Book Review: Neither Complementarian Nor Egalitarian by Michelle Lee-Barnewall

I want to begin upfront with my biggest criticism of this book, it is extremely poorly titled. I was a bit startled to find that I agreed immensely with Dr. Michelle Lee-Barnewall (Ph.D. Notre Dame) because I often find that third-way books (unless written by Tim Keller) usually fail to adequately make their case, but then again this is not a third-way book as the title suggests. Dr. Lee-Barnewall, in the end, seems deeply complementarian, although she believes the position is poorly formed around the idea of authority, which is secondary to the biblical passages it relies on. Furthermore, she offers a devastating criticism of egalitarian hermeneutics and the entire concept of equality as a biblical category. Let’s briefly look at these positions as Dr. Lee-Barnewall discusses them.

  • Unity Not Equality

We see that Paul also affirms a kingdom community characterized not so much by equality as by a “oneness” in which all could be included, regardless of factors such as gender, race, or socioeconomic status… This means not that equality could not be a feature of the New Testament community but rather that it is not the primary guiding point. (84)

26266693This I believe is the most important place to start a criticism of egalitarianism, equality is never the primary category of any text. Dr. Lee-Barnewall goes straight to Galatians 3:28, a well known biblical camping ground for egalitarians, and points out the focus on oneness, “In the new community distinctions are not eliminated as much as they have become irrelevant for determining who can be ‘in Christ'” (86). In this reading she avoids egalitarianism by providing a more plausible alternative which would find echoes in other Pauline texts such as Ephesians 2:16. Thus, there is no pitting Paul author of Galatians against Paul author of 1 Timothy. This also links directly into John’s theology of the centrality of love to God and his Spirit-filled community because love is required in order to overlook all the differences we have with one another and create a bond of unity.

Dr. Lee-Barnewall also directs the reader to several passages that clearly present hierarchical structure within the church community. As well as establishing that while Jesus engaged women and acknowledged a counter-culturally higher status for them, he never appointed one to a position of leadership, thus we should understand this encouragement (as well as the male authors of the gospels high praise of the women involved in Jesus’ ministry) as displaying the inclusiveness of Jesus’ kingdom, which dove-tails with the theme of unity again. The further Dr. Lee-Barnewall gets into her argument the increasing discomfort I imagine an egalitarian would feel with both the moniker of their position and its hermeneutics, which often require obscure (and on occasion unverified) first century historical-cultural nuggets to reinterpret the clear meaning of the text. On the other hand, Dr. Lee-Barnewall’s reading is powerful for its clarity and simplicity as it engages the text, as well as how it ties the entire Bible together through the Kingdom lens.

  • Servanthood as Prerequisite

I held my breath when I turned to chapter six, Dr.Lee-Barnewall’s previous chapter had, in my estimation, vanquished any argument for an egalitarian hermeneutic, but now she turned to address my beloved complementarianism. She pulls no punches and goes straight to the famous or infamous “blue book”, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. After a few words of clarification, I relaxed my shoulders and released my breath. Dr. Lee-Barnewall was not challenging Dr. John or Uncle Wayne on their hermeneutics or theology, but on the functional out-working of the servant-leadership and on the legitimacy of authority as a guiding principle:

In this context, “servant” would seem to do more than [merely] qualify “leadership.” Instead it provides an essential component so that one must be a servant before one can be a leader. In other words Christ indicates that servanthood is a prerequisite for being a leader. Thus, rather than considering how servanthood modifies a type of leadership, it may be better to ask how servanthood forms a necessary basis for leadership, even authority. (107)

Like the egalitarians then, complementarians have promoted (at best) a secondary category and in doing so have hindered a more robust dialogue on gender, ministry, and marriage. Unlike the egalitarians though, Dr. Lee-Barnewall seems to agree that authority is a clear biblical principle easily extracted from the text pointing out that Paul expected to be obeyed in his commands in spite of his common pronouncement that he was a servant or slave who served at the pleasure and will of the King.

At the end of the complementarian chapter focusing on ministry the complementarians are left with their theology basically intact and a challenge to live up to their claims to sacrificial or servant-hearted leadership. It is especially helpful in light of several tough questions of application and reflection that Dr. Lee-Barnewall leaves the reader with.

  • Reading Genesis and Ephesians in Unity

The final two chapters of the argument turn to marriage and focus on THE debated passages on this issue. While many arguments hinge on 1 Timothy and Galatians, the heavy weights are Genesis 2 and 3 and Ephesians 5. These passage bear so much weight in theological significance that they warrant their own reflection. Turning first to Genesis 2-3, Dr.Lee-Barnewall throws out the question of equality and authority, noting that reading narrative with integrity requires questions to flow from the text rather than approaching the text with them. The key is first to read it for itself and then to extrapolate themes and theology. As Dr. Lee-Barnewall does this she makes several key points

  1. The main theme of Genesis 2:4-3:24 (which is a self contained narrative unit) is the relationships between God and Adam and Adam and Eve. This seems to highlight Adam as the central character with which we ought to be concerned.
  2. Adam alone is charged with the command to not eat of the Tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. Egalitarian arguments that this is only because Eve was not on the scene yet fail to take into account that God only addresses Adam in relationship to this command (even after Eve is created).
  3. The text does not indicate submission, but does give significance to creation order. The same goes for Eve’s relationship to Adam as helper (does not necessitate submission, but indicates something about Adam’s status).
  4. Interestingly enough, Adam is not only the primary charge in keeping God’s one prohibition, but Adam is also tasked with creating and maintaining unity (the man will cleave rather than both will cleave or the woman will cleave).

In one of the few places that I was disappointed was with Dr. Lee-Barnewall’s conclusion to the Genesis chapter:

While Adam and Eve’s relationship revolves around unity and love, it is also characterized by more than equality. At the same time, it lacks any explicit commands for Adam to exercise authority over Eve but does emphasize the obedience of both Adam and Eve to God. Whatever the nature of any authority Adam might have it is not presented in a dominant fashion. Furthermore, it is difficult to see how authority would be a primary characteristic of Adam’s role if one of his main duties is to create unity between the two. (144)

This followed two paragraphs of reasons that inductive reasoning almost requires seeing Adam as the leader of the relationship. It is important to point out that Dr. Lee-Barnewall wants to keep the peace and encourage conversation and fruitful discussion, so such a comment fits in more with her purpose than the evidence she had just presented. However, I have to wonder at the final sentence, “it is difficult to see how authority would be a primary characteristic of Adam’s role if one of his main duties is to create unity between the two.” This would tell me that it is unlikely that Dr. Lee-Barnewall has ever been apart of a cooperative team, say in a sport, or potentially ministry. I do not want to presume on her history, but in my athletic and ministry experience the primary responsibility to keep unity always falls to the leader. Take football for example, a good quarterback, a quarterback who is a true leader always takes the blame for a loss (even if he played beautifully) and distributes credit for a win (even if everyone else was off game). They do this to create unity in the locker room, we might even say to bear the burden of shame and the glory of victory.

But if Dr. Lee-Barnewall had a difficult time finding a middle ground in the last chapter, Ephesians 5 proved significantly more difficult. After tracing the head and body metaphor through antiquity she concludes, “the tradition was that the head, as ruler, was not called to be the one who loves but rather was more deserving of being loved” (156) and “The normal expectation for the metaphor is that the head is the leader and provider of the body. Consequently, it is the head’s responsibility to ensure it’s own safety, and the body’s responsibility to sacrifice for the sake of the head” (156-157). Thus the Ephesians would be shocked to find a clear expression of self-sacrificial, servant-hearted headship in which the husband leads by caring more for his wife than for himself. Oddly enough, Dr. Lee-Barnewall is now willing to connect unity to leadership when it runs through Ephesians 5 headship:

Paul also says that the reversal seen in the love of the husband relates to the one flesh unity of Gen. 2:24… the one flesh unity was Adam’s primary imperative in his relationship with Eve, and he was unable to fulfill it. Now under the new covenant, the husband’s ability to love his wide as Christ loves the church enables him to “cleave” to his wife and be “one flesh” with her in all its fullness. (159)

Dr. Lee-Barnewall goes on to write, “Whether or not verse 21 refers to a type of mutual submission, we must note that Paul specifically calls on wives to submit and does not similarly address husbands. If Paul had intended only for believers to submit to one another in an equivalent way, there would be no need to give these specific instructions” (162).

I was surprised, pleasantly so, to agree so much with Dr. Lee-Barnewall and I empathize with her attempts to paint a more moderate picture. I also hope that this project continues and produces a practical guide to her Kingdom vision of gender relationships in marriage and ministry. To do so I believe she will have to fill out her “kingdom corrective” a bit more. All-in-all, Neither Complementarian Nor Egalitarian is a helpful book to prod further conversation, though I have a difficult time believing that many egalitarians will last past chapter six.

Thanks for reading,



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