Friday, May 2, 2008

Discovering Biblical Equality

Since I have referred to this edited volume several times, here is a brief discussion of the book, and of several key issues pertinent to the gender debate.

Jim Hoover of InterVarsity Press interviews Rebecca Merrill Groothuis on Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, ed. Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (IVP, 2005, 528 pages, $25.00).

Hoover: With so many books out there on the subject of men and women in the church, what was the impetus for this project? What makes it stand out from others in the field?
Groothuis: There seemed to be a clear need for a single resource that covered the main issues and arguments for biblical equality. Also, I wanted people to see that biblical equality makes sense from every angle; it’s not just a matter of exegeting a few controversial biblical proof texts (or, in some cases, “proof words”). The truth of Scripture regarding biblical equality is confirmed and demonstrated across many disciplines. It seemed this would be seen most clearly if we had a number of authors write from the perspectives of various disciplines. In making the depth and breadth of the case for biblical equality evident in this way, Discovering Biblical Equality stands alone.

Hoover: You've subtitled the book "Complementarity Without Hierarchy." Is that just deliberately provocative, or is there something substantive that you are trying to get at?

Groothuis: It is not intended to be deliberately provocative, but it does make a point—namely, that the idea of male-female complementarity is not the issue at stake in the gender debate; indeed, the concept fits as well with gender equality as with gender hierarchy. It is axiomatic that male and female are complementary; that is, they complete and correspond to one another. This is clear from the Genesis creation story. What is not clear from Genesis or anywhere else in Scripture is exactly how God created man and woman to be different from one another, outside of the obvious anatomical differences. Nor are we able to determine innate gender differences from science, due to the fact that cultural influences can never be eliminated from any experimental design. The Mars and Venus self-help books—whether secular or evangelical—do not give us this information either.

However, biblical egalitarians are persuaded that the Bible does not teach an inbuilt, God-ordained hierarchy of male authority and female subordination as an essential difference between male and female. The purpose of Discovering Biblical Equality (DBE) is to show that, according to Scripture, all believers are free to exercise their gifts in Christian ministry, to discern and follow the will of God for their own lives, and to teach the truths of Scripture to others—without the bestowal of prerogatives on some and the withholding of opportunities from others solely on the basis of one’s gender.

Hoover: Becca, your article "Equal in Being, Unequal in Role" tackles head on a major premise of those who challenge the notion of biblical equality without hierarchy. Why do you think this stock response has so much appeal? Why do you think this issue is so critical? Groothuis: For most of church history women were denied equal status with men because it was held that women were simply inferior persons, by God’s design. Then later in the 20th century the church came to believe that God did not create woman to be personally inferior to man; yet the submission texts were still understood to exclude women from equal participation in the church and in the home, especially with respect to any activities deemed spiritually authoritative. But this left dangling the question: why should an equal person be excluded from key areas of human activity and ministry? To reconcile this conflict, the equal in being/unequal in role construct was devised. This is the linchpin of the patriarchal-complementarian enterprise. They must be able to uphold equality of being alongside inferiority in role, and this hermeneutical device is the widely-accepted way of reconciling these two propositions. Yet in my chapter I show that it simply is not logically possible to have women be both equal and unequal in this way.

Because of its rationale as intrinsic to God’s original creation design, and its nature as necessary, permanent, and grounded in woman’s unalterable ontology, woman’s inferior “role” does not fit the definition of a role. Calling woman’s subordination a mere “role” or “function” serves as a rhetorical decoy that makes woman’s subordination to man’s authority appear compatible with woman’s full spiritual and ontological equality with man. Herein lies its appeal. It appears to resolve the conflict between equality and inequality. But, as I argue in chapter 18, if this “role” is biblically mandated for all women for all time, then it logically entails women’s fundamental inferiority in being and not merely in function. Yet we know from Scripture that man and woman are created equal in being. Thus woman’s subordination is contradicted by woman’s equality. We cannot, as the saying goes, have our cake and eat it too, when it comes to acknowledging women as equals while we keep them in their “place.” And it won’t do to insist that even if it’s not logical it must be true because the Bible says so. Not even God can make a logical contradiction true. And if it can’t be true, then it can’t be biblical.

Hoover: Opponents of your point of view often suggest that egalitarianism inevitably leads to liberalism in the church. How do you respond to that charge?

Groothuis: This charge seems to be more a perception of guilt by association than anything else. The concern appears to be that because theologically liberal churches ordain women to leadership ministries, then any church that allows women to serve in pastoral leadership is therefore liberal or destined to become theologically liberal. But this is an emotionally-laden impression, not a well-reasoned conclusion. In fact, the reasons that liberal churches ordain women to pastoral leadership are not the reasons that biblical egalitarians believe women should be permitted to serve alongside men. Because theological liberalism denies the full inspiration and authority of the Bible, liberal churches ordain women not primarily because of what the Bible does or does not say, but primarily because gender equality is culturally acceptable and relevant. But this is doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

We believe it is the right thing for churches to permit women whom the Spirit has gifted and called to serve in leadership ministry alongside men without restriction based on gender. We believe this because the Bible affirms the gifts and ministries and priesthood of all believers in Christ, regardless of gender or any other social or physical difference. As long as our views regarding gender equality are based on the reasoned belief that the fully inspired and authoritative Word of God affirms women’s equal status in marriage and ministry, we will not even get close to stepping onto that dire slippery slope to theological liberalism. All the chapters in DBE are grounded in and consistent with a high view of biblical authority.

Hoover: The other charge I often hear is that the sort of reasoning that is used to defend egalitarianism leads to acceptance of homosexuality. How do you respond to this charge?
Groothuis: When one applies to the texts on homosexuality the hermeneutic that evangelicals use in deriving gender equality from the biblical texts, the clear conclusion is that, although the traditional ban on women in leadership should be abandoned, the scriptural ban on homosexuality should be retained. This is because the Bible itself treats these two issues in diametrically different ways. DBE has an entire chapter explicating these watershed differences. I will mention just a couple of quick examples: In Paul’s sin lists he repeatedly includes homosexual acts. He never lists women preachers. He does, however commend women who served in leadership and teaching ministries, and women leaders are cited approvingly throughout Scripture. By contrast, nowhere in Scripture does homosexual behavior of any kind come in for any commendation; the Bible never mentions homosexuality except to censure it. Heterosexual monogamy is clearly the biblical norm (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:1-2).
Hoover: What surprises do you think readers will find in this book?

Groothuis: Those who are convinced that biblical equality is simply a Christianized spin-off of contemporary “feminist” culture may be surprised to notice that from cover to cover, DBE makes the case for biblical equality based on what the Bible teaches and never on what feminism teaches. Only once is feminism appealed to as the basis for an argument: In chapter 24 the precepts of 19th century classical feminism are invoked to argue against the ideology of “abortion rights”—which may also surprise some people!

Many opponents of biblical equality who stopped paying attention to biblical arguments for gender equality some time in the 1970s or 1980s may be surprised to find that evangelical egalitarian scholarship has made some significant strides in recent years. The approach to Scripture is more rigorous and more holistic (as opposed to focusing exclusively on a few verses). Readers will also find egalitarian exposition of Scripture by scholars who are not known for their defense of biblical equality, but are simply setting forth a careful interpretation of the text’s meaning. Readers will have to come to terms with the fact that some of the most respected names in evangelical scholarship (such as Gordon Fee and Craig Keener) are solidly, rationally and biblically in support of biblical equality.

Hoover: Gordon Fee served as contributing editor to this volume. Would you like to say a little more about the role he played in the development
of this project?

Groothuis: He played a tremendous and indispensable role, writing four stellar chapters and giving very close editorial attention to all the chapters addressing New Testament themes. The book would not be what it now is, if we had not had the benefit of Gordon’s invaluable contribution.

Hoover: How might this book be used in a classroom setting?
Groothuis: It would serve well as a main textbook for any class addressing the gender debate in evangelicalism. It could also be used as a supplemental text for classes in Christian ethics, theology or practical theology.

Hoover: What are your hopes for this book?

Groothuis: My hope is that Discovering Biblical Equality will receive a wide and fair reading in and beyond the evangelical world. I hope and pray that many will hear and heed its liberating message that men and women can and should minister to the glory of God by the power of the Spirit according to their gifts and abilities. When believers in Christ come to understand that women stand before God with the same responsibilities and privileges as men, then the church will not be hampered by any perceived need to keep women subordinate but will instead be more fully empowered by the Spirit as all members of the Body are able to pursue the ministries to which God has called them. The mission of biblical equality is not simply to empower women as individuals, but to empower the church as the Body of Christ on this earth.


Paul D. Adams said...

Bravo, Rebecca! I intend on sending this well-reasoned, biblically responsible, and immensely relevant entry to many that I know who, I hope, can and will appreciate it. More importantly, I do hope that many more will pick up DBE and commit to thinking hard about its contents.

Incidently, "evangelical" (as you've already mentioned) is falling out of favor as an apt nomenclature for many. See CNN's article and the upcoming "An Evangelical Manifesto" scheduled for release on Wednesday, 5/7/08.

Ruud Vermeij said...

Can you elaborate a bit on "proof words" (are you referring to Kephale and authentein)?

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis said...

Yes, authentein and kephale are the main ones—also hypotasso. But first, a caveat: I do not pretend to be an expert on Greek word meanings. However, here are some of my thoughts anyway. By “proof word” I mean a NT Greek word that is taken out of context, just as proof texts are taken out of context. But proof word-ing is even more dismaying than proof texting, because the proof word is isolated from even the proof text in which it is found. When the meaning of a word is evident from the biblical context, there is no need to multiply possible meanings by cranking up the computer to tabulate all the ancient Greek meanings of the term. Not only is there no need, but the results can be misleading. What if, as I believe is the case, Paul sometimes uses kephale in a way that does not speak directly of authority but rather of provision and life—saving, sustaining, nurturing and supplying resources for the body? This seems to be Paul’s meaning in Colossians 2:19, Ephesians 4:15-16 and 5:23. And what if this meaning is not the one that prevails in a computer search for word meanings of kephale? If you believe the computer rather than the textual and conceptual context, you will miss Paul’s intended meaning. (I discuss Paul’s use of kephale in Ephesians 5:21-33 in my essay “The Bible and Gender Equality,” available at www.RebeccaMerrillGroothuis.) Like many words, kephale has more than one meaning. The context of hypotasso in Paul’s household codes (Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5) also tells us something of Paul’s intended meaning here, in that Paul uses hypakouo (obey) for children and for slaves, but switches to hypotasso (submit) for wives. This indicates that even if hypotasso can sometimes mean obedience, Paul is indicating that this is not what he means to say in this context. Authentein is a different matter in that it shows up nowhere else in the New Testament. The fact that Paul always uses exousia when he speaks of ordinary, official authority indicates that he probably intends to convey a different meaning when he uses authentein instead of exousia in 1 Tim 2:12. But the proof-word mentality does not take this into consideration. On kephale and hypotasso, see Gordon Fee, “Prophesying in the Assemblies,” pp. 149-155 in DBE. On authentein, see Linda Belleville, “Teaching and Usurping Authority,” in DBE.