Tuesday, July 29, 2008


What exactly does the Bible say about gender roles? It’s a question that’s been argued for millennia, but at least now we have the benefit of two rival religious lobbying organizations, each not only struggling with scriptural interpretation but also struggling on the P.R., coming up with friendly sounding names for their positions.

On the right side of things, we have what is know as complementarianism. This school of thought is represented by “The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,” (CBMW) complete with a mission statement and even a blog, GenderBlog, which I link to under the religion section on the right. Their position:

‘…In opposition to the growing movement of feminist egalitarianism [we] articulated what is now known as the complementarian position which affirms that men and women are equal in the image of God, but maintain complementary differences in role and function. In the home, men lovingly are to lead their wives and family as women intelligently are to submit to the leadership of their husbands. In the church, while men and women share equally in the blessings of salvation, some governing and teaching roles are restricted to men…’

So men and women are equal in the eye of God, but only to a certain point. After that point it’s all about men leading and woman following.

The opposing religious position is known as egalitarianism. This school is represented by the organization Christians for Biblical Equality, which also has a blog, The CBE Scroll, also linked to on right. Their position:

‘…What is Biblical equality? It is the belief that all people are equal before God and in Christ. All have equal responsibility to use their gifts and obey their calling to the glory of God. God freely calls believers to roles and ministries without regard to class, gender or race. We believe this because the Bible and Jesus Christ teach it to us. That is biblical equality…’

The key scripture the CBE quotes is the famous one from Galatians, 3:28: 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, thee is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.' In her book, “In Memory of Her,” Elisabeth Fiorenza notes this to be an early Christian baptismal formula, quoted by Paul as opposed to written by Paul. She mentions this as part of her famous thesis that early Christian beliefs reflected a much more egalitarian outlook regarding the role of women in the church. Only later did a more patriarchal belief system develop.

And develop it did, for as the CBMW is quick to point out, later writings of Paul are not so egalitarian in their outlook of women. The famous phrase from Ephesians, 5:22: ‘Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord’, is one of about a dozen ‘subordination’ clauses in the letters of Paul. Complementarians latch onto this as scriptural backing for their views, and as reflects a recent development in fundamentalism, are becoming very academic about it. From the CBMW Journal, Spring 1998:

‘…Where the Bible says that wives are to "be subject to'' to their husbands (Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1, 5; and implied in Eph. 5:22, 24), you tell us that the verb "be subject to'' (hypotassō, passive) is a requirement for both husbands and wives-that just as wives are to be subject to their husbands, so husbands are to be subject to their wives, and that there is no unique authority that belongs to the husband. Rather, the biblical ideal is "mutual submission'' according to Ephesians 5:21, "be subject to one another,'' and therefore there is no idea of one-directional submission to the husband's authority in these other verses (Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1, 5; and Eph. 5:22, 24).

But we have never been able to find any text in ancient Greek literature where hypotassō (passive) refers to a person or persons being "subject to'' another person, and where the idea of submission to that person's authority is absent. In every example we can find, when person A is said to "be subject to'' person B, person B has a unique authority which person A does not have. In other words, hypotassō always implies a one-directional submission to someone in authority. So our question is this:

Will you please show us one example in all of ancient Greek where this word for "be subject to'' (hypotassō, passive) is used to refer to one person in relation to another and does not include the idea of one-directional submission to the other person's authority?...’

This is from a somewhat famous ‘Open Letter to Egalitarians,’ where the complementarians invite academic debate on the various scriptures. In this case their argument for Ephesians at least falls somewhat flat, as the phrase ‘be subject to one another’ actually is in Ephesians immediately prior to the famous subordination phrase, and so an egalitarian interpretation isn’t solely reliant on the nuances of the book’s original Koine Greek...'

I bring this up because I ran into another ‘Open Letter to Egalitarians’ written last week, this time addressing more prosaic and pragmatic issues. Ten questions were asked on a popular complementarian blog regarding what egalitarians view as the proper response to various situations where gender roles may be in play:

1. If the Titanic accident were to happen again, would you desire 50% of the seats on the life boats to be left for men?

2. If there is a robber who just broke into your house and you are married with children, would you want the man to go downstairs or the woman or would this be done depending on who had done it last time?

3. Would an egalitarian woman be offended at a man holding the door for her?

4. Do egalitarian parents allow their boys to play rough with the girls just like the boys play rough with other boys?

5. Do egalitarian parents train their boys that it is okay for them to be "stay at home dads?" If so, does a lot of domestic training happen for these boys?

6. Do you feel that women boxers should be allowed to fight in the ring with men?

7. Do egalitarian women desire to be protected by their guy (boyfriend, husband, father, etc.) or would they prefer to protect themselves?

8. Does an egalitarian female "pastor" get a maternity leave from her preaching responsibilities?

9. Does and egalitarian female "pastor" counsel men about pornography?

10. Do egalitarian pastoral staffs go on pastoral retreats together? If so, how does that work with having guys and girls together? Do the spouses feel strange about this?

I wont reprint my responses (I posted them here) to keep this post from getting any longer than it is. But one thing I didn’t mention in my response was how odd the questions struck me. They all really read as if the person who wrote them is completely flummoxed by how anyone could consider living a life any other way than with specific leadership roles defined along gender lines. What’s also interesting with these questions, and the posts on the CBMW blog, is the complete focus on ‘leadership’ as the only role for men. It’s like Al Haig founded a religious movement: ‘I’m in charge! I’m in charge!’ In charge of what is never addressed.