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Published Date: April 29, 2014

Published Date: April 29, 2014

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Duke Ellington and Biblical Equality

It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.
—Duke Ellington

The rational case for biblical equality has been made many times by theologically conservative evangelicals in the past several decades.1 But no one quotation summarizes the essential egalitarian position better than Dorothy Sayers’s remark on how Jesus treated women:

They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized . . . who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious.2

Instead of giving yet another argument, let us consider the matter of strategy. I am both a jazz lover and evangelical egalitarian. As I was preparing a talk to the Denver chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality, it came to me that the approach to race taken by composer, big-band leader, and pianist Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899–1974) has much to teach egalitarians on how to shape a rhetoric that fits our difficult and often vexing cause. The man who was arguably America’s greatest composer and unarguably its superlative band leader may also be a model for many of us weary of the effort to show that women are, after all, fully human—with all the gifts, responsibilities, and woes that involves. Duke Ellington, the musical hero, may be, in addition, a rhetorical hero worthy of emulation by emissaries of egalitarianism.3 The argument is one of analogy. Although Duke Ellington did not directly take up the case of women’s rights, his approach to race exhibited virtues, values, and strategies that are felicitous for contemporary egalitarians.

By “rhetoric,” I do not mean propaganda, trickery, psychological legerdemain, or emotional manipulation. I refer to the historical and classical meaning: the art of persuasion. This includes, according to Aristotle, ethos, logos, and pathos. Ethos broadly takes in the character of the speaker or writer. One must establish a presence, an authority that commands attention and respect. Logos means the nature of the case itself. If I am arguing for a position, I must support it with good reasons and evidence. Pathos concerns the affective elements of the case. Emotions should be rightly stirred to the cause in question.4 One cannot resist the temptation to quote Martin Luther King Jr. on this from his ringing speech, “I Have a Dream” (1963):

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest—quest for freedom—left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.5

Pathos is not necessarily emotionalism or histrionics, but the wise invocation of subjective states that serve objective truth. Logos without pathos or ethos often comes off as aloof rationalism. Ethos without logos and pathos looks authoritarian. And pathos without logos and ethos rings with emotionalism. The point is direct: we need all three elements for wise and winning persuasion.6

But how does this possibly pertain to Duke Ellington, the kingdom of God, and egalitarianism? First, let us briefly ponder the vast and deep influence of the Maestro.7

Meet Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington’s musical career began in the late 1920s and ended at his death in 1974, at age seventy-five. During nearly all of this time, he led a big band from the piano bench. This was no small accomplishment for several reasons. The bone fide “big band” era did not last very long (circa 1935–1945). Most big ensembles went under either because of changes in musical fashion, or simply because a small band was easier to employ. It also takes a rare endowment of diplomacy and discipline to keep the peace and maintain team spirit among notoriously moody and mercurial jazz musicians who are always on the road. More significantly, though, supplying a big band with new and worthwhile material, while remembering without overworking past standards, requires a level of creative genius that few could match. In fact, we know of only one: Duke Ellington. His songs, such as “Mood Indigo,” “Satin Doll,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Take the A-Train” (the band’s theme, written by Billy Strayhorn), and many others, are indelibly printed in America’s songbook. While his career had its oscillations, he never went out of style and continued to write and arrange and participate in innovative and sublime music up until his death. (He was also the most underrated jazz pianist of the twentieth century. No one could match his sense of time, space, or creativity with chords. As a longtime jazz aficionado, I have never heard anyone play anything like he did.)

Amazingly, Duke Ellington was far more than all this. Though he never went to college, he received dozens of honorary doctorates and was an American ambassador of goodwill around the world. Besides his own ceaseless touring, he was employed by the United States Department of State to represent the nation overseas through his music and inimitable personality. Ellington was honored with an all-star tribute by President Richard Nixon at the White House in 1969, where he greeted the president in his customary manner: a kiss on both cheeks—twice.8 This, of course, was biblical (Rom 6:16; 2 Cor 13:12). Sadly, however, Ellington’s sexual ethics were not Christian. He married young, never divorced, but had numerous long-term and short-term lovers over the years, though he kept supporting his wife.9 Nevertheless, he considered himself a Christian, prayed before meals, and composed several “sacred works” near the end of his career.10 He considered these works his most important pieces of music—a remarkable comment, given the depth and extent of his achievements (even if few music critics agreed).

Ellington’s prestige did not come without struggle and tribulation. He was an African American who began his career long before the civil rights movement was born. This great historical transformation would begin to give his people the rights and respect they deserved. Although reared in Washington, D.C., in a black community that stressed self-respect and hard work, neither his regal bearing (hence the early nickname “Duke”) nor his immense talent automatically ensured success, largely because of the racial discrimination of the day. His longtime white manager, Irving Mills, often took advantage of Ellington, even falsely claiming songwriting credits. Yet, Duke suffered through it and said nothing ill of Mills in his autobiography. Ellington’s all-black (or nearly all-black) band often played before all-white audiences. In the first few decades of his long career, Duke Ellington was more prone to integrate his band than were his audiences willing to be integrated. When his big band went on the road, it was often difficult to find restaurants and hotels to accommodate them. (This was not true when he toured in Europe.) Ellington eventually rented his own train coach for his band as they traveled cross-country. Early films of Duke Ellington and his band were racially integrated in a strange way. The black band and white actors both starred in these films, but they never shared the same frame.11 For the whites, the “minstrels” (however sophisticated) were on stage; the white customers were in the audience. Despite this cinematic apartheid, at least black folks appeared in an otherwise all-white movie—and not as household servants. That was some forward movement, however incremental and slow. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”12

Ellington did not endorse this sad segregation, but he was not a revolutionary either. He did not want to bring down the whole American system. He was patriotic and believed America could do better given its founding ideals and because of the inherent dignity of his own African American race.13 He learned this attitude early on through his education and family. Ellington’s philosophy of race led him to demonstrate excellence in what he did as a black man with other black men. The dominant culture would eventually notice and take heed. He was a man of immense talent, charisma, eloquence, and grace who led a band of outstanding musicians who would command respect. Of course, he was not an “Uncle Tom.” He spoke out for racial equality when needed and performed many free concerts for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He met with and endorsed the work of Martin Luther King Jr. He recorded a concept album called “Black, Brown, and Beige,” which summarized a longer work that was never fully performed.14 This was a history of African Americans. He also put out an album called, “My People.” However, he never supported Black Power as a force to attack the American system violently, as did groups such as the Black Panthers or the rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix in the late 1960s and 1970s, for example.15 Neither did he want to be known primarily as a “race man,” that is, someone whose blood and breath were dedicated to nothing but playing the race card whenever and wherever possible. Ellington somehow managed to have fire in his bones about racial dignity without having a chip on his shoulder—a rare, honorable, and felicitous combination.

To bring this together, let us return to the three principal elements of rhetoric. Ellington emanated an undeniable ethos as a composer, band leader, pianist, and orator on stage and record. Anyone who doubts his oratorical prowess should simply listen to his eloquent and clever, spoken introduction to his later work “Afro-Eurasian Eclipse,” wherein he speaks of the globalization theory (although not in those words) of “Mr. Marshall McLuhan of the University of Toronto.” (Notice also his deliberate and emphasized use of inclusive language in his introduction when he says “him or her,” which was quite rare at the time.) Ellington’s logos was not that of logical syllogisms or other rational demonstrations per se, but rather a logos of presence and being: He and his band showed the watching world that they were fully human, greatly gifted, worth respecting, and worth treating as fully human beings. He did not have to say this directly, but proved it through his on- and off-stage presence. Further, he wrote music celebrating the dignity and achievements of his race, as mentioned above. He was never a celebrity for the sake of celebrity, but a man with both a musical and national mission: perform superb music, break racial stereotypes, and thus further the case of racial equality in an America underachieving its democratic ideals.

The pathos of Ellington was his utter and ecstatic abandon to the music he loved, which included his adoration of his audience and his encouragement to his fellow musicians. He was famous for saying to his audience, “We love you madly.” On many recordings, one can also hear him cheering on members of his band. This rhetoric of genuine personality in the midst of a focused and extended career made for a potent force for change, not only in music, but also for racial justice and respect for African Americans in American life.

Ellington and egalitarianism

Just what is it about the example of this amazing man that might inspire egalitarians to pursue the case of biblical mutuality and equality in a wiser and more winsome way? First, Ellington worked within the confines of racism without endorsing it or viewing it as inevitable. He did not refuse to play his music because his band was forced to stay in cheap hotels across town after they performed for whites in the “better” part of town. He endured rejection and segregation, realizing that something better might lie ahead. He had hope, which surely came from his African American religious background.16 He did not accept second-class citizenship, but, instead, assumed a regal posture on and off stage, despite the inequality of the day.

Egalitarians, male and female, must endure the frustration and often anguish of ministering in churches, colleges, seminaries, and parachurch ministries where the gifts and callings of women are not sufficiently recognized—or, worse yet, where they are actively suppressed. We all have our laments and horror stories. Of course, this gender discrimination grieves and quenches the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:30; 1 Thess 5:19). Today, women may not be physically segregated from men, but they are too often existentially segregated. This discrimination is not on account of skin color, but because of biology, which is a given of female being. Race, too, is a given of our being. Just as we should not discriminate solely because of race, we should not discriminate solely because of gender.

Although I am a full professor at a well-recognized seminary and have a decent number of academic and more popular publications, because I am an egalitarian, I am not welcome to teach at some evangelical churches, colleges, seminaries, or conferences. Worse yet, some of my most gifted and called women seminary graduates cannot secure leadership positions in evangelical settings despite the fact that these are places where they could serve God and extend his mission with intelligence, compassion, and dedication. This breaks our hearts and makes us angry. Yet, we should remember Paul’s wise exhortation, “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Eph 4:26). But, like Ellington, we must not capitulate. Women are not, in their being or before the Lord, second-class citizens in the kingdom of God, nor are egalitarian men. If we know this, then we should bide our time, look for available light, and endure the sting of discrimination, realizing that something better might lie ahead in this world and certainly does in the next (Heb 12:2; Rev 21–22). As Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16).17 Or, as Ellington might say, “Keep swinging, baby.”

Second, Ellington did not make race the centerpiece of his composing or his performing or his identity. Musical excellence was his controlling passion. His autobiography was called Music Is My Mistress. In it, he says, “Music is my mistress, and she plays second fiddle to no one.”18 He and most of his early band members were African American, but his music had and has a universal appeal, both in its instrumental beauty and in its lyrics. This may sound odd at first, but the same principle should apply to the egalitarian cause, for both women and men. We should excel in our callings and win respect because of our God-given skills and God-given virtues. That is, we should seek first God’s kingdom (Matt 6:33), discern and excel in our spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:7–11; Rom 12; Eph 4), and manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22). This will, in time, command attention, approval —and disapprobation (Matt 5:13–16).

I often ask my male traditionalist students why God would limit women from aspects of leadership in the church or the home if these women have the gifts necessary to flourish in these areas. (In recent years, three women have won the Master of Divinity preaching award at my institution.) The male students usually stammer something like, “Well, I don’t know, but God says they should not be senior pastors.” Since there is no logic to their position, I reply, “Then let that haunt you!”19 The women who manage to win the often reluctant respect of men need not constantly demand it or make it the essence of their identity as Christians. Whatever its merits or demerits elsewhere, affirmative action is not the way to insinuate women’s talents into the church and home. In fact, the quota or entitlement mentality tends to induce resentment and suspicion. Women should not serve as leaders because they are women any more than women should be commercial pilots because they are women. They should, by God’s grace, earn the right to be heard and heeded in the sight of men and women. Let them be exceptional preachers—and women. Let them be adroit administrators—and women. Let them be memorable and deeply biblical teachers—and women. Let them be rigorously rational thinkers (philosophers, theologians, biblical scholars)—and women.

Third, Duke Ellington worked out his musical and social vision over a lifetime—a long life in which he experienced humiliation, obstruction, and ultimately success and recognition as one of the most important American culture-shapers of the twentieth century.20 My wife and I know the weariness, anger, slander, and sense of defeat that comes with being vocal egalitarians. I am blessed to work at an institution where one’s view on gender roles is not a litmus test for orthodoxy, for being hired, or for being promoted. However, both Rebecca and I have been written off by others as “liberals” and “radical feminists”—charges that are laughably absurd if you really knew us or read our writings on the subject.21 But we must soldier on, not being content with the second-class citizenship of so many women in evangelicalism, not giving up the cause of biblical equality. I preach to myself here, since I have been tempted merely to shut up and emphasize other issues. As Francis Schaeffer put it, our entire lives should be works of art on display before the watching world and church.22 Egalitarians need to live out their convictions creatively and courageously over the long haul. Even arch-atheist and anti-Christian “prophet” Friedrich Nietzsche knew the value of a life’s direction: The essential thing “in heaven and earth is apparently . . . that where should belong obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which had made life worth living.”23

Let us sum up the case by briefly returning to the three categories of rhetoric. Our ethos should be grounded in gentle yet firm insistence that God calls both women and men to lead and serve equally in the church and in the home. Hierarchy began at the fall (Gen 3:16) and is not normative for gender or ecclesiastical relationships. We should hold this truth confidently but humbly. It is part of our identity, but it is not the whole of our identity, which is rooted in Christ as Lord of the cosmos (Col 1–2). Monomania is never a virtue. And we are part of the same body of Christ as are non-egalitarian Christians.

Our logos should be the biblical, theological, and philosophical arguments for biblical equality. Egalitarians should be able to sum up their case based on the themes of creation (original equality), fall (beginning of hierarchy), and redemption (Christ setting women and men free to serve without gender hierarchy). Egalitarians ought to employ biblical texts for their case and be especially adept at refuting the passages supposedly supporting permanent limits on women in ministry and the home.24 Any indignant sense of entitlement or compensation for previous wrongs will not serve our logos as well as the intellectual case from the Logos himself (John 1:1–3).25 Just as we should have “a reason for the hope that is with us” that we offer in “gentleness and respect” concerning the gospel itself (1 Pet 3:15-16; see also Jude 3), we should have good and sufficient reasons for those who ask us to explain our position. Moreover, we should lead lives that compel others to ask us about our theology of gender.

The pathos of the evangelical egalitarian must flow out of her ethos and logos. Since many reject egalitarianism as nothing but an emotional reaction of overheated women (and men), our appeal to repentance and restorative action should be diplomatic as well as prophetic. We must depend on the Lord moment by moment to “speak the truth in love” to fellow Christians (Eph 4:15).26 Truth without love is harsh and off-putting. Love without truth lacks a backbone and the willingness to be contra mundum (against the world). Yes, we should ardently call the church to recognize, celebrate, and utilize the God-given and Spirit-led gifts of women. When heeded, this will arouse the proper feelings of regret, guilt, anger—and hope. However, this must be done with tact—to discern the time to do so—and courage, since we will face many tribulations in this mission (Acts 14:22). As Paul said to Timothy, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (1 Tim 1:7; see also Ps 62). Although Paul was instructing Timothy on how to deal with devil-deceived heretics, the principles he lays down are applicable to disagreements within the Body of Christ as well:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.
(2 Tim 2:24–25; see also 1 Pet 3:15)

By God’s grace, we may appropriate the rhetorical genius of Duke Ellington’s life in jazz to the cause of biblical egalitarianism. I, for one, will try. Please join me.


  1. E.g., Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Women Caught in the Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994); Good News for Women (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997); Ronald Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, eds., Discovering Biblical Equality (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004).
  2. Dorothy Sayers, “The Human-Not-Quite Human,” in Are Women Human? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 68.
  3. Although I cannot dilate on the theme, morality needs more than principles to obey and a concern with consequences; it also needs laudable character traits or virtues to emulate. An important aspect of virtue theory in ethics is finding moral models to follow, not merely moral rules to obey. The same holds true, it seems, for rhetorical strategies. On virtue ethics, see Scott Rae, Moral Choices, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009); Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart (St. Louis, MO: Ignatius, 1991).
  4. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1948; repr. New York, NY: MacMillan, 1976), 25. See also Matthew A. Eliot, Faithful Emotions: RethinkingEmotion in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2006).
  5. Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have a Dream,” (1963), 4, United States National Archives,
  6. See Aristotle, The Rhetoric. For a contemporary, clearer, and learned introduction to rhetoric, see Sam Leith, Words Loaded like Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama (New York, NY: BasicBooks, 2012).
  7. I have read many sources on Ellington (some of which appear in subsequent notes), but I am chiefly indebted to Harvey Cohen’s magisterial work, Duke Ellington’s America (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
  8. See Edward Alan Faine, Duke Ellington at the White House (Tacoma Park, MD: IM Press, 2013); for the music performed, see “1969 All-Star Tribute to Duke Ellington” (Blue Note Records, 2002).
  9. Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis put it concisely if euphemistically: “He was the greatest flirt—ever.” “Foreword,” in John Edward Hasse, Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington (New York, NY: DeCapo, 1993), 13.
  10. On Ellington’s religious ideas, see Janna Tull Stead, Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography (New York, NY: Crossroad, 1999).
  11. I owe this insight to Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. On Ellington and film, see “Jazz Profiles from NPR: Duke Ellington in Film and on Stage,” at
  12. Martin Luther King Jr. uttered this in several speeches; he was inspired by a similar and longer statement by nineteenth-century abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker.
  13. He defended free enterprise as opposed to socialism as well. See Cohen, Ellington’s America, 431.
  14. See Cohen, Ellington’s America, 213–29.
  15. See Charles Cross, Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix (New York, NY: Hyperion, 2006).
  16. The sense of hope is profoundly present in many Negro spirituals. Although I do not endorse the racial ideology of his work (neither would Ellington), James Cone makes this case in The Spirituals and the Blues (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992). For breathtaking interpretations of Negro spirituals, listen to Marian Anderson’s renditions.
  17. Note Jesus’s brilliant use of metaphor: four metaphors in two sentences, all perfectly apt.
  18. Duke Ellington, Music Is My Mistress (New York, NY: DeCapo, 1976).
  19. For a developed logical case, see Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, “Equal in Being, Unequal in Function,” in Discovering Biblical Equality, ed. Ronald Pierce and idem (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004). See also Adam Omelianchuk, “Ontologically Grounded Subordination: A Reply to Steven B. Cowan,” Philosophia Christi 13, no. 1 (2011): 169–80. This article defends and expands on Rebecca Merrill Groothuis’s views against arguments made by Cowan.
  20. On this, see the entire presentation of Duke Ellington’s America.
  21. Rebecca Merrill Groothuis has written far more than I have on this topic (see above), but I take up the subject in Truth Decay: Defending Christianity against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 228–36; and “Jesus’ View of Women” in On Jesus (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003).
  22. Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (1973; repr. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 92.
  23. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Marianne Cowan (Chicago, IL: Henry Regnery, 1955), 95; quoted in Os Guinness, The American Hour (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1993), 340.
  24. These are all addressed in depth in the ten chapters of section II (Looking to Scripture) of Discovering Biblical Equality.
  25. I argue that Jesus was a genuine philosopher in On Jesus (Belmont, CA, 2003).
  26. On radical dependence on God according to biblical truth, see Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality (Carol Stream, IN: Tyndale, 1971). This is a modern classic. See also William Edgar, Schaeffer on the Christian Life: Countercultural Spirituality (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013).
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