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Published Date: November 2, 2023

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Becoming Egalitarian: Reconciling Experience with Scripture

Editor’s Note: This a CBE 2023 Writing Contest Winner!

Sometimes I Can’t Believe…          

I was raised in a patriarchal home, and by adulthood I was a staunch patriarchalist. I believed God created men superior in rank to women and subjected wives to their husbands as part of a created hierarchy. I believed these roles applied to every aspect of life, including in the home, church, and world.

In the church, I believed women were not permitted to preach, teach, or exercise authority over men but should remain silent during periods of teaching and preaching. I believed that positions of authority over adults in the church should be held exclusively by men.

I did not believe my views were derogatory toward women. Rather, while women held equal worth as men, they were called to different functions. Their roles were subservient to men but did not indicate that they had less value.

I based this belief on a handful of Scriptures I quoted often and used to argue against those who held different beliefs. I found support for my interpretation of Scripture in church history and practice. I argued my conclusions using reason and logic.

Sometimes, I can’t believe what I used to believe.

Listening to Women

The full story of how my beliefs changed is too long to tell here. But there is a part of the story that is central to my transformation to an egalitarian view. It is a story of experience.

When I graduated high school, I left the limited confines of my patriarchal-complementarian upbringing for the first time and attended a pentecostal-charismatic Bible college. And there, I started listening to female preachers and teachers.

Several of my professors were women, and the college I attended hosted guest speakers each week. They preached in the daily morning chapel, and during my senior year I heard them teach again in the afternoons in the School of Pastoral Ministry. A number of these guest speakers were women.

At first, I was offended. I found myself tuning—and sometimes walking—out of their classes. But thankfully, attendance was required, and I was determined to excel. So, against my will, I stayed and listened.

What I heard was the gospel and its many implications for the Christian life. I heard female apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers all preaching and teaching the Word of God in ways that transformed me.

Interestingly, the most transformative impact may have been on a topic they never covered: women in ministry. None of them tried to convince me they had a right to be there; they just preached and taught under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Yet the greatest lesson I learned from listening to women was that they were undoubtedly called and gifted to preach and teach!

Experience and Theology

For a young man raised in a context that so highly valued the authority of Scripture, having my views challenged by experience was unsettling. Even as I began to see passages of Scripture that directly contradicted my patriarchal views, I was still deeply troubled by the handful of passages I believed prohibited women from preaching and teaching.

How could I reconcile my experience with Scripture? What was I supposed to do with the seeming contradiction between various passages and parts of Scripture?

Thankfully, ongoing theological studies introduced me to ways of reading and applying Scripture I had not been exposed to growing up. One of the greatest gifts that seminary education gave me was the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

This construct, named after John Wesley, provides a framework for interpretation, particularly in the many areas where Scripture is not as clear as we’d like it to be. True to its name, the Quadrilateral has four sides: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.[1]

Scripture is given pride of place as the authoritative rule of faith and practice. But Scripture is an enormous and diverse collection that can be, and is, interpreted in wildly different ways. To guide our interpretation of Scripture we must also—and invariably do—draw on the other three sides of the Quadrilateral, holding their insights in tension and submitting them to Scripture as we think theologically.

Tradition is the historic teaching of the church, particularly in its core creedal statements that demonstrate unity across history and branches of Christianity. Reason is the use of our God-given faculties for critical thinking, logic, etc. And Experience is the lived reality of faith that we and other believers have shared throughout history. Where Scripture is not clear, we gain understanding and clarity through Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

One of the most compelling arguments in favor of using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in developing theology is that it is modeled for us throughout Scripture itself. Take, for instance, the authors of the New Testament who had the Old Testament as their Scripture. They referred exclusively to the Old Testament as their inspired and authoritative text. Yet they rarely did so with a simple statement of, “Scripture says…”

Rather, Jesus and the apostles modeled the use of the Quadrilateral as they quoted the Scriptures in conversation with Tradition, Reason, and Experience. That is, they drew on historic doctrine, logical arguments, and lived realities to teach and transform their hearers.

The early Christians were not told to check their brains or their emotions at the door. Nor were they told to read the Scriptures in a vacuum divorced from historic faith and practice. Rather, Tradition, Reason, and Experience were woven together with the words of Scripture to produce theology.

Acts 15 and Experience

One striking example of this is recorded in Acts 15:1–22. The first church council in history was convened in Jerusalem around 48 AD because of a disagreement within the early Christian movement that had been brewing since Peter preached the gospel to a group of Gentiles in Acts 10. The crux of the conflict was relatively straightforward—did Gentiles need to convert to Judaism before they could accept Christ, or could they come to Christ as uncircumcised, non-Torah-observant Gentiles?

The apostles and elders assembled to hear the arguments. Both sides drew directly from Scripture to support their case. Yet neither could present a proof-text that ultimately resolved the ambivalence. Scripture seemed ambiguous and, by itself, did not conclusively decide the question. So how did the Council reach a decision?


“God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith…We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

Acts 15:8–9, 11

Do you see the power of experience to help decide an intractable biblical debate? After all the arguing and proof-texting, the conclusive evidence came in the form of what they had seen and heard. As Peter had testified when he first defended his decision to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, “…if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17).

A Word of Caution

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that experience alone should rule the day, or that experience should be used to contradict an explicit and uniform teaching in Scripture. Those who would disregard a consistent teaching of Scripture based on their personal experience are rejecting the authority of God’s Word.

What I am saying is that there are matters about which Scripture seems ambivalent and ambiguous. This owes to various factors, including differing covenants, contexts, and concerns among biblical authors and audiences.

In such cases, where proof-texts abound for competing views, decisions must be made about which texts filter or take primacy over others. And in such cases, the shared experience of God’s people can be a powerful interpretive tool. It certainly was for me in my convictions regarding women in ministry.

“The Same Gift He Gave Us”

The more I listened to female preachers and teachers, the more I became convinced that they had received the same gift God had given my male counterparts and me for preaching and teaching. Fascinatingly enough, the more I experienced this, the more attention I paid to the numerous passages of Scripture and examples from church history that depicted women using these gifts in the church. And the more I realized the logical holes in my patriarchal arguments.

Experience is a powerful and necessary resource for developing theology. I could ignore, diminish, or deny texts of Scripture, historic examples, or logical failings, but eventually I could not ignore, diminish, or deny the women God had gifted to preach, teach, and share in authority.

As egalitarians, we can and should argue from Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. We can also argue from Experience. May women continue to courageously minister according to the gifts God has given them, and may women and men continue to be convinced by the power of their experience and testimony.

Photo by Ground Picture on Shutterstock.

[1] Robert G. Tuttle, Jr. “Wesleyan Tradition,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Third Edition, edited by Daniel J. Treier and Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 934.

[2] All Scripture quotations taken from the New International Version.

Other Resources

A Question Mark Over My Head: Experiences of Women ETS Members at the 2014 ETS Annual Meeting
The Experiences of Women in Church and Denominational Leadership
Let God Reign: Ditching the Umbrellas of Hierarchy

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