Biblical egalitarians rightly argue that the Bible does not support the perpetual and cross-cultural priority of men over women in the home, the church, or society. Biblical scholars, theologians, social scientists, philosophers, and others have given a solid defense, or apologetic, to this end. However, there is another apologetic mission that egalitarians are in a unique and opportune position to fulfill. This involves presenting the message of biblical equality to the unbelieving world in a persuasive manner, thus winning to Christ people who might never be touched by traditionalist approaches.
Scripture calls us to defend the Christian faith, as Paul did when he declared to King Festus, “What I am saying is true and reasonable” (Acts 26:25). Peter exhorted his readers: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Jude wrote: “Contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). These and many other texts set forth the apologetic task of the church: to defend the objective truth and existential relevance of the Christian world view so that the intellectual obstacles that foster unbelief are removed and faith becomes possible. Apologetics is required as a kind of pre-evangelism when people resist the gospel because of intellectual hesitation, confusion, or hostility.
While the apologetic imperative rests on the church in every age, the shape of apologetics will vary in light of the particular culture in which one ministers. For instance, Paul presented the same gospel in different ways in the book of Acts. To the Jews, he emphasized Jesus as the fulfillment of messianic prophecy and as a worker of miracles. To the Gentiles (who were without the Hebrew Scriptures), he appealed to God as creator and sustainer and quoted from their own writings to establish common ground for the gospel (see Acts 17:22- 31).
Apologetics addresses arguments for God’s existence, offers reasons to believe that the Scriptures speak truly, and responds to intellectual challenges to Christian truth, such as the problem of evil. Today a pressing concern for unbelievers is what the Bible says about gender roles. Many nonChristians reject Christianity because they see it as unfairly restricting women. Traditionalists with big names and huge organizations win the headlines with their pronouncements about female submission to male authority. Many unbelievers recoil in horror, and reject the gospel without further thought. Some who see Christians as worshipping a male God who appoints men to control women may embrace goddess worship to counteract such religious patriarchy.
This ought not be! Although we should never dilute the Bible’s message to suit the sinful predilections of the unrepentant, and the gospel will always offend human pride (see 1 Corinthians 1-2), the traditionalist message of male primacy is not true to Scripture and so should not present a stumbling block to unbelievers. The good news of biblical equality is not simply for the benefit of Christians. It is also good news for those who resist the Christian message because they perceive it to be sexist.
A woman who is called to submit unilaterally to the lordship and saving work of Jesus Christ is not thereby called to submit unilaterally to men in the church and in the home simply because she is a woman. A man who is called to follow Christ is not thereby obligated, simply because he is a man, to bear the burden of being the “spiritual priest of the home,” who is responsible for the spiritual growth of his family in a way that his wife is not. Let us not multiply offenses unnecessarily! Taking up the cross of Christ does not entail taking up the gender prejudices of a church in need of reform and renewal.
Biblical egalitarians rightly argue that the few restrictive biblical passages regarding women’s conduct (such as 1 Timothy 2:11-15) addressed local situations which made women’s leadership unwise at that time. I recently had the pleasure of hearing Professor I. Howard Marshall explain his view of this passage to an academic group. As one of the world’s leading evangelical experts on the pastoral epistles, Marshall argued that Paul’s prohibition of women teaching was rooted in specific problems at Ephesus that affected the women of that assembly more than they did the men. He argued that this epistle advises men to serve in church leadership only because the culture was not ready for women in those positions. In other words, it was not apologetically proper given the cultural context. However, Marshall sees no reason to restrict women in these ways today, given women’s very different place in our culture.
It is apologetically unwise and offensive to prohibit gifted women from ministering at every level of the church and from having equal say and status in the home.
When non-Christian women and men find women thriving at all levels of leadership in secular culture (even if women are still underrepresented in many areas), what are they to think when they visit First Evangelical Church only to find it dominated by men? What will they make of the sermons on the man’s authoritative role and the woman’s submissive role? The traditionalist explanation that women are equal to men in being, but merely different in function, does not suffice, as Rebecca Merrill Groothuis points out in chapters two and three of Good News for Women. Traditionalists must defend an intrinsically unjust arrangement whereby women are perpetually, universally, and cross-culturally denied opportunities to serve and grow strictly because of their gender and despite their proven abilities. Yet traditionalists say women are (somehow) equal to men! This is illogical and indefensible; therefore, it makes for atrocious apologetics. In fact, it repels people unnecessarily.
Egalitarians have spilled much ink, spoken many words, prayed thousands of prayers, and cried a river of tears in the hopes of convincing our traditionalist brothers and sisters of the truth of biblical equality. We must not stop. However, let us not neglect the apologetic resources at our disposal for reaching a world without Christ. Let us write letters to the editor, submit op-ed pieces to the newspaper, give public lectures, preach apologetic sermons, teach adult education classes, and tell our friends and families about the full liberation that Jesus brings to all of life, such that in Christ “there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:26-28).