As we seek to “set the record straight” and grow in our understanding of the biblical equality of women and men, it is helpful to think through questions and clear up misunderstandings about what Scripture teaches. A selection of questions from the conference roundtable session has been adapted here, with answers from some of our conference speakers.
Have women been involved in church leadership throughout history, or is this a recent movement resulting from secular feminism and an example of the church trying to fit the culture?
Mimi Haddad: Throughout Scripture and church history, the most unexpected people demonstrate the most extraordinary leadership. You can never look at a person and determine how God might use them, because God’s Spirit gifts Christians not according to gender, race, ethnicity, or social class, but according to his pleasure. For this reason, individuals may receive a gift and calling that proves very challenging because of gender, race, ethnicity, and social class bias. Yet there is a responsibility to use our gifts despite the challenges. And Scripture teaches we’re to “fan into flame God’s gifts to us” (2 Tim. 1:6).
Throughout biblical and church history women have navigated a sinful, patriarchal world by using their gifts for God’s glory. We find women leaders fanning their gifts into flame in the early church, like Apollonia of Alexandria (martyred in 249), who served as a deacon in the church in Alexandria; Catherine of Siena in the Middle Ages; Anne Askew, who was a leader in the English Reformation; Catherine Booth, who cofounded the Salvation Army with her husband William, and countless others. Women’s leadership throughout history challenges patriarchal assumptions based on distorted and shallow readings of Scripture. The work of CBE is to honor this history as it reflects the teachings of Scripture and as it resulted in the flourishing of the gospel.
Alan Myatt: There are examples of women in leadership going back to the ancient church. Egalitarianism did not grow out of secular feminism – in fact, the exact opposite is the case. Modern egalitarianism began in the 1800s and was strongly connected to egalitarian movements for the abolition of slavery and for giving women the right to vote. Many of the leaders of these movements were Evangelicals. Indeed, it was not unusual for women to preach and lead in many denominations up until the 1950s, including some that now prohibit it. Modern feminism arose during the 1960s and traces its roots back to the egalitarian and women’s suffrage movements of the 1800s. The true historical line of influence is that modern feminism is the result of secularizing the movement originally founded by Evangelicals!
Do egalitarians deny gender differences?
Cynthia Muniz Soares: No. Egalitarians do not deny the differences between women and men; we believe that women and men were created equally in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27) and were equally commissioned by God to exercise authority and stewardship over creation. We recognize there are differences between women and men, but these differences do not constitute any form of hierarchy. Both women and men are free to exercise their gifts in the home, ministry, or society, regardless of gender, race, or social class.
When we look at Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments, we see women acting in various leadership roles. The example of Deborah is crucial in illustrating not only a woman in a leadership position (as a judge, prophet, and spiritual leader—a mother to Israel) but also showing that women and men can work together in shared leadership. In the early church, women are described in various leadership roles (consider the list of Paul’s co-workers in Romans 16), and we have found historical evidence of women in leadership in churches during the early centuries.
Mimi Haddad: What egalitarians deny is not gender differences, but the ontological assumptions placed on being male or female. What do I mean? Complementarians argue that Scripture extends authority and leadership to men in church and home based (and for some in the world) not because of character, gifting, or calling but because of being male. So, maleness is distinct and different ontology or being that shapes a purpose—authority and leadership. However, in a sinless world, women and men are equally created in God’s image for a shared purpose—governing, rule, and dominion over the created world not each other (Gen. 1:26–31). It’s only after sinning that men rule over women (Gen. 3:16) —a distortion of God’s very good creation. For this reason, Christ died on Calvary to redeem humanity from enslavement to sin, recreating humankind in Christ’s image (Rom. 8:28, 2 Cor. 3:17–18). Egalitarians support the same ontological identity of women and men—both are created in God’s image and both are remade in the image of Christ for spiritual governance side by side. It’s not gender that supports leadership but character (Gal. 5:22–26), gifting, and calling (Luke 21:1–10; John 20:11–18; Acts 2:2–13, 18:2, 18–19, 26, 21:9; Rom. 12:6, 16: 1-7; Eph 3:4–5, 4:11–13; 1 Cor. 11:3–4, 12:7–11, 28, 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19).
Given our shared identity as created in God’s image and remade in Christ’s image, leadership concerns character and one’s capacity to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit:
Temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money…
Serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money…
Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things…
Fruit of the Spirit: (Gal. 5:22–26)
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…
To follow the teachings of Scripture, leaders, deacons, pastors, elders, and teachers should be individuals who best exhibit the fruits of the Spirit, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or class.
Egalitarians do not deny differences between women and men. Scientists continue to debate what (if any) are gender differences, and whether they’re the result of nature versus nurture. I stand with social scientist Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen who suggests that if you can control for opportunity, you can control for ability. In examining meta-analysis data, Stewart Van Leeuwen has shown that the abilities women and men share is far greater than those they do not have in common. She also notes that it is very challenging to control bias in measuring gender differences.
Won’t allowing women to take on leadership roles (traditionally male roles) eventually lead to liberalism and the acceptance of gay marriage?
Cynthia Muniz Soares: On the contrary, biblical egalitarianism—which regards the Bible as inspired by God and the ultimate authority for all Christians—promotes a return to Scripture and the purpose God has for women and men in the Kingdom of God, as stated in Galatians 3:28. This is the opposite of liberalism and does not imply, lead to, or even relate to the acceptance of gay marriage.
Alan Myatt: The conservative denominations that ordained women pastors and preachers from their founding, such as the Church of the Nazarene and the Foursquare Gospel Church, have remained conservative to this day. There is no evidence that the practice of female ordination causes churches to become liberal and abandon the inerrancy of the Bible. The liberal denominations that ordain women were already liberal before they approved women’s ordination.
Mimi Haddad: The belief that churches or denominations that support women’s leadership eventually find themselves on the slippery slope in support of gay marriage is not true of either prominent, established churches and those that are also growing the fastest worldwide. Consider the example of denominations like the Nazarene Church, the Assemblies of God churches, Pentecostals, and Foursquare churches where women have been preaching for more than one hundred years. Add to their numbers Baptist and Pentecostal churches throughout Africa and the Global South. They’re the fastest growing churches in the world, and they support women preachers, but not gay marriage.
It seems like complementarians derive their position from a plain reading of the Bible passages, whereas egalitarians must dig into the Greek to make their interpretations work. Isn’t the simple reading the most accurate? Do Egalitarians not believe in the authority of Scripture?
Alan Myatt: Egalitarians are motivated by our belief in the authority of the Bible. The “plain meaning” of a passage for us today might be different from the plain meaning for people 2,000 years ago. We dig into biblical languages because what counts is the plain meaning to the original audience. Many today think that the plain meaning of “helper” in Genesis 2:18 is that God created woman as an assistant who would take orders from Adam, much like a nurse would be a surgeon’s helper in the operating room. But the ancient Hebrews would have seen the plain meaning as practically the opposite. In the Hebrew Bible the word for “helper” used here describes a person rescuing someone who is in need. Frequently it describes God as the helper saving his people.
Other passages where the “plain meaning” seems to support female subordination are similar. Digging into the original text shows that the actual plain meaning undermines human hierarchies. Instead, it plants the seeds of radical equality in the Kingdom of God.
In 1 Corinthians 11:7, what does it mean that “a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.” Does this mean women were not made in the image of God?
Cynthia Long Westfall: If Paul was saying that women were not made in the image of God, he would be flatly contradicting Scripture (Gen. 1:27; 5:1–3). Rather, Eve had multiple identities: she was both made in the image of God and in the image of Adam because she was created from him (Gen. 2:22–23). Therefore, woman is the glory of man who is the glory of God. In other words, she is the glory of the glory. This does not indicate inferiority or subordination, but rather a greater glory, and refers to the power of the beauty and attraction of women (cf. 1 Esdras 4:17). Women’s use of head coverings was practiced because a woman’s hair was considered to be a primary part of her sexual attraction (as Paul indicates in 1 Cor. 11:15) and an uncovered head in public was viewed as seductive or even a solicitation. On the other hand, the practice of a man covering his head during prayer had a different meaning that was linked to Gentile pagan cultic rituals (Jewish men began to wear yarmulkes later), so men are prohibited from covering their heads. Paul explains that a man praying and prophesying with an uncovered head allows the glory of God to be appropriately reflected in his appearance but disapproves of the practice of men attracting and seducing by wearing their hair long (1 Cor. 11:14).
When Paul describes elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3, he says that they are to each have one wife; doesn’t that exclude women from being elders and deacons?
Cynthia Muniz Soares: When dealing with texts like this, it is very important to consider cultural and grammatical aspects that provide us with the context for understanding the passage. The description presented by Paul in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 reflects the common pattern of household leadership in both the Jewish and Greco-Roman world, where householders are managers, and where children, slaves, and employees are subject to them. As churches met in homes, men who were wealthy householders would be the natural leadership. In fact, while the most common scenario is that men were householders, women could also be householders, as exemplified by Lydia and Nympha.
Another important point is that Paul uses a gender-neutral pronoun at the beginning of the text (tis) which can be translated as “whoever” or “anyone,” suggesting it is not necessarily limited to men. Additionally, when Paul says that the elder should be the husband of one wife, the idea is far more likely that men should be monogamous and faithful in marriage. If this condition were restrictive, no unmarried man or even widower could serve as an elder, including Paul himself. It is worth noting that the list of qualifications is very similar to those required of women, for example, 1 Timothy 3:11 for women deacons and 1 Timothy 5 for widows.
As William Witt aptly points out in his book Icons of Christ, “the qualifications for church office in the Pastoral Epistles are moral qualifications, not job descriptions, and not gender qualifications.”
Women who held leadership roles in the Old Testament are often cited as examples when discussing women’s authority in church – but as the NT is presenting a new paradigm with a unique structure and rules specific to pastors and elders, do these examples apply?
Cynthia Long Westfall: The new paradigm in the New Testament moves away from leadership based on privilege, lineage, and cultural notions about hierarchy to being called, gifted, and led by the Spirit who has been poured out on women and men. A New Testament leader is qualified by taking the role of a slave, and a nursing mother is Paul’s model for apostleship. Women and men are priests. Women and men are given spiritual gifts (such as prophet, pastor-teacher, administrator, etc.) that are determined by the Spirit, not gender. Power, authority, and hierarchy characterized the Gentile authority structure, but the New Testament paradigm is cruciform self-sacrificing service that builds others up, and that is why Paul can maintain that it is a good thing for anyone to aspire to be an overseer (1 Tim. 3:1). Women are often trained to take the role of a servant or slave and put themselves last (Matt. 20:25), and women are stereotypical models for mutual submission that regards and treats others as more important than themselves in humility (Phil. 2:3). The fact that we find women with social, political, and cultic authority within the Old Testament authority structure should lead us to expect an increase in women’s service and ministry in the New Testament paradigm of grace and freedom.
When referencing examples of women in leadership people often cite Deborah, but in Judges 4 it seems that she only accepted leadership because Barak would not follow God’s call. Can women be leaders only when men are disobeying the Lord?
Viktorya Zalewski Baracy: Deborah is a prophet and judge long before Barak enters the scene, and she is the one who summons Barak (Judg. 4:4). In the song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5, we read an invocation for both: “Awake, Deborah! Awake! […] Rise up, Barak!” (Judg. 5:12). Barak’s military action does not exclude Deborah’s prophetic leadership. God could have called Barak directly, but he chose Deborah as the judge over the people. As Payne and Huffaker comment, “Deborah was the leader of Israel because God chose her to lead Israel, not because God tried to get a male leader but failed and had to settle for a woman.”
Alan Myatt: Whether or not Deborah took on the leadership role due to Barak’s disobedience isn’t really relevant. If women are not properly fit for leadership simply because they are women, the absence of male leaders doesn’t change that. They are still female and inherently unfit for leadership. So if Deborah is properly a legitimate leader of God’s people, then it follows that there is nothing about her being a woman that disqualifies her. There is nothing in the biblical account to suggest that Deborah was an exception to any rule against female leadership.
The instruction about vows taken by women in Numbers 30 seems to suggest that a vow is only valid if a woman’s husband or father accepts it and has been used to support the idea that women need a covering of protection over them. How do we understand this passage?
Cynthia Long Westfall: Specific laws in the Law of Moses were given within the cultural framework of the ancient Near East, which was patriarchal, but the laws moved towards an ethical ideal. As Jesus indicated in Mark 10:5, the law about a man divorcing his wife was given because of the hardness of the Israelites’ hearts—the practice of divorce privileged men, and the law in Deuteronomy 24:1–4 placed restrictions on what a man could do to a woman. Women were legally under the authority of their fathers and husbands and were dependent on them economically and socially. Note that Numbers 30:3–15 does not prohibit women from taking oaths, and technically does not require the father’s or husband’s permission, but rather his knowledge. The detailed instructions ensured that a woman had the economic and social support of her father and husband if it is necessary, and it provided a safeguard in a cultural environment in which women were vulnerable. While the Law gives a father or husband the power to negate a woman’s oath, it also sets up conditions under which women could reasonably be capable of fulfilling oaths.
 Mimi Haddad, “Egalitarian Pioneers: Betty Friedan or Catherine Booth?,” Priscilla Papers 20, no. 4 (Autumn 2006): .
 Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, My Brother’s Keeper: What the Social Sciences Do (and Don’t) Tell Us About Masculinity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
 William Witt, Icons of Christ: A Biblical and Systematic Theology for Women’s Ordination (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2020).
 Philip B. Payne and Vince Huffaker, Why Can’t Women Do That? Breaking Down the Reasons Churches put Men in Charge (Boulder, CO: Vinati Press, 2021), 62–63.