Some Contrasts Regarding Gender Roles in Evangelicalism and Catholicism

Rare double post today. But I wanted to add some thoughts in light of my two recent posts Let's Stop Calling It Complementarianism and Hierarchical Complementarianism Implies Ontological Ineptitude.

The observations have to do with contrasts between how evangelicals and Catholics conceive of gender roles. Specifically, many of my characterizations and criticisms of what I called "hierarchical complementarianism" were aimed at evangelicals. Readers coming from Catholic perspectives felt that my descriptions of "complementarianism" or "hierarchical complementarianism" missed the mark in their tradition. Which isn't too surprising, because I wasn't thinking about the Catholic tradition. I should have made that more clear.

So I'd like to try to add some reflections to sort through, mainly for myself, some of the relevant issues and locations of contrast between evangelicalism and Catholicism regarding gender roles.

To start, both evangelicals and Catholics have patriarchal authority structures--men hold the offices/roles of "authority"--but there are some key differences and distinctions. And in many ways, the Catholic vision of gender roles is "better" than the evangelical vision if you have egalitarian sensibilities like mine.

In the Catholic vision authority is given to a celibate male priesthood. And to be honest, most priests at the parish level don't have a lot of authority. They administer the sacraments, to be sure, but they aren't deciding a lot of things for the church. Basically, priests do more service than leading. That in and of itself is an important point of reflection. And the celibacy allows the priest to be available and free to do this service.

The priests are celibate in that they are "married" to the church. In this relationship, the (male) priest and the (female) church represent a marriage union, a union that functions sacramentally as the union between (Father) God and the (Mother) Church or (Husband) Christ and the (Wife) Church. Consequently, the gender of the priest is symbolically and sacramentally important. As the priest stands in for God/Christ he sacramentally represents Father/Husband.

There are two aspects about this that are important contrasts with evangelicalism and how it conceives of gender and authority in the church.

First, becoming a priest is costly, a life of celibacy. But given the sacramental imagery involved (a marital/familial union with the church) the celibacy is critical. And in return for making this sacrifice "authority" is given to the male priest (or, more precisely, the priesthood). Though we should keep reminding ourselves that, outside of the Vatican, most priests live lives of service--radical availability to the parish--rather than exercise authority.

All that is a stark contrast with evangelicalism. In evangelicalism there is no cost--like lifelong celibacy--for being given authority. All that is required is that you are, biologically, a man. Consequently, "authority" in evangelicalism is less about vocation than birthright, being born with the correct anatomy. In evangelicalism merely by being a man you have the spheres of authority automatically opened to you. In evangelicalism authority is not, as it is in Catholicism, associated with notions of calling, discernment, equipping, training, discipline, submission, vocation, sacrifice and service. Authority is given, and held in perpetuity, solely on the basis of anatomy.

The second contrast has to do with the clergy/laity distinction. While it is true that males have authority in Catholicism the laity is comprised of both males and females. Which means, crucially for our purposes, that both males and females are being denied positions of authority. In this sense, the exclusion is egalitarian in nature. Both males and females are being told "No."

Something very different happens in evangelicalism. While there is no overt clergy/laity distinction in evangelicalism there is a functional distinction. Men get to serve in the priestly and pastoral roles. Functionally, men are the clergy. And women are the laity.

That's a part of the problem in evangelicalism. Evangelicalism makes every female a member of the laity and makes every male a member of the clergy. Irrespective of calling, vocation or aptitude.

Which means that while Catholicism is patriarchal, at least its laity is mixed gender. In Catholicism both men and women get the "No." But in evangelicalism the laity is solely women and the clergy are all the men, with one entire gender telling the entire other gender "No." The clergy/laity divide is split right down the gender line, with no remainder.

In a related way, the clergy/laity divide in Catholicism is also a domestic/church divide. The priests exercise authority in the church but not in their homes. Because the priests are unmarried.

But, once again, the situation in evangelicalism is very much different. And more sinister. The clergy/laity divide exists (men function as clergy) but the home/church divide is eradicated. The male authority dominates both spheres, at home and at church. Male authority, thus, effectively dominates every sphere of life.

All that to say, these differences are so significant that when I say "hierarchical complementarianism" I am not referring to the Catholic situation. I'm picking out how gender roles are typically described and defended in evangelicalism.

And as I hope you can see, as patriarchal as Catholicism is, I think evangelicalism is much, much worse.

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24 thoughts on “Some Contrasts Regarding Gender Roles in Evangelicalism and Catholicism”

  1. I very much enjoyed this post, and it brought a question to my mind: in most evangelical churches, I'd agree that the clergy/laity line is delineated between men and women. From my experience learning from and getting to know sexual minorities, I think it is worthwhile to consider how sexuality factors into this discussion. For example, how does this delineation affect those who are transgender?

    Under-girding that line of questioning is when does the evangelical idea of what a man is like shift that line of delineation to exclude certain people? This goes back to the sermon you preached with Jonathan Storment, but I know of good, Godly men who do not conform to evangelical ideals of manhood, and who seem to be denied access to becoming clergy. More than being denied, maybe it's more that they are overlooked.

    Anyway, thanks for this thought-provoking post. It really got me thinking.

  2. This look at the symbolism and purpose behind the celibate priesthood in Catholicism was most helpful. However, I disagree with (or could use clarification on) your assertion that "Evangelicalism makes every female a member of the laity and makes every male a member of the clergy." What about men in evangelical churches who do not serve in any priestly or pastoral role? Are they not part of the laity, rather than the clergy (though they could feasibly change this)?

  3. Yes, not all men are in those roles, but most often this is a voluntary choice. As men they could be involved in those roles but elect not to.

    And to be sure, there are locations of service in evangelical churches that involve discernment and selection, where certain aptitudes and virtues are required beyond gender.

  4. This reminds me of an anecdote I heard from someone a few years above me when I was in school studying Ministry. A young woman was telling part of her story, explaining the hurt that was caused by her church home growing up never inviting her to lead in any visible, despite her gifts. She even wrote a sermon that she had to teach to a boy in her youth group, and watch him speak the words God had put on her heart.

    Years later, she returned to visit the church with her husband. The elders asked him to read scripture that morning. What had been meant as a gesture of welcoming and inclusiveness towards a guest was actually more a cruel reminder that maleness was more highly valued when it came to leadership than years of study and Godly living. The elders chose him over her for a leadership role based solely on his gender.

  5. Another point that must be addressed, is from my understanding, Catholicism is NOT saying, "Woman thou shalt not preach" - rather they are only denying women the ability to consecrate the eucharist. It's my understanding that at some small parishes that share priests, there are nuns assigned to be the administrator of the parish, and those nuns on occasion give the homily (same as the permanent deacons who while ordained, cannot consecrate the eucharist either). It is one very specific thing that is denied to women - and they don't even use the verses about women keeping quiet in church to argue their point either. Somehow to me that is a huge difference than most evangelical complementarianism. The Catholic church doesn't even teach that the husband is the head of the family to my understanding (Sure there are some catholics who teach that I'm sure, but the "Church" itself does not). The ONLY place in which (some) men are privleged over women is in the ability to consecrate the eucharist... and like you've already pointed out, they've had to give up much (and take much authority over themselves in all but the top levels of the church) to gain that honor as well.

  6. I did not expect a series on complementarianism to include such a persuasive argument in support of celibate male priesthood, but I certainly found it compelling. Thank you for giving this Catholic feminist mind a different perspective to ponder.

  7. "In evangelicalism there is no cost--like lifelong celibacy--for being given authority." Ugh...this blog is getting worse than the Gospel Coalition in it's judgmental, nonsensical tone (does anyone really want MORE celibate pastors?). It's getting harder and harder to find objective arguments that don't resort to passive aggressive BS, rooted in a desire to see the other side pay for their theology. I came here for the well crafted arguments for Christian Universalism. I'll be leaving because of the chip-on-the-shoulder nature of the blog entries of late. If there's no cost to being an evangelical pastor, there's even less cost to being a blogger.

  8. When I was in middle school I got baptized. Next time I went to Sunday School Miss. Gloria, my favorite teacher to date at church, wasn't there. I asked why. It was because I had been baptized. And though I was only about 12 years old, she, being a women, couldn't teach me.

    I had "authority" over Miss Gloria. And it made me wish I hadn't been baptized.

    Best wishes Kevin.

  9. Your experience is your experience, Richard. But I think it clouds your judgment. Your response to my post did little to alleviate my concern that you are being unfair in your refutation of patriarchal, Reformed Christianity. Anecdotes from your upbringing aren't an argument, and attacking their sacrifice, or lack of it (in your opinion), is low. It puts you on par with them. And God knows they have been incredibly unfair to progressive Christians, Universalists, etc. I understand the urge to adjust one's tone to be less that charitable, but I can't help but think all this blogging back and forth is sometimes doing more harm than good for the body.

    Maybe I just read too much and need a break. I don't know. Best wishes to you as well, sir.

  10. I will gladly defend Catholicism against unjust criticism all day. I love Peter. Still, the priestly activities that women are excluded from are, for traditional Catholics, the most essential human activities conceivable. Consecrating the eucharist is the activity that makes Jesus and salvation available to people. Confession is the process that mediates God's forgiveness. In a very real sense, priests are supposed to be stand-ins for God. They are the unique and privileged location in which you access the central aspects of God's saving work in the world. If you want to understand some of the really, deeply oppressive forms that this can take, I'd recommend you look at Franco's Spain, where patriarchal family structures were legally enforced through the open cooperation of the Catholic church. Franco's Spain is fairly described as a fascist regime with an established Catholic church. Women could be prosecuted for 'fleeing the home' and were quite actively reduced to their sexual telos of making babies. The spiritual structure that maintained it began to collapse after Vatican II, but a lot of it is left.

    Having said that, American Catholicism really is a different creature. According to polls, American Catholics support gay marriage and women priests by a margin of about 2 to 1. However, these are issues that are not supposed to even be open to discussion. That's right, the positions of the large majority of American Catholics are not even open for discussion ... a sort of repression that is difficult for Americans to even conceive, and which just doesn't really work in America.This deep disconnect between the laity and church teaching is why, when the Pope makes reference to things like the 'sense of the faithful', he is playing with fire. I think the central dynamic of American Catholicism is this radical disconnect between Catholics and the actual teaching of the Catholic Church. Traditionalists say this is a matter of catechesis, and they are right in a sense. The trouble is that if you started to demand of American Catholics what the Church actually demands of them, the vast majority would probably flee the Church...and unlike Franco's Spain, there aren't many discernible consequences to fleeing the Church or the home. And so the Bishops (increasingly) issue documents and rail, but the priests, with direct access to parishes, know that 'proper catechesis' would create huge problems, because a considerable majority of Catholics just don't buy this stuff. An uneasy detente is maintained through silence.

    The dynamic is interesting, and profoundly different than what you find in Evangelicalism. I'm not sure which is better or worse, but Catholics and Evangelicals are peoples on quite different journeys.

  11. I did want to note that celibacy is only a requirement for priests in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. While it's certainly the largest Rite and by far the most common one here in the US, it isn't the only one even here. (I know there's at least one Eastern Rite Catholic here in Austin. A coworker who dies from cancer was a member and I attended his funeral there.) In the Eastern Rites, the same rules generally prevail as in Orthodoxy, I believe. A priest can be either married or a monastic (celibate). A married priest must marry before being ordained. In Orthodoxy, Bishops are drawn exclusively from the ranks of the monastics. I'm not sure when that canon or practice was implemented, but I believe it was somewhere between the 6th and the 10th century. And I think that's also true in all Rites of the Roman Catholic Church.

    I also believe that eliminating confusion between personal and Church property for inheritance was a factor in the decision to adopt a universal priestly monastic requirement within the Latin Rite, but I'm certainly not an expert on the topic.With that said, given that most evangelical churches are what would have once been called "low church" and don't have a sacramental perspective, a woman (or lay man for that matter) in Orthodoxy or Catholicism is able to do pretty much everything an evangelical pastor does. (Reader, teacher, preacher, evangelist, minister to those in need, etc.) As noted in other comments, the distinctive of a priest (performance of the sacraments or mysteries on behalf of the bishop) does not even apply to an evangelical pastor so it's hard to draw a comparison.

  12. Yes, and celibacy is a matter of church discipline and not necessity. It allows for a deeper expression of the notion that the priest, in imaging Christ, is the groom of the church...but even in the Latin rite, this is not a matter of necessity. It could change without changing the symbolism of mass in a fundamental way. Which does open the question of why other notions that also have deep symbolic mappings wouldn't also be subject to change. (ie, women priests). Of course, there is little need to be troubled by the actual merits of the arguments, since the Magisterium can settle these matters with authoritative pronouncements.

  13. I understand. And I don't want to overly defend myself. At the end of the day, I'm a sinner. And when I write posts of this sort it gives me no pleasure to step into these contested waters. My stomach burns all day.

    But all three of these posts have been about ideas, not people. The posts are not bombs, they are analytical. They are attempts to say these sorts of beliefs imply these sorts of things and the things they imply, in my estimation, have some negative effects. So I say so. I've never questioned that anyone holding these ideas weren't Christians, weren't trying to be faithful to the bible, weren't going to heaven. I don't "call people out." I'm simply saying that ideas have consequences. And here's the shape of those ideas and my assessment of the consequences.

    I really do wish you well.

  14. I wanted to add this to the post, but it didn't really fit as it's not really about gender roles, but there is another big difference between Catholicism (and Orthodoxy) and evangelicalism.

    In Catholicism you can spend the majority of your life praying to a woman, generally Mary but also to the female saints. In evangelicalism you'll never have a devotional life centered around femininity.

    So beyond "gender roles" the devotional lives are also very different when it comes to women.

  15. Regarding throwing e-bombs, anyone who titles their posts "Hierarchical Complementarianism Implies Ontological Ineptitude" isn't trying to get that post to go viral.

    99% of the social media world is going to drive right on by when they hit that title. And that's exactly what I want to happen.

    There is a method to my madness.

  16. The past few days of posts/replies have left me wondering about something. I wasn't sure where to reply, but this seems like as good a place as any. These questions of egalitarianism and the many other battles that percolate between (and disproportionately preoccupy) the progressive and conservative evangelical groups rarely resolve themselves into anything approaching unity. More often than not, they split groups into "us" vs. "them" camps. Each group finds their favorite scholar, theologian, book, or blog (no offense) to support their side and then it descends into echo-chamber-like repetition. When views on a subject become this entrenched, it seems to me that FEAR is playing some kind of role. To both sides, what is the fear of perhaps giving in on this particular issue or even acknowledging that the other side may be valid?

    What does the fundamentalist conservative fear if it could be shown they were incorrect? Similarly, what does the liberal feminist fear would happen if someone could actually prove that a complementarian view is correct? Is this such a "make-or-break" issue that it justifies leaving a fellowship that remains too "conservative" or leaving a church that becomes too "liberal" for their tastes. There isn't just one sources of this fear, but I think this is a critical question because as N.T. Wright puts it, "...until you learn to live without fear you won't find it easy to follow Jesus."

    Dr. Beck you are a gifted experimental theologian who has looked deeply at the motivation of fear. I would love to eventually read a post that takes a hard look at the FEAR on both sides of the equation in this particular question of Hierarchical Complementarianism. I don't know if this kind of soul-searching would cool off the debate, but it's certainly a question I ask myself a lot with all kinds of issues. It also brings this back into the realm of psychology.

    Your position on this subject is quite clear (one I generally agree with BTW), but you have mentioned several times that you will not leave your own church fellowship even though they do not espouse a true egalitarian position. That suggests (at least to me) that even though the implications and effects of a Hierarchical Complementarian view are troubling to you (for freedom, equality, theological correctness, etc...), you don't find it so distressing as to break fellowship with Highland. In many ways, that puts this into some bit of perspective for me.

  17. Very interesting as always, Richard. I'm still trying to figure out whether you really believe that the RC priesthood is all about service rather than power, and evangelical leadership all about power rather than service. This belief, so counterintuitive and unrelated to my experience, makes me wonder whether this is personal history or whether there's a logic there that I'm missing. Is celibacy the only possible sacrifice? And does it really contribute one iota to ensuring that someone has a servant's heart instead of a domineering one? Might not the sacrifice of living with a wife, and loving her, give me just as much insight into how to lovingly be a servant to the church where I preached?

    I am most interested in your question of whether there is a male "laity" in evangelicalism. Because if everyone who will never be allowed to be an elder is somehow being oppressed, obviously most of the male members in our congregation (along with all of the female members) are being oppressed. Might you want to distinguish between a congregation that restricts a few roles to males only (but most of the men don't have that role) from a congregation that systematically treats all its men as having an authority that the women don't? The first congregation seems (to me) rather similar to the way you describe RC gender-roles.

  18. Hi Brian,
    Most of the fear I write about is existential fear, and while that saturates everything I don't think that's the sort of fear in play here. I think there is more anger than fear in this situation. Which means the issues are more about narratives of harm. Each side is trying to protect someone or something from being injured and damaged.

    And as tends to be the case, progressives locate the injury in the horizontal, human dimension. The concern--my concern--is the humiliation and injury to women. From the little girls in the pew, imbibing a view of themselves, to the stay at home home to the woman running a business.

    Conservatives, by contrast, locate the injury in the vertical, divine dimension. Their concerns are about a degradation and disordering of a gracious and benevolent ordering that, if lost, will lead to social and moral dissolution (which would have harmful effects in the relationship sphere).

    It's the perennial tension between the Greatest Commandments.

  19. Richard, I really appreciate your series of posts on this topic. I particularly like your description of Roman Catholic clergy as husband figures standing in for God in their marriage to the church. I don't think I'd heard the way you describe it before and it's rather beautiful. Finally, if you or anyone else has a chance to check out this video clip from Joss Whedon (the "Avengers" director, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" writer and director, etc) addressing why he keeps writing strong female characters, I think it's very related to this conversation (it gets particularly good at about the 6 minute point):

  20. Oh, I didn't talk about Highland.

    I believe in stability, congregationally speaking. It's good to live with people you disagree with. It chastens you. As you write about any view you have friends in mind on the other side of any issue. Still, it's just a part of family to disagree strongly and sharply.

    I guess people read posts like these and imagine a really angry person. I can understand that given the anger and vitriol on social media. But I'm not that guy. I have really strong options. And I articulate my reasons for those opinions. If any leader of my church asked what I thought I'd tell them what I thought, in my dispassionate, academic tone. But no real need for that. They know what I think and many agree. But most don't. So we're all working it out together. That's the crux of congregational living. It's hard, but a beautiful thing.

    Basically, I think a lot of very nice people read the debates on social media and they get all distraught about the "state of the church." But social media isn't the church. Church is a local thing, the discipline of working out our salvation and binding and loosing with great fear and trembling. Along with forgiving 70 times 7.

    This is a blog. It's an archive of opinions. It's not the church.

    Which means I think everyone should calm down. From the bomb-throwers to the hand-wringers.

    If we want to work on the church it's pretty simple: go to church on Sunday. Over and over and over.

  21. Though this post wasn't directed at me, I actually found it rather helpful in clarifying your tone. As a Universalist leaning, 3 1/2 point Calvinist guy who attends church at Mars Hill in Seattle, I definitely understand the idea that " It's good to live with people you disagree with." And my respect for you for sticking it out with your church even though you disagree on some stuff gives me that much more respect for you. Heck, maybe I'll just stick around and see what's up after all.

  22. Hi Richard,

    I certainly didn't mean to put you on the spot regarding Highland and this particular topic. Having followed your blog for several years, however, you have mentioned Highland and the occasional tensions that exist between your views and how Highland chooses to function. You've also dropped hints in the blog and discussion about learning how to navigate through those disagreements in classes and how to coexist. We all have those feelings and you've shown time and again how to model graciousness even in the face of disagreement.

    I guess that's sort of my point...

    Whether on a blog, in a church, or among family, these topics continually devolve into toxic litmus tests over who is a "better" Christian. Rather than trying to live with people you disagree with and attempting to be chastened, there is more entrenchment.

    I'm not a psychologist, but is there that much difference between anger and fear - particularly the existential fear that underlies sin? Could you argue that the anger and any narrative of harm is rooted in the fear of unmet justice? The fear that someone could actually get away with doing damage? I can see the anger, no doubt. But just like our current politics, there is also a strong current of defensiveness and fear associated with even acknowledging any valid point from the other side.

    Anyway, you've spent a lot of time on all of this already. Have a great weekend.

  23. I see what you're saying. Yes, insofar as existential fear is involved in creating a self-concept that makes us feel worthy and significant we will need to use Others as whipping posts, locations of contrast that make us, as you say, feel "better," in this case the "better Christian." And yes, I think a lot of that is going on, that there is a lot of neuroses in these sorts of debates.

    How neurotic am I? (You're not asking, I am.) That's hard for me to say. That's what makes neuroses so neurotic, it's our blind spot.

    The best you can do, in my estimation, is keep track of the symptoms of neuroses in these discussions. How is my body feeling? Am I attacking people? Am I listening well? Am I being confessional? Am I getting any sort of thrill in this?

    Case in point, lots of people in the comments of these posts disagreed with each other very, very strongly. And yet, they talked calmly and, while not reaching an agreement, sorted out more clearly where their differences lay and what their assumptions were. In most of those exchanges I didn't see fear. Just disagreement. And that's encouraging.

  24. I would argue that transgendered people are, largely, ignored. I say this because I have never heard any topic on how to include transgendered people-they are usually lumped in with "those gays." Further, we have used the two passages in Timothy and Titus to create a list of acceptable traits for men to be able to lead in the Church. Now, I'm no scholar, but I don't think they were intended for us to use as a checklist.

    The real question, though, is how do we change this?

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