10 years of Blogging on Equality and Mutuality
July this year (2019) marked the tenth anniversary of when I began my blog. When I first started, I simply expected to post my discoveries and my thoughts on God and on various Bible passages. I had no big vision and I had no narrow focus. I had no plan at all. I just wanted to share my views on faith and following Jesus.
My first blog post, posted on the 5th of July 2009, was about communion. It wasn’t until four months later, in October, that I wrote my first article on a subject related to equality. The article was called Women Church Leaders in the New Testament and my quiet website started to receive some attention. In November of 2009, I wrote an article on the meaning of “helper” used of Eve in Genesis 2, but I continued to write on other topics and I wrote some Bible studies as well.
My third “biblical equality” article, originally with the title Junia and the ESV, was posted in March 2010. In this article, I looked at who Junia was (a woman mentioned in Romans 16) and I critiqued the language that the ESV translation uses to describe her and her partner Andronicus. Ten years down the track, the women associated with Paul’s mission have proven to be my favourite subject and I remain passionate that we have Bible translations that are accurate and are readily understood by both the ploughboy and the ploughgirl, to borrow a metaphor from Tyndale. I am also passionate that we have Bible translations that don’t minimise or exclude women either intentionally or unintentionally.
In August 2010, I posted an article about the qualifications for church leaders that are given in 1 Timothy 3. CBE International published this article on their website, and Scot McKnight, a well-known New Testament professor and author in America, reposted it on his website. I remember the absolute dread I felt, even panic, when I saw that Dr McKnight had posted it and that hundreds of people were reading what I’d written. I’m a shy person. But the feeling of dread was compounded when I quickly discovered that there was a badly worded, misleading statement in my article which has since been fixed on the CBE International website and on my website.
In fact, I’m always tweaking my articles. I’m always adding information to older ones when I learn something new, and I frequently edit to clarify or correct statements that are vague or awkward or not quite right. My writing was not good in the early days.
Back then I didn’t regard myself as a writer, and I never planned on or even hoped for a biggish audience. But the success of the article on 1 Timothy 3 must have inspired me, and in the following month, September 2010, I wrote an article on Priscilla and one on Catherine of Siena. Almost every month since then, I’ve posted at least one article about a woman in the Bible, or about a verse that affects women, or about a woman in church history. There are plenty of remarkable women in church history.
For many months, I had no real idea about how many people were visiting my website each week. But when accurate statistics became available, I saw that my articles on biblical equality were much, much more popular than my other articles. I didn’t want to restrict myself to writing on one topic, so I continued to write about whatever was important to me, but I was aware that there seemed to be a need, or an interest at least, for articles on equality. And as I kept studying the Bible, I was personally becoming more interested in, and more convinced of, the equality and mutuality of men and women in Christ. So I kept blogging . . .
Fast forward to June of 2017. This is when I changed the name and the look of my website, and I narrowed its focus. And I’m now pretty much devoted to writing on topics related to Christian egalitarianism. (I prefer the term Christian egalitarianism, or mutualism, to biblical equality, as there is not much equality or mutuality in the Bible between the Fall and Pentecost, even if there are a few hopeful signs.)
In some ways, it was an obvious decision to deliberately narrow my focus; my focus had been narrowing for a while. Still, it was not a decision I took lightly. But I’ve come to realise that the full inclusion and full participation of women in the church, and the shared leadership of both men and women in the church, is important. It is not an issue we can ignore. The full inclusion of all redeemed Jesus followers, regardless of ethnicity, social status, or sex, is at the heart of the gospel. And I often say that “Equality is a fruit of the Spirit.”
Comments on 1 Timothy 2:12
As I kept writing and kept posting articles on my website, more and more people approached me on Facebook, on Twitter, or via my website to ask me questions. All kinds of questions! Many Christians, mainly women but some men too, are agonising over the place of women and men in the home and in the church. They truly want to find out God’s will on these issues. And some people have been given terrible and hurtful information by their pastors.
I receive questions and comments each and every day. Some are brief messages, others are long letters expressing deep pain and confusion. Many are from Americans, but I receive messages from people in other countries on all continents. These questions and comments have helped me to see what Christians think and feel about men and women in the church and in marriage, and what their concerns are. Most comments I receive are about how to understand certain Bible verses.
The verse that comes up the most in comments is 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not allow a woman (or, wife) to teach or to domineer a man (or, husband); instead she is to be quiet.” Most people, it seems, are confident in their interpretation of this verse, especially those people who hold to views that exclude women from leadership ministries. I often hear, “1 Timothy 2:12 is clear . . .” This verse does seem straightforward in English, but there are several hermeneutical challenges in the Greek.
One annoying thing that happens frequently is that someone, or a few people, will respond to a post where I discuss, often in some length, women in the Bible who were involved in ministry, or I discuss Paul’s theology of ministry, and these people seemingly ignore the information I’ve laid out—they often don’t interact with my article at all—and they just say something like, “Yeah, but what about 1 Timothy 2:12?” or they simply quote 1 Timothy 2:12 as though this one verse overrides all examples of female leaders, prophets, and advisors in the Old Testament and female apostles, prophets, ministers, patrons and house church leaders in the New Testament.
One verse is used to sweep aside the examples of these Bible women. And this one verse is used to taint and skew and downplay verses about ministry, including Paul’s teachings on ministry in other letters that do not in any way discriminate against women. Verses such as Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians chapter 12, Ephesians 4:11, and also 1 Corinthians 14:26 and Colossians 3:16 where Paul encourages participation and contributions of ministries in church meetings.
To date, I’ve written over two dozen articles on 1 Timothy 2:12. I’ve looked at the language and its historical context. I’ve looked at it from various angles. And even though this verse is frequently brought up, it is not the one that most people struggle with. As I said, most Christians seem confident in their interpretation of this one verse which many believe prohibits all women for all time from having spiritual authority over all men or where men are present. This is usually teased out to mean that women can’t be pastors or elders in the church, even though this was never Paul’s meaning or intention with 1 Timothy 2:12. (More about 1 Timothy 2:12 here.)
I won’t discuss this verse here, but allow me to point out that just as Paul addresses the problem of men with anger issues in 1 Timothy 2:8 and then the problem of overdressed, rich women in 1 Timothy 2:9-10, in the following verses, Paul is addressing the problem of a woman in the Ephesian church who was not ready to teach (she needed to learn, as it says in verse 11) and who was acting in a domineering manner towards a man, most likely her husband (possibly because of some concern about salvation). All these verses—1 Timothy 2:8, 2:9-10 and 2:11-15 are about specific people and specific problems in the Ephesian church. And Paul offers corrective advice on these particular issues. 1 Timothy 2:12 is not Paul’s general teaching on women in ministry and it does not represent the overall message of the Bible concerning women leaders and ministers.
Questions on Ephesians 5:22-33
Without a doubt, Ephesians 5:22-24, a few verses addressed to wives, is the text that most people are struggling with.
22 Wives, [submit yourselves] to your own husbands as to the Lord, 23 because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Saviour of the body. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives [are to submit] to their husbands in everything.
In the last ten years, I’ve seen numerous wives and would-be, future wives agonise over what it means to be submissive to their husbands and what the parameters or limits of this submission might be. And “agonise” is the right word. These verses are, to many Christian women, not just philosophical or theoretical ideas. These verses have an impact on their very being. And they want to know: Do I submit to foolishness? Do I submit to an abusive husband? When can I say “no”? And what does the word “submit” actually mean? By contrast, I’ve only ever had one person contact me who was agonising over Ephesians 5:21, the previous verse, where it says we are to mutually submit to one another. This person, like the wives, wanted to know what it really means to be submissive and what the limits are.
Why is there such a difference in numbers? Hundreds and hundreds of women, that I know of, deeply concerned with how to understand and how to apply Ephesians 5:22-24―and I used to be one of them―compared with one person concerned with how to understand and apply verse 21? Why aren’t we all deeply concerned with how to apply the first half of Ephesians 5? And why have so many Christians become obsessed with the second half of this chapter? There is something wrong here.
The problem is that many Christians have made Ephesians 5:22-24 about identity. They believe that these three verses define what it means to be a woman and that submitting to husbands is a defining gender role. Some take it further. Teachers such as John Piper say that all women need to be submissive to all men, without the mutual element that Paul mentions in verse 21. Let me be clear: this is an unwarranted distortion of Paul’s teaching; Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:22 down to verse 33 are (mostly) about marriage, not male-female roles more broadly. Ephesians 5:22-24 does not define womanhood. The Bible makes no attempt to define what it means to be a woman or what it means to be a man.
There is nothing especially remarkable in Paul’s words to the Greco-Roman wives in Ephesians 5:22-24 except that he reframes the cultural expectation of wifely submission in Christian terms, as he does in Colossian 3:18 and in the one other instance where he mentions wifely submission, Titus 2:5. The really remarkable stuff is what Paul says to husbands. It’s these words that would have brought joy to the Greco-Roman wives.
In Ephesians 5:25-33 which is primarily addressed to husbands, Paul uses the word “love” six times (twice in 5:25, three times in 5:28, and once in 5:33). He never uses any word that might mean “lead” or “have authority” when speaking to husbands. Paul wanted husbands to love their wives, give themselves up for their wives, nurture them, and be in a close, unified relationship with them. Now that was good news for Greco-Roman wives!
Paul’s household codes in Ephesians 5-6 and Colossians 3-4―where the apostle also gives instructions to (grown) children and parents, and to slaves and masters―were a concession to culture including the social expectation of wifely submission and the institution of slavery. The codes were not about gender or gender roles but about power. After all, what part did gender play in the socially-sanctioned power of a female master over her male slaves? And what part did gender play in the obedience of sons, including grown men, towards their mothers? (More about this here.) The household codes were not about gender roles but about power, which Paul wanted to minimise within the prevailing culture.
Mistrust and Power Over Women
The questions I’ve been asked over the years have caused me to look deeply into many Bible passages, and I’ve learned a lot by doing this. But perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned from listening to comments and questions from people who read my blog has nothing to do with the meaning of Bible passages.
When I first started listening to questions, especially to questions from people who have a problem with the egalitarian ethos, I quickly got the niggling feeling that the real issue wasn’t with 1 Timothy 2:12, Ephesians 5, or any other Bible verse, but with deeply-held, negative beliefs about women. Some expressions of this belief have been more overt than others, but I could often detect a mistrust of the intrinsic nature and capabilities of women.
Ten years later, this niggling feeling has been confirmed many times. I continue to observe that the reluctance for people, both men and women, to accept that the biblical case for disallowing women to be church leaders is flimsy at best, has more to do with how they see women and how they feel about women than with what the Bible says about women.
After all, if the majority of Christians whole-heartedly believed that some women, just like some men, can be mature, capable, reliable leaders and talented expositors of scripture, and that women have important insights and valuable perspectives which are indispensable to the well-being of the church and vital to its mission, I doubt 1 Timothy 2:12 would be understood as a universal, timeless injunction that hinders women from using their talents and gifts. Rather, 1 Timothy 2:12 would be understood as referring to a specific situation in the Ephesian church which seems to be the case.
Poor attitudes about women also affect the issue of women in marriage. Some Christians believe that chaos will result if women are not governed and led by their husbands and that the family or household will suffer. What does this say about their view of women? That women need to be governed by men otherwise things will fall apart?
These same Christians are usually not pedantic about other aspects of the household codes in Ephesians 5-6 and Colossians 3-4. They are not especially concerned about (grown) children obeying their parents, and most think that slavery is abhorrent, yet they continue to insist that the husband being the leader of his wife is crucial for the wife’s well-being and for marital and family stability. Again, what does this say about their view of women?
Others tell me that the real issue is about power rather than distrust. They’ve observed a profound reluctance, and even a fear, that stops some men from relinquishing authority and sharing leadership with women. I think it’s probably both: (1) a distrust of the nature and capabilities of women and (2) an aversion to sharing leadership with women.
What I have learned from 10 years of blogging on equality and mutuality is that we are living with the legacy of some terrible interpretations of scripture that have been produced by, exacerbated by, and supported by a legacy of poor attitudes towards women, attitudes that have nothing to do with how the Bible portrays women. But this is changing, slowly, as women are being educated and are gaining more opportunities in society and in the church. Women are proving that they, as well as their brothers, are smart and resourceful and have gifts, talents and meaningful insights to contribute. We dare not squander these resources.
I am grateful to be part of a movement that is helping to create a new legacy. It is a legacy of appreciation for one another and of the God-given gifts of individuals, as well as of mutual service and submission, regardless of gender.
The blog post is an abbreviated version of a talk I recently gave at a Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) conference in Melbourne. I’ve removed most of a discussion on the household codes in Ephesians 5-6 and Colossians 3-4 as this was largely based on my article The Household Codes are about Power, not Gender which can be read here. And I’ve removed a discussion on four texts in the Hebrew Bible that are sometimes used to diminish women which I’ve posted in a separate blog post here.
 Tyndale, who was the first person to translate the New Testament from Greek into English, once retorted to an arrogant professor, “I will cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Bible than thou doest.” Tyndale wanted his English translation to be accessible and understood by even the uneducated.
 The Greek behind the words in square brackets in Ephesians 5:22 is absent in several, but not all, ancient Greek manuscripts of Ephesians, but it does not affect the meaning of this verse. I know that a few people make a big deal over the fact that “submit” words are not stated in verse 22 and also in the second half of verse 24, but this is not significant. It’s not at all uncommon in ancient Greek for a verbal idea not to be restated, but for the meaning to carry over from previous statements. Paul does this a few times in his letters. (See the note on eliding verbs in this article.)
Photo is courtesy of Brugel Creative.
Articles on women in church history, here.
Articles on 1 Timothy 2:11-15, here.
Articles on Ephesians 5:21-33, here.
Articles on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, here.
4 obscure OT passages sometimes used to diminish women
The Portrayal of Women in the Bible and Biblical Inspiration
Paul’s Female Coworkers
Paul’s Theology of Ministry