Hierarchy in the Bible and the hope of egalitarianism

Hierarchy in the Bible and the hope of egalitarianism


Though a follower of Jesus, I have to admit that there are a good number of things that I simply don’t like about the Bible.

Though having grown up in a Christian home, I can remember when I first read Genesis as a young adult and came to the story of the flood and was undone by the sweeping loss of life.

In addition to the flood narrative, my immediate response is to recoil at the Bible’s highly constrictive sexual norms and, more generally, its cost of discipleship (i.e., to “gouge out one’s eye”), the barbaric conquest of Canaan, the strictness of Torah (“eye for eye”), the anger of Yahweh in the Old Testament and the threats of hell by Jesus in the New Testament, the institution of slavery, and, alas, the undeniably hierarchical gender norms established for marital and ecclesial life.

We briefly surveyed some of these texts on gender norms in a previous post and concluded that on both cursory and close readings, these texts undoubtedly prescribe hierarchical relations for both married life and church life.  We concluded the post in a quandary:

How are we to respond to these texts?

David deSilva in his (layperson-accessible and very helpful) Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture is one example of a throng of evangelical New Testament scholars who reluctantly recognize the hierarchical character of gender relations within ecclesial and marital life, yet then go on to qualify:  “we cannot ignore the distinctively Christian addition they bring to this arrangement” (231-32).  They then elaborate on how the “distinctively Christian addition” limits this hierarchical “arrangement.”

In short, their message is:  what the New Testament teaches about gender relations in marriage and within the church is hardly ideal, but it could have been a lot worse were it not for Christianity.

Other New Testament scholars will contrast the New Testament’s teaching on this matter with comparable teaching in (what are considered) aberrant forms of Christianity, like those found in the Gospel of Thomas, which (at least in its final form) concludes with the following brief exchange between Peter and Jesus:

“Simon Peter said to [Jesus], ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself will lead her, in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven” (GTh, saying 114).

Second-century Gospel of Thomas, from Nag Hammadi

Okay, so early Christianity (1) set limits on hierarchy and (2) was, it seems, the best game in town.

But are such qualifications and comparisons all that consoling?  Indeed, for many today they may only rub salt into the wound.  Many faithful followers of Christ feel an untraversable canyon between the gracious and compelling character of Christ and the glacial and cruel character of these hierarchical commands, notoriously called the “texts of terror.”

What, then, is to be done about the inescapably hierarchical character of earliest Christianity?

It would seem that the path forward is clear, viable and unavoidable:  as proponents of egalitarianism urge, the only hope for Christianity is to shed its hierarchical origins and upbringing and to (finally!) “convert” to egalitarian values enshrined and exemplified in an enlightened Western world.  The conciliatory, even apologetic tone with which many non-egalitarian scholars (and pastors) often write and preach on these texts shows that at least some of them are already sympathetic to egalitarianism.

My sincere hope is that even the most committed non-egalitarian reading this will feel the plausibility and pull of this argument.

In fact, this is ultimately where deSilva (quoted above) lands:

“The way in which the New Testament speaks to the institution of slavery . . . should caution us strongly against taking its words about the role of women in the home and in the church as God’s whole word on the subject. We otherwise would stand in danger of mistaking concession for command, expedience for excellence . . . . The church has come to recognize that and been bold enough to affirm that ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek,’ and eventually that ‘there is no longer slave or free,’ and in this generation is coming to understand that ‘there is no longer male and female’ (Gal. 3:28)” (236-7).

Second-century Tunisian mosaic of Romans slaves

Again, should this not give serious pause to even the most convinced advocate of even the softest forms of hierarchicalism (e.g., so-called complementarianism)?  The parallel made between the hierarchy of slavery and the hierarchies of marriage and ecclesiastic leadership is logically, rhetorically and emotionally compelling.

Yes, for the sake of argument, one could offer a few objections:  As any competent historian of the Greco-Roman world knows, the differences between the monstrous chattel slavery that has scarred (and still stains) America, on the one hand, and the multi-faceted slavery of the ancient Mediterranean world (especially within Judaism and its Torah) on the other, are unquestionably significant, evident not least from the fact that slavery is a common metaphor for salvation in Scripture–whoa, wait, seriously?  (For more on slavery in Scripture, click here).  Further, deSilva largely misuses, and curiously misquotes, Galatians 3.28 (one of the more–the most?–misused texts in this debate, as N. T. Wright has argued, while addressing a roomful of egalitarians no less).

But deSilva’s implicit question unquestionably hits the nail on the head, and it is this:

Are the New Testament’s “words about the role of women in the home and in the church . . . God’s whole word on the subject?”

Importantly, this question provides further explanation for the protracted and painful nature of the debate:  What is one to do when their conscience feels torn between a right view of women and a right view of the Word?  I suspect that all sides of this debate can grow in their appreciation of their opponents’ desire to do right both by women and by the Word.  Accusations that the other side has a “low view” of either women or the Word are often made far too quickly, and when that happens, everyone loses.

So should a now global Christianity today leave behind the hierarchy of its birth and development?

Within the ivory tower, DeSilva is not alone in (1) suggesting that the New Testament itself establishes a trajectory of justice for women and then (2) locating late modern Western egalitarian views of women as (farther) down that very trajectory.  Richard Bauckham, whose depth and breadth of scholarship are truly extraordinary, writes:

“It is certainly not the case that advocacy of egalitarian social structures is everywhere apparent in the Bible. What can, however, be argued is that running through the biblical traditions is a strongly egalitarian direction of thought” (God and the Crisis of Freedom: Biblical and Contemporary Perspectives, 2002: 118).

(I cite Bauckham here, for two reasons:  first, he’s an exceptional scholar; second, he’s a scholar celebrated by many non-egalitarian scholars and pastors.)

Outside the ivory tower similar sentiments can easily be found.  A well-educated egalitarian Christian friend of mine, commendably reading non-egalitarian literature, expressed significant frustration over a statement found in Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles by Kathy Keller.  Concerning the explicitly hierarchical texts found in the Bible, Keller states:

“Christians in non-Western parts of the world find no difficulty with these so-called ‘texts of terror.'”

My friend (fairly, I think) objected:  Why should we be looking to non-Western patriarchal societies to authenticate the applicability of Scripture’s disputed gender norms for today?  Does one look to the sick to define what is healthy?  So why should they be privileged?

Ugandan Christians worshipping

So, again, Christianity’s only hope, it would seem, is to repent of its patriarchal ways and to walk in the light of an Enlightenment egalitarianism.

This is the hope of egalitarianism.

Now having attempted to communicate not only the plausibility but the persuasiveness of egalitarian perspectives (at times caricatured by non-egalitarian proponents) and to point to why its proponents are so passionately in favor of re-conceptualizing and relativizing New Testament teaching concerning gender relations, let me say:

I disagree with this perspective.  Strongly.  In fact, I think for the church to embrace this perspective would be disastrous–for both women and men, for wives and husbands and their children.  Indeed, nor, as I will suggest in future posts, is there any tension between a right view of woman and a right view of the Word.

How so?

If, as my friend rightly objected, present-day non-Western societies are not to be privileged in authenticating NT marital and ecclesial gender norms, then why should present-day Western society(ies) be privileged in abrogating them?  (And whose Western egalitarian values are to be adopted, and why theirs?)

Without minimizing meaningful victories over gendered injustices, I confess my suspicion of the way that, as discussed above, scholars have located Western egalitarian values along a supposed trajectory established by New Testament ethics.  Does this not have at least the appearance of a very convenient co-opting colonialism?

Also, it’s worth saying:  When living within any culture (but especially a dominant, intentionally or inevitably colonial culture), it is almost always highly instructive and subversively edifying to read Scripture with persons from other cultures, asking how and why they respond to the text differently.  Humbly exploring the alternative readings of, and responses to, Scripture from other cultures does not constitute elevating them to a place of privilege but it can at times expose how we ourselves have, perhaps unconsciously (yet still culpably) elevated our own culture to a place of privilege.  (This, at least, is how I would understand an observation like Keller’s above.)

In his commentary on 1 and 2 Timothy Catholic scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, after providing a careful interpretation of the text, concludes (as I did) that Paul is unquestionably asserting normative hierarchical ecclesial relations between men and women.

Johnson’s subsequent discussion is incredibly illuminating for the matter at hand.

He immediately distances himself from Paul:  “I share with others many of the difficulties in regard to both the tone and the substance of the passage.”  For him it is “impossible to regard the statements disqualifying women from public speech and roles of leadership as either true or normative.”

He then asks, “What, then, is to be done with this passage?”

The first option, he offers, is to deny that it was Paul who said these things.  But he dismisses this option, not only because he argues compellingly for Pauline authorship (whereas he had formerly denied it), but also because, regardless of authorship, 1 Timothy has canonical authority (so who cares if Paul didn’t write it?). Furthermore, he says, Paul did write 1 Cor. 14.33-36.

A second option is to “suppress the passage by negating its authority.” In other words, simply because it’s canonical, it doesn’t mean it needs to be authoritative:  “…only those parts of Scripture that lead to the liberation of women are truly authoritative–that is, are truly Scripture,” and 1 Timothy 2 is a classic “text of terror,” if there ever was one.

But, interestingly, Johnson rejects this option as well.  Consider his rationale:

“First, the assumption that the church should hear from Scripture only those texts that confirm contemporary perceptions and practices is one that is fraught with peril. There are few texts of Scripture, that, examined closely enough, do not contain at least as much ambiguity as this one. Where does the process of purgation stop?  The possibility must also be entertained that the salutary character of the Scripture consists at least as much in its ability to challenge us as it is does in its capacity to comfort us” (210).

So Scripture, he says, edifies us not only by comforting us but by confronting us. Huh.

But what Johnson says next is truly intriguing–I would say, perplexing:

“Just as it is a mistake to give the ancient text absolute authority, so is it an error to assume that a contemporary ethos or outlook has absolute validity” (210).

But where then does “absolute authority” lie?  In order to live our lives, we all must ultimately make a decision by trusting someone–whether that someone is a parent, professor, politician, a poll of public opinion, our own personal opinion, or the opinion of the people of God, which is where Johnson himself lands when he appeals to “a dialectical process of criticism within the public discourse of the church, both academic and liturgical.”

But how successful is this appeal to the authority of “the public discourse of the church,” not least when it is precisely the church that is divided?  More problematically, Johnson inexplicably (but perhaps unwittingly) privileges the church that is (i) present day and (ii) Western:  were he to invite the church of the majority world and the church over the majority of world history, the conversation would be overwhelmingly brief and not in his favor.

The question, of course, is why?  Why does the church outside of the Western world of late modernity fail to get with the program, so to speak?  Was it because they were (and are) more oppressive or less intelligent or less godly or simply blind to the prevailing idolatries of their place and time?  (And who would say that the church is immune from gross self-deception and idolatrous syncretism?)  Why are they not as enamored by egalitarianism as we are?

Indeed, why didn’t the New (not to mention) Old Testament authors, many of whom were willing to die for their faith, just roll out egalitarianism and be done with it?  If the world is going to kill you for other Christian tenets, why not add this one to the list?

Because, as I’ll argue in the next post, egalitarianism (as we’ve understood it) is at least as dangerous as hierarchalism, and, in my opinion, even more dangerous.  Indeed, egalitarianism, while existing as an idea, does not exist in actuality:  it is a mirage, a socio-cultural pot at the end of the rainbow.  True to a fundamental postulate of Western liberalism, what makes egalitarianism so dangerous is precisely its seemingly innocent neutrality:  like baseball and apple pie, egalitarianism seems to us only innocent and wholesome, because, as with baseball and apple pie, its appeal is overwhelmingly American–white American, in fact.

As we’ll see, what makes egalitarian discourse–be it in political, ecclesial, or marital arenas–so dangerous is that it actually disguises agendas of power:  within an egalitarian social framework, as Orwell famously said, everyone is equal, but inevitably some will be more equal than others.

Perhaps the most infamous deployment of egalitarian discourse is found in the Declaration of Independence.  Imagine taking a copy of the Declaration home to your Virginia plantation just after its adoption and reading it to your extended family members and friends over a celebratory feast, while your house slaves, who were silently serving food and drink, just happened to overhear the following words:


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

What do you think your slaves’ opinions would be of this celebration of egalitarianism?

In the next post we’ll compare and contrast hierarchicalism and egalitarianism, discovering (with the help of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida) what the majority world and the majority of world history have always known–namely, that power asymmetries are inevitable in social interaction, even when there are only two people, as in a marriage.

In short, egalitarian relationships are always and ever disguised hierarchical relationships, with greater power in the hands of the one who gets not only to define “equality” but to determine when all things are equal and when they are not.  In egalitarian relationships, either of two things happen:  either a new yet now covert hierarchy is created, or parties disagree about what is equal, and polarization results.

It is no coincidence that with the discourse of “equality” dominating–and that really is the appropriate word, dominating–ever more of America’s civil and political dialogue that America is itself becoming more and more polarized, or tribal, with each tribe demanding its own version of fair treatment.

And, in all earnestness, who’s to say they’re wrong?

Meanwhile (and as we’ll see), nowhere in the New Testament’s teaching on community life is there any mention of the ideal (much less the imperative) of equality, and yet obedience to its instruction results not in polarization but in some of the most intimate community known to humanity.


. . . . .

Merely as an aside, I give the following:

As I’ve read over the literature on this issue (on all sides) and talked with Christians (and non-Christians) of numerous ancestries, ages and perspectives, I’ve been struck by at least four things:

First, just how poor so much evangelical scholarship is (on all sides), leading to the dissemination of unhelpful arguments on an already volatile issue.  Recently, someone encouraged me to read Men and Women in the Church: Building Consensus in the Church by Sarah Sumner (IVP, 2003).  I greatly appreciated Sumner’s autobiographical asides and truly lamented her stories of women oppressed by male Christian leaders (with her accompanying call for the necessity of church discipline–amen and amen).  But Sumner’s exegesis is, frankly, disastrous:  it is marked by cultural imperialism, gross anachronism, inexcusable lexical fallacies and both semantic and logical non-sequiturs.  But Sumner is hardly alone.  There is need for exegesis that is theologically humble, exegetically rigorous and cautious (and prayerful), pastorally sensitive, and yet bold enough to offer conclusions that may problematize cherished viewpoints, especially their own.

Second, on all sides there are (probably unwittingly) irresponsibly simplistic and naïve conceptions of power, but especially so from egalitarian perspectives (in part, perhaps, by virtue of their position).  Both in print and in person proponents from all perspectives (especially when passionate) betray both in how they conceive of the issue and in how they carry themselves (whether men or women, oppressor and oppressed) that they have not begun to consider the astonishing complexities of power dynamics even when only two persons are directly involved.  As we’ll see, this is a game-changer.

Third (and only anecdotally), I’ve been surprised at how much one’s age seems to play a meaningful role in how one engages this issue:  e.g., in general, women approximately 50 years and older tend to approach the matter very differently from those under 50, with the older women being more impassioned and assured, while the younger women are more dispassionate and uncertain.  Is this phenomenon similar to the divide between women supporters of former presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders?

Fourth (and perhaps most importantly), it cannot be overstated that if relations between men and women are to flourish in our churches, both proactive discipleship and remedial church discipline are absolutely essential:  without edification and accountability (which are often missing in both hierarchical and egalitarian churches), life-giving gender relations don’t stand a chance.  Presupposed in this are church leaders who have been trained, vetted and who themselves are accountable.


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