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Obama, Palin, and the Complementarian-Egalitarian Debate — By Mark L. Strauss

Categories Theology Guest Posts

Even if you hate politics, it’s hard to deny that the race for the White House is going to make for entertaining theater over the next seven weeks.

Having a young, articulate, dynamic African-American on the ticket would be enough to make this an interesting and exciting election. One of the most telling moments of the campaign for me was to see the faces of African-Americans—especially children and young people—when Barack Obama was nominated at the Democratic National Convention. Whatever their political views, there were obvious feelings of pride and relief. There was a palpable sense that perhaps the abiding legacy of slavery, segregation and prejudice could actually be overcome in America. Maybe it really was true that anyone, whatever their race, color or background, could rise to the highest office in the land.

White evangelicals who don’t understand this sense of pride and joy (“But he’s so liberal!” they say) don’t realize how much their own worldview affects the way they see the world. It reminded me of the day the verdict was given in the first O.J. Simpson trial. Whites were generally shocked and dismayed that this “obviously guilty” man was let off. But most blacks I saw expressed relief and even joy. The innocence or guilt of one man was almost irrelevant compared to the history of injustice, oppression, and prejudice (even lynchings) that characterized so much of white-black relations in this country. To see that cycle broken—whether justly or not—brought a sense of relief.

So having an African-American so close to the highest office in the land makes this a landmark election—no matter what your political views.

Then came Sarah Palin. Now the race is about both race and gender. It is not just that Sarah Palin is a woman—though that is significant enough. It is that she is a very conservative, traditional-values woman. And suddenly the world seems to be turned upside down. I have heard left-leaning feminists say that this woman, with five children, a Down’s Syndrome baby, and a pregnant seventeen year-old daughter needs to be at home caring for her family, not out on the road stumping. Then I hear traditional-values focused-on-the-family conservative evangelicals saying “Sure she can have it all: family, career, politics.”

Someone recently directed me to the CBMC (Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) website. CBMW is the most influential complementarian organization among evangelicals. (Complementarians believe that God has ordained distinct roles for men and women in the church and the home. Men are to assume leadership roles while women take on more supportive and nurturing roles. Egalitarians, by contrast, believe that in the new age of salvation inaugurated by Christ, the roles of women and men are based entirely on giftedness and not on gender. [I consider myself a moderate complementarian, or perhaps a “complegalitarian.”])

I was interested to see on the CBMW website several articles discussing the “Sarah Palin predicament,” with titles like “Does Sarah Palin present a Dilemma for Complementarians?” Can those who argue that God has created men for leadership and women for supportive roles still support Sarah Palin for a position that could well lead to the most powerful leadership position in the world (and leadership over millions of males!)?

Questions one article raised are these: “Can a woman preside over the Senate but not teach a Bible study for men? Do complementarians really believe that a woman could lead a country but not a local church?” The general consensus of these articles is that the Bible’s commands about men and women apply only to the church and the home, not to civic or any other leadership positions. This is not about leadership per se, and about spiritual leadership.

This, of course, raises many new questions. If men are not created by God for leadership in general (which I always thought was a bedrock of complementarianism), then why did God establish them over the church and the home? Are they more spiritual than women? Do they have better discernment in spiritual things? Or is this simply a choice God made regardless of physical, emotional or spiritual make-up? History is full of statements (by males!) about the inherent intellectual, moral and spiritual superiority of males over females. Modern complementarians do not hold to any of this, but still claim the spiritual authority of husbands over wives and of men in the church.

If nothing else, the inevitable assumption of women to the highest positions in the professions, in business, and in government, will certainly liven the complementarian/egalitarian debate. Sarah Palin can be thanked in part for that.

Fascinating stuff. I just hope I can keep my mind on my research and off the TV and the political websites over the next two months.

Mark L. Strauss (PhD, Aberdeen) is professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary in San Diego. He is the author of numerous titles, including Luke in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary series and Four Portraits, One Jesus.

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