Q: Bronwen, when I try to explain my egalitarian views to my Christian friends, some of them say we are just turning clear and simple biblical texts into something unnecessarily convoluted. Is there any truth to this, and how do I respond to this objection to my views on the equality of men and women in the Bible?
A:It’s important to recognise when we receive these sorts of questions, that there is an underlying belief that we are being asked to counter – it’s not just a question of whether egalitarianism is wrong, but a statement that “of course complementarianism must be right, because we don’t have convoluted arguments – we just use the clear meaning of the text.” So there is an underlying challenge here to the legitimacy of egalitarianism itself.
Defining Complementarian and Egalitarian
Before we get started, let’s just clarify what we mean by “complementarian” and “egalitarian”. Complementarians believe men and women are “equal but different.” What do they actually mean by this? Complementarians believe that men are created to lead and women to submit. Therefore the husband is the leader and final decision maker in marriage, and women may not hold authority in the church. They claim men and women are equal in worth/value, but not equal in function.
Egalitarians believe that the Bible, properly interpreted, supports the equality of men and women. Husbands and wives are equal in marriage, and women and men are equal partners in ministry, with no restriction on women’s use of the gifts given to them by the Holy Spirit. For egalitarians, men and women are equal in worth/value AND equal in function – and indeed, we would say that a permanent inequality in function is an indication of a difference in worth.
Complementarians claim that they uphold the traditional view of the Christian faith that has been handed down through the centuries. Egalitarians, on the other hand, they claim, just want to be like the culture. We – they say – have bought into all kinds of cultural lies at the expense of biblical truth. Let’s examine if this is true.
Top 5 Reasons Why Egalitarian Biblical Interpretations Aren’t “Convoluted”
Here are my top 5 responses to why egalitarian interpretations of the Bible are not making something convoluted from what is actually clear:
Reason 1: The New Testament can be difficult to understand at times
Some aspects of the Bible are easy to understand. But we can’t pretend all of it is! Sometimes, it’s easy to have a misunderstanding with a friend who is from your culture and shares your mother tongue. With the Bible, we are looking at a compendium of books whose most recent work is 2000 years old, written in other languages to cultures very different to our own – we shouldn’t be surprised that some of it is complex to understand.
Part of our job now is to try to understand the original context and then to work out what applies for all time and what is a local, cultural or personal issue. Not all of the Bible applies to us today – for example, in 2 Timothy 4:13, Paul asks Timothy to bring his cloak and some scrolls he left behind. We are not required to go to Paul with his belongings today! It’s not always that easy to fathom the difference between what is eternal and what is not. Some of the passages on women are among the hardest to accurately interpret. To look at these and just say, “Well, of course it’s clear and simple” is disingenuous. We must attempt to find consistent ways to understand Paul in particular. To use a simple example, if we see Paul saying, “women can’t lead and teach,” but then we see Paul consistently working alongside women leaders, we have a conundrum to solve! Pretending that the conundrum doesn’t exist is no way to go about it.
Reason 2: Complementarians try to do things with the text that aren’t possible
“Head” (kephalē) in Greek doesn’t have the figurative meaning of “authority,” “boss” or leader like in English. Complementarian theology relies strongly on insisting that it does mean authority. You can’t do that any more than you could randomly decide that “sausage roll” really means “pink tulip”!
The early church knew that head meant source (in the sense of “origin”). Several early church fathers say this very directly, including Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria (A.D. 376-444), who wrote: “Because head (kephalē) means source (archē)…man is the head (kephalē) of the woman, for she was taken out of him.”
No secular Greek lexicon has “authority” or “boss” as a meaning for the Greek word for head – only those who have already decided that these passages of the New Testament are about authority impose that meaning back onto the word.
It feels so much simpler for us to run on the assumption that “head” in Paul’s writing means “boss” just like in English so we can read it with a meaning that is natural to us. But it just isn’t a valid way to read the text. So do we want easy, or accurate and truthful?
Reason 3: Complementarians make some of the easier passages difficult!
Deborah was a prophetess, a judge, a military leader, and an author of a chapter of Scripture. Complementarian scholars tie themselves in knots trying to diminish her significance, using arguments like, “there were no available men,” despite the text making it clear that there were other male leaders around. Of course, if we say, “God was forced to use a woman because there were no available men,” what we are actually saying is, “God is too weak to bring about change in an individual to make them fit for His purposes,” despite the examples of how He changed men like Moses, Jonah and Saul/Paul. The egalitarian response – that Deborah is exactly who Scripture says she is and that she was God’s choice for that time and place – is the much simpler and clearer reading of Scripture.
Another classic example is the apostle Junia, who has been made into a man by some translations or not an apostle by others. But the Greek texts are clear and the historical understanding is clear – she was a woman apostle.
These are just two examples of some very clear texts made complicated by complementarian theology.
Reason 4: Egalitarians consistently apply sound hermeneutics
Hermeneutics is a fancy word for “how we interpret the Bible”. While hermeneutics is a complex subject, there are some basic rules, such as “don’t make a doctrine out of one or two verses,” or “interpret a verse in its context” or “interpret the unclear passages in light of the clear ones, not the other way around.”
Let’s consider 1 Timothy 2:8-15. Complementarians ask us to believe that men lifting up their hands when they pray, women not wearing gold or pearls and not braiding their hair are cultural matters (so we are not expected to do these things in our cultural context today), and that there is some degree of interpretation required to find the meaning of “saved through childbearing” because it clearly can’t mean “have a baby, go to heaven.” But when women are told not to teach or assume authority over a man, they say it is a clear command for all women in all time (even though they can’t decide how to apply it consistently).
Egalitarians seek to consistently apply the rules of hermeneutics in all of these verses – to look at how they sit in the book of 1 Timothy and in the overall Pauline theology, to uncover the cultural context to all parts of the verse, to recognise the factors which make these verses complex, and so on. In this way, we arrive at a more accurate understanding of the text.
Reason 5: Genesis 2 – an example of egalitarian clarity and complementarian obfuscation
Genesis 2 tells the story of the creation of male and female. Here are two examples of how complementarians and egalitarians treat this text:
(1) The naming of the animals:
Complementarians take this as evidence of man asserting his authority, demonstrating the male role of rulership. Naming as authority is not something we find in this text at all, and the evidence for it throughout the Old Testament is questionable. The text gives no indication that naming has a special purpose.
The egalitarian view follows the natural flow of the text. First, God says “it is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Then God helps Adam to recognise his aloneness and need for companionship by showing examples of creatures which will not fill the void for him and will not be his helper. To resolve the problem, God creates the woman who, because of her similarity to man, will provide the companionship those very different creatures could not.
Which is a clear and simple treatment of the text, and which is convoluted?
(2) “A helper suitable for him” – ezer kenegdo:
Egalitarians look at the use of the Hebrew word ezer (help or helper) across the Old Testament and discover that there is no instance where this word applies to a subordinate assistant. The word consistently refers to someone who uses their strength to support another person (in most cases, it’s God who is the helper). Then looking at kenegdo, we find that it means ‘face-to-face with’, ‘corresponding to’ or ‘equal to’, and we learn that although woman would be an ezer to man, it would be from an equal position, rather than a superior one. We then conclude that men and women are called to live in mutually supportive relationships, not hierarchy.
Complementarians acknowledge the meaning of ezer, but downplay it in regard to women, seem to ignore kenegdo and tell us this is proof that women are created to be submissive and men to be leaders, despite the text never saying this.
Which is a clear and simple treatment of the text, and which is convoluted?
I believe that the complementarian view of these passages starts with assumptions about authority and submission and then massages the text to try to fit it into those assumptions. The egalitarian view reads the text on its own merit!
Egalitarian scholars attempt to deal honestly and consistently with difficult passages of the Bible, and not shy away from the complexities. When something is genuinely challenging, I believe egalitarian scholars try to meet those difficulties head-on. A high view of Scripture inspires biblical egalitarians to dig deeply to understand what the text meant for its original audience and how we can apply it today.
This post was originally presented as a talk given for the Perth chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality on 2nd September 2017.
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