The Limitations of Debate – an Excerpt from Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian

The following is an excerpt from Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian, by Michelle Lee-Barnewall.


In her book The Argument Culture, linguist Deborah Tannen asserts that our culture is permeated by a “pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight.” While she acknowledges that such an approach is useful in the right context, it has become overemphasized to the point where it often gets in the way of solving problems rather than aiding. The assumption is that opposition is the most desirable option (ibid., 3–4), and Tannen suggests that other means, such as “exploring, expanding, discussing, investigating, and the exchanging of ideas,” may yield more fruitful results in some endeavors (8).

The answer may not be the exclusive domain of one side but rather may lie elsewhere. If this is the case, we cannot discover the entire truth in a debate in which the only option is to choose from two positions. Tannen explains, “Opposition does not lead to the whole truth when we ask only ‘What’s wrong with this?’ and never ‘What can we use from this in building a new theory, a new understanding?’” (19). Limiting ourselves to an either/or choice does not leave enough room for improving either side or exploring a different understanding.

Cover ArtAs Tannen further observes, “When the problem is posed in a way that polarizes, the solution is often obscured before the search is under way” (21). Our methodology should make room for a different kind of answer, but a “culture of critique” does not allow for another position. Although criticism certainly has its place, so do other methods such as integrating ideas from different fields (19).

Some evangelical scholars have expressed similar concerns about the gender debate. Timothy George calls for the pursuit of truth in a context that recognizes individual fallibility and the potential contribution from those of the opposing position. He also states his concerns for the effect of the conflict on relationships among the members of Christ. In searching for a “way beyond the polarization,” George discusses three questions for those involved

1. “What do I owe to the person who differs from me?” While we are not obligated to agree with that person, we do owe him or her love. As a result, we are to be good listeners, seeking to understand the person’s aims and asking whether there is anything valid in his or her position.

2. “What can I learn from those who differ from me?” In recognition of his or her own fallibility, each interpreter should be prepared to learn that he or she is wrong and the other person is right. Seeking after truth is more important than winning discussions or protecting reputations.

3. “How can I cope with those who differ from me?” We must remember that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. Consequently, our goal is not to demolish our opponent but rather “to win him or her over to a new and, we trust, better understanding.”

He calls for both sides to recognize their mutual commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy and to allow this greater context to be the basis for a unity under which differences can be discussed. With this underlying unity, perhaps there can then be “honest confrontation of ideas and truth claims as well as a conciliatory spirit that is open to convergence and reconciliation.”

As Tannen and George have noted, there are significant limitations in assuming that the truth of an issue is to be found in one of two sides. As a result, the contours of the debate may be in need of reexamination and adjustment. A more fruitful approach at this point may be to expand or redesign the shape of the gender discussion rather than simply reinforcing the two current positions. In searching for the most accurate way to understand the biblical text, we must be open to exploring another way of viewing the issue itself.

©2016 by Michelle Lee-Barnewall. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.


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