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Published Date: July 30, 2010

Published Date: July 30, 2010

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On Developing a Consistent Hermeneutical Approach to the Application of General Scriptures


The passage on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians reflects the Holy Spirit’s primary role in the distribution of the gifts. However, the evangelical church has had a dominant hermeneutical approach where a certain interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 takes priority over the distribution of gifts by the Holy Spirit. This interpretation is treated as an a priori assumption in this and other literary contexts.

The broad spectrum of opinion concerning what exactly is prohibited in what context contributes to the confusion, both for women navigating their calling and for the churches, organizations, and individuals who are attempting to apply the prohibition. Furthermore, women find that they hit unanticipated glass walls because they are dealing with embedded theologies that are far more restrictive and confusing than what is actually articulated or permitted. I want to display how, in practice, a veil is placed over Romans 12:1–8 when an evangelical woman reads it.1 My contention is that anyone studying Scripture, whether woman or man, needs to apply sound hermeneutical principles consistently when studying Romans 12:1–8. Inconsistencies in the hermeneutical approach applied in regard to women result in theological inconsistency and patterns of injustice.

Background and context of Romans 12:1–8

Paul laid out a template for the believer’s function in the church through three letters: 1 Corinthians, written about a.d. 55; Romans, written about a.d. 57; and Ephesians, written about a.d. 60. The Epistle to the Romans provides a particularly interesting test case for Paul’s theology of ministry regarding spiritual gifts. It is the least occasional of his epistles—he was not addressing a large number of specific problems as he did in the Corinthian epistles or the Pastorals.2 Romans is also the most systematic with the most explanation and clarity—he had never visited Rome, and he did not assume a high level of shared information with the church in Rome. If there had been essential constraints on women in the exercise of spiritual gifts, this would have been the time for Paul to make such constraints clear. He did not do so.

Romans provides a significant contrast with 1 Timothy in a number of ways. Romans was written to a group in a place Paul had never visited, but 1 Timothy was a private, intimate letter to a member of his ministry team, which by nature assumes a very high level of shared information. In such private letters, invariably key information for outsider interpretation is omitted, because the recipient understands the context.3 First Timothy is highly occasional, embedded in a particular context in Ephesus. Paul was addressing a number of specific issues and problems caused by false teaching. First Timothy was written as much as eight years after Romans was written (most likely between a.d. 63 and 65). Furthermore, the alleged interpretive grid in 1 Timothy 2:12 contains a number of significant interpretive problems. I completely agree with Wayne Grudem that “[w]e should never use one part of Scripture to draw conclusions that deny or contradict other parts of Scripture.”4 The hermeneutical principles that will keep us from doing that are: (1) we do not base a doctrine on one verse, (2) we do not base a doctrine on a verse or passage with interpretive problems, and (3) we give preference to the clearer passage. Furthermore, when the eight-year span between the letters is considered, the use of 1 Timothy 2:12 as an interpretive grid for Romans is anachronistic.


I would like to articulate three assumptions about the passage from the start. First, while most commentators suggest that Romans 12:1–2 introduces the whole parenesis (exhortation) in the following four chapters, it is also part of a unified thread in 12:1–8,5
and 12:9–21 is also closely related. Second, parallel passages in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4:11–15 elucidate Paul’s theology on spiritual gifts and can be used legitimately to interpret each other. Third, regardless of one’s translation theory, in the Greek, humas (you plural) and adelphoi (siblings/brothers and sisters) refer to both women and men. This is made explicit and emphatic in 12:3—these instructions are addressed to every single one of the believers.6 The TNIV translation of the passage follows:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

Romans 12:1–2: Priesthood of the believer, authenticity, and transformation

The exhortations in 12:1–2 are couched in terms of worship, so that the believer is depicted as both the priest who serves and offers the sacrifice and the sacrifice that is being offered. Worship in the Old Testament, including the sacrifice and the priesthood, is now being fulfilled with the inauguration of the new age.7 As Stan Grenz observes, “The believer has the privilege and responsibility to engage in priestly functions such as offering spiritual sacrifices to God (Heb. 13:15, Rom. 12:1, 1 Pet. 2:9).”8 The sacrifice involves the totality of one’s life—we are now to be God’s possession. We are to resist conformity to the world’s norms and standards and experience transformation by the renewing of our minds.

One of the common arguments used to support the prohibition of women from the priesthood or pastorate is that Old Testament priests were male. But, here we have the priesthood of believers in a ministry/gift context, and there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female in the priesthood. This is consistent with the argument in the book of Hebrews: Now that Christ has offered himself as a once-for-all sacrifice for our sin and guilt, we stand on the same ground before God—We are to follow Christ into the Holy of Holies functioning as priests (10:19–25). If the Old Testament teaching role actually belonged to the priests rather than the prophets, as has been suggested,9 then the teaching role would be extended across the racial, social, and gender lines also. As a part of the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer, evangelicals have held that every believer is responsible to share knowledge, though every believer may not have the gift of teaching.10

No doubt, all agree that not every believer is qualified to be an elder or pastor on the basis of the priesthood of the believer alone.11 However, here there is an explicit relationship between all functions in ministry and the priesthood of the believer—the functions flow out of the priesthood. Every member of the church shares in the church’s ministry and mission. Every gift is presented as a possibility for the reader to consider as he or she determines each one’s own measure of faith with sober judgment. According to the doctrine as it has developed, every Christian has equal potential to minister before God. Where there is a priesthood of all believers, there is no spiritual aristocracy or hierarchy.12 In Baptist doctrine, for example, no one is in authority over all, so all decisions are made by the congregation, which is the community of priests.13 This would suggest that arguments that exclude women from so-called positions of authority are based on an incorrect theology of ministry, or at least a non-Baptistic (or congregational) theology of ministry.

The exhortations in 12:1–2 involve a call to authenticity. Devoting our bodies is generally recognized as the whole person—it includes who we are as uniquely created by God, where we have been, and where we are now in our life journey.14 Our theology is associated with our worldview. In the book How to Think Theologically, there is a helpful distinction between deliberative theology and embedded theology.15Deliberative theology is intentionally drawn from interpreting the Bible. Scriptures are studied and developed into a coherent worldview. Embedded theology is our autopilot—our unspoken, unwritten, unexamined rules by which we live.

I became a Christian at age fourteen and joined the evangelical church at sixteen. Within two years, I encountered a vast body of embedded evangelical theology by which I was being judged negatively. I could not fathom it, and I could not seem to get a grasp of it with deliberative theology. The more I tried, the more I seemed to be in the wrong—but I could not locate where the violations occurred. For a long time, I accepted that the problem was an inherent brokenness on my part. The problem really was that I was a female ENTJ (according to the Myers-Briggs diagnostic test)16 who was rather cluelessly in the process of becoming an M.A./M.Div./Ph.D.—and for some, at the bottom line, I violated what they felt women were supposed to be.

My experience is repeated with a growing number of women who are born and bred to reflect a significantly expanded set of personal potentials and possibilities for a number of different reasons. We have an embedded theology that is lodged in the configuration of our heritage, time, and place, which was predetermined by God as optimal for our relationship with him, according to Acts 17:24–28.17 We are God’s workmanship created by Christ Jesus for good works (Eph. 2:8–9).18 Some of us have subsequently been educated, tested, trained, certified, elected, and proven to function in an expanding variety of different roles of responsibility and leadership. As a direct result, women now make up 50 percent of the student body of some seminaries.19 Consequently, we are an essential component in the budget, which is an unprecedented reversal when I consider how many of my seminary classes had only one woman in them. In our accomplishments, evangelical women are able to take verses seriously, such as “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31)—this is not invariably about self-assertion or selfish ambition. Our personalities, abilities, potential, and development are not inherently broken—they are an essential part of our authenticity. This is what I am required to place at God’s disposal at the altar, and this feeds into my measure of faith with which I think about my gifts.

One thing I embraced early was the exhortation not to be conformed to the pattern of this world—as Phillips translated, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold!”20 The contrast is between this world of this age and the interests and principles of the age to come—our eschatological destination.21 I was reared to be an agnostic in a toxic environment. Survival necessitated critical thinking and a commitment to truth; taking a faith stance required me to be transformed in every way by the deliberate renewing of my mind with Scripture. Critical thinking and intensive study have characterized my spiritual journey ever since. My primary teachers and models for the transformation of my mind for nearly forty years have been my pastors, Sunday school teachers, campus directors, and professors of Bible and theology—they were all men, and many of them had personalities and abilities that were similar to mine.

I come to this passage informed by the hermeneutics and interpretations of the men who taught me. But I also bring an authentic woman to the altar. Whatever I am able to do, whether in society or the church, the action is feminine because God made me a woman.

Romans 12:3–5: The call to diverse service in unity

The next verses emphasize unity in diversity, but, in so doing, they display some principles for navigating our calling. The verses are addressed to every member of the community. According to Thomas Schreiner, “Every believer has been given a measure of faith and is called on to estimate himself or herself in accord with this apportioned faith.”22 We are to think soberly and sensibly about ourselves in regard to our gifts. In addition, we have different gifts “according to the grace given to us” (12:6a). Paul is urging the believers to evaluate their gifts and calling realistically according to their faith and grace—that is, there is a responsibility to negotiate ministry from the standpoint of the experience and emotions of the individual recipient. The individual call to the ministry and the pastorate is treated with due respect and seriousness in the seminaries. There is a reluctance to question or contradict a man’s call, even if he appears to lack the gifts and social skills deemed appropriate for ministry. John Piper provides an excellent paradigm for a call to the pastorate: He sensed a call to ministry while he was at Wheaton, which he describes as “my heart almost bursting with longing.”23 Then, in 1980, he felt an irresistible call to preach.24 Clearly, when a man negotiates his call to ministry, he utilizes emotions and experience in accordance with his faith and the grace he is given.25

However, when a woman determines her call by the same model, using the same criteria, if she comes to the same conclusion, she is told that her navigational system is broken. We are often told that utilizing emotion and experience is invalid in discovering our call if we come up with the “wrong” conclusion.26 This is ironic, because we receive our procedure directly from the unified witness, teaching, and example of men in the pulpit, adult Sunday schools, Bible classes, theologians, and writers of commentaries. If a woman’s experience and emotions are negated in this process of obedience to God, not only is a sense of calling compromised, but the essence of following Jesus and the imitation of Christ become qualitatively different than they are for a man. When experience and/or emotions are removed from the equation, then a woman must go to a mediator to perceive her call, to hear God’s voice, and to figure out what her function is.

In practice, a man’s experience and emotions are treated as normative in his call to ministry, but a woman’s emotions and experience are treated as suspect and can be cancelled out by being outside of wherever “they” draw the line of what is the appropriate sphere of ministry for women. Historically the line has been drawn in every conceivable place. But, in the two passages that explicitly address the basis of the function of ministry, 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12, there are two primary determinants of gifts and function: the realistic estimation of the individual and the Holy Spirit who gives gifts to every individual just as he determines (1 Cor. 12:11). This would argue against the theology of “drawing a line” and creating a priori rules of how God works that cancel out the clear theology of these two passages in regard to women.

The consequences of “drawing the line” across the application of this passage to women is that a “hermeneutic of suspicion” is pervasive among conservative evangelicals—it has been used to interpret and judge a woman’s identity as well as her behavior. That which is pragmatically prohibited tends to flow to the least common denominator, as if it is safer to go with a more severe restriction of women than one’s own theology would warrant.

Romans 12:6b–8: Gifts given to meet the needs of the body

When the different lists are laid out, a direct relationship between the gifts and the function of leaders or offices in the church is seen. Romans lists seven gifts: prophecy, serving (diakonian), teaching, exhorting, giving, leadership (which has a lexical association with elders and deacons in 1 Tim. 3:4, 12; c.f. 1 Thess. 5:12), and mercy. This is not an exhaustive list. First Corinthians 12 has a somewhat different list that includes apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healing, service (helps), administration, tongues, interpretation of tongues, wisdom, knowledge, and faith. Ephesians 4:11 adds two more gifts: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, and specifies that these gifts are given to prepare God’s people for service so that the body of Christ may be built up (Eph. 4:12). In 1 Corinthians 12:21–26, Paul says explicitly that the gifts are provided so that one part of the body cannot say to the others, “I have no need of you,” and that God has combined the members of the body so that greater honor should be given to the parts that lacked it.

When a man looks at Romans 12:6–8, he sees a non-exhaustive
list of possibilities through which he may interpret himself and his calling. They are written to suggest virtually unlimited opportunities of application. When a young woman who has not been coached reads Romans 12 for the first time in the light of her life’s potentials and possibilities, she responds with the same uninhibited faith that God may use her in any one of these categories, because she sees women functioning in similar ways all around her. Our core competencies, personalities, and paths are as varied, distinctive, and unique from each other’s as are men’s.

However, the application of these passages to women has had a spotty history. It has often been asserted that giftedness follows gender lines, but that tends to be a one-sided argument, as there are never any restrictions placed on men, nor are any feminine gifts identified. Men are free to consider any gift as a possibility. On the other hand, sometimes there is flat denial that a woman could be gifted in the majority of the gifts based on whether they involve authority, speaking, or passing judgment based on 1 Timothy 2:12. One author, for example, acknowledges that a woman could be gifted in teaching, but he restricts her to exercising the gifts with women and children or for evangelism.27 However, the gifts are specifically given to build the body, the church; therefore, the general restriction would not be a norm that one draws from the passage. Men are saying to gifted women, “I have no need of you,” which is a clear violation of Scripture (1 Cor. 12:21–26). Consequently, women who show themselves to be gifted in areas other than service, showing mercy, giving, and faith are prey to being underutilized, misused, or even treated with hostility. The principles governing the exercise of spiritual gifts are clear when applied to men, but they are not understood or applied with any rigor or consistency to women.

Some churches have recognized women’s giftedness in a variety of areas and fully utilize women in the ministries of the church. However, if they draw the line before allowing the woman to exercise the kind of authority that a man with the same responsibility would exercise, they open the door to certain forms of exploitation. Women respond to the church’s needs by becoming volunteers, staff, and home missionaries. Some of the most sacrificial church ministries I know have been run by women. If the church constricts their role, then the congregation can believe that they have held the line, but, consequently, they may also take advantage of women because of their lack of power in the church structure. There have been cases of sexual harassment and spiritual abuse in some churches because the women are relatively defenseless against those who are in authority.

Thomas Schreiner says, “Once believers have identified their gifts they should strive to excel in the gifts they have been given and devote themselves to the body by exercising those gifts. . . . They should not spend too much time in serving when their primary gift is teaching.”28 Most evangelical women who are gifted in the gray zones probably find this principle nearly impossible to follow; they fall into the practice of concentrating on ancillary roles of practical service, such as serving in the nursery and offering hospitality. It is the path of least resistance, and they do the actions that are most appreciated.


I have shown how using a certain interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 as an interpretive grid lays a veil over other passages; for example, women are not permitted to interpret or apply Romans 12:1–8 in the same way as the men who teach them and lead them by example. In essence, they are not allowed to apply sound hermeneutical principles consistently. A passage becomes something else—in some cases, the exact opposite principle is asserted based on gender considerations than the one which the passage espouses or illustrates. The priesthood of the believer becomes circumscribed so that it has nothing to do with the function of ministry. A man knows he is created in Christ Jesus for good works. He knows that his calling is based on whom God has created him to be in terms of his personality and spiritual gifting/skills, where he has been, and where he is now in his life journey. A woman’s sense of calling can be regarded with suspicion and hostility if, for example, she has a leadership personality and/or a significant set of leadership skills and abilities. The starting point for a man’s call is his own discernment together with his emotions and experience. However, a woman’s discernment, emotion, and experience must be tested and qualified against possible prohibitions. A man can approach spiritual gifts as spiritual possibilities, but a woman may be unsure of what she is allowed to do. She becomes immobilized.

I have said consistently that it is an interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 that is inappropriately applied as a hermeneutic grid on these passages. I question its use in interpreting Romans 12:1–8 on spiritual gifts because the Roman church could not have used it as an interpretive grid. Furthermore, I repeat that we should not base a doctrine on one verse, we should not base a doctrine on a verse or passage with interpretive problems, and we should give preference to the clearer passage in Romans over the less clear passage in 1 Timothy. It is a serious enough problem that sound hermeneutical principles are not being applied consistently to Romans 12:1–8. This results in some serious theological ramifications. Is this inconsistent application bringing life, freedom, and grace to women in Christ, or is it placing women under law? “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). If Paul was deeply troubled about Judaizers requiring circumcision, what would he think about the intentional restraint and immobilization of the Spirit’s gifts for ministry? Pragmatically, the use of 1 Timothy 2:12 involves a sort of “hermeneutic imperialism” that cancels out the clear teaching of Romans 12:1–8. The effects of this practice result in complex patterns of injustice. Ultimately, it generates a different theology for women than for men.


  1. An intentional allusion to 2 Cor. 3:12–18. However, instead of a veil being placed over women’s heart, the passage is distanced from them and compromised.
  2. Other than the acute problem between the Jews and the Gentiles in the church, reflected in Rom. 14:1–15:33; see J. A. Fitzmeyer, Romans, Anchor Bible 33 (New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1992), 638.
  3. One of the key principles of Relevance Theory is that a writer/speaker does not share more information than is necessary.
  4. Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah, 2004), 405.
  5. While legō (“I say”) in 12:3 is emphatic, as well as panti tō onti en umin (“every one of you”), the verse is joined with gar (“for”), indicating not only that 12:3–5 is connected or flows out of 12:1–2, but that it supports it.
  6. The Greek here is emphatic: panti tō onti en umin (“every one of you”).
  7. As Thomas Schreiner asserts, “The worship and sacrifices of the OT can no longer be confined to the cult [practice of worship]. . . . He understands the OT cult as now being fulfilled because the new age is inaugurated. In other words, Paul’s understanding of the cult is fundamentally eschatological” (T. R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1998), 646.
  8. Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994), 555.
  9. Grudem, Evangelical Feminism, 137.
  10. Bruce L. Shelly, What Baptists Believe (Wheaton, Ill: C. B. Press, 1973), 25–32.
  11. Grudem, Evangelical Feminism, 404–05.
  12. As Lewis and Demarest state, “The priesthood of believers means that no leaders (bishops, ministers or elders) can demand that others confess sins to them for divine forgiveness. No leader can add to the mediatorial provisions of Jesus Christ as implemented by the Holy Spirit. As priests, church members have not only equal privileges but also equal responsibility to exercise in love their different spiritual gifts for the good of all” (Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology, vol. 3 [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996], 274).
  13. Though this sounds like it is inspired by egalitarian theology, it is a classic description c. 1974: Shelly, Baptists, 25–32.
  14. Schreiner states, “The word ‘bodies’ here refers to the whole person and stresses that consecration to God involves the whole person. . . .Genuine commitment to God embraces every area of life, and includes the body in all of its particularity and concreteness” (Schreiner, Romans, 644). Douglas Moo suggests that “Paul probably intends to refer to the entire person, with special emphasis on that person’s interaction with the world. Paul is making a special point to emphasize that the sacrifice we are called on to make requires a dedication to the service of God in the harsh and often ambiguous life of this world” (Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996], 751).
  15. Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke, How to Think Theologically (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Fortress, 1996), 13–19.
  16. ENTJ is the second rarest of sixteen categories of personality analysis in the Myers-Briggs diagnostic test. It is sometimes characterized as “the General,” or more politely as “natural-born leaders.” My oldest daughter is also an ENTJ and is currently working on her Ph.D. E=Extrovert, N=Intuitive, T=Thinking, J=Judgment. Only 1.8 percent of those tested are ENTJs; 2.9 percent of men are ENTJs compared to 0.9 percent of women. Thinking is in a polarity with Feeling (F). There is a slight male preference for T, but not overwhelming, given the myth of male logic (56.5 percent). There is a strong female preference for F (75.5 percent). Particularly interesting concerning our discussion is the fact that people in ministry have an overwhelming preference for F. See Roy M. Oswald, Personality Type and Religious Leadership (Washington D.C.: Alban Institute, 1988).
  17. If it is claimed that some of us (born after 1970) are the unwitting products of a feminist agenda and environment, I can reply that Jesus’ sacrificial death is the product of oppressive institutional terrorism.
  18. What has changed? For women, the change in the past 150 years has been dizzying. A new map has been established through a proven track record involving possibilities in society and in evangelicalism, roles in the church and the parachurch ministries. Why has the change occurred? There has been a progressive correction during the last fifty years of myths and folklore about women in terms of intellectual and physical abilities based on statistics. Co-education has played a crucial role: Doors to higher education slowly opened, and we operate as peers in the classroom. Women’s attendance in seminary has undergone a revolution. Women account for 50 percent in some seminaries. When women take traditional biblical studies and ministry courses, such as Hebrew and Greek, exegesis, hermeneutics, and homiletics, they are often perceived by the professors as excelling.
  19. The 50 percent would include students in all seminary degree programs, not just the M.Div. degree. This is the case for some of the evangelical schools in Canada, such as evangelical McMaster Divinity College, though ACTS seminary in Vancouver has closer to a 35 percent ratio for women, which is still an important statistic. According to the New York Times, “Women now make up 51 percent of the students in divinity school” (New York Times, August 26, 2006). This statistic would include liberal and evangelical seminaries.
  20. However, Elisabeth Elliot applies “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its own mold” to resisting feminist theology, avoiding self-assertion, and embracing a feminine role. While I have trouble with appealing to a jungle tribe’s view of gender roles as an indication of their importance, Elliot has found a voice, and her ability to speak to crowds and write prolifically is an illustration of change (Elliot, “The Essence of Femininity: A Personal Perspective” in J. Piper and W. Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Biblical Feminism [Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 1991]).
  21. See, for example, John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1959, 1965), 113–14.
  22. Schreiner, Romans, 651.
  23. John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1990), 18.
  24. John Piper Books Web site,, cited April 22, 2010.
  25. This is not far from the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, where theology’s sources are Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
  26. Grudem states, “God never calls people to disobey His Word. Our decision on this matter must be based on the objective teaching of the Bible, not on some person’s experience, no matter how godly or sincere that person is” (Evangelical Feminism, 481). Of course, an experiential response to Romans 12 where a woman determines that she is called to be a leader is directly based on obedience to the Bible. Grudem does not go so far as to invalidate the experience completely, but says that there would be a mistake in understanding the meaning of those experiences.
  27. Grudem, Evangelical Feminism, 452.
  28. Schreiner, Romans, 657.
Three women smiling at the camera, each is holding a present.

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