The issue of gender roles is squarely on the agenda of many Christians today. To help people get their heads around the debate here is an overview of the major approaches. For my own view see this post

Complementarian View

Complementarianism is the view that men and women have different but complementary roles to play in the church and marriage. God has entrusted men with responsibility for leadership in the church and home and calls women to follow their lead in a graceful and supportive way (1 Timothy 2.11-15; 1 Corinthians 14.34-35; Ephesians 5.22-33; Colossians 3.18-20).  This view is described on the website of one of its leading proponents, the US based Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, as follows:

[T]he complementarian position…affirms that men and women are equal in the image of God, but maintain complementary differences in role and function. In the home, men lovingly are to lead their wives and family as women intelligently are to submit to the leadership of their husbands. In the church, while men and women share equally in the blessings of salvation, some governing and teaching roles are restricted to men.

Because both men and women are created in the image of God (Genesis 1.26-28) they have equal dignity, value and worth. But equal worth does not mean equal roles. The Principal of a school has the same value and worth as any member of the staff, but does not have the same role. So it is with men and women.

Complementarians believe that the status of men and women as equal in worth but different in role is taught in the bible’s creation stories. This means role differentiation is fundamental to our humanity and applicable to all people at all times.

Two New Testament passages, 1 Corinthians 11.3-16 and 1 Timothy 2.11-15, reference the creation stories in discussion of male-female relationships. Although the exact nuances are debated, Complementarians see the texts as teaching that the distinct roles of men and women are part of God’s design for humankind. These texts point to the order of creation, man before woman, as theologically significant. It earmarks the man as the one with responsibility to lead. 1 Timothy 2 then goes on to show how Eve’s leading her husband to eat from the tree of knowledge reversed the created pattern of leadership, with disastrous consequences.

In Eden Adam exercised his leadership in a loving, servant-hearted way. Sin however resulted in a world where men commonly abuse their God-given power and responsibility (Genesis 3.16). Violence, abuse and mistreatment of women became the sad and sorry tale of human history.

The Christian gospel provides the necessary corrective. It restores men and women to right relationship with God and shows them how to live in right relationship with each other. The gospel assures women that they are of equal worth with men (eg Galatians 3.26-28), recipients of the Spirit of God, gifted for ministry (1 Corinthians 12-14), and full members of the people of God.

The New Testament’s leadership guidelines (1 Corinthians 11:3-16; 1 Corinthians 14:33-36; 1 Timothy 2:11-15) show how men and women are to conduct themselves in the church, while the bible’s household codes instruct men and women how to conduct themselves in the home (Ephesians 5.22-33; Colossians 3.18-21; Titus 2; 2 Peter 2.13-3.7). In the church women should take their place as fully included members, exercising the gifts God has given them, but the leadership and teaching of the whole church should be taken up by men. In the home husbands must not abuse their position but take up their responsibility to lead and love their wives as Christ loves the church. Wives should lovingly submit to their husband’s leadership just as the church submits to Christ’s.

For this school of interpretation the key factor is that male leadership in church and home is a principle of human relationships established at creation and reaffirmed in Christ. For this reason we cannot consider complementarity as limited to a particular culture or time. Rather, the principle applies to all people in all cultures and at all times.

Those who hold to this interpretation do not always agree on how the principle of male leadership should work in practise. A small group of scholars suggest that the biblical teaching on male headship is confined to the husband-wife relationship and does not apply in the church. Others believe it extends to the church but disagree on what women may or may not do. Some would exclude women from all leadership or teaching roles over groups that include male adults. On this basis a woman gifted with leadership and bible teaching skills should exercise those giftings towards other women (eg leading women’s groups, teaching women) but should not be an “elder” or leader of a mixed adult bible study group. Others argue that women may lead and teach men as long as the overall leadership of the church is male. On this basis a woman could serve as an assistant minister of a church, preach on a Sunday morning, belong to the leadership team, but she could not be the head minister of a church.

Examples of this view: James Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (IVP 1981); John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (HarperCollins, 2nd edition, 1990) chapter 13; Piper and Grudem (editors) Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Crossway, 1992); Nichols (editor), The Bible and Women’s Ministry (Acorn Press, 1990)

Explicit Egalitarian View

Explicit Egalitarianism argues that the biblical texts, particularly Jesus and the New Testament letters, explicitly teach equality of both worth and roles between men and women.

When egalitarians turn to the creation texts they don’t see a role-ordering of men and women. The creation narratives reveal men and women are both created in the image of God with the intention that they share dominion over the earth (Genesis 1.26-28). The second creation account shows not male leadership but the need for men and women to live in interdependence with one another (Genesis 2:5-25). The male alone could not complete humankind’s calling, but needed another, the female, to work alongside him. Genesis 2 refers to her as “helper”. The same term is used elsewhere of God and so should not be taken to imply inferiority or subordination.

It was only with the entry of sin into the world that notions of one person being “in authority” emerged (Genesis 3.16), with history since then littered with examples of women abused at the hands of males.

The Gospel reaffirms and reinforces the biblical paradigm for relationships. In Christ gender distinction counts for nought in relationship to God (Galatians 3.26-28), a truth must that must be worked out in our relationships.

In line with this the Spirit has been poured out upon men and women (Acts 2), equipping them for a whole range of ministries (1 Corinthians 12) none of which are gender differentiated.

Thus Scripture quite naturally speaks of women exercising gifts of leadership over men.

  • female prophets (Deborah – Judges 4; Huldah – 2 Kings 22; Anna – Luke 2; Philip’s daughters – Acts 21.9; some Corinthian women – 1 Corinthians 11.5);
  • female national leaders (Deborah – Judges 4; Miriam – Micah 6.4);
  • female apostles (Junia – Romans 16.7);
  • female members of Paul’s ministry team (Priscilla – Romans 16.3; Eudoia and Syntyche – Philippians 4.2-3);
  • female church leaders (Phoebe – Romans 16.1-2; Priscilla – Romans 16.2-3); and female teachers (Priscilla – Acts 18.26).

What then of those New Testament texts that seem to restrict women’s ministry? According to Explicit Egalitarians these are either misunderstood as imposing restrictions or do not have ongoing validity.

For example in 1 Peter 3 wives are called to be submissive to their husbands “so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without talk by the behaviour of their wives.” (verse 1-2). Here women are asked to forgo their freedom in Christ in order to win over husbands who live in a culture that expects wives to be submissive. Likewise, in Titus 2 submissive behaviour is enjoined upon the women “so that no one will malign the word of God” (Titus 2.5). In our culture, where submission is not a core cultural value the command no longer applies directly. Rather we should ask what sort of relationships will advertise the gospel.

When we turn to the famous passages demanding women be silent in the church (1 Timothy 2.11-15 and 1 Corinthians 14.34-35) Explicit Egalitarianism commonly suggests that these have relevance only to very particular contexts.

1 Timothy is seen as a highly occasional letter, written to address a crisis in the Ephesian church. The crisis is a set of false teachings that were subverting genuine faith. This possibly included an early form of the Gnostic myth that when Eve took the fruit and gave it to Adam she was liberating both of them, opening their eyes to truth. This in turn saw some of the Ephesian women seeking to emulate Eve by spreading the heresy.

The women are instructed to be quiet, not because they were women teaching men, but because they were teaching heresy. They should recognise that Eve did not liberate Adam, but was deceived just as they now are.

Not all Explicit Egalitarians provide this exact interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15, but most offer an interpretation along these lines. The critical point is not that women may never teach or lead men, but that the women at Ephesus should refrain from doing so until they have learned the truth of the gospel.

Explicit Egalitarians likewise see 1 Corinthians 14.33-35, which calls women to remain silent in the churches, as limited in scope. A common interpretation points out that in 1 Corinthians 11.3-16 it is assumed women will pray and prophesy in church, and calls them to do this in a way that does not bring shame upon their husbands. So 14.33-35 doesn’t ban all speech. The clue lies in the statement that women should not call out but “ask their husbands at home.” This assumes a situation where men and women are seated separately, where women are less educated than men, and where it is culturally unacceptable for a woman to address a man other than her husband in public. Consequently when it came to weighing up prophecy many women appear to have been creating chaos by calling out questions to their husbands seated on the other side of the church. The point of 1 Corinthians 14.33-35 is not that women may never speak in church but that our congregational meetings should not be chaotic.

Explicit Egalitarians commonly argue that other biblical passages have been wrongly understood to imply male authority. For example, 1 Corinthians 11.3-16 says the man/husband is head over woman/wife. English readers usually understand the word “head” to speak of one person being in authority over another (eg “the head of the company”). Explicit Egalitarians point out that in the ancient Greek world the term could also mean “source, origin”. When 1 Corinthians 11.3-16 says “the head of every woman is man” it does not mean “the leader of every wife is her husband” but “the source of every woman is man”. This is a reference to the creation of Eve from Adam (Genesis 2), a point picked up again in verse 8.

The problem at Corinth was women behaving in a way that shamed their husbands. Paul affirms their freedom in Christ, then suggests that because men and women were created to be interdependent (ie woman from man, man from woman) they should not exercise their freedom in ways which shame the opposite sex.

Some Explicit Egalitarians extend the “source” argument to all New Testament references to “headship.” When Ephesians 5 says “the husband is the head of the wife” it does not mean the husband is in a position of authority but the husband is to see himself as a source of his wife’s nourishment and nurture. Others believe “head” does have authority overtones in such a passage but that it can be explained in the same mission oriented way as the passages from 1 Peter and Titus (see above).

When it comes to the application of these texts to life today, Explicit Egalitarians suggest we need to break down the barriers to female participation in leadership in our churches and teach married couples how to resolve differences through dialogue, compromise and mutual servanthood.

Examples of this approach: Gordon Fee, “Issues In Evangelical Hermeneutics III: The Great watershed – Intentionality and Particularity/Eternality: 1 Timothy 2.8-15 as a Test Case” Crux (1990) 26:31-37; Richard and Catherine Clark Kroeger, I Suffer not a Woman (Baker 1992); G. Hull Equal to Serve (Revell, 1987); G Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles (2nd edition; Baker, 1990); B & A Mickelson (editors), Women, Authority and the Bible (IVP 1986); A Padgett, “The Pauline Rationale for Submission: Biblical Feminism & the Hina Clauses of Titus 2:1-10” Evangelical Quarterly (1987) 59:39- 52; D. Scholer, “Paul’s Women Co-Workers in the Ministry of the Church” Daughters of Sarah Journal (1980) 6:3-6

Implicit Egalitarian View

Implicit Egalitarianism believes that the creation narratives and the thrust of the gospel point to gender equality in both role and status in society, church and marriage. However, Explicit Egalitarianism does not believe the New Testament writers themselves placed a high emphasis on gender equality. From our perspective we can see the principle of gender equality as an important implication of the gospel but it was not one which was championed in the first century.

Implicit Egalitarianism believes the approach of New Testament writers to gender is similar to their approach to slavery. The creation stories undermined slavery by pointing out that all human beings are created in the image of God and entrusted with responsibility over the earth. The gospel affirmed this and called churches to treat slave and free with equal regard (Galatians 3.26-28). However, while the New Testament authors allowed the implications of this to work themselves out at the level of individual relationships they did not work them out at the level of the institutions themselves. Rather than critiquing slavery the New Testament writers accept that it exists and ask Christians to live in a Christlike way within those structures (eg Ephesians 6.5-9; Philemon). Eventually of course, the Christian gospel caused Christians to call the very institution of slavery into question and reject it as an evil.

Implicit Egalitarians argue the same with respect to the patriarchal gender structures of the first century. The creation stories and the gospel undermine patriarchal marriage and patriarchal social arrangements. The New Testament writers explore the significance of their gospel at the individual level – women may pray and prophesy in church (1 Corinthians 14.33-35), women may exercise a variety of leadership roles (eg Junias the apostle, Paul’s female fellow workers), husbands must not abuse their wives but love them (Ephesians 5.25-33), husbands and wives have equal sexual rights within marriage (1 Corinthians 7.1-5).

Yet the New Testament writers don’t step back and critique the patriarchal gender system. Thus they urge wives to be submissive to their husbands (eg Ephesians 5.22-33), to be covered when praying and prophesying (1 Corinthians 11.3-16), to be silent and refrain from teaching (1 Corinthians 14.33-35; 1 Timothy 2.11-15), etc.

The very gospel the Scriptures proclaim does however undermine patriarchal gender systems. As with slavery, we can see that patriarchy is a social evil that must be challenged and confronted in the name of Christ.

With regard to the practical outworking of their view, those with an implicit eglitarian approach commonly suggest that the time has well and truly passed when the church should move from accepting patriarchal social structures to critiquing them. Just as the first century church did with Jew-Gentile relations and the eighteenth-nineteenth century did with slavery, so now we must do with sexism and patriarchalism.

Examples: Krister Stendahl, The Bible and the Role of Women: A Case Study in Hermeneutics, trans. Emilie T. Sander (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966); Gerd Theissen, “Social Stratification in the Corinthian Community: A Contribution To The Sociology Of Early Hellenistic Christianity” in The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity, trans Schutz ( T & T Clark, 1982); Richard Longenecker, New Testament Social Ethics for Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1984); William Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (InterVarsity, 2001)

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Eclipsed Egalitarian View

Eclipsed Egalitarian views suggest that Jesus and the early Christian movement were radically egalitarian in outlook and practise, but that this egalitarianism was eclipsed by the re-emergence of patriarchy over the course of the first 100 or so years of the church.

Scholars holding to this approach distinguish between the earlier and later parts of the New Testament. The Gospels represent both early traditions and traditions that were later modified or added. Careful reading will distinguish between the earlier and later. The earlier traditions show us a community that was radically egalitarian. Women and men participated together on an equal footing and Christ could be pictured in both masculine (eg Son of God) and feminine (Sophia – divine woman “Wisdom”) ways.

As time passed, these radically egalitarian traditions were eclipsed by those emphasising maleness and reinforcing patriarchy. This is thought to be most obvious in the writings attributed to the apostle Paul. These are divided by Eclipsed Egalitarians into those actually written by Paul (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians) and those written by Paul’s followers in his name (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus).

Paul’s writings reveal a highly egalitarian outlook. Women featured prominently in his ministry team and churches (see references in Romans 16 and descriptions of women who led found earlier in this paper) and Paul advocated a gospel in which gender discrimination was to be eliminated (Galatians 3.26-28).

The growing Christian movement was unable to cope with this radical egalitarianism. As expectation of Christ’s immediate return faded the church settled down into building a long term presence in the world. In the process patriarchalism re-emerged in both church and home. This is evidenced in the letters written by Paul’s followers in his name. Ephesians, Colossians, Titus and 1 Timothy call women to submit to their husbands as the “heads” of their household. 1 Timothy and Titus also restrict women’s participation in the leading and teaching ministry of the church, and seek to justify it on the basis of sexist interpretations of the creation stories. Similarly, later Christians inserted 1 Corinthians 11.3-16 and 1 Corinthians 14.34-35 into the genuinely Pauline 1 Corinthians.

There are of course differences in interpretation among those with eclipsed egalitarian views. Some suggest the re-emergence of patriarchy began with Paul, others that it occurred after Paul. Then there are the other New Testament letters to consider (1 & 2 Peter, 1-3 John, Hebrews, James, Revelation). These are handled differently by different interpreters. However while the details may not always be clear the overall picture remains constant: the radical egalitarianism of Christ is eroded away until it is eclipsed by the re-emergence of a theologically justified patriarchalism.

For those holding this view the task of the church is to recover the radical egalitarian traditions and to champion the cause of women in church and society.

Examples: E Fiorenza, In Memory of Her. A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (SCM, 1983); W. Meeks, “The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity HR (1974) 13:165-208; G. Trompf, “On Attitudes Towards Women in Paul and Paulinist literature: 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 and It’s Context” Catholic Biblical Quarterly (1980) 42:196-215; W Alker, “The Theology of Women’s Place and The Paulinist Tradition”, Semeia Journal (1983) 28:101-112

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Complementarianism

Complementarianism is the view that men and women have different but complementary roles to play in the church and marriage. God has entrusted men with responsibility for leadership in the church and home and calls women to follow their lead in a graceful and supportive way (1 Timothy 2.11-15; 1 Corinthians 14.34-35; Ephesians 5.22-33; Colossians 3.18-20).  This view is described on the website of one of its leading proponents, the US based Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, as follows:

[T]he complementarian position…affirms that men and women are equal in the image of God, but maintain complementary differences in role and function. In the home, men lovingly are to lead their wives and family as women intelligently are to submit to the leadership of their husbands. In the church, while men and women share equally in the blessings of salvation, some governing and teaching roles are restricted to men.

Because both men and women are created in the image of God (Genesis 1.26-28) they have equal dignity, value and worth. But equal worth does not mean equal roles. The Principal of a school has the same value and worth as any member of the staff, but does not have the same role. So it is with men and women.

Complementarians believe that the status of men and women as equal in worth but different in role is taught in the bible’s creation stories. This means role differentiation is fundamental to our humanity and applicable to all people at all times.

Two New Testament passages, 1 Corinthians 11.3-16 and 1 Timothy 2.11-15, reference the creation stories in discussion of male-female relationships. Although the exact nuances are debated, Complementarians see the texts as teaching that the distinct roles of men and women are part of God’s design for humankind. These texts point to the order of creation, man before woman, as theologically significant. It earmarks the man as the one with responsibility to lead. 1 Timothy 2 then goes on to show how Eve’s leading her husband to eat from the tree of knowledge reversed the created pattern of leadership, with disastrous consequences.

In Eden Adam exercised his leadership in a loving, servant-hearted way. Sin however resulted in a world where men commonly abuse their God-given power and responsibility (Genesis 3.16). Violence, abuse and mistreatment of women became the sad and sorry tale of human history.

The Christian gospel provides the necessary corrective. It restores men and women to right relationship with God and shows them how to live in right relationship with each other. The gospel assures women that they are of equal worth with men (eg Galatians 3.26-28), recipients of the Spirit of God, gifted for ministry (1 Corinthians 12-14), and full members of the people of God.

The New Testament’s leadership guidelines (1 Corinthians 11:3-16; 1 Corinthians 14:33-36; 1 Timothy 2:11-15) show how men and women are to conduct themselves in the church, while the bible’s household codes instruct men and women how to conduct themselves in the home (Ephesians 5.22-33; Colossians 3.18-21; Titus 2; 2 Peter 2.13-3.7). In the church women should take their place as fully included members, exercising the gifts God has given them, but the leadership and teaching of the whole church should be taken up by men. In the home husbands must not abuse their position but take up their responsibility to lead and love their wives as Christ loves the church. Wives should lovingly submit to their husband’s leadership just as the church submits to Christ’s.

For this school of interpretation the key factor is that male leadership in church and home is a principle of human relationships established at creation and reaffirmed in Christ. For this reason we cannot consider complementarity as limited to a particular culture or time. Rather, the principle applies to all people in all cultures and at all times.

Those who hold to this interpretation do not always agree on how the principle of male leadership should work in practise. A small group of scholars suggest that the biblical teaching on male headship is confined to the husband-wife relationship and does not apply in the church. Others believe it extends to the church but disagree on what women may or may not do. Some would exclude women from all leadership or teaching roles over groups that include male adults. On this basis a woman gifted with leadership and bible teaching skills should exercise those giftings towards other women (eg leading women’s groups, teaching women) but should not be an “elder” or leader of a mixed adult bible study group. Others argue that women may lead and teach men as long as the overall leadership of the church is male. On this basis a woman could serve as an assistant minister of a church, preach on a Sunday morning, belong to the leadership team, but she could not be the head minister of a church.

Examples of this view: James Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (IVP 1981); John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (HarperCollins, 2nd edition, 1990) chapter 13; Piper and Grudem (editors) Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Crossway, 1992); Nichols (editor), The Bible and Women’s Ministry (Acorn Press, 1990)  

Egalitarianism

Egalitarians believe that men and women are called to a partnership of equals. In marriage, husbands and wives should work together to navigate their way through life, sharing responsibility for decision making. In the church God gifts both men and women for leadership and calls those suitably gifted to share in the leading of the church.

There are three schools of interpretation offered by Egalitarians, which I have termed explicit egalitarianism; implicit egalitarianism and eclipsed egalitarianism.

Explicit Egalitarianism

Explicit Egalitarianism argues that the biblical texts, particularly Jesus and the New Testament letters, explicitly teach equality of both worth and roles between men and women.

When egalitarians turn to the creation texts they don’t see a role-ordering of men and women. The creation narratives reveal men and women are both created in the image of God with the intention that they share dominion over the earth (Genesis 1.26-28). The second creation account shows not male leadership but the need for men and women to live in interdependence with one another (Genesis 2:5-25). The male alone could not complete humankind’s calling, but needed another, the female, to work alongside him. Genesis 2 refers to her as “helper”. The same term is used elsewhere of God and so should not be taken to imply inferiority or subordination.

It was only with the entry of sin into the world that notions of one person being “in authority” emerged (Genesis 3.16), with history since then littered with examples of women abused at the hands of males.

The Gospel reaffirms and reinforces the biblical paradigm for relationships. In Christ gender distinction counts for nought in relationship to God (Galatians 3.26-28), a truth must that must be worked out in our relationships.

In line with this the Spirit has been poured out upon men and women (Acts 2), equipping them for a whole range of ministries (1 Corinthians 12) none of which are gender differentiated.

Thus Scripture quite naturally speaks of women exercising gifts of leadership over men.

  • female prophets (Deborah – Judges 4; Huldah – 2 Kings 22; Anna – Luke 2; Philip’s daughters – Acts 21.9; some Corinthian women – 1 Corinthians 11.5);
  • female national leaders (Deborah – Judges 4; Miriam – Micah 6.4);
  • female apostles (Junia – Romans 16.7);
  • female members of Paul’s ministry team (Priscilla – Romans 16.3; Eudoia and Syntyche – Philippians 4.2-3);
  • female church leaders (Phoebe – Romans 16.1-2; Priscilla – Romans 16.2-3); and female teachers (Priscilla – Acts 18.26).

What then of those New Testament texts that seem to restrict women’s ministry? According to Explicit Egalitarians these are either misunderstood as imposing restrictions or do not have ongoing validity.

For example in 1 Peter 3 wives are called to be submissive to their husbands “so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without talk by the behaviour of their wives.” (verse 1-2). Here women are asked to forgo their freedom in Christ in order to win over husbands who live in a culture that expects wives to be submissive. Likewise, in Titus 2 submissive behaviour is enjoined upon the women “so that no one will malign the word of God” (Titus 2.5). In our culture, where submission is not a core cultural value the command no longer applies directly. Rather we should ask what sort of relationships will advertise the gospel.

When we turn to the famous passages demanding women be silent in the church (1 Timothy 2.11-15 and 1 Corinthians 14.34-35) Explicit Egalitarianism commonly suggests that these have relevance only to very particular contexts.

1 Timothy is seen as a highly occasional letter, written to address a crisis in the Ephesian church. The crisis is a set of false teachings that were subverting genuine faith. This possibly included an early form of the Gnostic myth that when Eve took the fruit and gave it to Adam she was liberating both of them, opening their eyes to truth. This in turn saw some of the Ephesian women seeking to emulate Eve by spreading the heresy.

The women are instructed to be quiet, not because they were women teaching men, but because they were teaching heresy. They should recognise that Eve did not liberate Adam, but was deceived just as they now are.

Not all Explicit Egalitarians provide this exact interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15, but most offer an interpretation along these lines. The critical point is not that women may never teach or lead men, but that the women at Ephesus should refrain from doing so until they have learned the truth of the gospel.

Explicit Egalitarians likewise see 1 Corinthians 14.33-35, which calls women to remain silent in the churches, as limited in scope. A common interpretation points out that in 1 Corinthians 11.3-16 it is assumed women will pray and prophesy in church, and calls them to do this in a way that does not bring shame upon their husbands. So 14.33-35 doesn’t ban all speech. The clue lies in the statement that women should not call out but “ask their husbands at home.” This assumes a situation where men and women are seated separately, where women are less educated than men, and where it is culturally unacceptable for a woman to address a man other than her husband in public. Consequently when it came to weighing up prophecy many women appear to have been creating chaos by calling out questions to their husbands seated on the other side of the church. The point of 1 Corinthians 14.33-35 is not that women may never speak in church but that our congregational meetings should not be chaotic.

Explicit Egalitarians commonly argue that other biblical passages have been wrongly understood to imply male authority. For example, 1 Corinthians 11.3-16 says the man/husband is head over woman/wife. English readers usually understand the word “head” to speak of one person being in authority over another (eg “the head of the company”). Explicit Egalitarians point out that in the ancient Greek world the term could also mean “source, origin”. When 1 Corinthians 11.3-16 says “the head of every woman is man” it does not mean “the leader of every wife is her husband” but “the source of every woman is man”. This is a reference to the creation of Eve from Adam (Genesis 2), a point picked up again in verse 8.

The problem at Corinth was women behaving in a way that shamed their husbands. Paul affirms their freedom in Christ, then suggests that because men and women were created to be interdependent (ie woman from man, man from woman) they should not exercise their freedom in ways which shame the opposite sex.

Some Explicit Egalitarians extend the “source” argument to all New Testament references to “headship.” When Ephesians 5 says “the husband is the head of the wife” it does not mean the husband is in a position of authority but the husband is to see himself as a source of his wife’s nourishment and nurture. Others believe “head” does have authority overtones in such a passage but that it can be explained in the same mission oriented way as the passages from 1 Peter and Titus (see above).

When it comes to the application of these texts to life today, Explicit Egalitarians suggest we need to break down the barriers to female participation in leadership in our churches and teach married couples how to resolve differences through dialogue, compromise and mutual servanthood.

Examples of this approach: Gordon Fee, “Issues In Evangelical Hermeneutics III: The Great watershed – Intentionality and Particularity/Eternality: 1 Timothy 2.8-15 as a Test Case” Crux (1990) 26:31-37; Richard and Catherine Clark Kroeger, I Suffer not a Woman (Baker 1992); G. Hull Equal to Serve (Revell, 1987); G Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles (2nd edition; Baker, 1990); B & A Mickelson (editors), Women, Authority and the Bible (IVP 1986); A Padgett, “The Pauline Rationale for Submission: Biblical Feminism & the Hina Clauses of Titus 2:1-10” Evangelical Quarterly (1987) 59:39- 52; D. Scholer, “Paul’s Women Co-Workers in the Ministry of the Church” Daughters of Sarah Journal (1980) 6:3-6

Implicit Egalitarianism

Implicit Egalitarianism believes that the creation narratives and the thrust of the gospel point to gender equality in both role and status in society, church and marriage. However, Explicit Egalitarianism does not believe the New Testament writers themselves placed a high emphasis on gender equality. From our perspective we can see the principle of gender equality as an important implication of the gospel but it was not one which was championed in the first century.

Implicit Egalitarianism believes the approach of New Testament writers to gender is similar to their approach to slavery. The creation stories undermined slavery by pointing out that all human beings are created in the image of God and entrusted with responsibility over the earth. The gospel affirmed this and called churches to treat slave and free with equal regard (Galatians 3.26-28). However, while the New Testament authors allowed the implications of this to work themselves out at the level of individual relationships they did not work them out at the level of the institutions themselves. Rather than critiquing slavery the New Testament writers accept that it exists and ask Christians to live in a Christlike way within those structures (eg Ephesians 6.5-9; Philemon). Eventually of course, the Christian gospel caused Christians to call the very institution of slavery into question and reject it as an evil.

Implicit Egalitarians argue the same with respect to the patriarchal gender structures of the first century. The creation stories and the gospel undermine patriarchal marriage and patriarchal social arrangements. The New Testament writers explore the significance of their gospel at the individual level – women may pray and prophesy in church (1 Corinthians 14.33-35), women may exercise a variety of leadership roles (eg Junias the apostle, Paul’s female fellow workers), husbands must not abuse their wives but love them (Ephesians 5.25-33), husbands and wives have equal sexual rights within marriage (1 Corinthians 7.1-5).

Yet the New Testament writers don’t step back and critique the patriarchal gender system. Thus they urge wives to be submissive to their husbands (eg Ephesians 5.22-33), to be covered when praying and prophesying (1 Corinthians 11.3-16), to be silent and refrain from teaching (1 Corinthians 14.33-35; 1 Timothy 2.11-15), etc.

The very gospel the Scriptures proclaim does however undermine patriarchal gender systems. As with slavery, we can see that patriarchy is a social evil that must be challenged and confronted in the name of Christ.

With regard to the practical outworking of their view, those with an implicit eglitarian approach commonly suggest that the time has well and truly passed when the church should move from accepting patriarchal social structures to critiquing them. Just as the first century church did with Jew-Gentile relations and the eighteenth-nineteenth century did with slavery, so now we must do with sexism and patriarchalism.

Examples: Gerd Theissen, “Social Stratification in the Corinthian Community: A Contribution To The Sociology Of Early Hellenistic Christianity” in The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity (Tranlsated Schutz; T & T Clark, 1982); Richard Longenecker, New Testament Social Ethics for Today (Eerdmans, 1984).

Eclipsed Egalitarianism

Eclipsed Egalitarian views suggest that Jesus and the early Christian movement were radically egalitarian in outlook and practise, but that this egalitarianism was eclipsed by the re-emergence of patriarchy over the course of the first 100 or so years of the church.

Scholars holding to this approach distinguish between the earlier and later parts of the New Testament. The Gospels represent both early traditions and traditions that were later modified or added. Careful reading will distinguish between the earlier and later. The earlier traditions show us a community that was radically egalitarian. Women and men participated together on an equal footing and Christ could be pictured in both masculine (eg Son of God) and feminine (Sophia – divine woman “Wisdom”) ways.

As time passed, these radically egalitarian traditions were eclipsed by those emphasising maleness and reinforcing patriarchy. This is thought to be most obvious in the writings attributed to the apostle Paul. These are divided by Eclipsed Egalitarians into those actually written by Paul (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians) and those written by Paul’s followers in his name (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus).

Paul’s writings reveal a highly egalitarian outlook. Women featured prominently in his ministry team and churches (see references in Romans 16 and descriptions of women who led found earlier in this paper) and Paul advocated a gospel in which gender discrimination was to be eliminated (Galatians 3.26-28).

The growing Christian movement was unable to cope with this radical egalitarianism. As expectation of Christ’s immediate return faded the church settled down into building a long term presence in the world. In the process patriarchalism re-emerged in both church and home. This is evidenced in the letters written by Paul’s followers in his name. Ephesians, Colossians, Titus and 1 Timothy call women to submit to their husbands as the “heads” of their household. 1 Timothy and Titus also restrict women’s participation in the leading and teaching ministry of the church, and seek to justify it on the basis of sexist interpretations of the creation stories. Similarly, later Christians inserted 1 Corinthians 11.3-16 and 1 Corinthians 14.34-35 into the genuinely Pauline 1 Corinthians.

There are of course differences in interpretation among those with eclipsed egalitarian views. Some suggest the re-emergence of patriarchy began with Paul, others that it occurred after Paul. Then there are the other New Testament letters to consider (1 & 2 Peter, 1-3 John, Hebrews, James, Revelation). These are handled differently by different interpreters. However while the details may not always be clear the overall picture remains constant: the radical egalitarianism of Christ is eroded away until it is eclipsed by the re-emergence of a theologically justified patriarchalism.

For those holding this view the task of the church is to recover the radical egalitarian traditions and to champion the cause of women in church and society.

Examples: E Fiorenza, In Memory of Her. A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (SCM, 1983); W. Meeks, “The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity HR (1974) 13:165-208; G. Trompf, “On Attitudes Towards Women in Paul and Paulinist literature: 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 and It’s Context” Catholic Biblical Quarterly (1980) 42:196-215; W Alker, “The Theology of Women’s Place and The Paulinist Tradition”, Semeia Journal (1983) 28:101-112

 

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