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Microscopes and Women's Equality: Looking at the Big Picture of Scripture

by James MacKenzie | December 29, 2021

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2021 Writing Contest Top 15 Winner!

I am an everyday egalitarian. I am an egalitarian in that I believe in the complete equality of men and women in the church, home, and world. I am an everyday egalitarian in that I am not a church leader, pastor, or professional theologian. Perhaps I should also say that I am a biblical egalitarian. I am an egalitarian because of what the Bible teaches.

I was not always an egalitarian. For many years I was a hierarchical complementarian. Yet I was not entirely comfortable with this position in the church I attended and became less so around twenty years ago. That was when I noticed that obviously gifted female Bible teachers were not permitted to teach men and women while men who often lacked any gifting were permitted to teach everyone. And then those women who were allowed to teach generally did it in a low-key sort of way in a women's Bible study group during the week—never in the pulpit on Sunday. A curious situation, I thought. The all-male church leadership who presided over this arrangement was confident that they had biblical support for doing so. I wasn’t. And so began my journey to egalitarianism.

It isn’t my intention to discuss specific Bible passages which helped me become an egalitarian. This is because that kind of detailed study wasn’t what led me to this position. Rather, considering the totality of the Bible's teaching enabled me to see the broad sweep of redemption history and so enabled me to correctly understand those specific parts which more narrowly bore upon the question of male and female relations in the church, home, and world.

Don’t Start with the Tiny Details

In this article I would like to share my method of Bible study with you. Any Christian with one or more good modern English Bible translations at their disposal might employ this method. No commentaries or understanding of ancient languages is required. Our quest is to understand holistically the Bible's teaching on men and women and to answer the question: Does the Bible teach the substantial equality of men and women or not? In other words, does the Bible support an egalitarian or a hierarchical complementarian position?

My method of Bible study is drawn from my work as an anatomic pathologist, which involved spending thousands of hours at the microscope studying human tissue samples in order to diagnose diseases. As I became more experienced in my profession, I learned the crucial importance of taking a low-power view of the tissue—often with a x4 magnification objective lens of the microscope—before studying any small part of it with the high-power (x40) lens. Inexperienced pathologists almost always went for the x40 lens first and so often made the completely wrong diagnosis.

Let me give you an example. A patient presents with neurological symptoms. The MRI scan reveals an abnormal mass in the brain. The neurosurgeon excises this mass and sends it for pathology. An inexperienced pathologist, using the x40 lens first, sees an area of dead tissue resembling pus and makes a diagnosis of an abscess. An experienced pathologist, however, taking a low-power—panoramic, if you like—view discerns that the area of dead tissue forms only a small part of an extensive cellular abnormality strongly suggestive of a tumor. Taking account of the contours of the tumor and its relationship to the surrounding brain tissue on low-power examination, the experienced pathologist makes the correct diagnosis of a secondary malignant tumor. Only then is the x40 lens used, and the close-up appearance of the cells indicates that the secondary tumor has probably spread from a primary tumor in the lung. The correct diagnosis has been reached by taking a low-power view first and then fine-tuning the diagnosis based on a high-power view.

Start with a Sweeping Panoramic View of the Bible

When it comes to the vitally important question of the biblical view on men and women, I think we need to take a similar approach. If we focus on a high-power examination of small details, such as certain apparently contentious verses in Paul's letters and the meaning of a few specific words such as "head" and "authority," it’s much easier to reach the wrong diagnosis with regard to the Bible's teaching on men and women. To arrive at the correct diagnosis (i.e., correctly understand the Bible's teaching), I think we need to take a low-power, panoramic view of the complete sweep of the biblical revelation of God's redemptive purpose. Then against this backdrop we can correctly understand where the small details fit in.

In the beginning, in Genesis 1 and 2, there is no suggestion at all that the man and woman God created to bear his image and rule his creation were in any sense unequal. Although biologically different, they were functionally equal.

Enter sin in Genesis 3.

Hierarchy and male domination began with the entrance of sin into the world. Irrespective of whether God's words "he will rule over you" in Genesis 3:16 are descriptive (and I believe they are), meaning this was how male and female relations would be in a now fallen world, or prescriptive, meaning this is a judgment on the man and woman, there can be no doubt that men ruling women is a consequence of sin and its curse. We see this in relations between men and women throughout the Old Testament. Patriarchal hierarchy is now normative and male-female relations often dysfunctional.

Enter Jesus, the promised seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15), the God-Man who came to redeem us from the curse of sin which is exposed by the law of God (Gal. 3:13). And if hierarchy and male domination of women were consequences of the entrance of sin into the world and its curse, then Christ came to redeem us from that curse. The new creation, God's new humanity, the redeemed in Christ, are free from the curse of hierarchy and the male domination of women and so, in Christ, there is neither male nor female—not in the sense that sex and gender differences don't exist, but that they are irrelevant to leadership and service (Gal. 3:28).

So in the church, men and women should lead and teach on the basis of their spiritual gifting, regardless of gender. At the birth of the church on the Day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter made this very clear. The Holy Spirit is poured out on all God’s servants, men and women, and they will prophesy, declaring the word of the Lord (Acts 2:17–18). There is no hint that the spiritual gifts are gendered (see, for example, Eph. 4:11–13). Therefore, men and women should use, and be permitted to use, the gifts Christ has given them for building up the whole church, the body of Christ.

Embrace How the Bigger Picture of Scripture Influences Daily Practices

Now that we have taken a panoramic view, we are in a better position to turn up the magnification on verses like 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” Having established that the broad sweep of redemption history is egalitarian, we will suspect that Paul cannot be prescribing that only men can teach and lead in church and that women are prohibited from teaching or leading in all ages and situations. There must be some other explanation of his words which harmonizes with the Bible's big picture and doesn't do violence to redemption history.

It is a grave mistake to build a theology of male and female relations in the church and home on a few verses which do not fit with the general panorama of redemption. That would be to make a serious misdiagnosis by using the x40 objective lens of the microscope when the correct diagnosis may be reached with the x4 lens.

And so to conclude, my advice on Bible interpretation for everyday egalitarians is this: look at the big picture of the Bible story and get that clear. Then you won't be spooked when a hierarchical complementarian points to a certain word or verse and tells you that the Bible teaches male rulership in the church and home and forbids women from leading and teaching. And if they are open to the possibility that they may be wrong, suggest they go back to their Bible, zoom out, and look at the big picture.

Photo by Trust "Tru" Katsande on Unsplash.


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Gender Balance: A Freeing Way to Read, Hear, and Teach the Scriptures
Without Gender Equality, Our Gospel Has A Hole In It
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