What is Egalitarian Anyway?
By Eileen Slattery Berglund
For many of you if I say the word “egalitarian” you would probably get a strange look on your face. This would indicate you have no idea what I’m talking about. That’s okay. That’s part of why I’m writing today’s post.
I also want to share a bit of my story.
The word “egalitarian” has been around for many centuries but has only recently made its way into a more mainstream vocabulary. These days, it is gaining in popularity in Christian circles for those who believe in the equal value and opportunities given by God to both male and female believers.
Merriam Websters defines “egalitarian” in two ways:
As an adjective, meaning “relating to or believing in the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.”
And as a noun, meaning “a person who advocates or supports egalitarian principles.”
Outside of the church, I spent my first 22 years as an egalitarian, though I didn’t know it, and certainly never heard the word. My parents, and my experiences, let me know that I could basically do whatever I wanted to if I showed some talent/natural ability and was also willing to work hard. That upbringing led me to be President of many student organizations throughout my schooling, editor of the school newspaper, a pre-med and then pre-chiropractic student, a clinic intern, a Microbiology Fellow and a physician. It’s true, I was surrounded by more men than women in this career path, but we all crossed the stage on the same day and received the same diploma for the same hard work. I entered practice and began to treat both men and women, boys and girls. I operated in a position of authority and did quite well.
And then, I entered the church. Specifically, a North American Baptist church.
Being a new Christian, and leaving behind a very messed up life (other than my academic success), I wanted to become the person God wanted me to be. I wanted to make better choices and live a more meaningful life. My life before Christ was full of doubt, insecurity and depression. I needed a reason to live, a reason to hope, and I found that in Christ. I began to read the Bible and instantly fell in love with God and His heart toward me. He was, and still is, so loving and forgiving and faithful and trustworthy.
I was “all in”, but I was also a new, fresh, believer and so I attended church regularly and went to every additional meeting I could find. Many great things happened during those early years, but some “hard to detect” bad things happened too. The biggest of which was this idea that “biblical Womanhood” somehow meant I had to stop being who God created me to be. Of course, it wasn’t pitched that way. Certainly not! But it was what was taught. I could no longer lead, unless I led only women or children. I did not have equal say with my husband in decision making, his word would be the final word. I should follow my husband and let him “lead me”, even if that meant leading us off a cliff. (And yes, I seriously had someone say those exact words to me.) And my friendships or interactions with men, well, those were pretty much just an affair waiting to happen, or so I was told.
The problem with all of this is that I read my Bible. And being an academic, I also looked things up to find out the original context and meaning and implication. It was pretty easy to see that none of what I was being taught in regards to my limitations and “gender roles” was supported. I was aware of a few passages that always seemed to take “center stage,” but to me, they weren’t being taught in proper context. They were not conveying the heart of God toward women. This idea that women were somehow restricted from or unqualified for certain roles was not supported by the Bible. In fact the Bible actually gave examples of many women in those roles! And so, for many years, I lived with one foot in each “camp”. The young, new-believer, behavioral side of me tried to be “the perfect biblical woman” that church culture was telling me to be and the essential/inner/mental and emotional side of me fought it and was determined to continue being who God created me to be.
In future posts I will share more of my journey, but for now, let me stick to some definitions and nomenclature.
Within the Church, there are two main “camps” or mindsets. One is called complementarian and the other egalitarian. In general, both believe male and female are equal in value. However, complementarians believe that there are certain roles and functions within the church and the home (and sometimes society as a whole) that are off-limits to women. In other words, men, by their very nature of being male, have greater opportunities and responsibilities available to them than women. Men can lead women, but women cannot lead men. A wife can be involved in decisions, but husbands have the final say. Men can do whatever the Holy Spirit empowers them to do, women cannot. Men can preach, women cannot. Men can pastor, women cannot. In summary: different genders, same value, different functions.
On the other hand, egalitarians, as I mentioned above, believe that while there are indeed different genders, men and women are both equal in value and equal in function. We do not believe that there are any roles that are exclusively limited to men. We believe the Holy Spirit empowers believers however He chooses and we base all of our beliefs on an incredibly academic, cultural and spiritual study of the Bible. We do not ignore any of the “tricky passages” that many use to limit women in ministry, rather we have studied them in context and have concluded that they tremendously support an egalitarian view.
There is obviously so much more to say, and I will keep posting, but I wanted today’s post to be a little EGAL 101 for those who are new to the whole discussion.