As a student of theology and history, I have had the privilege of engaging theological opinions that are very diverse and, often, at odds with “the way I was raised.” Just as some denominations use theological distinctives to clarify their identity, I began some time ago to self-identify myself in terms of categories of theological thought. These categories, to borrow a concept from the world of politics, make up the “planks” of my theological identity. For example, I might call myself an Arminian-Conditionalist-Egalitarian-Historicist evangelical with an uncharacteristic appreciation for liturgy. Following from this, I am sometimes compelled, by the questioning of others or by my own inner urge to bloviate, to explain why I hold to an opinion. For example, last year I wrote about conditionalism.
One of these distinctives is the subject of this blog post – egalitarianism. Egalitarianism, as defined for the organization Christians for Biblical Equality, is the belief “that the Bible, properly interpreted, teaches the fundamental equality of men and women of all ethnic groups, all economic classes, and all age groups, based on the teachings of Scriptures.” The area in which this concept is most often talked about is that of women in ministry. So, by identifying myself as an egalitarian, I am essentially saying that the testimony of the Bible seems to indicate that God has not reserved the role of leadership in the church exclusively to men.
This post is not meant to be a theological treatise or, by and means, an exhaustive analysis of egalitarianism vs. complimentarianism. It is meant simply to trace a bit of my thrological journey to explain why I hold an egalitarian view.
I was raised in a denomination that has, since its inception, had women in leadership –
The Salvation Army. The Salvation Army’s theology and practices were shaped not only by its founder, but by his wife, Catherine (Mumford) Booth.
This theology of women in ministry has shaped the Army in such a way that women have not only been a vital part of its clergy, but have occupied to therank of General (the international leader of The Salvation Army) three times in its history. In fact, William Booth’s own daughter, Evangeline, was the fourth person to occupy the office, from 1934-1939. In the nineteenth century, an era when women in any profession were uncommon, the influence of Catherine Booth paved the way for thousands of female women and evangelists in the Army’s ranks.
During my childhood, I was molded in a church environment in which married officers (clergy) were both ordained, equally trained, qualified, and commissioned to lead. In short, the wife could perform any function in the church that the husband could. In fact, there were single women officers as well who would often be the head pastors of the churches they served. My aunt was an officer for a time, and my lifelong spiritual mentor and dear friend, Major Donna Jackson (PTG 2015), was a single officer who held many positions of leadership during her half-century career of service. Needless to say, the sight of a woman in the pulpit was nothing unusual to me.
When I was in seminary, one of the books assigned to our Systematic Theology II class was Two Views on Women in Ministry, edited by Dr. James Beck. My full review of the book is here. The book consists of essays and rebuttals from Linda L. Bellville, of North Park Theological Seminary, Craig L. Blomberg, from Denver Seminary, Craig S. Keener, of Palmer Theological Seminary, and Thomas R. Schreiner, from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The varied approaches of the book’s contributors provide a good cross section of the debate over women’s role in ministry. In reading the book, I found myself vacillating between the two views, swayed by the authors’ arguments, then pulled back again by their co-contributors. I can remember, about half-way through, calling Donna (from the last paragraph) and telling her that I thought I might change my view. One factor in this was the apparent weakness of an argument posed by Bellville (an egalitarian) that the influence of the Artemis cult which she perceives as having great influence in first century Ephesus influenced the occasional nature of Paul’s argument in 1 Tim 2:11-15. While she argued the point effectively, the verifiability of the Artemis cult was well-dismantled by those who responded to her essay.
Our personal experiences may differ, but in the end is it not as dangerous to risk forbidding what God endorses as to risk promoting what he forbids?
By the end of the book, I was thoroughly back in the egalitarian camp, largely due to the influence of Craig Keener’s argument. He makes a statement there that had a profound impact on me. After a very cogent discussion of the transferability of New Testament teachings to other times and cultures, and an analysis of historical interpretational precedent, he gives a solemn warning to those holding a dogmatically complimentarian perspective: “Our personal experiences may differ, but in the end is it not as dangerous to risk forbidding what God endorses as to risk promoting what he forbids?” What this says to me is that, though I may have “a shadow of a doubt” about the merits of egalitarianism, I’d rather endure the possibility of my theology being incorrect (as it surely is in many areas) than to deprive another of the opportunity to use the gifts with which God has endowed her.
As a theologian, and as an historian, it is important to understand the concept of tentative understanding. Though I am thoroughly committed to egalitarianism, I also know that my understanding of the Scriptures is very limited. There are, and have been, many who know the Bible better than I do and who hold a complementarian view. It is this way in any area of theology. The admonition of seventeenth-century German theologian Rupertus Meldenius is an important one for us: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” That being said, it is my firm conviction that verses like Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” apply to gender-role distinctions in the church, and are not mere proof-texts, but are consistent with the tenor of both the Old and New Testaments.
 My wife, by the way is a complementarian.
 When a Salvation Army officer (clergy) or soldier (lay members) dies, it is said that they were “promoted to glory” (PTG).
 James R. Beck, Two Views on Women in Ministry, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).
 This essentially means that Paul’s teaching in these verses was for a particular time and place, rather than an enduring principle for all Christians at all times.