I met an extraordinary teenager recently who had come to faith in a small town in Latvia. He was passionate about Jesus and wanted to live his life fully for Christ. When I asked how he wished to serve Christ, he made a comment that continues to inspire me. He said, “I want to give words their true meaning.” As a gifted linguist, this young man recognized that words should always be used to clarify truth, rather than to obscure it. This is especially true when discussing the important questions concerning faith, gender, and authority. Consider the following example.
Many of us have heard the claim that though women and men are equal, they are said to have “different roles.” How are men and women equal but different? Perhaps you imagine the most obvious issue of all, that women, rather than men conceive children, carry them to term, give birth, and breast feed them. But if you press further, you discover that “equal but different” turns on one issue alone—authority. The sole difference between men and women is that men hold authority over women. The confusing element here is the word “equal.” How can women be both equal to men and yet without authority?
The argument “separate but equal” was used years ago to segregate schools, restaurants, restrooms, hotels, and even churches by race. “Separate but equal” was pressed on the poorest in our nation and furthered educational and economic inequities. Ultimately a cry for justice went to the highest level—to the Supreme Court, where it was determined that separate was never equal. In a world of sin, power, greed, and domination, separate is inherently unequal.
But what about men and women—can they remain equal, when men are given authority over women? To give words their real meaning, to be equal is, ipso facto, to share authority! You cannot share and enjoy equality as men and women, and yet give authority to men while denying women the same authority. To do so renders the word “equal” meaningless!
Does Scripture teach that women, because they are embodied as females, must always submit to the authority of men? No, because there are too many examples to the contrary in Scripture. In fact, Roger Nicole, a former president and founding member of the Evangelical Theological Society, once said that the main stream of the Scripture supports, rather than excludes, women from positions of leadership. Nicole said:
I believe that most, if not all of the restrictions on women in society have no basis in Scripture; and that those maintained in the church are based on an inadequate interpretation of a few restrictive passages which put them in contradiction with the manifest special concern and love of God for women articulated from Genesis to Revelation. I do believe that in the eschaton all the redeemed will endorse biblical equality, since all of them will together constitute the bride of Christ.
There are numerous scholars who share Dr. Nicole’s egalitarian perspective. Why? Gender is not the basis upon which authority in marriage or the church is determined. Remember, Paul tells all Christians to submit to one another (Eph. 5:21). Wives have authority over their husbands’ bodies, just as husbands have authority over their wives’ bodies (1 Cor. 7:4). Paul celebrates the spiritual authority of female apostles (Rom. 16:1); prophets (1 Cor. 11:3-5, 1 Cor. 14:31, Acts 2:17; 21:9); house church leaders (Rom.16:13-15, 40, 1 Cor. 1:11, 1 Cor. 16:19, Philem. 1:2, and 2 John 1:1); deacons (Rom. 16:1); teachers of the gospel (Acts 18:26); evangelists (Phil. 4:3, Rom. 16:3); and those who do the very heaviest of gospel-labor (Rom. 16:12). Paul calls others to submit to Stephanas’ entire household (1 Cor. 16:15-16) including slaves as well as women who were part of this household ministry. Slaves, free, Greeks, Jews, men, women, the educated, and the illiterate shared spiritual authority—as they shared in the risen life of Christ (Gal. 3:27-29). And, this oneness in Christ would one day overturn slavery and the subjugation of women.
Let’s give words back their true meaning. Being equal must always and everywhere include shared authority. If that is not what is intended, then another word other than “equal” will have to be found. Jesus said, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free (John 8:26).