20 Myths in the Gender Debate

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There are a number of myths surrounding the ministries of men and women in the church. Specifically, a lot of things are commonly believed by complementarians about egalitarianism, and by egalitarians about complementarianism, which are untrue and unhelpful, and these can lead to unnecessary confusion, conflict and disunity. (For the uninitiated: egalitarians believe that all ministries/roles in the church are open to both men and women, and complementarians believe that one or more ministries/roles in the church are restricted to men. The latter are to be distinguished from complimentarians, who are those that say nice things to fourth century Christological heretics. Sorry.)

So I thought it might be helpful to give twenty examples of these myths, ten for each side, with a view to clarifying things somewhat. My aim is twofold: to debunk bad arguments on both sides, since they often lead to caricature and muddle, and to challenge some of the prejudices that can prevent loving, open and humble discussion. Articles with a similar agenda have recently been written by Krish Kandiah and Steve Holmes, from a more egalitarian perspective, but the focus of mine is to identify (and hopefully debunk) some of the myths that you often come across. I’ve paired them together, for reasons which I hope will be obvious; E stands for egalitarian, and C stands for complementarian.

E1. All complementarians are chauvinists who dishonor women.
C1. All egalitarians are liberals who dishonor the Bible.


This shouldn’t need too much explanation, really. Elisabeth Eliot and Tim Keller are not chauvinists, and do not wilfully dishonour women. Gordon Fee and Chris Wright are not liberals, and do not willfully dishonor the Bible. Countless complementarians have beautiful marriages, and countless egalitarians have a wonderful knowledge of and submission to the Bible. There are some bad examples too, of course - I wince at some of the stereotyping, and exegesis, that I’ve heard over the years in this conversation - but we mustn’t let them lead us into crass generalizations.

E2. Complementarians do not believe men and women are equal.
C2. Egalitarians do not believe men and women are complementary.


To be honest, the labels “complementarian” and “egalitarian” are not that helpful. (Even less helpful are the preferred terms of disparagement on both sides: “hierarchicalists” and “feminists”.) The vast majority of complementarians you come across firmly believe that men and women are equal (as Genesis 1 puts beyond doubt, and John Piper argues here). The vast majority of egalitarians you come across firmly believe that men and women are complementary (as Genesis 2 puts beyond doubt, and Tom Wright argues here). The question is, though: what does that look like in the church, and in marriage? Does equality imply identity? Does complementarity imply restrictions in ministry? And so on.

E3. “Headship” and “submission” always communicate the inferiority of women.
C3. “Headship” and “submission” never communicate the inferiority of women.


Because of my complementarian theology of marriage, I was recently asked by a fellow Christian what the difference was between me and the Taliban. Rhetorical flourishes notwithstanding, this sort of question reflects the assumption that headship and submission always communicate superiority and inferiority - which is obviously untrue, if you consider the relationship between Jesus and God the Father during Jesus’ earthly ministry (Heb 5:7-8), when Paul was writing (1 Cor 11:3), and on into eternity future (1 Cor 15:28). On the other hand, complementarians can use this observation (that Jesus was equal with God yet submitted to him) to argue the opposite, which can be just as unhelpful: that headship and submission don’t imply superiority and inferiority at all. This is also nonsense, both biblically (Eph 1:21-23; Col 1:18; 2:10) and practically (just ask a random sample of women from complementarian church backgrounds whether they’ve ever felt like second class citizens). The reality is that the language of headship and submission can connote superiority and inferiority, but it doesn’t have to.

E4. Complementarianism is analogous to supporting the slave trade.
C4. Egalitarianism is analogous to supporting homosexual practice.


Bunk. (If that’s not quite detailed enough, maybe follow the links to our posts on slavery and sexuality.)

E5. The differences between men and women are entirely a result of the Fall.
C5. The differences between men and women are entirely a result of creation.

Maybe this is obvious, but some differences between men and women are creational, and some differences between men and women are results of the Fall. Before the Fall happened, Adam and Eve were given different physiques, different appearances, different sexual identities, different ways of thinking and feeling, and different jobs to do (working and keeping the garden for Adam, helping and childbearing for Eve). But we do no justice to Genesis at all if we imagine that all the differences between men and women since that time have been creational and God-given. They haven’t: that’s why the curse is so important, and so tragic (Gen 3:16-19), and why the gospel is so important, and so glorious (Gal 3:28). Careful exegesis, both of the Genesis story and of other biblical passages which refer to it, is needed to establish what is creational and what is lapsarian.

E6. Women were clearly foundational apostles in the early church.
C6. Women were clearly not apostles in the early church.


We now move on to slightly more prevalent “myths”, some of which have somewhat bigger and more prominent advocates. Tom Wright connects being an eyewitness of the resurrection and being an apostle so closely that he happily calls (say) Mary Magdalene an apostle, despite the fact that she is never described as such, and on occasion Luke conspicuously omits to identify her as one (Luke 24:10; cf. Acts 1:21, in which the final member of the twelve needs to be a man). James Dunn argues from Romans 16:7 that the Greek word Iounian (Junia/Junias) clearly refers to (a) a woman, who is not only (b) an apostle, but (c) a foundational apostle at that, when all three are, to varying degrees, questionable. On the other hand, complementarians are frequently overconfident in their response: Iounian clearly does not refer to a woman apostle, since it might be (a) a man, or (b) someone who is known to the apostles, or (c) an apostle in the “messenger of the church” sense rather than the “foundational apostle” sense, even though all three of these are highly questionable, and the first two are no longer supported by most complementarian scholars (this article articulates well the standard complementarian view today). It would be representative of the scholarly consensus, as far as I can tell, to argue that Romans 16:7 probably refers to a woman, and probably refers to her being “of note among the apostles” rather than “well known to the apostles”, but that the nature of her ministry, given Paul’s varied usage, is impossible to establish with certainty. Complementarians who also believe in apostles today, however, should note the hostages to fortune this view might provide!

E7. New Testament scholarship has concluded that the Greek word kephale (literally, “head”) means “source”.
C7. New Testament scholarship has concluded that the Greek word kephale (literally, “head”) never means “source”.


As with the identity and ministry of Iounian, overstatements proliferate about the scholarly consensus on the meaning of kephale, the Greek word for “head”. A generation ago, the debate was framed in a binary fashion: did kephale mean “source”, as Cervin and the Kroegers argued, or “authority over”, as Grudem argued? Today, however, the scholarly consensus, as such it is, is that kephale can, and occasionally does, mean “source”, but that its most likely meaning in 1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:23 and so on has to do with preeminence, with authority part of the picture but not the central point (thus Thiselton, Fitzmyer, Ciampa and Rosner).

E8. 1 Timothy 2 is entirely circumstantial, and reflects no creational principles.
C8. 1 Timothy 2 is entirely creational, and reflects no circumstantial principles.


Of the many false dichotomies in the gender debate, this one is perhaps the most intractable. Some egalitarians argue that Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 are entirely circumstantial, driven by the peculiarities of first century Ephesus, Artemis worship, the New Roman Women, and so on, and have nothing to do with the way men and women were originally created, despite Paul’s immediate appeal to Genesis in verses 13-14. Complementarians, often, can do the exact opposite, and argue that because Paul grounds his argument in creation, local circumstances in Ephesus, such as those described by Bruce Winter and Craig Keener, are either speculative or have nothing to do with Paul’s point, and we need not take them into account in our exegesis. Responsible exegesis, however, involves acknowledging that both circumstantial and creational factors contribute to what Paul says here, as they do throughout his letters, and avoids making the whole discussion a zero-sum game.

E9. Narrative trumps doctrinal instruction: women in the early church taught and exercised authority over men, so Paul could not have prohibited either.
C9. Doctrinal instruction trumps narrative: Paul prohibited women from teaching or exercising authority over men, so women in the early church can’t have done either.


All kinds of questions are begged in this sort of discussion. For some egalitarians, the fact that women clearly exercised teaching and leadership gifts in the early church - so, Priscilla taught Apollos (Acts 18:26), and Phoebe quite possibly read Romans to the church (Rom 16:1-2) - prove that Paul could not have intended to restrict women from teaching or having authority over men, almost irrespective of what he actually says. For some complementarians, the fact that Paul told women not to teach or exercise authority over men (1 Tim 2:12) proves that women cannot ever have exercised teaching or leadership gifts in the early church, almost irrespective of what the various passages actually say (even though a structurally similar argument is used to show that 1 Cornthians 14 cannot be prohibiting all speech on the basis of 1 Corinthians 11). Both positions are problematic, because they constrain the exegesis of one passage - say, Acts 18 or 1 Timothy 2 - by the exegesis of another, rather than interpreting all the passages on their own merits, and then bringing the conclusions together. The latter is easier said than done, mind you.

E10. Scholars agree that the Greek word authentein means “to usurp, domineer or assume authority”, with negative connotations.
C10. Scholars agree that the Greek word authentein means “to exercise authority over”, with no negative connotations.


The problem here is that scholars do not agree on either of these things, despite confident assertions on both sides to the contrary. There have been some very thorough studies of the word’s meaning, particularly that of Baldwin, as well as of the grammatical construction in which it is found (ouk + infinitive + oude + infinitive), such as that of Köstenberger, both of which would favor the more neutral meaning (“have authority over”). But consensus is almost unattainable, both because the word is so rare in pre-NT Greek, and because context plays such an important role in reconstructing what any individual Greek word or construction means. So you end up with Moo, Mounce, Knight, Schreiner and Köstenberger on the neutral side, largely on the basis of lexical and grammatical studies, and Towner, Marshall, Fee, Belleville and the Kroegers on the negative side (to varying degrees), largely on the basis of the reconstructed context. A good argument can be made that the former is less speculative and more persuasive – and this has been conceded by several egalitarian scholars (Webb, Schüssler Fiorenza, Hartenstein, Jewett, Keener) – but neither side can claim that scholarship universally supports their position.

So there you have it: twenty myths in the gender debate, debunked. My hope is that, if we clear these twenty “arguments” out of the way, then both egalitarians and complementarians – or whatever we decide to call ourselves! – could have more fruitful, less acrimonious and more balanced discussions than we have sometimes had in the past.

This post was originally published on What You Think Matters.

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