We recently saw the movie Selma. In the comfort of our theater seats we observed what we can only imagine African Americans endured—and in many ways continue to endure. As followers of Christ who believe in the egalitarian[i] principle of full functional equality for men and women, we watched Selma and noticed similarities between many churches view of functional equality for women, and the treatment of African Americans before they were considered equals.
Review history, for centuries church leaders interpreted literally and absolutized a handful of Bible passages they believed fully supported slavery. For example; “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything…”[ii] “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear…just as you would obey Christ.”[iii] “Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything…”[iv]
Thankfully, after centuries of untold abuses toward African Americans made in the image of God, many religious leaders determined they were wrong about the ways they interpreted slavery passages. They humbled themselves, changed their prejudiced views, and became forerunners in slavery laws being changed. Unfortunately, women did not have a vote on these changes.
As you read Bible passages about slavery do any of them sound similar to a handful of Bible passages many religious leaders believe support male authority, hierarchy, and restrictions for women? Our desire in this post is not to debate the original Greek and Hebrew, lexicons, grammar roots, verb tenses, hermeneutics, and eschatology. Nevertheless, do you ever wonder why many religious leaders resist functional equality and the inclusion of women in all church functions and offices?
We believe a good place to begin trying to answer that question is to review thousands of years of misogyny,[v] male rulership, patriarchy,[vi] hierarchical gender views,[vii] unbiblical models of male headship, inventing new words like complementarian, and limiting females from using all the gifts the Holy Spirit has given them. Is it possible the seeds in these beliefs and behaviors has birthed a male-privileged church culture where women are restricted, discounted, and devalued?
We’ve attended church our entire lives, and we’ve counseled men and women for decades. Apart from the ongoing functional equality debate, especially in the halls of academia, our opinion is often religious leaders resistance to fully embracing functional equality in the church, and co-leadership in marriage,[viii] is not about alleged infallible interpretations of a few Bible texts, or the precise meaning of headship (kephale). For example, a church lead-pastor approached us after we shared about functional equality and mutual authority. He got Tim aside and whispered; “Bottom line for me is I guess I like having authority in my marriage—and truth-be-told—I enjoy the special status and privileges I receive as a man in church”.
Responses like that make us wonder; is it possible that the issue-beneath-the-issue in regard to full functional equality for women and wives is not so much about a handful of controversial Bible passages, but more about pride, power, fear, and control?
Similar to Bible passages about slavery, do you ever consider Bible passages that restricted women were only for specific churches who were experiencing relational problems at a certain time in history—and not for all churches for all time? The real-life truth is when women are not treated as functional equals, and are restricted from using all the gifts the Holy Spirit has given them, the church suffers. It’s tragic that so many churches are missing out on the leadership, pastoring, teaching, and preaching women can bring to the church. Not including women in all church offices—including being pastors, senior leaders, elders and board directors robs the church of the wisdom, discernment, faith, prayer, and prophetic gifts God gives to women. This results in it being difficult for women to maximize their kingdom advancing potential—as well as live with hearts that are fully alive.
God is on the move. More and more Christ followers—both men and women—are revisiting Bible texts and becoming functional equality champions for women. In addition, many churches are becoming early adopters in this functional equality shift. For example, in 2014 the Anglican Church changed its century’s old requirement that the position of Bishop was only for men, instead women can now serve as Bishops. As we observe the advances in functional equality, we envision our young grandkids—as grownups—wondering how religious leaders could have ever imagined restricting women from using all the gifts God gave them.
We were recently approached by a religious leader. He was beginning to consider the Bible passages he was taught in seminary about hierarchy and male authority might be similar to Bible passages that used to be taught about slavery. Specifically he was beginning to consider that the restrictions placed on women were not for all churches for all time. We encouraged him to begin by I.O.T.L. (inquiring of the Lord); and invite the Holy Spirit to help him re-examine his personal views and Bible texts—especially surrounding the context and culture in which these ancient letters were written.
He then asked what next-steps we’d recommend if he decided to eliminate all restrictions on women and embrace full functional equality. That’s a good question; before implementing any changes, we encouraged him to ask women for forgiveness—not just for centuries of restricting women’s voices and the gifts the Holy Spirit has given them. But, at a deeper level, ask forgiveness for what they have failed to do. Many religious leaders-men-husbands have failed to nourish, cherish, and celebrate women and wives as joint heirs, co-laborers, and co-leaders.
Then we challenged him to be open to God leading him to repent on behalf of himself and others who have not treated fellow human beings made in the image of God as equals—intrinsically and functionally. We encouraged him to consider gathering male leaders- schedule a time- invite women- and do two things. First, come to the communion table and together celebrate the reconciling component in communion. Second, in Christ-like love, humility, servanthood, and mutual submission[ix] we encouraged him and his leaders to publically wash women’s feet.
As we survey our culture, we envision a day in the not-to-distant future when believers—women and men—will be treated as functional equals. This will draw many believers who have left the church to return to church. In addition, treating women as equals will draw un-believers to investigate the newfound unity, celebration of diversity, and culture of community modeled within communities of faith. And this will create opportunities for both men and women to share the good news about the life and love of Jesus Christ.
As we watched the Academy Awards this week, one of the highlights was Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech when she called for “equal rights for women in the United States of America.” As we think about the success of the movie Selma, wouldn’t it be amazing if Oprah and Team Hollywood produced a follow-up movie? One that focused on how the church and cultures throughout history that have mistreated and discriminated against women?
[i] Egalitarianism—“a belief in human equality especially with respect to social, political, and economic affairs: a social philosophy advocating the removal of inequalities among people” Merriam-Webster Dictionary
[ii] Colossians 3:22
[iii] Ephesians 6:5
[iv] Titus 2:9–10
[v] Misogyny—“a hatred of women,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary
[vi] Patriarchy—”social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line; broadly: control by men of a disproportionately large share of power,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary
[vii] Hierarchical—“of, relating to, or arranged in a hierarchy,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary
[viii] In our book; TOGETHER Reclaiming Co-Leadership in Marriage we explain “co-leadership” in marriage. In the beginning before sin the man and women celebrated mutuality. This included mutual equality—they were both made in the image of God. And mutual authority—they were both given the dominion and procreation mandates (Genesis 1:16–27). In the beginning there was no hierarchy, headship, male leadership, female subordination, or the man designated the wife’s leader or spiritual cover. In the beginning the man and woman were intrinsically and functionally equal.
[ix] Ephesians 5:21