Although the debate between complementarians and egalitarians has not been revolutionised
lately, there are still real developments that the egalitarian Tim Foster wants to draw our
attention to. Tim Foster is Vice Principal of Ridley College, Melbourne.
For many the gender debate is like Groundhog Day, playing out in predictable ways, retracing old steps and unable to move forward. And yet there have been some interesting developments that may not have decided the matter, but which served to move the discussion forward. There are two major developments that I will consider. The first concerns a shift in the biblical discussion away from the Pauline corpus to consideration of how women are understood in a broader range of NT texts. The other concerns the relationship of God the Father and God the Son, whether the Son is functionally subordinate to the Father and what bearing it has on the submission of women to male authority.
I haven’t undertaken a statistical analysis, but there appears to have been a significant decline in the number of scholarly articles on the Pauline material relating to gender. This debate reached fever pitch in the late 1980s and early 90s with articles, responses and rejoinders on the meaning of ‘head’ in 1 Corinthians 11, or the nuances of the Greek word authentein filling the pages of academic journals. This torrent has become a trickle. A number of factors have contributed to this, the most obvious being that there is little new to say. There is also something of an impasse. Egalitarians have failed to explain the teaching of 1 Timothy 2 by referring to the cultural context and phenomena like the ‘New Roman Woman’ or the cult of Artemis. The complementarian appeal to the plain meaning of 1 Timothy 2 remains unpersuasive to egalitarians who see nothing plain in the meaning of verse 15, ‘she will be saved through childbirth’, who question unwarranted inferences concerning primogeniture in verse 13 and the inevitable implication of the gullibility of women in verse 14.
For these reasons the biblical discussion, at least for egalitarian scholars, has shifted away from the Pauline material to the New Testament more generally, with a focus on Luke. These scholars are inclined to argue that our understanding of gender needs to consider the broader witness of the New Testament, supported by social realities, archaeological studies and theological perspectives. An example of such a work is Greg W. Forbes and Scott D. Harrower, Raised from Obscurity: A Narratival and Theological Study of the Characterization of Women in Luke-Acts (Pickwick Publications, 2015). This book attempts to show how women are portrayed in Luke/Acts and consider what that says about their place in the church. Women are found to be ‘interpreters of salvation history, God’s prophetic mouthpieces, witnesses to the resurrection, proclaimers and teachers of the gospel, and patrons and leaders of the early church.’ After surveying the female characters in the infancy narratives they conclude that these figures, ‘serve as a bridge between the ministry of women in the OT and the developing roles of women in the early church. In the former time female involvement was occasional and proportionally small. In the infancy narratives women are front and center in the events of God’s saving purpose.’ (p. 63)
This biblical material is rarely considered in the gender debate and yet offers vital data as we seek to understand the role of women in God’s new community. Evangelical scholarship is able to offer a less combative, more nuanced and thoughtful approach than earlier feminist readings, offering hermeneutically responsible insights that are likely to provoke deeper consideration of the gender question. None of this is to discount the Pauline material. And no doubt complementarians will rightly insist that key texts such as 1 Timothy 2:8–15 are addressed. But it urges us to consider it within a broader frame of reference and probe the evidence from all angles. It suggests that there is a great deal of other evidence that has not been considered and seeks a better answer that is able to accommodate a wider range of biblical data.
Speaking of 1 Timothy 2, I should mention one article that offers fresh approach to the passage without importing cultural background from extra-biblical sources, even if I am its author! In the article “1 Timothy 2:13–15 as an Analogy” (Journal of St Paul and his Letters. 7.1, 2017) I argue that 1 Timothy 2:13 and 14 are not two arguments to support male authority followed by an obscure statement in verse 15, but that the three verses together form an analogy that draws on the narrative sequence of Genesis 2–3 to ground the commands of verses 11 and 12. Paul often uses an Old Testament analogy to serve as a warning (for example, Eve in 2 Cor 11:3). There is evidence in 1 and 2 Timothy that the heresy, espoused by a group of men (1 Tim 1:20; 2 Tim 2:17), has been embraced by many of the women (and only women) at Ephesus (see 2 Tim 3:6–7; 1 Tim 5:11–13, 15). If the women are now persuading the men to embrace the heresy then Paul is drawing a parallel between the events of the Garden and the experience of the Ephesian church. This alerts them to the next step in the sequence following the transgression of Eve, which was the temptation and fall of Adam. Rather than complete the pattern of the Garden in which Eve persuaded Adam to sin, the Ephesian women are to learn peaceably, refrain from teaching the men and submit themselves to duly appointed authorities. If the preceding verses, especially the demands of vv. 11–12, are grounded in this analogy then it cannot be claimed that they are based on a ‘creation mandate’ which permanently subordinates women or forever prevents them from teaching men. Whether this approach will get any attention, let alone further the debate remains to be seen. But it does suggest that discussion on the Pauline material is not yet exhausted.
The other area where there has been considerable development is on the question of the subordination of the Son to the Father and its implications for gender. Several leading complementarians have been arguing that the Son is eternally functionally subordinate to the Father and, according to 1 Corinthians 11:3, this establishes a pattern for the manner in which wives are to submit to their husbands. Thus, the hierarchy in the Trinity provides a basis for a hierarchy in gender relationships. While not all complementarians hold to this view, and not all express it in the same way, there have been several of its leading exponents advocating for it including Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem and Mark Thompson. By grounding gender relations in the being of God this shift offered significant dogmatic strength to the complementarian case. However, as we will see it has ultimately failed, splitting the complementarian camp and threatening Trinitarian orthodoxy.
This debate began in 2005 with the publication of Bruce Ware’s Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Crossway) in which he argued that the efficacy of the gospel is dependent upon the eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father. This is based, amongst other things, on the Son being eternally begotten of the Father, on the Father sending the Son, the Son doing the will of the Father, and the implied asymmetry in a Father/Son relationship. It is also said to be supported by passages such as 1 Corinthians 15:28 and 1 Peter 1:20. These, he claims, establish the gender-based, hierarchically order patterns of authority in the family and ministry.
This provoked a clear and careful response from Millard J Erickson in a work entitled Who's Tampering with the Trinity?: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate (Kregal, 2009). Erickson accepts that eternal functional subordination is technically within the bounds of orthodoxy, but maintains that eternal subordination in function implies an eternal difference of nature in which function is grounded, and so undermines equality of the Father and the Son. He concludes his book with a plea: ‘Please think through the implications of your view, observe the body of evidence against it, and reconsider the idea of the eternal functional superiority of the Father over the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (p. 259).
That may have been the end of the matter except that in June 2016 the evangelical blogosphere exploded following a post by complementarian scholar Liam Goligher entitled, ‘Is it Okay to Teach a Complementarianism Based on Eternal Subordination?’ Surprisingly Goligher accused the likes of Ware and Grudem of ‘reinventing the doctrine of God’ and having departed ‘from biblical Christianity as expressed in our creeds and confessions.’ That month over 150 blog posts were published, with several leading scholars joining the fray. Many of these are Reformed complementarians who supported and extended Goligher’s critique. A list of those blogs may be found at the URL below.i 1
It so happened that the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society to be held in San Antonio that November was on the theme of the Trinity. I was fortunate enough to be there and to see this debate play out. A panel discussion entitled, ‘Submission and Subordination in the Trinity’ was held featuring Melbourne Anglican Kevin Giles, Bruce Ware, Millard Erickson, and Wayne Grudem. This was a set piece debate with each scholar rehearsing their previous arguments and not really engaging each other. That evening a group of highly conservative Southern Baptists conducted their own panel on the issue, which consisted of seven leading complementarians including Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem. This was an excellent discussion, with real engagement and thoughtful reflection. But the real surprise was that at the end there was a consensus that Trinitarian relations have no bearing on the issue of gender. Finally, Wayne Grudem reluctantly agreed with this conclusion. This is probably not the end of the matter, but the pause in what was such a heated debate suggests that some careful reflection is taking place. One such reflection is found in the forthcoming volume Trinity without Hierarchy (Kregal, 2019), edited by Michael Bird and featuring some excellent articles by both egalitarians and complementarian scholars committed to maintaining the classical Trinitarian position.
One contribution of this debate that hasn’t been sufficiently explored is its bearing on the complementarian slogan ‘equal but different’. I have always found this confusing, as I believe men and women are equal but different too! But this Trinitarian debate raises serious doubts about whether a complementarian can validly make this claim. That is, is the claim that women are equal with men while being subordinate to them a coherent statement? Complementarians claim that it is, since the subordination is functional. Subordination is at the level of role and not being. However, if the relationship between men and women is hierarchical and this is grounded in an aspect of personhood (gender) then there can be no claim to equality in any meaningful sense. Calling the differences of authority and submission ‘relational’ or ‘functional’ does not solve the problem, since, as Erickson stated above with regard to the Trinity, subordination in function implies a difference of nature in which function is grounded. You can have hierarchy with equality, but not if it is grounded in an essential attribute like gender. At best the complementarian claim of equality of the sexes is partial (equally created in God’s image, equally saved, equality of value and rights), but not entirely equal (unequal in power and unequal in authority). The fact that Christian men are called to subvert this through the loving leadership of the husband is irrelevant to the validity of the claim of true equality.
The fact that this debate has dragged on for so long may lead many to despair and move on from the issue. But both sides have significant questions to answer—biblically, theologically and practically—and there is plenty more ink to be spilled. I hope that in doing so we come to a deeper understanding of the questions, of each other's perspectives and of what it means to be men and women in ministry together.