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A Response to Thomas R. Schreiner's review of Good News for Women
Hands Touching
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A Response to Thomas R. Schreiner's review of
Good News for Women

by Rebeccas Merrill Groothuis, author of Good News for Women
Mr. Schreiner's review was published in Themelios Vol 23:1

This article is provided as a service to the members of the AR-talk mailing list, and provided under these terms.

This review is long on insults and short on arguments. Schreiner's primary objection seems to be that my case for gender equality is unbiblical (and merely cultural) because it flows out of the "western, democratic and enlightenment view of equality." This is "my" view of equality, not the biblical view, and I "impose" it on the biblical text in order to yield my egalitarian interpretations--a method which, "if applied to other areas of evangelical theology," would have "deleterious" effects indeed. He evidently believes that my "deleterious" method here is a new contribution to the gender debate and for this reason professes more concern over it than my actual conclusions, which he deems old news--such old news, in fact, that my discussion of the traditionalist proof texts "does not warrant its publication." (He was evidently so certain he'd already heard everything that could possibly be said against his interpretive position that he didn't notice the number of new insights and arguments that were integrated into my treatment of these texts.) At any rate, because my view of equality is not derived from the biblical text, and biblical interpretation has little if any part in my argument for gender equality, it is a misnomer for me to title Part I of the book "A Biblical Case for Gender Equality."

Only a backwoods fundamentalist would believe that any idea that arose at any point in cultural history is, ipso facto, unbiblical. That it is a cultural idea is not in itself an argument as to why a western, democratic view of equality should be deemed unbiblical. Rather, it seems, Schreiner deems it unbiblical because it conflicts with what he believes the Bible teaches concerning female subordination to male authority. But this rationale begs the question, which is whether or not he and other traditionalists correctly understand biblical teaching on this point.

I argue that the western, democratic view of equality is true, valid, commonsensical, and fundamentally in agreement with biblical teaching on the subject (more on this later). If this is the case (and Schreiner gives no argument against it) and if, as Schreiner admits, egalitarian interpretations of the traditionalist proof texts are at least "possible" (i.e., they do not constitute a summary dismissal of the text as erroneous or uninspired), then choosing these interpretations over those that violate biblical teaching on equality is not to impose one's culturally-derived personal preference on the Bible; it is to impose the Bible on the Bible. This is a very clear exercise of a very commonly accepted hermeneutical method that is, in fact, routinely applied--doubtless even by Schreiner himself--to other areas of evangelical theology. Often called the analogy of faith, it is the principle that Scripture should interpret Scripture. Or, put another way, the Bible does not contradict itself.

If the Bible teaches that women are to be subordinate to male authority as a universal, spiritual principle (as Schreiner believes), then one must assume (as Schreiner does) that God does not hold with the western, democratic view of equality, at least not where woman's place in the church and home is concerned. If, on the other hand, one believes that the overall teaching of Scripture is that all believers are fundamentally equal in a sense consistent with the view of equality articulated by western democratic ideals, then one must opt for those interpretations of the traditionalist proof texts that do not put woman automatically, permanently, and comprehensively under the spiritual authority of man. (By way of clarification, the western, democratic view of equality holds that there is no moral justification for denying any individual, solely on the basis of an "accident of birth," the opportunity to demonstrate himself fit for any position of any status.)

Schreiner objects that I choose the "possible" interpretations that I personally prefer rather than the most "probable" interpretations (which, of course, are the ones he holds). But my point is precisely that the egalitarian interpretations are the most probable because they not only make sense of the specific texts, but (unlike the hierarchical interpretations) are consistent with the biblical message of the fundamentally equal spiritual status of all believers.

In both Schreiner's and my hermeneutic, the teaching of Scripture that seems the clearest is used as a standard according to which less clear teachings are understood. For me, the biblical teaching on equality is clear and the hierarchical interpretations of the traditionalist proof texts are far from definitive. For Schreiner, it is the other way around. Same method, different conclusions. Yet Schreiner is not content merely to disagree with my conclusions; he must impugn both my method and my motives: I violate the authority of the Bible by eschewing a "patient listening to the text to see what is really there" and imposing upon the text my own notions that I have derived from culture rather than the Bible. Thus I set up my own understanding as a higher authority than Scripture.

It should first be noted that this is a cheap shot. Traditionalists could as easily be accused of a similar strategy; e.g., they impose on the Bible their own culturally-derived understandings of masculinity and femininity, and so do not "patiently listen to the text" but read into the text what they expect and want to find there. But such lines of attack are unfruitful and uncharitable; unfortunately, they seem to be the default mode of the traditionalist critique. Declining to engage in productive arguments against the biblical case for gender equality, they trot out the old saw: egalitarians are just cultural, but we're biblical; they impose their cultural views on the Bible, but we just take the Bible straight. It is essentially an ad hominem attack, because it amounts to the charge that egalitarians do not approach the Bible with open minds and sincere hearts. This, it seems clear enough, is Schreiner's assessment of the intent of my heart with respect to the Bible.

Actually, Schreiner should not deplore what he supposes to be my refusal to listen patiently to the text, but should rather deplore the fact that I did listen patiently, earnestly, and honestly to the various traditionalist proof texts, eventually arriving at a realization of what these texts do not say, as well as what they do say. Prior to this process of reading, thinking, rereading, and rethinking, I held basically the same understanding of these texts that Schreiner holds. But after enough years of "patient listening," I derived the interpretations that he dismisses disdainfully as the product of a deleterious and dishonest exegetical method.

In my argument against the traditionalists' use of the "equal in being, unequal in function" disjunct, I show that the analogies traditionalists invoke to validate the application of this disjunct to their gender agenda are fundamentally disanalogous. It is interesting to note, however, that these analogies invariably refer to the limited and justifiable functional differences that occur between individuals in free societies. Thus the claim is made that unequal gender roles are reasonable and justifiable precisely because of their similarity to the instances of functional inequality that normally occur in western, democratic society. Traditionalist efforts to identify with a more or less democratic view of equality are also evident in their frequent insistence that women are not being limited or put down: women are free to do all that is consistent with their God-given feminine nature, and there is opportunity for all of their gifts to be used in one way or another.

Books by Rebecca Miller Groothuis

Yet traditionalists often equivocate on the matter. When they are not attempting to defend their being/function distinction, but are simply asserting it as biblical doctrine, they describe their view of women's equality (when they describe it at all) as simply being equally valuable to God, or equally saved, or equally human. They do not address the obvious inconsistency between their gender agenda and the western, democratic belief that those who stand on equal ground before God ought also to start out on equal ground--unencumbered by socially imposed restrictions and prejudices--within human society.

Schreiner, however, seems to be saying that the Bible does not teach that there should be an equality of rights and opportunity for all people. Such a "notion of equality" is not derived from the Bible but from western, democratic and enlightenment ideas. Evidently the Bible holds women and men to be equal in a sense different from that of western democracy. In what sense, then? Schreiner does not say. Having denied that women are equal to men in the western, enlightenment sense of equality, one wonders if Schreiner's view of biblical equality might follow along the lines of that held by the Southern slave holders who insisted that the Negro was equal before God and equally saved by the work of Christ, but was nonetheless ordained by God to serve in a role of permanent subordination to whites. This is clearly not a western, democratic notion of equality. In fact, it was the relentless application of the western, democratic notion of equality in this country that resulted in the eventual enfranchisement of African Americans, as well as of women.

Yet this understanding of equality is evidently unbiblical. The view of equality that brought about the freeing of the slaves and the right of women to vote is merely cultural and ought not be brought to bear on our interpretation of biblical texts. This is an interesting admission. Biblically, women are not equal to men in any sense that would be meaningful to people living in free, western societies. Here is one traditionalist who is almost not equivocating on the subject.

In focusing his objections on the western, democratic view of equality as equality of opportunity, Schreiner sidesteps the main force of my argument. My primary point is that because female subordination differs fundamentally from functional subordination on three major points (criteria, scope, and duration), it is not merely a subordination of function but a subordination of a woman's being or personhood. In other words, when inferior status is permanent, comprehensive, and assigned solely on account of some essential, personal attribute (in this case, femaleness), such an inferiority of status logically entails an inferiority of the person herself.

So there are two questions at stake: the one on which Schreiner focuses (i.e., what does equality of essence necessarily entail?) and the one to which I give far more attention (i.e., what does the traditionalist subordination of women necessarily entail?). I could, for the sake of argument, grant Schreiner his apparent contention that equality of essence does not necessitate equality of opportunity and still make my case that the traditionalist use of the being/function distinction is illogical, that women's subordination is incompatible with women's essential equality. For, indeed, it is not the denial of equal opportunity per se that logically entails a person's essential inequality. Opportunity can be and often is denied individuals for reasons that do not entail the essential inequality of the individual. But when opportunity is denied solely because of some inborn, unchangeable aspect of a person's being, then the clear implication is that that particular aspect of the person renders her fundamentally unfit for the status or role to which she is being denied opportunity; she is not equal to the task.

For example, when a person who can't see without his spectacles is denied opportunity to undergo training for the military, it is because that individual's visual defect renders him unfit for military service. Similarly, when a woman is denied opportunity, solely because of her gender, to candidate for a pastoral position, it is because her womanhood supposedly renders her unfit for the role; she is personally deficient in attributes essential to this ministry. As it happens, Schreiner does say (elsewhere) that women generally do not have what it takes to be a pastor--although he quickly denies that this entails women's inferiority (Women in the Church, 145-6). Most traditionalists, however, say women can do the pastoral job as well as men but that it just isn't fitting and goes against God's order; but this is also to equivocate on the meaning of male/female equality (see Good News, 74-77).

Never before the present time has it been argued that women are not inferior to men, but that, solely because of their womanhood, they must be subordinate to male authority throughout the entire scope and duration of their lives. This contention is both historically unprecedented and logically untenable. If, as I argue in Good News, women's subordination (in the traditionalist sense) and women's equality (in the very basic sense of being not inferior to men) are mutually exclusive propositions, then traditionalists are faced with a dilemma--which, thus far, they have refused to face. It is significant, but not surprising, that the case against this precarious postulate has been either ignored or (as in Schreiner's case) dealt with by various diversionary tactics (ad hominem attacks, the "your belief is just cultural" approach, and so on).

As a corollary to the charge that I have derived my entire argument from a nonbiblical, cultural assumption, Schreiner also complains that my case for gender equality is not based on biblical exegesis. If by that he means it does not consist of a microscopic, word-by-word inspection of every proof text, he is right. That is the way traditionalists argue their case. The biblical case for equality that I present is not built on a half dozen or so painfully scrutinized proof texts. It is a systematic, logical and theological cumulative case based on a number of biblical principles derived from a large number of biblical texts. But does this make the case for equality any less grounded in Scripture than traditionalism? It is certainly grounded in more of Scripture, for it is derived from many texts rather than just a handful (yet does not dismiss or deny the texts that constitute the traditionalist case).

My argument against the notion that the Bible teaches women are "equal in being but unequal in function" is primarily a logical (rather than exegetical) argument; but that is because my purpose is to show that this construct is illogical. Since this construct undergirds the traditionalist approach to Scripture--giving them permission, as it were, to interpret biblical texts as teaching gender hierarchy (because, after all, it's just "functional")--it is certainly an issue directly pertinent to biblical exegesis. The only way it could be deemed unrelated to biblical teaching on gender would be if logical consistency were deemed irrelevant to biblical interpretation (which would have "deleterious" results).

In order to counter the (well worn) charge that I get my ideas from culture rather than the Bible, I offer the following biblical principles, on which I base my argument for gender equality and against gender hierarchy:

The New Testament teaches clearly and repeatedly that believers are to relate to one another with humility, respect, mutual submission, and an attitude of servanthood; they are not to concern themselves with getting and holding onto positions of status and authority (Matt. 20:25-28; Matt. 23:8-12; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 22:25-27; Rom. 12:3,10; Eph. 5:21; Phil. 2:3; 1 Peter 5:5). God shows no favoritism for one group of people over another; therefore, believers ought not engage in preferential treatment (Acts 10:34-35; Rom. 2:11; James 2:8-9). Members of Christ's body should not seek to establish a certain class of people in positions of status and authority and deny such positions to another class of people. Since all are equal before God, all should be treated equally (i.e., nonpreferentially) by other believers.

Believers are filled with the Holy Spirit and gifted in prophetic ministry without respect to age, gender or social status (Acts 2:17-18). Whenever a believer has received a ministry gift from the Holy Spirit, that person should use that gift (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Peter 4:10-11). Different believers have been given different gifts, but God does not apportion the gifts of the Holy Spirit according to gender or other social classifications. Every believer has the responsibility to exercise his or her ministry gifts, and no believer has biblical warrant to deny or restrict other believers' Christlike use of their gifts in ministry.

There are numerous instances recorded in the Bible of women who were called and blessed by God in ministries involving teaching and leadership of both women and men (biblical references are in chapter 8 of Good News for Women). If there were some universal, God-ordained principle whereby such roles are inherently "masculine" and thus unsuitable for women, there would not be any such women in the Bible. Efforts to delineate the different types and levels of authority that are and are not permissible for women--in the absence of clear biblical guidelines to this effect--are confusing and fundamentally unconvincing.

In the new covenant in Christ there is no longer any distinction in spiritual privilege or status between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female (Gal. 3:26-28). Husband and wife are equal heirs of God's gift of life (1 Peter 3:7). Every believer is an adopted son of God, an heir of God and co-heir with Christ (Romans 8:15-17). Man and woman together were commissioned to rule the earth (Gen. 1:26-28), and all believers are destined to rule together with Christ in the world to come (Dan. 7:18,27; 1 Cor. 6:2-3; 2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 2:26-27; 3:21; 5:10; 2:5). All believers are equal recipients of the rights and privileges of spiritual sonship. There is no socially or biologically based inequity in spiritual status. Every believer is an inheritor of God's gifts and is called to exercise authority in God's kingdom, both in this life and in the life to come.

Man and woman are created equally in God's image (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1-2). God is not to be represented as either male or female (Deut. 4:16). All believers--women as well as men--are to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:10-11; Gal. 4:19). God is neither male nor female, and neither gender images God any more or less or differently than the other. Thus, God is not represented by maleness, nor is divine authority grounded in maleness, nor are men better representatives of God than women. Gender as an ontological category is attributable only to human nature, not to God's nature. The gender of Christ, therefore, is irrelevant to his essential, spiritual identity as the perfect image of God (Col. 1:15,19; Heb. 1:3). Biblically, gender has no bearing on a person's fitness to represent or speak for God.

All believers are priests unto God (1 Peter 2:5,9; Rev. 1:6; 5:10), and all are representatives of God to the church and the world (2 Cor. 5:20). There is only one mediator between God and humans, our high priest Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5). With Christ as high priest, every believer can come directly before God in prayer and worship (Heb. 4:14-16; 13:15-16). No believer has been given the ministry of mediating another believer's relationship with God; this ministry belongs to Christ alone. Every believer has been given the priestly ministry of representing Christ to the world and the church, and of ministering to, hearing from, and standing accountable directly to God. The introduction of a third priesthood--a priesthood of Christian manhood--presumes upon the unique mediatorial ministry of Christ (by supplementing or imitating the priestly ministry that is Christ's alone), and detracts from the priestly ministry of women (by requiring their spiritual life to be mediated in some sense by men).

Moreover, as I note on page 47 (Schreiner only cites page 46), the biblical doctrine of the sovereignty of God clearly renders unacceptable the totalitarian (absolute and unearned) authority of one person over another, whereby one person "stands in the place of God" for the other. Biblically, all persons stand on equal ground before God and one another, and each is directly responsible to the Creator. This also happens to be the classically liberal, democratic understanding of equality.

There are, of course, additional biblical texts and biblically-based principles that could be cited. But those listed here demonstrate sufficiently the biblical basis of gender equality, and leave no place for the doctrine that male believers should have a unique right and responsibility to represent God, determine God's will, interpret God's Word, and stand accountable to God for the female believers under their spiritual authority. Such a fundamental inequity in spiritual status and service not only violates the biblical principles discussed above, but goes beyond what is actually stated in the proof texts used to support this doctrine.

Schreiner and other traditionalists are certainly free to disagree that these conclusions follow from the relevant biblical texts. But to say that these conclusions are wrong because they are not really based on the Bible, but on an unbiblical, culturally-derived notion of equality that has been impatiently imposed on the biblical text, is intemperate and irresponsible. It is, as well, a very useful rhetorical maneuver. By poisoning the well, such a charge neatly circumvents the obligation to consider and respond seriously to the biblical evidence for gender equality.

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis
February 1998

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