Why the Gender Issue Is the Issue

Mark DeverMark Dever reflects upon why so many evangelicals believe the debate over gender issues to be so important. He writes:

Dear reader, you may not agree with me on this. And I don’t desire to be right in my fears. But it seems to me and others (many who are younger than myself) that this issue of egalitarianism and complementarianism is increasingly acting as the watershed distinguishing those who will accomodate Scripture to culture, and those who will attempt to shape culture by Scripture. You may disagree, but this is our honest concern before God. It is no lack of charity, nor honesty. It is no desire for power or tradition for tradition’s sake. It is our sober conclusion from observing the last 50 years (source).

I am in agreement with Dever on this, and it is precisely why I make such a fuss about it myself. I really do believe that the greatest threat to the authority of scripture today is not coming mainly from those arguing about the nature of scripture but from those who adopt an interpretive approach that domesticates the Bible’s message at precisely those points at which it should be confronting us and the culture.

This is, by the way, the same reason that I blog so much on the emerging church.
(HT: Justin Taylor)


19 thoughts on “Why the Gender Issue Is the Issue”

  1. I agree with you 100% Denny. Unfortunately my experience has been that when you defend 1 Tim 2 and the prescription for male leadership in a local church at the denominational level (here in Australia) you are perceived as being malicious and draconian in your attitude towards women. Those proposing ordination of women and an egalitarianism in the home and church fail to see the larger issue of the necessity to defend the inspiration and integrity of the Scriptures as the basis of all we believe (faith) and practise! I appreciate your perceptiveness on the issue!
    Every Blessing you son of a gun!

  2. The question of the trans-culurality of the Scriptures is paramount. But let’s not just confine ourselves to gender issues, how has the capitalist culture shaped our interpretation of “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth”. In the year it was penned it was taken literally, or at least more literally than we take it today!

  3. Thanks for posting this. It hits on some things I have been wondering about.

    What I understand you and Dever to be saying is that we must go beyond a mere agreement about the nature of scripture and agree on a particular interpretation (Dever) or hermeneutic (you).

    I agree with the statements the BFM2000 makes concerning the family and most of the material coming from the complementarian side of the aisle. Thus, I am in agreement concerning interpretation.

    But my question and confusion concerns why this particular issue is *the* issue. Why must we demand a particular interpretation on the gender question, but not, say, on the divorce question?

    For example, as I understand Piper, he believes that those who remarry for a reason other than the death of their first spouse committs adultery. Yet within his own church there is room for disagreement on this particular interpretation.

    As I understand what you are suggesting, it is the hermeneutical approach that some egalitarians take that is the true issue, not the actual interpretation. If so, what is the hermeneutical issue that makes the gender issue *the* issue?

  4. Dear Michael,

    Thanks for you comment. You wrote: “What I understand you and Dever to be saying is that we must go beyond a mere agreement about the nature of scripture and agree on a particular interpretation (Dever) or hermeneutic (you).”

    No, this goes beyond what I was trying to say. There are hermeneutical approaches that relativizes the teachings of scripture. Whether it be the emerging crowd and their reluctance to say that we can have certain knowledge about what the Bible says or the egalitarian crowd that plays Jesus against Paul and relativizes Paul’s statements about gender roles, you have an undermining of scripture’s authority.

    It is possible for people to have an identical hermeneutic but come to different conclusions about the interpretation of a passage. That’s not what I’m talking about.


  5. I asked this question also on the T4G site. I was curious about some other takes: Over the last 20-25 years we have heard the “authority of scripture” and the hermeneutic argument used in the eschatology and charismatic debates. How is this different? I’m not trying to be controversial, just honestly thinking it through.

  6. I found Dever’s article interesting in several ways.

    1) It offers an explanation of why traditionalists are so vehemently opposed egalitarianism by,

    2) conjoining things like homosexuality and theological liberalism with the ordination of women.

    3) It explains why it is the bigger issue than baptism by,

    4) calling it a breach of biblical authority, all the while

    5) paying honor to a person who hold those very views!

    Dever pays special homage to Roger Nicole telling of his deep respect for him and a close relationship they have, yet in the next paragraph says his views undermine the authority of Scripture.

    Putting the post hoc arguments aside (women’s ordination happens before homosexual ordination, therefore egalitarianism causes homosexual affirmation), this is all too typical of traditionalist “draw-a-line-in-the-sand” literature in that evangelical egalitarians are good Christians who believe heretical things at the same time.

    But I suppose if you believe that women are equal in their essential being yet subordinate by virtue of that same being, holding to contradictory positions is easy. I know that sounds harsh, but that is how egalitarians, who hold to the authority of the Bible, see the issue and thus formulate their hermeneutics.

  7. Denny,
    Good post. Having been an ardent observer of the gender debate over the past few years, I have concluded that egalitarians essentially fall into two camps, and that only one side of them are guilty of the theological dangers that Dever mentions.

    The two camps are: 1) those who actually agree with complementarians on the exegesis of the text. That is to say that both they and we agree that what Paul and Peter meant was for women to have a certain role to play in the church and in the home. Where we split is over the matter of whether that meaning is still in force today (see Webb’s book, for instance.) Thus, those in this group deny that what the apostles meant has relevance for today’s culture. These, I think, are the most dangerous arguments since they agree as to the meaning of the text, yet capitulate to our culture’s post-1960’s feminism. Now, I know that that is a gross oversimplification, but the distinction holds.

    On the other side of the egalitarian camp you have 2) those that hermeneutically agree with you and me (and the very reverend Mark Dever), viz., they would argue that what the author meant is in fact binding. Yet, they come to their egalitarian views by redefining specific terms, using definitions of words that are beyond Paul’s typical usage, contorting the syntax, etc. (See some of the writings of Sarah Sumner, among others.) The point is that they believe that what the author says is binding, just that it doesn’t say what the Church has believed that is says for the past 2000 years.

    Thus, I think that there is a difference even within the egalitarian camp. What would be nice would be to see these two sides of the same camp go at it.

    This (hermeneutical distinction between the two) has been ruminating in my head for some time, but I think that it is a helpful delineation between some egal’s and others. Yet in the end both do an injustice to the text, and I am not quite sure which is worse: 1) to agree with Paul and Peter’s clear meanings yet say they are invalid in today’s culture, or 2) to exegetically butcher the text so badly that it finally supports the egalitarian view. At least the latter still views the author’s meaning as authoritative and binding in today’s world. Still, the first should be faulted for its hermeneutics; the second for its exegesis.

    Please forgive the oversimplification of a very thorny and muti-faceted discussion, but I do think that these two broad distinctions stand.

    Does this make sense?


  8. Denny,

    I don’t dispute that the women in ministry issue is of great importance, but for the life of me I cannot bring myself to say that it is THE issue that separates the good guys from the bad guys. Here are several (provocative) questions that come to my mind:

    1. Are all egalitarians merely trying to accomodate Christianity to the culture of the day (which I think is the root of liberalism) or do they have valid exegetical and theological reasons for why they believe what they do? Consider F.F. Bruce, the trailblazer of evangelical NT scholarship in the 20th century. He was an egalitarian. Were Bruce’s views on women determined exclusively by a desire to make Christianity more palpable to the prevailing cultural ethos of the day, or was he in some way shaped by 50 years of exegetical study on Acts and Paul?

    2. Does the door of cultural influence swing both ways? Is it possible that complentarians themselves might be influenced via their own intra-evangelical subculture that has failed to treat women as co-heirs of the kingdom and co-workers for Christ. Are there versions of complentarianism that go too far in what they prohibit? If so, why? I bet the answer is partly cultural. My biggest criticism with American Evangelicalism is an overwhelming inability by many (though not all of course) to distinguish between what is a cutural expression of Christianity and what is Christianity? Evangelical support for the war in Iraq and Bush’s tax policies is a prime example. My point is, let he who is without cultural baggage cast the first stone.

    3. Is divorce a bigger issue than women in ministry in terms of both its prevlance and danger in evangelical churches? My word it is! Has not evangelicalism in North American imitated the prevailing culturally trend of the day here far more than anywhere else? Divorce has had a much more negative impact on marriages and ministry than egalitarianism ever will. And yet divorce is not censured in many churches or treated as a matter of discipline. I know of divorced pastors in the SBC. If I may draw a hyperbolic analogy, I see no reason to chase the egalitarian mice out of the kitchen (does kitchen = evangelicalism or denomination?) when there is a grizzly bear sitting in the living room about to devour the kids.

    4. Is the rhetoric of complementarians ceasing to be gracious? Note, I’m not saying this about yourself Denny, or of Justin Taylor or Jim Hamilton who I know disagree with me here, I respect your opinions. But the problem is that I can no longer identify with a movement that anathematizes men and women whom I call my brothers and sisters. A friend of mine met a women from Iran who said that she became a Christian because of the Ayotollah Khomeini. When asked “How?” she replied, “Because everytime I looked into his eyes I only saw hatred!” There is a lesson here that complementarian leaders need to learn. Some crowds may applaud when the rhetoric and polemics against egalitarians becomes harsher and increasingly vitriolic. Some may cheer when egalitarians are denounced as enemies of the gospel, when bridges are burnt, and rejoice when sinister motives imputed to them. But I shake my head and take one step away from them because I feel a sense of repulsion, these men do not ooze the love of Christ who wept over Jerusalem. Where is the “gentleness” of these men,(1 Pet. 3.15) I don’t see it here.

    5. What is the sine qua non of evangelicalism? I would like to that it is the evangel! I am concerned that evangelicalism is becoming gospel + complementarianism. Is complementarism becoming a “boundary marker” of being in the reformed evangelical fold? Does this constitute a rewriting of the boundaries of evangelicalism, is it a redefining of evangelicalism along more sectarian lines [I mean sectarian in a social sense not a pejorative sense], and is the gospel being displaced in order to advance certain cutlural agendas in the US?

    In sum, I still don’t understand why this issue is the one that separates the good guys from bad guys. I’m concerned and confused by the rhetoric surrounding much of this debate. My questions are meant to be calls for self-reflection among complentarian and they are not accusations by any means.

    On a brighter note, the first post is by a Pastor that I met 12 years ago who handed me a gospel tract at Wattle Grove Baptist Church in Sydney, Australia, and in doing so he was instrumental in my coming to faith from a non-Christian background. Praise God! Hello Steve! I still have that tract too!!!

  9. I believe Mike has some excellent points. I want to comment on his second because I think this is where the reformed evangelical blinders hinder the most. For some reason, those in the conservative evangelical camp simply can not recognize their own subjectivity and biases. Of course, they will admit that they do and even share some of the cultural influences that have shaped their identity. But that means little to me because when they actually sit down and communicate their theological views, that recognition vanishes; in my opinion, while they may have some awareness of their own subjectivity and biases, they fail to incorporate that into their thinking.

  10. Dear Mike (in #9),

    Thank you for your thoughtful response.

    I have to say that I think my experience has been totally different than yours. Perhaps that’s due in part to the fact that I didn’t grow up in “evangelicalism,” but in a moderate SBC church in the south. The church I grew up in was on the left side of the theological controversy that ultimately resulted in a conservative resurgence in our denomination. So our church had no problem in principle with women teaching men or with the idea that the husband is not the “head” of his home. I can remember in college when the Sunday afternoon Bible study at my church consisted of a survey of Gilbert Bilezikian’s writings on gender. I say all that to point out that my complementarianism was not the result of cultural conditioning. I came to my complementarian views when I was in college. I was sort of a default egalitarian before then.

    For me, the change came as I began to read the scriptures. It just seemed to me that the Bible presented a challenge to my very culturally acceptable egalitarian views on gender. I wrestled more seriously with the exegesis of some of the more central texts when I got to seminary, and it was there that I became convinced that the Bible really does teach the patriarchy of God in the Trinity and of husbands in the home (e.g., 1 Corinthians 11:3).

    Moreover, I just couldn’t get an egalitarian reading out of some of the watershed biblical texts. For me, anyway, it just didn’t make sense to interpret Galatians 3:28 as overriding what looked to be clear patriarchal statements in other texts (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:12 or 1 Corinthians 11:3). I just felt like my culturally conditioned egalitarianism could not stand in light of such clear apostolic teaching.

    Have you read Richard Hays on 1 Corinthians 11? In his commentary in the INTERPRETATION series, he writes:

    “Any honest appraisal of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 will require both teacher and students to confront the patriarchal implications of verses 3 and 7-9. Such implications cannot be explained away by some technical move, such as translating kephalē as ‘source,’ rather than ‘head,’ because the patriarchal assumptions are imbedded in the structure of Paul’s argument” (p. 192).

    Even as an egalitarian, Hays acknowledges that the apostle Paul was a patriarchalist when it came to gender roles. I appreciate Hays in this because he doesn’t strain his exegesis to fit his view.

    I always felt that to remain an egalitarian I would have to do some hermeneutical gymnastics to get there, and I didn’t feel like that would be very good.

    In terms of mean-spiritedness, my experience in that area has been totally opposite from what you describe as your experience with complementarians. I am curious what complementarians you are referring to that are so mean-spirited towards women. Whoever they are, I join you in condemning that behavior.

    My experience with some egalitarians is that they can be very rude and demeaning towards those who hold a contrary view. As a matter of fact, our mutual friend was greeted with open and pronounced hostility when he presented his complementarian paper at the Wheaton Theology conference last year. He was one of only two or three complementarians there, and he said that he was snubbed and berated by others at the conference. I know that story is anecdotal, but it is not the only one like it that could be told.

    Anyway, I hope that helps you to see a little bit better where I am coming from. Thanks for your comments.

    Denny Burk

  11. Denny,

    Thanks for giving the other side of the story on that one. I can appreciate that this issue is bound up a resurgence of orthodox and evangelicalism in the SBC. I am also deeply aware that complementarians strive to be biblical. I should also have noted too that rudeness and arrogance can be equally found on the egalitarian side. I remember once being called a “Patriarchal, androcentric, chauvinistic, misogynist” by a middle-aged woman – I wasn’t sure what it meant at the time but given that her face was blood red and that she was salivating at the mouth I assumed that she meant it in a bad way. Many egalitarians are driven by PC convictions and like being “fashionably left” on this issue. I guess my point is that many egalitarians are trying to be biblical (F.F. Bruce), there is a diversity among egalitarians themselves (some are purely PC while others believe earnestly in male headship of the home), and I don’t want to see this as the issue one that divides evangelicalism. I do take the point that one’s attitude to egalitarianism will depend on the context in which one experiences them.

    One final point. Timothy George wrote an article about 7 months back in CT suggesting that there should be a colloquium called “Complementarians and Egalitarians Together” – what do you think?

  12. Denny,
    You’re always thoughtful, and I appreciate that. But this issue is not “the issue.” It is not central to the gospel in any way shape or form. What is central is Jesus Christ, the godhead as Trinity, the redemptive atoning work of Christ, the Spirit’s power at work to restore us…

    This issue clearly divides, which can be good or bad, but we cannot let it become “the issue.”

    Every issue I know of can be rooted in our view of Scripture — every view taken. If I think justification is sociological, I can quickly say if you don’t agree with me, you deny the Bible. So, we need to be very careful with this argument too.

  13. Dear Scot,

    Well, maybe I was being hyperbolic, perhaps even more so than Dever was. My real point was to agree with Dever that the gender issue serves as a “watershed distinguishing those who will accomodate Scripture to culture, and those who will attempt to shape culture by Scripture.” Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is “the” issue in the sense that in many cases, one’s stance on the gender issue indicates how one will approach the scripture on a whole cluster of more central issues.

    Just to use one of your examples, “the redemptive atoning work of Jesus Christ”: Isn’t it true that many egalitarians eschew any notion of the atonement that views it as a display of the wrath of God? More and more, these two issues which appear to be unrelated on the surface actually have something in common. Do you think that’s an over-generalization?

    Anywho, thanks for the feedback.


  14. Denny,
    It is an overgeneralization, at least most of the time.

    No I don’t think egalitarian and softening of wrath are together. I’ve known plenty of egalitarians who were at the same time strong on wrath. And there are plenty the other way, too.

    It is not a watershed issue; it is for those who think it is. Watershed issues, as far as I’m concerned, are central theological ones — Godhood, atonement, deity of Christ. We are in danger here of raising secondary issues to primary issues, and that sort of logic gets us in trouble every time. It is misguided to judge the faithfulness of others on this issue.

    And it does not at all seem prudent or anything resembling inevitable that one’s view of the husband-wife issue reflects one’s view of how one reads Scripture. It can, but there could be all sorts of things involved.

    What is going on here is the old liberal vs. conservative issue, and I don’t think it cuts that way on the egalitarian issue. Take a look at that council that is for egalitarianism and you’ll find yourself surrounded by plenty of conservative evangelicals.

    What needs to be permitted is that genuine Bible-believing Christians think that NT texts on women are (1) culturally shaped and no longer directly applicable (and if we are really honest, no one is trying to resurrect the actual customs of male-female relations of the first century — are we?) and (2) exegeted differently than the traditional view. To insinuate that such folks are doing so as a cave-in to culture is unfair and usually uninformed. What I hear being said is this: “Egalitarians are unwilling to submit to the Bible; they are therefore liberal; they must have unworthy motives.”

    Now, let’s be fair on this one: Why not say that the reason complementarians believe what they do is because of their cultural bias? It cuts both ways if we are going to use that argument. Why not just deal with the arguments and the evidence?

  15. Dear Scot,

    Thanks for the response.

    I’m actually with you on this one. I can’t say that I speak with any kind of authority as to what people’s motives are. I’m much more comfortable to focus the conversation on “the arguments and the evidence,” as you say. But it’s precisely on the arguments and the evidence that I think egalitarians are at their weakest.

    Take for instance the exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:12. Doug Moo’s article in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is an excellent and compelling piece of work. Or consider Andreas Kostenberger’s work on the same text in Women in the Church. Kostenberger’s syntactical work has been widely received by both liberal and conservatives alike. Yet Linda Belville’s answer to both of those in Discovering Biblical Equality is utterly unconvincing as it is not nearly as much anchored in the text as it is a hypothetical reconstruction of the situation in Ephesus.

    So when I read these competing exegeses of 1 Timothy 2:12, I’m left asking myself the following question: Why is it that when I read Moo and Kostenberger I feel like I am neck deep in an explanation of the details of the text, yet when I read Belville I feel like I’m not? Bellville’s exegetical work rests wholly upon what I think is tendentious and unconvincing historical reconstruction–a reconstruction that only works if one strains the exegesis of the infinitive clauses. Read Belville’s essay, then read Moo’s, and then see if you think I’m off my rocker here.

    Anyway, I just see a tendency in complementarian exegesis to be more anchored in the text. Egalitarians of course are using the text also, but just not in a way that is compelling to me at all. I think what we have here with the egalitarians is an attempt to “explain away by some technical move” the “patriarchal assumptions” of the text (like Hays says on 1 Cor 11, see my comment #11).

    Anywho, maybe I’ll start a string that actually deals more specifically with the arguments and evidence.

    Thanks for the feedback.


    Richard Hays, 1 Corinthians: “Any honest appraisal of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 will require both teacher and students to confront the patriarchal implications of verses 3 and 7-9. Such implications cannot be explained away by some technical move, such as translating kephalē as ’source,’ rather than ‘head,’ because the patriarchal assumptions are imbedded in the structure of Paul’s argument” (p. 192).

  16. Denny,
    I agree that it is a more important issue than Scot is willing to grant. No one is suggesting that it is more important than the atonement or something that is essential to salvation. Yet it seems that Scot understands you to be saying this. In contrast, what you are saying is that this issue actually deals with the quesiton of how one reads the Bible and whether one will capitulate to the feminism in the culture, baptizing it, and calling it “evangelical egalitarianism.” The name sounds fine, but what is being done to the text it not.

    Why it is essential is because it is a symptom of a larger problem: when we run headlong into an apostle’s commands that are so violently opposed to our culture, what do we do? My fear, like Denny’s, is that if we can relativize Paul on this issue, what’s next? We should not be so naive as to think that this would be the last. Rather, it could establish a dangerous paradigm. I know that there is a lot of speculation taking place on that very issue. That is why it is a watershed issue. Perhaps I have misread Scot’s entries, but it seems that he has not understood that. Rather, he thinks Denny (and Dever) are raising it to be an essential doctrine on par with faith alone, or something of the sort.

    Again, see my post above, but arriving at the egal view either by exegetical gymnastics, or relativizing it away as 1st C. patriarchy are not compelling. I have read Bellville, Fee and others, and the exegesis is strained. I too entered this conversation as a default egalitarian, but it was the exegetical study of the text, based on a presupposition that I would do what the apostle said even if I didn’t like it, that led me to the complementarian viewpoint. When one reads Moo, Kostenberger et al. on the exegesis of the text, it is more compelling than the tenuous reconstruction of Bellville and the Kroegers.

    Please address this point: Are we going to obey what the text says (and thus discuss the correct exegesis), or are we going to say like Hays and others have said – “this is what Paul [and Peter] have said, but that was a different time and culture of our own”? Which road will we choose? At least Hays is honest!

    As for the rules of engagement, I argue for the former. The culture-centered dismissal is not compelling. To compound this, is it not clear that such commands are indeed trans-cultural given 1 Peter 3? The apostle exhorts believing wives to live in submission to their husbands, and uses the 2000 year old (and cross cultural) example of Sarah and Abraham as an example to emulate? Doesn’t this intra-textual example of the trans-cultural application of patriarchy count for something? It seems clear that Peter saw the ancient example of Sarah to be an authoritative example for those in the diaspora (a different culture than Abraham’s day).

    In short, this issue needs to be addressed along exegetical lines.

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