Thursday, November 17, 2005

A peace plan for the gender war

Timothy George writing in Christianity Today has some thoughts on how "complementarians" and "egalitarians" on the issue of gender can behave with each other.

That polarization is found even in our seminaries. Evangelical theological schools tend to fall into one of three camps. Some are unequivocally egalitarian and would not likely hire a faculty member who did not share this commitment. Fuller, North Park, Palmer Theological Seminary (formerly Eastern), Ashland, and the Church of God School of Theology are among the schools that hold this view. Other theological institutions take the opposite view. Westminster, Dallas, Covenant, and, more recently, the six seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention fall into this group. Beeson, my school, belongs to another group of theological institutions, including Trinity, Gordon-Conwell, Denver, and Regent College (Vancouver), which do not make this matter a test of fellowship but welcome faculty and students who hold differing convictions.

The ferment is further agitated by language changes. "Christian feminists" have become "biblical egalitarians," though the former term is still used by some. Likewise, "patriarchalists," "hierarchalists," and "traditionalists" have become "complementarians." Of course, no one denies that men and women are equally created in the image of God and share an equal access to salvation and Christ. Likewise, everyone in the debate recognizes, in some sense, that there are key distinctions as well as similarities between men and women. We have become all things to all people that we might confuse everybody!
George suggests that two poles form the backdrop for this conversation: abusive sexism and radical feminism (he clarifies both in the article). I found this to be a rather helpful way of framing the discourse.

I wasn't quite aware of how much of an issue this is in the evangelical world. It is, obviously, with us in the Catholic world as well, manifesting itself in battles over inclusive language (which, in my opinion, has really been settled. The Vatican won.) and in a myriad other ways. The CDF document on the relationship between men and women is decidedly "complementarian." Read anything from the Women's Religious Conference, the National Catholic Reporter or Joan Chittester and you're in good "egalitarian" territory.

I'm not sure I like the labels. It implies that the complementarians are against equality. Of course, that is correct, if one means equality in the sense of identity. But the way "equality" is used in common parlance, it implies that complementarians think that women are not equal in dignity to men. Which is not correct at all, I'd hazard.

Another twist in Catholic discourse is of course the fact that authoritative pronouncements of the magisterium are just that: authoritative. For all Catholics. It would seem that the complementarian position (in as much as it is one "position") has been articulated by the magisterium authoritatively.

Anyway, George's suggestions (following evangelical theologian Roger Nicole) are quite laudable and salutary, and applicable to all the polarizing opinions that exist in the Catholic world as well.

What do I owe the person who differs from me? We have obligations to people with whom we disagree. We deal with them as we ourselves would like to be dealt with, Roger says. We owe them love. We do not owe them agreement, but we should ever seek to understand what our interlocutor means. We also need to understand their aims. What are they seeking to accomplish in this dispute? What are they reacting against? What are their legitimate concerns?

What can I learn from those who differ from me? "The first thing that I should be prepared to learn is that I may be wrong and that the other person may be right," says Roger. "Apart from issues where God himself has spoken so that doubt and hesitancy are really not permissible, there are numerous areas where we are temperamentally inclined to be very assertive and in which we can quite possibly be in error. When we are unwilling to acknowledge our fallibility, we reveal that we are more interested in winning a discussion and safeguarding our reputation than in the discovery and triumph of truth."

To ask this question is not to relapse into wishy-washy relativism. It is simply to proceed in a spirit of humility, believing, as Pastor John Robinson said to the departing Pilgrims, "The Lord hath yet more truth and light to break forth out of his Holy Word."

How can I cope with those who differ from me? Our theological opponent, our "enemy," may be (and, in the judgment of charity, we can suppose is) a brother or sister in the Lord. Just as in evangelism, where we can win an argument and lose a soul, so in church polemics we can squash an adversary and damage the cause for which we are striving. As Paul says, "And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 2:24-25)
In this sidebar, George has nine proposals for egalitarians and complementarians to pursue together. Worth a read!

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