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Published Date: October 31, 2006

Published Date: October 31, 2006

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Post-1970s Evangelical Responses to the Emancipation of Women

I was very pleasantly surprised and honored when Mimi Haddad asked me to serve as guest co-editor of the twentieth anniversary edition of Priscilla Papers. Though I have been writing on the emancipation of women in the life of the church and the home for thirty years.1 My unchanging goal has been to contribute to the development of a coherent, holistically biblical theology of the sexes that grants to men and women the same dignity and the same freedom to use God-given gifts of leadership. This biblical theology conceives of marriage as a partnership in self-giving agape love, yet never forgets that God has made us men and women to complement and enrich each other’s lives.

In what follows I outline the alternative theologies that have emerged among evangelicals since the 1970s when women’s emancipation changed the world forever. In the late 1960s in the Western world, one of the most momentous social and intellectual revolutions in human history erupted: women’s liberation. It has transformed nearly every aspect of modern life. This revolution had its roots in the nineteenth century,2 although it was only in the second half of the twentieth century that all the ingredients for this revolution emerged.

Four things came together to throw open the door for change. First of all came the education of women. Educational opportunities for women had been increasing from the 1850s, but it was only in the 1960s that women started completing high school and entering universities in large numbers. Their academic achievements demonstrated that they did not lack intelligence as men had claimed for long ages. Second came the “Pill.” For the first time in human history, women were able to determine if and when they would have children. Educated and freed from the uncertainty of pregnancy, women entered the workforce in growing numbers. Their employment was the third ingredient that made women’s emancipation possible. From this followed the fourth ingredient. Women could now financially support themselves. With the distinctive contribution they made as women in the workplace and the decreasing importance of physical strength in the job market, women found they were employable. This gave them choices they had never before enjoyed. With women’s increasing political clout and with many enlightened men wanting a better deal for women, most Western democracies introduced welfare benefits for single mothers that meant that even women who did not have a job could support themselves and their children. This potential to be financially independent meant women no longer depended on men to provide for them. They did not have to marry or stay in marriages where they were treated poorly or abused. For marriages to work in this context, they had to operate on more equal terms than ever before. Men could not have it all their own way. The partnership model of marriage had become the ideal. Many challenges remained for women to face, but the structural bonds that had kept them in subordination to men until this time were shattering.

Women’s emancipation raises new questions for theology

This revolution was so profound that Christians were forced to rethink their theology of the sexes. No longer could it be argued that women were the subordinated sex, inferior to men because they lacked man’s intelligence and were more prone to sin and error, as Christians and non-Christians alike had uniformly presumed for countless centuries.3 The emancipation of women was a far bigger issue than the ordination of women, but in the churches this became the central and symbolic issue.

Christians of liberal theological persuasion found change the easiest. They simply asserted that all comments in the Bible on the subordination of women were a reflection of the patriarchal culture of the biblical writers, and should be summarily dismissed. Equal rights for men and women were what God wanted for our age, they said. Thus ordination for women as well as men should be allowed. Christians standing in the “holiness” and the Pentecostal traditions also negotiated this change without too much angst because they had always allowed women of the Spirit to assume leadership positions.

It was much harder for theologically driven Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and evangelical Christians to adjust. In the face of a growing demand that women be ordained as priests, the Pope declared virtually ex cathedra that women are not subordinated to men,4 yet because the twelve apostles were men, only men can be ordained as priests.5 Eastern Orthodox theologians took another approach. Beginning with their very high view of tradition, in which Scripture and the teaching of the church fathers are organically conceived, they decreed that women could not be ordained because the tradition gave no precedence for such a radical change.

Change was equally difficult for evangelicals with their high view of Scripture. It seemed plain to them that the apostles exhorted women to be subordinate, and yet they could no longer argue that women were inferior to men, as they had been taught. They now found themselves in the midst of a culture in which women could match men in education, employment, and social settings. In response to this new dilemma, one of the most significant and innovative conservative evangelical and Reformed theologians of the twentieth century proposed a solution. George Knight III, in his highly influential book, New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women, published in 1977,6 argued that men and women are created equal, but they are differentiated by the fact that God has assigned to each differing roles. Their differing roles are based on the order of creation, a hierarchical social order given by God before sin entered the world that applies only in the home and the church. For this reason, male leadership and female subordination is the God-given ideal. Thus the exhortations to women to be subordinate in the New Testament, unlike those to slaves, are transcultural and unchangeable.

To give added weight to this reformulated and reworded theology of the sexes, Knight argued that this God-given, permanent subordination of women in role and authority in the church and the home was supported and illustrated by the Trinity. For him, the Son is eternally subordinated in role and authority to the Father even though the Father and the Son are both fully divine. He thus spoke of a “chain of subordination”7 between men and women and between the Father and the Son.8 Despite the fact that all the key elements in his case that I have given in italics are entirely novel, he considers the permanent subordination of women to be the “traditional” and “historical” position. Only one new development to his creative theological work has occurred since he wrote: John Piper and Wayne Grudem, editors of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, published in 1991, renamed the permanent subordination of women the “complementarian” position.9

This new theology subordinating women to men in the church and the home has had a tremendous impact on evangelicals. It sounded acceptable to modern ears: “Men and women are equal, they simply have been given different roles: they complement each other.” Who could object to this? And once the idea was accepted that the subordination of women is grounded in an unchanging and unchangeable “creation order,” how could any Bible-believing Christian think otherwise? The alternatives were simple—you either accepted the Bible’s teaching or you did not! This view also provided a comprehensive interpretative grid to understand every comment in the Bible on women. All the exhortations to women to be subordinate are based on the order of creation and are thus permanently binding, whereas the ones to slaves are not; Jesus’ teaching and example cannot suggest emancipation because he accepts that the creation order is the ideal; and the apostolic affirmations of women in various ministries must all allude to subordinate ministries, because women’s creation-given subordination excludes them on principle from exercising authority or teaching in the church. This view was so appealing and convincing that those who embraced it were convinced that it was what the Bible taught. Anyone who had another view was simply rejecting biblical authority. Unambiguous scriptural proof for this position was found in 1 Timothy 2:11-14. This text settled everything for those in favor of the permanent subordination of women.

Virtually every evangelical who has written in support of the permanent subordination of women after Knight has adopted his novel theological construct to interpret the key texts in making their case. In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, nineteen of the twenty-four authors ground women’s subordination in a social order given in creation that applies only in the home and the church. They refer to the differing “roles” that they believe are constitutive for “Biblical manhood and womanhood,” and most claim that the Son of God’s subordination in role and authority in the eternal Trinity justifies and explains women’s permanent subordination in role and authority. The force of this theological construct with its novel ingredients and terms is illustrated by the fact that even evangelicals opposed to the permanent subordination of women speak of the differing “roles” of men and women, assume that there is a social order given in creation, accept that the Son of God is subordinated in the eternal Trinity, and refer to the view they oppose as the “complementarian” position.

Problems with the post-1970s case for the permanent subordination of women

George Knight’s theological construct that supports the permanent subordination of women is indefensible. As a theology that privileges those who devised it, this view should arouse “hermeneutical suspicion.” Whenever a view reinforces the advantages of its originators, self-interest is often a determining factor (i.e., slavery and apartheid).

Here is a brief outline of some of the insurmountable problems with the post-1970s conservative evangelical case for the permanent subordination of women.10

1.This view is neither historical nor traditional as is claimed. Although its conclusion maintains the subordinationist status quo, this interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on gender is completely novel in conception and wording. Never in the history of the church has anyone suggested this is what the Bible teaches. It directly contradicts the historical or traditional view that considered men to be “superior” and women to be “inferior” and more prone to sin and deception.

Further novelties include the interpretation of the Fall (Gen. 3) in terms of role reversal (i.e., the woman taking the lead when she should have deferred to her “head,” Adam), the understanding of gender differentiation solely on the basis of fixed differing roles, and the assumption that the chronological order in which the man and the women were created in Genesis chapter 2 entails a permanently binding social order that gives preeminence to men.

Theological novelty does not necessarily imply error. The contemporary egalitarian position is also novel, although it goes back further to the women’s emancipation movement of the nineteenth century. What novelty demands is very close scrutiny and evaluation.

2. The Bible does not support the idea that a creation-given social order subordinates women to men. In the historic argument there is no mention of a prescriptive social order given in creation. Women are “inferior” because they were created second (chronological order). The whole idea that there are “orders of creation,” prescriptive social norms given by God before the Fall, was first suggested in the nineteenth century by socially conservative Lutheran theologians such as Adolf von Harless (1806-1879).11 In this construct, “orders of creation” covered the whole creation and were binding on all people, believers or otherwise (i.e., marriage and the state). They were contrasted with “orders of redemption” that applied only to Christians in the church and the home. Modern hierarchicalists adopt this nineteenth-century view about orders of creation, but they arbitrarily limit women’s subordination to church and home.

However, we must also ask, what in Scripture suggests that in creation God established an unchanging and unchangeable social order in which men rule over women? If anything, the Bible suggests that in making men and women in his image, God gave them incredible potential. In the Bible and in world history, we have many examples of human beings changing social order as history unfolds. There is no such thing as a God-given and unchanging social order prescribed in creation.12 As far the Bible is concerned, the ideal always lies in the future, not the past. Thus Paul holds that in Christ there is a “new creation,” which in some ways transcends the old or first creation (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). This has dawned in Christ and it will be perfected and fully realized on the last day.

3. The exhortations to women and slaves are both practical advice to those living in a culture that accepted slavery and the subordination of women as social norms. George Knight was the first to make a theological distinction between the exhortations to women and slaves that stand side by side in Scripture, and no contemporary scholarly study of these texts supports this distinction. There is no textual evidence that exhortations to women are based on a supposed unchanging order of creation, and are thus to be distinguished from exhortations to slaves.13 We must never forget that nineteenth century conservative evangelicals in the southern United States quoted these very texts to oppose the emancipation of slaves, just like the texts standing alongside them are quoted by those who oppose the emancipation of women today.

4. The Bible does not prescribe fixed, gender-based roles for men and women. The words “role” and “function” are never used to speak of sexual differentiation in theological texts and biblical commentaries before the 1970s. In the historical view, women were considered “inferior” to men in essence. The idea that men and women have differing “roles” sounds acceptable to modern ears, but this term has a sting in the tail. In the dictionary, the word “role” refers to what people do: who cooks meals, earns income, etc. So roles can change and differ from culture to culture; roles are not fixed and they are not person-defining. In the case for the permanent subordination of women, the word “role” is given a meaning that is not supported in any dictionary. It is a gender-specific term relating not to what one does, but rather to who exercises power and authority and who does not. A man is defined as a man because he has the role of “headship,” or in plain speech, authority. A woman is defined as a woman because she has the role of obeying.

The expression “differing roles,” as hierarchicalists use it, does not indicate equality or the freedom to change: it indicates rather the permanent subordination of women. If leadership is based on gifting or training that can change over time, then equality is not called into question. But if it is fixed as gender-specific and/or ethnicity-specific, then the inferiority of those who can never lead is inevitably implied.

The idea that men and women are differentiated primarily by roles is also unbiblical. God creates us as men and women. Our gender identity is not determined by what we do, our role, but by who we are. Paradoxically, the most penetrating critique of role theory to differentiate the sexes is given by the conservative evangelical hierarchicalist, Werner Neuer.14 Like me, he insists that the Bible differentiates the genders on the basis of personal identity—being—not roles. He concludes that “in the cause of truth” this obfuscating appeal to role theory drawn from humanistic sociology should be abandoned. I agree.

5. The denial of gender-based role differentiation does not entail the denial of gender differentiation itself. One of the hardest things to tolerate in this debate is the ever-repeated assertion that egalitarians deny or undermine sexual differentiation. This is simply not true. Equality does not negate differentiation. People may be clearly differentiated by their ethnicities, but this in no way entails that one must be subordinated to the other. All Bible-believing Christians should believe that men and women alike are made in the image of God and differentiated by God as male and female. What egalitarians deny is that the permanent subordination of women is God’s ideal. This is the matter that divides evangelicals, not sexual differentiation as such.

One of the cleverest moves hierarchicalists made was to rename their view of gender the “complementarian” position. Every evangelical should be a complementarian. The only alternatives are to be a hierarchical-complementarian or an egalitarian-complementarian. We either see the ideal as man and woman standing side by side or the man standing above the woman, in each case complementing each other. The challenge and joy of marriage is found in this complementarity. The church needs both women and men in leadership, because the two genders complement each other’s ministry. Vive la difference.

6. The attempt to explain and ground the permanent subordination of women in the eternal subordination of the Son in function and authority is outside historic Christian orthodoxy. A hierarchical understanding of the Trinity is integral to the evangelical hierarchical understanding of gender. In contrast, historic orthodoxy totally and unambiguously rejects any hierarchical ordering in the Trinity in divinity, being, glory, work, and authority. Only in the incarnation is the Son by his own choice subordinated to the Father for our salvation. The following statements in the Athanasian Creed could not be more emphatic:

“Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.”

“The Father is almighty, the Son is almighty, the Holy Spirit is almighty.” (The three persons of the Trinity are indivisible in power and authority.)

“None is before or after, none is greater or less than another.” (There is no hierarchical ordering within the Trinity).

“The three persons are coeternal, and coequal.”

The divine persons are only differentiated in this creed by their individual identities and differing origination. To eternally set the Father over the Son in being or authority reflects the Arian heresy. If anything, the historic doctrine of the Trinity, in which the three differentiated divine persons indwell one another and coexist in perfect unity, self-giving, and love, suggests that God’s ideal for the differentiated genders is coequality.

7. This position demeans women. The thesis that God has created men to direct and women to obey is fundamental to the hierarchical view of gender. This unchanging and unchangeable hierarchical social order, we are told, is God’s ideal prescribed by the Bible. This implies that God has not given women the ability to lead in the church and home. Leadership is a male prerogative. It is impossible to deny that this male-devised thesis gives precedence to men and puts women down.

Egalitarian evangelicals

Knight’s response to women’s emancipation came right at the beginning of the debate and caught evangelicals who thought women should be granted equal opportunity between a rock and a hard place. At first it seemed that the only alternatives were granting that the Bible permanently subordinated women, or embracing women’s emancipation and rejecting the authority of Scripture.

When Professor Paul Jewett of Fuller Theological Seminary articulated the case for equality as an evangelical theologian in 1975, he sent a shock wave through the evangelical world.15 Rather than beginning with exegesis to critique the interpretation of the few proof texts used to subordinate women, Jewett accepted that Paul did at times endorse the cultural norm of his day that women are subordinated to men. He proposed that this cultural norm was “incompatible” with Genesis 1:27-28, the teaching and example of Jesus, and what he calls “the Magna Charta” for human liberation, Galatians 3:28: in Christ “there is neither male nor female.” Jewett’s work caused a storm in the American evangelical world. Harold Lindsell in his book The Battle for the Bible16 accused him of teaching that “the Bible is in error,” setting Jesus and Paul in opposition, and rejecting the authoritative directives of Paul addressed to the church.17

There is much in Jewett’s book that demands careful reading. He rightly recognized that not everything Paul says about women can be easily reconciled, but his case could have been articulated more carefully. The book should be considered a somewhat heavy-handed first attempt at addressing the questions that women’s emancipation raised for Bible-believing Christians. Rather than encouraging evangelical theologians to consider the pressing hermeneutical questions raised by women’s emancipation, his book forced them to concentrate on exegesis. Egalitarians hoped to find an interpretation of each text quoted against women’s emancipation without calling into question biblical inerrancy, as Harold Lindsell had accused them of doing.

Excellent exegetical work was done, often building on the contributions of informed women exegetes who had led and inspired in the late nineteenth-century women’s emancipation movement. From the mid-1970s onward, evangelical egalitarians began drawing on this rich heritage and adding to it. They clearly saw that there was much in the Bible that affirmed the equality of the sexes. A steady flow of accessible books and articles began emerging in favor of mutuality in marriage and the leadership of both women and men in the church.

In this new social setting, most Christians wanted to affirm the equal value and dignity of men and women, and these authors were able to demonstrate that women leaders were known and affirmed throughout the Bible. They pointed out that the teaching and example of Jesus was in fact supportive of women’s emancipation, and Paul’s theology of ministry, set out most fully in 1 Corinthians chapters 12 and 14, made the Spirit the sole source and authority for all ministry in the life of the church. They also noted that Paul spoke favorably of women prophets, women house church leaders, a woman apostle, and women leading in various contexts.

What they could not convincingly explain by exegesis alone was why Paul exhorted wives to be submissive (Eph. 5:22, Col. 3:18, etc.), or why he said the husband is the head of his wife (Eph. 5:23), and “the man is the head of woman” (1 Cor. 11:3), and why he forbade women to teach or exercise authority (1 Tim. 2:11-12). From the late 1970s onward, good exegetical work was done in minimizing the force of these texts, but most scholarly evangelicals were not convinced by much of what was written on these texts. The subordination of women seemed to be assumed at points in the apostolic epistles.

By the mid-1980s, however, things began to change as evangelical scholars of the highest caliber began putting their minds to the “woman question.” By this time the discussion on hermeneutics had taken center stage.18 The Greek word transliterated as “hermeneutics” simply means to interpret. Until the 1970s, this term was primarily referred to interpreting the Bible according to grammatico-historical methodology, taking up such issues as progressive revelation, differing genres, and obscure comments that seemed to be in tension with other things said in Scripture. The focus was on the historical context. From the 1970s onward, the study of hermeneutics became focused on how to bridge the gap between a text given in one historical and cultural context and readers in other historical and cultural contexts. It also explored the effects of differing presuppositions held by biblical authors and readers. This discussion showed that interpreting the historical text is only the first step in the hermeneutic process. This first step ascertains how the original hearers and readers might have understood the words given in the Bible. The next step is to determine how the words addressed in a now past time and culture apply to Christians in very different cultural contexts today.

Once the value of this two-step hermeneutical process was recognized, evangelicals realized it could be applied to the “woman question” without challenging the authority of Scripture. For example, it could be granted that Paul, with the authority he had as an apostle, did exhort women and slaves in his historical and cultural context to be subordinate, and that he once (or possibly twice) exhorted women to be silent. Yet these instructions do not apply one for one in our Western egalitarian context today because they are “culturally specific.” The case for this conclusion rests on the premise that Paul’s exhortations to slaves and women are of exactly the same nature: practical advice to Christians in a time and place where the subordination of women and slaves were taken-for-granted realities. This conclusion is also supported by the fact that these exhortations stand in tension with the profoundly theological affirmations on the equality of all human beings (Gen 1:27-28, the teaching and example of Jesus, Gal. 3:28, etc.).

Evangelicals who embraced this approach made other more conservative evangelicals very anxious, not only those who advocated the permanent subordination of women. They were concerned that by granting that there are contrasting comments on women within Scripture and that some teaching in Scripture does not apply today, the authority of Scripture would be overthrown and the door to accepting homosexual unions would be opened. Neither accusation has any merit. Denying that the subordination of women is God’s ideal for all time no more challenges biblical authority than denying that slavery is God’s ideal for all time. Culturally specific instructions in the Bible do not apply in the very different contexts of today’s readers in which, for example, head coverings are no longer the cultural norm, braided hair is not considered a sign of loose morals, and the institution of slavery has been abolished.

If today all evangelical Christians agree that the Bible’s teaching on slavery no longer applies in any literal sense, why are evangelicals who say the same on women’s subordination accused of denying biblical authority? Christians were convinced the Bible supported slavery throughout much of church history. Even as late as the nineteenth century, the fathers of today’s conservative evangelicalism understood apostolic instructions to people living in a culture that accepted slavery as a fact of life to be culture-transcending teaching, a reflection of an order established by God for all times. They used the Bible to “prove” their case, but they were totally mistaken. Rather than liberating the oppressed, their appeal to the Bible justified oppression. We must ask, Are evangelicals today who appeal to the Bible to justify the permanent subordination of women doing exactly the same thing 150 years later? I for one think so.

The homosexual issue is a red herring. In the gender debate we are discussing the dignity and freedom of women: whether or not women, simply because they are women and for no other reason, should be subordinated to men in the church and home. The primary issue homosexuality raises is entirely different. Few Christians today hold that people should be discriminated against simply because they have a homosexual orientation: the debate is about the morality of homosexual acts. With one voice, the Bible rules that homosexual sex, like adultery, is displeasing to God. Nothing suggests this teaching is culturally specific. Indeed, the Bible grounds the differentiation of the genders, like their equality, in the created order before sin entered the world (Gen. 1:27-28). It is God’s ideal. For this reason, egalitarian evangelicals find no difficulty at all with arguing for the emancipation of women and arguing against homosexual sex. The idea that these two issues are inextricably linked can only be true if women are to be discriminated against because of some moral failure inherent in all women. In past times some theologians made such claims but I find no one arguing for this today.

Here it needs to be stressed that egalitarian evangelicals are not suggesting that culture should dictate what is accepted in Scripture and what is not—far from it. Scripture is normative and authoritative for evangelical theology. What is being argued is that a change in culture can change how we interpret Scripture. The God-inspired Bible is inerrant and unchanging, but church history demonstrates that human interpretation of the Bible is not inerrant and not unchanging. Paradoxically, the homosexual debate illustrates this point. Within the last thirty years, even the most conservative evangelicals have modified the punitive and harsh condemnation of homosexuals that the Bible can be quoted to support.19 Our cultural context, which has become more sympathetic to homosexuals, has influenced most of us, but not to such a degree that evangelicals have abandoned the clear teaching in Scripture that homosexual sex is displeasing to God. The Bible rules with one voice on this moral issue, and we are bound to obey. With women, cultural influence has been more profound because the Bible has encouraged change rather than closing the door on it.

In our current cultural context, most Christians, including most evangelicals, have come to see that the Bible offers a grand vision of man and woman standing side by side, made in the image and likeness of God, sharing in the rule of creation (Gen. 1:27-28), a vision our Lord himself endorses. The changes in our culture over the last several decades have enabled evangelicals to ask important new questions. Is God’s ideal in fact the coequality of men and women in dignity and rule? Are the texts used to support permanent subordination to men (addressed to women and slaves) simply the reflection of a cultural context now past? Many evangelicals, and I am one of them, have answered “yes” to these questions with clear consciences. The Bible itself has led them to believe that to fully affirm the equality of men and women is what is most pleasing to God in our age.

An egalitarian theology of gender

Once it is recognized that this debate is not about whether or not some evangelicals accept the authority of the Bible, but rather about how evangelicals should interpret and apply the Bible (hermeneutics), then some progress in this painful and divisive issue can be made. I think I have said enough to show why many evangelicals are not persuaded by the post-1970s case for the permanent subordination of women. The time has come for a better interpretation of biblical teaching on women that speaks to the historical and cultural context in which we find ourselves: one that does not demean women.20

To gain a truly biblical perspective on men and women (or any other matter), the Bible must be read holistically and historically. This means that a convincing contemporary evangelical theology of gender will not rely on a few proof texts or read the Bible as if everything said in it in one historical context and culture applies one for one in another historical and cultural context. Rather it will begin with the recognition that a huge cultural shift has taken place. The world has changed. The growing endorsement of the equality of men and women in Western culture has given theologians new questions to answer. What should Christians believe and do when their culture increasingly assumes equal opportunities for women? To answer this question, evangelical theologians have begun a fresh study of the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation to see what the Bible as a whole actually says about God’s ideal for men and women.

When studying the Bible to develop a theological position, the starting point always influences the outcome. Hierarchicalists start with 1 Timothy 2:11-12. A far better place to begin is where the Bible begins, Genesis chapter 1. Narrative criticism has shown that the order in which the Bible is given to us matters and should be considered part of scriptural revelation. What God puts first, we should put first. As a prologue to the whole Bible, we are told God made men and women equal in dignity and status, and both were given authority and dominion (Gen. 1:27-28). They are made male and female, differentiated by divine act, yet equal in person/nature/being and dominion/authority. Genesis chapter 2 picturesquely elaborates on the differentiation of the genders. On his own, Adam is help-less, incomplete. No animal can meet his need for companionship. God’s solution is to make woman, an equal partner, for the solitary Adam. In this creative act, the two genders stand side by side, identified as man and woman, for the first time at the climax of this narrative (Gen. 2:22-23). Without Eve, Adam is not man as distinct from woman; without Adam, Eve is not woman as distinct from man. By definition, man is man in distinction from and in relation to woman, just as woman is woman in distinction from and in relation to man. Genesis chapter 3 shows that the disobedience of the woman and the man to God’s command had dire consequences for both of them. It breached their idyllic relationship with God and with each other. The Bible explicitly makes the man’s rule over the woman a consequence of the Fall (Gen. 3:16). It is something new that is detrimental to both of them.

In the New Testament, the best place to begin is the gospels. Jesus never mentions the subordination of women or conversely the “headship” of men. On the contrary, though he lived in a thoroughly patriarchal culture, Jesus speaks and acts in ways that deny these ideas.21 It is true the twelve apostles were all men, but this is no surprise in that cultural context.22It seems the twelve had to be men because as the founding fathers of the new Israel they were the counterparts of the twelve male patriarchs, and because they were to be “witnesses” of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus (cf. Acts 1:21-22), something women could not legitimately do in Jewish society at that time.23

Acts chapter 2 is programmatic for the new age that dawned with the gift of the Holy Spirit to all believers. In the new Spirit-endowed community, Peter quotes the Old Testament prophet Joel and proclaims that “sons and daughters” and “servants, both men and women” shall prophesy (Acts 2:17-18). When the Spirit is present, both men and women will proclaim the word of the Lord in power. In Luke’s writings, prophecy is a term that can cover all Spirit-inspired speech.24

The place to begin a study of Paul’s teaching on ministry is where he most fully articulates his theology of ministry in the congregation—1 Corinthians 12-14, Romans 12:3-8, and Ephesians 4:11-12. Paul’s teaching on the ministry of the body of Christ presupposes that the Spirit bestows the same gifts of ministry on men and women. As a general rule, his practice perfectly matches his theology. He speaks positively of women prophesying, leading house churches, and ministering in other unspecified ways. He even commends a woman apostle (Rom. 16:7). She is to be understood not as one of the twelve, but as one of the larger number of missionary apostles who were raised up by the Holy Spirit and said to be “first in the church” (1 Cor. 12:28, cf. Eph. 4:11-12). The examples of women leaders may seem few, but their presence in this patriarchal context are very significant. They show that wherever possible Paul put his nondiscriminatory theology of ministry into practice.

When it is recognized that Paul’s theology of ministry is predicated on nondiscriminatory Spirit empowerment, we are then able to properly understand the three texts where he regulates harmful behavior in the church involving women—1 Corinthians 11:3-16, 14:33-34, and 1 Timothy 2:11-12.

In 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, Paul instructs that women must cover their heads when they lead congregational prayer and prophecy,25and that men must uncover their heads when they exercise these ministries. In these instructions, Paul upholds cultural norms that differentiate the sexes. In the context of this discussion on “head” coverings, Paul speaks of Christ as the head of man, the man as the head of woman, and God as the head of Christ (1 Cor. 11:3). The Greek word kephalē translated ‘head’ refers literally to the cranium and when used metaphorically, as it is in this example, it can mean ‘head over,’ ‘preeminent,’ ‘source,’ etc. Context is the most important indicator of metaphorical meanings and in this context, ‘head over’ or ‘authority over’ does not make sense. If Paul was arguing that men have authority over women, why would he simultaneously endorse the leadership of women and men in the church so long as they cover or uncover their heads? What we have in this passage is a play upon the word “head” and whatever the word may mean in this context, it does not mean ‘head over.’26

In 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Paul asks wives to stop disrupting the service by asking questions during church. His advice is, “If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home” (1 Cor. 11:35).

Paul’s prohibition on women exercising “authority” and teaching in church in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 should be understood in the context of false teaching that had erupted in Ephesus and had led both men and women astray.27 When Paul first founded the church several years previously, women were allowed to teach, but he changed this policy in response to a specific challenge facing the church.28 The women’s teaching had deceived many, and they taught in a way that claimed absolute authority for themselves, which was offensive.

The word rendered ‘authority’ by most modern translations is the Greek word authentein, found only this once in the whole Bible. In the first century it was a very hash word implying domination or usurping authority. This exceptional word clearly indicates an exceptional situation. Paul not only tells the women to desist from teaching, but also offers reasons for doing so that relate quite specifically to the erroneous teachings. Women should not to claim to be first because Adam was created first and they should not teach because it was Eve who was first deceived. These are “off the cuff” arguments that were meant to counter the arrogance of some women and their opportunities to give false teaching. Elsewhere in more theological passages, Paul insists that “in Christ there is a new creation, the old has passed away” (2 Cor. 5:23), and that Adam is responsible for sin (Rom. 5:12ff). In 1 Corinthians 11:3ff, Paul uses similar “off the cuff” arguments based on the creation narratives to establish a case for cultural practices about head coverings for men and women that virtually no one considers binding today.

In the discussion of women’s ministry, 1 Timothy 2:11-14 should come last because it is the last comment on this matter of any importance in the Bible. It is rightly interpreted in the light of all that has preceded it.

When it comes to marriage, what we find in Paul’s most extended comment is that he wants to transform patriarchy: the rule of the man (see Eph. 5:21-33). He says in effect: You men may think of yourself as the leader of your wife but I want to tell you about the kind of leadership Christ exemplified and expects. It is the leadership of self-giving, the leadership of the servant. What you men are to do is love (agapaō) your wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). This passage does not even hint at the ideas that men should have the final say in the home and that women are excluded from sharing responsibility for family life. In its historical context, this is a liberating text and it should be understood this way today.

In conclusion, it should be noted that in this biblical theology of gender, there is no appeal to a supposed pre-Fall hierarchical social order that permanently subordinates women. The emphasis falls on the new creation that has introduced the new age of the Spirit. There is no appeal to the sociological term “role,” and no claim that the Son of God is eternally subordinated to the Father in authority like women are permanently subordinated to men, a doctrine of the Trinity that reflects the Arian heresy.


Readers of this article must decide for themselves which interpretation of the Bible makes most sense in light of the whole of Scripture, encourages self-denying agapē love, allows the Holy Spirit the freedom to empower all God’s people for ministry, encourages leaders in the church to consider themselves as servants rather than as those who exercise authority over people (cf. Mark 10:42-43), and empowers mutually rewarding and loving marriages in today’s world? I for one am totally convinced that the egalitarian interpretation alone meets all these criteria. Only this position makes the Bible a liberating Word as it is intended to be. Only this position avoids proof-texting that betrays what Scripture itself is saying. Only this position gives to men and women the equal dignity and authority that is theirs by God’s gift in creation. Only this position gives equal honor and dignity to the Father and the Son in heaven and equal honor and dignity to men and women in the world.


  1. My first book was Women and Their Ministry: A Case for Equal Ministries in the Life of the Church Today (Melbourne, Aus.: Dove, 1977). My latest contribution is Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006).
  2. Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 book, Vindication of the Rights of Women, is usually thought to have launched the cause of women’s emancipation. On the post-1870s powerful Christian push for women’s equality, see Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church: Women in Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1987), 245-90.
  3. See further Kevin Giles, The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2002), 141-56.
  4. John Paul II, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women (Homebush, N.S.W.: St. Pauls, 1988).
  5. John Paul II, On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men (Homebush, N.S.W.: St. Pauls, 1994).
  6. George Knight III, New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1977).
  7. Knight, New Testament, 33.
  8. Knight, New Testament, 56.
  9. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1991).
  10. For what follows see in greater detail and documentation my book, Trinity and Subordinationism, 141-268.
  11. See further, The Trinity and Subordinationism, 173-74.
  12. First Tim 2:13 is frequently quoted in support of this view, but this text speaks only of the chronological order in which the sexes are created in Gen. 2.
  13. I set out the evidence in The Trinity and Subordinationism, 251-58. In the hostile reviews of my book by hierarchicalists this section is conveniently ignored.
  14. Werner Neuer, Man and Woman in Christian Perspective, trans. Gordon Wenham (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1990), 29-30, quote 30.
  15. Paul Jewett, Man as Male and Female (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1975).
  16. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1976).
  17. Lindsell, Battle, 118-19.
  18. Many of the finest studies on hermeneutics in this period have been produced by evangelicals. I simply mention two books I think stand apart, Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1980), and Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1998).
  19. In the Old Testament, a man who “lies” with another man as he might with a woman is to be put to death (Lev. 20:13). This was long held to be a valid sentence on homosexuals but few today would conclude this.
  20. Exegetical support for all that follows is given well in R. W. Pierce and R. M. Groothuis, eds., Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2005). See also my, The Trinity and Subordinationism, 141-214.
  21. See the excellent article by David Scholer on “Women” in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1992), 880-87.
  22. I of course do not hold that Jesus was a modern-day women’s libber. He was a man of his age and culture as were all the gospel writers. In that culture, men did have precedence and this is reflected in the gospels by the prominence of men in the narratives. What is so amazing is that Jesus never endorsed these cultural values and sometimes challenged them.
  23. As Josephus explicitly states in Ant. 4:219. See likewise Rabbi Akiba, m.Yeb. 15:1.
  24. See my article, “Prophecy, Prophets, False Prophets” in The Dictionary of the Later New Testament Writings and its Development (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 970-77.
  25. As far as Paul is concerned, the ministry of prophecy ranks above teaching and below apostleship (1 Cor. 12:28).
  26. I follow Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000), 812-23.
  27. On 1 Timothy 2:11-15, see Linda Belleville, “Teaching and Usurping Authority,” in Discovering Biblical Equality, 205-23.
  28. First Timothy 2:11-12 presupposes women were teaching in church. This means that there was no apostolic prohibition in force before this epistle was written. Paul does not remind them of his policy, he gives a new ruling.