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
* 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. …