Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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I was surprised recently to read Mark Driscoll’s statement that, in his opinion, the best commentary on the book of Esther is the one written by Karen Jobes—a woman.[1] This is surprising because Driscoll is outspoken about his view that women can’t teach men or hold certain leadership positions in the church.

I would think that a woman who writes a respected commentary on a book of the Bible has, potentially, a strong influence on the beliefs of whoever reads it.

I was also surprised to learn that Moore Theological College in Sydney, which mostly fosters patriarchal views on gender roles in marriage and ministry, trains women who want to be Bible translators.

Surely the Bible translation that a person reads can have a powerful effect on their faith and spirituality.

And well-known complementarian Wayne Grudem felt he needed to defend himself recently when it was revealed he had read a book written by a woman. He responded to critics by saying, “I prefer to think of reading a book by a woman as having a chat over a coffee than as teaching.” (Source)

If I read a non-fiction book I do it with the hope I will learn something. And, in my church, we listen to the main message after morning tea, and some of us bring our coffee cups with us as we listen.

Complementarians (i.e. hierarchical complementarians) are Christians who hold to patriarchal and hierarchical views on men and women in ministry and marriage.[2] They believe that only men can have spiritual authority in the church and in the home, and that women must not teach a men “authoritatively.” How “authoritative teaching” is perceived, and how this belief is applied, varies considerably from church to church.

Dan Philipps is a blogger who appears to hold complementarian views. Dan sees the discrepancy between the belief and practice of complementarians who use commentaries written by women. Dan wrote an article back in 2007 with the clever title of “Girls Gone Exegetical”[3] about the use of Karen Jobe’s commentary on 1 Peter.

In his article Dan asks hypothetical questions about his real concerns:

Say you pastor Karen Jobes’ church, and you teach a Sunday School class on 1 Peter. There she sits, authorette of a complex, in-depth commentary on 1 Peter. How does that work? If someone asks you a question you can’t answer, do you ask her about it? Do people start looking to her for answers when the questions are asked? … What about a man leading a Sunday School class, using a textbook written by a woman?

Dan’s questions, and the actions of the other more well-known complementarians, reveal the untenable beliefs and values of complementarianism. The inconsistencies in complementarian beliefs are further highlighted when we consider that they regard spoken words as having more authority than written words in a book, but, at the same time, they recognise that God primarily reveals himself to us today through the written words in a book, the Bible.

I have some hypothetical questions about women whose words have been recorded in the Bible, words that have the authority of Scripture.

If Deborah was in a church meeting would she be allowed to expound on the words of her and Barak’s song recorded in Judges 5:1ff? Would Hannah be allowed to preach on her prayer recorded in 1 Samuel 2:1-10? Would Huldah be allowed to elaborate on the prophecy she gave to Josiah recorded in 2 Chronicles 34:23-28? Would King Lemuel’s mother be allowed to teach on the advice she gave her son recorded in Proverbs 31:1-9? Would Mary be allowed to speak on Luke 1:46-55 or teach about her son? And what about Sarah, Miriam, Rahab, Ruth, etc? Would Anna be allowed to tell us what she said to the people in the Temple (Luke 2:38)?  Would Priscilla be allowed to explain what she told to Apollos (Acts 18:26)?

Women did and said important things that are recorded in the Bible. And God is still using women to do and say important things on his behalf.

Complementarians, however, believe it is not God’s will for a woman to speak authoritatively about God and Christian doctrine. Dan Philips, for instance, states that women cannot be pastors, or more specifically, “God-honoring, Biblical, Christian pastors.” Yet the many women in the Bible who displayed spiritual authority and spoke with authority continue to inform our understanding of theology with their stories and words.

Like Mark Driscoll, many of the faculty at Moore Theological College, and Wayne Grudem, I believe it is perfectly fine for a godly and gifted woman to write a Bible commentary, become a Bible translator, or write a Christian book. I also believe it is fine for a capable and called Christian woman to be a pastor and a Bible teacher.[4]

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[1] The article where Driscoll made the quoted comment is no longer online. The web address was <http://pastormark.tv/2012/09/04/5-reasons-why-esther-may-be-the-toughest-bible-book-ive-ever-preached>

[2] I am an egalitarian, or more precisely a non-hierarchical complementarian, as opposed to a hierarchical complementarian. I believe men and women have some basic differences, but that we have many more things in common. I believe men and women are different and equal. (My understanding of Christian egalitarianism is here and here.)

[3] A play on words of the title of complementarian Mary Kassian’s book and blog “Girls Gone Wise”.

[4] It’s concerning that some complementarians think a godly woman leading a church is a dangerous, rebellious person. “I can’t help but feel that there is something askew with a view that places gender above character, calling, godliness and giftedness: a system where, potentially, every man can be considered for ministry, but every woman is immediately disqualified.” From Can a woman be a Pastor? ‘Yes’ or ‘No’? here.
I understand that many complementarians believe they are being obedient to God by prohibiting women from teaching men because they see 1 Timothy 2:12 as having a universal and permanent force, but many of these same people choose to ignore and disobey the instructions in 1 Timothy 2:8–9. (My articles on 1 Timothy 2:11–15 are here.)

Postscript (April 4, 2013)
John Piper on Women Teaching Men through Bible Commentaries

Here is a link to a brief podcast entitled Do You Use Bible Commentaries Written by Women? where John Piper says that a woman can teach a man if it is done indirectly and impersonally. For example, he states a woman can teach a man through the medium of a book or commentary; she can teach him as long as she is not standing in front of him. What does this statement reveal about Piper’s view of real-life women? Is he uncomfortable or threatened by their presence but not their words?

I’m pretty sure Deborah, Huldah, King Lemuel’s mother, Priscilla, and other Bible women were facing men when they gave them instructions and directions. Unlike John Piper, Barak, Josiah’s all-male delegation, King Lemuel, and Apollos did not see these women solely in regard to their sex. These Bible men and others respected women and knew they had something important to say and teach them … in person. Gender was not an issue. (More on Bible men who were guided by godly women here.)

Postscript (August 13, 2013)
I. Howard Marshall on Complementarians Using Books Written by Women

I read the following quote from I. Howard Marshall today. He sees the inconsistencies in complementarians using books written by women and poses the question, “How can it be right for complementarians to read and cite books on Bible and theology written by women and disallow them from saying the same things in a church meeting?” From “Women in Ministry” in Women, Ministry and the Gospel, ed. Mark Husbands and Timothy Larsen (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2007), 63.

I. Howard Marshall is just one of many prominent biblical scholars who do not support restrictions on ministry on the basis of gender. (Marshall is Professor Emeritus of New Testament Exegesis at the University of Aberdeen, and former chair of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical and Theological Research.)

Postscript (February 11, 2014)
More Commentaries Written by Karen Jobes

Karen Jobes has also written a commentary on John’s epistles. More information is here. And she continues to write quality, scholarly books and articles. Added: Karen Jobes is currently (2021) Vice-President of the Evangelical Theological Society.

Explore more

There are Women Pastors in the New Testament
Michael Bird on Conflicting Complementarian Attitudes to Women Teachers
Women Bible Scholars and Translators
Female Bible Translators
Women, Teaching, and Deception
All my articles on 1 Timothy 2:11–15 are here.
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
My 3-part series on Queen Esther, with quotations from Karen Jobes, is here.
Bible Commentaries Written By and For Egalitarians is accessible on my Patreon page.

19 thoughts on “Complementarians & Bible Commentaries Written by Women

  1. I wondered the same things myself. She isn’t just teaching ‘women’ – as the normal excuse goes either.

    I have to wonder how long it will be until they attempt to remove the rug underneath her feet so to speak. They would look completely stupid if they do that, and I hope they don’t. In time I would not doubt they minimize her work sadly.

    Maybe – just maybe the Holy Spirit is working within them to show them its not a teaching issue – but a personal ‘pride’ issue. To them its a ‘power struggle’ issue, which always seemed to blow my mind. When they will learn it is about the Lord, and not about ‘power’ or position of men?

    If they take the bible literally? The position of pastor, teacher, etc is seen as a demotion – not promotion. I’m speaking from a secular view here – one they tend to use more often than they would admit. One that wishes to be first should be last. Teaching and Pastoring is serving, and in that realm they are actually NOT allowing 1/2 of humankind to serve. You have to wonder if they stopped to think of it like that.

    I hope they continue to allow other women to serve now.

  2. Many comps try to be consistent, but do not see the final result of where their teaching leads, into application gymnastics and inconsistency.

    And all because of a few puzzling verses that they CHOOSE to interpret in a way to restrict women and all the while the best of them know that egals have ways of interpreting those same verses that do not lead to such inconsistencies and application gymnastics.

  3. “He defended himself by saying, ‘I prefer to think of reading a book by a woman as having a chat over a coffee than as teaching.'”

    How can someone who claims he is a scholar not realize how illogical he’s being?! So written words and talking one on one don’t count as teaching but spoken words in a classroom/pulpit setting do? That book was written with every intention to teach – you can’t pretend it doesn’t just because the author is a woman. You don’t get to change reality because you “prefer” it to fit your beliefs. You either admit that women have valuable things to teach men or you admit that you were wrong to read her book/she was wrong to write it. You can’t have both.

    I bet he would never say, “I prefer to think of reading a book by a -man- as having a chat over a coffee than as teaching.”

  4. I’m studying 1 Peter at the moment and I’m using Karen Jobe’s commentary as one of my main resources. She is teaching me about the Bible and about Christian doctrine. There is no doubt about that.

    My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will help people to see there is no scriptural mandate that prohibits women from being seen and treated as equals and from speaking and teaching worthwhile and valuable things in the Christian community, the church.

    As a woman, Jesus is just as much my Lord and Saviour and friend as he is to my brothers. The Bible is just as much mine to read and study. And it is just as mine to teach if that is where my gifting lies.

  5. It seems to me that they may be trying to please both sides of the issue by explaining tentatively that reading some books by women is somewhat OK, “like having a chat over coffee”. But the thing is that one of those guys, in having a chat with a woman over coffee regarding theological issues, would not be willing to be taught, corrected or directed by that chatting woman. 🙂

  6. I don’t get a sense that anyone is trying to please both sides of the issue. I think these people are resolute in their stance that a woman cannot teach a man, even if the practice of their conviction is sometimes compromised.

    The prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 does not represent a biblical consensus on women who teach. Perhaps it is male ego and prejudice that is stopping some men from appreciating and listening to what their sisters have to say.

  7. Wayne comes pretty close to admitting he thinks women are inferior to men in his ridiculous article entitled, “But what should women do in the church?”

    I have a critique of his article here.

  8. Gee, Wayne, tell us chicks what you REALLY think of us!

  9. I always find it amusing when a man talks about what a woman can and cannot do , like HE is the one who makes the rules over what another human being is allowed to do . Seriously , we are not animals! This kind of garbage makes my blood boil ! I just wonder how Mr. Grudem would feel if he were treated this way ?

  10. I just found this direct quote from Grudem in an interview from October 2006 here.

    “When I read a book written by a woman, it’s a much closer analogy to a private conversation between the author and me.”

    We all know that when an author writes and publishes a book he or she hopes for much more than a private conversation with one reader. A writer hopes to inspire, influence or educate many readers with their written words in much the same way as speakers hope to inspire, influence or educate many people with their spoken words.

    Grudem also makes comments in the interview about Priscilla and Aquila, including a comment about the Greek verb for “instruct” (in Acts 18:24) that is incorrect. I look at Priscilla and Aquila and the verb for “instruct” here.

  11. Every time a woman publishes a bible study blog, book, ebook or journal article for the general public, she is teaching men. It makes me think of the way Jesus destroyed the silly logic of the Pharisees over swearing of oaths. Matthew 23:16-22 (NIV)

    16 “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’
    17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?
    18 You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’
    19 You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?
    20 Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it.
    21 And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it.
    22 And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.

    1. When I read arguments that some hierarchical complementarians use to support their ideology, I’m also reminded of “straining gnats” and “swallowing camels” (Matt. 23:23-25).

  12. So Grudem thinks reading a book by a woman theologian is not teaching? Reminds me of a Comp guy who liked to quote Mary Kassian to support his ideas. I said to him that is hypocrisy to learn from Mary Kassian even if she supports his comp views. He said he watched her on a video from some woman’s conference which didn’t count because he wasn’t sitting in the live audience. What??!! No way does that make sense. He still was being taught by a woman!

    1. There are many gifted, intelligent, educated, spirit-led women who are teaching. It’s a shame your comp guy isn’t learning from them, whether through books, video, or live.

  13. Unfortunately, same comp guy has read your blog and considers it heresy. So no, comp guy will learn nothing from an egalitarian woman, only comp women need apply so long as they aren’t “teaching” him I guess. Lol.

    1. It’s a shame when Christians call different interpretations of scripture heresy, unless it really is saying something different about Jesus and salvation or is saying something totally graceless and vile. It would be nice if “love” was part of the way we measure teaching of fellow Christians.

  14. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

    “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

    “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

    “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone [listens to a woman preach] it means nothing; but anyone who [learns from] the gold of [a woman’s written exegesis] is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone [respects a woman pastor], it means nothing; but anyone who [learns from her written teaching] is bound by that oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? . . .

    “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your [income]. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. . . You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

    “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

    “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

    “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

    “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will [bar from your church pulpits, withhold the respect of proper title, and degrade on social media].
    Matthew 23:12-33 [edits mine]

  15. It’s the broken notion perhaps brought on my extreme complementarians that has led to this confusion. The restriction is on woman acting in authority as Elders within the church. It also applies to woman in the home but the teaching part is primarily about Elders in the church. When you preach from the pulpit you preach from authority as Elder. When you teach Sunday School/Small Group, when you write a commentary, when you run a business, none of those things are the issue. I don’t even have a problem with a Queen of a country but I would with her being the pastor of a church.

    And this has nothing whatsoever to do with ability. That is nonsense. There is nothing you can say that would apply to all women being less than all men. The average woman compared to the average man maybe but that isn’t the issue here. We all no that I could find a man who teaches worse than Beth Moore. I could do it in five minutes in any church in America.

    Leadership is God ordained and we don’t have a certain reason why he chose men to be Elders and to lead in the home. He did. We can speculate but some speculations can be ridiculous.

    1. John, There is no verse in the Greek New Testament that says elders must be men, or elders can’t be women. And there’s certainly no verse where God chooses the elders of a church.

      There are also no verses in the New Testament that say anything like “When you preach from the pulpit you preach from authority as Elder.” This concept is foreign to the first-century church where there were no pulpits. And it’s foreign to Paul who encouraged all gifted and orderly followers of Jesus to contribute and participate in church meetings.

      Paul addressed the unruly speaking of some men and women in Corinth (1 Corinthians 14:26-40) and he addressed the poor behaviour of some men and women in Ephesus (1 Timothy 2:8-15), but he never silenced or restricted the ministry of godly and capable men or women.

      Paul mentions “teaching” or “teachers” in 5 lists of ministries and, in the Greek, there is no indication that women are excluded from any of these ministries. See Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:28, 1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 4:11 and Colossians 3:16.

      I have little doubt Priscilla functioned as a church elder. And the feminine word for “elder” occurs in the Greek New Testament. I’ve written about this here: https://margmowczko.com/women-elders-new-testament/

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