Evangelicals are divided into roughly two camps when it comes to the meaning of “submission.” “Complementarian” theology advocates that women and men are equals but have different societal roles. Men head the households and pastor the churches, while a woman’s place is basically any other area, following a basic “separate but equal” logic. The Old Guard Evangelicalism of the Jerry Falwells, Pat Robertsons, and James Dobsons falls in this complementarian camp. The chief complementarian champion, theologian Wayne Grudem, once criticized egalitarians for redefining submission “to mean something like ‘considerateness, thoughtfulness, an attitude of love toward one another, putting the other person’s interests above your own.”
“Egalitarian” theology on the other hand says that men and women are wholly equals, in the home, the church and the public sphere. These adherents tend to explain the submission passages by arguing that context is queen, and Peter and Paul’s patriarchal worlds vastly differ from today’s. (The difficulty of the submission passages may have been clearer had Peter’s full teaching been quoted in the debate to identify women as “the weaker partner” (1 Peter 3:7).) Many egalitarians go even father to say that Jesus subverted his day’s gender norms by asking Mary and Martha to sit as his feet during teachings, a spot usually only reserved for male students.
Yet in a culture that demands women and men be equals, women are often the primary bread-winners, lead Sunday School classes and prayer groups, serve communion, and organize the vast bulk of church activities.