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JBMW 21.2 | A Review of Michelle Lee-Barnewall, “Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate”

August 3, 2017


During the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson served as a major in the Tennessee militia. At a key moment in the battle, the morale of his troops appeared to be at an all-time low. Tensions ran high, and the soldiers under Jackson’s command were arguing, talking bad about each other, and fighting amongst themselves. Jackson pulled the troops together and said, “Gentlemen! Let’s remember that the enemy is over there!” He encouraged his troops to keep a proper perspective about their real enemy and not turn on each other.

In discussions about gender roles in the church, the level of vitriol and heated rhetoric among believers can be disheartening. Both complementarians and egalitarians can fall prey to the mistake of Jackson’s soldiers, viewing each other as enemies on the so-called theological battlefield, instead of remembering that the battle is not and should not be against flesh and blood (Eph 6:12). This issue of what the Bible teaches about gender is deeply personal for many women and men, and it can be hard even to have a discussion about gender roles with someone who holds a different position because both sides can end up talking past each other and offering the worst or most extreme examples of each belief system as the stereotype. That is not helpful. And, it does not honor the Lord.

Entering into this theological fray, Michelle Lee-Barnewall, associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, has offered what she calls a kingdom corrective to the evangelical gender debate in her new book Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian. She states,

“I am proposing that we may find a better solution by going back to the biblical text to see, not which of the two current positions—complementarian or egalitarian—is correct, but rather whether there might be a different way to configure the issue itself. Thus I would like to reexamine the context of gender in Scripture rather than defend one particular view” (1).

Approaching the debate with an irenic tone is laudable and quite refreshing. Unfortunately, Lee-Barnewall does not actually provide clarity or even a “better solution” to the discussion about gender roles when she goes back to the biblical text. In fact, in part 1 of her work, Lee-Barnewall takes a historical survey to see how culture has shaped the discussion of gender so any treatment of the biblical text is absent. In part 2, she does look at key themes found in a couple of the passages on marriage and ministry in the Bible (particularly Gen 2–3 and Eph 5), yet her focus on the values and themes emphasized in certain biblical passages over the actual teaching and instruction perhaps gives some insight but no real clarity about how to interpret or apply these texts.

Lee-Barnewall’s book ends up being a well-articulated cliffhanger—there is great build-up, but no resolution is offered because she is unwilling to take a stand on how to apply her corrective to the most pertinent texts. In the foreword to the book, Craig Blomberg praises this approach: “Lee-Barnewall assiduously refuses to answer the question of whether certain roles or tasks are limited to one gender. She recognizes that eventually one has to answer this question, but she does not want to duplicate past debates over privileges and power.” (xii) Her assiduous refusal to offer conclusions and application is one of the biggest weaknesses of her book. She acts as a coach who is unwilling to put into action her own advice. She says, “Do it this way.” Yet, she never shows us how approaching the discussion her way will bring a better solution of how to understand and apply the biblical texts.


In part 1, “Gender in Evangelical History” (15-67), Lee-Barnewall “examines some ways in which evangelicals have historically understood gender and how these shifted in ways that reflected larger social trends” (7). Her goal in doing this is to “demonstrate a pattern of striking similarities between evangelical gender discussion and the cultural context in which the gender debate was formed” (17-18). Chapter 1 looks at the mid-19th century to the turn of the 20th century and the influence of Victorian ideas of womanhood; chapter 2 examines the post WWII era of the 1940s and 1950s; and chapter 3 looks at the rise of egalitarianism in the 1970s and the impact of secular feminism.

While this section is interesting and well-written, Lee-Barnewall’s historical survey does not clarify the discussion of gender roles. She suggests that the church has been influenced by the culture’s changing ideas of gender, yet she fails to demonstrate this claim with her work. If you were to study the Christological controversies of the Patristic era, you would see that the church councils addressed misunderstandings or outright heresies concerning Christ. The Church was not impacted by the culture and did not adapt its doctrine in order to accommodate changing ideas regarding Christ; instead, the Church addressed issues arising in that day. In today’s world, because of the emergence of gender rebellion, fluidity, and confusion in the LGBTQ community, current discussions regarding what the Bible says about gender identity address those ideas. It is not fair to say that the church has shifted its understanding on gender because it addresses these concepts. The church is addressing the culture, not adapting to it.

In the long run, Lee-Barnewall’s historical survey only proves that the church has addressed ideas about gender roles, not necessarily that the church has adapted or conformed to the cultural ideas of gender roles. When Lee-Barnewall concedes that her book “does not present a detailed and systematic examination of all the passages traditionally associated with the debate” (10) because it is beyond the scope of her book, she would have been better served to devote some space to examining 1 Timothy 2 or even 1 Corinthians 11 instead of providing her historical survey.


Turning to part 2, Lee-Barnewall provides her suggested parameters for reframing the gender debate. Chapter 4 outlines her proposal: the kingdom themes of unity, the corporate identity of God’s people, and reversal demonstrating the power and glory of God are the lenses through which Lee-Barnewall suggests people view the debate (71). She urges readers to focus on these things in order to “oppose the self-centered and self-glorifying ways of humanity” (81). While her critique of self-centeredness and self-glorifying ways are well-taken in this individualistic age, she has set up a false dichotomy. One can talk about distinctions without falling into self-centeredness; talk about leadership or authority does not make a person self-glorifying by default.

Chapters 5 through 8 should have offered the payoff of Lee-Barnewall’s corrective, but in these chapters, she fails to bring clarity and put into action her principal hermeneutical themes. If unity, corporate identity, and reversal are key concepts, how do they impact how one interprets and applies the key texts in the debate? Lee-Barnewall shows herself skilled in both egalitarian and complementarian understandings of some texts, but why not address the elephant in the room? Why not answer the “so what” question? So what do these themes mean for how one understands whether or not a woman is allowed to teach or have authority over a man in church or whether or not there are distinct roles for husbands and wives? Lee-Barnewall proves to be unwilling to answer such questions, though she does acknowledge her deliberate decision not to address the “so what” question (167).

Lee-Barnewall’s treatment of some key words in the debate prove to be troubling. On the concept of equality, she rightly notes that it is important to define what is meant by that word (85) and provides many different nuances of meaning and definitions of equality (85-91). She makes the judgment that “equality speaks to one’s personal privileges and rights” (89) and thus dismisses the term as unhelpful and rejects it as a central biblical theme (91). However, both complementarians and egalitarians can agree that men and women are equal in essence or ontology, indicating that equality does not necessarily have to refer to position or privileges. While the term equality can be in danger of misinterpretation, her preferred terms to signify equality of essence are “unity” and, prone to even more misunderstanding, “sameness.” Lee-Barnewall argues that “because she [Eve] is ‘like’ Adam in that she is another human being, his female counterpart made in God’s image, she is in a sense his equal. However, more fitting terms to describe her relationship with Adam would be ‘sameness’ and ‘unity’ rather than ‘equality’” (135).

In an effort to take the focus of of position, she missteps. Te concept of “sameness” could be easily misinterpreted in talks of gender in our unisex-leaning society. Furthermore, her emphasis on the unity of genders is only examined in the context of a marriage relationship. How should a single man or woman understand this concept of unity in relation to gender roles? Additionally, Lee-Barnewall spends the next section highlighting just how Adam and Eve are not the same. For example, she notes, “Adam is created first, and further, Eve is created from Adam” (137), discusses “Eve’s unique role” (138), that “while Eve, like Adam disobeys God, the text highlights a different type of relationship to the command” (139), “only Adam received any explicit instruction about their unity” (142), how unity is “the responsibility of the husband” (143), and that “Adam has a particular role” (143). How do these observations express unity and sameness?

In Lee-Barnewall’s discussion of the meaning of kephalē in Ephesians 5, she utilizes rhetorical criticism as well as extra-biblical Greco-Roman background material instead of in-depth scriptural analysis to examine “whether there are connotations of authority in the passage” (148). Lee-Barnewall suggests examining how the head/body metaphor was used “in antiquity to determine its specific use in this passage” (150). She looks at examples of this metaphor ranging from 500 years before Paul to over 100 years after Paul (151-54) and concludes that Paul’s emphasis is on reversal not authority because in antiquity the body was to sacrifice for the head yet in God’s design the head sacrifices for the body. Surprisingly, she never looks for insight into the meaning of kephalē by examining Paul’s uses of it in 1 Corinthians 11. Her conclusion is that “the wife is called to submit not to a patriarchal authority but to her husband’s headship, which creates a deeper unity because the one with the privileges and position of authority sacrifices himself instead on behalf of the body” (164). What does headship mean, exactly, then in her lexicon if does not have some nuance of authority?

Finally, Lee-Barnewall’s argument is that terms like leadership, authority, equality, and rights highlight the individual over the community and God (177). In the next breath, though, she acknowledges them as biblical concepts:

“While these characteristics might well be part of the church, they must be subsumed under overriding kingdom priorities related to the inclusive, loving community that lives in dependence on God. The corporate identity of the church, not individual rights or personal power and position, provides a more fitting perspective for understanding gender….Believers are called to become a community that pursues holiness, submission, and devotion to God through the Spirit in imitation of Christ” (177).

What does that mean in the practical, everyday life of the church? What does it mean exactly to pursue holiness, submission, and devotion to God for me as a woman? Does it look any different for a man? How exactly does the corporate identity of the church provide a more fitting perspective for understanding gender? Sadly, while readers can appreciate her irenic tone and desire for unity among believers, Lee-Barnewall has ultimately left her readers with more questions than answers.

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