Biblical Egalitarianism (Part 05) - The Gospels
As we move from review of the old covenant into the Gospels, we find a startling contrast in the recognition and activity of women from what the old covenant society had projected. Several notable firsts in the advent of Christ and His mission involve women. A woman was the first to hear the announcement of the Messiah’s pending birth. A woman was the first to request and receive a miracle (the changing of water to wine). A woman was the first to hear individually the declaration from Jesus of His messiahship (the Samaritan woman at the well). That same woman is the first person recorded to bear fruit from Gospel witness. A woman was the first person to whom the resurrected Christ appeared. And that same woman was the first to bear witness of the resurrected Christ to others. That we may find some firsts in the Gospels for men misses the point. The point is that following the Fall of Adam and Eve and the resultant curses, women had a predominantly second-class status in the sin-cursed world throughout the Patriarchal period of the old covenant. With the dawning of the New Covenant, a change of position results for women.
The fact that in the Gospels Christ affirms an elevated status for women is, for the most part, universally recognized. Both patriarchal complementarians (PCs) and biblical egalitarians (BEs) point to incidents in which Christ’s interest in the attitude, understanding, and activity of women breaks cultural barriers. Women are among His disciples, traveling with Him in His ministry (Luke 8:1-3). Christ defies cultural constraint as He talks with the woman at the well, the woman accused of adultery, and the several women for whom He provides miracles of healing. Luke also provides a revealing story concerning Mary and Martha in the village of Bethany. Jesus is at their home talking with the men while Martha busies herself with preparing and serving. But Mary, seemingly oblivious to the cultural gender distinctions at play, “sat at the Lord’s feet,” listening to His teaching. Martha becomes upset and probably somewhat embarrassed. Mary is among the men! She is taking on a man’s role!
Note that the phrase “sitting at the feet” or simply “at the feet” is not some subservient, worshipful position to be literally pictured. In Acts 22:3 we find Paul recounting his position “at the feet” of Gamaliel, implying that his position was one of pupil to educator. The phrase, therefore, signifies a teacher-pupil relationship. This then is what Mary’s attitude and action portray, and this too is the probable cause for Martha’s distress. After all, Mary was a woman, not someone who needed education in spiritual matters! But whether it is the cause of Martha's distress really makes little difference as far as what we learn from Christ's response. Christ’s reply sets the balance right for them and for us. Pursuit of God by both men and women is of ultimate importance. And that activity, even for a woman, Christ will affirm and protect.
The Gospels and the New Covenant initiation actually culminate in the scene at Pentecost following the Lord’s ascension. Among all the glories of the Gospel, the lifting of all people of God to a common status in Christ is recognized by Peter as he preaches in Acts 2:16-18, “But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.’” The pairings of sons and daughters, young and old, and male and female servants speak clearly to the common status that all have in Christ. This principle, borne along throughout the Gospels, is intrinsic to the New Covenant relationship.
The New Covenant brought changes to the limitations involved in the old covenant. As discussed in the last summary, after the creation ideals were lost through the Fall and the curses, three systems overseeing or regulating the structure of life dominated the old covenant. These three included the patriarchy, the Law, and the priesthood. One of the New Covenant purposes was to write the law on the hearts of God’s people, thus making the external regulations unnecessary. Christ accomplished for us the protection, understanding, and intercession necessary for renewed right relationship. In other words, He made it possible to return focus to the creation ideals. Again, those ideals included (1) humanity’s perfect dominion over the rest of creation, (2) perfect relationship between husband and wife, and (3) perfect relationship between humanity and God. Although the sin-cursed world still remains until Christ’s second coming, the New Covenant points clearly to these three aspects of relational living put back into focus through Christ’s redemptive work.
The Gospels promote each of these creation ideals specifically and generally. As an example of the general nature of this, we may look at three chapters in the book of John that point to this renewed focus in the creation ideals. In John 2 we have recounted the marriage in Cana of Galilee. Here at the beginning of Christ’s initiation of the New Covenant we see a kind of resemblance to the initiation first found in Genesis. Some symbols may be connected, such as six pots of water that draw to mind the six days of creation. But specifically, we see in both events the culmination in a marriage. In both stories, a crisis arises—fruit as temptation in Eden; fruit of the vine running out in Cana. In the first story, left to themselves, Adam and Eve fall. In the Cana story, Christ interposes Himself and the shame (a true cultural devastation) in the marriage is averted. In fact, the master of the feast exclaims that unlike the normal practice, the best wine is saved for last. And just so does the New Covenant—described in Hebrews 8:6—exceed the old. From this chapter, then, we find an emphasis of restoration on the creation ideal of perfect relationship between husband and wife.
John 3 begins with a deep theological conversation with Nicodemus which becomes the cornerstone of Christ’s message for people in the New Covenant: You must be born again. This spiritual birth is accomplished through Christ’s atonement. Easily we perceive the emphasis on restoration of the creation ideal of perfect relationship between humanity and God. Further, however, the Genesis principle on priority of relationship with God over all others is portrayed in the second half of the chapter. John’s disciples argue with a Jew (or Jews) over purification rites. The Jew says their religion has sufficient purification rites. John’s disciples argue that the baptism John offers is superior. The Jew probably then questions why, if John’s baptism is superior, are the people now flocking over to Jesus to be baptized. John’s disciples, stumped, go back to John to complain, saying, “he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” John’s answer confirms the principle that our relationship to God must be first. John says that Christ must increase and that he must decrease. John, then, ends the chapter with another affirmation of the restored human/divine relationship.
In John 4 we read of the Samaritan woman at the well. Since the Fall, humanity had not held the perfect dominion over the earth, but rather had become a slave to it, toiling with the ground to receive sustenance that would keep them alive. Christ twice provides analogies showing that through His New Covenant, the word of God will sustain. Notice that He first tells the woman that He has living water to quench thirst forever. When the disciples return with food, urging Him to eat, Jesus replies that He has food—His food is to do the will of God. These references to food and water put us in mind that through Christ’s work of redemption and establishment of the New Covenant, focus may return to restoration of humanity’s dominion over creation.
These three chapters by no means are the extent of the analogies and lesson applications that abound in the Gospels concerning restoration of the creation ideal. The point of it all is that we who live in the New Covenant should strive for the ideal and as much as possible remove ourselves through the strength and motivation of Christ from the intrinsic nature of the curse still evident throughout the world.
The battleground in the Gospels on which the PCs and BEs face off is in the choosing of the Twelve Disciples or Apostles. In the PC-promoting book Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Chapter 4 “Women in the Life and Teaching of Jesus,” is written by James A. Borland. Borland remarks on page 113, “Jesus’ recognition of role distinctions for men and women is demonstrated by His choosing only men to serve as His apostles with their primary tasks of preaching, teaching, and governing. Women, however, served in other important capacities, such as praying, providing financial assistance, ministering to physical needs, voicing their theological understanding, and witnessing to the resurrection.”
Of course, the astute reader will wonder how those functions identified for women can be categorized as role distinctions since men perform them as well. (Perhaps redefining the word distinctions would help.) Further, if men perform the role distinctions of women, what logic prohibits women from performing the role distinctions of men? Thus, even if the concession were made that the twelve men were chosen based on gender due to the apostolic function being more a distinction of men (quite a lot to assume), how does this eliminate women totally from the function since men may perform the women distinctives of praying, providing financial assistance, ministering to physical needs, etc.?
Many BEs have argued that PCs unjustly choose to focus on gender as opposed to race/nationality. All twelve disciples were Jews, but this does not signify that only Jews should be in leadership positions. The PCs fire back that the twelve had to be Jews because the message of Christ was first to the Jews. But notice what the PCs are saying. They are arguing that Christ picked Jews as disciples for cultural concerns—because it would be easier for Jews to witness to other Jews.
But when the BE argument is presented that the choice of only males for the twelve is because it is culturally easier for men to introduce the witness of the gospel to the world, PCs change their argument saying that God is not bound by culture. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t defend Christ’s choice of Jews for cultural reasons and then deny that Christ would use cultural reasons to choose only men. The PC argument appears to demonstrate more bias than logic.
One other reason BEs provide for the all-male disciple dozen is that the twelve apostles for the New Covenant are set in contrast to the twelve patriarchs (and tribes) of the old covenant. Thus, the picture is better seen and balanced with men serving as apostles since men held the patriarchal positions. I’m not entirely convinced that this is a compelling argument, although I do agree that using males pictures the link better.
But what the BE position has done with all these answers is merely provide alternatives to the reason that the PCs provide, which is that men were chosen to fill the role because God wants only men to preach, teach, and govern. And thus the question continues to be debated simply because each side clings to their particular reasoning. I think a better resolution would be to question the purpose. What exactly is the function of the apostles? Was it to govern? And, if so, by what link is this governing function passed to other gifts/offices in the church?
The question of whether authority is truly a mandate for certain Christians over other Christians appears to hold the key. Are the two sides at issue Male only Authority (which is the PC position) versus Male or Female Authority? Or are the two sides Male only Authority versus no authority but Christ and his Word? Surely by no authority we are not arguing for chaos. Leaders are definitely indicated in Scripture. But the question of male headship always devolves to a question of male authority not just leadership. And it is in terms of authority and subordination that PCs define the roles. What exactly do we mean by those terms? Defining authority, I think, will bring us to a better understanding of the choice for twelve apostles and give us a basis for understanding the epistles’ instructions on men and women relationships.