Biblical Gender Equality At Campbellsville | CBE International

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Biblical Gender Equality At Campbellsville

On November 04, 2015

Last spring, I received an email from Southern Baptist affiliate Campbellsville University (Campbellsville, KY) informing me of their intention to join CBE as an organization member. I learned that a private donor had funded a five-year annual lectureship, the first of which would be led by me. I was also invited to lead a convocation chapel, give two classroom lectures, and address the annual Kentucky Heartland Institute on Public Policy (KHIPP).

What could inspire such profound commitment to biblical gender equality at Campbellsville University (CU)?

Several years back, two CU faculty members volunteered in CBE's office for a few weeks over the summer. A planned mission trip had been cancelled and they had time on their hands. They wanted to spend it serving an organization with a mission they were passionate about.

Drs. Susan and Dwayne Howell joined CBE staff in a brief but enormously fruitful partnership. The Howells jumped in, eager to write, speak, and edit our publications. Avid advocates of biblical gender equality, the Howells' commitment to and capacity for this work proved deeply inspiring. CBE continues to rely on their scholarly expertise as writers, speakers, chapter leaders, and as members of CBE's scholarly peer review team.

And, I'm overjoyed to observe our collaboration grow.

When I was invited to speak at Campbellsville University this fall, Drs. Dwayne and Susan Howell asked me to address their Bible and gender classes as well.

Their "Old Testament Prophets" class was a cozy gathering of biblically-alert students. Together, we considered "A Holistic Hermeneutic to Woman as Ezer--Strong Rescue" noting that from Genesis to Revelation, women leaders served with enormous authority despite the patriarchy of Bible culture. We considered identity markers for woman in Genesis, particularly that of ezer--strong rescue. Following this theme through the remainder of Scripture, we concluded that women were not only prophets and leaders in business and the military, but that Deborah was a prophet, judge, and the "mother of Israel."

Despite the predominant sway of patriarchy throughout church history, women have served the world fearlessly with their spiritual, moral, and intellectual gifts. Women have risen above the marginalization and oppression dealt to them, proving they are indeed created in God's image for shared authority and leadership beside men.

Focusing on the New Testament, we observed women's strong spiritual rescue as preachers, evangelists, prophets, teachers, deacons, apostles, and martyrs. I was inspired and heartened by CU students' commitment to a deep understanding of Scripture. A woman in the class took me aside after our discussion to thank me for my work. She said that my lecture, the first she had heard as a Bible major, was a "wink" from God. She was inspired to see a woman lifting high Scripture's support for women like her, passionate about ministry and the gospel.

I left the room thinking that Lottie Moon, perhaps the most gifted, tenacious, and courageous evangelist to call herself a Baptist, would have been proud of her spiritual sister preparing for a career in which she could be "bold for the Lord."

I delivered my next lecture to a gender studies class. I was astonished at the number of students, male and female, that were interested in biblical gender equality. Together, we considered the crucial issue: "Equal in Being but Unequal in Service?". Throughout history, the church has offered three positions on gender and leadership:

  1. Unequal in being, therefore unequal in authority (a patriarchal perspective)
  2. Equal in being, therefore equal in authority (an egalitarian perspective)
  3. Equal in being, but therefore unequal in authority (a complementarian perspective)

We explored how, despite the predominant sway of patriarchy throughout church history, women have served the world fearlessly with their spiritual, moral, and intellectual gifts. Women have risen above the marginalization and oppression dealt to them, proving they are indeed created in God's image for shared authority and leadership beside men (Gen. 1:26-29). A consistent and fair historical overview of women's leadership challenges the theological devaluation of women.

I was again impressed by the knowledge of these students. They fiercely acknowledged the lapse in logic and the distortion of Scripture in arguing that women are equal in being without equal authority. They agreed that to be equal agents of Christ is to share agency and authority. 

Just as the Holy Spirit fell on the diverse crowd of witnesses gathered at Pentecost, so too did a wind of faith inspire these young scholars to be the face, hands, and feet of Christ.

That evening, I had the distinguished honor of addressing faculty, students, and guests at KHIPP. The room was packed for my lecture on the "Invisible Power of Culture to Oppress: What Every Christian Needs to Know about Gender and Justice" (available at https://vimeo.com/140681890).

Together, we considered how, historically, the superiority of males has been viewed as an innate and fixed condition--and nearly every religious or philosophical tradition has incorporated this position as part of their teachings and practices.

Though this view gained ground after Constantine, it was the early evangelicals who provided the first systematic challenge not only to slavery, but also to patriarchy. Their biblical scholarship dismantled a worldview, adopted by Christians, that presumed superiority based on gender and skin color (ethnicity). Because of the "egalitarian" scholarship of early evangelicals, many Christians today have thoroughly embraced the biblical logic that all believers, regardless of gender or skin color are equally valued by God and called to leadership based on their gifts and Christian character.

Even so, too many Christians retain a hierarchical worldview, insisting on equal value but unequal authority.

The legacy of the early evangelicals was the sweeping theological and social reform that fueled abolition and the fight for suffrage---and its intellectual, spiritual, and social benefits for women and slaves. Significantly, women missionaries vastly outnumbered men in the global mission field in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. These female evangelists were on the front lines of social justice, especially in their challenge to the horrific human trafficking and slavery of women and girls.

At the time, many Christian leaders believed that social justice was essential to evangelism. On this point, we observe a difference of perspective among some evangelicals today.

Thankfully, my audience at Campbellsville was filled with individuals who hold the same priorities as these early evangelicals. By the end of the lecture, some students were ready to launch a CBE campus chapter for the purpose of dismantling patriarchy as a biblical ideal and practice.

When Campbellsville arrived at a different interpretation of Scripture regarding gender, they joined the ranks of a long line of earnest believers who, since the early church, have come to the same conclusion.

Over dinner, we discussed the challenges marginalized individuals face because of gender or ethnicity--particularly within evangelical institutions. Together, we explored practical ways that the church and Christians institutions could become a place of welcome and support for women.

I completed my visit with a convocation chapel address to the students, faculty, and administrators at Campbellsville University on "The Dignity and Power of Diversity: Union with Christ our Truest Identity."

We celebrated the miracle of the early church--its unity of purpose and proclamation despite the enormous cultural, economic, ethnic, and gender diversity. My address focused on this question: how can we consider the outcome of their work and imitate their lives?

As I finished outlining my biblical approach to the shared leadership of males and females, I concluded:

"Be careful never to limit the scope of another believer. You can never know what a follower of Jesus is capable of, because God's Spirit is working in them, doing more than we think or imagine possible--Ephesians 3:20. And, that is the power of the gospel!"

In these two short but full days at Campbellsville, I met many Christians determined to remove cultural biases in reading Scripture and serving God. Hundreds of resources were distributed and many ideas were exchanged.

I would later learn of heart-wrenching falsehoods spread about Campbellsville and their biblical integrity in their community. Even in the midst of this, Campbellsville remains boldly committed to the mission of biblical gender equality.

Unlike many of their Baptist colleagues, they see a message in Scripture that extends equal dignity to men and women, including equal authority. They see provision in the gospel for women to serve Jesus in any capacity in the world, church, and home. And in truth, their willingness to come to a different theological position than is widely accepted in the Baptist community is, well, very Baptist indeed. After all, Baptists have a long tradition of resisting church hierarchy.

Their divergence from other Baptists on women's vocation and calling does not mean they reject the teachings of the Bible. No, the truth is far from it. They are a rigorous community of scholars and students. When Campbellsville arrived at a different interpretation of Scripture regarding gender, they joined the ranks of a long line of earnest believers who, since the early church, have come to the same conclusion.

I had to smile as I left Campbellsville to fly the short distance home, recalling gratefully how welcome I felt in this community of Christ-followers. Perhaps we should hold our next conference at Campbellsville!


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