2. Evangelicals and Egalitarianism

I have only ever belonged to Christian communities that identify as complementarian—that is, those supporting the idea that the Bible teaches male leadership as the will of God, and female responsiveness and submission as part of a woman’s complementary role. Women can serve in all sorts of ministries, but teaching and holding authority over men is not among them. I didn’t know I was a complementarian, because it is always presented as the clear biblical position. I thought it was just Christian, and consequently, I’ve tended to look with suspicion upon those who support the ordination of women.

However, not all of the evangelical world is convinced on this matter. There are a great many who are egalitarian and believe that a faithful reading of Scripture produces the conclusion that, in Christ, women are equal to men and free to exercise the same gifts in the same ways. I had never heard an argument for this view until shockingly recently. For some reason, this is an issue that is clearly a disputable matter (i.e. one that does not threaten the gospel in any way) and yet one that I guess everyone in the Christian circles I have known are unwilling to discuss.

So how is it that evangelicals have the same commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture, we read the same texts, and yet we disagree completely about the conclusion that we ought to reach? At least part of the answer is hermeneutics—the methods of interpretation and application that we employ.

“The Bible says it; I believe it.”

It is only the most cantankerous of fundamentalist interpreters—if such people even exist—who would argue that the Bible is self-evident in its meaning and universally applicable to all eras and all peoples. Evangelicalism, by contrast, recognises the humanity of Scripture and its rootedness in the contexts and literary standards of its day. There are many things that the Bible says that we do not do (such as the commands for women to cover their heads in church and men not to grow their hair long) because what these behaviours meant in their original setting are no longer what they mean now, and so to continue to apply them would be hollow and formal.

We do not do what the Bible says until we first understand what it meant and how that principle would be carried out in our own time and culture.

“Clear texts should interpret the unclear.”

A good hermeneutical rule is that clear texts should be used to interpret the unclear. This advice is valuable, but again, it is not without its problems. It is by no means simple to determine on what grounds a text should be considered clear.

Often we make such a judgement by privileging the commands from Jesus or the Apostles over texts (such as those in Acts) that are descriptive. The former texts, so the argument goes, exist to instruct Christ’s followers; the latter are stories about what happened, not necessarily what ought always to happen.

Take for example the clearest text in support of the complementarian position regarding women in ministry:

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.” (1 Timothy 2:11-13)

This is a straight-forward, unadorned command, and it even appeals to the order at creation. Once this is taken to be the clear text, then we are able to use it to help us ‘solve’ the difficulties presented by other texts that appear to describe women engaging in teaching ministries: the women involved must not have been doing so in the church, or their teaching must have been only for the benefit of other women.

The trouble is that no ‘clear command’ is without context, and not everything in the letters is straight-forward. Consider this passage in Timothy (only two verses later):

“But she [Eve? Women in general?] will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” (1 Tim 2:15)

There are a range of suggestions for what this refers to. Presumably Timothy knew when he read it, but its meaning has been lost to us. The clear texts elsewhere that lay out the actual basis of our salvation preclude any interpretations that might take what it says ‘literally’ (i.e. we know that it can’t mean that mothers get automatic entry to heaven), but that is the point. Two verses on from the ‘clear’ text about women in ministry, we have one of the least clear verses in the canon. The language is plain, but we don’t know its context or intent, and so we can do little else but deny that it means what it seems to say on the surface of it.

The context of 1 Timothy 2:11-13

And so what of the allegedly clear part? Evangelical scholars such as Gordon Fee and RT France have long pointed out that this passage is far from clear. In his book, Women in the Church’s Ministry, France makes several important points about this text:

1. It is addressed to the church in Ephesus

Ephesus was a city dominated by the cult of Artemis, which involved the worship of a goddess of fertility, and a cult presided over by eunuchs who governed male and female priests and thousands of female attendants. One must speculate, but the cultural prominence of women must surely have exerted some influence on male-female relations in the church.

2. The church was under threat by ignorant and false teachers

Paul identifies several problems threatening this particular church, including:

  • Myths and endless genealogies (1:4, 4:7)
  • Rejecting conscience (1:19)
  • Forbidding marriage, abstinence from certain foods (4:3)
  • Controversy, dispute about words (6:4)
  • Profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge (6:20)

3. The teaching probably denigrated ordinary marriage roles

France suggests that evidence in the book suggests that the degradation of marriage may lie behind some of Paul’s instructions, including:

  • Bishops and deacons must have a good family record (3:2-5, 12)
  • Marriage is a gift of God (4:3-5)
  • Timothy must be above reproach (5:2)
  • Care of widows (incl concern for their record in marriage and prospects) (5:9-14)

Even the obscure verse about women being saved through childbirth perhaps might be connected to this same idea. France argues that the false teaching appears to have been denigrating womanly roles such as childbearing and rather offering women (perhaps) a super-spirituality and/or some sort of ‘liberated’ role in teaching and worship. He argues that Paul is advocating salvation within ordinary human life, as opposed to this special path offered by the false teachers.

4. Women taken in by this ignorant teaching were promoting it

Women in Ephesus also clearly had a role in promoting the false teaching that was taking place. 1 Timothy 1:6-7 accuses some would-be teachers of ignorance. 1 Timothy 5:13 speaks about women spreading “what should not be said” from house to house. The prohibition on teaching may relate to this influence of women on house churches—spreading the false teaching that has come to threaten the church in Ephesus.

5. The solution is to prohibit women from teaching until their ignorance has been addressed

France points out that authenteo (authority) is only used here in the NT. Some have argued from wider Greek usage (and particularly from the cognate noun) that it carries a pejorative sense (to usurp authority, or to bully). France says that it is an open question, but if Paul meant that women should not have authority at all, then he has chosen an obscure way of saying so.
Similarly, the word for silence is less to do with being quiet. Paul could have used sigao for silence, but instead uses esuchia, which means quietness of temperament rather than absence of noise (the opposite of authenteo if it has a pejorative sense).

It seems entirely possible that women were taking the initiative, asserting independence, becoming deceived by persuasive-but-ignorant teachers and passing on false teaching.

Craig Keener (IVP BBCNT) agrees then that the solution proposed by our ‘clear’ text has rather to do with the particular circumstances in this community. He says:

“The proper way for any novice to learn was submissively and ‘quietly’ (a closely related Greek term appears in 2:2 for all believers). Women were less likely to be literate than men, were trained in philosophy far less often than men, were trained in rhetoric almost never, and in Judaism were far less likely to be educated in the law. Given the bias against instructing women in the law, it is Paul’s advocacy of their learning the law, not his recognition that they started as novices and so had to learn quietly, that was radical and countercultural. Given women’s lack of training in the Scriptures (2:11), the heresy spreading in the Ephesian churches through ignorant teachers (1:4–7), and the false teachers’ exploitation of these women’s lack of knowledge to spread their errors (5:13; 2 Tim 3:6), Paul’s prohibition here makes good sense. His short-range solution is that these women should not teach; his long-range solution is ‘let them learn’ (2:11). The situation might be different after the women had been instructed (2:11; cf. Rom 16:1–4, 7; Phil 4:2–3).”

Of course it remains possible that Paul’s prohibition on women teaching and usurping authority may apply to Ephesus because it is a universal prohibition. However, evangelicals must also acknowledge that the contextual reading of Scripture produces a faithful reading of 1 Timothy that might mean women are perfectly entitled to teach provided that they have had the proper training (as is the case with the men). It is far from settled that this passage is the clear text with which others ought to be harmonised.

Counter-arguments

In response to the arguments just presented, some will say that the appeal to creation order in 1 Timothy 2 means that Paul’s instructions here are universal. We will examine this claim in my next post.

Some will say that the universality of these instructions is based on other texts about headship and not on this passage alone. This is true, and I do not mean to insinuate that the complementarian position is without merit. Nevertheless, France and others point out that that headship in marriage is never explicitly invoked as the pattern also for the church. The NT certainly gives instructions for the proper behaviour of married couples within the church (such as a woman still needing to recognise her husband’s authority in culturally appropriate ways—by covering her head, for example), but it does not say that man is the head of the church. On the contrary, it says that Christ is the head of the church as the husband is the head of the wife. This might easily be understood to mean that we all minister equally under Christ’s headship.

I encourage you to read the complete argument that RT France makes in this response to this objection.

As a parting shot, I would also add that it is not abundantly clear to me whether submission in marriage itself is universal or cultural. In other words, were Christians in Paul’s day to observe that order because God demands that order, or because God demands that we do not become representatives of rebellion in society? One might easily structure a marriage in partnership rather than through a hierarchy. This too will be the subject of a later post.

Clear evidence in the opposite direction?

If clear texts must interpret the unclear, then it remains an open question which texts are the clear ones governing this issue. FF Bruce suggested this one:

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28)

France (p. 91) adds: “At all points within the period of biblical history the working out of the fundamental equality expressed in Galatians 3:28 remain constrained by the realities of the time, and yet increasingly the church was rediscovering that in Christ there was the basis, indeed the imperative, for the dismantling of the sexual discrimination that had prevailed since the fall. How far along that trajectory it is appropriate and possible for the church to move at any subsequent stage in history must remain a matter for debate, as it is today. But the witness of the New Testament challenges us to question any aspect of our common life in Christ that does not give appropriate expression for our day and social context to the fundamental principle that there is ‘no longer male and female’.”

Whether this text ought to be our primary one in this debate is moot. However, there are several texts that strongly suggest that women did play an active, authoritative, and/or teaching role in the New Testament church. Here is a sample:

  • 1Cor. 11:5 implies that women could prophesy publicly (provided they had their heads covered). Prophecy is identified as the primary spiritual gift in the same book and at very least included a teaching component.
  • Some women converts are referred to as prominent (Acts 17:4, 12).
  • John Mark’s mother (Acts 12:12ff) and Lydia are church host in Philippi and a leading member (Acts 16).
  • Philip’s daughters were prophetesses (Acts 21:9).
  • Priscilla and Aquila were a prominent couple, involved in hosting a church, travelling with Paul, and training Apollos. Priscilla is typically given first billing (in all but their first introduction in Acts 18:2) which implies she had a primary role.
  • In Phil 4, Paul attempts to resolve a dispute between two leading women “who have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel” and whom he calls co-workers. Their conflict was sufficiently important that it represented a threat to the well-being of the whole church.
  • Romans 16 lists people that Paul specifically greets in Rome; ten of the 27 are women. Some are called “workers in the Lord” or “co-workers”. Junia is called an apostle. It ends with a commendation of Phoebe who may well have been the courier of the letter to Rome. She is called a deacon and patron.

Conclusion

The question of whether women should be given teaching roles and positions of leadership in the church is clearly a matter of dispute, and one over which Christians have legitimate grounds to disagree and to reach different conclusions.

The purpose of this post has not been to say that egalitarianism is the correct position, but rather to say that the insistence that complementarianism is the only faithful evangelical position is false. It is often presented as the clear teaching of Scripture, but as RT France says, “It is a good rule to interpret Scripture in the light of Scripture, and to interpret the more obscure in the light of the clearer. The above discussion suggests that 1 Timothy 2:8-15… falls rather firmly into the category of the more obscure!”

Given that this issue concerns the place and the image of more than half of the Christian world, it is one that we should be careful to rule on so categorically when the evidence is so mixed.

(Note: The introduction to this post has been edited to remove reference to a specific Christian community, as the intention is to illustrate rather than to criticise, but it is hard to name names without implying criticism.)

Advertisements

1. Ephesians 5 and the submission of the wife

There has long been controversy over Ephesians 5:15-33 and the question of the submission of a wife to her husband. With so much media attention (rightly) focused on pay gaps between the sexes and abusive and exploitative behaviour towards women in society, resistance to the idea that women ought to submit to their husbands is only likely to grow.

In this post, I aim simply to emphasise what seem to be clear guiding principles regarding headship and submission from this text—an issue that is not just important for marriage, but also because it influences how we understand the roles of men and women in the church “family” and Christian leadership more generally.

The HEadship of the Husband

Paul spends considerably more time defining the husband’s responsibilities than those of the wife, probably because his role is much more likely to be misunderstood.

Ephesians 5 begins with a general call for all of us to imitate God and to model our behaviour on the self-sacrificial love of Christ (5:1-2). The instructions that follow are all expressions of a relational principle encapsulated in Christ’s example: that of self-giving love for the other, rather than our natural impulse to serve ourselves.

While this is the general principle governing all of the household relationships, it is also one of the two illustrations that Paul applies specifically to the husband’s role in marriage. In particular, the husband should:

  • Love his wife with the kind of self-sacrifice with which Christ loved the church (5:25; cf. 5:2b)
  • Love his wife with the same measure of self-interest with which he would naturally love his own body (5:28-29)

“I’d die for you”

It is easy to talk about altruism. It is absurdly common to hear a man promise to die for his beloved (there are songs of this title by at least Air Supply, Bon Jovi, and The Weeknd), but it is just as common to hear of relationships dissolving because the man preferring to watch TV than to talk to his wife, or because he would never pick up his underwear off the floor. But we are almost never called upon to show love by dying. Love is tested by self-sacrifice in the decisions and annoyances of daily life. Paul’s second illustration is perhaps more challenging because it is a more common and realistic test: do you care for your wife like you feed your own body?

If these are the standards that Christ gives us for headship, it is obvious that this offers no licence for the husband to operate in a self-serving way. Paul is not arguing that the man is in God’s position in the sense that he is deserving of her unquestioning obedience. No, he says that the man is in Christ’s position in the sense that he is to empty himself for her sake. Those are very different analogies. Headship doesn’t compel obedience; it offers care and service.

“That he might sanctify her”

Between the analogies of Christ’s crucifixion (5:25) and our natural self-care (5:28), Paul discusses Christ’s purpose for sacrificing himself—namely, that his “bride” would be sanctified and purified of her blemishes. This is also instructive.

Note again that this is not to imply that the husband is responsible for his wife’s sanctification.  That, I take it, remains Christ’s work. It is not suggesting that the husband should decide what is best for his wife. No, Paul explicitly draws the parallel: “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.” It is a more general statement of care for the other in place of care for oneself.

I think that what verses 26-27 should do is deepen our perception of what it means to give oneself up for another. These verses remind us that when Christ gave himself up for his bride, she was not a bride who was already pure and beautiful. He gave himself up for a church in rebellion—the same church that crucified him—so that she would learn love.

So, if we would follow Christ’s example in our marriages, the argument from Ephesians seems to me not to support the idea that husbands can compel respect or submission or obedience, nor that the responsibility to love is in any way contingent on her “doing her end” and submitting (see the converse in 1 Peter 3:1-2, in which wives are encouraged to submit to unworthy husbands so that they might be won over). Husbands love their wives as Christ did: unconditionally, sacrificially and labouring to see them flourish.

The submission of the wife

In the same way as a husband loves his wife in imitation of Christ, the submission of the wife is equally an expression of this principle of imitation.

It is possible that Paul commands the submission of wife for husband because it was an expected social convention, and not necessarily because it is eternally the will of God for husbands to be heads and women to be in subjection. Either way the basic principle is the same: Christian submission is something that all of us must practice (Ephesians 5:21), because it acknowledges that order is a gift of God, and that it is an expression of love to behave respectfully within those orders that exist. (This is why we can still approve of Paul’s relational advice to slaves and masters in chapter 6 as wise, even though we would all disavow that social order.)

Paul commands submission because it is a means by which a wife can also give up her own self-serving desires and live out Christ’s love in her marriage. In this way there is a kind of equality, even in the midst of a social hierarchy: both headship and submission are expressions of love and self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other.

Christian Headship

Even if we accept the interpretation that male headship is God’s eternal pattern for human relationships, it seems to me that some Christian applications of this principle go beyond what this text teaches. The idea that a husband should be the family decision-maker does not follow from the fact of his headship. The idea that the husband rules the home and that the wife may offer no dissent is incoherent in the face of the example of Christ’s self-sacrifice that we are given.

This passage also does not dictate the terms of submission in marriage nor the roles that each sex should fulfil. There is no specific content to submission in this text—it does not seem to mean having no opinion, tending the home, having children, or earning less than the husband. Submission is merely made synonymous with respect (v33). A subservient, stay-at-home mum can live without ever respecting her husband, and a woman can be a CEO and respect her stay-at-home husband perfectly well. The point, in this text at least, is not to define social roles, but to encourage Christlike other-person-centredness in whatever roles we occupy.

The great difference between the headship of the husband and that of Christ is that Jesus is in nature God. The husband, on the other hand, is in nature a fool (hopefully undergoing some degree of transition towards wisdom). As wisdom literature keeps reminding us, none of us always knows what the best thing to do is, and we ignore advice and instruction at our peril. The wise man is humble and aware of his short-comings. As 1Corinthians reminds us, this is also why we have all been equipped with various gifts—we are inadequately equipped on our own. Christian headship, whether of the home or the church, ought to be continually aware of its need for instruction, correction, help, guidance etc. from the rest of the body. In marriage, that is primarily the service that wives provide. Similarly, the heads of Christian organisations ought to benefit from gifted individuals in the body—whether they are male or female.

Christian headship should avoid altruistic claims of servant-leadership (such as the promise to die for your loved ones or public foot-washing ceremonies) while at the same time ignoring the annoying day-to-day concerns of those under one’s care. Servant leadership sets aside the needs and wants and egos of the leader and focuses on the needs of the family.

Conclusion

If you are agitated by a picture of a headship in which the husband is so dominated by the concerns of his wife and in which the leader puts his employees and members first, then you’ve probably understood Paul correctly.

By nature we seek power and independence. Submission and headship are both ways in which we lose our claim to either.

#ChurchToo and a culture of everyday sexism?

The Harvey Weinstein case has launched the #MeToo campaign that has given much-needed space for victims of abuse and harassment to be heard. That there is a #ChurchToo tag that is gaining impetus should highlight the degree to which a low view of women and the impulse to protect men is also found in leading Christian institutions. For example, serious allegations have recently been made against:

  • The Master’s University: At a seminary associated with John MacArthur, a past student claims that she had been drugged and sexually abused by a friend of male students. As part of the ‘handling’ of the assault, the university is alleged to have put her in the same room as her attacker and insisted on mutual repentance and forgiveness. She struggled with the idea of repenting for being raped, and allegedly she was eventually forced out of the school.
  • Sovereign Grace Ministries: At the group of churches overseen by the Mahaneys, several cases of abuse, including child rape and molestation, have allegedly been covered up over the course of decades.
  • Andy Savage: Prominent pastor Andy Savage recently apologised publicly for a sexual sin committed when he was a younger youth pastor, which involved driving a 17-year-old youth member to a secluded place, instead of to her home as he had said, exposing himself and requesting oral sex. This was covered up by his minister at the time.

I don’t know to what degree the details as reported are correct, and in the case of MacArthur and Mahaney, they have denied knowledge of the specifics, but there appears to be sexual impropriety that is either criminal or, in Andy Savage’s case, spared from being so only by inhabiting the blurry areas of laws of consent. In each case, ministry leaders seem to have responded to complaints against perpetrators with cover-up and even victim blaming.

Perhaps more details will emerge to partially or fully exonerate some of these leaders, but either way, there is clearly something seriously wrong with the way in which our culture views women, and in the way in which usually male leadership deals with the victims. Even in #ChurchToo.

Why protect attackers?

Sometimes the ‘wisdom’ that church leaders apply to extreme cases reveals more about their personal value system than biblical justice. Motivations for suppressing sexual abuse scandals include that the Bible says we shouldn’t drag one another to court, or that it would embarrass the church, or that prosecuting the man would “destroy his life”.

Yes, the Bible encourages us to deal with disputes internally and without dragging one another to court. However, the issues in question tend to be matters of honour and shame or private debt rather than criminal behaviour.

On the contrary, Romans 13 insists that earthly authorities have been given the sword by God to execute justice and that it is the wrongdoer who rightly ought to be afraid of God’s secular servants of justice. Matters of criminality belong to the state. Church members, more so than other citizens not less, are accountable to the good laws of the society in which they live.

Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul criticises the church for protecting someone whose offence would have been seen as taboo throughout the ancient world. For the sake of the body, the reputation of the church, and indeed for the one found in sin, Paul commands that the person be expelled (even though the consequences might be severe [v.5]):

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. (1Co 5:1-2)

Paul criticises the Corinthians for being less wise and less morally upright than their non-Christian neighbours and he implies that the protection of such people does not insulate the church from shame, it is a source of shame.

The protection of sexual predators and other criminals in the church is evidently foolish and evil to the watching world, and these crimes clearly fall under the God-given authority of state justice (not merely internal church dispute). More than this, it seems to me to be a violation of what James 1 calls “undefiled religion”: we ought to be protecting the vulnerable, the weak, the disenfranchised, not those who exploit them. As Amos says, with crimes such as sexual abuse of the vulnerable very much in mind: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

Who do we value?

Finally, it seems to me that the treatment of aggressor and victim in cases such as the ones listed above might be an outworking of a skewed valuation of men and women in our churches. In spite of the fact that rape and sexual assault often damages or destroys the lives of victims, the concern is often for the “destroyed life” of the attacker should he be prosecuted. The idea that mutual repentance and forgiveness is appropriate in the case of a sex crime (and even the forced reconciliation of victim and attacker) is a shocking example of victim blaming that assumes women are complicit in their own assaults. It should worry us deeply that we feel the loss of a male leader more keenly than the damage done to his victim.

Furthermore, although the damage done by rape and assault can be immeasurable for the individual, a skewed valuation of women and the everyday sexism in which it is expressed is a steady, erosive drip that does widespread, ongoing damage. We should be appalled at the shocking stories of criminal abuses of women in church, but if we mourn the extreme injustices, should we not be working harder to expose the smaller, more covert prejudice against women in our church culture?

Conclusion

Our leaders are fallible and life is messy, and so it should not be too surprising that they have often invoked “biblical wisdom” in their judgments while making a mess of their ethics.

The point I’m hoping to make is that this is an extreme presentation of a problem that might be deeper and more subtle in our churches. For all our claims of love for others and equal value assigned to all, evidence keeps emerging that conservatives have inherited a culture that assigns different value to the sexes—and has made a virtue of discrimination. It is a culture that seems to me at least in part to be based more on mid-century values than the Scriptures it invokes.

For the next little while, I want to devote some posts to an investigation of this issue. I can’t hope to do all of its facets the remotest justice, but I hope to provoke some honest examination of ourselves and the Bible so that we can be clear where our church culture is driven by Scripture and where everyday sexism takes over.

EDIT: I just came across this article about a Modesto woman abused several years ago (over a period of years) by a now-prominent pastor (http://www.modbee.com/news/article202019094.html). It underlines several things, including that motivations for covering up abuse include that it will cause embarrassment for the church.