For nearly forty years of teaching biblical and theological studies at Biola University, I have been a person of the Book. Consequently, it was careful and open-minded study of Scripture during my first ten years of teaching that led me to become a passionate advocate for biblical, gender equality. This brief survey of the six most often debated “gender texts” summarizes my reasons for such an important change of mind.
Genesis 1-3; 5:1–2
Several things are clear in this foundational creation narrative. Humanity, as male and female, is formed equally in God's image, and as male and female, they are told to subdue and rule the rest of creation together. Though Adam appears first, Eve is shortly thereafter named the mother of all humanity. Although she is formed from him, it is for the purpose of becoming his corresponding partner—united as one flesh. Patriarchy appears only as part of the judgment on the couple’s shared sins—it is absent from God’s good intentions in creation.
In one of Paul's earliest recorded comments on gender (ca. AD 49-55), a single statement like "There is…no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" must be interpreted in light of its historical, cultural, and literary contexts. This interpretive principle holds true for every passage in Scripture. In this particular letter, the Apostle to the Gentiles insists that old covenant privileges for Jewish people are irrelevant in the new covenant community. Paul briefly, but clearly, applies this paradigm of Jew/Gentile equality to slaves and free persons, as well as to male and female—and without qualification. Twelve times over, Paul calls believers in Galatia to live their lives in reflection of their oneness in Christian community.
1 Corinthians 7
In another one of his earliest letters (AD 55), Paul moves beyond a single comment on gender to a lengthy treatise—in fact, his longest collection of remarks on gender—specifically regarding marriage and singleness. Here, he evenhandedly addresses men and women on twelve separate issues: fidelity in marriage, marital rights, authority in sexual intimacy, consent for times of abstinence, remarriage after a spouse dies, divorcing a believing or unbelieving spouse, a sanctifying influence on one’s spouse and children, responsibility and peace if one leaves, a saving influence on the other, seeking a change of marital status, and devoting oneself to ministry. Paul’s explicit advocacy of gender mutuality in this text has yet to receive the attention it deserves in the contemporary debate.
Directly following an admonition regarding "submitting to one another," Paul gives a single command each to wives and husbands. She should submit herself to him as unto Christ and he should love her as Christ sacrificially loves the church. These are the only two prescriptions in this passage. Although the husband is described as "head," he is called only to love sacrificially—another form of yielding to his wife. Scholars may debate whether the "head/body" metaphor connotes “leader” or “source” in this passage. Whichever is intended (I’m convinced it is the latter), Paul turns the then-current notion on its “head” by putting it into the context of mutual submission.
1 Corinthians 11:2–16
All agree that this passage presents significant exegetical problems: 1) the meaning of the "head" metaphor (without a body) as it applies to God as father, Christ as son, man, and woman, 2) the shifting interplay between "head" as literal and symbolic, 3) headcoverings or hairstyles in public worship, and 4) what the command to "have authority over her 'head'" means for women while praying and prophesying in Christian assembly. Despite these very real challenges, one enduring principle seems reasonably clear: God wants believers to honor and celebrate the gift of gender diversity evident in our creation as male and female in the way we present ourselves in public—yet with the understanding that women may freely participate as anointed spokespersons for God.
1 Timothy 2:8–15
This may be Paul's latest extant letter (AD 62-64), written just a few years after Ephesians and to the same church. In it, he commands men to pray more and fight less, and women to focus on godly character and good deeds rather than flaunting wealth, appearance, and status. However, his “not permitting a woman to teach or to assume authority” has evoked significantly different interpretations among scholars—down to the very translation of what kind of teaching Paul is prohibiting (Greek authentein). Is it teaching and "exercising" authority as church leaders? Or, is he telling these influential Ephesian women not to teach in a "domineering, usurping or assuming" way (an inappropriate kind of teaching for men or women)? The latter seems far more likely given the circumstances under which Paul writes (Ephesus’s Artemis cult) and his particular use of three issues from Genesis 2-3 (sequence of creation, deception in sin, and suffering in childbearing).
In sum, in the slow, sometimes tedious, and often risky process of reevaluating my own thinking on this important issue, I discovered—to my surprise—a thoroughly biblical understanding of gender equality in both being and function. In fact, it is because men and women are created fully equal in being (status) before God that we should live out that equality (function) in yielded lives of mutual interdependence and sacrificial love for one another. I believe that Paul would have viewed anything less than this as a truncated version of the full gospel of Jesus Christ.