The recent revival of interest in biblical gender roles—how men and women serve in the church and function at home in relation to each other—seems to be focused in the Western church, especially in the US. Christianity Today reached out to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary president Scott W. Sunquist, who is also a missiologist with expertise in non-Western Christianity, to ask about the global context around gender and the church.

This interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

How have the terms of the gender roles debate come to be defined in the evangelical church?

Two prefatory comments: First, “evangelical” has become a contested category, so whenever we ask about “the evangelical church,” we need to further specify which family or tradition we are talking about. Secondly, much of the “debate” regarding gender roles occurred when my family was overseas, so we missed the initial formation of the discussion around the words complementarian and egalitarian. They were new concepts that began to spread in the late 1980s.

The evangelical debate around this has been very different from the larger and broader ecumenical discussion regarding the roles of men and women. The Orthodox church does not ordain female priests and neither do Roman Catholics. Protestant mainline churches began opening all offices of the church to women in the wake of the great missionary movement, where women dominated the pioneering work. Pentecostals from the earliest years of the movement recognized the equal function of women and men and so, in that tradition, women were planting and pastoring churches in the early 20th century.

The bifurcated (“either/or”) view of gender roles we now have arises mostly out of Southern Baptist, independent Baptist, and conservative Reformed traditions, which defend the clarity of two genders and delineate roles that are acceptable for women with the word complementarian. And it must be stated clearly that this particular discourse is an American approach that has now been exported some through missionary work.

It should also be said that not all traditions that identify as evangelical, both within the United States and globally, frame the debate in the same manner.

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The complementarian-egalitarian debate is a big one in the US (and the Western church generally). How is the view of men’s and women’s roles in the church viewed globally? How do Scriptures on the distinctions between men and women play out in different ecclesiological convictions worldwide?

As we all know, the diversity of cultures (seen most clearly in religion and language) is a beautiful thing to witness and to thank God for. I have been fortunate to have taught and learned from Christian leaders in many countries in Asia as well as in Africa. Generally, once women become literate, women’s roles change. The gospel brings literacy and education to women, and this is often a threat to traditional female roles in Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist cultures. Women become empowered through literacy. They can teach their children and they can ask questions and evangelize others.

However, in many cultures of the world, Christian men and women sit on different sides of the sanctuary, and women look after the children on the women’s side. Gender roles are cultural, but the gospel always brings a degree of freedom to women in cultures where women are oppressed. Expressed differently: When the gospel enters into any culture, it moves that culture toward greater grace, wholeness, and flourishing for all people. Cultures are fallen, and the gospel rectifies cultural patterns to individuals, families, and societies.

How does this compare within monoethnic churches in the US?

Following up from your previous question, let’s imagine what happens when people from other countries come to the United States. Korean (and most Chinese) churches are dominated by a Confucian ethic and social order in the first generation. All social order in Confucian society is hierarchical: emperor over subjects, father over children, husband over wife, etc. Thus, these churches seldom have women in leadership, but women often run the churches behind the scenes.

The positive side of this is that a Korean would understand the church as My church with my people; that Christianity is not a foreign religion and I can come to church without changing cultures. The negative side of this strong adherence to cultural patterns is that sometimes women are not treated by men with Christian respect and dignity. This hurts Christian witness. This is one of many cultural examples which we can identify as the incomplete conversion of cultures. We find these examples in every world culture.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a rectification that comes with conversion to Christ. We are not left with all our sinful patterns of our cultures. Many Indian and Middle Eastern churches in the United States have men and women sitting on different sides of the sanctuary. We must remember that both local indigenous cultures as well as the teaching of Western missionaries often influence the place and role of women.

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There is no “pure” Chinese or Black church in the United States—or so-called “white” church either, for that matter. Cultures are all made in the image of God but are fallen. It is important to remember this, lest we try to shape all ethnic groups in “our” image and insist on our definition of gender roles in the family and in the church.

As evangelicalism grows outside of the West, will controversies and discussions over women’s and men’s roles be more or less relevant in broader evangelicalism?

If by “evangelicalism” you mean faith traditions centered around biblical authority, the centrality of Christ, and the need for conversion, then it has already grown outside of the West. Today such “evangelicals” in the West comprise only about 30 percent of global evangelicals. As Ogbu Kalu used to say, “African Christianity is evangelical Christianity.” Most of the growing Christian communities (including Pentecostals) in China, Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America would be considered evangelical according to the description mentioned above. Non-Western evangelicalism often has unique teachings in many African Independent Churches but, broadly speaking, they are evangelical and their approach to gender follows cultural norms.

But, as I mentioned earlier, the place of women has improved. We need to pay attention and watch how the gospel reshapes various African and Asian cultures, specifically the view and role of women. Much of their discussion about gender roles in the church relate to applying the Bible to their present cultural gender roles, plus having to read Western books and listen to Western Christians. When it comes to nonessentials such as gender roles, Western Christians need to listen as, for example, Egyptian or Malaysian Christians shape their ecclesiologies and pastoral care and preaching. American Christians are not good at listening.

I pastored a Presbyterian church in Singapore when there was only one woman ordained in the presbytery, and she was from England. The next woman ordained was my student, who became the pastor of a church I helped to plant. The change took place over years, and it came about not by outside “authorities” but through biblical study, recognition of spiritual gifts, and prayer. As in the United States, not all denominations in Singapore and Malaysia ordain women. But most roles in the church—ministering as deacons and elders, reading Scripture, teaching, planting churches, serving the Eucharist—are now open to women. Ordination is the one role that is not open to women in all evangelical churches globally.

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What can the American church learn from the global church in how it approaches the roles of men and women? How can we pursue unity while upholding biblical convictions?

I think we need to acknowledge that the global church is diverse in terms of their ecclesiologies, because that is what we are talking about: who can be ordained, preach, oversee sacraments, and teach. Christians have come to many different conclusions on nonessentials, and we need to be gracious in receiving the richness that our global fellowship provides us. Some churches limit women’s participation in worship on biblical and/or traditional grounds. That is their prerogative and we should honor that, so long as women are respected and are given meaningful ways to participate in the body of Christ.

In such a divided world, Christians in the West should humbly learn from the majority church, seeking deeper unity around essentials and not letting nonessentials like gender roles divide us. The world needs to see unity through gracious, Christian humility.

[ This article is also available in Português and Français. ]

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