Is theology still possible in a postmodern age of deconstruction?

I received an email asking for a paper written several years ago. It was good to think of it again and I have posted it here for those of you who might be interested. Enjoy.


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Women in the Church: Difficult New Testament Texts (1 Peter 3:1-7)

Women in the Church: Why I am an Egalitarian

Part 9: Difficult New Testament Texts: 1 Peter 3:1-7

Hands folded in prayer

Todays post is the second of three addressing key New Testament texts often cited to restrict or prohibit women from certain ministries in the church, such as teaching, preaching, and leadership. To see earlier posts in this series, click here.

Here in the book of 1 Peter (3:1-7) is another text that is sometimes used to support a complementarian position. The passage does not speak directly about women in ministry or leadership, but some folks do apply its instructions concerning wives and husbands more broadly to women and men in the church.

1 Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3 Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 4 Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 5 For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, 6 like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.

Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

As with last week’s text (1 Tim 2:8-15), a surface level reading of this passage could be used to support a complementarian understanding of marriage (i.e., a God-ordained hierarchy of husbands over wives). Verse 1 plainly tells wives to submit to their husbands and verses 5-6 appeal to an Old Testament example (Sarah submitting to Abraham) to demonstrate the point. Husbands are then told to be considerate to their wives and to treat them with respect.

But let us look beneath and beyond the surface. To keep this post relatively brief, I won’t go into all the questions and details (there are many), but I will sketch a quick egalitarian response.

As always, and all would agree here, it’s important to note the context of these instructions. Right at the beginning, Peter (or his scribe) writes “Wives, in the same way . . .” This is a clue that we need to look at the previous chapter in order to discern the primary theme or issue this passage is addressing. When we do that, we notice a few things.

First, in the passage that immediately precedes this one (2:18-25), Peter gives similar instructions to slaves, telling them to submit to their masters as an expression of their reverent fear of God (v. 18). We’ll get back to that shortly. Going back a little further, he tells his readers more generally to “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority . . .” (see 2:13-17). And then, finally, we can trace the entire section—from wives and husbands to slaves to citizens under human authorities—all the way back to 2:11-12: “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” We see here in 2:11-12, from which everything else follows, that Peter’s primary purpose is to motivate his readers to live admirable lives amongst the pagans, so as to bear effective witness to Jesus and the gospel with their “good deeds” in the presence of non-believers. He then gives specific, concrete instructions, spelling out how to apply this principle contextually, including within ancient Greco-Roman social institutions such as slavery and the household codes. So the point of Peter’s instructions, the key principle, is for his readers to live as admirable and respectable Christian witnesses within the social conventions and institutions of their everyday lives. The specific instructions he gives to slaves, wives, and husbands are more direct ways to apply this principle contextually. Peter’s instructions to wives, accordingly, have to do with honouring their husbands so that, if their husbands are not Christians, they can win them over to Christ (3:1-2).

A second point to notice is that there are similarities and parallels shared by the instructions Peter gives in chapters 2 and 3. In 2:13, he tells his readers to submit to human authorities “for the Lord’s sake”; in 2:18 he tells slaves to submit to their masters “in reverent fear of God”; and in 3:1 he tells wives “in the same way” to submit to their husbands. Peter is not concerned primarily with the human institutions and conventions he mentions. He is not writing a set of treatises on marriage, slavery, politics, etc. He is not writing a “how to have a good marriage” self-help book for Christian couples. His primary goal is to exhort Christian believers to fear, honour, and represent God faithfully and winsomely in whatever human institutions and conventions they find themselves in, especially amongst non-believers to whom they are to bear witness with their lives. Peter does not instruct his readers to challenge oppressive social structures directly (other biblical texts may do so), but to be salt, light, and leaven within their sinful culture and its fallen structures. In other words, Peter is in essence saying, “Follow God . . . Be His servants/slaves, aiming to bring glory and honour to His name and reputation amongst the pagans!” And a major theme of the letter is that such lives of selfless discipleship and bearing witness will necessarily involve suffering and self-sacrifice, just as it did for the Lord Jesus (e.g., 2:21-25). “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (2:21).

Third, it is important to see that Peter treats three sub-topics (citizens submitting to government, slaves submitting to masters, wives submitting to husbands) together, and in pretty much the same way without distinguishing which instructions are timeless and universal and which are temporary and contextual. This is an important point, because those viewing the text from a complementarian perspective want to treat the patriarchal male-female social conventions in chapter 3 as timeless and universal and yet very few today (none that I know of) treat slavery the same way. But if Peter is here writing about universal, timeless, God-ordained institutions and social conventions, why would his instructions concerning slavery no longer be valid? Structurally, the arguments he makes are quite similar. In both cases (wives-husbands, slaves-masters), Peter appeals to his readers’ reverence for God, tells one group to submit to the other, and then backs up his argument with an appeal to a scriptural example (Sarah as the example to wives; Jesus as the example to slaves). Here’s what I suggest: Peter is not teaching that any of these customs and institutions are timeless and universal. He simply assumes that they exist and he tells his readers how to live Christianly within them. He does not have in mind a time and place where such conventions are very different (he was not and could not envision 21st century North America). What is timeless and universal about his instructions is the principle he gives: that Christians are to live respectable and winsome lives amongst non-Christians, in order to bear witness to Jesus and bring glory to God. His specific instructions to citizens, slaves, and wives, are time-bound, particular and concrete rules that apply the principle in context.

A final comment relating to my third observation. Christians are not called to be legalists. We are not called to follow rules for their own sake, without understanding why the rules exist or what they seek to serve. To understand why specific rules exist, we need to understand what principles they are intended to embody. Failure to understand the underlying principles often leads to failure in applying the rules correctly. In his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), Jesus addresses a number of rules that were no longer being followed according to the spirit in which they were originally given (the underlying principles). For example, he criticizes the religious teachers and tradition for turning the lex talionis (“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth”) – originally meant to restrict retaliation to just proportion (i.e., you must only take eye for eye, tooth for tooth, and no more!) – into a formula for enacting vengeance. By following the letter of the law while dislodging it from and ignoring its underlying principle, Jesus’ interlocutors were guilty of violating the spirit of the law. I suggest that we are in danger of doing the same thing concerning Peter’s instructions to wives and husbands. Instead of woodenly following the letter of the rule while ignoring the spirit, we need to ask: how can we faithfully live out and embody the principle Peter teaches in our 21st century Canadian (or American, or…) context? How ought Christians husbands and wives to relate to each other – in terms of power dynamics, sacrifice, service, self-giving, etc. – in such a way as to glorify God and bear witness to the transformative power of Christ and the gospel amongst their non-believing friends, neighbours, relative, and co-workers?

In my view, following this principle faithfully today requires a different outworking of the rules and social conventions. In today’s context, a marriage relationship that demonstrates mutuality, equality, respect for each other’s relative strengths and weaknesses, gifts and shortcomings, desires and dislikes, and so forth – all in reverence for and in mutual submission to Christ as Lord – bears witness to Christ and his gospel most effectively and glorifies God most fully.

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Why I’m an Egalitarian #8: Reading 1 Tim 2:8-15

Women in the Church: Why I am an Egalitarian

Part 8: Reading 1 Timothy 2:8-15women worshipping

 Today’s post is the first of three that will address key New Testament texts often cited by complementarians to restrict or prohibit women from certain ministries in the church, such as teaching, preaching, and leadership. To see earlier posts in this series, click here.

Perhaps the most frequently cited text used to restrict or prohibit women from ministry and leadership in the church is 1 Timothy 2:8-15. It reads as follows:

8 Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

A surface-level reading suggests that women in general ought to dress modestly, learn in quietness and full submission, and refrain from teaching and assuming authority over men. The “reason” given is that Adam was formed first, while Eve was formed second and was deceived . . . but (seeming jump in reasoning here) women will be saved through childbearing if they continue in faithfulness. On the basis of this, it is easy to see why complementarians believe that women should not be placed in positions of authority over men or participate in activities that assume such authority (e.g., teaching, leading).

There are several problems and/or questions that arise immediately with such a surface-level reading. Briefly listed, some of these include:

First, such a reading does not account for the context of the passage. Notice that the passage begins with the word ‘therefore.’ I remember hearing somewhere that when we see a ‘therefore’ we need to ask ourselves “what is it there for?” In other words, the context within which this instruction arises is given in what comes before. What comes before? Going back to 1:3-7 and 1:18-19, we see that Paul has given Timothy a command to root out false teachers that are causing problems in the church. We don’t know much about these false teachings, other than that they involved “myths and genealogies” likely imported from local pagan religions.

Second, a surface-level reading that simply takes the text at face value without probing deeper theologically runs into problems in verses 14-15. Paul here blames the woman for being deceived, whereas elsewhere he blames Adam without even mentioning Eve (Romans 5). This is not a contradiction, as both Adam and Eve were at fault, but it points to the contextual nature of Paul’s instructions and shows that he appeals to the creation texts somewhat pragmatically in order to guide his congregation pastorally. Another theological problem with a surface reading of the text is how to account for the comments about childbearing. Are not women saved by grace through faith, as Paul says all believers are in Eph. 2:8-10?

Third, there are logical problems with a surface level reading of this text. Paul tells women to learn in quietness and full submission in the worship service, thus refraining from teaching. Elsewhere he expects that women will prophecy during worship— yet prophecy is both vocal and includes a teaching component (see 1 Cor. 11:5; 14:1-18). How can a woman prophecy, and so edify others publically, when she is also expected to remain quiet? This indicates that Paul’s instructions are not universal and absolute, but contextual and time-bound. An additional logical problem is that Paul seems to blame Eve, who was deceived, more than Adam who was not deceived but evidently disobeyed with full knowledge of what he was doing. Why is it worse to be deceived than to disobey blatantly? Are mistaken teachers worse than corrupt ones? Again, something is going on here, beneath the surface of the text, that Paul is doing when he draws on the creation account in Genesis. Finally, is Paul here suggesting that women in general are more naïve, more easily deceived, than men? I hope not. That’s a testable hypothesis and one, it seems to me, that does not fit evidence and experience. (My guess is that women, in general, score at least as high if not higher in emotional intelligence than men). Women are not inherently more easily deceived.

Truly, 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is a troubling and confusing text on a number of levels. In saying this, I am by no means suggesting that it is less inspired or less authoritative for Christians than any other biblical text. I’m simply suggesting that understanding its meaning and significance takes some work. And, given the interpretive and exegetical issues involved, one must remain humble about one’s views about this text. I’ll push a little further: one should probably not make this text the foundation of one’s theology of women in relation to ministry. Rather, it makes sense to interpret difficult texts, such as this one, in light of clearer texts, individual parts in light of clear patterns, developments, insights, and teachings that we observe from reading the entire Bible (I’ve sketched some of these in previous posts).

Here’s what I suggest is going on beneath the surface of 1 Timothy 2:8-15, and here I am drawing on the work of biblical scholars such as Ben Witherington III and Cynthia Long Westfall.1

Paul is not here writing a general, universal treatise on women in the church. Rather, he is giving particular, context-based instructions to the women in Ephesus (the location of Timothy’s church) in order to address a larger issue (or set of issues). That larger issue is his main concern and purpose for writing. The immediate context for Paul’s instructions involves two important details: (1) the presence of false teaching (and false teachers) in the church, leading to (2) problems arising in the church’s worship gathering leading to division and other harmful consequences. Both men and women are contributing to the problem (see v. 8, where Paul instructs men to pray without anger or disputing), but there seems to be something especially problematic about the behaviour of the women, given the space allotted to Paul’s instructions concerning them.

Ben Witherington makes several helpful observations about Paul’s instructions to women in this text:

  1. Paul says nothing here about women simply being subordinate to men in a general sense. Witherington writes, “What vs. 11 speaks about is learning quietly and so being in submission to the teaching and what is being required of the listener” (emphasis added). The main problem is the false teaching, not the gender of the person doing the teaching. It is very likely that there were women in the Ephesian church who were voicing false teachings. They are being instructed to be quiet and listen to the authoritative teaching of the church and its gospel.
  2. The women Paul is addressing are likely high-status Gentile women who have recently become Christians and members of the Ephesian church. Notice that verses 9-10, concerning modest dress for women, assume that these women have the means to adorn themselves with “elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” Some of these high profile and wealthy women may have formerly been priestesses and/or prophetesses in their former pagan religion. At least some were educated and had skills in rhetoric. Given their background, they may have assumed that they should naturally take leadership and teaching roles within the church, without having first been adequately trained biblically/theologically, mentored/discipled, and spiritually formed through Christian worship and spiritual disciplines in the context of the Christian community. We still encounter this kind of problem today, though it surfaces in different ways. A CEO of a large corporation becomes a Christian and assumes his business skills and experience are adequate to qualify him for leadership in the Church. A high school English teacher thinks that his evident teaching skills automatically qualify him for the ministry of preaching. The point is that entering into teaching and leadership ministries in the church requires prior preparation through biblical and theological instruction, mentoring/discipling, and immersion in Christian practices and community. The women in Ephesus were being banned from teaching and leadership not because they were women, but because they were not ready, not adequately trained for the job. And given their status (used to being people of influence) and values (it is important to be rich and to appear affluent), it seems that they lacked both knowledge of the Christian faith and the humility and self-awareness to recognize their lack. Many of these high-status women probably had male slaves/servants who were now worshipping with them in the Christian church (see Westfall, p. 172). The kind of ‘authority’ they were used to exercising over them was no longer fitting in the context of Christian worship and community (again, Westfall).
  3. Witherington suggests that the identity of these women (as outlined in point 2) helps us make sense of Paul’s application of the creation texts. He argues that the reference to Eve being ‘deceived’ makes sense in a context in which those without adequate training, and who were in fact deceived by non-Christian teachings, were asserting their authority to teach others. Paul alludes to the story of the Fall in Genesis 3, perhaps somewhat pragmatically, in order to press the point that when one who is deceived (as Eve was by the serpent) leads and teaches others, big problems result. Witherington also points to the rabbinic tradition. Some early Jewish commentators noticed that God’s initial instructions not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are given first to Adam (and directly to him only), as Eve had not been created yet (see Gen. 2:16-17). The rabbis reasoned that Eve was vulnerable to deception by the serpent because Adam had not instructed her well enough concerning the ban. Gen. 3:2-3 might lend support to this theory, because it records Eve misquoting the original ban when speaking to the serpent. So, in light of this, Witherington suggests that Paul’s point in citing the Fall story is that people who are not adequately trained and taught should not be put in a position to lead and teach others. The women in Ephesus, therefore, whom Paul bans from teaching are not banned because they are women, but because they are deceived by false thinking due to their lack of Christian education and training.
  4. Witherington points out that Paul does not say “I never permit” a woman to teach or have authority over a man (though many complementarians seem to read the passage this way); he simply says “I am not permitting.” (Witherington is here making an argument based on the tense and force of the Greek verb translated ‘permit’.) Thus, the Greek construction of the text suggests a temporary and contextual ban, not a permanent and universal one.
  5. The word that Paul uses in this passage for ‘authority’ is an unusual word. In fact, it’s the only time the New Testament uses this particular word (athentein). When Scripture speaks of having or exercising authority, it characteristically uses other commonly used Greek words. Many translations of the passage have given a neutral sense to the term, for example they render it “have authority” or “assume authority.” However, recent research has shown, through thorough and detailed analysis of the term as it occurs in its various contexts in ancient literature, that it often carries a negative tone, judgement, or connotation (especially when one person is performing this action toward another).2 In light of this, combined with point 4, the first part of verse 12 should probably be translated loosely as follows: “I do not (presently) permit a woman to teach or exercise her authority inappropriately over a man”. Interestingly, the situation in Ephesus looks like an inverted manifestation of the curse in Genesis 3: “your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you.” In our fallenness, we have a propensity to attempt to use and control one another. Cultural power dynamics often determine who the winner of that contest will be (often men, but in the case of ancient Ephesus, women). But Christians should be different. Both men and women are called to submit themselves to Christ and his gospel, and to one another in mutual service under Christ.

In conclusion, this passage is not a general ban prohibiting women from teaching and having authority in the church. Paul is writing a letter to a particular congregation, in a particular place (Ephesus), at a particular time (the ancient world), and for a particular set of reasons (to address false teachings and harmful, worldly power dynamics taking place in the church).


1 Ben Witherington III, “Literal Renderings of Texts of Contention – 1 Tim. 2.8-15,” online:; Cynthia Long Westfall, “The Meaning of αὐθεντέω in 1 Timothy 2.12,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 10 (2014): 138-73; available online: See also Craig S. Keener, “Was Paul For or Against Women in Ministry?”; available online:

2 Westfall writes, “On the basis of the patterns associated with the word in the register of church leadership and office in this sample of occurrences, this verb should not be used to exclude women from appointment or election to any aspect of church ministry or leadership, because that class of action is never in view in the occurrences of the word. The use of the gloss ‘to exercise authority’ in 1 Tim. 2.15 either misrepresents or overextends the meaning of αὐθεντέω beyond what has been found in the register of church leadership or in comparable grammatical constructions. If this passage is, in fact, in the context of Christian worship, this prohibition could command a woman not to ‘abuse’ a man in some way in either speech or action in the course of a worship service. The prevention of abuse is far more likely than a general neutral prohibition of ‘having the authority’ of a master or ‘assuming authority’. It is likely that a woman, particularly a wealthy widow, would be present in an Ephesian house church with at least one male, who might be a slave if she was not accompanied by a husband or male family member. Furthermore, the worship services were most likely held in the largest homes available, and women who owned such homes (such as Lydia) would be the masters of male slaves who would be under their direction in serving the agape meal—and this would even be the case with women in their husband’s homes, because men were not involved in the overseeing of this kind of domestic arrangement.” (“Meaning of αὐθεντέω,” p. 172).


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Egalitarianism Series – continued


New Post Coming!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a blog entry.

Well I’m back at it and I’m finally getting around to concluding my series on why I am an egalitarian.

Over the next three weeks, on Tuesday mornings, I’ll be posting three final contributions. These will address some key texts that have traditionally been used to support the complementarian or patriarchal position (1 Tim. 2:8-15, Eph. 5:21-33, and 1 Pet. 3:1-7). I think an egalitarian interpretive framework makes better sense of these texts. I will spell out, briefly, what I as an egalitarian make of Paul’s and Peter’s instructions.

Check out the first of these three posts next Tuesday, Sept. 22!

As a refresher, or an introduction if you are new to this discussion, click this link to view my previous posts in this series.

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The Cross and the Mission of God

The Cross and the Mission of God

he_qi_crucifixionFor the next four Wednesday evenings I’ll be teaching a class at Faith Covenant Church in Winnipeg entitled The Cross and the Mission of God.

Why did Jesus die, what did his death achieve, and how is this good news for all people?

In this 4-evening teaching series we will explore these questions by looking at various dimensions of the atonement (Christ’s dying for us) in Scripture. The Bible does not give us a single view of the significance of Christ’s death, but unveils a rich mosaic of images and metaphors that powerfully depict the relevance of the cross for us.

Through this study, we will seek to grow in our understanding of the cross so that we can love and worship God more deeply and share the wonder, beauty, and relevance of the cross with our friends and neighbours in a variety of practical ways.


  1. Introduction: The Atonement as Good News for Us and for the World
    Christ’s atonement cleanses and heals us
  2. Christ’s atonement restores our relationships with God and each other
  3. Christ’s atonement saves us from slavery to sin and evil forces
  4. Christ’s atonement removes our guilt and sets us free to love and serve God

* Painting: Crucifixion by He Qi

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Integrating Faith and Science: Some Reflections on Psalm 19

Prov Series 2015Last night I gave a public lecture in Steinbach entitled “Is Christian Faith Obsolete in a Scientific Age?” I will be giving the lecture again this Saturday evening in Winnipeg at McNally Robinson Bookstore and the following Saturday evening in Winkler.

As part of that lecture I offered some reflections, based on Psalm 19, on how Christians might begin to approach the integration of faith and science in a way that honours the integrity and respect the limits of both.

Below is a link to a sermon I preached recently entitled “God’s Two Books,” in which I provide a more detailed exposition of Psalm 19 with the faith and science dialogue in mind.

Click here to listen to my sermon, God’s Two Books.

(I first preached this sermon at the Steinbach EMC Church on Main St.).

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Virtue and biblical interpretation

“But for searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their lives.”

– Athanasius

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8 Principles of Biblical Interpretation from Irenaeus

irenaeusThe following are 8 principles of biblical interpretation from St. Irenaeus of Lyons (second century AD). Which do you find most intriguing and/or helpful?

  1. The rule of truth (the conviction that God speaks through Scripture and the Spirit).
  2. Logical coherence and aesthetic fitness (requiring both analysis and imagination).
  3. Fulfillment of prophecy in Christ and recapitulation in and through Christ, who gathers and sums up all things under one head.
  4. Eschatology (a teleological awareness oriented toward the consummation of all things).
  5. Moving from what is certain to what is obscure (not the other way around).
  6. The moral integrity of the interpreter (which especially includes epistemic humility).
  7. An awareness of historical context (to the best of one’s ability).
  8. Grammar matters for interpretation.

Irenaeus faults his Gnostic interlocutors for breaking every one of these principles.

Source: Eric Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

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‘Egalitarian’ and ‘Complementarian’: Clarifying Terms

Before continuing with my series on why I am an egalitarian, let me pause briefly to clarify terms. Terminology is tricky. Terms are useful, in fact necessary; but they can also be misleading.

The terms ‘egalitarian’ and ‘complementarian’ are no exception. Potentially useful, but also potentially misleading. For example, most evangelical egalitarians affirm the notion of gender complementarity and most evangelical complementarians affirm the equality of all human beings in terms of their basic dignity as creatures made in God’s image. Egalitarians do not seek to erase all gender differences. And the complementarians I know do not wish to endorse gender discrimination, authoritarianism, or abusive forms of patriarchy.

Having said that, there are important differences of opinion between egalitarians and complementarians concerning the meaning and practical outworking of gender equality in the home and in the church.

So what do I mean when I compare these positions?

When I speak of the complementarian position I am talking primarily about the view that certain ministry positions and activities in the church are inappropriate for women and should be restricted to men. In particular, I am referring to the belief that women should not hold positions of authority over men or lead activities that imply such authority (e.g., many would include preaching in this category). Complementarians differ over what roles and activities should properly be deemed authoritative in this sense, but what they hold in common is a basic conviction that the male-female relationship is hierarchical in nature by God’s design. Thus, husbands have authority over their wives and men should occupy key positions of leadership in the church (note: most complementarians do not believe that men in general have authority over women in general in a collective sense). John Piper is a good representative of the typical complementarian position. He asserts that male authority and female submission are of the essence of “what true manhood and womanhood are” (John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood [Wheaton: Crossway, 1991], p. 34). Complementarians are quick to assert that they do not regard women to be of lesser value or dignity than men; rather, they believe that God designed women to be subordinate to men with respect to certain roles and functions. (I am not convinced this distinction holds up philosophically, but that’s another conversation).

In contrast to this view, I believe that women should be welcomed and encouraged to serve in positions of church leadership and authority, and that giftedness and not gender should determine any person’s qualification to serve. That is what I mean by ‘egalitarian’.

This does not imply that I believe in abolishing all gender differences. It simply means that I do not regard gender, or gender differences, to be a relevant factor when assessing a person’s qualifications for and calling to ministry and leadership in the church (unless, of course, gender is intrinsically related to a particular kind of ministry, for example one might require a women to lead a women’s ministry or a man to lead a men’s group).

To further clarify my meaning: I like the subtitle of the book Discovering Biblical Equality, which is Complementarity Without Hierarchy. Actually, I would qualify that subtitle even more and say that I affirm complementarity without arbitrary hierarchy. Hierarchy itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It becomes a bad thing when it is imposed arbitrarily and uni-directionally (i.e., always in one direction, male over female). Authority itself, it seems to me, makes sense when it is based on things like competency, expertise, maturity, wisdom, experience, character, spiritual giftedness, and so on. It doesn’t make sense to me as an arbitrary characteristic attributed to one gender alone.

A couple of personal examples. In the context of my own marriage, my wife and I share authority. Each of us takes primary responsibility over things that fit our relative strengths and weaknesses, interests and non-interests (and even this is not absolute; sometimes we swap responsibilities just to give each other a break). We don’t assign responsibility based on arbitrary, abstract gender roles regardless of personal fit or ability. As another example, one of my good female friends is a chartered accountant who also holds a PhD in tax policy. Would it make sense to assign financial authority to her husband simply because he is male? That strikes me as arbitrary and irrational.

The examples I just cited are in the context of the marriage relationship between husbands and wives. What about the church? What do I mean by arbitrary gender hierarchy in that context?

To illustrate, consider these words written by “RJS”, a scientist and contributor to Scot McKnight’s blog (Jesus Creed):

“My general experience … I can speak to large audiences, organize seminar courses, design  curricula, chair committees including search committees, hire, fire, write scholarly articles, conduct research, write proposals, supervise and mentor graduate students, be responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds, serve on major University-wide committees, hold leadership positions in professional organizations, be one of the 2-5% of Christian faculty, Monday-Saturday … but none of this matters at church.” (RJS wrote this as a comment to this post)

Indeed. When considering the giftedness of women like RJS, it just seems so arbitrary and unjust to prevent them from serving in significant roles of leadership within the church.

As another example, one of my friends is a gifted musician. She has a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance and a master’s degree in choral direction from McGill University. She’s also passionate about her faith in Jesus, a good critical thinker, a very capable planner, and an articulate speaker. For a long time, she was involved in a church that allowed her to plan and arrange all of the music, select Scripture readings, guide the worship team in preparation and practice, and prepare the ‘liturgy’ of the church’s worship service. But she was not allowed to lead the worship service. Her husband was required to step into the leadership role in her place to be the mouthpiece while she served in the background. Again, arbitrary!

Sometimes the New Testament, particularly Paul in some of his letters, places restrictions upon women—or at least upon certain women at certain churches. But I don’t think that these are arbitrary restrictions based on an abstract gender hierarchy. His reasons are contextual and have to do with particular problems he was observing in the churches. His instructions are pragmatic, practical solutions to concrete and specific problems that were threatening the unity of the church and the integrity of the gospel message. His concern is not gender differences or hierarchy as such. But we’ll get to that in future posts!

To sum up what I mean by complementarity without arbitrary hierarchy: the criteria we employ to assess a person’s qualifications for ministry and leadership within the church should be intrinsically related to the requirements of the position or task. Wisdom, character, maturity, experience, skill, giftedness, Christ-likeness, relational and leadership ability . . . these are the kinds of things that matter. And, if you read beneath the surface, these are exactly the kinds of things the NT requires of leaders in its lists of qualifications for elders and deacons. In contrast, a person’s gender is not intrinsically related to leadership and ministry positions and tasks (generally speaking). As a measure of fittedness for leadership and ministry it is an arbitrary and thus inappropriate criterion.

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Women in the Church: Why I am an Egalitarian (part 7)

Women in the Church: Why I am an Egalitarian

Part 7: Reading Scripture as an Egalitarian

Small-GroupIn future posts, I would like to start addressing how egalitarians read 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 (and, in particular, certain sections in Paul’s letters).

That’s where we’re headed in future weeks. But before that, I thought it would be helpful to include a summary statement of how I, as an egalitarian, understand the big-picture message of the Bible with respect to the equality of men and women. What follows are 10 points that offer a snapshot of this. These are not comprehensive arguments; that is not my intention here. Arguments for each of these points can be found in the books that I recommended in a previous post (click here for the link). This is just meant to be a quick summary of what I, as an egalitarian, understand to be the teaching of Scripture, interpreted in the light of tradition, reason, and experience of God.

  1. Genesis 1–2 teaches that men and women were created to be equal. Both were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–28) and were included in the vocational mandate given to all human beings 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. Thus, 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’ used in Gen. 2:18 – Hebrew ezer – is not a term of subordination or inferiority; most of the time in the OT 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 and that 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 that “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” Though somewhat cryptic, this passage seems to indicate that present gender roles are, at least to some extent, temporary. We are on a trajectory moving toward gender equality, a full reversal of the Fall in this regard. Therefore, there is an eschatological qualification on present gender roles (many of the gender roles we presently embrace are provisional).
  4. Spirit gifting is the primary criterion for ministry and leadership in the NT church (see post 2). 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 (see post 6). 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 (see post 5).
  6. There are many examples of women serving in ministry and leadership in the Bible (see post 3 and post 4). Women were even instrumental in writing the Bible. Think about that for a second: yhey were not just preaching it, but were instrumental in its production! (E.g., 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, such as Exod. 15:21; Judges 5:2-31; 1 Sam. 2:1-10; 25:24-31; Luke 1:25).* 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 (who sits at his feet as a disciple sits before a rabbi), and the prominence given to women in the gospel accounts (e.g., 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; women were the first witnesses of the resurrection; etc.).
  8. Paul’s treatment of women was radically subversive of his culture’s patriarchy. This is not obvious to the casual reader, but to one who reads his letters in context and knows about the ancient world it is quick shocking! More on this to come in future posts.
  9. With respect to husbands and wives, the NT teaches mutual submission 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’, the husband is to offer himself to his wife in self-giving love and service within this relationship of mutual submission (Eph. 5:21–33; Coo. 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 in how that gospel and salvation are lived out.

Note: Points 1, 2, and 9 draw on the CBE’s document “Men, Women, and Biblical Equality,” which is posted at:

* See Philip B. Payne, “Examining Twelve Biblical Pillars of Male Hierarchy,” p. 5, published online by the CBE here.

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