Why I Am an Egalitarian

I am (among other things, obviously) 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 feels like so long ago (it wasn’t actually that long ago) I did express these views on this blog: part 1 on the family, part 2 on ordination of women, and part 3 on the “genderedness” of God. So I won’t be repeating myself here. Instead, what I wish to convey is a disturbing trend in the conversation between “camps”. It isn’t new, nor is it hard to find examples of. But before we get to that ugliness, 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 Cor. 14:34-35, if it is authentic, 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.

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.

This is my reading. 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?”

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 biblical 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., etc., 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.

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 CBOQ (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: 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?

*Several notable scholars (e.g. Gordon Fee, Philip Payne, Richard Hays) have argued that these two verses are an interpolation into the text and weren’t actually written by Paul. I am not sold either way on the subject. I do think they have some strong arguments, but the manuscript evidence cannot verify that hypothesis. Other egalitarian scholars, like Ben Witherington III and David Garland do not accept the notion of interpolation, but also regard it as unnecessary for refuting the claims of those who argue that Paul is making a universal prohibition on women speaking (or speaking with the authority to teach as others understand this) and that Paul is arguing against a specific abuse by women of their newfound freedom to participate in religious gatherings- that is speech which disrupts the order of the Church gathering (thus linking it specifically to verse 33). I think both options have significant strengths, and both fit better with the context of 1 Corinthians (which affirms women speaking in the context of worship gatherings; 1 Cor. 11:1-5) and the Pauline corpus as a whole which affirms women in leadership roles, which would undoubtedly include preaching and teaching and having authority over men (Romans 16:1-3, 6-7, 12-15, Phil. 4:2-3)

4 Comments on “Why I Am an Egalitarian

  1. Thanks for this. I don’t know how you go about this. I know that it needs to be done. I look forward to hearing from more people and your thoughts.

  2. My growing up in the Jehovah’s Witnesses enforced a male dominated leadership, In some Christian denominations this is also the case. Personally I have no qualms about women leaders in the church. Since my becoming a Christian in 2001 there have been several Christian women who took the time to shepherd me as well as many men pastors. The Holy Spirit gifts us all to serve in many different capacities required in the church. As Pastor Ware pointed out there were several women leaders in the church in Paul’s day… were they Pastors? Elders? Deacons? They were for sure “Leaders”, we can confirm that much. God will use whoever He wills to have a part in the fulfillment of his purpose, young, older, male or female.

  3. Good Morning,
    Thank you for your willingness to post and discuss issues of concern to you and your congregation.
    I noticed you commented on LGBTQ in this post. What is your position on living a sexually active non heterosexual lifestyle?
    Thank you,
    Dean Block

  4. Sexuality is not just heterosexual even though that is the main form we see. I know of people who are bisexual and can see a partner in either sex but once they choose will stay committed to that choice. I also know that further along the spectrum some are attracted to people in their own sex just the same as heterosexual people are attracted to the opposite. And then there are so many others that fit in between or even outside of that line!

    This is the next frontier for the church to grapple with. It will take decades or centuries at the rate it works out its issues. Some will never accept LGBTQ just as they will never accept women in leadership. The churches that accept and fully embrace the diversity of sexuality are the ones that will thrive.

    Scott Gillespie
    (not sure how to get it show my name instead of my username)

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