Gender and ministry 3: gender in evangelicalism

A key underlying question behind different evangelical readings is how to interpret the biblical narrative. Is hierarchy and patriarchy part of the old creation, so rather than ‘fossilising it’, Christians are to live out lives of mutual participation within God’s liberating new creation?

Or is hierarchy and patriarchy rooted in the creation order and reflecting the ways things ‘should be’ at a very deep level? Back to Piper here – you can’t go much deeper than argue such patterns are founded in the nature of God himself.

Cherith Fee Nordling outlines different evangelical understandings of gender roles in her article in The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology.

She suggests that evangelical ‘essentialist’ understandings of gender are drawn from Aristotlelian assumptions that have remained embedded in the church for centuries. It reflects a hierarchical male/female duality based on Aristotle’s philosopy and biology.

This pervasive Aristotelian essentialism endured from early church history through the medieval Church and into the Reformation where it has a continuing influence within the evangelical tradition.

And since the 1980s especially, this tradition has been reworked into the ‘biblical’ view of male hierarchy – which came to be called ‘complementarianism’ by its proponents. This holds to divinely ordained gender roles.

It is vital to hold to such roles because biblical authority is at stake. Men are to responsible under God for church and family life. For women to hold such roles is to disregard biblical authority.

[An aside here – I blogged here a while ago how NT evangelical scholar Howard Marshall said that it is this lack of any clear reason why it is so dangerous and wrong for women to be involved in leadership that has been so hard for many women (and men) to accept the hierarchical view.]

For complementarians, women are equal ontologically in being with men, they are not equal in role – such as authority, leadership, preaching, responsibility. Aristotle believed men were more suited to command than women – although he also believed men were ontologically superior to women.

Nordling implies here that Aristotle was more consistent than modern day hierarchialists. It is hard to explain how the limiting of women from certain functions is not based somehow on ontology. She quotes Becca Merrill Groothuis

It is logically impossible for the same person to be at once spiritually and ontologically equal and permanently, comprehensively, and necessarily subordinate

Hierarchy is the result of the curse, not a normative good pattern to follow. So egalitarians argue the Bible supports equal roles and functions for women in church and family life. Leadership is a gift of the Spirit for the good of the body, not a right for any man or woman. But it is a gift given to both men and women alike.

So ultimately this debate is a hermenutical one – how to interpret and apply the biblical narrative; how to interpret contentious texts like 1 Tim 2:12-13; 1 Cor 11:3 and Eph 5:22-23 within that overarching narrative.

To sum up a difference of perspective here: the hierarchicalists tend to read those texts with assumptions about fixed gender roles and see them as setting out a universal creation-order blueprint for how the genders should relate. The concerns are for biblical authority and obedience to the way God has ordained things to be (regardless if there is no strong explanatory reason why things should be this way).

Egalitarians will interpret those texts not as intended to be universal fixed codes of male / female relationships, but as needing to be read in light of eschatological Spirit who unites all in the one body of Christ and pours out his life-giving and gifting presence on men and women alike.

In the egalitarian perspective, yes gender matters and difference is embedded in our humanity. But without each other men and women experience deficiency. They need each other in mutual relationships of self-giving love for fullness, not defined or limited by assumptions about specific gender roles.

Comments, as ever, welcome

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