Why I believe in the equality of genders within the Church and in life

I am an egalitarian. Simpy defined, this means I believe in the equality of genders, not just in terms of dignity, but in terms of the opportunities to use their gifts, and express their faithfulness within the family and the church.

Obviously men and women have differences, which have an impact on how gifts are expressed. But, I affirm that men and women are to be mutually submissive partners in the household, and the church is to affirm the opportunities for women to hold all offices as gifts and calling warrant.

What I wish to convey in this article is a disturbing trend in the conversation between “camps”. It isn’t new, nor is it hard to find examples of it. But before we get to the debate, I want to point out that basically the division between those who support gender equality, and those who insist on differentiation, comes down to basically one thing: are the comments about female “submission” and the two references in the New Testament calling on women to remain silent in Church to be read as reflecting the specific situation of first century congregations or are they universal commands for all times and places. In other words, it’s an issue of hermeneutics. I would take the former option.

Paul’s apparent prohibitions against women speaking in Corinth (1 Cor. 14:34-35*) and Ephesus (1 Tim. 2:9-15) are contextually specific; directed to those specific congregations/situations. Read in context, I would conclude that it is better to understand 1 Corinthians 14:34-35  as Paul insisting that the Corinthian women are to be silent, because their incessant question asking is disruptive in worship.

The women in Ephesus, Paul tells Timothy, are to learn in silence. The entire epistle centres around the spread of false teaching, which seems to be particularly problematic among the women. The Ephesian women needed to be taught, because they didn’t know.

The argument from Adam and Eve refers to the fact that Adam alone received the word directly from God, and Eve needed Adam’s instruction. In a culture of inequality in education, this would make sense of what Paul is saying (especially since the Genesis account gives no sign of hierarchy or subordination of Eve to Adam at all). Women in the ancient world weren’t taught.

In one extreme case, a Jewish Rabbi said “The words of Torah should burn rather than be taught to women.” (Y. Sotah 3:4). Is Paul addressing what is normal (that is, how things were for the congregations in Ephesus and Corinth), or what is normative (how things should be for all Christians in all places and times)? Given the ad hoc nature of those comments (i.e. we’re reading someone else’s mail; these are comments written for a specific audience) I am inclined to read those as commands to Corinth and Timothy and the leadership at Ephesus based on their specific ministry context.

Household codes

As for the household codes, I would argue that reading within context demonstrates that Paul is pushing all Christians towards building a non-stratified community. In essence he is arguing; “women: the cultural expectation is that you submit to your husband. Continue this. Men: on the other hand, there are cultural assumptions to rights and privileges to dominate, control, and make use of your wives. Stop. Give up that status. Love her as Christ loved the Church, surrendering his Divine privilege for the sake of lifting up the humble” (see Ephesians 5:1-2, Philippians 2:5-11, Galatians 5:13-14).

It’s worth noting (as Cynthia Long Westfall does in her magnificent book Paul and Gender) that the men are to love as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for the Church “to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish”.

Notice the laundry imagery? Men’s love for their wives should look like Jesus’ love for the Church, which looks like doing laundry- washing and ironing. In other words, Paul is echoing Jesus’ call to die to self and submit to each other, for women this was a continuation of the cultural norms, for men it was new way.

Additionally, since that Ephesians 5:22 is a dependent clause (the verb submit is nowhere in Greek text of that verse but is implied from the previous clause, which is not gender specific but for all Christians, and is inserted in v. 22 by English translators), this is, in my mind, the best interpretive option.

Implications of male-only

This is my reading. But, it's not everybody’s. And this is where the real issue sits with me; how do you handle the “other’s” reading of Scripture? This is where the problem in the conversation happens. The argument often goes like this (obviously, this is an oversimplified caricature):

“I’m a complemetarian”

“Well, I’m an egalitarian”

“So, you don’t have a high view of Scripture?”

“So, you’re a narrow-minded literalist?”

And, then the conversation ends with enmity.

Yes, this sort of thing happens. Some have listed male-only clergy and male headship in households as a gospel essential (e.g. The Gospel Coalition’s Confessional Statement includes male headship as a biblically essential and “The distinctive leadership role within the church given to qualified men is grounded in creation, fall, and redemption and must not be sidelined by appeals to cultural developments.”). Anyone who does not agree has defied (or at the very least compromised) the Gospel and rejected the authority of Scripture.

Others have said non-egalitarian views are oppressive, misogynistic, and unChristlike. So how then does any real discussion take place? Instead two camps have circled their wagons, and drawn imaginary lines between two camps, and lob grenades from their position towards the other. We know this already, right? We see it happening? I’m not alone in this, am I?

And this is of course not isolated to just the conversation around gender roles. The same happens with discussions of LGBTQ persons, the doctrine of final punishment, atonement theories, Church-state relations, eschatology, tongues, etc. The same thing happens; if you disagree with me, it’s because you’ve rejected the authority of Scripture, because a “plain reading of Scripture” reveals this very clearly.

Setting a new tone

I hold my views strongly. I have been pastored and educated by several wonderfully gifted women over the years. I have many women among my colleagues in the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec (who have been ordaining women since 1948) who are gifted leaders and preachers.

When I read Scripture, I see Paul affirming women as co-workers and leaders; Phoebe, Euodia, Syntyche, Junia, Prisca, Lydia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Mary, Chloe, etc.

When I read of Jesus’ ministry, the resurrection narratives, and the Apostolic gathering on Pentecost, I see women making essential contributions, being the first preachers of the resurrection, and being welcomed and empowered in ways which broke with various culturally embedded assumptions.

However, I will in no way disparage or break fellowship with colleagues who argue otherwise (and I have many who do). I will disagree, but will attempt to do so without enmity, but with grace, and avoid the ad hominems and actually evaluate the merits of their arguments.

So, the point of all this is clear: we need to set a new tone and framework for the conversation, not just the gender conversation, but all theological conversations.

Can we all articulate “why I am” without negative reference to the other? In other words, can I say why I take an egalitarian position without saying complementarians are wrong? Can we actually do that? I sincerely wonder if it is possible.

I want the other person to think like I do. I think my opinions are right, or else I wouldn’t hold to them. So, in conversations like this, I would always be trying to convince the other of my position, and the other person would be doing the same.

Does this presume there will be a “winner/loser” or a stalemate at the end of the conversation? Is that a bad thing? This is my struggle. What are my “rules of engagement” with complementarian colleagues?

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About the author

Graham Ware is the Pastor of Centre Street Baptist Church in St. Thomas, Ontario, serves as a Chaplain with the Canadian Forces Reserves, and is a contributor to Rethinking Hell. He and his wife Jenelle have 3 daughters. He occasionally blogs and shares sermon audio at https://centrestreetbaptistchurch.com/pastor-grahams-blog/