Christian Egalitarian Leadership: Empowering the Whole Church According to the Scriptures

by Jeff Miller | April 30, 2021
Christian Egalitarian Leadership: Empowering the Whole Church according to the Scriptures

Essay collections have been important to the thriving of evangelical egalitarianism over the last few decades. A key example is Women, Authority, and the Bible (IVP, 1986), edited by Alvera Mickelsen, the first board chair of CBE International. This volume assembled the voices of more than twenty evangelical scholars and was instrumental in articulating the theological and biblical case for egalitarianism. Two decades later, editors Ronald Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon Fee crafted Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy (IVP, 2005) to include not only biblical and theological essays, but also chapters on church history and pressing issues such as abortion, self-esteem, marriage, and unity. The volume under review here, Christian Egalitarian Leadership, takes further steps toward broadening the issues (e.g., it is about more than gender) but also focuses on one essential aspect of the thriving of egalitarianism—leadership.

Before addressing the several essays that comprise this unique book, a word about the series of which it is a part will help. The series title, House of Prisca and Aquila, refers both to a publishing “house” and to Acts 18:26, where Prisca and Aquila famously invited Apollos into their “home” (NIV, CEV, etc.) and “more accurately expounded to him the Way of God.” The House’s mission is “to produce quality books that expound accurately the word of God to empower women and men to minister together in a multicultural church.” More than twenty volumes, on a wide variety of topics, have been published.

The book has two sections, “Theory” and “Practice.” The first, and shorter, section consists of five chapters; chs. 1 and 2 lay the foundation. First, coeditors Aída and William Spencer overview NT teaching on egalitarian leadership. They describe their understanding of leadership: “We propose that leadership, especially in the church, should be Christian egalitarian servant leadership” (3). They also make clear that the book is about more than gender equality: “Egalitarian leadership includes the equal leadership of men and women, Gentiles and Jews, rich and poor, slave and free, and the lack of permanent or/and innate human hierarchy except between God and humans” (4).1 One refreshing aspect of this chapter is that it establishes an egalitarian foundation, not with difficult and controversial passages such as 1 Cor 11 or 1 Tim 2, but with truth from Jesus on the danger of hierarchy (e.g., Mark 10:35–45) and from core values of the earliest churches such as unity, impartiality, the priesthood of all believers, and the Spirit’s gifting. Chapter 2, “Egalitarianism and Biblical Authority,” is by John Lathrop, who—like many of the book’s contributors—is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. This essay positions biblical inerrancy as vital to biblical interpretation and integral to the publishing ministry of The House of Prisca and Aquila. Lathrop then builds on this foundation to present a case for women’s involvement in Christian leadership, briefly touching on examples of NT women and then tending to the broader themes of creation and redemption.

Grace Ying May follows with a unique essay, “Women Discipling Men,” that weaves together the stories of four women who discipled men. Two are from the Bible: Phoebe, who was a leader (prostatis, Rom 16:2) to Paul, and Deborah, who mentored Barak. The first modern example is Nancy Hudson who, like Phoebe, has instructed men in Christian leadership. Today, certain key leaders of the Christian Assemblies of South Africa are men whom Hudson discipled. The final example is Naomi Dowdy, a Christian leader in Singapore who, among many ministry endeavors, also has discipled men.2

Chapter 4, “Equal Leadership: God’s Intention at Creation” by William Spencer, tackles a doctrine somewhat popular among complementarians, asking, “Has a hierarchy within the Godhead been built into the whole intertexture of the universe that would determine that the refusal to let women lead equally is God’s intention, reflected from God’s nature” (61)? His approach is unique.3 Spencer asks, “does such thinking originate elsewhere?” (61) and answers that hierarchy, rather than arising from Genesis, has a “pagan genesis” (61). The chapter then locates that pagan genesis initially in the writings of Plato and then in Plato’s influence on major voices such as Philo (a Jewish philosopher in the first centuries BC and AD), Justin Martyr (a second-century Christian theologian), and perhaps as recently as the atypical translations of Gen 3:16b in the NLT and the 2016 revision of the ESV: “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband . . .” (ESV, italics added). Spencer does not stop at identifying certain effects of Platonic thought, but also offers an insightful interpretation of “God’s Intention at Creation” (the chapter’s subtitle).

Chapter 5, “Influence of Plato and Aristotle’s Patriarchy on Christian Hierarchy Today,” appropriately follows the essay that emphasized Plato. Author Jean Dimock has more to say than ch. 4 about Socrates and, especially, Aristotle and also traces their influence forward to Augustine, Aquinas, and today. She spends considerable time defending her claim that the Danvers Statement “encapsulates the overarching beliefs of those who follow Plato’s and Aristotle’s patriarchal views as they have influenced the interpretation of Scripture and remain in the church today” (107).

Chapters 6–15 comprise the book’s second section, “Practice.” In the opening essay, “The Multicultural Aspect of Egalitarian Leadership,” Jeanne DeFazio recaps four House of Prisca and Aquila books in which she played a major role. These books’ commonality is that they unveil segments of society where the need for multicultural egalitarian leadership was seen and addressed: community and relationships (Creative Ways to Build Community, 2013), media entertainment (Redeeming the Screens, 2016), performing arts (Berkeley Street Theatre, 2017), and education (Empowering English Language Learners, 2018).

Chapter 7, by church planter Francois Augustin, proposes a response to a great opportunity. The opportunity is that the United States is both a multicultural mission field and home to innumerable Christian immigrants. Augustin’s aim is to normalize multiethnic Christian leadership in the American church. His three strategies are: 1) To move beyond awareness of multicultural leadership, the current plateau for many white American evangelicals, to its full embrace. 2) To practice proximity and deliberate integration. “With proximity and deliberate integration, multicultural exchanges take place and cross-pollination of service and leadership among all ethnic groups can become a recipe for revival” (144). 3) To rethink American culture’s highest ideal, the pursuit of happiness. In many cases, this ideal has taken the form of an addictive pursuit of comfort, fostering segregation and hindering gospel expansion. We should instead pursue God by pursuing God’s will.

Chapter 8, by Julius Kithinji of St Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya, starts with what we know about Timothy’s family and upbringing—especially the reference to his grandmother and mother (2 Tim 1:5), together with Paul calling Timothy his “beloved child” (2 Tim 1:2). This foundation then leads to the observation that egalitarian servant leadership is “a product of upbringing” (153). Indeed, upbringing “determines if we shall have an egalitarian society” (153). Communal life, still the norm in much of Africa, is a promising environment for the thriving of generational faith and generational egalitarian leadership.

Chapters 9–12 form a natural grouping. In ch. 9, Benjamin Fung and Scarlet Tsao Fung show that “a happy, fulfilling, and egalitarian marriage is absolutely possible even in this broken and postmodern world” (166). They begin with Gen 2 and “God’s original intention . . . for a man and a woman in marriage to complete each other” (168). They provide a testimony based in God’s providence and the unconditional love that brought unity and purpose from the diversity and challenges in their family. Chapter 10, by Karen Sue Smith, tackles the topic of raising egalitarian children, noting that parents cannot pass on to their children what they themselves do not already have (181). Smith expresses a theology of children as beloved by God and having kingdom roles, and then moves to practical advice. Parents must joyfully accept their parenting role, teaching children to treasure God’s word and trust God. Chief among the several tools described is modeling a life of service. Chapter 11, “Equipping Young People to Build Healthy Relationships” by Sandra Gatlin Whitley, “highlights why adolescent girls and boys should . . . grow up knowing and living out their identity in Christ Jesus based on Ephesians 5:21: ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’” (195). Much of the chapter borrows its outline from the directive of Judg 19:30: Consider It, Take Counsel, Speak Up. Chapter 12, “God’s People for All Seasons: Sharing Ministry with Laypeople” by Lydia Sarandan, collects “stories of ordinary men and women whose hearts, minds, and abilities were offered up to God . . .” (219–20). It stresses the importance of laying a foundation during youth for a life of service.

Chapter 13, by Ralph Kee, is a sermonic essay encouraging churches to model gender equality in their neighborhoods. Chapter 14, by Lorraine Cleaves Anderson, presents a convincing argument that denominations should not forbid retired pastors from worshipping and fellowshipping in congregations where they served. Such decisions should instead be communal, informed by experiential wisdom, and aimed at the best interests of all involved. Interviews contributing to this chapter come from around the globe, including Costa Rica, Korea, Brazil, Haiti, and elsewhere.

The closing chapter, “Egalitarian Leadership in Global Mission” by J. Creamer, “surveys the legacy of women’s leadership in global mission from the mid-1800s to the present” (260). Interweaving numerous stories, she surveys the ebb and flow of women’s involvement in missions from the Women’s Missionary Movement of the 1860s–1920s through the shift of Christianity to the Global South and to Asia.

These several essays are important, broadening contributions to the quest for Christian egalitarian leadership. Readers will, of course, come to the collection with their own backgrounds, expectations, and questions. For my part, I most valued chapters 1 (“Overview of New Testament Teachings . . .”), 7 (“Egalitarian Multiethnic Leadership in the United States”), 8 (“Egalitarian Faith Nurturing in the African Context”), 11 (“Equipping Young People to Build Healthy Relationships”), and the conclusion by coeditor Aída Besançon Spencer. I trust that other readers will also identify with certain parts of the book, for it breaks new ground in the breadth of its application of Christian egalitarianism.

Notes

1. Those who know the Spencers from their teaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, from their ministries in Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York, from their blog, from their books, or from their leadership at the House of Prisca and Aquila would not need to be told that this book is not limited to gender egalitarianism. But many of our readers will know of them only from their long partnership with CBE (their publications in Priscilla Papers, for example, are prolific).

2. See further IFCAWorldImpact.com/Nancy-Hudson and NaomiDowdy.com.

3. Kevin Giles, for example, has emphatically combatted the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son and its supposed application to hierarchy in marriage, in large part with appeal to the historic creeds, confessions, and major theologians of the church. See, for example, his The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity (Cascade, 2017), and his published lecture (which gives a fuller list of his publications on the topic), “The Nicene and Reformed Doctrine of the Trinity,” Priscilla Papers 31/3 (Summer 2017).