Gender Roles Beyond the Western Church

Scott W. Sunquist calls the American church to observe the diversity in ecclesiologies around the world.

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 …

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