Plato said ideas rule the world. All action begins with an idea. Paul said, “Take every thought captive to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Why? Because ideas have consequences.
The most prominent indicator of whether a girl will be sold to a brothel, killed as a fetus, abused in her marriage or family, or denied a place of decision making in her church, community, or marriage is not based on her gender, but the value ascribed to the female gender. In study after study, research suggests that when a culture values females as much as males, we are more likely to see equal numbers of girls surviving to adulthood. Gender justice begins with an idea—that males and females are of equal value.
Thus, for every devaluation made of at the level of being, there is a consequence in the form of marginalization, abuse, or injustice. To say it another way, more positively, when communities give females equal authority and resources in decision making, not only are levels of abuse reduced, but economic stability also increases within families and communities. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) call this the girl effect.1 Christians might call this phenomenon the ezer effect because ezer is the Hebrew word God used to describe the strong help females provide (Gen 2:18). Ezer is found twenty-one times in the Old Testament, and, of these, fourteen describe God’s help. According to R. David Freedman, the Hebrew word used to describe woman’s help (ezer) arises from two Hebrew roots that mean “to rescue, to save” and “to be strong.”2 Perhaps the most common use of the word is found in Psalm 121:1–2, where ezer is used for God’s rescue of Israel: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” What stronger help is there apart from God’s rescue?
Scripture suggests that females were created to provide a strong rescue, a fact NGOs now recognize. Support for women’s leadership leads to significant social benefits, while denying them equal value places them at risk for abuse. As so many have observed, the wellbeing of whole communities is linked to the value we ascribe to females. In this article, we will explore how ontological devaluation of females—that is, seeing them as inferior with respect to their being—is linked to their marginalization and abuse. We shall then consider how the early evangelicals first observed this link and offered a biblical challenge to a devaluation of females. Next, we shall explore the parallels between slavery and the emancipation of women as it informs our interpretation of Scripture. Finally, we will consider how Scripture supports the ontological equality of females. We begin with several personal examples.
Ontological ideas have daily consequences
Brenda and Scott, as we will call them, work at a secular university for a Christian ministry. They build relationships with college students. They lead Bible groups. They interpret Scripture in every possible context in working with students, both males and females. They laugh, cry, pray, and encourage students and help carry many burdens. Brenda is single, and Scott is married. Their campus work is funded, mostly, by a large Baptist church that invites Scott to preach (giving him an edge on fundraising with individuals). But, because of her gender, Brenda is never invited to speak from the platform. Brenda is not bitter, but one day she took me aside and said, “Mimi, giving Scott regular opportunities to preach and denying me the same tells me one thing: there is something wrong with being a female. This is not about my character, my devotion to Christ, or my tenacity and skill in working with students. It is telling me that being female is less than being male.”
Consider Laticia (let’s call her), whom I met in my workshop on Paul and women at a nationwide missions conference. Laticia was a lawyer working on a PhD. She wanted a private moment with me to tell me that she was thinking of leaving the church. When I asked her why, she said it was because she wanted to get married. When I asked for more information, she said that Christians from her community believe that males are to hold authority over women in church and marriage—not because they are more holy, more intelligent, better able to discern God’s leading, or because they have leadership and logic skills, but simply because they are male. This is injustice, she said: to give a sector of humanity unilateral authority while denying the same benefit to another group based not on character, but on gender. She concluded that she would not be party to injustice and, therefore, could not marry and remain in the church.
A friend of mine—a pastor—was seated on a plane next to a person who could not stomach religion because there was not one that treated women as equal to men. Brenda, Laticia, and the man seated next to my friend are asking significant questions about gender and justice from an ontological perspective.
What do we mean by ontology? The term comes from two Greek words ontos (“being”) and logia (“study”). Ontology, then, is the philosophical study of “being.” It is historically a branch of philosophy known as metaphysics. Ontology is the study of being, nature, or essence, necessarily assessed through comparisons. To assume the ontological inferiority of any group is to assert that their being, nature, or essence is less moral, rational, or powerful compared to another group’s being, nature, or essence. For example, it has often been assumed that men are more godlike than women because men are presumed to be more rational and morally able. Therefore, it follows that men should hold positions of authority over women because of their innate, unchangeable, ontological superiority. It was believed that royalty were ontologically superior to commoners, and that whites were ontologically superior to people of color.
The devaluation of people groups at an ontological level is deeply entrenched throughout history. Observe the ontological assumptions the Greeks made of women. Aristotle (384–322 BC) said, “The relationship between the male and the female is by nature such that the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the female is ruled.”3 Plato (427–347 BC) concluded that “[woman’s] native disposition is inferior to man’s.”4 These ideas have consequences.
The daily lives of females reflect their ontological status. In ancient Roman culture, the domination of patriarchy and the paterfamilias was noted in the preeminence of males, the vast number of girl babies exposed and left to die after birth, the lack of women’s participation in philosophy and politics, the absence of women in social gatherings with males, and the many sexual partners of males (including slaves, female prostitutes, and boys/men) in addition to their wives. Marriage was to ensure a man’s legitimate heirs.5
Gender and ontology in the early church
We notice a difference between Christians in the early church, who rescued girl babies, and the Romans who abandoned them. Christian women participated in the agapē meals. They served beside men as teachers, evangelists, missionaries, apostles, prophets, and coworkers with Paul. By doing so, they engaged with men in social and theological spheres. Women were also martyred beside men for advancing the gospel with equal influence. Christian marriages were monogamous, and Paul asks both husbands and wives to submit to and obey one another (Eph 5:21; 1 Cor 7:3–5). Marriage is viewed as a one-flesh relationship for the purposes of love, intimacy, and reflection of the mutual love and sacrifice within the Trinity.
Notice Paul’s transformation from his life as a Jewish male who prayed daily, “Thank you [God] for not making me a Gentile, a woman, and a slave,”6 a prayer that discloses the ontological devaluation of females that kept them from studying Torah or participating equally beside males in worship. Scholars suggest that Paul wrote Galatians 3:28—“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”—to reveal how the gospel redresses prejudice based on gender, ethnicity, and class.7 Men and women, slaves and free, Greek and Jew constitute one body—the church, Christ’s New Covenant community which, though diverse in gender, ethnicity, and class, yet functions without favoritism based on these attributes.8 Thus, males in the early church shared leadership with females, as Scripture and archaeological evidence suggest.9 Unfortunately, the ontological and functional equality of male and female believers was short-lived.
Philosophical views close doors for women
Early church fathers—trained in Greek philosophy—retained the notion that women are inferior in their being and should therefore be excluded from authority and positions of leadership. As a result, the church no longer provided a counterpoint to the cultural devaluation of females. In this respect, the prejudices of these early church fathers resemble the teachings of Brahman and Muslim scholars. For example, Manu, a Brahman social commentator, argued that woman possesses a temper or nature that is “mutable” (inconstant) and since “women are destitute of strength and also of knowledge [they] are as impure as falsehood itself [and] that is a fixed rule. . . .”10 Ideas have consequences.
Given such teachings, females were held under the authority of males: their father, husband, sons, and grandsons.11 In India, for example, due to their presumed innate inferiority, women “were forbidden to read the sacred Scriptures,” having “no right to pronounce a single syllable.”12 The ancient gods were rarely evoked for the birth of girls. For years, it was possible for a wife to be replaced if she did not give birth to a son after the eleventh year of marriage. In more recent times, the Indian government has tried to limit access to ultrasounds in selecting for gender. The devaluation of females is evident in the large number of girls taken to Hindu temples as prostitutes, Devi Dasi or the devil’s whores, a problem persisting to this day. The subordination of women within Brahmanism has also led to a brutal patrilineal culture in which a female becomes part of her husband’s household, where she is often isolated and easily devalued and abused. Notice how Christian Scriptures such as Genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 5:31 oppose this practice of subjecting a female to the authority of her husband’s family.
Like Brahmanism, Islam also insists upon the inferiority of females at the level of their being. Islamic prophetic tradition says that “the character of women is likened to a rib, crooked. . . . This crookedness then is inherent and incurable.”13 Ahmad Zaky Tuffaha adds, “. . . the woman is not equal to the man . . . for how can the commanding and the commanded, the great and the small, the knowledgeable and the ignorant, the sane and the mad, the unjust and the just, the honorable and the insignificant, the able and the unable, the working and the lazy, the strong and the weak be equal?”14 The Qur’an reads: “Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other. . . .”15
Do these ideas have consequences? In their chapter “Is Islam Mysogynistic?” in Half the Sky,16 Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof make what they admit is a politically incorrect statement: “Of the countries where women are held back and subjected to systematic abuses such as honor killings and genital cutting, a very large proportion are predominantly Muslim.”17 Most Muslims worldwide, they write, “don’t believe in such practices, and some Christians do—but the fact remains that the countries where girls are cut, killed for honor, or kept out of school or the workplace typically have large Muslim populations.”18
Perils of devaluation
A devaluation of individuals based on their being is noted throughout human history. For example, not long ago, Nazi Germany mounted an extensive campaign to devalue Jews at the level of being. Before they were able to convince Germans to round up Jews and send them to death camps, the Nazis first had to insist upon their innate and unchangeable inferiority. Triumphantly, Nazis noted their great success in “reeducating” Germans:
. . . there are only a few people left in Germany who are not clear about the fact that the Jew is not, as previously thought, distinct from “Christians,” “Protestants,” or “Catholics” only in that he is of another religion, and is therefore a German like all of the rest of us, but rather that he belongs to a different race than we do. The Jew belongs to a different race; that is what is decisive.19
By suggesting that Jews comprise a different race, the Nazis were able to construct a distinct and inferior ontological category for Jews. The genocide of the Jews was made plausible by first positing that the Aryan Germans were the superior race and by showing that the Jews had no share in their blood line.
In a similar manner, the American institution of slavery was based on a perceived inferiority of African Americans at the level of being. The French scholar Compte A. de Gasparin said that slavery was centered on “a native and indestructible inferiority” of those of African descent.20 This so-called innate inferiority was rooted not in one’s moral choices, but in one’s ancestry, and was, therefore, an unchangeable condition. It was African ethnicity, noted in skin color, that placed Africans under the permanent domination of those said to be their superiors—whites. The reason the Civil War failed to redress ethnic prejudice is that the so-called inferiority was associated not with slavery, but with ethnicity. Slavery was the consequence of an idea: that Africans were inferior. Slavery was not the root cause; an ethnic devaluation was. One can amend the United States Constitution and free the slaves, but new forms of ethnic abuse will emerge because the root problem—ethnic prejudice—has not been addressed.
Historian Mark Noll said it would take more than guns and blood to overcome the devaluation of African Americans, of which slavery was only one manifestation.21 In fact, it would take many years before the United States even became conscious of its own philosophical constructs that fueled prejudice and oppression based on ethnicity.
Recently, an article appeared in the Baptist News that illustrates this point. It reads:
Ethicsdaily.com has reported a social shift that may represent a larger leap than our recent election of an African-American president. Bob Jones University, perhaps the most fundamentalist and segregated Baptist school in the world,22 has issued an apology for its practices and policies of racial segregation.
In 1986, a member of the Bible department [at Bob Jones] had articulated the school’s position. Separation of the races, this faculty member wrote, was God’s design. The school was submitting to the authority of Scripture in its policies, it said.
Now the school says something other than “biblical obedience” shaped its racial practices. The statement reports that policies were “characterized by the segregationist ethos of American Culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures. We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it. In so doing, we failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandments to love others as ourselves. For these failures we are profoundly sorry.”23
It was the inability to regard African Americans as equal members of the human family that made it possible for slavery advocates to ignore the profound ways in which slavery transgressed biblical values such as the sacredness of marriage and families, sexual purity, knowing and loving God through Scripture, and using one’s spiritual gifts in advancing Christ’s kingdom. Mark Noll observes, “So seriously fixed in the minds of white Americans, including most abolitionists, was the certainty of black racial inferiority that it overwhelmed biblical testimony about race, even though most Protestant Americans claimed that Scripture was in fact their supreme authority in adjudicating such matters.”24 Prejudice muddied their biblical clarity. Many individuals did not perceive their racial prejudice as an obstacle to interpreting Scripture consistently. There were prominent exceptions, however.
Missionaries working in Africa were vocal in denying the presumed inferiority of Africans upon which the system of slavery was defended. According to Noll, one missionary wrote that nowhere in his experience had he observed evidence of the so called “native inferiority which many good and learned men suppose to exist.”25 In fact, the deplorable ignorance ascribed to African culture was a myth created by the slave trade. If one can control for opportunity, one can also control for ability, because no group is, in their being, innately inferior to another group.
Like slavery, gender hierarchy is dependent upon an ontological devaluation of females. Therefore, the subjugation of women is made plausible by insisting that males are innately superior. There can be no question that Christians have advanced, uncritically, the inferiority of females as a whole. Here are a few examples:
- Irenaeus (AD 130–202): “Both nature and the law place the woman in a subordinate condition to the man.”26
- Augustine (AD 354–430): “Nor can it be doubted, that it is more consonant with the order of nature that men should bear rule over women, than women over men.”27
- Chrysostom (AD 347–407): “The woman taught once, and ruined all. On this account . . . let her not teach . . . for the sex is weak and fickle. . . .”28
- John Calvin (1509–1564), in his commentary on 1 Timothy, wrote that women are “not to assume authority over the man;
- . . . it is not permitted by their condition.”29
- John Knox (1514–1572) said, “Nature, I say, does paint [women] forth to be weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish; and experience has declared them to be inconstant, variable, cruel. . . . Since flesh is subordinate to spirit, a woman’s place is beneath man’s.”30
Even today, one popular pastor of a megachurch writes:
. . . when it comes to leading in the church, women are unfit because they are more gullible and easier to deceive than men. . . . [W]omen who fail to trust [Paul’s] instruction . . . are much like their mother Eve. . . . Before you get all emotional like a woman in hearing this, please consider the content of the women’s magazines at your local grocery store that encourage liberated women in our day to watch porno with their boyfriends, master oral sex for men who have no intention of marrying them . . . and ask yourself if it doesn’t look like the Serpent is still trolling the garden and that the daughters of Eve aren’t gullible in pronouncing progress, liberation, and equality.31
Women lead the modern missionary movement
Despite such disparaging assumptions made by Christians, females as a whole have not performed according to the devaluations made of them. In fact, throughout church history, we observe women providing enormous moral, spiritual, and intellectual leadership within the church even without official authority. This was never more the case than during the modern missionary movement, when women outnumbered men on mission fields around the world two to one. Their leadership combined evangelism with humanitarian service, and their work gave rise to new centers of spiritual vitality throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas—so much so that their leadership shifted the density of Christian faith from the West to broadly scatted locations in the global South and the East, as Dana Roberts of Boston University notes.32 Without the vote, without a legal voice, and without the World Wide Web, these women established highly productive and just mission organizations, and they occupied all levels of service and leadership. Their leadership in organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the American Antislavery Society, and the Salvation Army gave enormous momentum to suffrage, abolition, and temperance because their humanitarian focus was inseparable from their evangelism. Moreover, as the early evangelicals worked to free females from sexual slavery, they also discovered a link between female abuse and a deprecation of females at the level of being.
Working in India among brothels established by the British government to attract and retain soldiers and officers, Katherine Bushnell (1856–1946), a medical doctor, infiltrated British garrisons to learn firsthand the abuses female prostitutes suffered. According to her findings, these abuses were justified not only to satisfy the sexual needs of the British military, but also because females were viewed as innately inferior. Bushnell eventually realized that the global abuse of women was inseparable from a devaluation of females as a whole. In response, Bushnell wrote God’s Word to Women, one hundred lessons on scriptural teaching about gender to provide a whole-Bible approach to show that Scripture values males and females equally.33 Her painstaking research on Greek and Hebrew words, archaeology, and ancient history is a death-blow to what philosophers call ascriptivism, a system that ascribes value, dignity, and worth to groups based on attributes such as gender, ethnicity, or class. Bushnell’s arguments were biblical and systematic, adding momentum to the first wave of feminism—a deeply biblical movement that advanced suffrage, abolition, and the leadership of women in church work. Bushnell was joined by other early evangelicals such as Sojourner Truth, Catherine Booth, Fredrik Franson, Frances Willard, Amanda Smith, A. J. Gordon, Josephine Butler, and others who together published more than forty systematic biblical treatises supporting the ontological and functional equality of women and slaves.34
Consider Adoniram Judson Gordon, perhaps the most prominent Baptist pastor of his day, after whom Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary are named. Gordon was an outspoken advocate of missions, abolition, and women in ministry. Advancing a whole-Bible hermeneutic when considering gender and service, Gordon believed that Pentecost was the “Magna Charta of the Christian Church,”35 as it demonstrated that women, as well as all ethnic groups, share equally in Christ’s New Covenant community.36 Under the New Covenant, those who had once been viewed as inferior by natural birth (their being and nature) attain a new spiritual status through the power of the Holy Spirit. For God’s gifting no longer rests on a “favored few, but upon the many, without regard to race, or age, or sex.”37
Yet, the earliest and most extensive challenge to women’s ontological inferiority was published by Katharine Bushnell. Through an epistemological challenge, Bushnell engaged the whole of Scripture, particularly the early chapters of Genesis, to posit the ontological equality of males and females. She concluded that, according to Scripture, Adam and Eve were both created in the image of God,38 that both were called to be fruitful and to exercise a shared dominion in Eden,39 a dominion that did not place Adam over Eve. Eve was not the source of sin,40 and God does not curse women because of Eve.41 Rather, it was Satan, not God, who inspired the domination of men over women.42 God bestows leadership on those who do what is right in God’s sight regardless of their gender, birth order, nationality, or class.43
Bushnell located women’s ontological status not in the fall, but in Christ’s completed work on Calvary. Therefore, a consistent interpretation of Scripture as it relates to women’s value44 should be determined in the same manner as men’s value, based on the atonement of Jesus Christ. “[We] cannot, for women, put the ‘new wine’ of the Gospel into the old wine-skins of ‘condemnation.’”45 Bushnell condemned the prejudice noted throughout church history which routinely aligned women’s status with Eve’s sin rather than through their full redemption and inheritance in Christ.
Katharine Bushnell recognized that female subjugation and abuse was often linked to poor methods of biblical interpretation—failing to differentiate what is descriptive in Scripture from that which is prescriptive. While patriarchy is part of the cultures depicted in the Bible, patriarchy does not constitute the moral teachings of Scripture. After years of working to free females from sex slavery around the world, Bushnell observed that the global abuse of women was inseparable from a devaluation of females promoted by religious and philosophical teachings justifying and codifying male dominance and female subservience. Bushnell argued that the abuse of women will not be overcome as long as “the subordination of woman to man was taught within the body of Christians.”46 Bushnell wrote:
[W]e must have the whole-hearted backing of the Christian church in our [work], and that we would not have it until men came to understand that a woman is of as much value as a man; and they will not believe this until they see it plainly taught in the Bible.
Just so long as men imagine that a system of caste is taught in the Word of God, and that they belong to the upper caste while women are of the lower caste; and just so long as they believe that mere flesh—fate—determines the caste to which one belongs; and just so long as they believe that . . . Genesis 3:16 [teaches] “thy desire shall be for thy husband, and he shall rule over you” . . . the destruction of young women into a prostitute class [will] continue.
But place Christian women where God intends them to stand, on a plane of full equality with men in the church and home, where their faculties, their will, their consciences are controlled only by the God who made man and woman equal by creation . . . then the world will become a much purer [place] than it is today. . . .47
Bushnell’s work among abused women compelled her to challenge the ideas that drove the sex industry, and her work, as well as that of others, provides the first whole-Bible approach to gender equality at an ontological level, challenging the erroneous view that women are more gullible and inferior, and, therefore, in need of male authority.
The egalitarian view gains strength
By the 1800s, two views on gender ontology were circulated. First, the patriarchal perspective views women as unequal in being and unequal in authority. This was the dominant view until the 1800s. Second, the egalitarian view sees women as equal in being and equal in authority. This view gained prominence in the 1800s. In the 1980s, a third view emerged depicting women as equal in being, but unequal in function or authority.
As the egalitarian position gained acceptance, suffrage was instituted, and immediate, rich social consequences ensued. For example, in the United States, maternal and child mortality decreased dramatically after women gained the vote. Prior to suffrage, more women died giving birth than did all men in United States wars combined to that date. Further, child mortality dropped by 72 percent.48
Not only do we observe less abuse and greater health for women and children as American culture became more egalitarian, but we also find that, when authority is shared, marriage relationships are less abusive. Couples who share decision making are less likely to experience abuse, according to research by the Prepare and Enrich Premarital Inventory—one of the most widely used population samples in the world. While other factors contribute to couple wellbeing, as this graph suggests, role relationships or gender role equality is one of the most significant elements determining abuse.49 Couples with the highest levels of abuse are those where one partner is dominant, most often the male, and the other avoidant or submissive. Research by Prepare and Enrich also shows a statistical association between violence and unequal power in decision making.50
PCA mean scores on ENRICH between non-abusive and abusive couples51
Similarly, studies by NGOs suggest that, when communities are more egalitarian, there is less gender abuse. Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize–winning economist, documented a correlation between a culture’s devaluation of females and steep drops in their numbers.51 By contrast, in those communities where gender equality is valued, the ratio of females to males resembles gender ratios in the United States.52
South Korea has turned the tide on male preference. In the 1990s, the nation had a gender ratio almost as skewed as China’s. Now, it is heading toward normality, “because the culture changed. Female education, antidiscrimination suits, and equal rights rulings made son preference seem old-fashioned and unnecessary.”53
Clearly, gains have been made as culture has become more egalitarian, yet there is still much work to be done. For example, women have not yet attained equal leadership politically or professionally. Though outnumbering men in medical school, law school, and many graduate programs, women lag behind men in income and in holding top positions in corporations, political parties, and organizations, because, in part, society has not dealt completely with the root problem—an idea—that women are not as able as men. The idea that God does not give women positions of leadership is also taught as a biblical principle by missionaries and churches around the world. There remains much work to do, and yet many significant strategies can be learned from reform movements throughout history, particularly abolition.
Slavery and gender: a church under reform54
Throughout history, the church has undergone renewal and reform; it has changed its mind on key issues. To put it another way, the Holy Spirit “cleans house” in each generation, allowing the church to become a more authentic witness to Christ, more perfectly reflecting God’s love and mission in the world.
Reform is often led by prophetic individuals who challenge indifference, ignorance, and theological and moral failings. Such reformers are often people who have been deeply renewed themselves. These leaders imagine an alternative future not yet realized and often have deep intellectual, moral, and spiritual roots sustaining their arduous work. For these reasons, reformers often possess an indomitable energy that comes from a spiritual source. Reformers and efforts share a number of similarities. These include:
1. Reformers appeal to reason: A scholarly exchange of ideas takes place among reformers. Reformers see, in profound ways, a biblical truth that has gone unnoticed, and they begin to write passionately about it. Their scholarship appears initially odd, though their logic eventually garners respect. Ultimately, their call to the entire body of Christ is, “Come, let’s reason together.”
2. Reformers are deeply reformed themselves: Their vibrant intellectual life is often shaped by a deep spiritual life. Through prayer, they unite themselves to God and God’s reforming work.
3. Popularization of abstract ideas: After an intellectual basis is developed, artists, musicians, and writers make intellectual arguments not only popular, but compelling. Artists are able to infuse reformist ideas into hearts and lives. They help the average person feel the injustice that the reform addresses. A popularization of intellectual ideas was noted in such great literary works as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn, and the diaries of slaves such as Sojourner Truth. These masterpieces enable non-slaves to feel the injustice of slavery, helping the church to “cry with those who cry.” Ultimately, the creative community imparts vision, passion, and the will to reform.
4. Global dialogue among likeminded leaders: Reformist ideas spread widely, engaging the body of Christ across the world in praying, writing, thinking, and discussing reform as a global church community. What began as a local dialogue becomes a global conversation among Christians from many different traditions and on many continents.
5. A backpedaling of the position under critique: Slavery advocates seek to correct abuses of slavery while retaining the institution. Within the gender reform movement, “soft male hierarchal complementarians” challenge gender abuse without abandoning male authority, favoring “headship with a heart” or servant leadership, thus retaining male authority over females.
6. The church reforms its theology (ideas) and its practices: Ultimately, reform movements bring needed change to theology and also practice.
Theological foundations of slavery and gender reform55
There are a number of critical rhetorical and theological similarities between the abolitionist and gender reform movements. Both challenge a shallow reading of Scripture. Both insist upon taking into account the historical and cultural background of biblical passages for consistent interpretation. Both focus on the moral teachings of Scripture rather than particularities of the cultures depicted in the Bible. From the intense debate over slavery and women’s subordination emerged principles of biblical interpretation that advanced abolition and gender reforms. These include:56
1. A plain reading of the Bible must include the historical and cultural context. Too often, the proslavery camp, like those opposed to women’s leadership, relied upon a “plain reading” of Scripture without understanding the original author’s intent and audience. But to avoid abusing Scripture for personal gain (after all, slaves and women provided an unpaid social service industry), passages that are said to deny authority to individuals—in this case, slaves and women—must be read within their historical and cultural contexts.
2. The full testimony of Scripture must be considered. The obscure portions of Scripture must be interpreted by those which are obvious. In considering the passages on Abraham, for example, the point is not that he had servants, possibly slaves, but that he trusted God’s promise. Similarly, the point of 1 Timothy 2:11–15 is not that Paul subjugates all women to silence and male authority, but that those who teach should be educated and should not domineer over others.
3. A portion of Scripture should be viewed for its primary emphasis, not for its “attendant or cultural features.” Slavery and patriarchy are part of Bible culture. These are attendant or cultural features which do not constitute the moral teachings of Scripture.
4. Be scrupulous in assessing selfish motives when reading the Bible (Matt 20:25–28).
Forged through the pain of slavery and gender subjugation, reformers equipped the church with better methods of interpretation that offered biblical value, dignity, and equality to those who once had been viewed as ontologically inferior. It was a new idea with wholesome consequences. We can see how these ideas empowered the work of individuals such as former slave Amanda Smith.
A freed American slave who became one of the most successful missionaries of her day, Amanda Smith, while speaking at a revival in England in 1882, located her true identity in her relationship to God. She said: “You may not know it, but I am a princess in disguise. I am a child of the King.”57 Smith realized that, “if she was God’s child, she was also an heir of God!”58 Embracing her full inheritance in Christ, Smith declared herself an heir—despite her gender, ethnicity, or class—with full privileges to advance Christ’s kingdom by fanning into flame the gift within her. What was the result? Many on the mission field recognized her as a leader. One man told her that he had learned more about Christian leadership from observing her lead than from any other life example. Smith’s self-confidence was infectious, even as she pushed past a number of gatekeepers. She recognized that her truest identity rested not in her gender, but in her union with Christ.
Embracing their identity in Christ, leaders such as Amanda Smith allowed the fullest teachings of Scripture to inform more obscure passages like Paul’s letters to Timothy. Rather than reading all of Scripture through the lens of 1 Timothy 2:11–15, the early evangelicals began to read 1 Timothy 2:11–15 through the whole of Scripture, particularly Paul’s work with women. In doing so, they noticed that Paul built the church working beside women such as Phoebe, Junia, Lydia, Chloe, and Priscilla. The experiences of combating slavery and female subjugation enabled the early evangelicals to push past shallow interpretations to perceive, embrace, and celebrate those liberating messages of Scripture where the moral principles of the Bible prevail over the slavery and patriarchy that were part of the Bible’s cultural milieu. Slaves and women were among the first to notice these liberating moments in Scripture, such as Paul’s conversion—an experience so powerful that he abandoned and opposed the ethnic and gender segregation of the Jewish priesthood to replace it with the priesthood of all believers.
Katharine Bushnell observed that Jesus never devalued women. Christ assumed that women were fully human and equal to men, and he was strangely and authentically comfortable in their presence. He approached them as he did men, in public, regardless of cultural taboos. He commissioned women to build God’s kingdom (John 20:17–18), just as he commissioned men. He consistently challenged the cultural devaluation of women’s bodies. Christ healed a hemorrhaging woman in public, fully understanding the cultural assumption that, if he touched her, he too would be unclean. He overturned this belief by allowing her to touch him in public, declaring that she had been healed of her disease. She was not unclean, but ill. Women were the first to notice the liberating message in Christ’s words and deeds.
Jesus spoke with women unselfconsciously, in broad daylight, despite the disapproval of his disciples (John 4:4–42). Unlike the rabbis of his day, Jesus allowed women to sit at his feet and study his teachings (Luke 10:38–42), preparing them for service as disciples, evangelists, and teachers. In all ways, the equality of women was self-evident, implicit, and, most importantly, consistently part of Christ’s teachings and practice. These passages were given new expanse and import by early evangelicals such as Katharine Bushnell.
When a woman called out to Jesus, saying, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you,” Jesus responded, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:27–28). For Jesus, a woman’s value resides not in her cultural roles, but in her response to God’s revelation in her life. This becomes the standard for every member of Christ’s New Covenant—male and female. Women are now daughters of Abraham (Luke 13:16), a phrase first used by Jesus to welcome God’s daughters as heirs and full members of Christ’s body, the church. The life and teachings of Jesus shattered the patriarchy of his culture by breaking these and other cultural and religious taboos related to gender.
Consider Pentecost—the birthday of the church (Acts 2:1–18)—mediated not through an elite group of Jewish males, but through God’s Spirit poured out on many tribes and nations, on both men and women. Pentecost was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17–18). There is no gender, ethnic, or age preference noted in the birth of the church or in the gifts expressed at Pentecost.
In the New Covenant, baptism rather than circumcision became the outer expression of our union with Christ, and baptism was open to male and female, Jew, Greek, slave, and free. The significance of Christian baptism is cited in Galatians 3:2, a verse etched into early baptismal fonts celebrating the inclusivity of Christian faith. To be united with Christ in his death and resurrection constitutes a rebirth that redefines our value with respect to God and all other Christians.59 Because Christ established satisfaction and reconciliation between sinners and God, we receive newness of life and power from the Holy Spirit to work for mutuality among the members of Christ’s body—the church. To state it another way, our soteriology (our doctrine of salvation) shapes our ecclesiology (our doctrine of the church).60
The notion that Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, male and female are all one in Christ (Gal 3:28) was an affront to a culture where identity, value, and influence was established through class, gender, and ethnicity. Remember, more than half of the population were slaves and women in Paul’s day. To this culture, Paul suggests that to be clothed in Christ is to be heirs of Christ’s kingdom; what we inherit through our earthly parents cannot compare to our heritage through Christ. Galatians 3:28 redefines the ontological status of females, slaves, and ethnic minorities, an idea with daily consequences.
Paul continually places the ethos of the New Covenant above the gender and cultural norms of his day. For example, Paul asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus as a Christian brother (Philem 16). With these words, Paul allows kingdom values to take precedence over cultural expectations for slaves, pointing to the fact that the cross changes everything (1 Cor 2:6, 7:31). It is believed that, ultimately, Onesimus became bishop of Ephesus.61
In the same way, husbands and wives are called to submit to one another in marriage (1 Cor 7:3–4) just as all Christians submit to one another (Eph 5:21). Interestingly, Paul asks those with cultural authority—husbands—to love their wives as they love themselves, even to the point of death. Certainly, this request would have been radical to first-century husbands. As men and husbands held ultimate authority over their wives, Paul asks husbands to sacrifice themselves for their wives as Christ sacrificed himself for the church. This is a complete reframing of gender and authority in marriage. Christian authority in marriage reflects authority in ministry—it is the call to serve without self-regard: to lay down one’s life for another.
Paul realized that God was building a new creation—the church—with each member born of the Spirit and joined equally to Jesus as head. The new wine of Jesus would require a new wineskin where slaves and women can serve equally in accomplishing the purposes for which God had called and gifted them. That is why Paul did not hesitate to celebrate the woman Junia as an apostle. Nor was he reluctant to require respect for Phoebe as a deacon and prostatēs—that is, a leader in the church of Cenchreae. Nor do Paul and the other apostles shy away from celebrating the leadership of women teachers such as Priscilla and house church leaders such as Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, and Apphia. The new wine of Jesus’ liberation would require a new wineskin where slaves and women leaders could participate equally in accomplishing the purposes for which God had created, called, and gifted them.
Slaves and women were quick to notice that spiritual gifts are not given along ethnic, class, or gender lines. Spiritual gifts are first and foremost an equipping for service, and all believers are called to serve. In referring to the spiritual gifts, Paul reminds Christians in Rome not to think more highly of themselves than they ought to think, but with sober judgment to count others as better than themselves, remembering that, though each person receives spiritual gifts, the gifts are for serving, and each of us is dependent upon the gifts we receive from other believers. For, as Paul said, “each member belongs to all the others” (Rom 12:5b). Likewise, Paul tells the Christians at Corinth that they are mutually dependent upon one another, for, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” (1 Cor 12:21). The eye needs the hands, just as the head needs the feet. The parts of the body are not divided from one another, but function best when they have equal concern for, and mutual submission toward, one another.
Service is not determined by gender or class, but arises from God’s gifting and is established by one’s character, moral choices, and intimacy with God. Here, Scripture deals a deathblow to any notion of ontological superiority presumed by one’s gender or ethnicity or class. Here are just two examples:
Notice that, in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul limits women at Ephesus from teaching, not as a consequence of gender, but because of the type of authority these women exercised. While this passage is frequently used to limit women’s authority as a whole, notice that the intention of Scripture is quite different. What is often missed by those unfamiliar with Greek is that Paul selects an unusual Greek word when speaking of authority in verse 12. Rather than using the most common Greek terms for healthy or proper authority or oversight (exousia), Paul selects the term authentein—a word that would have caught the attention of first-century readers!
Authentein implied a domineering, misappropriated, or usurped authority. Authentein can also mean to behave in violent ways. It can even imply murder! Authentein appears only once in Scripture, here in 1 Timothy 2:12, and it was used by Paul as well as extrabiblical authors to connote authority that was destructive. For this reason, various translations of Scripture rendered the special sense of this word as follows:
- Vulgate (fourth to fifth century AD) as, “I permit not a woman to teach, neither to domineer over a man.”
- The Geneva Bible (1560 edition) as, “I permit not a woman to teach, neither to usurp authority over the man.”
- King James Version (1611) as, “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor usurp authority over a man.”
- The New English Bible (1961) as, “I do not permit a woman to be a teacher, nor must woman domineer over man.”62
This unusual Greek verb makes it clear that what Paul is objecting to in 1 Timothy 2:11–12 is an ungodly, domineering usurpation of authority.
Leadership concerns character. Thus, in determining who may or may not serve as an elder, overseer, deacon, pastor, or church board member, it is not gender, ethnicity, education, wealth, age, experience, or a person’s capacity to influence others that Scripture celebrates. Rather, it is one’s moral choices tied clearly to one’s intimacy with Christ. The following table shows the character qualities required in elders, overseers, deacons, and widows—who also served as leaders. These qualities are, interestingly, very similar to the fruit of the Spirit.
Gifts of Spirit
Biblical leadership is established not through gender, but through character and one’s capacity to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit. In contrast, those who display the fruit of the flesh (e.g., fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, etc. [Gal 5:19–21]) have disqualified themselves from leadership regardless of their gender, class, or ethnicity.
Temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money
Serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money
Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things
Fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–26)
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control
To follow the teachings of Scripture, our choice of leaders, deacons, pastors, elders, and teachers should be from individuals who best exhibit the fruits of the Spirit, regardless of gender.
Through our rebirth in Christ, all people, including slaves and women, inherit a new identity—not of shame, marginalization, or abuse, but of dignity, equality, and shared authority and service because they are also born of the Spirit. Ethnicity, gender, or class no longer limit one’s potential or service in Christ. As those who had once been subjugated began to read and interpret Scripture consistently, they brought a wealth of insight to the world, expanding our gratitude for Christ through whom all people receive their truest empowerment and identity, regardless of the circumstances of our birth.
1. The term the girl effect is used by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in Half the Sky (New York, NY: Vintage, 2009), reviewed in this issue of Priscilla Papers.
2. R. David Freedman, “Woman, a Power Equal to a Man,” Archaeology Review 9 (1983): 56–58.
3. Aristotle, Politica 1.5.B4v, trans. Bejamin Jowett, vol. 10 in The Works of Aristotle Translated into English under the Editorship of W. D. Ross (Oxford: Clarendon, 1921).
4. Plato, Laws 6.781a, b, trans. A. E. Taylor, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato: Including the Letters, Bollingen Series LXXI, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963), 1356.
5. See Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York, NY: Schocken, 1995), 79ff.
6. Menahoth 43b–44a; Talmud; Shabbath 86a–86b.
7. Gordon Fee, Listening to the Spirit in the Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 58ff.
8. See Gordon Fee, Commentary on Galatians (Blandford Forum, UK: Deo, 2007) and Ben Witherington, Grace in Galatia: Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
9. See Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, ed. Ronald Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon Fee (Carol Stream, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), and also Dorothy Irvin, The Archaeology of Women’s Traditional Ministries in the Church, available through Christians for Biblical Equality’s bookstore, http://equality
10. Manu IX:15–17. See the writings of Manu at http://www
.hinduwebsite.com/sacredscripts/hinduism/dharma/manusmriti.asp, accessed June 2010.
11. Manu IX:2–3.
12. Manu IX:18. See also Pandita Ramabai, The High Caste Hindu Woman (New York, NY: Revell, 1902), 81ff.
13. Sahih al-Bukhari, Arabic-English translation, vol. 7, Hadith 113–14.
14. Ahmad Zaky Tuffaha, Al-Mar’ah wal-Islam, 1st ed., Dar al-Kitab al-Lubnani, Beirut, 1985, 37.
15. The Koran, with notes by N. J. Dawood (London: Penguin, 1990), 64.
16. Kristof and WuDunn, Half the Sky, 149–60.
17. Kristof and WuDunn, Half the Sky, 149.
18. Kristof and WuDunn, Half the Sky, 149.
19. “Our Battle against Judah,” German Propaganda Archive, Calvin College Web site, http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/rim3.htm.
20. Comte Agenor de Gasparin, The Uprising of a Great People, trans. Mary Booth (New York, NY: Scribners, 1862), 103–04.
21. See Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 159ff.
22. Bob Jones University did not permit interracial dating.
23. Robert Parham, “Bob Jones University Apologizes for Racial Policies,” Nov. 4, 2008, Ethics Daily Web site, http://www.ethicsdaily
.com/news.php?viewStory=13489, accessed June 1, 2010.
24. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 73.
25. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 118.
26. Irenaeus, fragment 32, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 1:573. Emphasis mine.
27. Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence 1.10, trans. Robert Ernest Wallis, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1, ed. Philip Schaff [hereafter NPNF] (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1886), 5:267. Emphasis mine.
28. John Chrysostom, “Homily IX,” in Homilies on 1 Timothy, NPNF 13:436. Emphasis mine.
29. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, in Calvin’s Commentaries, trans. William Pringle (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1856), 37. Emphasis mine.
30. John Knox, “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women 1558,” in The Political Writings of John Knox, ed. Marvin A. Breslow (Cranbury, NY: Associate University Presses, 1985), 43. Emphasis mine.
31. Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill Church, Seattle, WA. Quoted at http://www.dennyburk.com/mark-driscoll-on-women-in-ministry-2, accessed March 24, 2010.
32. Dana L. Robert, American Women in Mission: A Social History of their Thought and Practice (Macon: GA: Mercer University Press, 2005), ix.
33. Katharine Bushnell, Dr. Katharine Bushnell: A Brief Sketch of Her Life Work (Hertford, UK: Rose and Sons, Salisbury Square, 1930).
34. Charles O. Knowles, Let Her Be: Right Relationships and the Southern Baptist Conundrum over Woman’s Role (Columbia, MO: KnoWell Publishing, 2002), 85.
35. A. J. Gordon, “The Ministry of Women,” The Missionary Review of the World 17 (1894): 911, http://xythos.gordon.edu/Archives/Gordon_Herritage/Ministry%20of%20Women....
36. Gordon, “The Ministry of Women,” 911.
37. Gordon, “The Ministry of Women,” 912.
38. Katharine Bushnell, God’s Word to Women: One Hundred Bible Studies on Woman’s Place in the Church and Home (Minneapolis, MN: Christians for Biblical Equality, 2003), 9ff.
39. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 10.
40. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 39ff.
41. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 43ff.
42. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 43ff.
43. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 66ff.
44. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 169.
45. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 169.
46. Bushnell, Dr. Katharine Bushnell, 13.
47. Bushnell, Dr. Katharine Bushnell, 13–14.
48. Kristoff and WuDunn, Half the Sky, 198.
49. Shuji G. Asai and David H. Olson, “Spouse Abuse and Marital System Based on ENRICH,” University of Minnesota, https://www
50. Asai and Olson, “Spouse Abuse,” 3–4, 11.
51. Kristoff and WuDunn, Half the Sky, xiv–xv.
52. Kristoff and WuDunn, Half the Sky, xiv–xv.
53. “Gendercide,” The Economist, March 2010, 13.
54. For a complete discussion on gender equality as a reform movement, see chapter 1 in Global Voices on Biblical Equality: Women and Men Serving Together in the Church, ed. Aída Besançon Spencer, William David Spencer, and Mimi Haddad (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008).
55. Much of what follows in this section can be found in Willard Swartley’s excellent book, Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1983).
56. The interpretive methods provided here are carefully noted in Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women, 58ff.
57. W. B. Sloan, These Sixty Years: The Story of the Keswick Convention (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1935), 91.
58. Sloan, These Sixty Years, 91.
59. See Mimi Haddad’s chapter, “Reading the Apostle Paul through Galatians 3:28,” in Coming Together in the 21st Century: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity, ed. Curtiss Paul DeYoung (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 2009), 73–93.
60. Fee, Listening to the Spirit in the Text, 59.
61. In a second-century document, Ignatius of Antioch cites Onesimus, a bishop of Ephesus, who offered him hospitality. See chapter 1, Praise of the Ephesians, at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0104.htm, accessed Jan. 5, 2012.
62. Linda Belleville, “Teaching and Usurping Authority,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, ed. Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Ronald Pierce, and Gordon Fee (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), 205–24.