesis 2-3, and Ephesians 5:21-33. In Genesis 2-3 she notes particularly the one flesh instructions to Adam and how in his disobedience, this is broken as he blames Eve, even though it is to Adam that God first addresses himself. She does note how the relationship originates in Adam, through whom Eve is given life and named, and yet the focus, she contends is not his authority or precedence but his leaving, cleaving, becoming one flesh with her. In Ephesians, while the man is indeed “head” (and the meaning of this can be debated) there is no command to exercise authority but rather to love and give oneself, with the husband and wife relationship demonstrating the union between Christ and church.

Lee-Barnewell does not take a “side” in this discussion, even in conclusion. She advocates instead for a different kind of discussion. She suggests that the rhetoric used to characterize the “other” as “feminist” or “patriarchal” is not helpful. Rather than answer the question of what women can or cannot do, she believes these other biblical themes are crucially important as foundations for any constructive discussion, and for reaching a place informed more by scripture than culture for all concerned.

My fear with a book like this is that it will either be disregarded or attacked by advocates on either side of this discussion, and especially by complementarians. I do think the upshot of her “reframing” would be to support the position of egalitarians, albeit with a different spirit. Yet I think this is an important book, as are similar books around questions of origins and the Genesis text, in reframing the discussion by changing the kinds of questions we ask of the biblical text, indeed in trying to listen to the text and let it deliver us from our own cultural captivities. That might even have the effect of bringing us together in the inclusive, unifying ways Lee-Barnewell envisions.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

4 thoughts on “Review: Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: July 2016 | Bob on Books

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian, by Michelle Lee-Barnewall | Emerging Scholars Blog

  3. Pingback: Most Viewed Reviews of 2016 | Bob on Books

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