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Holding the Tension: How to Measure Progress in Women's Equality

by Sarabeth Ng | December 10, 2021

This year, I followed God’s call to leave the complementarian church organization where I had spent three years to come work at CBE International. Here I have found, for the first time, a workplace that does not make me feel less-than for being female. While my previous male boss was always open to my suggestions for improving gender equality in the office, it could only go so far. There were bylaws and doctrine firmly in place that prevented women from embodying certain roles. I would always wonder, “Am I, a woman, allowed to say/do this?”

At that job, I learned firsthand how it can be easier to affect change in individuals rather than systemically. In small ways, we improved the gender equality in that office, yet those improvements did not affect the men and women at other connected offices throughout the US. It makes me wonder, should we focus on individual change or systemic change?

Systemic change can be one of the strongest markers of real, permanent progress. And yet systemic improvements don’t always trickle down to change individual hearts, minds, and actions. I’d like to think that individual change trickles up to change systems, but systems that are hundreds of years old just don’t seem to work that way. There is a balance we must find in our journey toward women’s biblical equality—holding both local and systemic change in balance.

The authors featured in this issue address both individual and systemic progress toward biblical gender equality. I’d like to share a quote from each article to give you a glimpse at the authors’ advice and hopes for the current church.

“When women’s continued subordination becomes hidden behind egalitarian affirmations and vows of inclusivity, subordination is rendered invisible, undiagnosable, unmarked.”

Katie Gaddini gives us a broad understanding of how even as we celebrate watershed moments, we must be on the lookout for how destructive assumptions and systems continue to persist. In some ways, the progress we have made toward women’s biblical equality has veiled instances of inequality so that we must work even harder to discover and uproot them.

“The difficulties women face in this country are so pervasive and long-standing that we should know them by heart and be able to recite them from memory the way we recite state capitals or edited portions of Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”

David Hart welcomes us into a men’s group discussion and presents a challenge for us—is the topic of women’s equality off-limits to men? Hart prompts his men’s group, and us, to tackle even the issues which seem off-limits to us, or which seem not to affect us.

“… once something is said in one decade, doesn’t mean it is going to be said forever. It has to be repeated, repeated, and repeated.”

Jo Anne Lyon is one of the seven interviewees who reflect on the progress they’ve noticed since the 1989 signing of CBE’s founding document, “Men, Women, and Biblical Equality.” Lyon and the other interviewees stress that while there has been great progress since 1989, we cannot become complacent, or the progress we have made will be lost by the next generation.

“Black women in ministry are learning to love ourselves and make decisions reflecting that, whether it’s within the church as an institution or outside of it.”

Deirdre “Jonese” Austin invites us into her experience with egalitarianism in the Black Baptist church. She brings a particular optimism mixed with a healthy dose of realism to her hopes for her future as a Black woman pastor within the Black Baptist church.

“There is a wide swathe of literature that continues to show equality is the biblical position.”

J.W. Wartick shares seven recent books that are perfect for everyday egalitarians who are hoping to deepen their understanding of Scripture, history, and society. We should draw encouragement from how the body of literature in favor of egalitarianism continues to grow and rise in popularity.

“Egalitarian activism, from the early evangelicals to today, elevates women’s leadership at every moment in history.”

President Mimi Haddad delves into how remembering previous egalitarian scholarship in all arenas will equip us to continue to make it clear that women’s equality is biblically sound and societally beneficial.

My hope is that as you read the articles in this issue, you will celebrate the recent progress we have all made toward women's equality. And then my prayer is that the challenges and priorities that these authors present will prompt you to stay engaged and active in your community for the advancement of women's equality in the home, church, and world.   
 

This article is from “The State of Women’s Equality,” the Winter 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.