Is Egalitarianism Prescriptive or Descriptive?

male and femaleIn all our discussions of egalitarianism vs. complementarianism here at Observational Ginger, very important questions occasionally arise from readers. My oldest childhood friend inspired today’s topic with a question she asked long ago. My answer then was dreadfully inadequate, and since it’s a common question anyway, I thought I’d take a blog post to soothe everyone’s curiosity. (With the understanding that it tackles the question in general and isn’t a specific response to her situation).

The question: Does being egalitarian mean you must live in a way that eschews traditional gender roles?

Does it mean dividing up everything 50/50 no matter what? Is it wrong if the husband makes decisions sometimes, if the wife stays home, if they don’t divide household chores down the middle like kids divvying up the backseat of a car?

In other words, does egalitarianism prescribe a certain life mold the way complementarianism often does—just a mold on the opposite side of the spectrum?

The short answer, of course, is no. Being egalitarian doesn’t mean you have to live out a certain pattern.

In fact, that’s rather the point. In theory, egalitarianism should free couples from constraints they might feel about how they “should” do things. Most complementarian couples in mainstream churches seem to be okay with some amount of flexibility in how they arrange their lives, but there are areas many still see as uncomfortable, such as women pastors, stay-at-home fathers, or wives who make most family decisions. Egalitarianism removes those boundaries and frees couples to pattern their lives according to however God has gifted them—including following desires that happen to fall along “traditional” gender lines.

For example, a naturally decisive, outgoing man might marry a naturally reserved, type B personality woman. The personalities God gifted them with might lead to a situation where the man makes more decisions or is the energy behind the family’s direction. That’s fine. However, it crosses the line into complementarianism if that couple believes God wants every man to be that way, and every woman to hold herself behind her husband’s lead. If they believe that a type A wife and type B husband are failing to honor God’s gender design, then we have a problem. (With a capital P, and that rhymes with C, and that stands for Complementarianism.)

And it goes without saying that the type A husband must still recognize his wife’s equality in family decision-making, even if she doesn’t exercise it all the time. (Ditto the type A wife to the type B husband, as in my household).

For another example, an egalitarian wife might decide to stay home with a baby. Perhaps they don’t want to use outside childcare and the husband makes more money. Maybe Mom simply wants to stay home. Maybe she’s not done with school and can’t handle kid, school, and work at the same time. Who knows! A complementarian couple, though, might make that choice simply because they’re reluctant to go against what they believe is God’s design for mothers—nurturing—and God’s design for fathers—breadwinning. The egalitarian couple would know that they were free to reverse their arrangement should circumstance or desires change; the complementarian couple might not feel that freedom.

Ditto with chores and such. I’m amazing at organizing and keeping track of things, while J has been known to lose items he was in the middle of eating, so I take on the traditionally feminine role of household organization. But we don’t believe that I’m doing this because God made me female, or that J refrains because God made him male; it’s just who we are. And we realize that J could take over this job with enough practice if some pressing situation took me away from home more often.

The bottom line is not how you and your partner choose to live but why you made that choice. Was it based on your gifts, desires, or maybe circumstances outside your control? Or was it based on a belief that God only sanctions a limited range of choices?

Here’s another way to say it; complementarianism is not the practice of traditional roles. Anyone can practice traditional roles for any number of reasons. Complementarianism is the belief that God has mandated the traditional roles and that you should shape your identity and self-perception around them.

If this is the case, though, why do so many egalitarians seem to actively advocate for nontraditional choices? Why does it seem like we always champion nontraditional people if that’s not inherently “better” or necessarily “more egalitarian”?

Tune in tomorrow for that discussion!

40 Days of Easter: April 21

(My to-do book. If it doesn’t get written here, it doesn’t happen.)

To prove to myself that I would actually follow through on my 40 Days of Easter Project, I decided to start right away this morning. So here’s my plan for today’s Eastery-ness:

I woke up this morning after a 3-day weekend realizing how woefully behind I am on work. E-mails to write, things to grade, messes to organize, problems to solve for students and myself, and oh yeah, there’s that article I said I’d have done today. Usually on such a Monday morning, I would feel overwhelmed and grouchy at the task ahead. But today I have decided to love and value my work, even when it feels like it’s got me by the tail. Because, let’s face it: what job could any of us choose that would never, ever feel overwhelming? Sometimes, having a full plate is part of being alive and contributing to society. As long as you don’t feel that way constantly, there’s not necessarily anything wrong.

So instead of feeling upset, I’m going to write out an extensive to-do list of everything that must get done, broken down into manageable steps. I will then try to spend the majority of my workday conquering these steps one by one–even if that means tackling the easiest ones first, and even if they don’t all get done by the end of the day. At 4:30 tonight, I can feel like I was a good steward of my time.

If it seems like I just took this morning’s Easter project as an opportunity to give myself a pep talk and chat about my job in lieu of actually doing it, you’d be right!

Oh, I may also be having some Sparkling Grape Juice with breakfast. Because I’m pretty sure the announced restoration of the entire cosmos could warrant such a thing.

40 Days of Easter Project

N.T. Wright, my favorite contemporary theologian, says the modern church has gotten the celebration of Easter a bit wrong.

In his book Surprised by Hope, Wright takes readers back to a holistic view of God’s purposes in Jesus’ resurrection–a purpose that goes beyond personal fire insurance for individuals and encompasses the restoration and redemption of all creation. This means, argues Wright, that Christ’s resurrection is not really “about” individuals ensuring a seat in heaven. Yes, personal salvation is indeed part of God’s restoring work, but the plan is even bigger; it envisions an entire creation that is restored to a right relationship with God. The Kingdom is coming, and we are the ambassadors who get to help in the work of bringing it about, a work that will ultimately be completed when Jesus returns. This means that, for the believer, what we do today, in the here-and-now, matters. It somehow counts toward God’s Kingdom purposes for us, and won’t become obsolete after the second coming. We’re not just killing time here on earth before heaven; we get to participate in the amazing work of announcing God’s Kingdom and living it as best we can, in the “already” and the “not yet.”

The above is an abysmally abbreviated view of Wright’s amazing book, and I urge all of you to check it out. It changed my life. But let me circle back to Easter. Wright argues that, if Jesus’ resurrection is about the restoration of all the cosmos (including, but not limited to, personal fire insurance), then it represents something so colossal, so astounding, so too-good-to-be-true, that it should be the day around which the Christian year is centered. It should hold a prominence in the hearts of believers that is usually reserved for Christmas (which, while a deeply spiritual holiday, is not itself the culmination of God’s plan for His beloved earth).

Yet this is often not the case. Many believers spend 40 days celebrating Lent–the season which represents earthly suffering–but then limit the holiday that represents the restoration of the entire cosmos to one Sunday morning, a lunch, and a comatose afternoon of napping. This has largely been my experience, too.

Among other things, Wright suggests that believers begin a practice of celebrating Easter for at least 40 days, using this time to contribute to the world in Christ-honoring ways–by taking on creative endeavors, tackling hobbies, looking into important issues, working to alleviate suffering, studying the Bible, and other things that remind us whose Kingdom we’re living out.

This year, I’m taking his suggestion and doing 40 days of celebration. Every day I will try to do something that reminds me whose Kingdom I’m given the privilege of helping to announce and live in. This might mean doing a Bible study. It might mean helping a neighbor. It might mean creating a piece of art. It might mean writing something important on this blog. It might mean plugging in with my hubs a little more closely. All of these things are part of my image-bearing as a creature of God. As J.R.R. Tolkien said, “We make still by the law in which we’re made,” meaning that being creative and active in the world is part of bearing the image of a creative, active God.

My church touched on this subject today and handed out hashtag ribbons (pictured above) to remind us that God gives us each day to start afresh being ambassadors for His kingdom. I thought I’d start my Easter celebration by posting that picture.

I’ll keep you updated on my progress, even if I don’t post every day. Will you join me in 40 days of Easter? If you’d like to try it, here are some options to consider: pick up a new hobby, find a worthy charity to donate time or money to, be intentional in relationships, do creative things, find a friend or neighbor who needs chores done, tackle an important project that will help others. Or maybe you’ve thought of something not on this list. I’d love it if participants would comment on the blog every once in awhile to keep me updated on progress!

He is risen. Grace and peace.