Nothing New Here: A Review of Global Voices on Biblical Equality

The fourth title in the House of Prisca and Aquila Series, a series which seeks to “empower women and men to minister together in a multi­cultural church,” regrettably does little empower­ing due to the presentation of a muddled picture of biblical equality (ii). With contributions from a wide range of egalitarian authors, Global Voices on Biblical Equality contains descriptive and sometimes differing perspectives of the status of women in various contexts. At times the chapters veer more into an analysis of the current place of women in society and fail to address their relation­ship to men and how the two are ministering in the church-both key features of the book’s subtitle. At other times, the chapters take a polemical tone and claim global unanimity for egalitarian interpreta­tions of key biblical texts without adequately refer­encing or dealing with the legitimate questioning of those interpretations. These observations aside,some aspects in the volume are helpful; and expo­sure to the latest egalitarian perspective provides an opportunity for learning and further understanding of this particular interpretation of biblical equality.

Edited by Aída Besançon Spencer, William David Spencer, and Mimi Haddad,Global Voices on Biblical Equality comes together as a survey “exploring how well we are succeeding in fulfilling God’s intention for us to work in unity to bring Christ’s reign in all our lives together as God has commanded us” (xx). However, while some of the authors argue clearly for the achievements of ontological equality between men and women-something with which this reviewer and most complementarians agree-inconsistency when dis­cussing the functional roles of genders in society,church, and home brings confusion in the volume.In Haddad’s introductory chapter, for example, she endeavors to show how the gender debate is really a reform movement with ties to the Protestant Refor­mation and also the Abolitionist movement. Link­ing the three together, Haddad rightly notes that a return to Scripture is key to all genuine movements of reform (3). However, she denounces a herme­neutic that relies on “a plain reading of Scripture,”citing that such was the folly of slavery advocates as well as contemporary complementarians. Had-dad is persuasive; and by blurring any distinction between ontological equality and functional roles,the reader is given the impression that complemen­tarians are as blind as proslavery Christians were in terms of their misunderstanding of the teaching of the Bible as a whole. In short, they have missed the forest of biblical teaching that Haddad summarizes as “love, not bondage,” in favor of singular texts and isolated hierarchical teachings (13). But this blurring is neither helpful nor accurate and does not serve the reader well, for in seeking to make an argument from history, Haddad fails to men­tion the numerous answers and published works by complementarians that address all the claims she paints with her broad brush. In short, there is noth­ing new or definitive here.

To provide an example of the muddled nature of the work, consider Haddad’s statement, “Both abolitionists and egalitarians insist that Scripture opposes what philosophers call ascriptivism-the effort to ascribe significance, value, and worth to individuals based on their materiality, gender, eth­nicity, or class” (16). Complementarians would also insist on this truth that all individuals created in the image of God and stained by sin as a result of the fall are seen equally by God and thus should be seen equally by man. However, such views of equal­ity do not negate the obvious distinctions that still remain for how one is to function in society, church,and home. Haddad fails to articulate that one must address ontological equality separately from func­tional roles. Instead, she argues that “Scripture,rightly interpreted, as guided by the Holy Spirit,teaches the ontological and functional equality of men and women, as taught by Scriptures such as Galatians 3:28” (20). Haddad’s appeal to Gal 3:28 makes her guilty of the very hermeneutical error that she lays at the feet of proslavery advocates and complementarians-namely, to rely “upon isolated passages, read without consideration of the his­torical background and without regard to the clear moral and theological teachings of Scripture” (11).However, this reviewer would argue that Haddad need not even employ her stated hermeneutic on Gal 3:28 but rather let the clear context of Gala­tians 3 give explanation-that there is no onto­logical distinction among those who have faith in Christ.

The core of the volume, grouped somewhat by continent, presents reports from around the world.Each chapter roughly provides a description of the role of women in the past in a particular country,sometimes in society only and other times in both society and the churches. A description of the pres­ent situation for women follows, and the chapters conclude with recommendations for a way forward.

Chapters 2-4 deal with Asia and Asian America, focusing specifically on India, China,Chinese Americans, Korea, and Korean Ameri­cans.The chapter on India contains a curious inter­pretation of the parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18:1-8 as a guideline for surveying the state of things in India. The authors see the widow’s request for justice as an appropriate avenue “for her to insist upon her rights”-that is, her rights as a woman (22). The authors state, “Let this parable summon Christians to come alive to a call to work for rights for women, and for women and men to feel confirmed by Christ in speaking up for a fair deal. This is part of gospel work” (22, 35). In the chapter on Korean Americans,the author posits,”A helpful starting place to confront gender inequality is to refocus Korean American Christians upon the word of God” (62). As hopeful as that sounds, the author means rather that Korean American Chris­tians should refocus their hermeneutic, for many are “blinded by their presupposition to patriarchy and female subordination…. [T]hey simply take Paul’s instructions literally without considering his teachings on gender equality” (63).

Chapters 5-6 provide overviews of develop­ments in Africa and African America. The chap­ter on Africa tells specifically of views held by the Shona people in Zimbabwe. In the Zimbabwean context,the author explains,”Gender equality could be defined as competence in playing the assigned gender roles accepted by the community” (72).While this reviewer believes that gender function should be first determined by the Bible, this chap­ter clarifies that some egalitarians do understand the distinctions between ontology and function. In fact, the author continues, “Since God created for man a helper comparable to him, the Bible means someone of equal, comparable, complementary competence. God did not create an inferior depen­dent” (72). Further, when discussing Eph 5:22, the author concludes, “Husbands also need sacrificially to love their wives for them to respond in loving complementary submission” (80). I do not know of any complementarians who would disagree with these statements.

Chapters 7-9 discuss gender equality in indigenous America and Latin America. As with each chapter in the book, these investigations pro­vide even the critical reader with helpful insight to these cultures in ways many have not previ­ously observed. In the chapter on Latino Churches,the author shows Paul’s relationship to women by citing the times in which he commends specific women as coworkers. There is much to applaud in this study, and some of the recommendations for modern implementation are quite helpful for affirming the work of women in the local church.However, here, too, arises the muddled conflation of ontological equality and functional roles. The author states, “Paul commended his coworkers on the basis of their working hard for the gospel. In the same way, Christian men need to make public commendations of Latina women who have been working and struggling alongside them in minis­try” (146). This reviewer could not express greater agreement with this conclusion. However, in the next sentence, the author moves beyond calling for biblical recognition of ontological equality and applies the same to a functional equality. She states,”our Latino churches must recognize equally the participation of men and women in different min­istries and leadership positions. It could be done,for example, by nominating Latina women … to positions such as regional area minister, bishop,superintendent, or any other position of authority in the church” (146). Here the pendulum swings past the biblical boundaries for functional roles of women in the church. Furthermore, while a hand­ful of the chapters in the volume provide some interaction and interpretation of 1 Tim 2:12 and its correlation to the creation account in Genesis 2, most do not; and, indeed, chapters like this one,which could benefit the most from such interac­tion, overlook this passage completely.

Chapters 10-12 comprise Western Europe,Australia, and North America. The chapter on Western Europe is particularly intriguing as the authors challenge the common acceptance of “gender mainstreaming” as it regards the attempt to render genders indistinguishable for the pur­pose of accommodating homosexual partnerships.They state, “While Christian men and women are called to stand for equality and equal opportunity for men and women, they will also need to uphold the differences in the genders, which alone make for meaningfully complementarity. Also, they will stand against attempts to blur the image of God,which is reflected in men and women alike and in their complementarity (Gen 1:26ff )” (173). When pressed with the advancement of gender main­streaming, these egalitarians resort to upholding ontological equality while maintaining a distinc­tion of function. Never in this book is homosexual­ity advocated as acceptable Christian behavior, and in a few places effort is made to underscore that these egalitarians do not support that lifestyle as a biblical option. However, it takes the advancement of such in Europe to reveal the inconsistency of a muddled view of equality among these egalitarians with regard to the roles of women and men in the church.

Chapter 11, by Kevin Giles, gives an engag­ing history of Australia and as much as any of the other chapters shows how the historical context of that country has affected the current makeup and beliefs of the contemporary population. Chapter 12 gives a sweeping overview of biblical equality in the united States, which is not without a few points of contention. However, this reviewer finds that he can agree completely with the author’s sum­mary statement that, “The fulfillment of Christ’s great commission in Matthew 28 is not possible without the full engagement and deployment of spiritual gifts and abilities belonging to all mem­bers of the worldwide body of Christ, female and male”(203).The difference,of course,exists in how one understands the biblical prescription of func­tion for males and females.

The concluding chapter continues to appro­priate the volume’s muddled view on the relation­ship between ontology and function. The author declares, “Full equality of women in the church entails the church allowing qualified women (as well as men) to teach, preach, pastor, and lead, to give the sacraments, to serve all people, not just other women, children, the sick, and the poor”(215). To define biblical equality in terms of func­tion, especially when such specific functions are limited in Scripture to men, shows precisely why this volume fails to achieve the empowering effect the editors set out to achieve. The author of the conclusion clearly disagrees, as she believes that if full functional equality were the standard in the churches, “Evangelism will be more appealing to the young and to society. A more appealing model of Christianity will be broadcast, because … men and women will more reflect the perfect love and equality and harmony within the Triune God­head” (218). However, the Bible does not speak of a Christianity that prospers due to popularity.

The authors and editors of Global Voices on Bib­lical Equality have done all evangelicals a service by allowing the readers of this volume to look through a window at the House of Prisca and Aquila and observe how the authors see and understand the world with regard to biblical equality. The reader must recognize that he looks through a clearly defined window built with a specific hermeneutic and, in the opinion of this reviewer, with a mud­dled presentation of ontological equality and func­tional roles. Nevertheless, readers should look and observe, for within, there lies much to learn.