What Is A “Functional” Egalitarian?

Derek Ouellette —  May 5, 2012

I am a complementarian-functional-egalitarian. I think that’s a good thing. And I don’t think those two ideas are incompatible or inconsistent. In fact, I think it may present the solution, the via media, that I have been looking for.

Let me explain.

When I hear John Piper or Mark Driscoll on this subject I do not recognized my own complementarian views being articulated. The same is frustratingly true when I read rebuttals to their view by Rachel Held Evans that is, without qualification, labelled complementarianism (and some times she applies broader terms to it.) When I read her articles I don’t recognized my complementarian views being expressed there either.

The impression by both Driscoll and Evans is that there is only one form of complementarianism.

Put that thought on the shelf for a moment, we’ll return to it.

Correct me if I’m wrong but I get the strong sense that one of the primary issues egalitarians have with complementarians is with the notion of assigned roles based on gender.

Here’s a series of quotes from Evans latest post on the subject:

“I hear from men and women who say that they went into their marriages expecting to impose upon them the hierarchal structure advocated by the complementarian movement… Hierarchy felt awkward and imposed… roles based on giftedness rather than genderhierarchal-based gender roles… We don’t impose gender-based absolutes on one another…” et. cetera.

So the one form of complementarianism that exists is a system that imposes roles based upon gender rather than on giftedness.

Put that on the shelf too, just for a moment.

Now what if there was a way to nuance a complementarian view that does not impose roles based on gender? I doubt it would be enough for egalitarians and it is even more doubtful that it would prevent Evans from holding up Piper and Driscoll (her favorites, among others…) as examples of us all. But it would at least give those of us who do believe in biblically based complementarianism a more moderate position to latch on to that does not, how did Evans put it, “impose gender-based absolutes on one another”.

In Evans article she agrees with traditional complementarian Russell Moore that because of the growing trend of complementarians who are actually “functional egalitarians”, that this is a sign that complementarianism is on its way out. However, the reality may be quite different. We may be witnessing the emergence of a new breed of complementarians. Smart godly people who are more influenced my Michael Patton’s moderation than Mark Driscoll’s rhetoric. People who believe there is no functional difference between complementarianism and egalitarianism.

How is that possible you ask? Read on.

I believe that generalizations can not only be helpful, but are actually necessary as long as we remember that they are only general and that they don’t account for everyone. If you accept that premise with me than it’s but a baby step more to talk about general attributes common in women and a different set of general attributes common in men. Books have been written that attempt to capitalize on these generalizations evident in their titles, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus or Men are like Waffles and Women are like Spaghetti. Men are wired one way, and women another.

Now these are just generalizations and don’t account for every man or every woman in every way. For example, not every attribute that these books apply to men fit me in. I’m not drawn to sports and I can’t swing a hammer properly if my life depended on it and I’m pretty emotional. My pastor is just like me in the “fix it” category, but his wife is excellent with a hammer and screwdriver. Yet it is important to remember that exceptions do not debunk the (general) rule, they enforce it.

Now then, if you agree with me on that premise then it is but a tiny step forward into interpreting the scriptures faithfully, allowing a complementarian view to be embraced that is functionally egalitarian. The way this is accomplished is by acknowledging the general attributes in each gender and understand the biblical principles associated with them.

The two words that are important to emphasize here are “general” and “principle” because they keep us grounded in a moderate approach that avoids the gravitational pull of the polarity common in this debate. (Evans is currently conducting an experiment that is to be published which intends to champion a hermeneutic that favors an egalitarian reading while simultaneously mocking the other side.) Bringing these two concepts into the discussion for complementarians allows us to avoid the charge of “absolute” by egalitarians because we’re not making an absolute claim, but a general one. It also avoids the “imposed gender roles” of traditional complementarians because we’re not talking about laying down laws but about picking up biblical principles or precepts.

This places complementary-functional-egalitarians directly in the middle of the complementarian-egalitarian debate, perhaps as it’s referee.

By taking this approach roles are not assigned by gender but are rather based on giftedness and personal attributes and strengths. But it also recognizes the general attributes that are unique to each gender. In this way it recognizes the biblical precepts of male headship and leadership not based on their gender but on attributes generally prescribed to their gender. Thus because this is based on general attributes found in each gender, it does not place limits on women as teachers, leaders, nay, even apostles because there are many, many exceptions to the rule.

So there are different expressions of the complementarian view, and Piper and Driscoll (along with the crew over at the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) are but one radical expression that seeks to regulate roles based on gender, both in the home at in the community of God.

I do share the complementarian conviction that the scriptures place the heavy spiritual responsibility of the home and church on the shoulders of men. But I do not share the traditional complementarian view that it is simply on the basis of their gender. I believe that God places the responsibility of the spiritual state of the household upon the person in the home who best meets the requirements to take on that responsibility. Because that particular responsibility is not based on gender but on the giftedness and personal attributes and strengths of the individual, it could fall on the shoulders of either a man or a woman. However, because the scriptures place the principle of that responsibility on the shoulders of the father/husband of the home it leads me to conclude that it is generally the male who was created with the attributes for that responsibility, but not in every case. Similarly women generally have giftings and attributes that equip them for tasks men generally lack and are not equipped to do, but not in every case.

I think the scriptures do generalizations very well, but they do not deal with the natural exceptions that occur in real life nearly as well. This is because the scriptures were written in a culture where the “group” was always considered primary and the “individual” – if considered at all – secondary. We live in a culture where that is precisely reversed. So I believe we should take the biblical generalizations in these matters as principles, not New Testament equiviliants of Levitical laws. Mercy, not sacrifice.

This is why I believe complementarians can and should live as “functional egalitarians”. Because each person can, should and in most cases will fulfill a role in life which fits accordingly to their God given strengths and desires. And if we allow for the general principle to play out, the sexes will be truly complementary for one another, even according to the general principles laid out in the scriptures, which should make complementarians very happy as long as they remember to have mercy, not sacrifice when exceptions to the general principles occur.

Rachel Evans writes, “a truly complementary relationship is one in which differences are celebrated, but not forced.” This complementarian-functional-egalitarian agrees.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Dave Leigh

    What can I say, Derek? At the risk of sounding like Forest Gump: “Complementarian is as complementarian does.”

    As far as I can see here, you are at no risk of becoming, or being labeled, egalitarian in any way. Your views are clearly complementarian. You just know better than to force a paradigm that threatens disaster to your functional relationships. I commend you for having that wisdom. But being a benevolent complementarian does not make you egalitarian any more than a benevolent dictator can be called a democracy.

    That said, I still love you anyway, brother! Keep thinking and writing. You’re a good man.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek

      Dave, thanks for being nice but I eschew your insistence that I nestle myself into a tight corner. Things do not have to be as black and white as proponents of each view across the battle-lines are determined to believe.

      See my answer to Peter below…

  • http://hrugnir.wordpress.com Peter

    “But [my view] also recognizes the general attributes that are unique to each gender.”

    And what are those general attributes? I’m not mocking here, I just want it a bit more spelled out. Are we speaking about Platonic Forms in the World of Ideas here?

    If I may presume the answer is no, I’d appreciate if you could to some extent explain what the practical point of calling yourself “complementarian” is if it’s egalitarianism in practice? Other than being able to do tell yourself and others that “I’m not ignoring Paul, because I’ve found a great hermeneutics to abstractly work around his words without them actually affecting me!”

    Being provocative on purpose. In love 😉

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek

      The difference, Peter, is quite simple and clear. I do not believe that the roles should be assigned by gender. This parts way from traditional complementarianism and opens up the door for functional egalitarianism. However, because the scriptures place the principle of that responsibility on the shoulders of the father/husband of the home it leads me to conclude that it is generally the male who was created with the attributes for that responsibility, but not in every case.

      This is not an “abstract” workaround. This is taking Paul’s words as principle rather than law. I don’t think Paul would say, “Look, this idiot has male genitalia, therefore he can head his family and church” or “this smart, godly person with leadership giftings (Junia) has breasts, therefore she can’t be an apostle”.

      As to what those attributes are, research books that dive into the psyche of men and women and which explore their general differences.

  • http://theoparadox.blogspot.com THEOparadox

    Thanks for sharing this interesting perspective on a decidedly dangerous topic.

    My conviction about gifting is exactly opposite to yours. I find that women generally possess much greater management gifts, and are usually more spiritual than men (generalizations, of course!). Women seem to be much more qualified for headship if we are going to go by gifting alone, in my observation. They are usually more others-oriented, more caring, more faithful, more observant, and faster thinkers and learners than men (again, just generalizations, but I think any honest man will say they hold true).

    However, I believe this is precisely why the Scriptures insist on male headship. God has placed us men in a position where we are forced to rely on His grace and help, a place where we are humbled by having our inadequacy continually exposed, and where we are propelled to cry out to Him in desperation because we realize our family’s well being is greatly dependent on the maturation of the moron God has called to leadership.

    For a godly woman who is willing to walk in submission to the Biblical principles, this arrangement is also humbling and requires real faith. She willingly follows a leader whose gifts she clearly surpasses, trusting God all the way.

    I believe that if we go by gifting rather than the Precepts laid down, we are in danger of missing a challenge that was designed by God for our maturing and growth.

    My two cents, as a full orbed Biblical complementarian.

    BTW – a Biblical example of what I am saying: Nabal and Abigail. She did not “assume” headship though she was clearly more gifted and qualified.

    Derek Ashton

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Thanks for the thoughts Derek. That’s an interesting perspective: God calls people to function in certain ways precisely because they are not gifted in those roles in order that they may rely on his grace and not on their own strength. That’s counterintuitive to be sure, and goes against the grain of how giftings and roles in the church are usually taught and understood by both sides.

  • Boot

    “I do share the complementarian conviction that the scriptures place the heavy spiritual responsibility of the home…on the shoulders of men.”

    I see that you reason Eph 5 saying the husband is the head of the wife to mean that he is also the head of the home. And “the home” then would include children too, right? So in Eph 5 we have a head/body metaphor, the husband and Christ are the head and the wife and church are the body. So I ask, where do the children fit into the metaphor, or how can they be the husband’s body along with the wife? Is Christ head of his body (the church, his bride) or is he head of “the home” his bride AND children? But I thought christians were God’s children, and not Christ’s?

    Can you see how playing with the head/body metaphor of Eph 5 by adding to it the concept “the home” destroys the special relationship that is between Christ and the church alone, and the husband and wife alone, since the children cannot be the husband’s body, and Christ has no children?

  • Boot

    I do share the complementarian conviction that the scriptures place the heavy spiritual responsibility of the home…on the shoulders of men.”

    So my question is then, where do you say, in the scriptures the spiritual responsibilty of “the home” (children, decision making etc) is placed on the shoulders of the husband (to the exclusion of the wife)?