Opinions on faith and life

Book Review: Good News For Women

2006-01-01

This is my assessment of the book Good News For Women by Rebecca Groothuis.

The case against gender equality rests on two points: twisted logic and context-ignoring proof-texting.

The logic of gender hierarchy says that women are equal in being but unequal in function. In other words, women are only equal in terms of salvation, but subservient to men in all other areas, based entirely on gender. Yet there is no practical difference between how a woman is treated and her worth. Groothuis points out that equals can only be in a hierarchical arrangement if the arrangement is temporary and voluntary. Yet for women, gender is neither; it is permanent and involuntary.

In the same breath that Paul states there is no male or female, he also states there is no slave or free, no Jew or Greek (Gal. 3:28). So there is no difference between the status of women under the new covenant and that of gentiles or slaves. If women are to be treated unequally to men, then also gentiles and slaves must be treated as inferior to free men and especially Jews. One cannot have subservience for women but not also for gentiles and slaves. If slaves were to be treated as equals in all respects (in being and in function) in the church, then there is no justification for denying equal function to women.

To say that women are by nature destined to play a subservient role to men is a statement of being, not function. Only if women were subordinate in certain temporary functions could it be called a matter of unequal function, but hierarchical logic contends that women’s subordination is not just in certain areas based on inability or voluntary submission, but by their very nature, i.e., their gender. Slaves can be freed; employees can change jobs or become business owners or rise in rank; but women can never change their gender or their status. Therefore, it is logically fallacious to claim women are required to be subservient to men based on gender, yet claim they have equality of being with men.

Another logical error is to think that if husbands perform a priestly function in the home, they therefore represent God to their wives. This is wrong on two levels: the Bible does not designate husbands as priests over their wives, and priests do not represent God to man, but man to God. In the old testament, we see that Prophets were the ones who represented God to man. In the new testament we see that women can be prophets, and that all believers, men and women, are considered priests. The body of Christ therefore represents God to the unbelieving world. Groothuis quotes Paul Jewett: Since the church is the bride of Christ and therefore feminine to him, one could just as well reason that the universal priesthood of all believers should find its individual expression in the woman rather than in the man, an inference which theologians, as males, have never drawn.

Frequently it is claimed that Christ has always been and will always be subservient to the Father. But there is no clear scriptural backing for this so it is a debatable point. Jesus’ example while human was to show man how to relate to God, not to illustrate submission by one group of people to another. And since it is logically impossible for there to be equality of being with inequality of function unless the situation is temporary, Jesus could not be permanently subordinate to the Father. Since the Bible clearly shows that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all God, they must be equal in being. It logically follows, then, that inequality in function must be temporary.

Now to the typical texts used to support gender hierarchy. We have seen in Gal. 3:28 that there is no justification for denying women equality of function in the church, just as there is no such justification for slaves or gentiles. But this is conveniently treated as somehow insignificant when the proof-texts are encountered. This is a case of applying specific prohibitions for specific situations and making them universal and permanent, in spite of Gal. 3:28’s universal context.

One such proof text is found in Genesis 1-3, where the fact that Adam was created before Eve is claimed to be proof of hierarchical precedent. Yet no such authority over Eve is given to Adam. They were equals in being and function, both having been charged with ruling over the earth and tending the garden. Only after they sinned did God say anything about man ruling over woman. But this statement was simply a prophetic reality, not a command or sanction. Leadership of man over woman was a result of the Curse, not God’s ideal, and certainly not a mandate that all women must follow and all men must lead.

To say that woman must be inferior to man because she was created from him would be to also say that man must be inferior to dust! To say that man is superior to woman because he was created first is to also say that all the animals are superior to man! As Paul points out, other than Eve, all men have come from women, so by traditionalist logic this should mean that all mankind except Adam is inferior to Eve. And we see in the Bible that God frequently chose the younger to rule over the older (Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, etc.). So neither derivation nor prior existence can be used to argue in favor of male domination or superiority.

Next we see in Eph. 5:21-33 the concept of headship, and that the husband’s headship is to mimic that of Christ over the church. The characteristics of this kind of headship are love, self sacrifice, and protection. In describing relationships in the church, Jesus had told his disciples that the greatest must be the least, and the leaders must serve those led, in direct contrast to the traditional concept of headship.

But a head does not live without a body, and vice versa. They are one body and are dependent upon each other. So we see that not every detail of the head/body illustration can be applied to Christ and the church or husbands and wives, so we must determine from the context the point of Paul’s discussion. Looking at the passage we see great emphasis on unity and interdependence, and practically none on authority and submission. Just as a body and head that try to dominate each other will never function properly, so also a husband and wife that are self-seeking instead of other-seeking will not properly model the relationship between Christ and the church. It’s clear from the totality of Paul’s writings that all believers are to practice other-centeredness and mutual respect, and this passage cannot be seen as overriding that general principle.

Notice also that when Paul refers to Genesis as the ideal for marriage, he points out that it is the man who leaves his home and joins to his wife-- not the other way around, just as Christ gave himself up (left his home) to be joined to his bride, the church. And as Christ did this to make for himself a kingdom of priests, so also husbands are to give themselves up so their wives might become priests as well. This need came about from the curse which foretold male domination such that women had few rights and were considered by society to be inferior in every way. Paul is telling Christian husbands that things are different in the church, and that as men they need to use their societal privilege to free their wives for service as equals.

Another passage typically used to justify female subordination is 1 Tim. 2:11-15. The problem for traditionalists who see it as restricting women’s participation in the church, is that there is wide disagreement on exactly where the line is to be drawn. Quoting Groothuis (p. 210): Rather than acknowledging that the meaning of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is more consistent with the rest of scripture if it is understood as directly applicable only to its specific cultural and historical context, traditionalist interpretation begins with the assumption that this text is universally normative. On page 211 she quotes David Scholer as giving the term hermeneutical gerrymandering to the practice of drawing lines around certain types of teaching and authority, thereby making distinctions in levels of authority in ministry that are not delineated in Scripture.

Quoting Groothuis on page 211: If 1 Timothy 2:11-15 can legitimately be understood as a prohibition relevant only for women in a historically specific circumstance (which it can), and if there is no other biblical text that explicitly forbids women to teach or have authority over men (which there is not), and if there are texts that assert the fundamental spiritual equality of women with men (which there are), then women who are not in the circumstance for which the 1 Timothy 2:12 prohibition was intended may safely follow whatever call they may have to ministry. She goes on to point out that since the traditionalist prohibitions on women teaching are debatable, there is danger in squelching the Holy Spirit’s leading by placing these restrictions on women in ministry.

Focusing on verse 12 concerning the Greek word authentein, Groothuis makes a good case for Paul’s emphasis being to combat Gnostic heresy, which taught that woman was the originator of man, the opposite of Genesis. Paul’s statement would thus read that a woman was not to teach or to represent herself as originator of man. But traditionalists insist that Paul’s emphasis was on not allowing a woman to teach authoritatively. The problem here again is that they cannot agree on what makes a teaching authoritative or not. However, the egalitarian position makes much more sense in context. If Paul was countering the Gnostic heresy that Eve came before Adam, verses 13-14 make perfect sense; if he was giving a universal prohibition, then his appeal to creation order, as we’ve already seen, is illogical.

Traditionalist logic here is circular. They assume that Genesis supports female subordination, then when reading 1 Tim. 2:11-15 they appeal back to it as their justification for their view. In other words, they presume authority being established in Genesis, then use it to support their interpretation of Paul’s words to Timothy as being universally applicable since it refers to creation order.

Verse 15 has been notoriously difficult to interpret, even by traditionalists. The whole of scripture clearly states that all people are saved by faith, yet this verse seems to make a connection between a woman’s bearing children and some kind of salvation. But the difficulty is much less if we continue with the egalitarian view that Paul is teaching against Gnostic heresy. They claimed that childbearing was evil, that it disqualified women from salvation. The Greek reads she (the woman) will be saved through the childbearing if they continue in godliness..., a very difficult construction. But Paul’s point is that childbearing, far from being evil, was the means by which we all are saved, that is, the Messiah would come through a daughter of Eve and reverse the effects of the Curse.

Conclusion

Like many other false teachings, women’s subordination must first be presumed and imposed upon scripture in order to support the traditionalist interpretation of the standard proof texts. It results in complicated rules that have no basis in scripture to qualify when and where a woman can serve in the church. It also requires the practice of using a few disputed passages to override the majority of clear passages, and to impose the specific over the universal. It relies upon circular logic and cultural tradition to justify ignoring culture and context in the passages that address women in the church.

In contrast, the egalitarian position fits naturally into all scripture. It does not violate the general Christian principles of mutual submission and sensitivity to culture, while at the same time proclaiming freedom from the Curse and hope for the oppressed. It also allows the Spirit free reign in the lives of all believers and bases service not on gender or culture but on spiritual gifting and maturity.