Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Basics of Biblical Equality: Belief & Practice

Belief in biblical equality is grounded in the biblical teaching that all believers have been given authority in Christ. The claim of equal authority for both men and women is not based on the feminism of secular culture, but on the biblical data, which upholds the freedom and authority of both men and women in Christ. While feminist ideology is derived from cultural factors and philosophies, biblical equality is grounded simply and solely in the properly consistent interpretation of God’s Word.

Like most cultural systems of thought, feminist ideology is partly true and partly false (almost entirely false at this point in history!). But the question at stake for Christian believers is not whether feminism is good or bad. The issue is not about feminism. It is about our willingness and ability to discern what the Bible says—as well as what it does not say—about the place of women and men in the body of Christ.

Biblical equality does not mean that men and women are identical or undifferentiated. God has created and designed men and women to complement and benefit one another, and there do seem to be average differences in behavior (both learned and intrinsic) between women and men.

Biblical equality does mean that gender, in and of itself, neither privileges nor curtails a believer’s gifting or calling to any ministry in the church or home; that all believers in Christ stand on equal ground before God; and that spiritual authority, as biblically defined, is as much a female believer’s privilege and responsibility as it is a male believer’s. All believers stand on the same biblical terms of faith and service, in accordance with the ways in which each one is gifted and called.

I. Basic Beliefs

1. According to Genesis 1:26-28, both male and female reflect and represent God by virtue of the divine image, and both represent God as authoritative agents who rule the earth under God. This creational rule consists of “the ongoing activity of God’s ordering and creating in the world and in civilization” (Hess, Discovering Biblical Equality, 82). Although human sin has defaced the divine image in humanity and skewed the authority that man and woman once shared together, God has provided redemption for us. In Christ all of redeemed humanity is authorized and obligated to obey and to proclaim the Word of God to both the church and the world. Our authority to rule and to proclaim rests in the authority of Scripture and the authority of our risen Lord, not in any particular human quality or distinctive feature such as gender.

2. The Holy Spirit gifts, equips and calls members of Christ’s body to various spiritual ministries. Quite simply, if you have a gift, you should use it. (See 1 Peter 4:10-11, Romans 12:3-8.)

3. The submission texts do not speak of the authority of male over female as a timeless creational mandate, but rather of the biblical principle—emphasized especially in Christ’s teaching and the letters of Paul and Peter—that all believers should be submissive to one another rather than seeking to rule others, and should, as well, submit to the civil laws and cultural standards of the day to the extent that they do not require disobedience to God’s law. Thus women in the New Testament church, who were in many ways culturally and legally subordinate to men, were instructed to comply with their social role in a manner that brings glory to God—yet with the understanding that within the Body of Christ there will be a mutual sharing and edification through gifts and callings as determined by the Spirit and not by gender or race or any such old covenant classification.

4. There are two priesthoods under the new covenant in Christ: the high priesthood of Christ, who is the only mediator between God and humans (1 Tim 2:5, Heb 4:14; 6:20; 8:1-2), and the priesthood of all believers, both women and men (1 Pet 2:5, 9; Rev 1:6; 5:10). These two priesthoods leave no room for a priesthood of Christian manhood whereby God’s Word and will are mediated for woman via man’s spiritual authority over her.

5. The biblical truth of women’s spiritual and ontological equality entails that women and men stand on equal ground before God; thus they share equally in creational authority, personal agency and responsibility, and spiritual rights and privileges (e.g., Gen 1:28, Gal 3:28, 1 Pet 3:7).

6. Despite the patriarchal-complementarian (PC) role rhetoric, woman’s subordinate "role" is not merely a role or functional difference. If, as the PC view contends, woman's role is grounded in and intrinsic to God's original creation design, then woman's subordination to man's authority is a necessary and permanent element of woman's unalterable ontology. It is the way God made her to be. This, then, logically entails woman’s fundamental inferiority in being. Since we know from Scripture that man and woman are created equal in being, woman’s subordination is therefore contradicted by woman’s equality. The fundamentally equal “being” of women and men rules out any creationally-grounded subordination of women to men.

II. Putting it into Practice

Many individuals, churches, and ministries are not well acquainted with biblical equality, nor do they understand its biblical basis. How can those who are persuaded of the biblical truth of gender equality live out their beliefs without offending, alarming, and alienating those who believe otherwise? Here are just a few suggestions, applicable especially to those who are in any level of leadership in a church or Christian organization that includes a mix of both egalitarians and complementarians.

1. Do not impugn the motives of those who disagree with biblical equality, but assume that they hold to the PC position because they want to be faithful to the Bible—the same reason that biblically consistent egalitarians hold their position.

2. Encourage believers to regard one another with equal respect and mutual submission, and not to seek status, power or control over others—in accordance with the words of Jesus (Mt. 20:25-28), Paul (Eph. 5:21) and Peter (1 Pet. 3:8). At the same time, seek to honor the New Testament principle of conforming to cultural standards that are consistent with biblical ethics, in order not to distract from the gospel by causing unnecessary offense or divisiveness. Of course, in this instance the issue would be church culture, not the Greco-Roman/Jewish culture of Paul’s time. (These suggestions follow from point 3 in the “Basic Beliefs” section above.)

3. Seek to find a way to affirm and utilize everyone’s gifts and callings in the church. This may require some creativity in developing ministry opportunities that not only are biblically based but will be perceived as such by the majority in the church. For example, one large church that I know of changed the title of their leadership ministries from “pastor” to “minister,” and the church came to accept women serving in these positions (since, after all, ministry is expected of all believers).

4. Take particular care to affirm and respect women with gifts in leadership and/or scholarship (since these gifts are considered unconventional for women in conservative church cultures), and seek to make use of these gifts for the good of the church, yet without forcing an agenda that would upset people unnecessarily or distract them from discipleship and ministry.

5. Begin some discussion and teaching on the one thing both sides in the gender debate agree on, namely, the equality in being of both women and men. This could include teaching on the nature of humanity, the image of God in humanity, the authority given to both men and women at creation, and the theological implications of spiritual equality (or inequality). It could also include discussing questions such as: What does it mean to be human, created in God’s image? What does it mean for both sexes and all racial and ethnic groups to be fully human, and to stand on equal ground before God? What are our distinctively human qualities? What spiritual capacities and responsibilities do we all have? How then ought we regard and treat one another? How ought we relate to and communicate with God?

F. F. Bruce sums up the strategy well: “An appeal to first principles [i.e., Paul’s governing principle of true freedom in Christ] in our application of the New Testament demands nothing should be done to endanger the unity of a local church. Let those who understand the scriptures along the lines indicated [i.e., equality in Christ] have liberty to expound them thus, but let them not force the pace or try to impose their understanding of the scriptures until that understanding finds general acceptance with the church—and when it does, there will be no need to impose it.” (F. F. Bruce, “Women in the Church: A Biblical Survey,” Christian Brethren Review 33 [Dec. 1982]: 7-14)

Additional Resources

For a succinct discussion of all the relevant New Testament texts, see my essay, “The Bible and Gender Equality.”

For a deeper understanding of the salient biblical texts, see these chapters in Discovering Biblical Equality: 4, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 21.

For a thorough critique of the equal being/unequal role construct, see my chapter 18 in Discovering Biblical Equality.


Rebecca Merrill Groothuis said...

To Paul Adams

As you can see, I finally got the post back up, but the comments did not survive (perhaps due to my ineptitude—I’m quite cyberstupid!). However, in response to your (now disappeared) comment of June 9, I have added to points II.2 and II.3 in an attempt to fill in what was previously ambiguous. I hope it helps.

Three clarifications:

This section is rather experimental, so any suggestions are welcome.

The five points in section II are not intended to be sequential, but are rather to be implemented in whatever order seems best for the situation.

As I noted in the post, our current efforts to “conform to those cultural standards that are consistent with biblical ethics” would be with respect to church culture and not the culture at large as in the NT era; thus we have no biblical precedent for exactly this situation. So it seems the application of II.2 would need to be determined on a case by case basis. We need to apply the general biblical principle of accommodating to one’s cultural environment insofar as such accommodation does not entail disobedience to God’s clear command. This is not necessarily an easy thing either to discern or to implement. But I do believe the attempt should be made—and the church may well be better off on account of it!

Speaking of the difference between the NT church and our current situation, it is interesting to note that a fair description of the situation in the NT church would be that of spiritual equality with social inequality (due to the cultural patriarchy of the surrounding culture). Nothing in the NT stipulates that a man must have spiritual authority over and spiritual responsibility for his wife, as the PC view advocates today. The apostle Peter commended Christian women who refused to submit to their husbands’ false religious beliefs, yet urged these women to be submissive to the social roles of the time (1 Pet 3:1-6). The current PC view actually inverts the NT situation by advocating, in essence, an inequality in spiritual rights and responsibilities for women in a cultural context in which women generally experience equality in the larger society.

Paul D. Adams said...

Thanks, Rebecca. Appreciate the response to my (now perished) entry and glad to see you have re-posted.

As I said previously, this is a warm, pastoral, immensely practical, and genuinely helpful essay toward balancing orthodoxy with orthopraxy. I pray every visitor here reads and heeds.

If a church's cultural standard is not to permit genuinely gifted women to use their gifts for the building up of the body due to an unwavering commitment to the PC view, and discussion on the topic is closed, I would find it rather difficult to "conform" to or "accommodate" that church's culture. While there is no biblical mandate to leave a church under such circumstances, and Scripture does not indicate that remaining in a PC church is an act of disobedience, it sure can be awkward to continue under these circumstances. What would you recommend in such cases?

Isn't "spiritual equality with social inequality" tantamount to "equal in being, unequal in role," of which you've written not a few words? Am I hearing you rightly here? That it might be biblically permissible to attend a PC church but not agree with its teaching on male/female roles?

The observation from 1 Peter 3 is quite keen. I wonder if anyone's noticing the inversion!

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis said...


The suggestions that I offered in part II are not geared toward the church that has an unwavering commitment to the PC view. Rather, I was thinking of the many churches where, in both the leadership and the membership, there is a spectrum of views on the matter of women in ministry.

I don't see why it should not be "biblically permissible" to disagree with church leadership on matters that are peripheral and not central to the faith (e.g., baptisms, women in ministry).
However, I'm not quite sure what you're asking when you say:

"Isn't "spiritual equality with social inequality" tantamount to "equal in being, unequal in role," of which you've written not a few words? Am I hearing you rightly here? That it might be biblically permissible to attend a PC church but not agreewith its teaching on male/female roles?"

Perhaps you can elucidate?

Paul D. Adams said...

Hi Rebecca:
Apologies for my indirect jabbering. Let me see if I can clarify by asking a more direct question.

Within the context of a local church, what exactly is the functional/practical difference between "spiritual equality with social inequality" and "equal in being, unequal in role?" Can you unpack what you mean by the former in light if the latter?

Also, I agree it should be "biblically permissible" to disagree with church leadership on matters that are peripheral, but I know of no PC church that genuinely sees BE (biblical egalitarianism) as "peripheral." In theory many PC churches might admit BE is not central, but in practice most associate it with some compromise of inerrancy, thus making it central. It seems to me that unless and until a common hermeneutic is agreed to and both sides grant the other's commitment to a full-blown inerrancy, there's likely not to be much dialog. We're simply singing off two sheets of music.

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis said...

The difference between “spiritual equality with social inequality” and the PC construct of “equal in being, unequal in role,” is that in the former, there really is spiritual equality (i.e., fundamental equality of created personhood in God’s image) alongside distinct social roles dictated by culture not God. (Note that this was the set-up in the New Testament church; this arrangement does not exist in our churches today.) But in the latter, the distinction between “being” and “role” is rhetorical only. Despite the rhetoric of neutrality (the subordination is only a role and woman’s “being” remains “equal”), logical analysis of the whole set-up reveals that the rhetoric is misleading: “role” and “being” in this construct are essentially identical. On this, see item I. 6 in the above post, and the link to chapter 18 at the very end of the post.

It is true that PC churches and institutions do not see the gender issue as peripheral. But as I mentioned in an earlier comment, I was not attempting to engage the monolithically PC church, but rather those churches composed of people of both views—most likely a PC majority and a BE minority.

As you say, the reason PC churches and institutions do not see this issue as peripheral is because they see it as an indicator—yea, more than that, as the litmus test—of one’s fidelity to the inerrancy and authority of the Bible. And they see it thus precisely because of the philosophical presuppositions that drive the hermeneutical constructs by which they render their interpretive judgments of the intended meaning of the text. But the presuppositions and theological constructs that govern their understanding and perspective of the text (what the text must mean, what it cannot mean) are not typically the subject of debate. Thus the nub of the controversy is evaded, resolution and reconciliation elude us, and the frustrated guardians of God’s Holy Word all too often resort to name-calling and character assassination.

In the only favorable and scholarly review of DBE that I know of, Ruth Gouldbourne (tutor in Doctrine and Church History, Bristol Baptist College, UK) remarks that “In taking the unexamined claims that underlie the textual interpretations to task, and, as in this case, showing the logical inconsistencies that shape them, there is much more opportunity for a productive discussion” (Evangelical Quarterly 78.1 [2006], 65-84). The “in this case” here refers to my chapter 18 in DBE, in which I critique the PC construct of equal being/unequal role. Indeed, the PC agenda as it is currently configured is entirely dependent on the unexamined “truth” of woman’s subordination being only a “role” that has no implications for woman’s “being” or personhood.

The “Pink and Blue Hermeneutic” is another unexamined construct accepted at the level of presupposition, and it too drives the hermeneutical conclusions of PC interpretations. This PC hermeneutic has been identified and critiqued by Christiane Carlson-Thies in a series of Priscilla Papers articles. (The first one was published in the Fall of 2002. Sadly, I don’t think it is available online, but one or more of the later articles might be.)

These two hermeneutical presuppositions differ, however, in that the equal being/unequal role construct is a widely-used “talking point” developed intentionally for the purpose of reassuring devotees of evangelical patriarchy that women’s subordination does not entail women’s personal inferiority. It is now virtually impossible to hear a defense of the PC position that is not liberally sprinkled with the rhetoric of “roles,” “distinctions,” and “differences.”

By contrast, the pink and blue hermeneutic is not a talking point. It is an elaborate but implicit conceptual grid by which texts deemed applicable to women are interpreted according to a different hermeneutical standard than are comparable texts deemed applicable to men. This hermeneutic is employed consistently and implicitly by virtually all PC interpreters of gender-related texts.

Paul D. Adams said...

Thanks for the response, Rebecca.

A few follow-on thoughts:
That PC churches do not or will not affirm "fundamental equality of created personhood in God’s image" is sad, not only that they operate in this fashion encouraging all in the name of fidelity to Scripture to live according to an unchallenged hermeneutic, but also that they are so unwilling to engage the issues. Truly sad.

That "the PC agenda ... is entirely dependent on the unexamined “truth” of woman’s subordination ..." is a challenge to the church (every member in Christ) to lift the covers and look for the underpinnings of this "pink" and "blue" hermeneutic. Of course, seeing these presuppositions presupposes eyes that are open and hearts that are bent on finding truth no matter the cost.

Don B. Johnson said...

Very nice overview of BE. Insightful about 1 Pet.

Brenda T said...

I am stunned--in a most favorable and salutary manner--by the discussion here. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Christopher Hathaway said...

Having been directed to this from another site discussing the ordination of women to the episcopate recommeding this as a good biblical defense I find your attempt at a "Biblical" egalitarianism to be failing right out of the gate.

When you claim "According to Genesis 1:26-28, both male and female reflect and represent God by virtue of the divine image, and both represent God as authoritative agents who rule the earth under God" you are clearly readig your conclusion into the text, for he actual text says that "man" is created in God's image. God's creation of us as male and female is a separate statement from His creation of man in His image. It is a hermeneutical choice to decide that man means both male and female. But when we look to NT discussion of the image of God we find in 1 Cor. 11:7 that it is the man who is identified with the image of God more than the woman.

Make of it what you will, but shouldn't a Biblical Egalitarianism deal with all the relevant Biblical texts?

Don said...


You are using a translation that uses a inclusive "man" for human. It is not a "male" man at all, so you point is self-repudiating when you look at the Hebrew.

On 1 Cor 11:7, Paul was a Torah scholar and he simply would not botch Torah as you think he is doing.

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis said...


It is not a hermeneutical "choice." The text itself (Genesis 1:27) identifies "man" here as both male and female. Thus a better translation is "human beings" (TNIV). In this verse two points are being made regarding the nature of created humanity: 1) in God's image, 2) male and female. It is tendentious to insist that the clause "male and female he created them" is anything other than a further elaboration of the nature of what God had created in his own image.