Complementarianism and egalitarianism (part 6): The future of egalitarianism (i)

This is the second section in Mark Baddeley’s series on complementarianism and egalitarianism. (Read parts 1234578, and 9.)

I have argued in a previous series that the disagreement over the role of women in the church has now reached a point where some structural separation at the institutional level is likely to work itself out. The debate is, by and large, over; leaders of the two movements are now moving on to explore the ramifications of their position for doctrine, the Christian life, and how church and ministry are conducted. This will mean institutions will become more monochrome as they take steps that make it hard for people to stay if they disagree. It will also mean that both groups may well find themselves diverging on related doctrines, as the fundamental principles at play behind the concrete debate over women’s ordination increasingly work themselves out to other areas of doctrine and practice.

This can all sound pretty pessimistic, as though the hidden message is, “Say goodbye to the pro-women’s ordination evangelicals, folks! They’re leaving the station for parts unknown.” But I am more hopeful than that, although that does (somewhat less nicely than I’d say) capture my fears for egalitarianism as a movement. In this four part series I want to sketch out some of the issues that egalitarians are going to be faced with from here on, issues that mean that I think at least some of them will pull back from finding out just how far the egalitarian rabbit-hole goes.

I see strong parallels between where we are now in our debate and the fourth-century debate over the Trinity—between those who thought that the Son of God was a creature (the Arians) and those who understood that he was fully equal with the Father (those who followed the Nicene Creed). Alongside these two groups was a third group, a large group of Christians who couldn’t accept the kind of theology that is now taken for granted as orthodox. For them, any suggestion that the Father eternally begot the Son, or that the Father is the source of the Son but yet didn’t create the Son, just seemed logically absurd—a contradiction in terms on a par with speaking of a ‘married bachelor’ (or, we might say, on a par with speaking of someone being both equal and under authority).

Throughout much of the fourth century this large group tended to support the convinced Arians who increasingly argued that the Son of God was just a creature much like any other. The orthodox position seemed so logically absurd to the large group that it could not be accepted, and so they tended to run with the Arians even though they thought the Arians were too extreme in their views. This ‘middle’ group has often been called ‘semi-Arian’ by historians of the period.

But by the end of the fourth century most of this group had pulled right back and had taken on an orthodox position. Partly this was because people like the Cappadocians (who began as semi-Arians) and Athanasius managed to address the concerns of the semi-Arians. Partly it was because the Arians kept moving more and more on their trajectory and the semi-Arians became increasingly unsettled about where that kind of theology was going. What at the time appeared to be a large loose group of pro-Arians, over time split up between a small hard-core of true-blue Arians; and a large group who moved increasingly towards the theology articulated by the Nicene Creed.

I’d suggest that something similar might occur today. Many people who support women’s ordination, or who reject the idea that husbands should be the head of the home, don’t want to push those views very hard or very radically. For them, they just can’t see how denying women an unlimited role in the public life of the church is anything other than saying that women are inferior, or less gifted, or less spiritually mature. And so they are committed to an egalitarian position for want of something better. They are, if you like, a ‘semi-egalitarian’—egalitarian in practice, but not really sold on the fundamental convictions that lie at the heart of egalitarianism.

But as in the fourth century, positions don’t stand still. And the evangelical semi-egalitarian is going to experience increased pressure that will tend to either push them in a liberal direction and towards a more radical expression of egalitarianism, or to resist that push. And resisting that push may well lead them in a more complementarian direction. And we’ll turn to some of those pressures in the following posts in our series.


It’s sometimes interesting to see the difference between the series that a writer thinks they wrote and the series to which readers seem to respond. In light of the sometimes strong reaction to the previous series, I thought it might help to add a short note at the end of this first post.

This series is going to look at some of the pressures that some people who see themselves as more or less egalitarian are likely to experience going into the future. It is speaking to complementarians about egalitarianism, and about egalitarianism as a ‘political’ entity—a social group that experiences various pressures.

In and of itself, the series isn’t trying to make much (if any) capital off these observations, as though they somehow prove egalitarianism is wrong in and of themselves. Like the previous series, it’s an exercise in trying to see clearly and unsentimentally about what is occurring and extrapolate accordingly.

Given my argument that we are moving to a new phase in the gender debate—where egalitarianism is gaining the political power to run various Christian institutions on an egalitarian basis—that means that the ‘game’ is changing for egalitarianism and those moving more or less under its banner might experience some new pressures. So looking at those is a natural next step to follow on from the previous series.

9 thoughts on “Complementarianism and egalitarianism (part 6): The future of egalitarianism (i)

  1. Your comparison of this debate to 4thC church politics is interesting.

    You seem to be implying that the eventual winners of the struggle(ie Athanasius and co.) discerned the correct doctrine, however absurd it may have been at first glance.  That having passed through the fire of theological debate, the doctrinally pure outcome came to bear, thus revealing divine truth as articulated in the Nicene Creed.  This line of thinking has to be rejected.

    The simple weight of numbers at a bishops talk-fest does not constitute realisation of divine truth.  The real reason why the silent majority moved across to the Nicene position was that Emporer Theodosius enentually decreed it.  It was agianst the law to think otherwise, and armed bandits saw to its enforcement on behalf of the powerful elite.  Theological conversion of the ‘semi-Arian’ faction is history fictionalised.

    To suggest that the Nicene Creed was something other than a political expediancy to help unify the Roman Empire for Theodosius, is pure fantasy.

    Perhaps the Desert Fathers movement during the 4-5C can offer us something of an antidote to the c-e debate going on.  There may well be a third way that moves entirely beyond the narrow minimalist thnking of both camps.

  2. Hi Stephen,

    Well, my studies are more in Athanasius’ theology than the political history of the period, but I think you’re overplaying the evidence a bit. 

    I didn’t cover the political dimension as it wasn’t really germane to the point I was making, and so the post could be faulted for leaving that out.

    But to claim that the political dimension was the only significant factor in the outcome?  That the Nicene Creed was nothing more than an unprincipled attempt to forge a unity that didn’t exist, that the majority of bishops accepted a theological position they disagreed with simply because the emperor decreed it? 

    I think you’re confusing the bishops of the fourth century, in the immediate wake of persecution, with a certain kind of bishop in the modern period in the first world.

    And then, to not just claim that, but to use phrases like:

    This line of thinking has to be rejected.

    [my emphasis]

    Theological conversion of the ‘semi-Arian’ faction is history fictionalised.

    pure fantasy

    Hardly reflects a good historical judgement.  A good historical judgement recognises that claims we make about the past are provisional, open to challenge, and often the subject of a “minority report” within the world of scholarship.

    My experience of British patristics would suggest a range of opinions among scholars, with only some being so sweepingly dismissive of any sense of principled conviction, or theological persuasion, in the outcomes of the debates as you’ve been here.  Even fewer would suggest that those who disagreed with them were indulging in pure fantasy.  Historians are generally aware that their reconstructions of the past are more open to challenge than that.

    As for the desert fathers and purported third ways, well, that’s always a possibility.  As I’ve indicated in the comments in the previous series I don’t see any signs of it occurring broadly, and think the cards would be stacked against such.  But people are certainly free to campaign for an approach that somehow bypasses the question of whether or not it contradicts basic justice, and the nature of the gospel, to restrict women’s exercise of authority in certain contexts.

  3. Hi Mark,
    As always, love your work!
    I was interested in your analogy, and hope not to be jumping any guns here, but was wandering if you see it happening in reverse.

    It’s probably less likely (because complimentarianism isn’t the standard cultural view), but could it be the case that there are many who are complimentarian ‘by default’  (semi-complimentarian) and when a institutional divide happens, and lines and positions are inevitably hardened, start to dislike where they are, and draw back?

    sorry if that doesn’t make sense.

  4. Hi Mike,

    Good to hear from you again, and thank you for the kind words.

    I quite agree with the direction in which you’re going. Many/most egalitarians (especially the kind who are vocal in internet settings) self-identify as former complementarians.

    A relatively small handful of these seem to be genuinely ‘converted’ by arguments over exegesis.

    Most seem to have had their convictions shaped at least as much by experience – problems in married life, discovering that women are made in the image of God/are gifted, or finding that their complementarianism is causing significant relational issues (conflict in the church etc).

    That is, a big part of the nature of this debate has been a significant back door in complementarianism which has fed egalitarianism as people drifted out of a complementarianism they never really owned and internalised.

    My argument is that, if the ‘game’ is changing and egalitarianism is increasingly gaining an institutional existence, then this is going to increasingly open up the same dynamic in reverse. Not entirely internalised egalitarians will be finding that egalitarianism has existential problems for them, and so open to moving over to complementarianism. 

    It’s much in the way that Gen Y are often taking on more traditional gender roles as they can see how traditional egalitarianism hasn’t been conducive to child rearing in late Boomers and Gen X. They haven’t necessarily rejected the ideas of egalitarianism – but their practice is often quite different, and this can make them more open to a reconsideration of gender roles (at least in family life).

    I’m not focusing on the complementarian back door to egalitarianism because that’s been the story for decades now, there’s nothing new on that front.  People will continue to be raised/discipled/taught as complementarians in complementarian contexts and reject it in time.

    What is changing is the reverse – egalitarians are going to experience the same problem.  Complementarians who were raised as egalitarians in egalitarian institutions and who reject it – either due to argument or experience.

    That’s new, and so I thought it’d make a worthwhile four part series to consider it, and what complementarians should do in light of it.

  5. Hi Mark

    Seeing as we’re well into this second series, I have to say that you’ve lost me! :|

    I’m confused:

    So you’re writing to complementarians about egalitarians—why?

    If egalitarian Christianity is becoming more rather than less prominent, isn’t the game changing for complementarians?

    Isn’t this all a question of the problems that complementarians are facing?

    I can appreciate that you’re not trying to take down egalitarianism, etc etc, but I’m still struggling to see the point!


  6. Hi Arthur,

    Welcome back, good to hear from you again.

    So you’re writing to complementarians about egalitarians—why?

    If egalitarian Christianity is becoming more rather than less prominent, isn’t the game changing for complementarians?

    Isn’t this all a question of the problems that complementarians are facing?

    Yes, I can see how it all looks very counter-intuitive. The idea goes along these lines:

    Like all reforming movements (think Protestantism in the 16th Century), egalitarianism began this debate with no institutional power, and no institutional existence – it was simply a collection of ideas being advocated by individuals, and practiced by individuals.

    That’s given the debate a certain ‘political’ shape. Egalitarians could compare their ideals to complementarian practice. In much the same way that Luther could set out a very idealistic vision (utterly true, but idealistic) of what a reformed Christian society would look like compared to the fairly compromised practices of late medieval Catholicism, egalitarians have been able to do the same.

    In Christian circles it’s often easier to have significant influence when you don’t have institutional clout.  Preachers shape evangelicalism far more than denominational officials tend to.

    Arianism lost long-term even though it won institutional dominance in the short term.  And in my opinion it was what happened when it got translated into a political reality that contributed to its overall loss. Similarly, Protestantism stopped to sweep Catholicism before it as it increasingly took existence in concrete forms – individuals, churches, cities, countries, which ran on Protestant convictions.  It even lost ground to Catholicism in the latter half of the 16th Century.

    Moving from existence only as ideas in books, sermons, on the web, to being instantiated in institutional life is a big game changer in a debate. Sometimes the ideology goes on to ‘win’ from there, but sometimes it seems to contribute to its downfall – some ideas seem to work better as ideals than social programs.

    The series is designed to get people to think about that aspect – one I think we often easily miss.  And I’m venturing some thoughts as to how I see it opening up some possibilities for complementarians to win over some people who thought they were egalitarian (even if they didn’t know the labels) but now aren’t so sure – and for reasons that we might think are good, bad, and indifferent.

    Part of that is to say to the pragmatists and politically minded people out there (and there’s a lot) “I’m not one of you, but I’m showing that I can speak seriously and thoughtfully and constructively to the ‘bottom line’ that you care about” – in the hope that they’ll then listen in when we look at the actual truth issues next year. That groups is often prepared to invest in abstract thought about the ideas in a debate if they can see that those doing that have their eyes upon the real world.

    Does that help, or do you want to come back again for more clarification?

  7. Hi Mark

    Sure, that’s clear enough—the institutionalisation and potential calcification of egalitarian Christianity.

    I’m just wondering why you’ve put aside (even temporarily) some questions that seem pretty pressing here:

    1. There are certainly new opportunities for complementarian Christianity, but is complementarianism itself a coherent and compelling movement—‘something better’, as you said—especially when divested of institutions and status quo?

    2. This issue sits in a wider context: the crisis of institutional/traditional Christianity at large in the West. I suspect this sets us apart from the 4th century. The rug is being pulled from under all of us. This debate looks like a see-saw to me: it could either be another traditional internecine squabble of an ‘establishment’ church, or it could be a fruitful part of finding a good home on the margins in which we now find ourselves. (I say that without pessimism.)

    These questions mean that, if we’re building up to the ‘actual truth issues’ next year, I’d be looking for a different means of articulating a common ground—in which case I’d better let you get back to it! I’ll just be cramping your style if you’re developing a longer view. Again, I’m looking forward to where this all ends up.


  8. Hi Arthur,

    Well, I’ve put them off for a couple of reasons:

    1) I think complementarianism is a compelling and coherent movement. So I don’t see the need to argue that before talking to other complementarians any more than I need to argue for the existence of God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ when talking to Christians.

    2) These two series were trying to bait the hook for pragmatists, thinking pragmatists, not for intellectuals. I don’t need to bait the hook for the kind of reader who is correlating this debate against the broader crisis of institutional Christianity in the West, and trying to start there would possibly ensure that that’s the only readers I have .

    3) As per a lot of discussion in the previous series, I’m not confident that common ground is possible between the two movements, and am unsure that it is wise to attempt it. One only has to look at the tone and content of some of the comments on this series to raise those questions – how much common ground can there be between the ‘convinced egals’ on these threads, and a ‘convinced comp’ like me?

    So, I haven’t gone for common ground.  I’ve gone for offering something that illuminates the issues so everyone can take away something useful, even if they disagree with me.

    But my overall goal is to advocate for a version of complementarianism, setting it within a broader grasp of some key issues in the debate, so even those who disagree (other comps and egals) with me are better tooled up.

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