The Basics of Biblical Equality: Belief and Practice

by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis

Belief in biblical equality is grounded in the biblical teaching that all believers have been given authority in Christ. The claim of equal authority for both men and women is not based on the feminism of secular culture, but on the biblical data, which upholds the freedom and authority of both men and women in Christ. While feminist ideology is derived from cultural factors and philosophies, biblical equality is grounded simply and solely in the properly consistent interpretation of God’s Word.

Like most cultural systems of thought, feminist ideology is partly true and partly false (almost entirely false at this point in history!). But the question at stake for Christian believers is not whether feminism is good or bad. The issue is not about feminism. It is about our willingness and ability to discern what the Bible says—as well as what it does not say—about the place of women and men in the body of Christ.

Biblical equality does not mean that men and women are identical or undifferentiated. God has created and designed men and women to complement and benefit one another, and there do seem to be average differences in behavior (both learned and intrinsic) between women and men.

Biblical equality does mean that gender, in and of itself, neither privileges nor curtails a believer’s gifting or calling to any ministry in the church or home; that all believers in Christ stand on equal ground before God; and that spiritual authority, as biblically defined, is as much a female believer’s privilege and responsibility as it is a male believer’s. All believers stand on the same biblical terms of faith and service, in accordance with the ways in which each one is gifted and called.

I. Basic Beliefs

1. According to Genesis 1:26-28, both male and female reflect and represent God by virtue of the divine image, and both represent God as authoritative agents who rule the earth under God. This creational rule consists of “the ongoing activity of God’s ordering and creating in the world and in civilization” (Hess, Discovering Biblical Equality, 82). Although human sin has defaced the divine image in humanity and skewed the authority that man and woman once shared together, God has provided redemption for us. In Christ all of redeemed humanity is authorized and obligated to obey and to proclaim the Word of God to both the church and the world. Our authority to rule and to proclaim rests in the authority of Scripture and the authority of our risen Lord, not in any particular human quality or distinctive feature such as gender.

2. The Holy Spirit gifts, equips and calls members of Christ’s body to various spiritual ministries. Quite simply, if you have a gift, you should use it. (See 1 Peter 4:10-11, Romans 12:3-8.)

3. The submission texts do not speak of the authority of male over female as a timeless creational mandate, but rather of the biblical principle—emphasized especially in Christ’s teaching and the letters of Paul and Peter—that all believers should be submissive to one another rather than seeking to rule others, and should, as well, submit to the civil laws and cultural standards of the day to the extent that they do not require disobedience to God’s law. Thus women in the New Testament church, who were in many ways culturally and legally subordinate to men, were instructed to comply with their social role in a manner that brings glory to God—yet with the understanding that within the Body of Christ there will be a mutual sharing and edification through gifts and callings as determined by the Spirit and not by gender or race or any such old covenant classification.

4. There are two priesthoods under the new covenant in Christ: the high priesthood of Christ, who is the only mediator between God and humans (1 Tim 2:5, Heb 4:14; 6:20; 8:1-2), and the priesthood of all believers, both women and men (1 Pet 2:5, 9; Rev 1:6; 5:10). These two priesthoods leave no room for a priesthood of Christian manhood whereby God’s Word and will are mediated for woman via man’s spiritual authority over her.

5. The biblical truth of women’s spiritual and ontological equality entails that women and men stand on equal ground before God; thus they share equally in creational authority, personal agency and responsibility, and spiritual rights and privileges (e.g., Gen 1:28, Gal 3:28, 1 Pet 3:7).

6. Despite the patriarchal-complementarian (PC) role rhetoric, woman’s subordinate “role” is not merely a role or functional difference. If, as the PC view contends, woman's role is grounded in and intrinsic to God's original creation design, then woman's subordination to man's authority is a necessary and permanent element of woman's unalterable ontology. It is the way God made her to be. This, then, logically entails woman’s fundamentally subordinate being. Since we know from Scripture that man and woman are created equal in being, woman’s subordination is therefore contradicted by woman’s equality. The fundamentally equal “being” of women and men rules out any creationally-grounded subordination of women to men.

II. Putting it into Practice

Many individuals, churches, and ministries are not well acquainted with biblical equality, nor do they understand its biblical basis. How can those who are persuaded of the biblical truth of gender equality live out their beliefs without offending, alarming, and alienating those who believe otherwise? Here are just a few suggestions, applicable especially to those who are in any level of leadership in a church or Christian organization that includes a mix of both egalitarians and complementarians.

1. Do not impugn the motives of those who disagree with biblical equality, but assume that they hold to the PC position because they want to be faithful to the Bible—the same reason that biblically consistent egalitarians hold their position.

2. Encourage believers to regard one another with equal respect and mutual submission, and not to seek status, power or control over others—in accordance with the words of Jesus (Mt. 20:25-28), Paul (Eph. 5:21) and Peter (1 Pet. 3:8). At the same time, seek to honor the New Testament principle of conforming to cultural standards that are consistent with biblical ethics, in order not to distract from the gospel by causing unnecessary offense or divisiveness. Of course, in this instance the issue would be church culture, not the Greco-Roman/Jewish culture of Paul’s time. (These suggestions follow from point 3 in the “Basic Beliefs” section above.)

3. Seek to find a way to affirm and utilize everyone’s gifts and callings in the church. This may require some creativity in developing ministry opportunities that not only are biblically based but will be perceived as such by the majority in the church. For example, one large church that I know of changed the title of their leadership ministries from “pastor” to “minister,” and the church came to accept women serving in these positions (since, after all, ministry is expected of all believers).

4. Take particular care to affirm and respect women with gifts in leadership and/or scholarship (since these gifts are considered unconventional for women in conservative church cultures), and seek to make use of these gifts for the good of the church, yet without forcing an agenda that would upset people unnecessarily or distract them from discipleship and ministry.

5. Begin some discussion and teaching on the one thing both sides in the gender debate agree on, namely, the equality in being of both women and men. This could include teaching on the nature of humanity, the image of God in humanity, the authority given to both men and women at creation, and the theological implications of spiritual equality (or inequality). It could also include discussing questions such as: What does it mean to be human, created in God’s image? What does it mean for both sexes and all racial and ethnic groups to be fully human, and to stand on equal ground before God? What are our distinctively human qualities? What spiritual capacities and responsibilities do we all have? How then ought we regard and treat one another? How ought we relate to and communicate with God?

F. F. Bruce sums up the strategy well: “An appeal to first principles [i.e., Paul’s governing principle of true freedom in Christ] in our application of the New Testament demands nothing should be done to endanger the unity of a local church. Let those who understand the scriptures along the lines indicated [i.e., equality in Christ] have liberty to expound them thus, but let them not force the pace or try to impose their understanding of the scriptures until that understanding finds general acceptance with the church—and when it does, there will be no need to impose it.” (F. F. Bruce, “Women in the Church: A Biblical Survey,” Christian Brethren Review 33 [Dec. 1982]: 7-14)

Additional Resources

For a succinct discussion of all the relevant New Testament texts, see my essay, “The Bible and Gender Equality.”

For a deeper understanding of the salient biblical texts, see these chapters in Discovering Biblical Equality: 4, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 21.

For a thorough critique of the equal being/unequal role construct, see my chapter 18 in Discovering Biblical Equality.