Thinking and Living Biblically in a Gender-neutral Society

Biblical Manhood and Womanhood series
First Presbyterian Church
Jackson, MS
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan

Male Authority and Female Equality in Light of Galatians 3:28

If you have Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Galatians 3, because our title actually refers to this verse. This passage has been somewhat of a magna carta for those who call themselves evangelical feminists. That is, those who say we have a high view of Scripture, but we believe that Scripture does not teach that there are role distinctions between men and women, and especially between redeemed men and redeemed women in Christ, in the Church, and in the home. Since this is one of the verses they go to, let's begin in Galatians 3:28. This is God's word:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, and there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Amen. This is God's word, may He add His blessing to it.

Our responsibility now is to respond to the assertion that this verse proves male/female role distinctions in the Church and in the home are invalid or have been changed. Let me share with you the argument that is typically given. When God created Adam and Eve, He created them as both equal and undifferentiated in terms of their role relationship and function. There was no headship for Adam; there was no submission for Eve, and what happened was when sin entered into the world, that is when headship came for Adam and submission came for Eve. Headship is equated with domination; submission is equated with subservience; and so, the idea is that when man and woman were originally created by God, they were not only equal as image bearers, but they were equal in function. There was no role distinction in their functions. But, when the Fall came and sin entered into human relationship, then you had men over women. The argument then goes that in redemption in Christ, male and female are restored to the original created relationship which is no male headship, no male authority in the congregation of believers, but an identity of function in church and in home. And Galatians 3:28 is one of the verses used to prove that. Evangelical feminists would say, “See, here is what the Apostle Paul says, that there is no male or female in Jesus Christ. See, there's Paul saying it himself.” Now, never you mind that for 1900 years, no Christian ever put that interpretation on Galatians 3:28, but nevertheless, that's the interpretation that you hear. Now, I would like to respond to that in three ways.

First, I want to walk through the explicit New Testament testimony that there continues to be male/female role relationship distinctions in church and in home. Then, catalog the three basic arguments against that testimony. Finally, present the five examples of those arguments and provide a proper response.

First, we need to look at the New Testament passages in context. When read in context, several other questions will arise. That is good. There is nothing wrong with asking hard questions about those passages. We will look at core passages but not all the issues raised. For example, in I Timothy 2:8-15, if you want to know whether Paul makes a distinction in role relationships between men and women in the church, we simply look at verses 11-12. “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness, but I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over man, but to remain quiet.” Now, clearly, Paul is making an assertion of role distinction in the church, but if you look back in verse 9, he says, “I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair,”–anyone with braided hair tonight? –“And gold,” anyone with gold tonight? “and pearls,” anyone with pearls on tonight? “and costly garments.” Ooh, Paul has gone to meddling. Talbot's does not want to hear this verse; Maison Weiss certainly does not want to hear this verse. What about the St. John's Knits, girls? When you quote I Timothy 2:11-12, the classic retort is, “OK, are you going to stand at the door and check to see if women have braided hair?” Those are important questions, perhaps, but not the central issue.

In I Timothy 2:11-12, Paul clearly makes some sort of role distinction between men and women in the congregation, “I do not permit a woman to give instruction.” Then, I Corinthians 14:34-36, and there is more of the same, “The women are to keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves just as the law also says.” Once again, there is this prohibition, and if you see this passage in context, it is clearly a prohibition against the proclamation of the word that is being given.

In I Corinthians 11:3-5, “I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ. Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head, but every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved.” Not apart from all the questions you can ask about the passage, what clearly comes through is this: even though Paul acknowledges that in the Corinthians Church both men and women are prophesying, it's interesting that he requires men to prophesy in one way, and women to prophesy in another way. In order to do what? To reflect their relationship to Christ, and we will see that in our next study, Paul gives Jesus as the example for both men and women in the way they relate to one another. Isn't that a glorious thing, that our Savior took on such a position in His incarnation that He can be the perfect example for men in the way that we ought to relate to women, and for women in the way that we ought to relate to men? It's a beautiful way in which our Savior has served us in being that example.

So, what is clear is that once again, Paul is making a distinction between men and women in their role in the church, and in this passage, even in their role in the home.

Then, in Ephesians 5, we move primarily to the sphere of the home. “Wives be subject to your own husbands.” This is every girl's least favorite verse for the wedding ceremony. “Wives be subject to your own husbands as to the Lord.” And then he describes the husband's role. In Colossians 3:18-19, ‘Wives be subject to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord.” You will remember that Colossians is sort of “Ephesians like;” it is the abbreviated version of Ephesians, so Colossians contains the shortened version of the longer passage in Ephesians 5. Now, we get out of Paul's material and into Peter's material. Frequently you will hear, “Paul was the only one who ever talked about these things in the New Testament.” But, look at I Peter 3:1ff, “In the same way, you wives be submissive to your own husbands, so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives.” And now, the even lesser favorite verse for a woman at her wedding ceremony, verse 6, “Just as Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord.” The men are lining up in the aisles for me to preach on this. Whatever the case here, Peter is clearly indicating role distinctions in the home.

In Titus 2:2-6, Paul again, and what is he saying the older women are to inculcate amongst the younger women? They are to inculcate that they are “sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, and subject to their own husbands.”

Finally, in I Timothy 3:1,2,4 and 12, there is the interesting description of the qualifications for the officers in the church, elders and deacons. Here we are told, “It is a trustworthy statement, that if any man aspires to the office of overseer,” so already there is role discrimination, “it's a fine work that he desires to do. An overseer must be the husband of one wife.” And notice again that what is said about the overseer? He manages his own household well. Well, if he's not the head of the household, how can he be singularly held responsible for managing the household well? Paul then makes the passing comment, that if a man does not know how to manage his own household well, how will he take care of the church? In verse 12, the same thing is said of deacons: “Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own household.” So, in all of these passages, Paul and Peter explicitly say that there are role relationship distinctions between men and women in the church and in the home. Notice, these are all New Testament passages, in the post-Pentecost period, and these role distinctions are all over the pages of the New Testament.

I. Arguments against the truth of the Bible.
What is it, then, that people say who want to argue against this type of role distinction being grounded in the Bible? Basically, there are three arguments against the Bible testimony. The first is , “Well, the Bible is wrong.” There are, however, fewer people now in the church that say, “The Bible is wrong,” than there were in the hey-day of liberalism. Liberals used to say that out loud all day long. They don't say it as much anymore, and there are good reasons. Most Christians, no matter what their theological perspective is, have a hard time swallowing it when their leaders come along and say, “The Bible's wrong, and I'm right.” That argument, for some reason, doesn't even sell among liberal Christians. They would prefer it to be said in a slightly more subtle way, such as “Well, the Bible is just wrong on this issue.” People do say that. Don't get the idea there is no market for this. If you’re reading former bishop John Shelby Spong, you’ll find in every book he has ever written that he says the Bible is wrong. But it's not working as well in the church. This last week I was at a colloquium in New York, and at that colloquium the Anglican rector of St. Ebbs, basically the senior minister of St. Ebbs Church in Oxford, England, was there. He is the young man who led the charge in the Church of England against the Bishop of Oxford's appointment of an openly homosexual Bishop of Redding. This was the first time, anywhere in the Anglican community, that a practicing homosexual had been ordained to a bishopric. Now, there have been people who have said, “I'm homosexual, but I'm celibate. That's my inclination, but I'm celibate; I'm chaste.” And people such as that have been put into bishoprics in the Anglican Church, but never before anyone who announced, “Yes, I have a partner and that's who I am.” There was a firestorm, of course, and Vaughn Roberts, this young man at St. Ebbs, really led the charge, and in God's mercy, if you read Derek Thomas’ column, the man's nomination to the bishopric has been withdrawn.

Of course, there is now an outrage on the other side of that issue, but one of the interesting things that Vaughn mentions is that now the liberals in the church of England are not saying the Bible is wrong about homosexuality; what they are saying is, “Oh no, we're misinterpreting the Bible.” It's not that the Bible is wrong, but that the interpretation is wrong. You see this in working through these passages. Most people won't come out and say, “The Bible is wrong about male/female role distinctions.” What they will say is, “No, the Bible has been misunderstood, and if we would just understand it wisely, academically, in context, then we would understand that the Bible doesn't make these role distinctions. That is the second way that people deny the Bible's teaching.

The third way is simply to appeal to experience. “Well, I just have a hard time accepting male headship because I have a dear friend whose husband abused her. I have a hard time accepting the idea of male headship because I had a pastor once, a senior pastor, and she was wonderful–one of the best pastors I ever had. How could you say that was wrong? She felt like she had a call from God.” So, the three ways they deny the clear Bible teaching is to say the Bible is wrong, or you've misinterpreted the Bible; you've misunderstood the Bible, and if you only understood it correctly you wouldn't have that problem, and then, an argument from experience, it just doesn't feel right.

I'm going to omit the first one, the Bible is wrong, because frankly, that would be the easiest to respond to, and the most fun. I could really play with that one; we could beat up on the liberals and have a good time, but it is the other two responses that we have to live with all the time. It's when a friend of mine who is ordained, who is female, or homosexual, or whatever else, is looking at me and saying, “But, I feel that this is right.” That is when it is hard to respond. So, we will look at five examples that deal with those last two responses.

II. Biblical responses.
The first is in the area of interpretation. By the way, read Derek's follow-up article on homosexuality in The First Epistle, but let me give you a little peek at what he says. The usual response to the assertion that the Bible makes these distinctions is, “Well, that's just your interpretation.” We see this everywhere, and this is what Derek says,

“No one should be surprised by the liberal church's ability to engage in selectivity as regards the authority of Scripture. But what has emerged over the past 25 years, in the western world especially, is the discovery of a device that can deal with any and every problem regarding Scripture's message and its relationship to contemporary social values. It is a catchall term that, at once, renders all counter arguments redundant: that's just your interpretation! [1]

If I had a cent for every time I've heard that phrase used! It's extremely powerful, if not terribly sophisticated. There's just no arguing with it. Right! I do have my own interpretation of what Paul says; and John has his, and Jane has hers. And they are all different! And post-modernity embraces this dilemma with open arms. Truth, according to this view, is as slippery a concept as Pilate surmised two millennia ago.”

So, how do you begin to respond to that? One way you can recognize that interpretation is not simply a matter of personal opinion is to go back and look at how Christians, in different centuries and in different cultures over the last two thousands years, have interpreted a passage. And when you look at these passages, do you know what you discover? Almost all Christians, in almost places, in almost all times, have agreed on what they mean. It is only certain moderns in the western world and, by the way, almost uniformly in churches that are shrinking, that disagree with that interpretation that has been held by almost all Christians in all times in all places. Now, that is a good tip that you are probably not “winging off” on a weirdo interpretation. It's not always the case, but if I have the choice of having the holy apostolic band and gazillions of Christians, or not; I think I'd rather have them on my side.

The second thing to remember is that Peter himself says, “No Scripture is a matter of private interpretation.” Why? Because God has inspired the Scriptures and He meant them to be understood. So, we should not expect the most significant moral issues that the Scriptures speak to, to be so blurry that only Einstein can figure them out. God is a good communicator, and it doesn't surprise me that He said this nine times in the New Testament. It's somewhat like, “Oh, yes, did you miss that? OK, Paul, say that one more time. And, just in case they missed it, say it one more time. Oh, and just in case, say that again.” He's a good teacher. Teachers that are good teachers repeat themselves, and the Lord helps us to understand by repetition.

The second type of interpretational argument against male/female role distinctions is the “What about shrimp?” argument: “The case law in Moses’ day forbade Israel to eat shellfish. So, how many of you evangelical Christians are out there eating shrimp and lobster at Red Lobster on Friday night?” And everyone raises their hand, and the accusation is made, “You are inconsistent. You’re picking and choosing. The Bible says you shouldn't eat shellfish. And the Bible says you can't wear mixed fiber clothing, and the Bible says you can't have a meal, and eat milk, and fish at the same time.” And on and on, using every obscure passage possible. Here's an example. Just today I received in the mail a copy of a letter, “Gender Issues Need Answers.” This was a column from the Knoxville, Tennessee newspaper, by Ina Hughes. This is what she says:

“I just want to know how somebody can read the same Bible and live in the same century and hold to the law against women ministers. If they’re going to quote from Scripture, then they've also got to sign a faith statement saying that all ministers have to grow beards, and can't be married, and won't have personal bank accounts and IRAs, and won't own the clothes on their backs. Plus, they can't eat clam chowder. “Bible tells me so” legalists aren't being consistent. They pick and choose their passages and the “no women allowed” verses are just as outdated and out-theologized as the ones that require a man to have sex with his widowed sister-in-law or give fathers the right to kill a rebellious child.”

An enlightening and civilized bit of discourse, no doubt. How do you begin to respond to this argument that we are just picking and choosing? Let me say, frankly, that the examples that Mrs. Hughes gives are easy to dispense with, because they all come from the ceremonial code. And once again, almost all Christians at all times everywhere, have recognized that Jesus Christ brought an end to the ceremonial code. So, there is not a problem with us learning from that ceremonial code, even while we do not attempt to implement that ceremonial code for Christian living in our own day and time. That is, we will serve pork at dinner at First Presbyterian Church from time to time, and do other things that are prohibited to Israel in the ceremonial code. But, if I could help her argument a little bit, a better argument for her to make would be to go to a passage such as we have read from I Timothy 2 and say, “Wait a minute, if you say that Paul's prohibition against women being preachers in the Church still holds, what about what he says about women braiding their hair and wearing gold, etc, etc.?” Now, there's a better argument, and a slightly more difficult one to respond to. And again, let me give you a brief outline response. The easy response is to say, “The principle that Paul is speaking about there in I Timothy 2:9, about the way women adorn themselves, is indeed still in force.” The question then comes, “Does this mean an absolute prohibition against expensive dresses, braided hair, gold, etc.?” Just as I would nuance the way we understand what Paul says in verses 11-12, I also recognize that what he says in verse 9 has to be put into context.

But putting into context is one thing; throwing it out is another. So as an evangelical Christian, what I want to say is, I am prepared to do whatever Paul is telling me to do in that passage. Now, how we end up understanding that is one thing, but I am starting out with a commitment to do everything that God expects them to do in the Bible, however unpleasant it may be for me. So, that's how we begin to respond to that argument.

The third interpretation argument, regarding Galatians 3:28, is simply this: the idea that Galatians 3:28 which says, “There is no longer male and female” means that there are no longer distinctions between men and women in the Church and in the home because of what Christ has done. How do we respond to that argument? Once again, we go back and notice that all of the interpreters in history, over the course of time, have interpreted that passage in a different way, and let me just read a little summary of an answer to that question. Most evangelicals still agree, for instance, that this passage is not a warrant for homosexuality. If there is no distinction between male and female, then that passage is just as much a warrant for homosexuality as it is for women to preach or to be the heads of their households. Most of us do not force Paul's “neither male nor female” beyond what we know from other passages he would approve. For example, we know in Romans 1:24-32, that Paul does not mean for the created order of different male and female roles to be overthrown, for he clearly says in Romans 1, that when men sleep with men and women with women, it's wrong. So clearly, he does not mean there are no differences between men and women.

John Piper goes on to say, “the context of Galatians 3:28 makes it abundantly clear that the sense in which men and women are equal in Christ–they are equally justified by faith, verse 24; they are equally free from the bondage of legalism, verse 25; they are equally children of God, verse 26; they are equally clothed with Christ, verse 27; they are equally possessed by Christ, verse 29; and they are equally heirs of the promises to Abraham, verse 29. This last blessing is especially significant; namely, the equality of being a fellow heir with men of the promises. In I Peter 3:1-7, the blessing of being joint heirs of the gracious gift of life is connected with the exhortation for women to submit to their husbands, and for their husbands to treat their wives with respect. In other words, Peter saw no conflict between the “neither male nor female” principal regarding or inheritance, and the headship submission principle regarding our roles. Galatians 3:28 does not abolish gender based roles established by God and redeemed by Christ.”

The fourth type of response we get is that the Bible is culturally bound and, therefore, theologically limited on some social issues, and that we need to read is not exactly what the Bible says, but to note its trajectory. I'm not joking; this is a real argument and very popular. And books by InterVarsity Press, United States, are making this argument. The Bible is culturally bound, theologically limited, and we don't need to discover what it says; we need to see the trajectory of the argument. So, if you go from women in the Old Testament having a lesser position, to women having a relatively greater position in the New Testament, what you then need to do, is go beyond the New Testament, and follow the trajectory. So, even if Paul doesn't come out and say, “Women can be preachers, and women have gone from a lesser position to a greater position,” you just follow the trajectory of the text and that leads you to the proper understanding of the thrust of Scripture as opposed to what Scripture really says.” So, there's a fourth way that people argue from interpretation.

The final way I want to mention is that whole issue of experience and personal opinion. You know, “It just doesn't seem right to me.” Well, let me say in response to that, that you never ever can win a debate from experience. We don't debate experience. We base our actions on what the Bible actually tells us to do. If a person is deciding their actions based on their experience, then they are their own little pope. You can't tell them, “No, your experience is wrong”–even if it is wrong.” They are going to think their experience is right, and so, if you get into a debate over their experience, the argument is over right then. So, I think it is very important for us as we discuss with people experience-based arguments to say, “Look, I am not interested in undercutting the value of your experience. I am simply interested in trying to be Biblical.” And there is a way to do that. Let me go back to this letter by Ina Hughes in the Knoxville News. It is an editorial that she wrote on June 8, this year called Gender Issues Need Answers.

“Will somebody please explain to me what the Southern Baptists have against women? I'm serious; I really want to know. I'm not being flippant, sarcastic, or close minded. Nor am I necessarily picking on the Baptists. All denominations are struggling with issues of faith and social justice, but the Baptists are the only major Protestant denomination that will not give women the same spiritual credibility as men. Just last month, their international mission board fired all its missionaries and staff who would not sign a faith statement that opposes female pastors and says wives should submit to their husbands. That bothers me because not only do I consider myself a person of faith, though not a Baptist, I come from a long line of people who have felt called into full-time ministry, people who have made preaching and teaching their life work as ordained ministers of, as we Presbyterians would call it, word and sacrament and some of them are women. [Now you know which denomination she's from.] I'm an active member of the New Providence Presbyterian Church in Merryville, TN, and my own senior minister is a woman, Dr. Emily Anderson, and she is certainly one of the most effective and dedicated pastors I've ever met. I'd even go so far as to dare anyone, Southern Baptist or no, to come to our church and listen to one of her sermons and still say in all honesty that she is unqualified to preach from a pulpit on Sunday morning, or to baptize a child, or to serve communion. I don't feel like I have to defend the female ministers I know. Their very lives verify their legitimacy. It's not that I want to argue the point. I just want to know how someone can read the same Bible and live in the same century and hold to this law against women ministers.” [2]

Now, notice that the whole argument there is an argument from experience. “I know a woman; she's ministered to me, therefore, you’re wrong.” Well, what are you going to say? “No, she hasn't ministered to you? No, she's an incompetent boob who couldn't get a job sweeping the floors in my church?” No; you can't do that. You have to say, “Look, I am not arguing that your friend is not a wonderful, talented, gifted, able person. I just want to talk about what the Bible tells us we should or shouldn't do here. That is the issue. The issue is not a matter of my experience versus your experience.”

We don't claim to be able to read the private experience of anyone, but we do believe that everyone's private experience must be assessed by the public criterion of the word of God. And that is what it is about. If the Bible teaches that God wants men alone to be preachers, or to be heads of their households, my experience can't trump God. I can't say, “Well, God called me to do this” if God says, “I don't do that in My word.” If so, and we've become sort of our own individual pope and we get to say what we want to do in any circumstance.

We do not believe God genuinely calls women to be pastors. Probably what is discerned as a divine call to the pastorate in some earnest Christian women is indeed a call to ministry, but not to the pastorate. Very often the divine compulsion to serve comes upon Christians without the precise avenue of service being specified by the Holy Spirit. At this point, we should look not only at our gifts but also at the teaching of Scripture regarding what is appropriate for us as men and women. Amen.

1. Understanding the Times. Derek Thomas