Why I Am an Evangelical Egalitarian

I became an egalitarian through a long study of the issue in the early 1990s. My first wife, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (1954-2018), led the way through her research and writing, but we thought through every aspect of the issue over many years—first to come to the position of egalitarianism and second to defend it from frequent and multifaceted attack. Rebecca’s earthly work is over, but I sense a need to continue to encourage gifted women to serve God with all their abilities, even despite opposition from other Christians. As a Christian man with some influence through my writing and teaching, I offer this brief statement—not as a thorough defense, but as a statement of principles and as an outline of an apologetic for egalitarianism.

An evangelical egalitarian believes that gender, in itself and in principle, does not restrict women from any position of leadership in the church or society. Nor does gender determine a women’s subservient place in the home under the authority of her husband. As Rebecca put it:

Evangelical egalitarianism, or biblical equality, refers to the biblically-based belief that gender, in and of itself, neither privileges nor curtails a believer’s gifting or calling to any ministry in the church or home. In particular, the exercise of spiritual authority, as biblically defined, is deemed as much a female believer’s privilege and responsibility as it is a male believer’s.

As Rebecca and I thought this through we realized there were several obstacles to clear. A non-egalitarian believes that women, as women, cannot legitimately hold some positions of leadership in the church nor are they equal partners in marriage.

Non-egalitarians were called traditionalists until about twenty years ago when they coined the term complementarian. The latter term, however, is a misnomer that does not distinguish the view from egalitarians simply because both views consider men and women complementary to each other. The burning question is whether men, as men, have some unique authority over women. Egalitarians deny this. So, the better and more descriptively accurate term for the non-egalitarian is hierarchialist. Granted, this does not sound appealing, but it is truer to the position.

First, any such claim will be rejected as “feminism” by many evangelicals and thus associated with liberal theology and politics. Rebecca and I called feminism “the F-word.” But we found that the egalitarian view predated secular feminism and was held by leading evangelicals in the nineteen century. The secular feminism of the 1960 and onward has had no effect on our being egalitarians. We both tended towards being contrarians and curmudgeons, so going with the cultural flow never appealed to us (see Luke 16:15). Rebecca addressed this at length in Women Caught in the Conflict (Baker, 1994). This book was a prolegomena to her direct defense of egalitarianism in Good News for Women (Baker, 1997).

Second, egalitarians need to wrestle with texts that seem to contradict the claim that women should have access to leadership in the church and mutuality in the home (especially 1 Timothy 2:11-15). Rebecca and I held to biblical inerrancy on the order of the classic Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy of 1978, which was endorsed by stalwarts such as Francis Schaeffer (1912-1985) and Carl Henry (1913-2003), two of my heroes. But, on the other hand, complementarians (as they call themselves), must come to terms with the many passages that depict women leading, prophesying, and teaching (such as Judges 4-5, Acts 2:17-18, and Acts 18).

There are formidable exegetes of impeccable evangelical prestige on both sides of this issue, but I am convinced that no biblical text forbids women from leadership in the church or from having an equal voice in the home as a matter of eternal and cross-cultural principle. Now is not the place to cite authorities or give footnotes, except to note a multi-author volume edited by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Ronald Pierce, Discovering Biblical Equality (InterVarsity, 2004). Rather, let us consider one theological matter, which is crucial and decisive.

Complementarians are committed to saying that God restricts women from some positions of leadership because of their gender. This view leads to the following.

  1. Women are equal to men in their essential human being as females.
  2. Women are barred from some leadership roles simply because they are females.
  3. Therefore (A): Women are unequal to men because they are female human beings.
  4. Therefore (B): Women are both equal to men in their human being as females and unequal to men in their human being as females. This is a contradiction and is, therefore, false. That is, the conjunction of (1) and (3) is necessarily false.

Since 1-4 shows complementarianism to be contradictory, there are only two possible ways to address the issue and be logically consistent concerning women and their authority.

  1. Women are equal to men in their essential being; therefore, there is no basis to restrict them on the basis of their female human being. This is the biblical equality position.

 

  1. Women are to be restricted based on the basis their female human being. This can only be justified by saying they are not essentially equal to men in their human being. Women lack, in their essential being, something men have in their essential human being. That means they are inferior to men. This is the older theological view of women in relation to men, a view today’s complementarians usually want to reject.

Complementarians, qua complementarians, cannot affirm (1) or (2). However, these are the only logical choices they have, given that I have ruled out their essential “equal in being, unequal in function” principle as illogical. Therefore, they are stuck in a logical pickle. Biblical equality provides the way for them to be un-pickled—that is, logically consistent.

The biblical equality view avoids these insuperable difficulties by saying that men and women are equal in their essential human being and that being a woman in and of itself never restricts a woman from exercising leadership gifts. (However, in some specific situations it will not be wise for a woman exercise some of her gifts, since this would produce unnecessary controversy.) The use of gifts is determined by God-given ability and the Spirit’s call on someone’s life.

While the final case for women’s equality rests on the Bible, I (and we) cannot deny the testimony of faithful, godly, and gifted women today who serve Christ and love his word. As a seminary professor since 1993, I have taught and gotten to know many women who are skilled in preaching, teaching, and leading. I have seen them win preaching awards, excel academically, and serve in churches where they sometimes do receive the respect they deserve. During one doctrinal interview, my colleague said to a woman we were examining, “I would love to have you as my pastor.” I concurred. During another doctrinal examination, I once asked a seminary student who held the complementarian view if he thought God had gifted some women with leadership skills equal to that of men. He agreed. I then said, “Let that haunt you.” I hope it has haunted him into changing his position.

 

10 thoughts on “Why I Am an Evangelical Egalitarian

  1. A brilliant short defense of biblical equality. As one who affirms the inerrancy of Holy Scripture, I find this apologetic for the full inclusion in ministry profoundly biblical. Well done.

  2. I am in agreement with your stance on egalitarianism. This is the first time I’ve heard the name.

    Question: Are women who choose to raise their family versus obtain an education worth less than highly educated women?

    • Neither calling is higher or of greater value than the other. However, the church values it’s leaders more than it’s members and a family values the person that invests more time. You are valued, in part, by others in the place where you put your effort. This value is not connected to God’s view and value of you. With this said, limiting any people group from positions of authority in the church will reduce the value the church has for those people.

  3. Very well stated but what does the Bible Say? And what does it mean? Culture and Popular option does not count, right? NM

    – – – – – – – – – – – – Norman Mayfield 850-900-7571

    >

    • The Bible is relevant to any culture. But very often, we struggle to separate the two. That’s the problem with human interpretation: we tend to read the Bible through our own particular belief system–including those passages to which you refer. The only answer is a thorough research of the context of those verses, and understanding of how the first century readers would have understood the writings. We read with 21st century eyes. But the truth of God is true no matter when it is read.

  4. “Complementarians are committed to saying that God restricts women from some positions of leadership because of their gender. This view leads to the following.

    “Women are equal to men in their essential human being as females.
    Women are barred from some leadership roles simply because they are females…”

    Dr Groothuis
    This would seem to me to be a misstatement of the hierarchical view. I think it would be more accurate to state it:
    “Women are equal to men in their essential human being as females.
    In His word, God has assigned certain leadership roles to men.
    Therefore, women are barred from some leadership roles simply because God has assigned those roles to men.”
    There is nothing here that entails the idea that women are not equal to men.

    To state it your way, wouldn’t a transgender person be justified in saying:

    “Women are equal to men in their essential human being as females.
    On the biblical view, men are barred from being women simply because they are males.
    Therefore men are not equal to women?”

    I know that is not your view. My point is to say that in the absence of an explicit claim that men and women are unequal since “only men can be leaders,” it is more reasonable and charitable to see the hierarchical view as I have stated it? The view could still be wrong, but let us at least present it in the most charitable way possible.
    What do you think?

    For the record, I lean toward the hierarchical view, but am open to the egalitarian view.

  5. Very well written…I have read blogs such as Transformed Wife and Biblical Gender Roles, both who heavily ascribe to patriarchy and basically say that God’s ONLY plan is for woman to marry and have children, college is discouraged as is a career and the woman is always to be submissive to her husband’s will in ALL things. And being over man such as boss in a job is a really big No Oh NO!.
    I wonder how TW or BGR would justify the life of Joni Earickson Tada and her husband….he married her knowing she was in a wheel chair -I have no idea if she ever could have had children but they never did…so my ponderings are this..
    1. IF god’s plan is to marry and have children—are Joni and her husband sinning or going against god’s will for marrying knowing they could not fulfill the patriarchal version of “god’s plan”?
    2. Joni also works outside the home with her company and i am sure there are men who work for her. Is she sinning by being their boss?
    3. Does she get a pass following “god’s plan” because of her paraplegia?
    4. What about other Christian women who want to start a Christian company selling their books and products but are able bodied–do they have to stay home and raise children?

    After asking these questions about the “what ifs” and unusual situations…it seems to me that having that “one plan for women” is so unrealistic and illogical in that not all women are able to marry, have children, etc. –anything that would put them outside “god’s plan” for their lives would seem to be sin or disobedience.

    Logically speaking, as to what is sin is, the 10 commandments are given and one should be able to follow the 10 commandments regardless of ability or disability (even though none of us can) so by process of elimination, the only “god’s plan for your life” is the one that the individual works through the relationship with God- Jesus- the Holy spirit led life and that life might look different than any other life on the planet.

    p.s. while blogs such as TW and BGR extremely focus on growing in God and godliness by wifely submission to a husband— Joni focuses on a growing maturing relationship with the Lord — period!

  6. This message needs to be heard by all of our evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ. Personally, I think part of the issue is the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy. As bible verses “conflict” I believe in the hermeneutic that often two distinct “theologies” are being presented—often leading to a paradox. But, I view scripture as “inerrant” per the history of redemption; so verses not related to such for sure have to be seen from the overall intent of the bible. And, broadly speaking, in this case women and men are the same in their “essential being.” So, as per the role of either in the church, particularly in leadership such as teachers or elders, both teaching and ruling, the real issue is the “gift” issue. That is, as Dr. Groothius said, “The use of gifts is determined by God-given ability and the Spirit’s call on someone’s life.”

  7. The logical argument seems to be incorrect. It seems to suggest that it is impossible for there to be both equality among mankind and restrictions upon certain parts of mankind. But that seems to be wrong. After all, there are restrictions among men based on marriage status, and, in the Old Testament, there were restrictions based on tribe ie Levites. I think the problem stands out when the compared parties are changed:

    1. Single men are equal to married men in their essential human being as males.
    2. Single men are barred from some leadership roles simply because they are single.
    3. Therefore (A): Single men are unequal to married men because they are single human beings.
    4. Therefore (B): Single men are both EQUAL to married men in their human being as men and UNEQUAL to married men in their human being as males. This is a contradiction and is, therefore, false. That is, the conjunction of (1) and (3) is necessarily false.

    This argument would prove that the qualifications for elders are absurd because they discriminate based on marital status. Maybe the egalitarian thinks we ought to eschew those qualifications. Also, it is conceivable that the egalitarian thinks that the Levitical exception is misguided. For, the egalitarian might ask, isn’t is possible that God had gifted some non-Levites with priestly skills equal to that of Levites?

    In the end, it seems clear that everyone is fundamentally equal as a baseline human being, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is equal in his or her additional characterizing traits.

    BTW – I can imagine a scenario where God might use a woman as a teacher of men, but that would take us too far afield for this comment, so I’ll just leave off for now.

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