Plato said ideas rule the world. All action begins with an idea.
Paul said, “Take every thought captive to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).
Why? Because ideas have consequences.
The most prominent indicator of whether a girl will be sold
to a brothel, killed as a fetus, abused in her marriage or family, or
denied a place of decision making in her church, community, or
marriage is not based on her gender, but the value ascribed to the
female gender. In study after study, research suggests that when
a culture values females as much as males, we are more likely to
see equal numbers of girls surviving to adulthood. Gender justice
begins with an idea—that males and females are of equal value.
Thus, for every devaluation made of at the level of being, there
is a consequence in the form of marginalization, abuse, or injustice.
To say it another way, more positively, when communities
give females equal authority and resources in decision making,
not only are levels of abuse reduced, but economic stability also
increases within families and communities. Non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) call this the girl effect.1 Christians might
call this phenomenon the ezer effect because ezer
is the Hebrew word God used to describe the strong help females provide
(Gen 2:18). Ezer is found twenty-one times in the Old Testament, and,
of these, fourteen describe God’s help. According to R. David
Freedman, the Hebrew word used to describe woman’s help
(ezer) arises from two Hebrew roots that mean “to rescue, to save”
and “to be strong.”2 Perhaps the most common use of the word
is found in Psalm 121:1–2, where ezer is used for God’s rescue of
Israel: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help
come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven
and earth.” What stronger help is there apart from God’s rescue?
Scripture suggests that females were created to provide a
strong rescue, a fact NGOs now recognize. Support for women’s
leadership leads to significant social benefits, while denying them
equal value places them at risk for abuse. As so many have observed,
the wellbeing of whole communities is linked to the value
we ascribe to females. In this article, we will explore how ontological
devaluation of females—that is, seeing them as inferior
with respect to their being—is linked to their marginalization
and abuse. We shall then consider how the early evangelicals first
observed this link and offered a biblical challenge to a devaluation
of females. Next, we shall explore the parallels between slavery
and the emancipation of women as it informs our interpretation
of Scripture. Finally, we will consider how Scripture supports the
ontological equality of females. We begin with several personal
Ontological ideas have daily consequences
Brenda and Scott, as we will call them, work at a secular university
for a Christian ministry. They build relationships with college
students. They lead Bible groups. They interpret Scripture in
every possible context in working with students, both males and
females. They laugh, cry, pray, and encourage students and help
carry many burdens. Brenda is single, and Scott is married. Their
campus work is funded, mostly, by a large Baptist church that invites
Scott to preach (giving him an edge on fundraising with individuals).
But, because of her gender, Brenda is never invited to
speak from the platform. Brenda is not bitter, but one day she took
me aside and said, “Mimi, giving Scott regular opportunities to
preach and denying me the same tells me one thing: there is something
wrong with being a female. This is not about my character,
my devotion to Christ, or my tenacity and skill in working with
students. It is telling me that being female is less than being male.”
Consider Laticia (let’s call her), whom I met in my workshop
on Paul and women at a nationwide missions conference. Laticia
was a lawyer working on a PhD. She wanted a private moment
with me to tell me that she was thinking of leaving the church.
When I asked her why, she said it was because she wanted to
get married. When I asked for more information, she said that
Christians from her community believe that males are to hold
authority over women in church and marriage—not because they
are more holy, more intelligent, better able to discern God’s leading,
or because they have leadership and logic skills, but simply
because they are male. This is injustice, she said: to give a sector
of humanity unilateral authority while denying the same benefit
to another group based not on character, but on gender. She concluded
that she would not be party to injustice and, therefore,
could not marry and remain in the church.
A friend of mine—a pastor—was seated on a plane next to a
person who could not stomach religion because there was not
one that treated women as equal to men. Brenda, Laticia, and
the man seated next to my friend are asking significant questions
about gender and justice from an ontological perspective.
What do we mean by ontology? The term comes from two
Greek words ontos (“being”) and logia (“study”).
Ontology, then, is the philosophical study of “being.”
It is historically a branch
of philosophy known as metaphysics. Ontology is the study of
being, nature, or essence, necessarily assessed through comparisons.
To assume the ontological inferiority of any group is to assert
that their being, nature, or essence is less moral, rational, or
powerful compared to another group’s being, nature, or essence.
For example, it has often been assumed that men are more godlike
than women because men are presumed to be more rational
and morally able. Therefore, it follows that men should hold
positions of authority over women because of their innate, unchangeable,
ontological superiority. It was believed that royalty
were ontologically superior to commoners, and that whites were
ontologically superior to people of color.
The devaluation of people groups at an ontological level is deeply
entrenched throughout history. Observe the ontological
assumptions the Greeks made of women. Aristotle (384–322 BC) said, “The
relationship between the male and the female is by nature such that
the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the
female is ruled.”3 Plato (427–347 BC) concluded that “[woman’s]
native disposition is inferior to man’s.”4
These ideas have consequences
The daily lives of females reflect their ontological status.
In ancient Roman culture, the domination of patriarchy
and the paterfamilias was noted
in the preeminence of males, the vast
number of girl babies exposed and left
to die after birth, the lack of women’s participation in philosophy
and politics, the absence of women in social gatherings with
males, and the many sexual partners of males (including slaves,
female prostitutes, and boys/men) in addition to their wives.
Marriage was to ensure a man’s legitimate heirs.5
Gender and ontology in the early church
We notice a difference between Christians in the early church,
who rescued girl babies, and the Romans who abandoned them.
Christian women participated in the agape meals. They served
beside men as teachers, evangelists, missionaries, apostles,
prophets, and coworkers with Paul. By doing so, they engaged
with men in social and theological spheres. Women were also
martyred beside men for advancing the gospel with equal influence.
Christian marriages were monogamous, and Paul asks both
husbands and wives to submit to and obey one another (Eph 5:21;
1 Cor 7:3–5). Marriage is viewed as a one-flesh relationship for the
purposes of love, intimacy, and reflection of the mutual love and
sacrifice within the Trinity.
Notice Paul’s transformation from his life as a Jewish male
who prayed daily, “Thank you [God] for not making me a Gentile,
a woman, and a slave,”6 a prayer that discloses the ontological
devaluation of females that kept them from studying Torah or
participating equally beside males in worship. Scholars suggest
that Paul wrote Galatians 3:28—“There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”—to reveal how the
gospel redresses prejudice based on gender, ethnicity, and class.7
Men and women, slaves and free, Greek and Jew constitute one
body—the church, Christ’s New Covenant community which,
though diverse in gender, ethnicity, and class, yet functions without
favoritism based on these attributes.8 Thus, males in the early
church shared leadership with females, as Scripture and archaeological
evidence suggest.9 Unfortunately, the ontological and
functional equality of male and female believers was short-lived.
Philosophical views close doors for women
Early church fathers—trained in Greek philosophy—retained the
notion that women are inferior in their being and should therefore
be excluded from authority and positions of leadership. As
a result, the church no longer provided a counterpoint to the
cultural devaluation of females. In this respect, the prejudices
of these early church fathers resemble the teachings of Brahman
and Muslim scholars. For example, Manu, a Brahman social
commentator, argued that woman possesses a temper or nature
that is “mutable” (inconstant) and since “women are destitute of
strength and also of knowledge [they] are as impure as falsehood
itself [and] that is a fixed rule. . . .”10 Ideas have consequences.
Given such teachings, females were held under the authority of males:
their father, husband, sons, and grandsons. 11 In India, for example, due to
their presumed innate inferiority, women “were forbidden to read the
sacred Scriptures,” having “no right to pronounce a single syllable.”12 The ancient
gods were rarely evoked for the birth of girls. For years, it
was possible for a wife to be replaced if she did not give birth to
a son after the eleventh year of marriage. In more recent times,
the Indian government has tried to limit access to ultrasounds
in selecting for gender. The devaluation of females is evident in
the large number of girls taken to Hindu temples as prostitutes,
Devi Dasi or the devil’s whores, a problem persisting to this day.
The subordination of women within Brahmanism has also led
to a brutal patrilineal culture in which a female becomes part of
her husband’s household, where she is often isolated and easily
devalued and abused. Notice how Christian Scriptures such as
Genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 5:31 oppose this practice of subjecting
a female to the authority of her husband’s family.
Males in the early church shared leadership with females, as Scripture and archaeological evidence suggest. Unfortunately, the ontological and functional equality of male and female believers was short-lived.
Like Brahmanism, Islam also insists upon the inferiority of
females at the level of their being. Islamic prophetic tradition
says that “the character of women is likened to a rib, crooked.
. . . This crookedness then is inherent and incurable.”13 Ahmad
Zaky Tuffaha adds, “. . . the woman is not equal to the man . . .
for how can the commanding and the commanded, the great and
the small, the knowledgeable and the ignorant, the sane and the
mad, the unjust and the just, the honorable and the insignificant,
the able and the unable, the working and the lazy, the strong and
the weak be equal?”14 The Qur’an reads: “Men have authority over
women because God has made the one superior to the other. . . .”15
Do these ideas have consequences? In their chapter “Is Islam
Mysogynistic?” in Half the Sky,16 Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas
Kristof make what they admit is a politically incorrect statement:
“Of the countries where women are held back and subjected to
systematic abuses such as honor killings and genital cutting, a
very large proportion are predominantly Muslim.”17 Most Muslims
worldwide, they write, “don’t believe in such practices, and
some Christians do—but the fact remains that the countries
where girls are cut, killed for honor, or kept out of school or the
workplace typically have large Muslim populations.”18
Perils of devaluation
A devaluation of individuals based on their being is noted
throughout human history. For example, not long ago, Nazi Germany
mounted an extensive campaign to devalue Jews at the level
of being. Before they were able to convince Germans to round up
Jews and send them to death camps, the Nazis first had to insist
upon their innate and unchangeable inferiority. Triumphantly,
Nazis noted their great success in “reeducating” Germans:
. . . there are only a few people left in Germany who are not
clear about the fact that the Jew is not, as previously thought,
distinct from “Christians,” “Protestants,” or “Catholics” only
in that he is of another religion, and is therefore a German
like all of the rest of us, but rather that he belongs to a different
race than we do. The Jew belongs to a different race; that
is what is decisive.19
By suggesting that Jews comprise a different race, the Nazis were
able to construct a distinct and inferior ontological category for
Jews. The genocide of the Jews was made plausible by first positing
that the Aryan Germans were the superior race and by showing
that the Jews had no share in their blood line.
In a similar manner, the American institution of slavery was
based on a perceived inferiority of African Americans at the level
of being. The French scholar Compte A. de Gasparin said that
slavery was centered on “a native and indestructible inferiority”
of those of African descent.20 This so-called innate inferiority
was rooted not in one’s moral choices, but in one’s ancestry, and
was, therefore, an unchangeable condition. It was African ethnicity,
noted in skin color, that placed Africans under the permanent
domination of those said to be their superiors—whites.
The reason the Civil War failed to redress ethnic prejudice is that
the so-called inferiority was associated not with slavery, but with
ethnicity. Slavery was the consequence of an idea: that Africans
were inferior. Slavery was not the root cause; an ethnic devaluation
was. One can amend the United States Constitution and free
the slaves, but new forms of ethnic abuse will emerge because the
root problem—ethnic prejudice—has not been addressed.
Historian Mark Noll said it would take more than guns and
blood to overcome the devaluation of African Americans, of
which slavery was only one manifestation.21 In fact, it would take
many years before the United States even became conscious of its
own philosophical constructs that fueled prejudice and oppression
based on ethnicity.
Recently, an article appeared in the Baptist News that illustrates
this point. It reads:
Ethics Daily has reported a social shift that may represent
a larger leap than our recent election of an African-American
president. Bob Jones University, perhaps the most fundamentalist
and segregated Baptist school in the world,22 has issued
an apology for its practices and policies of racial segregation.
In 1986, a member of the Bible department [at Bob Jones] had
articulated the school’s position. Separation of the races, this
faculty member wrote, was God’s design. The school was submitting
to the authority of Scripture in its policies, it said.
Now the school says something other than “biblical obedience”
shaped its racial practices. The statement reports that
policies were “characterized by the segregationist ethos of
American Culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed
institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly
by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the
Scriptures. We conformed to the culture rather than provide
a clear Christian counterpoint to it. In so doing, we failed to
accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandments
to love others as ourselves. For these failures we are
It was the inability to regard African Americans as equal members
of the human family that made it possible for slavery advocates to
ignore the profound ways in which slavery transgressed biblical
values such as the sacredness of marriage and families, sexual purity,
knowing and loving God through Scripture, and using one’s
spiritual gifts in advancing Christ’s kingdom. Mark Noll observes,
“So seriously fixed in the minds of white Americans, including
most abolitionists, was the certainty of black racial inferiority that
it overwhelmed biblical testimony about race, even though most
Protestant Americans claimed that Scripture was in fact their supreme
authority in adjudicating such matters.”24 Prejudice muddied
their biblical clarity. Many individuals did not perceive their
racial prejudice as an obstacle to interpreting Scripture consistently.
There were prominent exceptions, however.
Missionaries working in Africa were vocal in denying the presumed
inferiority of Africans upon which the system of slavery
was defended. According to Noll, one missionary wrote that nowhere
in his experience had he observed evidence of the so called
“native inferiority which many good and learned men suppose
to exist.”25 In fact, the deplorable ignorance ascribed to African
culture was a myth created by the slave trade. If one can control
for opportunity, one can also control for ability, because no group
is, in their being, innately inferior to another group.
Like slavery, gender hierarchy is dependent upon an ontological
devaluation of females. Therefore, the subjugation of women is
made plausible by insisting that males are innately superior. There
can be no question that Christians have advanced, uncritically, the
inferiority of females as a whole. Here are a few examples:
Irenaeus (AD 130–202): “Both nature and the law place the
woman in a subordinate condition to the man.”26
Augustine (AD 354–430): “Nor can it be doubted, that it is
more consonant with the order of nature that men should
bear rule over women, than women over men.”27
Chrysostom (AD 347–407): “The woman taught once, and
ruined all. On this account . . . let her not teach . . . for the sex
is weak and fickle. . . .”28
John Calvin (1509–1564), in his commentary on 1 Timothy,
wrote that women are “not to assume authority over the man;
. . . it is not permitted by their condition.”29
John Knox (1514–1572) said, “Nature, I say, does paint [women]
forth to be weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish; and
experience has declared them to be inconstant, variable, cruel.
. . . Since flesh is subordinate to spirit, a woman’s place is
Even today, one popular pastor of a megachurch writes:
". . . when it comes to leading in the church, women are unfit because
they are more gullible and easier to deceive than men. . . .
[W]omen who fail to trust [Paul’s] instruction . . . are much like
their mother Eve. . . . Before you get all emotional like a woman
in hearing this, please consider the content of the women’s
magazines at your local grocery store that encourage liberated
women in our day to watch porno with their boyfriends, master
oral sex for men who have no intention of marrying them
. . . and ask yourself if it doesn’t look like the Serpent is still
trolling the garden and that the daughters of Eve aren’t gullible
in pronouncing progress, liberation, and equality."31
Women lead the modern missionary movement
Despite such disparaging assumptions made by Christians, females
as a whole have not performed according to the devaluations
made of them. In fact, throughout church history, we
observe women providing enormous moral, spiritual, and intellectual
leadership within the church even without official authority.
This was never more the case than during the modern missionary
movement, when women outnumbered men on mission
fields around the world two to one. Their leadership combined
evangelism with humanitarian service, and their work gave rise
to new centers of spiritual vitality throughout Asia, Africa, and
the Americas—so much so that their leadership shifted the density
of Christian faith from the West to broadly scatted locations
in the global South and the East, as Dana Roberts of Boston
University notes.32 Without the vote, without a legal voice, and
without the World Wide Web, these women established highly
productive and just mission organizations, and they occupied all
levels of service and leadership. Their leadership in organizations
such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Society
for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the American Antislavery
Society, and the Salvation Army gave enormous momentum to
suffrage, abolition, and temperance because their humanitarian
focus was inseparable from their evangelism. Moreover, as the
early evangelicals worked to free females from sexual slavery,
they also discovered a link between female abuse and a deprecation
of females at the level of being.
Working in India among brothels established by the British
government to attract and retain soldiers and officers, Katherine
Bushnell (1856–1946), a medical doctor, infiltrated British garrisons
to learn firsthand the abuses female prostitutes suffered. According
to her findings, these abuses were justified not only to
satisfy the sexual needs of the British military, but also because
females were viewed as innately inferior. Bushnell eventually
realized that the global abuse of women was inseparable from a
devaluation of females as a whole. In response, Bushnell wrote
God’s Word to Women, one hundred lessons on scriptural teaching
about gender to provide a whole-Bible approach to show that
Scripture values males and females equally.33 Her painstaking
research on Greek and Hebrew words, archaeology, and ancient
history is a death-blow to what philosophers call ascriptivism, a
system that ascribes value, dignity, and worth to groups based on
attributes such as gender, ethnicity, or class. Bushnell’s arguments
were biblical and systematic, adding momentum to the first wave
of feminism—a deeply biblical movement that advanced suffrage,
abolition, and the leadership of women in church work. Bushnell
was joined by other early evangelicals such as Sojourner Truth,
Catherine Booth, Fredrik Franson, Frances Willard, Amanda
Smith, A. J. Gordon, Josephine Butler, and others who together
published more than forty systematic biblical treatises supporting
the ontological and functional equality of women and slaves.34
Consider Adoniram Judson Gordon, perhaps the most prominent
Baptist pastor of his day, after whom Gordon College and
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary are named. Gordon was
an outspoken advocate of missions, abolition, and women in
ministry. Advancing a whole-Bible hermeneutic when considering
gender and service, Gordon believed that Pentecost was the
“Magna Charta of the Christian Church,”35 as it demonstrated
that women, as well as all ethnic groups, share equally in Christ’s
New Covenant community.36 Under the New Covenant, those
who had once been viewed as inferior by natural birth (their being
and nature) attain a new spiritual status through the power
of the Holy Spirit. For God’s gifting no longer rests on a “favored
few, but upon the many, without regard to race, or age, or sex.”37
Yet, the earliest and most extensive challenge to women’s
ontological inferiority was published by Katharine Bushnell.
Through an epistemological challenge, Bushnell engaged the
whole of Scripture, particularly the early chapters of Genesis, to
posit the ontological equality of males and females. She concluded
that, according to Scripture, Adam and Eve were both created
in the image of God,38 that both were called to be fruitful and to
exercise a shared dominion in Eden,39 a dominion that did not
place Adam over Eve. Eve was not the source of sin,40 and God
does not curse women because of Eve.41 Rather, it was Satan, not
God, who inspired the domination of men over women.42 God
bestows leadership on those who do what is right in God’s sight
regardless of their gender, birth order, nationality, or class.43
Bushnell located women’s ontological status not in the fall, but
in Christ’s completed work on Calvary. Therefore, a consistent interpretation
of Scripture as it relates to women’s value44 should
be determined in the same manner as men’s value, based on the
atonement of Jesus Christ. “[We] cannot, for women, put the ‘new
wine’ of the Gospel into the old wine-skins of ‘condemnation.’”45
Bushnell condemned the prejudice noted throughout church history
which routinely aligned women’s status with Eve’s sin rather
than through their full redemption and inheritance in Christ.
Katharine Bushnell recognized that female subjugation and
abuse was often linked to poor methods of biblical interpretation—
failing to differentiate what is descriptive in Scripture from
that which is prescriptive. While patriarchy is part of the cultures
depicted in the Bible, patriarchy does not constitute the moral
teachings of Scripture. After years of working to free females
from sex slavery around the world, Bushnell observed that the
global abuse of women was inseparable from a devaluation of
females promoted by religious and philosophical teachings justifying
and codifying male dominance and female subservience.
Bushnell argued that the abuse of women will not be overcome as
long as “the subordination of woman to man was taught within
the body of Christians.”46 Bushnell wrote:
"[W]e must have the whole-hearted backing of the Christian
church in our [work], and that we would not have it until men
came to understand that a woman is of as much value as a
man; and they will not believe this until they see it plainly
taught in the Bible.
"Just so long as men imagine that a system of caste is taught
in the Word of God, and that they belong to the upper caste
while women are of the lower caste; and just so long as they
believe that mere flesh—fate—determines the caste to which
one belongs; and just so long as they believe that
. . . Genesis 3:16 [teaches] “thy desire shall be for
thy husband, and he shall rule over you” . . . the
destruction of young women into a prostitute
class [will] continue.
"But place Christian women where God intends
them to stand, on a plane of full equality with
men in the church and home, where their faculties,
their will, their consciences are controlled
only by the God who made man and woman
equal by creation . . . then the world will become
a much purer [place] than it is today. . . ."47
Bushnell’s work among abused women compelled
her to challenge the ideas that drove the sex industry,
and her work, as well as that of others, provides the
first whole-Bible approach to gender equality at an
ontological level, challenging the erroneous view that
women are more gullible and inferior, and, therefore,
in need of male authority.
The egalitarian view gains strength
By the 1800s, two views on gender ontology were
circulated. First, the patriarchal perspective views women as unequal
in being and unequal in authority. This was the dominant
view until the 1800s. Second, the egalitarian view sees women as
equal in being and equal in authority. This view gained prominence
in the 1800s. In the 1980s, a third view emerged depicting
women as equal in being, but unequal in function or authority.
As the egalitarian position gained acceptance, suffrage was
instituted, and immediate, rich social consequences ensued.
For example, in the United States, maternal and child mortality
decreased dramatically after women gained the vote. Prior
to suffrage, more women died giving birth than did all men in
United States wars combined to that date. Further, child mortality
dropped by 72 percent.48
Not only do we observe less abuse and greater health for
women and children as American culture became more egalitarian,
but we also find that, when authority is shared, marriage
relationships are less abusive. Couples who share decision making
are less likely to experience abuse, according to research by
the Prepare and Enrich Premarital Inventory—one of the most
widely used population samples in the world. While other factors
contribute to couple wellbeing, as this graph suggests, role
relationships or gender role equality is one of the most significant
elements determining abuse.49 Couples with the highest levels of
abuse are those where one partner is dominant, most often the
male, and the other avoidant or submissive. Research by Prepare
and Enrich also shows a statistical association between violence
and unequal power in decision making.50
Similarly, studies by NGOs suggest that, when communities
are more egalitarian, there is less gender abuse. Amartya Sen, a
Nobel Prize–winning economist, documented a correlation between
a culture’s devaluation of females and steep drops in their
numbers.51 By contrast, in those communities where gender
equality is valued, the ratio of females to males resembles gender
ratios in the United States.52
South Korea has turned the tide on male preference. In the
1990s, the nation had a gender ratio almost as skewed as China’s.
Now, it is heading toward normality, “because the culture changed.
Female education, antidiscrimination suits, and equal rights rulings
made son preference seem old-fashioned and unnecessary.”53
Clearly, gains have been made as culture has become more
egalitarian, yet there is still much work to be done. For example,
women have not yet attained equal leadership politically or professionally.
Though outnumbering men in medical school, law
school, and many graduate programs, women lag behind men
in income and in holding top positions in corporations, political
parties, and organizations, because, in part, society has not dealt
completely with the root problem—an idea—that women are not
as able as men. The idea that God does not give women positions
of leadership is also taught as a biblical principle by missionaries
and churches around the world. There remains much work to do,
and yet many significant strategies can be learned from reform
movements throughout history, particularly abolition.
Slavery and gender: a church under reform 54
Throughout history, the church has undergone renewal and reform;
it has changed its mind on key issues. To put it another
way, the Holy Spirit “cleans house” in each generation, allowing
the church to become a more authentic witness to Christ, more
perfectly reflecting God’s love and mission in the world.
Reform is often led by prophetic individuals who challenge
indifference, ignorance, and theological and moral failings.
Such reformers are often people who have been deeply renewed
themselves. These leaders imagine an alternative future not yet
realized and often have deep intellectual, moral, and spiritual
roots sustaining their arduous work. For these reasons, reformers
often possess an indomitable energy that comes from a spiritual
source. Reformers and efforts share a number of similarities.
1. Reformers appeal to reason: A scholarly exchange of ideas
takes place among reformers. Reformers see, in profound ways,
a biblical truth that has gone unnoticed, and they begin to write
passionately about it. Their scholarship appears initially odd,
though their logic eventually garners respect. Ultimately, their
call to the entire body of Christ is, “Come, let’s reason together.”
2. Reformers are deeply reformed themselves: Their vibrant
intellectual life is often shaped by a deep spiritual life. Through
prayer, they unite themselves to God and God’s reforming work.
3. Popularization of abstract ideas: After an intellectual basis is
developed, artists, musicians, and writers make intellectual arguments
not only popular, but compelling. Artists are able to infuse
reformist ideas into hearts and lives. They help the average person
feel the injustice that the reform addresses. A popularization
of intellectual ideas was noted in such great literary works as Uncle
Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn, and the diaries of slaves such
as Sojourner Truth. These masterpieces enable non-slaves to feel
the injustice of slavery, helping the church to “cry with those who
cry.” Ultimately, the creative community imparts vision, passion,
and the will to reform.
4. Global dialogue among likeminded leaders: Reformist ideas
spread widely, engaging the body of Christ across the world in
praying, writing, thinking, and discussing reform as a global
church community. What began as a local dialogue becomes a
global conversation among Christians from many different traditions
and on many continents.
5. A backpedaling of the position under critique: Slavery advocates
seek to correct abuses of slavery while retaining the institution.
Within the gender reform movement, “soft male hierarchal
complementarians” challenge gender abuse without abandoning
male authority, favoring “headship with a heart” or servant leadership,
thus retaining male authority over females.
6. The church reforms its theology (ideas) and its practices: Ultimately,
reform movements bring needed change to theology and
Theological foundations of slavery and gender reform 55
There are a number of critical rhetorical and theological similarities
between the abolitionist and gender reform movements.
Both challenge a shallow reading of Scripture. Both insist upon
taking into account the historical and cultural background of
biblical passages for consistent interpretation. Both focus on
the moral teachings of Scripture rather than particularities of
the cultures depicted in the Bible. From the intense debate over
slavery and women’s subordination emerged principles of biblical
interpretation that advanced abolition and gender reforms.
1. A plain reading of the Bible must include the historical and
cultural context. Too often, the proslavery camp, like those opposed
to women’s leadership, relied upon a “plain reading” of
Scripture without understanding the original author’s intent and
audience. But to avoid abusing Scripture for personal gain (after
all, slaves and women provided an unpaid social service industry),
passages that are said to deny authority to individuals—in
this case, slaves and women—must be read within their historical
and cultural contexts.
2. The full testimony of Scripture must be considered. The obscure
portions of Scripture must be interpreted by those which
are obvious. In considering the passages on Abraham, for example,
the point is not that he had servants, possibly slaves, but that
he trusted God’s promise. Similarly, the point of 1 Timothy 2:11–15
is not that Paul subjugates all women to silence and male authority,
but that those who teach should be educated and should not
domineer over others.
3. A portion of Scripture should be viewed for its primary emphasis,
not for its “attendant or cultural features.” Slavery and patriarchy
are part of Bible culture. These are attendant or cultural
features which do not constitute the moral teachings of Scripture.
4. Be scrupulous in assessing selfish motives when reading the
Bible (Matt 20:25–28).
Forged through the pain of slavery and gender subjugation, reformers
equipped the church with better methods of interpretation
that offered biblical value, dignity, and equality to those who once
had been viewed as ontologically inferior. It was a new idea with
wholesome consequences. We can see how these ideas empowered
the work of individuals such as former slave Amanda Smith.
A freed American slave who became one of the most successful
missionaries of her day, Amanda Smith, while speaking at a revival
in England in 1882, located her true identity in her relationship
to God. She said: “You may not know it, but I am a princess
in disguise. I am a child of the King.”57 Smith realized that, “if she
was God’s child, she was also an heir of God!”58 Embracing her full
inheritance in Christ, Smith declared herself an heir—despite her
gender, ethnicity, or class—with full privileges to advance Christ’s
kingdom by fanning into flame the gift within her. What was the
result? Many on the mission field recognized her as a leader. One
man told her that he had learned more about Christian leadership
from observing her lead than from any other life example. Smith’s
self-confidence was infectious, even as she pushed past a number
of gatekeepers. She recognized that her truest identity rested not
in her gender, but in her union with Christ.
Embracing their identity in Christ, leaders such as Amanda
Smith allowed the fullest teachings of Scripture to inform more
obscure passages like Paul’s letters to Timothy. Rather than reading
all of Scripture through the lens of 1 Timothy 2:11–15, the early
evangelicals began to read 1 Timothy 2:11–15 through the whole of
Scripture, particularly Paul’s work with women. In doing so, they
noticed that Paul built the church working beside women such
as Phoebe, Junia, Lydia, Chloe, and Priscilla. The experiences of
combating slavery and female subjugation enabled the early evangelicals
to push past shallow interpretations to perceive, embrace,
and celebrate those liberating messages of Scripture where the
moral principles of the Bible prevail over the slavery and patriarchy
that were part of the Bible’s cultural milieu. Slaves and women
were among the first to notice these liberating moments in Scripture,
such as Paul’s conversion—an experience so powerful that he
abandoned and opposed the ethnic and gender segregation of the
Jewish priesthood to replace it with the priesthood of all believers.
Katharine Bushnell observed that Jesus never devalued women.
Christ assumed that women were fully human and equal
to men, and he was strangely and authentically comfortable in
their presence. He approached them as he did men, in public,
regardless of cultural taboos. He commissioned women to build
God’s kingdom (John 20:17–18), just as he commissioned men.
He consistently challenged the cultural devaluation of women’s
bodies. Christ healed a hemorrhaging woman in public, fully understanding
the cultural assumption that, if he touched her, he too would be unclean.
He overturned this belief by allowing her to touch him in public, declaring
that she had been healed of her disease. She was not unclean,
but ill. Women were the first to notice the liberating message in
Christ’s words and deeds.
Jesus spoke with women unselfconsciously, in broad daylight,
despite the disapproval of his disciples (John 4:4–42). Unlike the
rabbis of his day, Jesus allowed women to sit at his feet and study his
teachings (Luke 10:38–42), preparing them for service as disciples,
evangelists, and teachers. In all ways, the equality of women was
self-evident, implicit, and, most importantly, consistently part of
Christ’s teachings and practice. These passages were given new expanse
and import by early evangelicals such as Katharine Bushnell.
When a woman called out to Jesus, saying, “Blessed is the mother
who gave you birth and nursed you,” Jesus responded, “Blessed
rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke
11:27–28). For Jesus, a woman’s value resides not in her cultural
roles, but in her response to God’s revelation in her life. This becomes
the standard for every member of Christ’s New Covenant—
male and female. Women are now daughters of Abraham (Luke
13:16), a phrase first used by Jesus to welcome God’s daughters as
heirs and full members of Christ’s body, the church. The life and
teachings of Jesus shattered the patriarchy of his culture by breaking
these and other cultural and religious taboos related to gender.
Consider Pentecost—the birthday of the church (Acts 2:1–18)—
mediated not through an elite group of Jewish males, but through
God’s Spirit poured out on many tribes and nations, on both men
and women. Pentecost was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy: “In
the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see
visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants,
both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17–18). There is no gender, ethnic,
or age preference noted in the birth of the church or in the
gifts expressed at Pentecost.
In the New Covenant, baptism rather than circumcision became
the outer expression of our union with Christ, and baptism was
open to male and female, Jew, Greek, slave, and free. The significance
of Christian baptism is cited in Galatians 3:2, a verse etched
into early baptismal fonts celebrating the inclusivity of Christian
faith. To be united with Christ in his death and resurrection constitutes
a rebirth that redefines our value with respect to God and
all other Christians.59 Because Christ established satisfaction and
reconciliation between sinners and God, we receive newness of
life and power from the Holy Spirit to work for mutuality among
the members of Christ’s body—the church. To state it another
way, our soteriology (our doctrine of salvation) shapes our ecclesiology
(our doctrine of the church).60
The notion that Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, male and female are
all one in Christ (Gal 3:28) was an affront to a culture where identity, value,
and influence was established through class, gender, and ethnicity. Remember,
more than half of the population were slaves and women
in Paul’s day. To this culture, Paul suggests that to be clothed in
Christ is to be heirs of Christ’s kingdom; what we inherit through
our earthly parents cannot compare to our heritage through
Christ. Galatians 3:28 redefines the ontological status of females,
slaves, and ethnic minorities, an idea with daily consequences.
The new wine of Jesus would require a new wineskin where slaves and women can serve equally in accomplishing the purposes for
which God had called and gifted them.
Paul continually places the ethos of the New Covenant above
the gender and cultural norms of his day. For example, Paul asks
Philemon to welcome Onesimus as a Christian brother (Philem
16). With these words, Paul allows kingdom values to take precedence
over cultural expectations for slaves, pointing to the fact
that the cross changes everything (1 Cor 2:6, 7:31). It is believed
that, ultimately, Onesimus became bishop of Ephesus.61
In the same way, husbands and wives are called to submit to one
another in marriage (1 Cor 7:3–4) just as all Christians submit
to one another (Eph 5:21). Interestingly, Paul asks those with
cultural authority—husbands—to love their wives as they love
themselves, even to the point of death. Certainly, this request
would have been radical to first-century husbands. As men and
husbands held ultimate authority over their wives, Paul asks husbands
to sacrifice themselves for their wives as Christ sacrificed
himself for the church. This is a complete reframing of gender
and authority in marriage. Christian authority in marriage reflects
authority in ministry—it is the call to serve without self-
regard: to lay down one’s life for another.
Paul realized that God was building a new creation—the
church—with each member born of the Spirit and joined equally
to Jesus as head. The new wine of Jesus would require a new
wineskin where slaves and women can serve equally in accomplishing
the purposes for which God had called and gifted them.
That is why Paul did not hesitate to celebrate the woman Junia
as an apostle. Nor was he reluctant to require respect for Phoebe
as a deacon and prostates—that is, a leader in the church of Cenchreae.
Nor do Paul and the other apostles shy away from celebrating
the leadership of women teachers such as Priscilla and
house church leaders such as Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, and Apphia.
The new wine of Jesus’ liberation would require a new wineskin
where slaves and women leaders could participate equally in accomplishing
the purposes for which God had created, called, and
Slaves and women were quick to notice that spiritual gifts are
not given along ethnic, class, or gender lines. Spiritual gifts are
first and foremost an equipping for service, and all believers are
called to serve. In referring to the spiritual gifts, Paul reminds
Christians in Rome not to think more highly of themselves than
they ought to think, but with sober judgment to count others as
better than themselves, remembering that, though each person
receives spiritual gifts, the gifts are for serving, and each of us is
dependent upon the gifts we receive from other believers. For, as
Paul said, “each member belongs to all the others” (Rom 12:5b).
Likewise, Paul tells the Christians at Corinth that they are mutually
dependent upon one another, for, “The eye cannot say to the
hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I
don’t need you!’” (1 Cor 12:21). The eye needs the hands, just as
the head needs the feet. The parts of the body are not divided
from one another, but function best when they have equal concern
for, and mutual submission toward, one another.
Service is not determined by gender or class, but arises from
God’s gifting and is established by one’s character, moral choices,
and intimacy with God. Here, Scripture deals a deathblow to any
notion of ontological superiority presumed by one’s gender or
ethnicity or class. Here are just two examples:
Notice that, in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul limits women at Ephesus
from teaching, not as a consequence of gender, but because of the
type of authority these women exercised. While this passage is frequently
used to limit women’s authority as a whole, notice that the
intention of Scripture is quite different. What is often missed by
those unfamiliar with Greek is that Paul selects an unusual Greek
word when speaking of authority in verse 12. Rather than using
the most common Greek terms for healthy or proper authority or
oversight (exousia), Paul selects the term authentein—a word that
would have caught the attention of first-century readers!
Authentein implied a domineering, misappropriated, or
usurped authority. Authentein can also mean to behave in violent ways.
It can even imply murder! Authentein appears only once in Scripture,
here in 1 Timothy 2:12, and it was used by Paul as well as extrabiblical authors
to connote authority that was destructive.
For this reason, various translations of Scripture rendered
the special sense of this word as follows:
Vulgate (fourth to fifth century AD) as, “I permit not a woman
to teach, neither to domineer over a man.”
The Geneva Bible (1560 edition) as, “I permit not a woman to
teach, neither to usurp authority over the man.”
King James Version (1611) as, “I suffer not a woman to teach,
nor usurp authority over a man.”
The New English Bible (1961) as, “I do not permit a woman to
be a teacher, nor must woman domineer over man.”62
This unusual Greek verb makes it clear that what Paul is objecting
to in 1 Timothy 2:11–12 is an ungodly, domineering usurpation
Leadership concerns character. Thus, in determining who
may or may not serve as an elder, overseer, deacon, pastor, or
church board member, it is not gender, ethnicity, education,
wealth, age, experience, or a person’s capacity to influence others
that Scripture celebrates. Rather, it is one’s moral choices tied
clearly to one’s intimacy with Christ. The following table shows
the character qualities required in elders, overseers, deacons, and
widows—who also served as leaders. These qualities are, interestingly,
very similar to the fruit of the Spirit.
Gifts of Spirit
Biblical leadership is established not through gender, but through
character and one’s capacity to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit. In
contrast, those who display the fruit of the flesh (e.g., fornication,
impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy,
anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness,
carousing, etc. [Gal 5:19–21]) have disqualified themselves from
leadership regardless of their gender, class, or ethnicity.
To follow the teachings of Scripture, our choice of leaders, deacons,
pastors, elders, and teachers should be from individuals
who best exhibit the fruits of the Spirit, regardless of gender.
Through our rebirth in Christ, all people, including slaves and
women, inherit a new identity—not of shame, marginalization,
or abuse, but of dignity, equality, and shared authority and service
because they are also born of the Spirit. Ethnicity, gender, or
class no longer limit one’s potential or service in Christ. As those
who had once been subjugated began to read and interpret Scripture
consistently, they brought a wealth of insight to the world,
expanding our gratitude for Christ through whom all people
receive their truest empowerment and identity, regardless of the
circumstances of our birth.
1. The term the girl effect is used by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in Half the Sky (New York, NY: Vintage, 2009), reviewed in this issue of Priscilla Papers. A portion of this article was published by Mimi Haddad, “Global Perspectives on Women in Leadership,” Zadok Perspectives 109 (Summer 2010):4–9.
2. R. David Freedman, “Woman, a Power Equal to a Man,” Archaeology Review 9 (1983): 56–58.
3. Aristotle, Politica 1.5.B4v, trans. Bejamin Jowett, vol. 10 in The Works of Aristotle Translated into English under the Editorship of W. D. Ross (Oxford: Clarendon, 1921).
4. Plato, Laws 6.781a, b, trans. A. E. Taylor, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato: Including the Letters, Bollingen Series LXXI, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963), 1356.
5. See Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York, NY: Schocken, 1995), 79ff.
6. Menahoth 43b–44a; Talmud; Shabbath 86a–86b.
7. Gordon Fee, Listening to the Spirit in the Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 58ff.
Commentary on Galatians (Blandford Forum,
UK: Deo, 2007) and Ben Witherington, Grace in Galatia: Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
9. See Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, ed. Ronald Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon Fee (Carol Stream, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), and also Dorothy Irvin, The Archaeology of Women’s Traditional Ministries in the Church, available through Christians for Biblical Equality’s bookstore.
10. Manu IX:15–17. See the writings of Manu at
Hindu Website. Accessed June 2010.
11. Manu IX:2–3.
12. Manu IX:18. See also Pandita Ramabai, The High Caste Hindu Woman (New York, NY: Revell, 1902), 81ff.
13. Sahih al-Bukhari, Arabic-English translation, vol. 7, Hadith 113–14.
14. Ahmad Zaky Tuffaha, Al-Mar’ah wal-Islam, 1st ed., Dar al-Kitab al-Lubnani, Beirut, 1985, 37.
15. The Koran, with notes by N. J. Dawood (London: Penguin, 1990), 64.
16. Kristof and WuDunn, Half the Sky, 149–60.
17. Kristof and WuDunn, Half the Sky, 149.
18. Kristof and WuDunn, Half the Sky, 149.
19. “Our Battle against Judah,” German Propaganda Archive, Calvin
20. Comte Agenor de Gasparin, The Uprising of a Great People, trans. Mary Booth (New York, NY: Scribners, 1862), 103–04.
21. See Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 159ff.
22. Bob Jones University did not permit interracial dating.
23. Robert Parham, “Bob Jones University Apologizes for Racial Policies,” Nov. 4, 2008, Ethics Daily website. Accessed June 1, 2010.
24. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 73.
25. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 118.
26. Irenaeus, fragment 32, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 1:573. Emphasis mine.
27. Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence 1.10, trans. Robert Ernest Wallis, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1, ed. Philip Schaff [hereafter NPNF] (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1886), 5:267. Emphasis mine.
28. John Chrysostom, “Homily IX,” in Homilies on 1 Timothy, NPNF 13:436. Emphasis mine.
29. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, in Calvin’s Commentaries, trans. William Pringle (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1856), 37. Emphasis mine.
30. John Knox, “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women 1558,” in The Political Writings of John Knox, ed. Marvin A. Breslow (Cranbury, NY: Associate University Presses, 1985), 43. Emphasis mine.
31. Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill Church, Seattle, WA. Quoted at the Denny Burk website. Accessed March 24, 2010.
32. Dana L. Robert, American Women in Mission: A Social History of their Thought and Practice (Macon: GA: Mercer University Press, 2005), ix.
33. Katharine Bushnell, Dr. Katharine Bushnell: A Brief Sketch of Her Life Work (Hertford, UK: Rose and Sons, Salisbury Square, 1930).
34. Charles O. Knowles, Let Her Be: Right Relationships and the Southern Baptist Conundrum over Woman’s Role (Columbia, MO: KnoWell Publishing, 2002), 85.
35. A. J. Gordon, “The Ministry of Women,” The Missionary Review of the World, 17 (1894): 911.
36. Gordon, “The Ministry of Women,” 911.
37. Gordon, “The Ministry of Women,” 912.
38. Katharine Bushnell, God’s Word to Women: One Hundred Bible Studies on Woman’s Place in the Church and Home (Minneapolis, MN: Christians for Biblical Equality, 2003), 9ff.
39. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 10.
40. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 39ff.
41. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 43ff.
42. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 43ff.
43. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 66ff.
44. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 169.
45. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 169.
46. Bushnell, Dr. Katharine Bushnell, 13.
47. Bushnell, Dr. Katharine Bushnell, 13–14.
48. Kristoff and WuDunn, Half the Sky, 198.
49. Shuji G. Asai and David H. Olson, “Spouse Abuse and Marital System Based on ENRICH”, University of Minnesota.
50. Asai and Olson, “Spouse Abuse,” 3–4, 11.
51. Kristoff and WuDunn, Half the Sky, xiv–xv.
52. Kristoff and WuDunn, Half the Sky, xiv–xv.
53. “Gendercide,” The Economist, March 2010, 13.
54. For a complete discussion on gender equality as a reform movement, see chapter 1 in Global Voices on Biblical Equality: Women and Men Serving Together in the Church, ed. Aída Besançon Spencer, William David Spencer, and Mimi Haddad (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008).
55. Much of what follows in this section can be found in Willard Swartley’s excellent book, Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1983).
56. The interpretive methods provided here are carefully noted in Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women, 58ff.
57. W. B. Sloan, These Sixty Years: The Story of the Keswick Convention (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1935), 91.
58. Sloan, These Sixty Years, 91.
59. See Mimi Haddad’s chapter, “Reading the Apostle Paul through Galatians 3:28,” in Coming Together in the 21st Century: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity, ed. Curtiss Paul DeYoung (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 2009), 73–93.
60. Fee, Listening to the Spirit in the Text, 59.
61. In a second-century document, Ignatius of Antioch cites Onesimus, a bishop of Ephesus, who offered him hospitality. See chapter 1, Praise of the Ephesians, at New Advent. Accessed Jan. 5, 2012.
62. Linda Belleville, “Teaching and Usurping Authority,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, ed. Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Ronald Pierce, and Gordon Fee (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), 205–24.
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