In her book, Mary says that the "… philosophy of egalitarianism is well on its way to thorough acceptance in the evangelical church" (pp 287-288). Because it is so influential and because egalitarianism is at the heart of feminism, it would be useful to examine exactly what is meant by this rather long, awkward word.
Mary helpfully explains egalitarianism as: "... equality necessitates role interchangeability. A woman cannot be a man’s equal unless she can assume the same role as he” (p 287). In other words, if a woman cannot do the same things as a man, she is not equal with the man.
Behind this philosophy lies a basic position on what equality means. Equality means sameness. Equality cannot mean difference of any kind, or exclusion from any role because that automatically implies inferiority and no-one is inferior. If I can’t do what you are doing, then I must be inferior. If I am inferior then we are not equal.
There are a range of problems with this.
Suppose you have a person gifted with words but basically incapable of manual labour; you have another person who can refit a carburettor with extraordinary skill and precision, but is practically inarticulate. Are they equal? The two people do not have role interchangeability.
At this point the real focus of egalitarianism comes out. Egalitarianism will judge roles upon their desirability. Some egalitarians will judge the two to be equal because they don’t see any superiority in having a job which involves speaking over one which involves car mechanics. Many egalitarians (because egalitarians are most represented in the middle class) consider trades and physical labour to be inferior to white collar roles and would consider the speaker superior to the mechanic.
However, the most likely response of an egalitarian will be to say that my example is irrelevant. That is simply not the kind of role interchangeability they are concerned about. The role interchangeability that they demand is between being a leader and a follower. For egalitarians, leadership must be based upon merit. Leaders must earn the authority they exercise over people by being more intelligent, more discerning, more perspicuous, more able to influence people. For egalitarians, leaders are superior to ordinary people, which is why they are permitted to exercise authority.
This is why excluding a gender from exercising authority is so offensive to egalitarians. To say that a gender (women) cannot exercise authority is to say that that gender cannot have the qualities necessary to be a leader. It is to say that women are automatically inferior because of their gender.
Egalitarians (for the most part) still want a world in which there are leaders and followers. But they want a world where everyone has the chance to prove that they are made of better stuff than the average and so earn a leadership role. There are superior people, and they should not have arbitrary barriers put in their way in their ascent to the top.
And for egalitarians, to say that the differences between men and women might be more significant than simply plumbing and reproductive roles is like saying that a particular race doesn’t have the qualities to lead.
This is where the dark side of egalitarianism comes in.
If I am not sufficiently the ‘same’ in society for whatever reason I cannot be equal. If I am not sufficiently ‘equal’ my life may not be valuable enough to sustain. The lives of disabled persons, of unborn children, of dementia patients and the terminally ill are all in different ways under threat, if not being ended prematurely already in different countries where egalitarianism forms public policy. Why? Because they are not the same, they are not equal. Because they don’t have the same economic productivity as others, they are not equal economic contributors to society. Therefore they are not equal, they are inferior. And increasingly, society is treating them without pity and using their apparent ‘inferior’ status to question the validity of their existence. It started as a ‘quality of life’ excuse but more recently it has become more clearly a questioning of their right to live in society without being equal economic contributors. Again, it is worth noting that not all egalitarians would take such a stand against the vulnerable in society. But this is the effect that egalitarianism is having on public policy.
Christians get angry about this. And rightly so. Because a Christian perspective on people is that we are all different, and ‘inferiority’ is an irrelevant category. We are all made in the image of God and this is the bedrock of our identity that is held by all human beings. The fact that we are all made in the image of God means that any difference, and the presence or lack of qualities that a particular culture or class of people might esteem, is irrelevant when it comes to a person’s true worth and dignity. Because each of us is in the image of God we are therefore required to treat each other with great care and dignity. (See James 3:9-10 for one outworking of this.)
A Christian looks at the world and expects to find others not like herself. In particular, a Christian looks at the world and expects to find others who may benefit from her help in any number of countless ways, whether they are ‘weaker’ or ‘stronger’ in some way than herself. Equality for a Christian, basing her life on Scripture, means looking at others and seeing them as made in God’s image, like herself. It is not interchangeability of role, but equally valuing all roles that is true equality for the Christian. She knows that God loves variety, that difference creates contexts for care and love, and that people were always intended to be interdependent and not autonomous or the same.
Equal does not mean same. Different does not mean inferior (or superior).
Egalitarianism lies behind many (but not all) feminist arguments. Part of the contempt that feminists seem to have for women who choose motherhood as their primary role would seem to lie in the perception that it is effectively a blue collar, labouring role with little inherent intellectual stimulation, and no direct economic contribution to the marketplace: it doesn’t fit what is valued by the middle class and by academics. Because egalitarianism is more than just feminism it needs to be thought about on its own. It is bigger than the issue of men and women and their responsibilities in church and family life. It has to do with all people in society.
Ultimately egalitarianism tries to locate our true identity and value in our ability to contribute to our society. This pushes us away from each other into individualism, because my value is tied to my contribution. Even worse, for all its talk of equality, it creates a society where the beautiful, clever people have more value than the Jill Average, who has more value than a child with Downs Syndrome.
By making us through his Son in his own image, God has given us a better identity and value, one which extends equally to all, beautiful or not. We carry the image of the one who made Heaven and Earth. Any difference between us pales compared to that. And in Christ that image is restored, renewed and deepened.