In order to understand difficult passages of Scripture, including the parts of Scripture that seemingly place limitations on the full equality of women in the church and in the home, it’s helpful to consider the “big picture” message of the Bible with respect to the equality of men and women.
The following 10 points offer a quick summary of what I understand to be the teaching of Scripture, interpreted in the light of tradition, reason, and experience of God. These are not comprehensive arguments; that is not my intention here. Arguments for each of these points can be found in the books recommended here.
1. Genesis 1–2 teaches that men and women were created to be equal.
Both men and women were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–28) and both were included in the vocational mandate to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, and rule over all that God has made. Genesis 2 teaches that the man is incomplete without the woman and cannot fulfill the divine command without an appropriate or ‘suitable’ counterpart.
The word ‘suitable’ (Hebrew kenegdo) denotes equality and adequacy. God created women as man’s ‘helper’ in the sense of being his counterpart and partner, not in the sense of being a subordinate. The term ‘helper’ (Hebrew ezer) is not a term of subordination or inferiority; most of the time in the Old Testament it refers to God who is Israel’s helper. The forming of the woman from the man’s side indicates the unity and equality God intended for all human beings, male and female.
2. Genesis 3 teaches that men and women are co-participants in the Fall
Gender inequality is a result of sin, not part of God’s creative intent for men and women. The “curse” in Genesis 3 is descriptive (describing the result of sin) not prescriptive (prescribing God’s plan for men and women).
3. Christian life is properly oriented to and directed by the new creation (inaugurated “in Christ” by the Spirit), not the fallen creation (“in Adam”).
In the new creation, people are not subject to present confines. In Matt. 22:30, Jesus says “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” This passage seems to indicate that any culturally influenced gender roles are, at least to some extent, temporary. We are on a trajectory moving toward gender equality, a full reversal of the Fall. Therefore, there is an eschatological qualification on present cultural gender roles.
4. Spirit gifting is the primary criterion for ministry and leadership in the New Testament church.
The Spirit is poured out on both men and women (Joel 2; Acts 2) and sovereignly gifts and calls both to serve in ministry and leadership capacities. All minister on the basis of their spiritual union with Christ, who alone is the High Priest and true minister. By the Spirit, both men and women participate in Christ’s ministry in ways that they have been individually gifted and called.
5. We observe “redemptive movement” within Scripture concerning its treatment of women.
This redemptive movement accommodates an egalitarian perspective. It helps to create a convincing framework that integrates Scripture’s teaching on women in ministry and leadership and explains counter texts or anomalies sufficiently. Scripture has both egalitarian and patriarchal impulses; the egalitarian position integrates these more effectively into a coherent whole.
6. There are many examples of women serving in ministry and leadership in the Bible.
Women were even instrumental in writing the Bible. Think about that for a second: they were not just preaching it, but were instrumental in its production! Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55 was the first Christian exposition of Scripture; God also revealed other parts of Scripture through inspired women (Exod. 15:21; Judges 5:2-31; 1 Sam. 2:1-10; 25:24-31; Luke 1:25). 2 The egalitarian position sits well with these examples, whereas strong forms of complementarianism fail to take their full significance into account.
7. Jesus’s treatment of women was radically subversive of his culture’s patriarchy.
Good examples include his interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well, his treatment of Mary of Bethany (who sits at his feet as a disciple sits before a rabbi), and the prominence given to women in the gospel accounts. Women are positively portrayed as accepting Jesus’ message and supporting him, rather than doubting him or expecting him to serve an alternate agenda as the disciples and Pharisees often do; and women were the first witnesses of the resurrection.
8. Paul’s treatment of women was radically subversive of his culture’s patriarchy.
This may not be obvious to the casual reader, but to one who reads Paul’s letters in context and knows about the ancient world it is quite shocking! For example, his approach to the the household codes of the ancient Greco-Roman world is to accept traditional arrangements on the surface while subverting them from within with his rather surprising instructions to husbands.
9. The New Testament teaches mutual submission in marriage out of reverence for and in common service to Christ (1 Cor. 7:3–5; Eph. 5:21; 1 Pet. 3:1-7; Gen. 21:12).
Concerning the husband’s function as ‘head’, Paul subverts and transforms headship language by redefining it in reference to Jesus. The husband is to offer himself to his wife in self-giving love and service within a relationship of mutual submission (Eph. 5:21–33; Col. 3:19; 1 Pet. 3:7).
10. The New Testament envisions and sets in motion radical social transformation with respect to gender roles (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 5; Acts 2).
This is not just about equality in the gospel or in salvation, but how that gospel and salvation are lived out. There is much evidence in Scripture that the biblical authors planted redemptive egalitarian seeds and initiated a subversive, redemptive movement toward the full equality of women and men in the church. We need to recognize this movement, cultivate those seeds, and develop them theologically in order to draw out their full implications for equality.
1 See William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 38.
2 See Philip B. Payne, “Examining Twelve Biblical Pillars of Male Hierarchy,” p. 5, published online by the CBE here.
3”Complementarianism” or the “patriarchal view” of women holds that certain ministries, roles, and positions are restricted to men. Its advocates do not believe that women are of lesser value or dignity than men, but that God designed women to be subordinate to men in role or function. “Equal in dignity, subordinate in [certain] function(s)” is the usual motto. In particular, women should never operate in positions of authority over men. Complementarians differ over what kinds of activities constitute such authority and therefore should be allowed versus disallowed for women in the church (e.g., some believe that gifted women should be allowed to preach or lead, others dispute this). However, all agree that women should serve under and be accountable to male leadership.
Points 1, 2, and 9 draw on the CBE’s document “Men, Women, and Biblical Equality,” posted at http://www.cbeinternational.org/sites/default/files/english_0.pdf
Adapted from an original series at https://patrickfranklin.wordpress.com/popular-blog-series/