It’s not often that the statements of church leaders are considered even remotely newsworthy in Australia, where the general attitude to religion varies mostly from indifference to contempt. Sydney Anglicans have made a habit of making the news in the past 12 months for issues relating to gender roles – a series of news stories in 2015 highlighted the relationship between the teachings on marriage in the Sydney diocese and domestic violence. Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, has made headlines this weekend for his statements to students in leadership roles in church schools. He claimed that men are the “heads” of women, that women have equal worth but different roles to men, and men will make decisions because of their higher status and greater power, and cited the Bible as his authority for these beliefs.
It is worth noting that while almost all other dioceses of the Anglican church around Australia have a gentler theology of gender, and ordain women as priests and bishops, Sydney holds a very hard line based on the “complementarian” point of view. Hierarchical complementarians maintain that men and women are equal in worth and yet have different “roles” in life, in which men have the leading role and women hold the subordinate position, in both cases, without regard for the giftedness of those concerned. It is important to understand that hierarchical complementarians are in no way reflective of all Christians, and there are very good reasons for saying that this view is not reflective of the teachings of the Bible.
Students who heard Archbishop Davies’ comments are reported as being hurt and angry. Several principals of Sydney Anglican schools have made comments against the Archbishop’s statements, saying they are opposed to so much of what they aim to teach boys and girls in their schools. I am grateful that the principals are speaking up. But unless these students receive sound teaching about what the Bible actually does say about gender, they are still going to be walking away from this convinced that God is no respecter of women. I say the opposite is true, and I hope that this message will reach students whose faith is shaken by the Archbishop’s statements. I am going to attempt to wrap up a very complex issue in a brief post. Don’t just take my word for this though – research it for yourself and discover that God is not the misogynist you have been imagining Him to be. Christians for Biblical Equality, Newlife (an Australian site) and The Junia Project are three great places to start.
In the meantime, here are 4 biblical reasons why the Archbishop’s views should be challenged.
- Men and women were created equal, period. In Genesis 1:26-30, the author goes to great lengths to try to make it clear to the reader that men and women were created equal. In the Ancient Near East, it was a common view that women were made of some inferior substance. Some creation stories even depict the creation of woman as a cruel trick perpetrated on man by the gods. Genesis 1 depicts men and women as equally God’s creation – equal in worth, dignity and authority.
The repetition in v.27, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,” employs a common Hebrew poetic device. When a poet wanted to make sure the audience really grasped the most important points, he or she would repeat the same concept with slightly different words – it’s unusual for a poet to repeat the information twice, so this poet is really trying to draw your attention to this equality in creation between male and female. Consider it the poet’s equivalent of jumping up and down, waving a big, bright flag.
Note also that this passage gives men and women the role of stewardship of God’s creation, together. Why is Genesis 1 so important? Because it introduces men and women in their perfect state, in a world unmarred by sin. Unlike events later, we can be quite sure that it represents how things ought to be, rather than reflecting the myriad of ways humans can stuff it up.
- Roles? What roles? This “equal worth, different roles” doctrine is getting pretty tired. None of us would believe there was any consistency or logic if we said, “Black people are of equal worth to white people, but we have different roles – our higher status and greater power mean we white people should always be in leadership over those black people, and they should play a supporting role.” We would rightly point out that this kind of “equality” is the polar opposite of true equality. Why do so many people swallow this blatant inconsistency when it applies to gender?
Clearly, women can bear children and men cannot. The only immutable gender role I can discern is this simple matter of biology.
To try to draw any further permanent gender roles from the biblical text is disingenuous. First, we have the equal commission of man and woman in Genesis 1. Then Genesis 2 shows the creation of woman as a strong and equal rescuer (not a subordinate helper) for the man in his aloneness. Throughout the Old Testament, despite the background of a patriarchal society, we see God working through men and women, upsetting society’s notions of what is important and appropriate. Any roles we see seem to be a result of societal norms of the time, rather than a representation of God’s agenda, which so often overthrows those norms:
- God’s approval is on Jacob – a gentler man who seems to prefer the domestic scene, including cooking – rather than on his elder twin, Esau, whose skilfulness in hunting marks him as a better fit for the role of a “manly man.” (Genesis 25)
- Deborah is one of the greatest judges of Israel. The judges were political and military leaders raised up by God to rescue Israel and help bring peace. Alone among the judges, Deborah was counted also as a prophet. Her victory brought 40 years of peace, and her triumphal song is one of a number of instances where the words of a woman become Scripture. (Judges 4, 5)
- When one of the Books of the Law (believed by many to be the biblical book of Deuteronomy) was found in the temple, the king and high priest wanted authentication of the book and confirmation of its interpretation. For this, they consulted Huldah, a significant female prophet of the time. This was despite the fact that she was a contemporary of four of the major and minor prophets. Huldah’s authoritative message was accepted by the priest and king, resulting in one of the greatest times of religious revival in Israel’s history. (2 Kings 22, 2 Chronicles 34)
There are many other examples, but you get the gist. Despite the patriarchal cultural context, God used both men and women to accomplish His purposes, and gives no hint of restricting either gender to any particular role.
- “Head” does not mean what you think it means. Like all complementarians, Archbishop Davies throws around the notion of “male headship” to explain that men should be the leaders. And he is wrong. He gets this idea from Ephesians 5:23, “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” You’re thinking, “Well, that looks to me like it says men are in control of their wives…seems pretty conclusive.”
Here’s the problem: when we read a figurative use of “head,” we usually interpret it to mean “leader/boss/person in authority,” because that’s the most common figurative usage in English. Why is this a problem? Simply because “leader,” or any of its synonyms, is not a figurative use of “kephale” (head) in the Greek of the New Testament era.
The church leaders of the first few centuries knew it too. John Chrysostom (Bishop of Constantinople, who lived from A.D. 347 to 407) declared that anyone who considered “head” in this instance to mean superior power or authority was a heretic. Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria (lived from A.D. 376 to 444) stated clearly, “Because head (kephalē) means source (archē)…man is the head (kephalē) of the woman, for she was taken out of him.” When Paul said men were the “heads” of women, he didn’t mean their leaders – he was correcting a common misunderstanding of Genesis 2 at that time by explaining that the first woman was taken out of the first man (her source), not vice versa.
Paul instead taught mutual submission – husbands and wives voluntarily yielding to one another in love (Eph 5:21, 1 Cor 7:3-4). One-way submission is antithetical to Pauline theology.
- The New Covenant of Jesus frees and empowers women to serve and lead. Jesus treated women as disciples, inviting Martha and Mary to sit at his feet in the proper role of a (male) student learning from a rabbi (Luke 10). The most explicit statement from Jesus that He is the Messiah was made to the Samaritan woman of John 4, resulting in her leading many in her village to believe in Jesus as the Messiah.
On the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon those who believed, Peter (who would later come to be considered by Catholics as the first Pope) made it clear that one of the key features of this New Covenant life would be that men and women would share in religious leadership (Acts 2).
The ranks of Paul’s ministry colleagues were filled with women, whom he acknowledged and affirmed as his co-workers, in such roles as deacon and apostle. The statement of Paul in 1 Timothy 2 which appears to prevent women from leading and teaching in the church is a temporary prohibition, possibly limited to one particular woman, aimed at correcting a particular false teaching in the Ephesian church.
In a statement sometimes referred to as the “Magna Carta of humanity,” Paul stated, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Bishop Davies’ view is a common one among evangelical Christians. It does not represent all evangelicals, and is absolutely not representative of all Christians. More importantly, it is not representative of the true message of the Bible. Women and men are not “equal but different” in God’s eyes – just equal. Equal and beloved. Equal and commissioned by God to lead and serve. Equal in marriage, society and the church.
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 While I am not an Anglican, I have personally met more women priests and bishops in the Perth diocese than male ones. Women priests are widely accepted in the Perth diocese.
 At least one other diocese, North West Diocese in WA, also holds a strong complementarian position.
 Paul – the author of Ephesians – is clearly not speaking literally, which would be to say that the wife wears her husband’s face and skull on top of her neck!