Apologetics Index
Southern Baptists and the Subordination of Women
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Southern Baptists and the Subordination of Women


    The recent Southern Baptist declaration that the subordination of women is an essential Christian belief is but another sad chapter in the history of biblical misinterpretation and illogic in the church. Thinking they must protect the flock from the egregious errors of secular feminism, the denomination has fallen into the equal and opposite error of asserting a hierarchy of male authority. Their certainty that this is what the Bible "clearly" teaches is ill-founded. As a Puritan divine once said, "There may yet be more truth to break forth from God's Word."

    Although the press generally has failed to report it, a substantial number of evangelical (theologically conservative) Protestants believe that Scripture, rightly interpreted, does not teach that women must be universally subject to the spiritual authority of men, but rather that women are spiritually equal to men. Here is the argument in miniature.

    All human beings are equally made in the image and likeness of God, and are called to care for and develop God's creation as responsible stewards (Genesis 1:26-28). Through their rebellion against God's ways, both men and women have fallen from their original estate and suffer from the ravages of self- centeredness and idolatry; but neither gender is any more sinful than the other (Genesis 3; Romans 3). Reconciliation with God through Christ is equally available to men and women, and both may be equipped to serve God, the church, and the world through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul declared the irrelevance of gender to spiritual life and ministry when he said that in Christ there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28). Throughout the Bible, we find women in positions of leadership and authority. For example, Deborah ruled the nation of Israel; women were prophets in ancient Israel and in the early church; and Priscilla was a teacher and leader in the New Testament church.

    However, many evangelicals restrict women's authority in the home and the church because they take certain biblical texts to mean that God has ordained female subordination to male authority as a basic principle. In fact, these small number of passages either do not speak of women's subordination at all, or are specific, time-bound applications of general ethical principles. The Southern Baptist view of women's subordination in marriage is based on an incorrect interpretation of Ephesians 5, not on a "literal" reading of it. There is no literal reference to a husband ruling his wife as Christ rules the church. The passage begins in verse 21 by admonishing Christians to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." This is mutual submission, and applies to all believers, including husbands and wives. The reference to the husband as "head" does not refer to authority, but rather to life-giving support and nurture, which is one of the meanings of this term in ancient Greek.

    The Southern Baptists and other gender hierarchalists also refuse to face the obvious logic that women cannot be "equal before God" if they are, by virtue of their gender alone, permanently assigned an inferior status with respect to men in marriage and in church leadership. This kind of exclusion and subordination would only follow logically if women were constitutionally incapable of such leadership roles, and thus spiritually inferior to men by God's design.

    Biblical egalitarians and hierarchalists agree on many things: the authority of the Bible, the standard of heterosexual marriage, the value of family and children, and the errors of secular feminism. Nonetheless, making female submission to male authority an "essential doctrine" of the church is unnecessarily divisive, potentially detrimental to marriage relationships, and just plain wrong.

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis is the author of Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality

Douglas Groothuis teaches ethics and philosophy at Denver Seminary (Denver, Colorado, USA). His latest book is The Soul in Cyberspace