All Equal under God, but Submission for Women? ; Evangelical Group Challenges Claim of a Biblical Basis for Male Leadership

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What does the Bible really say about the roles of women and men in the church and at home?

Within evangelical Christianity, this question is anything but abstract theology. It has sparked a fundamental and sometimes fierce debate, with significant consequences for people's daily lives and livelihood - and perhaps for the future of the church.

America's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), for example, now insists the Bible prescribes male pastoral leadership in church and the "gracious submission" of wives to their husbands. As a result:

* Teachers at their seminaries and missionaries around the world who refuse to sign a statement in agreement are being fired or forced to resign their posts.

* Hundreds of women pastors find their contributions no longer recognized.

* A former woman leader in the Baptist World Alliance speaks of a "rising tide of female suppression in US Christian churches."

Some other denominations, including Pentecostal groups whose early preachers were women, are taking a similar tack.

But many evangelicals vigorously disagree. To the contrary, they say, the Bible teaches the fundamental equality of men and women, and they are developing materials and resources to demonstrate it.

"We call ourselves Bible egalitarians," says Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality, a "reformist movement" of individuals and churches from 85 denominations. Earlier this month, Christians from every continent met in Orlando, Fla., for CBE's biennial conference. "Individuals around the globe who are conservative theologically, as we are, are seeing in the pages of the Bible ... a call for gift-based, not gender-based, ministry," Ms. Haddad says.

Roles in the church should be based on the God-given gifts of individuals, which are without regard to gender, class, or race, they say, pointing to Gal. 3:28: "There is neither Jew or Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

The gender-based position within churches, many say, is a reaction to secular feminism.

"Prior to this time there has never been a Baptist doctrinal statement on the role of women or gender," says Catherine Allen, a lifelong Southern Baptist in Birmingham, Ala.

Haddad emphasizes that Minneapolis-based CBE is not coming from a feminist stance, but strictly from biblical teaching. "We are radically traditional - radical in representing the heart of scripture and coming against an evangelical culture which has embraced a view of gender we think is not biblical."

Taking the contrary view is the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, in Louisville, Ky., (www.cbmw.org). "Men and women are created equal in the image of God, but according to the Bible there are differences in role and function based on gender," says Randy Stinson, the council's executive director. They have complementary roles, but under "male headship." "Since the Bible has prescribed a particular arrangement for the home, then successful homes are at stake; since it has prescribed a structure for the church, the witness of the church is at stake as well."

Much of the debate swirls around the New Testament teachings of Paul, with egalitarians saying that some verses referring to specific situations have been inappropriately universalized, and that verses about wives submitting to husbands must be seen in the context of teachings about Christians submitting to one another.

"Paul taught mutual submission; he doesn't mean that women are always submissive," says John Kohlenberger III, an evangelical author of biblical commentaries and reference books.

Dr. Kohlenberger and other scholars contribute articles for CBE's quarterly journal, Priscilla Papers, which takes the message to colleges and seminaries as well as to organization members. …