As a history major in college, one of the first lessons I learned was the persuasive power of the phrase even if. This phrase relates to how historians use documents — such as diaries, court records, letters, and other texts — that hold clues regarding the past. Far from being neutral “fact-containers,” however, documents from previous eras, just like documents written today, contain and reflect the experiences and biases of their authors. The power of even if comes into play when historians use documents of a certain bent, that is, those with an inclination to tell one side of the story, as evidence in favor of the other side.
Perhaps an example would illustrate this concept best. When studying the abuse of slaves in the United States during the 1800s, one would not expect to find much helpful evidence within the published writings of slave owners. One would expect that slave owners would hide or underplay instances of whipping, rape, or other brutalities in an attempt to portray slavery in a positive light. Yet, historians have discovered that even if they look at texts authored by plantation owners, they do, in fact, find evidence that masters abused their slaves.
An unusual journey
So what does the power of even if have to do with egalitarianism and Scripture? Well, as a historian, my reading of the Bible and my experiences have brought me to an egalitarian position via a somewhat unique road. I grew up in a conservative church that emphasized male headship in the home, restricted pastoral positions to men, and cultivated a patriarchal culture. Early on, I was exposed to traditional interpretations of verses such as 1 Peter 3:1–7 and 1 Timothy 2:11–15. At the same time, my academic training in high school and at secular universities equipped me with critical thinking and analysis skills through which I might study documents and obtain answers to questions on my own.
The way I have studied the Bible has differed somewhat from how theologians, linguists, and pastors examine Scripture. Lacking advanced training in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin, I have analyzed passages by looking at the text to see how various people behaved in the past. In particular, I have been keenly interested in clues regarding God’s character and how he has worked in relationships between men and women. Because of this, my interest has been mostly directed towards the events and stories presented in the Bible with less emphasis upon the epistles or other doctrinal statements. It is primarily in the stories of the Bible that I first discovered answers to questions regarding God’s view of gender roles.
What my intellectual journey shows is that even if a person examines traditional translations of the Bible, such as the King James, there is abundant evidence found within that God values gender equality and that he wants men and women to mutually submit to one another. That is, even if we set aside debates regarding language and the meaning of controversial passages (as valuable and important as those are), and even if we use versions of the Bible translated by men who lived in patriarchal societies, we still find evidence to support the egalitarian view of Scripture.
A case for mutual submission
So what kind of evidence can a historian find for egalitarianism in traditional translations of the Bible? Perhaps my first discovery has been the most powerful. As already stated, I was familiar with traditional interpretations of 1 Peter 3, part of which (at least in the KJV and NIV) suggests that women need to follow Sarah’s example and submit to their husbands. At face value, such a passage seems hostile to the egalitarian view. However, my training as a historian and my curiosity provoked me to explore further.
What was the true nature of Abraham and Sarah’s relationship? Was it characterized by female submission and male headship? I turned to Genesis for answers and was quite surprised when I read chapter 21, verses 8–14. In this account, God specifically commanded Abraham to submit to his wife! He told Abraham in verse 12, “Listen to whatever Sarah tells you because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (NIV). Regardless of our opinions concerning the complex circumstances surrounding Hagar, Ishmael, Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah, it is compellingly clear that, in this case, God expected a husband to submit to his wife. So if, as 1 Peter 3 suggests, Abraham and Sarah’s relationship is a model for Christians to follow, perhaps our marriages should involve a degree of mutual submission after all.
As powerful as the above example seems, any good historian recognizes the need for more evidence. So, I continued my search through Scripture, looking for patterns and additional clues regarding God’s position on gender. One question I asked myself as I perused the Bible was “Does Scripture positively portray instances of men submitting to women?” I was very familiar with Samson and Delilah, Adam and Eve, and other stories that seemed to focus on the seductive power of women and the dangers of male submission. Yet, this seemed to me to be only one side of the story.
What I found as I examined various passages was surprising. In Joshua 2, Rahab provided instructions to the Israelite spies who explored Jericho. Passages in Joshua refer to her quite favorably, indicating that she respected God, discerned His will regarding the fate of Jericho, and eventually lived among the Israelites.
Furthermore, there is the example of Ruth and Boaz, with each person responding and submitting to the other (see Ruth 3:9–11 for the moment when Boaz agreed to do as Ruth requested). In Judges, the story of Deborah and Barak further demonstrates that submission to women was not necessarily wrong for men — it depended upon the circumstances and spiritual discernment of everyone involved. Again, even if we read traditional translations of the Bible, it is clear through stories that God affirms the notion of godly men submitting to godly women.
The question of spiritual leaders
The last issue I investigated during my journey toward egalitarianism was that of women as spiritual leaders. Was it acceptable for a woman to be a pastor? Could women teach men in church settings? My analysis of the Bible indicated that God is, in fact, quite open to the notion of women being spiritual leaders, both formally and informally.
The Bible is quite clear that women, in both the Old and New Testaments, held positions of spiritual leadership. Women such as Miriam, Huldah, and Anna served as prophets, songwriters, and musical leaders (see Ex. 15, 2 Kings 22, and Luke 2). In Acts and the epistles, it is clear that Priscilla, Claudia, and other women taught men and held positions of prominence in the early church.
Perhaps more interestingly, and less often recognized, are those instances in the Bible when men submitted or should have submitted to ordinary women who, at key moments, possessed spiritual insight and discernment. Reading about Judah and Tamar (Gen. 38) and Hannah and Eli (1 Sam. 1) showed me that God recognized and recorded those moments when women demonstrated greater discernment and spiritual maturity than men. Interestingly, in those cases, the men were humble and honest enough to recognize their errors and change their speech and behavior. In the New Testament, I read in Luke 24 about the two disciples who doubted Christ’s resurrection. Immediately after telling Jesus about their doubts and about how two women witnessed the event, Jesus soundly rebuked them. It requires little imagination to believe that an aspect of Jesus’ disgust related to their stubborn unwillingness to listen to women who, unlike the two disciples, knew the truth.
A historian’s reflections
My journey toward egalitarianism has been long and fruitful. The tools of a historian, properly employed, unlock clues regarding God’s character differently than the tools of a linguist or theologian. In addition, although I recognize the important work of theologians and linguists, my journey shows that egalitarianism does not depend solely upon the linguistic analysis of specific passages. One need not have advanced theological or linguistic training to study the Bible and find evidence for the egalitarian position. Indeed, this is true even if we use translations of the Bible that reflect the biases of patriarchal scribes. Like the Bereans mentioned in Acts 17:11, we need to be people of open minds and noble character, who investigate Scripture for ourselves and discover, within it, truths that equip us for healthy and balanced relationships.