Mimi is president of Christians for Biblical Equality, a nonprofit organization of Christian men and women “who believe that the Bible, properly interpreted, teaches the fundamental equality of men and women of all ethnic groups, all economic classes, and all age groups.” She is a graduate of the University of Colorado and Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, and holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the University of Durham, England. Mimi has written more than one hundred articles and blogs and has contributed to nine books. In addition to all of this, she serves as an adjunct assistant professor at Bethel University and an adjunct professor at North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois. She and her husband, Dale, live in the Twin Cities.
Mimi did a fantastic job responding to your questions, and I’m thrilled that she covered a lot of ground that we haven’t been able to cover in our series. I really learned a lot
[I should probably note that while I identify myself as egalitarian, I do not necessarily agree with every position/theological rationale of the CBE. And the folks at CBE would probably want me to say that my views are not necessarily reflective of theirs]]
From Paula: Last week, Rachel hosted "ask a Christian Feminist." In your opinion is an egalitarian the same thing as feminist? If not, what are the points of departure and similarity? What scripture, theory, theology etc. frames an egalitarian point of view?
In her “Ask a Christian Feminist” column, Dianna Anderson suggests that a feminist (whether Christian or not) is an individual who believes that females are human beings and, because of this, they deserve the same respect and dignified treatment as males. In its most basic sense, feminism seeks justice for females. But how do we know what is just and why do we care? This is where the main difference lies. Like “Christian feminists,” “egalitarians” discern and embrace justice for females through the teachings of Scripture where they observe that:
Women and men are equally:
• Created in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:27).
• Share authority, dominion and agency in the world (Genesis 1:28).
• Responsible for and distorted by sin (Genesis 2:17, 3:11-19).
• Redeemed by Christ (John 3:16).
• Gifted by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17-18; Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 28; Ephesians 4:11-13).
• Responsible for using our God-given gifts (1 Corinthians 12:7, 2 Timothy 1:6-7).
Many of the first wave feminists were deeply biblical individuals whose advocacy for women and children was inseparable from their advocacy of the Gospel. I celebrated their legacy this year at Fuller Theological Seminary. This history alone shows that egalitarians are not bowing to secular culture but locating moral ideals in Scripture.
So, is an egalitarian the same thing as a feminist? Just as all squares are also rectangles, egalitarians are also feminists in that they seek justice and dignity for women. But, not every feminist is a Christian or an egalitarian. Egalitarians and Christian feminists both share a common denominator—that justice and equality for females is a biblical ideal that can and should be part of the moral teachings and practices of Christians. This was true for the first wave of feminists whose priorities fueled not only egalitarian theologyand the Golden Era of Missions, but also social projects like suffrage and abolition. To read more about this see Mutuality.
From Eric: Since your doctorate is in historical theology, I'd like to hear your take on the shape the debate about women in the church has taken throughout history. (The complementarian version is often "This began when liberals threw out God's word for modern feminism," but I'm guessing there's a lot more to it than that.) To what extent is this a church-universal struggle to handle certain Scripture texts faithfully, and to what extent is it just a theological repackaging of modern American culture wars? Also, who are some good examples of historical theologians or church movements who took a more "egalitarian" approach to gender in the church?
Throughout Christian history, the church has held three distinct views on gender. These include:
1. The Patriarchal Perspective: This view teaches that men and women are both created by God, but women are innately (ontologically) inferior and more prone to sin. Because of this, women are to submit to male authority. This perspective was the dominant view until the 1800s, when the early evangelicals challenged the devaluation of slaves and women based on ethnicity and gender—conditions that are fixed and unchangeable.
2. The Egalitarian View: It was the early evangelicals who first challenged gender and ethnic prejudice biblically. Embroiled in the struggle for abolition and suffrage, the early evangelicals opposed the idea that Eve, and therefore all women, are the source of sin and that God punishes women because of Eve. It is not gender, they argued, but our rebirth in Christ that determines our identity, character and therefore our sphere of service. Christian rebirth—publically declared through baptism (which replaced circumcision)—was open to all people, regardless of ethnicity, class or gender (especially women, who could never be circumcised).
The early evangelicals, like Katharine Bushnell, understood that for too long the church associated women with Eve’s sin and men with Christ’s victories over sin—a view that wreaks havoc on the Christian view of sanctification. Evangelicals likeCatherine Booth, A.J. Gordon and Fredrik Franson were at the forefront of correcting these theological inconsistencies as it concerned gender. Today’s egalitarians have taken up the same theological project—exploring how Christ’s new creation leads to a new tradition in the church. To read more about this history see my articles in Priscilla Papers and my recent series on Is God Male?
3. The Complementarian Perspective: In response to loosened morals in the 20th century, coupled with the growing influence of secular feminism (that placed feminist ideals above the teachings of Scripture) a third view emerged in the 1970s. This position argues that while men and women are created equal by God, they have different “roles.” By roles they mean one thing—males have authority over women. To hold that men and women are equal in being, but unequal in authority strips the term “equal” of its essential meaning. To deny females equal authority not because of their character, their intimacy with Christ or their giftedness, but solely because of gender—a fixed and unchangeable condition—creates communities, organizations, churches and marriages that are inherently unjustbecause they deny a people group shared authority based on an unchangeable condition-gender.
Is this debate a Theological Repackaging of America’s Culture Wars?
As we have seen, egalitarianism predates modern America’s culture wars. The idea that males and females are equal in being was promoted by the early evangelicals until the 20th century, when Enlightenment intellectuals challenged the miracles of Scripture, and more importantly, the inerrancy and authority of Scripture. As a result, fundamentalists and many evangelicals moved from the vigorous intellectual life that characterized the early evangelicals, to a “plain reading of Scripture,” even though this was the very method of biblical interpretation used by the proslavery camp. It was also being used to exclude women from positions of leadership—a leadership that had led to a legacy we call the “Golden Era of Missions,” a movement unparalleled in its success for growing Christian faith in new centers around the world, as Dana Roberts notes. Through these events, egalitarians lost influence among evangelical institutes.
As I have celebrated the leadership of early evangelical women, while speaking at evangelical colleges, not everyone has been terribly pleased. Once, my chapel lecture was boycotted by the Bible faculty who believe that Scripture prohibits women from preaching or teaching men, even while whole communities embraced the Gospel through their female graduates. Early evangelical women contributed to one of the greatest expansions of Christian faith in all of history. They were also the theological conservatives of their day. It was a zeal for Christ that directed their extraordinary lives. Even so, they were just too radical for today’s evangelicals, perhaps because they challenge us precisely where we have become anemic and theological deficient. Perhaps our view of the Cross needs further consideration?
From Two-to-One: How can egalitarians more consistently challenge and reject patriarchy beyond the complementarian/egalitarian debate and women's roles in ministry? I'm interested in how egalitarians' worldviews shape their thinking and decision-making in a broader sense in rejecting patriarchy, similar to how feminists' worldviews shape their thinking on the intersectionality of many issues, including gender norms based on a patriarchal system of power. Some concrete examples would be: How do egalitarians decide on last names upon marriage? How do they view the division of labor in the home? Do they connect issues like sexualized violence against women in conflict/war with good ole husband-is-the-final-decision-maker-in-the-home teachings?
Alan Myatt observes that a corruption in one element of worldview distorts the others. Consider the patriarchal worldview critiqued by the early evangelicals:
A Patriarchal Worldview
• Epistemology or knowledge: God has revealed, through Scripture and nature, that males are to hold authority over women the whole of their life.
• Ontology or being: In their being, males are more godlike, and are therefore innately superior to females. God, and Christian faith, is therefore more masculine than feminine.
• Teleology or purpose: Males are created by God to hold authority over females. This is their destiny. Females are created by God to submit to male authority. This is their destiny. Male authority is God-ordained and therefore best for marriages, families, churches and communities.
• Ethics or justice: Males obey God by assuming leadership and holding authority over females, whereas females obey God by submitting to and obeying male authority. A similar worldview was constructed by proslavery Christians, Muslims, Brahmans and the Nazis to deny slaves, women and Jews religious and cultural equality, a marginalization that led to enormous abuse.
An egalitarian worldview looks like this:
An Egalitarian Worldview
• Epistemology or knowledge: God has revealed, through Scripture, that males and females share dominion, leadership and authority in accomplishing the purposes for which they were created as individuals.
• Ontology or being: Females and males are created in God’s image to share dominion. Both are responsible for sin. Both are equally redeemed by Calvary and equally gifted by the Holy Spirit for responsible stewardship.
• Teleology or purpose: Our destiny as Christians is to fan into flames the gift of God within us to advance the Gospel through our unique gifts. It is not gender or ethnicity that determines authority or service, but gifting, moral character, and intimacy with Christ.
• Ethics or justice: We obey God through the responsible use of our God-given gifts, which are not limited by gender, ethnicity, or class. We disobey God when we exclude, marginalize, or deny others the fullest use of their gifts because of unchangeable conditions like gender or ethnicity.
As the early evangelicals freed women to shared spiritual authority and leadership in missions, it led to the largest advance of the gospel in all of church history—the Golden Era of missions. As women share decision making in marriages, it leads to happier and more stable marriages that experience less abuse (ethics) according to research by Prepare / Enrich.
What are the practical implications of an egalitarian worldview for couples?They are free to make daily decisions based not on male authority but on their gifting and calling from God. Each marriage is different, because each person is unique. As the Meta-Analysis studies show, there are greater differences among women, than between men and women.
It is enormously freeing to be who you are in Christ, without bondage to gender or cultural roles not found in Scripture. For this reason, each couple makes their own choice regarding their last name(s), the division of labor, parenting, or any other decision, taking into consideration the unique gifts, calling and opportunities available to each spouse. Together they ask, “What is best for the ‘team,’ the one-flesh relationship in which each spouse has an equal voice?” A great book on this topic is Partners in Marriage and Ministry, by Ron Pierce, professor at Biola.
From Katherine: I often wonder if I actually believe in egalitarianism or if I embrace it because it is beneficial to me as a woman, How do you approach this dilemma? How can we know for sure that God taught egalitarianism, and not that we are just seeing what we want to see because it makes more sense to us?
I so appreciate your willingness to self-examine and question your own motives. This is part of the approach abolitionists and first wave feminists propose as they developed a method of interpreting Scripture that exposed both theological errors and the self-interest of slave-owner. It goes like this:
1. A plain reading of the Bible must include the historical and cultural context.
2. The full testimony of Scripture must be heard. The obscure portions of Scripture must be interpreted by that which is obvious.
3. A portion of Scripture should be viewed for its primary emphasis, not for its “attendant features.” Attendant features do not constitute the moral teachings of Scripture.
4. Be scrupulous in assessing selfish motives when reading the Bible.
Here is an example of how this method might work to interpret 1 Timothy 2:11-15—a difficult text to understand not only because of its implications for gender and power, but because Paul suggests that women are saved through childbearing (1 Timothy 2:15), and, because he uses a strange Greek word found only once in the Bible—authentein (1 Timothy 2:12). We cannot build a universal application from such a text through a “plain reading” of the words. Its complexity demands more of us. To read with accuracy, we must analyze the historical, cultural and linguistic background, and allow what is clear in Scripture to shed light on what is unclear. In doing so we learn that 1st century writers nearly always used authentein for “authority” that was domineering, misappropriated or usurped. That is why the Vulgate, the Geneva Bible, the King James and others versions of Scripture translate authentein as “domineering,” or “usurping authority.”
It is also helpful to learn that Ephesus was a city known for its worship of the fertility goddess Artemis, who promised women safety in childbearing. (Does this sound familiar? See 1 Timothy 2:15.) Unlike most goddesses, Artemis did not have a male partner and her followers held authority over men. This helps explain why some Ephesian women may usurp authority to promote myths and genealogies contrary to Scripture. Paul opposes their efforts by using the unusual Greek word authentein.
Priscilla and Aquila were also well known in Ephesus through the church they built in their home (1 Corinthians 16:19), where Priscilla (mentioned ahead of her husband) taught “the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26) to a gifted speaker—Apollos. Priscilla instructed a gifted leader in the very city—Ephesus—where Paul asks women not to usurp authority over men. In doing so, she does not usurp authority or teach falsely. Rather, she explained the way more accurately! The universal principle of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is not to excludewomen (like Priscilla) from teaching accurately, but to exclude false teachers who usurp authority.
Women may be concerned that such an interpretation is selfish or awkward in extending them freedom to exercise their gifts of teaching and leadership, yet it does represent the main stream of Paul’s work building the church beside women, slaves and Gentiles. Scripture celebrates Paul’s female coworkers, the deacon Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2) and Junia—a prominent apostle (Romans 16:7). For more information on this topic see Discovering Biblical Equality, Complementarity without Hierarchy. The Scriptures give us holy boldness to advance the gospel as equal partners beside men.
From Kevin: An egalitarian friend of mine (and fan of yours) made the statement that, while he is egalitarian, churches that go down this route tend to become theologically progressive on a host of other issues. Indeed, many of the arguments for women in the pastorate are also often applied to allowing gay marriage, supporting sex outside of marriage, denying the existence of eternal hell etc... Is being an egalitarian simply part and parcel of a liberal theological viewpoint, or is it distinct? Why or why not?
There are a number of denominations that have been ordaining and /or licensing women preachers since the early 20th century and have not used the same methods of biblical interpretation to advance gay marriage, sex outside marriage, or to deny eternal hell, etc. I am thinking of independent churches, the Holiness traditions, the Assemblies of God, and the Nazarene Church, and the Baptist General Conference, which ordained its first woman in 1943—the Reverend Ethel Ruff. Ruff preached at numerous Baptist General Conference churches and also on the Moody Radio Show (WMBI) with the full support of her denomination and Bible Institute. She is one of many examples of women preachers from denominations that have not been embroiled in the gay marriage debate, etc.
Remember, the slippery slope has two sides! There have also been churches entrenched in a male-only model of leadership, whose leaders sound more like Plato than Jesus. One has recently argued thatChristianity has a masculine feel, thus suggesting that maleness is a part of God’s being. What is more, in their defense of male-authority, another evangelical leader (who served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society) insists that God the Son is eternally subordinate to God the Father. He now teaches Christians to pray to God the Father, rather than to Jesus. My series on Is God Male? challenges the orthodoxy of these positions, which were established to exclude women from positions of leadership.
To be fair, both sides of the gender debate have been guilty of sliding down a slippery slope, which in my view is unnecessary, given the wealth of excellent resources available to help us accurately interpret Scripture on issues related to gender, sexuality, and faith.
From Gina: How do you respond to the argument that complementarianism is the "traditional" interpretation of Scripture, and thus we shouldn't be quick to accept egalitarian interpretations? More generally, how do you respond to an interpretative tradition that is, for the most part, decidedly patriarchal? I sometimes feel like I'm standing against the rest of Christian history and don't know how to respond to my brothers and sisters who say I am believing a new, unorthodox notion about gender. Thank you for your time. I love the work CBE does.
Hi Gina. Thanks for your encouraging words about CBE. In my response to Eric, I explore how patriarchy (not complementarity) was the dominant view held by the church until the 1800s.
Gender is not the only “traditional view” that the Church has debated and changed its mind. The church has altered its position on a number of key issues like astronomy, the practice of indulgences, the emancipation of slaves, and the authority of women. Gender is simply the most recent reform movement to capture our energies, but it probably won’t be the last. Reforms are needed, because in each age the Holy Spirit “cleans house,” allowing us to better reflect God’s holiness and justice.
Reform movements challenge “traditional” views in the following way:
The Bible: Reforms begin when leaders, through a rigorous engagement with Scripture, perceive a truth that has gone unobserved by the church. They articulate the need for reform biblically, and their scholarship has global influence.
Prayer: Mary Queen of Scots said she feared the prayers of John Knox more than all the armies of Europe. Prayer fueled the abolitionist movement and the slave communities, quickening its leaders and strengthening their cause.
Popularization: Once the case is made intellectually, God recruits the artists, musicians, activists and literary geniuses who make intellectual arguments compelling to popular audiences, enabling laypersons to perceive the need for reform. The Protestant reformers built consensus using music like “A Mighty Fortress.” Abolitionists published slave narratives, African spirituals, and books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin to popularize reformist ideas.
Globalization: Reformers find each other across cultural and continental lines. The international discussion grows into global momentum and solidarity.
Change begins: The position under critique slowly admits to errors and abuses, and eventually yields to the consensus of the global church.
From Kim: As an egalitarian, how do you define the characteristics of woman- femininity and men- masculinity and what does this look like in a Christian marriage. As I am on my own journey, coming from a complementarian viewpoint and starting to lean towards more of an egalitarian one, this is one thing that I am trying to put into perspective. Even though I see the level playing field when it comes to value and calling, I also don't think that we are all unisex. God didn't just create two unisex persons... He created them male and female, so there must be strengths and weaknesses that specifically pertain to each gender. For instance I hear a lot of egalitarian woman say that it bothers them when women are portrayed as needing to be rescued and protected but I like it when my husband protects me and stands guard in our home. Can I feel this way and yet still call myself and egalitarian?
Different individuals have unique concerns regarding the care they desire from their spouse. What characterizes egalitarian marriage is that spouses make decisions together, as joint heirs of Christ’s kingdom. The important concept is that you empower one another, and that you use your unique gifts with equal influence to serve Christ, that you realize you are of equal worth, and that you understand that you have equal voice and authority to shape you marriage, family and vocation. You can certainly be an egalitarian and still prefer your husband’s physical protection, which is different from requiring his authority to make decisions.
As for which strengths and weaknesses pertain to each gender. As I mentioned elsewhere that the research from “Meta-Analysis” studies show that the differences between women is greater than the differences between men and women, suggesting that we may overemphasize gender differences. Regardless of the degree or nature of gender differences, to propose that men and women share leadership and authority is not to say there are no differences between males and females.
No egalitarian argues that men and women are the same! No one want wants a culture of unisex beings! It may seem as if we do because (and this is very important) for centuries, males were viewed as superior and thus held authority over females. As egalitarians suggest that males and females are of equal value, and that men and women share authority, people hear “there are no gender differences.” This is because holding authority identified people as superior, and this is how males were viewed relative to females. As egalitarians advance the shared authority of males and females, people perceive sameness of being because authority was linked to being (ontology), and men were believed to be, in their being, superior to females.
As egalitarians suggest males and women are equal in being (not superior or inferior but fallen and in need of Jesus), we are not advocating androgyny, but a humanity comprised of males and females who are equal in value in Christ, and thus hold equal authority. Does this make sense? See my response to Two-to-One in this series, and also my article on this.
From HopefulLeigh: As a single woman, I'm curious about how egalitarianism might play out in a dating relationship. Complementarianism provides some structure and cues (i.e. how or if he leads the relationship, even though you're not married yet). How would you suggest a couple broach this topic?
Dating, it seems to me, is an opportunity to develop a strong and beautiful friendship, built through honest communication, patience, prayer, mutual respect and understanding, and on a commitment to grow the fruits of the Spirit through lots of circumstances. For egalitarian couples, authority is shared equally between men and women, and for this reason, egalitarians work at making decisions together. They practice building consensus on any number of issues, like where they go on a date, who shares what portion of the expenses, how much time to spend together, with others, with family, etc.
I am not sure this means dividing all the tasks exactly down the middle because you should take into account the unique gifts and abilities of each person. How would you make decisions with a good friend? Whoever has the idea suggest it and you go from there. Dating is not so different. For example, my boyfriend (now my husband) had greater financial means when we were dating. Therefore, he often paid for meals and outings. And, there are other considerations too. Sometimes one of us felt really strongly about a decision. At other times, I was just too tired to come up with a good date idea, and deferred to Dale who often had great vision. We ebbed and flowed in taking initiative, as life would empower or drain us, but we did flow together. With egalitarian relationships, there are fewer prescribed roles, and taking leadership or initiative does not necessarily imply authority or supremacy, it can often just mean someone has a great idea, or a passion to see a movie, and decides to takes the lead. When we were first dating, my husband initially exercised the greatest initiative. But, as I felt more confident in the relationship I too joined in and orchestrated some really exciting adventures we both enjoyed. We worked it out. We each enjoyed leading at times, and following at other times. It was a dance that we developed that was unique to us, and one we believe was ultimately orchestrated and led by God. See Mutuality's issue on Dating.