Is Christianity hierarchical or egalitarian?

Is Christianity hierarchical or egalitarian?


I have wrestled with this very important question as a husband, father, pastor and scholar, especially over the past nine years, the majority of which I lived in university contexts.

The first four of these year were in Cambridge, England, studying the letters of the earliest known author of the Christian movement, the Apostle Paul, who wrote, among other controversial things, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands” and “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man”–though not a few scholars today would dispute whether it was actually Paul who wrote these words.  But, indisputably, he did write, “Women should remain silent in churches.”

During that time I had plenty of opportunity to interact with other scholars from diverse disciplines and ideologies about not only Paul’s words in particular but (what is often described as) the generally hierarchical and patriarchal character of the ancient Jewish / early Christian social and political worlds, not to mention the Western Christian tradition.  Also during this same timeframe my wife Sarah and I proactively sought out persons from diverse international and ideological backgrounds simply to listen to and learn from their perspective on these challenging matters.

The other three years were in–well, in between–Durham and Chapel Hill (NC), homes to Duke University and the University of North Carolina, respectively.

But this time, instead of merely studying Paul’s letters, I actually had the gall to be teaching them (and the rest of the Bible) as a pastor to an (impressively) interested group of adults in their 20s and early 30s, a number of whom were graduate students at either UNC or Duke, who were often inclined toward (or at least conversant in) progressive views of all things related to gender and sexuality.  Further, being frequently on the campus environment myself and speaking at various forums on these topics, I had the privilege of further interaction on these issues in a rich academic environment.

None of this makes me an expert on this important and difficult subject. I share it simply to provide some of my story and to communicate that it has been for me a topic of great personal and vocational importance and a good amount of exegetical, historical, theological and pastoral (not to mention marital and parental) reflection.  My primary reason for writing a series of posts on this topic is (i) to begin to organize my own thoughts and (ii) to receive helpful ‘push back’ from any views I have misunderstood or caricatured.

I think it’s worth saying that, without pretending to be void of my own theological and cultural presuppositions, even as I have regarded this as a very important topic, I honestly have very little predisposition toward or allegiance to a particular view.  Therefore, let the reader, regardless of their views, be forewarned:

Buckle up, because it’s going to be quite a ride.

As with any issue, defining terms is half the battle. What the eminent philosopher Ronald Dworkin said about equality could easily be said about egalitarianism:  “People who praise it or disparage it disagree about what they are praising or disparaging.”

Given this ambiguity over definition (sadly unaddressed in too much of the literature), it would be very beneficial for all sides in this debate to interact with the following question:  in what ways am I for and/or against egalitarian relationships and why? 

That is, when should (and shouldn’t) equality in congregational and marital relationships matter?  Consider:

As far as I’m aware, no thoughtful person who inclines to an egalitarian perspective suggests that any Christians in a congregation (or marriage) should be equal with respect to waist size or intelligence or culinary skill.  Thus, some (perhaps an overwhelming number of) inequalities are overlooked by all egalitarian perspectives. But why these and not others?

Similarly, as far as I’m aware, no thoughtful person who inclines toward a non-egalitarian perspective (e.g., traditionalism, complementarianism, etc.) suggests that in any local congregation (or marriage) there are essential gender differences in waist size or intelligence or culinary skill.  Thus, even in strongly non-egalitarian perspectives there are some (perhaps even an overwhelming number of) equivalencies or correspondences.  But if so, why the hard and fast differences in other realms and in certain roles?

In sum, plaguing discussion and debate in this area is a general failure on all sides to ask the question:  equal (or unequal), similar (or different) in what ways?

But confusion over definitions is not the only reason for the protracted debate. A further reason is disagreement over whether or not difference devalues.  Within scholarly discussions of the related topic of gender, it is at times argued that essential difference necessarily devalues.  Therefore, true equality requires the demolition of any and all claims to fundamental differences in gender:  gender is purely preference.

Specifically, this disagreement (as I understand it) tends to revolve around the following question:

Can two (or more) persons be of the same value if they can’t both be in the same (ecclesial or marital) vocation?

Some would say yes, others no.

Both in the literature I’ve read and in the pastoral and scholarly discussions I’ve had over the past decade, it seems that a predominant concern of egalitarian-leaning voices revolves around both influence and effectiveness.  Egalitarian perspectives generally ask:

With respect to influence, does not the exclusion of a woman from a role of greater influence unjustly assert her inferiority?  If she can’t be a leader, is she not lesser?

With respect to effectiveness, does not the exclusion of a highly effective woman from a given role unjustly assert her inferiority?  If she cannot excel, is she not inferior?

Giving an incalculable weight and urgency to these questions is the freight of the oppression of women portrayed (some would say, permitted and even prescribed) in the Bible itself and documented in church history.

Such oppression should exercise considerable influence in wrestling with these questions.

Yet in my opinion it must not be allowed to exercise a controlling influence.  As a wise Latino pastor recently reminded me, Moses’ initial response to the egregious violence against his fellow Israelites in Egypt was to commit an act of egregious violence.  If the history of literature in feminist scholarship shows anything, it’s that documenting and deconstructing injustice can be easier than determining and developing what is just:  undoubtedly the injustice and justice are related, yet peace is far more than the absence of conflict, and justice much more than the righting of wrongs.

So I will proceed with a definition of egalitarianism as primarily concerned with the unjust devaluation of women through the relativization of their influence and effectiveness. Whether in a marriage or in a congregation, egalitarian perspectives assert that only when all persons can be in the same vocation can they then be of the same value.

Given the disputed nature of this assertion, it would be unfair to proponents of (at least some forms of) hierarchalism to define their position as merely the denial of above assertion.  Hence, I will define it more simply as any position that excludes women from certain vocations:  she cannot assume a position of authority in either the marriage or the congregation.

So is Christianity hierarchical or egalitarian?

In my estimation, for good or bad, right or wrong, the answer is inescapable:  Christianity was birthed in and from hierarchy; it has “grown up” in hierarchy and has since “gone viral,” carrying hierarchy with it throughout the world.

From Washington Post, “Our Christian Earth: The Astounding Reach of the World’s Largest Religion, in Charts and Maps” (18 Dec. 2012) by Max Fisher

That is, both a cursory and a close reading of biblical texts in their original languages in their original contexts points to this.  Overwhelmingly.

Not uncommonly do I find both modern egalitarian and hierarchical interpretations of these texts to be more than strained:  egalitarian readings are often painfully anachronistic and too ingenious, while hierarchical readings are at times apologetic and minimalistic.

Just a few examples of biblical texts, primarily from the (more embattled) New Testament:

(1) Genesis 2

Once again, for right or wrong, good or bad, when reading Genesis 2, one cannot escape that in the context the act of “naming / calling” (which God does throughout ch. 1 and which Adam does with the animals) is a way of expressing one’s authority over someone or something. In Genesis 2.23 (and 3.20) the man names the woman.  Whereas in present-day Western cultures, to give someone a name is simply to assign a means of addressing them (i.e., a monicker), here in Gen. 1-2 (and more widely in Ancient Near Eastern cultures), naming identifies, defines, and categorizes.  But just as in present-day Western cultures, so also in ANE cultures:  only if you stand in some sort of authoritative relationship to someone (or something) can you assign a name:  children are only named by their parents; generally, pets are named only by their owners; a book is named/titled by its author, etc.  More generally, when we call someone else a “name” (whether positively–e.g., “Hey, sweetheart!”–or negatively, “Hey, four-eyes!”), we are presuming the right (i.e., the authority) to do so.

Here is not the place to discuss the metaphor of marriage, which the Hebrew prophets used to describe Yahweh’s relationship with Israel.  However, this marriage metaphor undeniably (if most unpalatably to “modern” sensibilities) assumes the hierarchical character of marriage found above in Gen. 2.  And it’s certainly worth quoting Jon Levenson, Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, who speaks directly to this modern unpalatability:   

“Today, some will think that any difference between husbands and wives in the degree of legal power and recognized social authority precludes the possibility that the marital metaphor could ever convey a relationship of genuine love. Here we meet again, as we did in chapter 1, the very contemporary notion that love requires equality, and here again we must note that whatever is to be said for that proposition, it is nowhere to be found in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, if the proposition is true, then it would seem that precious few husbands and wives ever loved each other until just a few decades ago, despite the multitude of ardent protestations over the centuries in many literary genres that indeed they did, and powerfully” (The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism, Princeton University Press, 2016: 101, bold font mine).

To give voice to just one of these “protestations” we could turn to a book of the Old Testament which is in its entirety devoted to romantic and erotic love in a hierarchical relationship, in which the woman (or wife-to-be) says–ever so beautifully:

Place me like a seal over your heart,
                 like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death, 
and its jealousy as unyielding as the grave.

This OT book is called The Song of Songs, which (like the phrase “Holy of holies” or “King of kings”) signals its superlative (i.e., supreme) character:  that is, the book’s title claims that its contents contain (to use contemporary adolescent vernacular) “the best song EVER.”  This is quite a claim, given the presence of the 150 songs nearby in the Psalms!  The verse cited above (8.6) is the voice of the beloved (the woman!) in which she uses the legal language of property (gasp!) to express her longing to have “exclusive rights” to her husband:  in the ancient world, a seal publicly declared the sealer’s ownership and authority over its bearer, and so declared to all that the sealed is “off-limits” to any would-be interested parties.

More generally (and probably decisive for the matter at hand), throughout the Hebrew Bible a frequent term used for “husband” (בַּ֫עַל, ba’al) has the primary connotation of “owner” or “possessor” and is related in meaning to the term “lord” (אָדוֹן, ʾādôn).

(2) Ephesians 5

In Ephesians 5 to argue, as many egalitarian proponents do, that the command of v. 21 to “submit to one another in the fear of Christ” somehow negates or diminishes the subsequent command to the wife to submit to the husband cannot be taken seriously, not least since v. 21 almost certainly introduces the entire section of hierarchical relationships–wife to husband, child to parent, slave to master (called a household code), and surely Paul isn’t arguing that parent-child (or slave-master) relations involve “mutual submission”–a curious phrase (here the phrase “one another” [ἀλλήλων, allēlōn] is paired, not mutual or exhaustive:  that is, Paul is obviously not calling masters to submit to children, much less slaves; for such a paired usage of the term see, e.g., LXX Gen. 15.10; Ex. 26.3; 38.15).

The amphitheater at Ephesus

Similarly, to argue that the relationship between the husband and wife is merely that of “leader” and “follower” (as much “complementarian” literature does), or that being the “head” merely means ever so often having to make the difficult decision utterly fails to do justice either to the language of “head” and “to submit oneself” nor to the analogy of Christ and the church:  does Christ simply step in to make a tough decision every now and then when He and the church disagree?  (For any who would dispute the authorship of Ephesians and liberate Paul from this view of marriage, there remains Romans 7.2, in which Paul’s passing (analogous) reference to a “married woman” could well be translated directly as “a woman under-a-man” (ἡ ὕπανδρος γυνὴ, hē hypandros gunē); the clearly intended meaning:  “a woman [who is] under [the authority of] a man”).

(3) 1 Timothy 2

Or in 1 Timothy 2 it is wholly unpersuasive to argue that highly exceptional circumstances concerning women in Ephesus are behind the prohibitions for women not “to teach or to have authority over a man.”  The supposedly highly particular description of the women in v. 9 actually matches very closely to the description of women found in the third chapter of 1 Peter, a letter almost universally understood to be generic or “circular” (vs. situation-specific).

Even if one were to set aside the fact that the argument roots its imperatives in the creation story, the overwhelmingly generic character of ch. 2 militates against circumstantial specificity, substantially indicated by the Greek adjective pas (πᾶς), meaning ‘all, every’:  “for all people . . . all those in authority . . . all men to be saved . . . one mediator between God and humankind . . . who gave himself as a ransom for all . . . I, a herald and apostle and teacher to the gentiles . . . I want men in all places to pray . . . ”

The goddess Artemis

Why would explicitly generic instruction to men “in all places” be followed (without notice) by highly contextualized instruction pertaining only to women only in Ephesus?  In short, if the author (whom I take to be Paul) wanted to indicate circumstantial specificity, he failed miserably.

As if this weren’t enough, v. 11 states that “a woman must learn in quietness and full submission.” Concerning this final word submission (hypotagē, ὑποταγή) New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, who voices his own disagreement with Paul’s teaching here, nevertheless rightly states, “There can be no softening of hypotagē [“submission”], which suggests not simply an attitude, but a structural placement of one person below another” (The First and Second Letters to Timothy, 2008: 201; we’ll return to Johnson again).

[At the risk of confusing, or boring, the reader by being too technical, I think it needs to be said:  Scholars truly mislead interested laypersons when mesmerizing them with overwhelmingly speculative, even specious, interpretations that draw on 1 Timothy’s ancient Ephesian context through a very irresponsible form of (an otherwise legitimate) interpretive methodology called “mirror reading,” in which conclusions about Timothy’s specific pastoral situation are unpersuasively implied from the text.  For example, simply because Jesus tells his disciples to “love your enemies,” are we to conclude that these particular disciples (i) had especially bad enemies whom they (ii) especially hated?  Of course not. Similarly, simply because Paul forbids women “to teach or exercise authority over a man,” does it necessarily follow that the church at Ephesus was plagued with domineering women?  Hardly.  Should 1 Timothy be read with careful attention to its historical context?  Yes.  Is all that we know about ancient Ephesus necessarily relevant to 1 Timothy?  No.]

But were these generic instructions in 1 Timothy 2 regarding worship especially relevant to Timothy’s situation?  Possibly.  But their circumstantial relevance hardly results in their theological relegation.  Consider how Paul saw his own highly circumstantial first letter to the Corinthians as nevertheless relevant to “all those who everywhere who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1.2).

(4) 1 Peter 3

In 1 Peter 3 Christian wives are instructed to “submit yourselves to your own husbands”–even to those who “are disobedient to the word” (i.e., non-Christians).  Unmistakably hierarchical norms are then invoked–norms that even in Peter’s day were already ancient (i.e., from another time and culture) and yet were apparently still applicable, even paradigmatic:  Sarah, the wife of Abraham, is regarded as an exemplar–why?–because she “submitted herself” and “obeyed Abraham and called him lord.”  The same verb here twice translated as “to submit oneself” is used to describe the proper action of slaves toward their masters in 2.18 and of subjects toward their governing authorities in 2.13.

Can anyone seriously argue that this is not hierarchical?


Cappadocia, one of regions to which 1 Peter was written


These and other texts, when left undomesticated, cause even many self-identifying non-egalitarians to squirm.  One can already feel the disapproving gazes and headshaking from non-Christian friends and family, as we flush with embarrassment from these texts.

How, then, is one to respond to the overwhelmingly hierarchical character of earliest (and subsequent) Christianity?

We’ll tackle that question in the next post.



4 thoughts on “Is Christianity hierarchical or egalitarian?

Add your thoughts...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s