I became an egalitarian through a long study of the issue in the early 1990s. My first wife, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (1954-2018), led the way through her research and writing, but we thought through every aspect of the issue over many years—first to come to the position of egalitarianism and second to defend it from frequent and multifaceted attack. Rebecca’s earthly work is over, but I sense a need to continue to encourage gifted women to serve God with all their abilities, even despite opposition from other Christians. As a Christian man with some influence through my writing and teaching, I offer this brief statement—not as a thorough defense, but as a statement of principles and as an outline of an apologetic for egalitarianism.
An evangelical egalitarian believes that gender, in itself and in principle, does not restrict women from any position of leadership in the church or society. Nor does gender determine a women’s subservient place in the home under the authority of her husband. As Rebecca put it:
Evangelical egalitarianism, or biblical equality, refers to the biblically-based belief that gender, in and of itself, neither privileges nor curtails a believer’s gifting or calling to any ministry in the church or home. In particular, the exercise of spiritual authority, as biblically defined, is deemed as much a female believer’s privilege and responsibility as it is a male believer’s.
As Rebecca and I thought this through we realized there were several obstacles to clear. A non-egalitarian believes that women, as women, cannot legitimately hold some positions of leadership in the church nor are they equal partners in marriage.
Non-egalitarians were called traditionalists until about twenty years ago when they coined the term complementarian. The latter term, however, is a misnomer that does not distinguish the view from egalitarians simply because both views consider men and women complementary to each other. The burning question is whether men, as men, have some unique authority over women. Egalitarians deny this. So, the better and more descriptively accurate term for the non-egalitarian is hierarchialist. Granted, this does not sound appealing, but it is truer to the position.
First, any such claim will be rejected as “feminism” by many evangelicals and thus associated with liberal theology and politics. Rebecca and I called feminism “the F-word.” But we found that the egalitarian view predated secular feminism and was held by leading evangelicals in the nineteen century. The secular feminism of the 1960 and onward has had no effect on our being egalitarians. We both tended towards being contrarians and curmudgeons, so going with the cultural flow never appealed to us (see Luke 16:15). Rebecca addressed this at length in Women Caught in the Conflict (Baker, 1994). This book was a prolegomena to her direct defense of egalitarianism in Good News for Women (Baker, 1997).
Second, egalitarians need to wrestle with texts that seem to contradict the claim that women should have access to leadership in the church and mutuality in the home (especially 1 Timothy 2:11-15). Rebecca and I held to biblical inerrancy on the order of the classic Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy of 1978, which was endorsed by stalwarts such as Francis Schaeffer (1912-1985) and Carl Henry (1913-2003), two of my heroes. But, on the other hand, complementarians (as they call themselves), must come to terms with the many passages that depict women leading, prophesying, and teaching (such as Judges 4-5, Acts 2:17-18, and Acts 18).
There are formidable exegetes of impeccable evangelical prestige on both sides of this issue, but I am convinced that no biblical text forbids women from leadership in the church or from having an equal voice in the home as a matter of eternal and cross-cultural principle. Now is not the place to cite authorities or give footnotes, except to note a multi-author volume edited by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Ronald Pierce, Discovering Biblical Equality (InterVarsity, 2004). Rather, let us consider one theological matter, which is crucial and decisive.
Complementarians are committed to saying that God restricts women from some positions of leadership because of their gender. This view leads to the following.
Women are equal to men in their essential human being as females.
Women are barred from some leadership roles simply because they are females.
Therefore (A): Women are unequal to men because they are female human beings.
Therefore (B): Women are both equal to men in their human being as females and unequal to men in their human being as females. This is a contradiction and is, therefore, false. That is, the conjunction of (1) and (3) is necessarily false.
Since 1-4 shows complementarianism to be contradictory, there are only two possible ways to address the issue and be logically consistent concerning women and their authority.
Women are equal to men in their essential being; therefore, there is no basis to restrict them on the basis of their female human being. This is the biblical equality position.
Women are to be restricted based on the basis their female human being. This can only be justified by saying they are not essentially equal to men in their human being. Women lack, in their essential being, something men have in their essential human being. That means they are inferior to men. This is the older theological view of women in relation to men, a view today’s complementarians usually want to reject.
Complementarians, qua complementarians, cannot affirm (1) or (2). However, these are the only logical choices they have, given that I have ruled out their essential “equal in being, unequal in function” principle as illogical. Therefore, they are stuck in a logical pickle. Biblical equality provides the way for them to be un-pickled—that is, logically consistent.
The biblical equality view avoids these insuperable difficulties by saying that men and women are equal in their essential human being and that being a woman in and of itself never restricts a woman from exercising leadership gifts. (However, in some specific situations it will not be wise for a woman exercise some of her gifts, since this would produce unnecessary controversy.) The use of gifts is determined by God-given ability and the Spirit’s call on someone’s life.
While the final case for women’s equality rests on the Bible, I (and we) cannot deny the testimony of faithful, godly, and gifted women today who serve Christ and love his word. As a seminary professor since 1993, I have taught and gotten to know many women who are skilled in preaching, teaching, and leading. I have seen them win preaching awards, excel academically, and serve in churches where they sometimes do receive the respect they deserve. During one doctrinal interview, my colleague said to a woman we were examining, “I would love to have you as my pastor.” I concurred. During another doctrinal examination, I once asked a seminary student who held the complementarian view if he thought God had gifted some women with leadership skills equal to that of men. He agreed. I then said, “Let that haunt you.” I hope it has haunted him into changing his position.