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Published Date: October 31, 2000

Published Date: October 31, 2000

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A Whole Bible Approach to Equality

Equality in the light of certain basic principles of Bible interpretation

The Bible teaches equality. It reports inequality, and sometimes it permits inequality; but the Bible teaches equality. The name of our organization is Christians for Biblical Equality. As best we understand them, we are following and teaching the principles taught in the Bible. Because that is true, we cannot place too much emphasis on studying the Bible, understanding the Bible, and properly interpreting the Bible. I want to consider some basic points of Bible interpretation that we affirm and how they relate to equality.

The Unity Of The Bible

The Bible is made up of many wonderful, diverse parts. However, there is also a basic unity about it. It is the unity of a symphony orchestra, with many different instruments contributing to a wonderful harmony of the whole.

When seen in the proper light, the Bible will not contradict itself nor speak with conflicting voices. Simply stated, if Genesis 1 teaches the equality of female and male, Paul is not then going to teach their inequality. That would violate the unity of the Bible. The tendency with regard to gender issues is to concentrate on the Scripture passages that support one position and to ignore other passages. This, of course, is not valid. There are enough passages of all kinds to trouble those who hold to many different positions; however, we still must dedicate ourselves to searching for their overall harmony.

All Of The Bible’s Various Parts

I note, for example, that there are many places where the teaching passages do not seem to agree with what was actual practice as reported in the narrative passages. Let us look at some examples. (We also want to note that hierarchalists tend to emphasize the teaching passages, while we egalitarians tend to emphasize the narrative ones.)

1. Law and practice. “[T]he legal codes preserved in the OT give no indication that a widow could inherit the property of her husband.”1 But look at Ruth 4:3, which is a complicated passage. Here the widow Naomi exercised some sort of control over her late husband’s property. There seems therefore to have been a difference between legislation and practice.

2. Teaching passages and practice. Compare the oft-quoted “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (l Tim. 2:12, NRSV) with the fact that both Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos: “[T]hey took him aside and explained the Way of God more accurately”(Acts 18:26). Priscilla’s teaching may have been in private; on the other hand, it may well have been during public congregational worship, because the early congregations of believers met in private homes, including, specifically, the home of Priscilla and Aquila (see 1 Cor. 16:19).

Compare “Let women learn in silence” (1 Tim. 2:11) with 1 Corinthians 11:5, according to which women both prayed and preached (prophesied) in public worship services.

Consider Timothy 3:12 (NRSV note) where we are told that a deacon is to be “the husband of one wife” in light of Romans 16:1, which some take to indicate that only men were eligible to be deacons. Phoebe, however, was “a deacon of the church at Cenchreae” (Rom. 16:1) and obviously not a husband at all, much less the husband of one wife.

When we look at 1 Peter 3:6, “Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham,” we need also to remember Genesis 21:12 where the Lord told Abraham to obey Sarah: “[W]hat-ever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you.”

The Immediate Context Of Each Passage

An excellent example of the importance of this principle is Ephesians 5:21: All believers, including husbands and wives, are to “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Then come specific examples of how this works out in the Christian home. The wife is to submit to her husband in 5:22-24, and the husband is to submit to his wife in 5:25-33. Too many people begin with 5:22, ignoring the vital context of 5:21, which casts an egalitarian shadow of mutuality over the entire section to follow. (We know that 5:21 and 5:22 must be taken together because there is no verb in 5:22; it has to be understood from 5:21.) Another example is Genesis 1:26-28:

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish . . . (NIVI)

Do we interpret chapter 1 in light of chapter 2, or chapter 2 in light of chapter 1? I argue that we interpret Genesis 2 and the rest of the Bible in light of chapter 1. We do that because it comes first. We interpret Ephesians 5:22 in the light of Ephesians 5:21 for the same reason.

The Canonical Context Of Each Passage

The Canon means the whole Bible, all of its various books. I am convinced that the books of the Bible are arranged as they are for a purpose, and that we should consider that arrangement. It is neither incidental nor unimportant.

For example, it is clear that Genesis 1:26-28 teaches equality, and it teaches equality fully and completely. It is taught in every aspect of home and world.

There are, however, some who say that Genesis 2 and 3 teach inequality. I do not agree with that position, and so I ask: Which comes first? When you open your Bible, what do you find first? It is the chapter on equality. There is a reason for that. I argue, thus, that we are to interpret chapters 2 and 3 in light of chapter 1, not the other way around.

Yes, there is that troublesome verse, 1 Timothy 2:12, about women teaching men and keeping silent. However, 1 Timothy 2 is not the first chapter in the New Testament— much less the first chapter in the Bible. Which books come first in the NT? It is the Gospels that come first, reporting Jesus’ remarkable openness toward women. There is a reason for that; we are talking about canonical context.

Do we interpret Jesus in the light of Paul, as many subordinationists seem to? Or do we interpret Paul in light of Jesus? That will make a big difference. Have you noticed that hierarchalists rarely refer to Jesus? “They mostly claim that their views and restrictions on women come from the Apostle Paul.”2

The Cultural Context Of Each Passage

Our Lord revealed himself to us in a particular historical setting. It was a patriarchal setting, or at least a semipatriarchal setting. The Bible was written against the background of that patriarchal culture.3 I don’t know how the Lord could have chosen any other setting in which to reveal himself, because virtually all societies have been and are patriarchal.

Furthermore, let us be sure we understand what we mean when we talk about the patriarchal period. What was women’s place in patriarchy? They “were most definitely in a secondary position. Female children were less desirable than male children, and were under the authority of men (fathers and husbands) throughout life. . . . Women had few rights. In worship she had a severely subordinate part and had special problems in relation to cultic impurities.”45

Josephus was the first-century Jewish historian who told us about Masada, as well as other things. “Josephus wrote that the Law says women are inferior in all things.” Such an outlook will be in the background of everything we find in the Bible. However, this simple fact raises an important question for Bible interpretation: If the Bible is a divine-human book, and it is, which part is which? What of that which we find in the Bible is the cultural setting, and what is divine revelation?

Consider carefully: We can explain the patriarchal elements in the Bible based on the cultural setting—on cultural conditioning, if you will. But the liberating elements can be explained only by divine revelation. It will be significant to observe where the Bible departs from, or transcends, patriarchy.

Here are some examples. Women have a subordinate place throughout most of the Bible; that is exactly what we find in the ancient world of that day. But Deborah was a judge and a prophet (Judges 4-5). That exception to the rule can be explained only by divine revelation.

In the Bible, women are supposed to be subordinate. But what about heroines “such as Esther, Rachel, Michal, Naomi, and the wise woman of Tekoa”? The fact that the Bible so exalts them “distinguished Old Testament writings from other Ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature.” The other literature of the day “features only men in the main roles.”6

In the Bible, God is spoken of in male terms, such as Lord and Father. There is nothing surprising about that. It is exactly what we would expect in a patriarchal world. However, at times God is described in feminine terms, maternal terms. That is news! That is unique! That it special! It can only be explained by divine revelation. In any comparative science, it is the differences, not the similarities, that matter.

We egalitarians are often accused of responding to our society. We are accused of only reflecting our contemporary society. In truth, it is those who believe in the subordination of women who respond to the society as it is, and as it has always been. Egalitarians are trying to rise above it.

What The Passage Actually Says

Often we have let people sell us a bill of goods, and in so doing they have convinced us that the Bible teaches something it does not. But what is the passage really saying?

Take Genesis 3:16: “[Y]our desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” The issue is whether this crucial verse is prescriptive or descriptive.7 Does it describe what would happen, or does it prescribe what the Lord intended to happen?8 Does it present the Lord as decreeing the woman’s subordination (or increased subordination), or does it rather describe what happened because of sin? Is this verse a commandment from the Lord, or is it a reference to the curse of sin?9 Is this a command, or is it a consequence of the curse?

Helen Andelin considers it a command. She says that “the first commandment which God gave unto the woman was, ‘Thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee.’ “10However, the verb is not in the imperative. This is a declarative sentence. In other words, the verse is descriptive, not prescriptive.

And if that verse is a reference to the curse of sin, would not redemption from sin in Jesus Christ move us back toward the ideal of equality we find in the Creation ac-counts?11 G. Ernest Wright of Harvard took that position. He said that the subservience of woman to man belongs to the “fallen world.” He has further stated that the verses of judgment in Genesis 3, including 3:16, “are simply descriptions of the way things are in the world as it is.”

Another crucial example is Genesis 2:18. The idea of inequality is based on a misunderstanding of the Hebrew term translated helper in 2:18. Remember, an equal can be a helper. Brothers can help one another. Sisters can help one another. Even one’s superior can be a helper. There is such a thing as a superordinate helper just as there is a subordinate helper. Parents help their children. Teachers help students. Doctors help their patients; that is what they are trained for. Most important, the Lord helps us. In fact, sixteen of the twenty-one times ‘ezer, or helper, is used in the Old Testament, it refers to the Lord as our helper.12 Remember Psalm 46:1: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” What’s more, “when the reference is to human help, the aid expected is from an army or a powerful prince.”13

Phyllis Trible has suggested the translation companion instead of the traditional helper, to avoid confusion.14 But I wonder if something less poetic, like partner—the NRSV says “a helper as his partner”—or even standby, might not be better.

The fact that woman is called ‘ezer certainly does not imply inequality.

The Bible Often Reports Things It Does Not Necessarily Endorse

Many people have never realized that the Bible records many things, and reports them faithfully and accurately, without actually teaching or endorsing them.

Consider John 9:24 where it is said of Jesus, “[T]his man is a sinner.” Is Jesus a sinner? No; but it’s in the Bible. Don’t you believe what the Bible says? Not if what the Bible is saying is that Jesus’ opponents said that he was a sinner. The Bible accurately reports what they said, but it surely does not endorse their view.

Job’s friends exclaimed and exclaimed, for lengthy, exhausting chapters. Some people will use what these friends said as scriptural truth. However, see Job 42:7 when the Lord said to Job’s “friends,” “[Y]ou have not spoken of me what is right.” What Job’s supposed friends said is reported, but not endorsed.

And the Bible reports many things about women that it does not thereby endorse.

Here, then, is my summary statement, my thesis, my conclusion, regarding the Bible and equality: The Bible teaches equality.

It reports inequality, and sometimes it permits inequality.15 But the Bible teaches equality. If we are Christians for Biblical Equality, we must continue to study the Bible carefully and faithfully.


  1. Frederic W. Bush, Ruth, Esther (Dallas: Word Books, 1996), 202.
  2. Frances F. Hiebert, “Cultural and Ideological Influences on the Role of Women,” Priscilla Papers 12:3 (Summer 1998), 2. See also the relevant Southern Baptist Convention resolution of 1984.
  3. “All ancient Oriental cultures of historical times lived more or less according to patriarchal systems,” Erhard S. Gerstenberger and Wolfgang Schrage, Woman and Man, trans. Douglas W. Stott (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981), 107.
  4. Ruth Ann Foster, “God and the Language of Sexuality in the Old Testament from the Perspective of Feminist Theology,” OLDTS 768 paper (Feb. 21, 1984), 9-10.
  5. Electronic Edition Editor note: Footnote five did not exist in the printed edition at all—neither in the text, nor in the footnote section. This footnote has been inserted in order to keep the printed edition numbering intact.
  6. The view of Shemaryahu Talmon in “‘Wisdom’ in the Book of Esther,” Vetus Testamentum 13:4, 419-55; referred to by Hiebert, 2.
  7. “Genesis presents this not as a decree of what ought to be but a curse because of sin. It is a description of what would happen,” Austin H. Stouffer, “The Ordination of Women: Yes,” Christianity Today (Feb. 20, 1981), 12. “It is utterly false to treat Gen. 3:16 as prescriptive law. It is a curse and a prophecy of the effects of sin in the domestic area; it is not a command,” Duane Garrett, Rethinking Genesis: The Sources and Authorship of the First Book of the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 317. “Genesis 3:16 is a prediction of the effects of the Fall rather than a prescription of God’s ideal order,” “Men, Women and Biblical Equality,” pamphlet by Christians for Biblical Equality.
  8. Even Carol Meyers, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 110, speaks of “the imperative of this oracle.”
  9. “God is not here issuing a special commandment, ‘Be thou ruled by him!’ or, ‘Thou shall not rule!’ But here in Genesis 3:16 we have a statement, a prediction, a prophecy, of how man, degenerated by sin, would take advantage of his headship as a husband to dominate, lord it over, his wife. Nowhere in the Bible is Genesis 3:16 quoted or referred to as establishing a general subordination of woman to man,” Russell Prohl, Woman in the Church: A Study of Woman’s Place in Building the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, J957), 39.
  10. Quoted by Bob Heflin, “Sexual Egalitarianism: Reflections from Genesis and the Gospels,” Convocation address, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Sept. 3, 1993), 29.
  11. “We believe the subservience of women is part of the curse (Gen. 3:16) from which the gospel seeks to free us.” Kenneth S. Kantzer, “Proceed with Care,” Christianity Today (Oct. 3, 1986): 15-1; quoted by Samuele Bacchiocchi, Women in the Church: A Biblical Study on the Role of Women in the Church (Berrien Springs, MI: Biblical Perspectives, 1987), 80.
  12. Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 33: 7, 26, 29; Psalms 20:3; 33:20; 115:9-11, 121 :2; 124 :8; 146:5. The word is never used to indicate a subordinate helper; see Heflin, 17. Marsha M. Wilfong says it occurs nineteen times, twelve of which refer to God: “Genesis 2:18-24,” Interpretation 42:1 (Jan. 1988), 59. Two analyses said that eighteen uses refer to God, two to woman, one to the staff of the Prince of Jerusalem, and one to the Egyptians as the help of Israel.”
  13. Wilfong, 59: Psalm 146:4; Isaiah 30:3; Ezekiel 12:14; Daniel 11:34; Hosea 13:9.
  14. Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 88-90.
  15. ”We claim that though Paul and the New Testament writers worked with and addressed the cultural family structure of the day, not challenging cultural institutions but presenting how a Christian might function within those institutions, yet they planted the seeds for those institutions later to be challenged and overturned. Thus, though Paul tells slaves to submit, slavery as a part of society’s structure was wrong and the NT teachings laid the groundwork for the proper abolition of slavery. Likewise, the NT tells women within the same structure to submit. The same teachings and hermeneutic principles call for an abolition of the hierarchic, patriarchic structure while retaining Christian marriage, family, and the principles that all Christians are to submit to one another” (Eph 5:21). David R. Leigh, “Six Questions? Reflecting on the Debate.” From his Web site, updated February 25, 1999.