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Whenever I hear the word “submission” I am immediately transported back to my childhood home. We were staunchly rooted in a conservative, Christian tradition, and my family prided itself on having a high view of Scripture. There were a number of beliefs affected by this high view of Scripture (which, for the record I still hold to!), but few made their way into the everyday vocabulary of my family more often than submission. We were instructed to see complementarian gender roles as one of the foundational building blocks of a godly family, and ensuring a healthy sense of submission was front and center when building that foundation.

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Since the middle of the twentieth century there has been an ongoing, sometimes acrimonious debate over the meaning of “head” (Greek, kephalē) in Paul’s letters, especially 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23. This article is an attempt to review the most significant scholarly literature that has emerged in the debate and to summarize each without critique. 

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Many Christians, certainly most egalitarians, are familiar with Ephesians 5:21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (NIV). But as well-known as this passage is, it’s still common to wonder what mutual submission actually looks like in practice. Here’s my take on it.

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Where and how we start in our interpretation of Scripture determines where we will end up. When seeking to understand the relevance of the Bible’s teaching for our lives, interpretive starting points are particularly significant. The method by which we read and derive meaning from Scripture is the fundamental determinant of the nature of the meaning we will derive.

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I recently wrote a book about marriage. It is a mix of personal narrative, cultural commentary, and biblical reflection. As it turns out, you cannot write about marriage from a Christian perspective without addressing texts such as this one. 

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As I grow older, I relate to the Bible as I do my long term friends. Some friends I can remember in their teens, then twenties, and thirties. I remember the struggles we have faced over the years, the victories we have celebrated together, and how our values have grown and changed over time. 

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The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood created quite a sensation by paying for a two page advertisement in the January 13, 1989 issue of Christianity Today. The group was begun in response to groups such as Christian for Biblical Equality because, Wayne House explains, “There is a tendency to think biblical feminism is the only biblical view.”1 What a great affirmation to biblical feminists who hold the Bible as authoritative and reliable that some should now see our position as “the only biblical view”!

However, this Council believes (among other things) that “Scripture affirms male leadership in the home” between “the loving, humble leadership of redeemed husbands and the intelligent, willing support of that leadership by redeemed wives.” In contrast, many fine studies have been done to disprove the notion that Ephesians 5:22-23 affirms male leadership in the home.2 I would like to reinforce those studies by an in depth look at the literary context of the passage, and also by highlighting the figurative language Paul uses. 

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We Lutherans all want to argue on the basis of God's revealed truth in the authoritative Scripture. Yet all of us come to this debate with our own personal history and agenda. My own history includes aversion to women in the public ministry as a result of experiences, first as a teenager, then as a student in Germany. More recently, I have developed a growing understanding of the just claims of Christian women who have been disempowered and marginalized in the church and a horror for what has been perpetrated in the name of male headship. A re-examination of the texts and another (this time happy) experience of having a woman as my pastor in the United States about a decade ago led me to abandon my previously held view that the ordination of women is not the Lord's will for his church today. I am now convinced to the contrary, although I do not like using the broad term feminist. My own personal pain is not only that close friends and relatives hold an opposing view, but that I fully understand that view as one who once held it (this is not said in any spirit of superiority).

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The phone rings just as I sit down to dinner. The voice asks, “Is this the head of the house?” Should my answer be brave or honest? I reply, “It depends on what you mean by head.”

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Considered the most influential woman affiliated with the Welsh Revivals (1904–05) and earlier the Keswick Conventions (1875–1910), Jessie Penn-Lewis (1861–1927) distinguished herself as a writer, speaker, and advocate of women’s public ministry. A cru­cicentrist of the highest order, Penn-Lewis’s egalitarian theol­ogy grew out of her understanding of Christ’s completed work on Calvary. For Penn-Lewis, the cross provides not only forgive­ness for sin (redemption), but also victory over sin and preju­dice (sanctification). Crucicentrists like Penn-Lewis celebrated the social consequences of Calvary that included unity and rec­onciliation, not only between men and women, but also among individuals once hostile to one another. Thus, Penn-Lewis’s sote­riology (what she understood about the work of Christ) shaped her egalitarian ecclesiology (what she understood about the work of the church). She promoted this view through her writings and leadership initially within the early Keswick Conventions and ul­timately within evangelical circles around the world.

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