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Seven Egalitarian Leaders Reflect on the Movement’s Past, Present, and Future

by Jonathan Tysick | December 10, 2021

CBE's flagship document, "Men, Women, and Biblical Equality," presents the biblical rationale for gender equality and its practical applications in the family and church community. Since its publication in 1989, the statement has been translated into more than thirty languages. I spoke with two of the original framers and five of the original signatories about the egalitarian movement’s recent past, present, and future.

Meet the Interviewees

Original Framers of the 1989 Statement “Men, Women, and Biblical Equality”

Stanley Gundry is Senior Vice President and Editor in Chief at Zondervan. He has written seven books and numerous articles for a wide variety of publications. He served as the series editor for the Zondervan “Counterpoints” series.

Jo Anne Lyon is general superintendent emerita and ambassador of The Wesleyan Church. She is the founder and CEO of World Hope International, a faith-based relief and development organization. She has written for many publications as well as authoring the book The Ultimate Blessing: Rediscovering the Power of God’s Presence.

Original Signatories of the 1989 Statement “Men, Women, and Biblical Equality”

Ron Sider is founder and president emeritus of Christians for Social Action and professor emeritus at Palmer Theological Seminary. He wrote Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and blogs regularly at ronsiderblog.substack.com.

Klyne Snodgrass is professor emeritus of New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary. His published books include Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide To the Parables of Jesus, The Parable of the Wicked Tenants, Between Two Truths: Living with Biblical Tensions, Who God Says You Are, and the NIV Application Commentary volume on Ephesians.

Howard Snyder is a former historical theology professor at Asbury Seminary and Tyndale Seminary. He is currently the Visiting Director of the Manchester Wesley Research Centre in England. His published books include Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace, The Problem with Wineskins, and Liberating the Church.

Aida Besançon Spencer is a senior professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She has written or co-written eighteen books, including most recently Commentary on James and Christian Egalitarian Leadership: Empowering the Whole Church According to the Scriptures.

Ruth Tucker is a former missiology and church history professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Calvin Theological Seminary. She has written twenty-one books, the most recent of which are Extraordinary Women of Church History and Fired at 57: My Fight for Justice in Christian Academia.

1. What factors led to drafting the "Men, Women, and Biblical Equality" document of 1989?

Jo Anne Lyon: Ron Sider brought together evangelical leaders in 1973 when The Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern was written.1 Then the next year Sider brought together more people, saying, “We said all this, but what are we going to do about it?” Several organizations started out of that, the Evangelical Women’s Caucus being one promoting biblical equality.

Then a few years later the Danvers Statement was written.2 I'm telling you, almost the next day Catherine Kroeger called me and said, “I’m calling some people together, we’re going to get together in Gretchen’s [Gaebelein Hull] apartment in NYC and we’re going to write a statement and put it in Christianity Today. The Danvers Statement cannot be the statement for evangelicals.”

Stanley Gundry: So early on, leading voices in CBE began discussing the need to draft a statement that would express the basis for our convictions about gender equality. Catherine Kroeger, Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, and I began planning for that, and eventually we and the other drafters of what came to be known as “Men, Women, and Biblical Equality” met in the Hulls’ apartment in New York City.

Our hope was that such a statement would not only express the basic convictions of CBE, but that it would be a document that many churches and Christian leaders and organizations could rally around as expressing the biblical basis of their convictions. And even more important, that it would serve as a guide for individuals and churches who were searching for a better understanding of what the Bible has to say on these issues.

2. Have you seen your hopes for the egalitarian movement realized since 1989? What changes have you observed in your church context?

Lyon: I had hoped that things would change immediately like a stick of dynamite. It has been slow, but there has been change. I want to give Mimi Haddad all kinds of credit. She has stayed with it and kept the message. I’m seeing change, particularly with this generation of leadership coming up.

For example, in the Evangelical Theological Society, when CBE first asked for a table at the conference, they were put way in the back; the society didn’t even want them there. Now things have moved so far that a [recent] president of ETS, Craig Keener, is egalitarian. So to me, that’s the solid change you want. If we had given up and said, “We’re never going to make it; things are terrible,” it wouldn’t have happened.

I’m also learning that once something is said in one decade, doesn’t mean it is going to be said forever. It has to be repeated, repeated, and repeated. That’s what I’m seeing in some of the recent books from Kristen Du Mez, Beth Allison Barr, and others, as well as the continued strong voice of CBE. I’m very encouraged.

Gundry: When I entered publishing in 1980, I often felt that I was a lone voice on these issues. But now, it is not at all unusual for me to discover pastors, biblical scholars, and theologians who would be in basic agreement with MWBE.

I also find another promising development in evangelical circles—what I refer to as “soft complementarians, complementarians that give lip service to the name, but in terms of how they actually live their lives and minister they are in most respects indistinguishable from egalitarians. I believe they have moved closer and closer to biblical egalitarians through the influence of CBE, MWBE, and the important support from recent biblical scholarship, especially on the biblical concept of headship.

Ron Sider: I think broadly in the church we’ve made a lot of progress in the last thirty-two years. In my local congregation, the Oxford Circle Mennonite Church, my senior pastor now, Lynn Parks, was the first woman in the Lancaster Mennonite Conference to be officially ordained. The Lancaster Mennonite Conference also now has a black female bishop.

I also think there’s been amazing developments with the MeToo movement. There has been an atrocious amount of male sin and disobedience to God, both in the secular and the religious world. The fact that it is finally being talked about and reported on is enormous progress. We haven’t arrived, but we’ve made a lot of progress, and I think CBE has been a part of that movement.

Howard Snyder: In the Free Methodist Church and some other denominations (e.g., Church of the Nazarene), there has been significant progress. The FMC now has its first female bishop, Linda Adams. That could be mere tokenism, except for the fact that we now also have an increasing number of women leading together with men at every level of the denomination (including college presidents).

Generally, acceptance at the congregational level is increasing. Yet my daughter-in-law and my son are co-pastors in the Denver area, and a man recently phoned her and harshly accused her of being unbiblical and un-Christian for being a pastor. He read her a litany of biblical texts.

Still, progress is being made, especially among younger generations. There is historical evidence that renewal movements in the church tend generally to be more open to all the gifts of the Spirit than do more established churches, and that they are therefore more open to women in leadership.3

Ruth Tucker: I never was as hopeful as some people were about changing centuries-old beliefs that men should be in control. But both positive and negative changes have occurred. There’s been a significant focus on domestic violence and sex abuse among professing Christians, while at the same time those who oppose equality seek to play it down and push back, as I discovered after [my book] Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife was released in 2016.

3. What advice do you have for the next generation of Christians who believe that “both men and women are divinely gifted and empowered to minister to the whole Body of Christ, under His authority”?

Gundry: Stay focused on the essential issues of biblical equality and do not get sidetracked on other issues, whether related or unrelated, that are not at the core of this biblical teaching. Foster friendships with those who believe you are wrong—remember, they are your brothers and sisters in Christ.

In my experience, arguments and debates about the issues go nowhere—they end in a deadlock. For most people, it’s more than a question of theology and biblical interpretation. It’s an emotional issue that involves their self-image and their perceptions of their roles in marriage, the church, and the world. What I’ve found can work in penetrating their thinking and emotional barriers is simply to tell them a story, my story of how over time I moved from being a defensive patriarchist to a biblical egalitarian. It’s hard to dismiss another person’s pilgrimage story.4

Lyon: I recently told a young person in ministry that one of the things that hinders egalitarianism from being fully embraced is the concept of headship. People have had training in headship that is very hierarchical, and then [it is very difficult] to talk about egalitarianism. Understanding biblical headship—mutuality—from Scripture is the only way that egalitarianism will work. We have to go back to that.

Aida Besançon Spencer: Some men and women think the battle has been completed by us pioneers. But that is not at all true. On the one hand, we need to be bold but gracious as we keep educating the church about equality between men and women and equal opportunity. On the other hand, we should not give up on promoting a reliable and authoritative Bible as our basis.

A new difficulty that I have discovered is female students who choose to take two-year masters programs on the Bible while not taking the master of divinity because they do not plan to pastor. But then they also want to serve in the church. In effect, what they do is not prepare themselves for any place that the Lord might lead them, since many denominations ordain people to ministries that may not be the traditional “pastor” but rather chaplaincies or Christian counseling for a church or teaching in a seminary setting. By not taking the MDiv, they do not take the practical courses or the biblical languages that will help them elucidate the Bible in a practical manner.

Or some say that although they believe in women’s leadership, since they do not plan to be ordained, they can attend and support a hierarchical church. But then indirectly they are supporting a church that will not recognize and affirm and encourage women leading in the ways God has gifted them.

I would encourage men and women to be consistent between theory and practice.

4. Many young Christians in the West take gender equality for granted and so are less concerned with basing their thinking on biblical interpretation. In contrast to this, the MWBE statement emphasizes what the Bible teaches. How important is it for our belief in gender equality to be biblical?

Gundry: You are right in noting the emphasis in the MWBE statement on what the Bible teaches. We were very intentional about that because evangelical (I use that term in its classic and global sense and not in its often-corrupted version with the political connotations in the current American scene) Christians have historically been identified as those who aspire to view the Bible as the inspired Word of God and the final authority in matters of Christian faith and practice. We have no right to claim to be evangelical Christians if we do not aspire to base all of faith and practice on the Bible, and that includes the matter of gender equality. Patriarchists in general and the Danvers Statement in particular accuse biblical egalitarians of bending to cultural pressures and feminist distortions, of engaging in hermeneutical oddities, of accommodating the spirit of the age, etc. It was important for us to demonstrate in MWBE that this simply was not true.

I consider it equally important today that young Christians understand that all Christian faith and practice (not just biblical equality) is to be based on the Bible and that “bending to cultural pressures” or “accommodating the spirit of the age” is never the correct norm for Christian faith and practice.

Klyne Snodgrass: People may say they take equality for granted, but they usually do not practice it. If the church is not going to be biblically based, it will neither be true to the gospel nor endure very long. Attitudes are often shaped by the social engineering of the media, as is the case with acceptance of homosexual practice. If we are actually to be Christian, it will be because we develop the hermeneutical sensitivity to know how to implement the Christian faith in our lives. The church has failed often in its attempts to teach the biblical material. Much more and better attention needs to be given to teaching.

Spencer: It is absolutely crucial for our belief in gender equality to be based on the contextual study of the Bible.

That is what makes CBE unique and God-honoring. Without the Bible as our reliable basis, CBE will change in ways that do not honor God’s commands. And without God’s affirmations, where will we be? Religious, but not followers of Christ.

Sometimes young egalitarians do not want to be divisive. Not speaking out is no way to stand for truth. To maintain that balance between being courageous to treat the Bible as reliable and authoritative and being courageous to treat women and African Americans, Latin Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans, etc. with respect and affirmation is not easy, but it is crucial.

Sider: Every generation has to think through issues and apply the biblical material. There’s a big difference between deciding that the Bible is wrong on certain points and we’re going to throw it out, versus struggling with what the Bible means because we are committed to biblical authority. The church all through the centuries has been committed to the Bible. I’m not calling for some new sort of thing, but a commitment to millennia of commitment to the Bible as being God’s special revelation that is authoritative.

Snyder: It is crucial that our view of full equality be Bible-based and hermeneutically sound. Otherwise, we risk being squeezed into the world’s mold—and the issue easily gets mixed up with gender-identity issues and debates about homosexuality. The Word of God is our supreme authority.

The Bible is coherent on this issue. Full equality of women biblically is based in creation, salvation, atonement, Pentecost, and in the final New Creation. All the familiar Scriptures used to oppose women in ministry have been fully dealt with over the years by Christian writers on this subject—not least by B.T. Roberts in his 1891 classic, Ordaining Women.

5. How should egalitarian Christians engage, dialogue, and fellowship with our complementarian brothers and sisters? How can we have gender equality conversations in a way that honors Jesus’s prayer that his church might be one (John 17:11)?

Gundry: The “us-vs-them” polarization of North American culture is one aspect that we should avoid as Christians, and it is especially hurtful when it characterizes our relationship with other Christians with whom we have sincere disagreements. I do not want to diminish the importance of having a biblical view of gender equality, but at the same time we need to disagree agreeably. Since the mid-1970s when I became an egalitarian, I have maintained friendships with those who take radically different positions than mine on gender issues. Sometimes I wonder if my fellow egalitarians suspect me of being disloyal to the cause for maintaining these relationships. But I believe it is possible to do this without compromising my convictions.

Lyon: I think CBE and Mimi Haddad have been such an example in this, such as with ETS. Instead of being mad, bad-mouthing ETS, and leaving, they keep lovingly being present and speaking.

We want to get into our own personal debates, but we forget that the Holy Spirit moves in people’s hearts. For example, I preached at a church out west one Sunday, and at lunch the pastor said, “You need to know that I don’t believe in women preaching.” I almost choked. He said, “I know you’re thinking I’m crazy because I let you preach from my pulpit, but I just want you to know that I don’t believe it.” I looked at my steak and thought, “I don’t want to sit here and not taste this wonderful steak while I try to persuade him.” His mind was made up, and he had every argument ready. I just recommended [Catherine Kroeger’s book] I Suffer Not a Woman and I told him it would answer all his questions. I told him to call me if it didn’t. And I enjoyed my steak! Well guess what? It did answer his questions. He called me and said, “I’ve never seen Scripture like that.” From then on, he literally became my biggest supporter in becoming the general superintendent of the denomination.

Snodgrass: While complementarians may not be comfortable in a church with a woman senior pastor, and while egalitarians may not be comfortable in a church that prohibits women in leadership, we are not enemies and can work together. “Women in ministry” is not the gospel, but attitudes toward women are a major implication of the gospel. If the church does not advocate for better treatment of and respect for women, it has failed its own gospel.

Spencer: Some “soft complementarians” are becoming dissatisfied with the more polarized members of their movement and are reaching out to include biblical egalitarians in their writings and conferences. Dr. Mimi Haddad has certainly reached out to complementarian thinkers in an irenic fashion in the ETS gender study group. The conversation may be a slow one, but mutual empathy is worth developing. We need to listen carefully to people’s fears and help allay them.

My husband Bill and I have tried to further the dialogue by co-authoring the book Marriage and the Crossroads with soft complementarians the Tracy’s, with responses from couples from different ethnic backgrounds. In our latest book, Christian Egalitarian Leadership, we try to show what egalitarianism looks like in many different areas from the basis of the Bible as our authority. Egalitarian leadership is not threatening; it is life-enhancing and moves God’s reign forward.\

6. While more congregations and denominations are endorsing women in pastoral and preaching roles, few women actually pastor and preach in evangelical churches. How can congregations and denominations encourage Spirit-gifted women to lead in all areas of ministry?

Gundry: In the past the excuse has been, “Where are the qualified women?” But year by year there is less validity to that excuse. I am not sure I have the answer to the problem for those women who are frozen out of preaching and senior pastoral roles, especially in churches that have a congregational church government that can decide on such matters even if they identify as egalitarian. Such congregations need to experience the unique perspective that a woman pastor can bring to preaching and pastoral ministry and leadership.

I am reminded of two things I have heard [my wife] Patricia say, “So what if I am the token woman on the platform? The token still gets me on the bus, and that is a start.” The other thing I have heard Pat say is that women think they have to get approval from the powers that be, usually men. Just go around them and start churches in unchurched areas, starting with a woman pastor and a core of believers committed to having a local church where women and men who have the gifts and calling to lead and teach are well-represented from the very beginning in the ministries of the church, on the pastoral staff, and on the boards—whether they be called elders, deacons, trustees, or just staff.

Lyon: Something that doesn’t get talked about much: many women in churches do not want a female pastor. Why is that? Part of it is that women have gained a certain degree of power in the church, and they feel that if a woman pastor comes into the church, it will take away their power. Women have been socialized that they need to compete with each other for the attention of men.

And then we get caught in the men and women together issue. A man might say, “She’s the senior pastor, so how is she going to meet me for lunch?” I say, “That’s alright!” We have to get beyond the suspicion that we are sexualizing each other.

Snodgrass: The easy answer is to say, “Get out of the way.” Women need to be trained, encouraged, and given opportunity in accordance with their gifts, just as men should be. We need to make sure that for both genders the issue is not about ego enhancement. Women are ministering in many ways, often one-on-one or in small groups. They need to be given opportunity. There is more going on with leaders and their relations to congregations and individuals than most people will admit.

Tucker: I think there is a major problem with so-called egalitarians. Among leaders and lay people in churches and schools of higher learning, white male privilege goes unrecognized. As is true of racism, sexism is routinely denied. Egalitarians must look inward and see the plank in their own eye. I discovered this the hard way as the first full-time female faculty member in the 125-year history of Calvin Theological Seminary. Systemic sexism, like racism, is deeply embedded in all of our institutions—Christian and secular.

Spencer: We should follow general suggestions for change: work with the undecided middle (rather than the extreme opposite); women need to work with men to speak up at key times—e.g., suggest female preachers for church vacation times and for leadership positions; and arrange the work schedule so it affirms the family.

Also, women need to support female leaders (preachers and teachers). Attend their sermons and classes. Speak to others with positive acclamations of local female leaders. Don’t be jealous.

Many women (and sometimes men) do not want to stand out, or they want to walk the middle way, but I think that you are either fully supportive of women and men being equal or you are not. If you are partially supportive, you may end up doing nothing to move transformation forward, and, in the end, the default position will leave women out of leadership.

Sider: I don’t have any magic answer to that. I think Jo Anne Lyon is a model that we should look at carefully. She’s a fabulous person. It’s also true that several evangelical colleges have had highly successful women presidents, such as at Messiah College and Houghton College. That represents real progress. It is disappointing that there are so few female pastors, but I suspect that we’ve made a lot of progress since 1989. So one laments how little progress has been made while also giving thanks that we’re moving in the right direction.

Snyder: I think the answer here is multi-pronged. There are deep cultural and political forces at work, especially in the US, but the underlying issue is theological, missiological, ecclesiological. That is to say, spiritual.

If I were pastoring again, I would address the issue in these ways:

First, I would familiarize myself with Scripture and available writing and research on this issue (perhaps beginning with William Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuality). I would study the Bible inductively on this issue, if I hadn’t already.

Second, I would weave the affirmation of the full equality of women into all my pastoral work, including teaching and preaching and in practice. I would use examples of women in the Bible and in church history as much as possible (as well as men). This would include the teaching of Christian missions through history, where there are thousands of inspiring examples of women in leadership.

Third, I would develop team leadership rather than a sole-pastor model, and would include women on the team to the degree that would be acceptable in the congregation.

Fourth, I would teach on gifts of the Spirit, showing that nowhere does the Bible teach or even hint that any of the gifts are intended for men only. Teaching on spiritual gifts would include a process to help women identify and begin to practice their gifts.

Fifth, as women develop leadership gifts, I would provide them with opportunities for further learning. I would try to get emerging women leaders involved with networks (soundly biblical ones) which help them continue to develop and learn from peers and exemplars.


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This article is from “The State of Women’s Equality,” the Winter 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.

Notes

1. The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Concern, signed by forty leaders, confessed how evangelical Christianity had historically failed to confront injustice, racism, and female discrimination—and pledged to do better. “CSA History,” Christians for Social Action, accessed 26 October 2021.
2. “The Danvers Statement summarizes the need for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) and serves as an overview of our core beliefs. This statement was prepared by several evangelical leaders at a CBMW meeting in Danvers, Massachusetts, in December of 1987. It was first published in final form by the CBMW in Wheaton, Illinois in November of 1988.” From “The Danvers Statement,” The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, accessed 26 October 2021.
3. Howard Snyder, Signs of the Spirit: How God Reshapes the Church (Zondervan, 1989).
4. For Stanley Gundry's story, see "From Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers to Woman Be Free: My Story," Priscilla Papers 19, no. 2 (2005): 19–24.