Some American evangelicals say the Bible prescribes universal, timeless roles for men and women. But some say these discussions are a post-industrial phenomenon.

Some American evangelicals say the Bible prescribes universal, timeless roles for men and women. But others say these discussions are a post-industrial phenomenon.

Yesterday, I wrote about the growing gender debate in society and among evangelicals. One point of discussion with the individuals I interviewed was the history of these debates. Some felt the Bible prescribes timeless, universal, complementary roles for men and women, while others argued that these discussions have been influenced by culture and history.

Rachel Held Evans, egalitarian author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, holds to the latter position.

“This is not really a new conversation for evangelicals. We’ve been having this for a really long time. We’ve been wrestling with a prevalent narrative that men should be the earners and women should stay at home,” said Evans. “But this is more of a cultural phenomenon than a biblical one. It’s a product of the post-industrial revolution where we had the Cleaver family as the standard. In more agrarian societies, we’ll see women sharing the responsibilities for earning and running the household with men.”

She argues this point at length on her blog in a new post titled, “Why the church can support ‘breadwinning’ wives too.

Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality, agrees with Rachel: “We’re looking now at a post-industrial society. Before the industrial revolution, people worked largely on farms. American culture relied on everyone doing work together and women made decisions as well.”

But Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, says the historical roots of the discussion are more complex than that. He points to a reaction among some evangelicals to the feminist movement in the late-20th Century:

“The equal rights amendment provoked Christian responses from some Christians. John Piper and Wayne Grudem created the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood as a response to what they believed was creeping, encroaching feminism. Because of Piper’s charisma, giftedness, and platform, he basically created the complementarian movement in the United States.

“In the 70s and 80s, complementarianism really got going. It created a groundswell and gained a powerful platform in the United States. Before this movement, there were a number of evangelical males and females who were advocating for the greater openness to female giftedness in churches and elsewhere. The complementarian movement began to resist it. By the mid-80s, it was pretty clear that there were strong advocates for women in ministry and for complementarianism, and they began to spar over various texts.”

But Mary Kassian, author of Girls Gone Wise in a World Gone Wild, says that complementarianism has always been a part of Christian theology, even though feminism forced Christians to name and define it. She says she has been involved in gender discussions for almost three decades and recalls sitting around a table with Christian leaders in the 1980s trying to brainstorm a name for their position.

“At that time—in the 80s—we really thought that given the pressures of society and the feminist movement, the Biblical teaching that says that men and women are complimentary would be a lost concept,” Kassian recalls. “Now I look back over the last 20 or 25 years and I’m surprised that there has been such a resurgence on this among the next generation.”

Owen Strachan, Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, concedes that there is some truth to what Evans and others are claiming. But he says the Bible’s teachings on gender are timeless and universal, unaffected by cultural or historical fluctuations.

“There is an element of truth in what they say. The household economy has changed over the centuries. No complementarian is making the case that there is a static understanding of gender roles across countries and eras,” Strachan says. “But the Bible is obviously the ultimate authority for a believer, and as a Biblical Christian, I’m not able to do theology by sociology. I have to do theology according to the Biblical text and take up whatever life plan the Bible tells me to take up.”

And yet, we also can’t pretend that we read and interpret the Bible in a vacuum. As E. Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien state in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, “In whatever place and whatever age people read the Bible, we instinctively draw from our own cultural context to make sense of what we’re reading.”

All Bible reading is contextual, and there is no one who encounters the text with complete objectivity. So we must bring our historical and cultural contexts into conversation with our interpretations.

A quick review of history seems to support the notion that prior to the industrial revolution, women shared the family workload and decision making. Accounts of 18th and 19th century home life shows that women asserted leadership within those settings as often as men. Agrarian societies are often even more egalitarian in this respect. And who will deny that American evangelicals have reacted against second wave feminism? Something more seems to be at work in this discussion than “because the Bible says so.”

Christians must now determine how (not if) our views on gender have been shaped by our cultural contexts, even though this debate must ultimately be had while standing on a Bible, not a history book.


  1. As a complementarian, I have to express disappointment (once again) with how egalitarians frame the discussion.

    No complementarian I have ever read or studied under has disagreed with the notion that cultural context and historical trajectory can affect our interpretation of Scripture. Furthermore, the McKnight quote above is uncharitable and unfair. The complementarian position, as explained by CBMW, is not a “resistance to female giftedness,” but that is what McKnight claims. Rather, the issue for complementarians is whether there are distinctive roles into which God has placed equally gifted men and women. This is a common misrepresentation by egalitarians, and it hinders the dialogue from advancing beyond the labeling and categorizing that writers like Jonathan frequently say alienate seekers from the church.

    • Scot McKnight

      Fair enough. A phone conversation can never bring out all the nuances, so when I mean “giftedness” I’m speaking here of women as elders, pastors, senior pastors, and teaching pastors and preachers. That’s the issue in most cases anyway. When the complementarian view is that the Bible does not permit women to be gifted in those roles then many of us perceived the CBMW as resisting that kind of giftedness. I did not mean to suggest there was resistance to (legitimate) giftedness from God. I have always believed that complementarians encourage women to do what God calls them to do, though I have also believed they don’t believe women should do some things and they oppose doing those things.

      Now let me turn the table: many women, in fact, do experience what they think is giftedness and calling and experience resistance from the CBMW types. I know some profs who tell women in classes they are not called to teach and preach in churches when men are present. Those women — whether you agree with them or not — experience such teaching as resistance to their giftedness. Some turn the table around and say back: you are claiming a gift that God does not give.

      • Let us also not forget the difference between giftedness and office. One may possess a gift, but determine, for a variety of reasons, they will not hold a specific office in church life or a ministry setting. In the same vein, some may believe that all are gifted, but not all are eligible for specific offices or functions.

        • Jonathan Merritt

          I agree we have to make the distinction when we speak about it. On the other hand, the egalitarian response is that, practically speaking, there isn’t the dichotomy for men in the complementarian view. If you’re gifted for it, you’re eligible for it. So that’s something to consider.

  2. It’s also important to note that the reason the evangelical conversation focuses so much on “roles” is because 2nd wave feminism was fostered in the crucible of labor movement and was responding to a highly, stratified Fruedian/Darwinian understanding that “gender is destiny.” Because the entire argument was framed from the get-go in terms of what we “do,” it’s no surprise that it has continued to be argued on these terms.

    If we are going to gain any ground, we’re going to have to go deeper than arguing about “roles.” We’re going to have to address issues of how we assign value, how we embrace the role of providence in our identity, and what it means to be people living imago dei.

  3. Merritt. i have always had issues with the Christian culture trying to downsize or subordinate women because of some of the wording of the Bible. I understand how things are written, but grew up in a household (agrarian) where both my grandmothers and my mother shared income and responsibilities of the household. We were a family more worried about being fed, than pride of who brought home more money. But it is the church’s idea that women should submit that has pushed my mom and sister out of many churches and the culture attached to it. Being strong women they feel judged more than accepted in many church cultures.
    I don’t understand why we cannot accept women in authority in the Christian culture in 2013, yet hold women like Ruth up so highly when she questioned a Royals authority. Seems backwards to me.

  4. I stand somewhere between the two viewpoints, and generally subscribe to the view that this is one of those things that gets way too much attention by Christians, pulling the focus away from the things that should have our attention, like ministering to others.

    However, I would like to say I have studied under complementarians who disregarded cultural and historical contexts, and did so quite insistently. When asked questions about those contexts, usually the question was not answered, and instead brought back to verses taken out of context. Same goes for women in the Bible like Priscilla. These are questions that should be asked and dealt with, and if you have to extrapolate to get an answer, as in “That must be because….” then the better answer is to say you don’t know. Not make an answer fit your worldview.

  5. In my studies to become a professional counselor, I have taken classes that helped me come to grips with the influence that Western culture has had on so many aspects of our lives in the US. These views cut out essential influences of different cultures, ethnicities, and the feminine gender from the conversation about family, work, and lifestyle structure. If we could go back in time & re-live the centuries with a more egalitarian lens, I believe that we would not be having these debates today. It’s tragic that certain Christ followers would spend valuable time trying to prevent half of the world’s population from pursuing our dreams, unless, of course, those dreams fit nicely into their idea of what we should be allowed to do. What are they afraid of (rhetorical)? Thanks for the follow-up post and the original article.

  6. What about the way our culture assigns value to people based on what they can do, and our view of leadership as power? I see that as shaping the egalitarian viewpoint as much as any other cultural context, particularly when it comes to issues of church leadership.
    Leadership = power = value, rather than leadership = service and sacrifice. I don’t see this issue often discussed with Christ as the backdrop, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8 ESV)

    • Agree. Gender is a presenting issue for a whole host of other conversations. To make it simply about what men and women can/can’t, should/shouldn’t do is not a big enough paradigm to understand human experience or Scriptural revelation.

  7. While this “issue” blazes through the Christian community – it still remains a fight to be, in a sense, “color blind”. Where equality of gender roles is the ultimate goal instead of a celebrating and recognizing of strengths, individuality, unique perspectives and a healthy community where followers of Christ are too busy encouraging and supporting each other to worry about what is under the leaf.

  8. My mother, grandmothers, and great grandmothers all worked. The poor have always worked. This is not about work. This is about leadership and class….and leadership and class is about power. This is a power issue that only a select few have the privilege to debate…a debate I left long ago as ridiculous, time consuming and fruitless. At least I thought I had. ;-)

  9. Big ‘Like’ to Joy’s and Hannah’s comments. Value is the real issue.

    If we could learn to find our joy and fulfillment in humble service instead of recognised position, and if we could learn to place high value on those who serve humbly instead of those in high position, the Church would begin to look a lot more like the Phillippians 2 example.

    I’ll stop now before I start ranting…! ;-)

  10. Rachel Heston-Davis

    “There is an element of truth in what they say. The household economy has changed over the centuries. No complementarian is making the case that there is a static understanding of gender roles across countries and eras,” Strachan says. “But the Bible is obviously the ultimate authority for a believer, and as a Biblical Christian, I’m not able to do theology by sociology. I have to do theology according to the Biblical text and take up whatever life plan the Bible tells me to take up.”

    I totally get what he’s saying. But isn’t the egalitarian camp’s entire point founded on the premise that Strachan and others actually go BEYOND the Bible in their beliefs? The very issue we’re arguing over (whether men should be the ones to work outside the home or not) is actually not directly addressed in scripture. There’s a verse that tells women not to neglect their homes, but that says nothing about whether they can also work outside the home, or whether the man should be working outside the home or helping the woman keep the home.

    Strachan should take his own point and not set up a system that goes beyond what the Bible speaks clearly about.

  11. I used to resonate strongly with the idea that the driving force behind egalitarianism is the acquisition of power for women. Before I became an egalitarian, I was convinced this was the case. I still believe it would be beneficial to use service-focused rather than leadership-focused language, as it can distract from the real issue. And I think if we’re truly concerned about Christians being power-hungry, we should stop saying “women shouldn’t try to acquire power” if we’re not also saying “men should be divesting themselves of power as Christ did” (Phil 2). Instead, many of us men say, “Trying to elevate yourself to a position of power is not Christlike. I’ll keep the power so you don’t have to sin by trying to share in it.” It is no less sinful for men to hang on to power than it is for women to seek it. But power isn’t the heart of the matter.

    To me, it’s about obedience to Scripture and the Spirit. I see one part of teh body saying to another “you can’t be the foot, because you’re female, even if that is your gifting.” Or, “your gifts are identical to those of someone gifted to be a foot, but since you’re a woman, you’re not ACTUALLY called to be one.” Or, “You can be do all the things a foot does, but with a different title.” I’m convinced that the Bible, faithfully interpreted and applied, demands that it’s not our gender, but the gifting and call of the Holy Spirit that should determine the sphere of our Christian service, whether that call is to get behind the pulpit and preach or to get behind the stall door and scrub toilets. Pretty sure Jesus would do both.

    • Well said, Tim. Thank you for your thoughts.

      I’ve been reading Richard Davidson’s “The Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament”. Though it’s mammoth, I’d recommend it to anyone to who wants to read an entirely balanced study on gender issues in Gen 1-3. Very refreshing.

  12. I think we horribilize the opinions of others in order to justify our beliefs or feelings of doubt regarding our own position. Both sides of this debate read into and put words in the others mouth which isnt fair. I think if we were a little less angry and a lot more justified by our opinions and beliefs rather than by Christ alone we could have a reasonably clear dialogue.
    One thing I would say is that most of our anger on this issue comes out of fear rather than out of love for the women of our church. With that I am a complementarian and believe that it is the place for true flourishing of the women in our church.

  13. Mark Pertuit

    There is nothing complementary about complementarianism. It’s more accurately called hierarchical patriarchalism, as someone has said. According to the complementary perspective, men can do anything in church (including nursery, teaching kids, serving variously), but women are enormously restricted in their functioning. This is not complementary.

    Those who are die-hard complementarians should ask themselves: could it be that egalitarians are correct in their interpretations of the relevant biblical texts? (I say this as a convert to egalitarianism — a conversion that was careful and surprising to me.) Also: could it be that complementarianism acts as a huge barrier to the gospel, in that the complementarian church refuses to honor many women’s many gifts, whereas the secular world does honor women’s gifts? Good questions to ponder.

  14. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” -Galatians 3:28
    Solid food. Now let’s eat.

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