Michelle Lee-Barnewall ends her Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian with a chapter where she tries to reframe the whole issue of male-female relationships in the contemporary church and family. Her proposal is move beyond questions of what women can and cannot do and who has the authority to make decisions.
She suggests that when Paul uses “brother” language about the church, he would not have been understood in Hellenistic society to be talking about the equality of brothers (and sisters). Instead, this language suggests that siblings depend on each other, support each other, and love each other. In other words, it is about mutuality rather than equality.
She suggests that non-hierarchical is a better description of the resulting relationship than egalitarian. My take on this is that in practice it would be much the same as what many envision an egalitarian structure to be. But it would not rest on the equal status of everybody in the relationship but on the need for everybody to do their part in a mutual undertaking.
The missing part of this is any analysis of what women’s and men’s parts would be based on their differences. She believes in differences between the sexes. She does not go into any detail about what they are.
I never had any sisters or daughters. So I am probably overly disposed to see things from a male point of view. But I have a mother, a wife, daughters-in-law, and grand daughters. I have always had women colleagues and parishioners. I read female authors.
Most women and men are exposed to the outlook of the opposite sex. In spite of this, I think it is hard for us to understand each other. We resent it when someone of the opposite sex talks as though they know how we experience life. For this reason, I do not want to tell women how to be women. They have to figure that out for themselves.
This is part of the difficulty of the gender battles and back-and-forth between complementarians and egalitarians. Of course, women are not going to feel good about a mostly male clergy and church structure telling them how to be women in the church. I don’t react well to women talking about masculinity and how feminism supposedly helps men. So male discourse about things female and how women have “a place” in a male dominated church, will not sit well with women.
The same is true in the family. Husbands and wives should not box each other in ways that constrain them. New technology and new social movements have opened up possibilities that men and women–especially women–have never had before.
However, tradition is not irrelevant, because men and women are still influenced by evolution, different hormone mixes, psycho-sexual development and culture. So classic Christianity, Confucianism, and Stoicism have been helpful to me in looking at how I might live a good life in relation to others. These traditions take the differences between people into account.
In the current atmosphere, having a discussion about these things is extremely difficult. The tendency is to turn everything into a conflict between a victim class and an oppressing class. Some feminists do this all the time. Men’s rights activists have kept the same conflict, but turned it on its head. A little browsing around the Internet will show you that this has not led to a fruitful discussion.
This is the real value of Michelle Lee-Barnewall’s book. She wants to move the discussion beyond what it has been. She wants a new starting point. She wants to emphasize mutuality rather than equality or power. She sees the danger of prioritizing personal self-interest in terms of either “my rights” or “my authority”. This is individualistic and ignores the call to imitate Christ’s self-sacrifice.