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Published Date: July 6, 2011

Published Date: July 6, 2011

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Simpler Explanations

When it comes to controversial passages, there is an important advantage that egalitarians have. Because of the intrinsic nature of egalitarianism, there is less explaining to do than in complementarianism, at least in one significant way. Let’s consider 1 Timothy 2:12-13. This passage is often used by complementarians to show that it is always and everywhere impermissible for all women to hold any spiritual authority over men since the passage explicitly states, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.” Many complementarians also point to verse 13, where Paul reminds readers that “Adam was formed first, then Eve.” This is an appeal to the “order of creation,” where males, in virtue of being male, are unique; therefore, males, not females, are permitted to teach or exercise authority over other males.

This explanation is evidentially demanding. Complementarians, in interpreting this passage and others like it, appeal to a mysterious and vague element within biological sex: the supposed “special” nature of males in contrast to females which (somehow) grants males spiritual authority. It is mysterious and unclear because there is no evidence (unless we simply grant the complementarian explanation) to believe that being male gives one authority or leadership. Thankfully, egalitarians make no such appeal. Often, in their interpretations, egalitarians point to various cultural or historically contingent reasons why Paul forbade particular Ephesian women from teaching and exercising authority over men. These explanations, unlike appeals to the “special” nature of males, are not at all mysterious.

To see why the complementarian case is evidentially more demanding, consider this. Suppose I can adequately explain why someone is qualified for the pastorate: he is educated, has reason to believe he is called, cares greatly for others, exhibits the fruit of the Spirit, has specific gifts necessary for this task, etc. Suppose I add a fifth reason: he is male, and being male qualifies someone for the pastorate. As it stands, this fifth reason is unnecessary; I do not need it to explain why the pastor is qualified. I would therefore need some other reason to believe that being male is relevant to pastoral qualifications. The same is true in other cases: I need not appeal to the “magical” nature of light bulbs to explain their glow when I have already given a sufficient and simpler explanation (i.e., the nature and presence of electricity). Additional reasons are unnecessary precisely because the explanation already given is a sufficient explanation. Thus, complementarian explanations require a theory of biological sex which reasonably explains why being male is necessary for leadership (of any kind).

Of course, we affirm that Scripture is the ultimate authority. But our interpretations of Scripture are fallible. We need resources like reason, history, grammar, etc., to assist in arriving at a plausible, biblically consistent interpretation. If egalitarian explanations are less evidence-demanding than complementarian explanations, that’s a good reason to favor egalitarian explanations over complementarian explanations.