George Orwell in his 1949 novel wrote, “[The one] who controls the present, controls the past. [The one] who controls the past, controls the future.” Patriarchy’s plague persists, in part, because those who have the most power in the present continue to obscure women’s leadership in history to diminish vison for the future. Misrepresenting women in history furthers the marginalization and abuse of girls and women by suggesting females are inferior, granting permission to treat them as lesser. The path forward for us as egalitarians must include a continual attention to the women and men who have promoted women’s biblical equality for centuries!
Biblical & Theological Scholarship
The historical reclamation in egalitarian activism includes vigorously recovering the original meaning of biblical words, like ezer as “strong rescue” (Gen. 2:18), kephale as “source” (1 Cor 11: 3, Eph. 5:23, Col. 1:18), and authentein as “to domineer” (1 Tim. 2:12). Additionally, egalitarians have also examined how biblical themes like leadership as service and the Trinity reflect the mutuality between men and women. In contrast, complementarians have interpreted biblical words and themes to reinforce male authority. For example, Bruce Ware advances male authority based on God the Father’s presumed authority over God the Son. As we continue to engage the scholarship of our egalitarian predecessors, we remain in rigorous, loving conversation with complementarians, that we might flourish through God’s exhortation to “Come now, let us reason together.”
Social scientists research the impact of culture on masculinity and femininity. Without apology, egalitarians relentlessly attend to the link between male-dominance and abuse. Prior to 1994, data on domestic violence was scant at best. Thanks to second-wave feminists and post-1970s egalitarian activism, violence against women dropped 48.2 percent from 1993–2010. Since 1994, CBE has consistently addressed abuse and gender-based violence at events, in research, and in publications beside its partners and NGO projects. Our latest book, Created to Thrive, continues to explore the connection between deeply held views about women’s worth and their devaluation.
Like pro-slavery Christians who believed the abuses of slavery were justified by their faith, complementarians wish to support male-headship while side-stepping the consequences of abuse. In contrast, egalitarians opposed slavery and Christian patriarchy from the beginning because it offends Scripture’s emphasis of love, empathy, and service. As Richard Hays wrote, Scripture calls those with
power and privilege to surrender it for the sake of the weak… it is husbands (not wives) who are called to emulate Christ’s example of giving themselves up in obedience for the sake of the other (Eph. 5:25)…[interpreting this] as though it somehow warranted a husband’s domination or physical abuse of his wives can only be regarded as a bizarre—indeed, blasphemous—misreading... the followers of Jesus—men and women alike—must read the New Testament as a call to renounce violence and coercion.
Complementarians critique post-1970s egalitarian concern for women’s “rights” and “equality” as a departure from early egalitarians whose aim was service to others. Indeed, post-1970s egalitarians addressed political and legal rights as a means of serving others, particularly women who were abused physically and economically. In this way, they were aligned with the first-wave feminists who advanced abolition, suffrage, and laws against rape and trafficking.
Egalitarian activism, from the early evangelicals to today, recovers women’s leadership at every moment in history. We also challenge the abuse of Scripture as has been used to demean women, devalue and marginalize their dignity and gifts, and provide license for abuse. In honoring our egalitarian legacy, we remember our leaders and celebrate “the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith,” (Heb. 13:7). Their faithful biblical and social activism inspires and informs our activism in powerful ways each day.
This article is from “The State of Women’s Equality,” the Winter 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.
1. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Secker & Warburg, 1949), 309.
2. Bruce Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles and, Relevance (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005).
3. Isaiah 1:18.
4. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Gender and Grace: Love, Work and Parenting in a Changing World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990) and Elaine Storkey, Origins of Difference: The Gender Debate Revisited (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001).
5. Catherine Clark Kroeger and James R. Beck, Women, Abuse, and the Bible: How Scripture Can Be Used to Hurt Or to Heal (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996).
6. Shannan Catalano, “Special Report: Intimate Partner Violence, 1993–2010,” US Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, last modified September 29, 2015. Accessed Feb 1, 2019.
7. Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 197.