Discovering Biblical Equality (Review Article)

By William Hassold

Not only in the LCMS but also among so-called evangelicals (whose theology like that of the LCMS is based upon a high view of Scripture) is there an on-going discussion about the role of women in the home, church and society. Large numbers of evangelicals maintain that the Bible teaches that leadership roles in home and church are to be held by men and thus “justify granting men unique and perpetual prerogatives of leadership and authority not shared by women” (p. 13). Discovering Biblical Equality presents a careful, well-argued, scripturally sound alternative to that understanding of what the Scriptures teach and thus provides solid argumentation to challenge the validity of that hierarchical (even patriarchal) view. If the view, which the editors term complementarity without hierarchy, is correct, there are serious implications for the relationship of wives with their husbands in the home and consequently also for life in the church on earth.

Over the years the synod’s official statements on the role of women in the church have been marked by an unquestioning acceptance of the first view. In the early years of the LCMS’s existence women were not allowed to vote at meetings of the voters assembly. Only in 1969 did the synod alter its stand and allow congregations to have women voting members. In 1994 the Commission on Theology and Church Relations produced a study which recognized the right of women not only to vote but also to hold congregational office. At its 2004 convention the LCMS adopted Resolution 3-08A, which affirms the 1994 CTCR report The Service of Women in Congregational and Synodical Offices and made it legitimate for women to serve in congregational and synodical positions that do not perform those functions that are distinctive to the public exercise of the ministry of Word and Sacrament, while at the same time maintaining that “the Scriptures clearly teach that God has given the pastoral office and the exercise of pastoral authority to men and not to women” (Resolution 3-08A). In various parts of the synod, however, this decision of the convention is being challenged as contrary to the Scriptures.

The collection of essays which appear in the work here being reviewed provides material to question the restrictive approach which had been held for so many years in the synod and which continues to deny ordination to women on the basis of their gender. Edited by Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, this volume brings together studies by twenty-six scholars of the evangelical persuasion (whose background range from Reformed to Arminian to Pentecostal) that provide a valuable resource for raising serious questions about the validity of the Missouri Synod’s stance and thus supply material for possible overtures to the 2007 convention of the synod requesting a reconsideration and rethinking of the LCMS teaching and practice.

After an introduction by the editors, the work is organized in five major sections:

I.            Setting the Stage (the Historical Backdrop)

II.            Looking to Scripture (the Biblical Texts)

III.            Thinking It Through (Logical and Theological Perspectives)

IV.            Addressing the Issues (Hermeneutical and Cultural Perspectives)

V.            Living It Out (Practical Applications)

The introduction outlines two basic approaches to the role of women in the church. The one is that there are aspects of leadership denied to women and reserved for men strictly on the basis of what one cannot change, one’s gender. This is the male leadership position. The other may be termed Biblical equality where the two genders complement one another. The editors then state:

This book is born of the conviction that both the world and church urgently need to hear and take to heart the message of biblical equality, because it is at once true, logical, and beneficial. The essential message of biblical equality is simple and straightforward: Gender, in and of itself, neither privileges nor curtails one’s ability to be used to advance the kingdom or to glorify God in any dimension of ministry, mission, society or family (p.13).

They also state:

Biblical equality . . . denies that there is any created or otherwise God-ordained hierarchy based solely on gender. Egalitarianism recognizes patterns of authority in the family, church and society—it is not anarchistic—but rejects that any office, ministry or opportunity should be denied anyone on grounds of gender alone (Ibid.).

The essays in Part I provide a historical study of the contributions that women have made over the years to the life of the church. Beginning with the early church, there have been a number of women who have made significant contributions—women who suffered martyrdom, women who were reformers, and women who were rebels. The emphasis in Part I, however, rests upon the contributions of women in the 19th and early 20th centuries, where a number of women have risen to leadership roles, particularly in free church contexts. In the final essay of this section there is a brief history of the rise of a movement among “evangelicals” toward gender equality, one that challenges the so-called male leadership position, and this volume is intended to be a contribution to that debate.

Three essays in Part IV (those by Roger Nicole, Gordon D. Fee and William Webb) deal with the hermeneutical issues involved in challenging the male leadership position and in supporting the thesis of this volume, so-called “complementarity without hierarchy.” Lutherans will concur with Fee, when he writes:

We believe that our vision of God was distorted by the Fall and therefore that God cannot be discovered through our reason or experience; that is, God cannot be known from below, as it were. God must reveal himself if he is to be known at all. We further believe that God has so revealed himself: by deeds, in a Person and through a book that both reports and interprets those deeds and that Person. Because ultimately we know the Person, or hear the gospel through the book, we take that book to be our primary penultimate authority. (p. 374)

Though there will be matters that would receive a different formulation if a Lutheran were to make them, we can rejoice at the high view of Scripture that underlies this entire series of essays, a view that gives due credit to divine inspiration as well as recognizes the human element in the writings that constitute the Bible. This will allow us to be prepared, as Fee says, “to recognize and articulate the nature and kinds of ambiguity, accommodation and diversity that the double nature of Scripture forces on us” (pp. 380 f.). From this premise Fee draws out the following principles:

1.      Only what is explicitly taught in Scripture by intention should be understood as obligatory for all believers, and what is merely implied in Scripture should accordingly be held in abeyance.

2.      Our hermeneutics of imperatives should be driven by the gospel of grace and Spirit gifting, not by a new form of pharisaic legalism that tries to find ways to put a hedge around a form of Christian law. (p. 381)

In the light of these principles, Part II provides exegetical studies on the texts that deal in one way or another with the role of women. In the first essay of this section Richard Hays looks at what Genesis 1–3 says about the role of women, both before and after the Fall. The second essay here moves from the Old Testament material dealing with the role of women in Israelite society, where the provisions restricting the role of women were to serve as a guardian and disciplinarian, to a gospel-motivated context where there is to be a “positive initiative, carrying forward the divine intention that was there from the beginning.” (p. 107)

In view of the intention of this volume to provide a justification for discovering biblical equality, Linda Belleville provides a survey of how women, both in Old Testament times and in New, performed leadership roles. Names like Miriam, Deborah and Hulda, the prophetess from the Old Testament, as well as Phoebe, Priscilla and Nympha in the New, are reminders of how God used women in his service. Nor should we, as Aida Besancon Spencer reminds us, overlook Jesus’ treatment of women.

Careful exegetical studies of the pertinent New Testament texts (1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:34-35; Colossians 3:18-19; Ephesians 5:21-33; 1 Timothy 2:11-15; and 1 Peter 3:1-7) deal in depth with the meaning and application of these texts to the issue of biblical equality. Of particular note is the essay by Gordon D. Fee on Galatians 3:26-29 in which he shows that the equality, or oneness, of the three pairs—Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female—is not to be limited to the justifying work of Christ alone but includes other aspects of life in the believing community, which is the church, the new creation, as articulated by Paul in 2 Cor. 5:14-17. He writes:

Thus what is in view here is not the individual believer’s being “justified by faith in Christ Jesus” but that those who have had such faith and have expressed it in Christian baptism, have been joined to one another as a new body that is to live the life of the future in their present circumstances, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. It is this all-encompassing eschatological reality of “the new order” in which all these diverse expressions of being human are made one, that lies behind the remarkable addition of “slave nor free … male nor female” to “Jew nor Greek.” (pp. 178 f.)

While Fee’s view of baptism is less than adequate in the light of our Lutheran theology, which recognizes Baptism as a means of grace rather than as a rite which calls for prior faith on the part of the baptized, his point is still valid that the new creation is a reality that impinges on life in the church today and does not await realization at the parousia. If Fee’s interpretation of Gal. 3:26-29 is correct, as I believe it is, the argument so often raised that the order of creation requires the subordination of women to their husbands has been nullified and should be abandoned.

Part III of this work has the title “Thinking It Through” and deals with logical and theological issues that derive from the thesis of this volume that there is complementarity in the roles of male and female apart from male hierarchy. While all of the essays in this part are well argued, not every position that is advocated by the authors will be acceptable to critical readers. No effort will be made here to comment upon each essay, but certain of them are particularly significant and deserve comment. The first essay here argues that the gifts of the Spirit for ministry are not reserved for males alone but also are given to women, and that such gifting should receive priority over gender distinctions. In the next essay Walter Liefeld deals with an issue that is currently somewhat neuralgic, even apart from gender concerns, in the LCMS, the role of authority (de jure, de facto and de senso) in the church. Much of what he says deserves serious consideration.

In the next essay Stanley J. Grenz questions whether “whatever priestly character that may be predicated of the pastoral office (or function) necessitates an all-male pastorate” (p. 273) and answers that question with a decided negative. The third essay in this section is titled “God, Gender and Biblical Metaphor” and shows that “since God is without gender, there is no reason to hold the view that men resemble God more closely than do women and that men therefore are better fit to represent God in positions of spiritual leadership” (p. 294), a view held by some who seek to argue for male hierarchy.

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, one of the editors of this volume, contributes an essay, “Equal in Being, Unequal in Role: Exploring the Logic of Women’s Subordination.” This piece is carefully argued and can be summarized by saying,

Women’s inferior “role” cannot be defended by the claim that it is ontologically distinct from woman’s equal being. In female subordination, being determines role and role defines being thus there can be no real distinction between the two. If, on the other hand, woman is not less than man in her personal being, then neither can there be any biblical or theological warrant for woman’s permanent, comprehensive and ontologically grounded subordination to man’s authority. (p. 333)

The final essay in Part III. deals with an aberration which some in the so-called evangelical camp have championed. There are some there who have advocated the eternal subordination of the Son of God to justify the argument that women are to be subject to their husbands. No matter how this subordination is parsed by those who advocate this view, the essayist, Kevin Giles, correctly points out that this view rejects “what the creeds and Reformation confessions of faith affirm” (p. 336).

The essays in this part are well argued and deserve careful study. No one should expect that there will be agreement with every argument presented in these essays in view of the theological background of the various authors, but in them the writers deal with fundamental issues that dare not be avoided in any discussion on the place of women in home and church.

Part IV is particularly valuable since it goes to the proper approach to discussing the issue of what Scripture teaches about the role of women in church and society, the proper hermeneutical approach. Two of the essays in this section have been cited earlier in this review. Other essays in this part touch upon practical concerns such as gender equality and homosexuality in an essay by William J. Webb and on feminism and abortion in another by Sulia Mason and Karen Mason.

Part V bears the title “Living It Out (Practical Applications)” and the essays in this part are primarily practical. They deal with such topics as self-esteem, marriage as a partnership of equals, nature, culture and gender complementarity. They also offer a program to assist the church in understanding what is meant by Biblical equality. The final essay is irenic in nature and seeks to bridge the gap between the hierarchical view espoused by some evangelicals in contrast to the view advocated in this work.

Anyone who is concerned about the role of women in church and society will find in this work a wealth of material for serious study and consideration. Surely not every view that is advocated here will be found acceptable, but every essay deserves serious study and reflection. This work, therefore, is highly recommended to the critical reader. This book, if read with an open mind and without presuppositions, may be of help in a restudy and re-evaluation of the role of women in church, home and society.

Two church bodies associated with the LCMS in the International Lutheran Council, the Lutheran Church of Australia and the Selbststaendige evangelisch-lutherische Kirche in Germany, are currently discussing whether the Scriptures permit (or forbid) the ordination of women to the office of the Holy Ministry. These bodies, like the LCMS, are committed to the same confessional basis, the Holy Scriptures as the inspired Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions in the Book of Concord of 1580, and at the same time are not afraid to make a study of the issue. In the 16th century, when the Book of Concord was produced, there was no reason to discuss the question of the ordination of women, and so they are silent on that issue. But in today’s climate it is entirely appropriate, even necessary, to search the Scriptures to determine what their message is for our 21st century context. And in searching, to approach them humbly and without prejudice and to let them speak.

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