Review of “Discovering Biblical Equality”

Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy
General editors Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis
Contributing editor Gordon D. Fee (InterVarsity Press, 2005)
Book Review by Jeanette Fogarty (BBus, BTh, Student MTh, CBE Sydney executive member)

Discovering Biblical Equality is a compilation of essays by twenty-six evangelical scholars. The central thesis of the book is gender equality in the church, home and society.  The catalyst for such a book is the conviction of Pierce and Groothuis that ‘both the world and the church urgently need to hear and take to heart the message of biblical equality, because it is at once true, logical, biblical and beneficial’ (Groothuis and Pierce 2005, p.13).  Rather than the ‘equal but different’ notion espoused by ‘complementarians’ (who contend that God ordains different roles to men and women, roles that are ordered by the hierarchy of male headship), this book takes an egalitarian approach, arguing for complementarity without hierarchy. Read this review here.

Written from hermeneutical, theological, historical, ecclesiological, cultural, psychological, and practical perspectives, the book is both polemical and irenical. Individually, the essays cover a wide gamut of issues, including marriage, women in church ministry and mission, and women in society.  Grouped according to five sub-themes – Setting the Stage (The Historical Backdrop); Looking to Scripture (The Biblical Texts); Thinking it Through (Logical and Theological Perspectives); Addressing the Issues (Hermeneutical and Cultural Perspectives); and Living It Out (Practical Applications) – the reader is moved through the essays in a way that provokes a reasoned and faithful response.

In ‘Setting the Stage’ the changing roles of women in ministry from the early church through to the twentieth century, and the activity of contemporary evangelicals advocating biblical equality, are presented as a backdrop to the current gender debate.

In ‘Looking to Scripture’, the second grouping of essays examine the authorial and divine intent of the ‘difficult’ passages of Scripture (Gen 3:16-17, 1 Tim 2:11-15; Eph 5:21-33, Col 3:18-19, 1 Cor 11:2-16, 1 Cor 14:34-35, 1 Pet 3:1-7) and their practical application today.  For instance, in ‘Teaching and Usurping Authority’ Linda Belleville explains that the traditional translation of authentein as ‘authority’ in 1 Tim 2:12 (‘I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man’) is better translated as ‘dominance,’ contending that Paul’s intention was to prohibit ‘teaching that tries to get the upper hand – not teaching per se’ (Belleville 2005, p. 223).  Belleville’s exegetical work draws from her analysis of other Greek words more commonly used to convey authority in Scripture, first century writings, the work of lexicographers, grammatical appropriateness, the cultural milieu, and the particular situation being addressed to the church in Ephesus (pp. 205-223).

The third section, ‘Thinking It Through’, applies logical and theological ramifications to the various arguments used to promulgate a patriarchal view of Scripture.  Included are topics such as Spirit giftedness for ministry (Fee 2005, pp. 241-254); the biblical notion of priesthood (Grenz 2005, pp. 272-286) and women’s subordination (Groothuis 2005, pp. 301-333; Giles 2005, pp. 334-354).  Of particular note is the current controversy concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, wherein some evangelicals advocate the subordination of women based on a doctrine of eternal subordination of Christ to the Father. Giles, citing various church fathers, creeds of the Church, and prominent contemporary theologians, explicates his case that such a view of the nature of Christ is contrary to historic orthodoxy (Giles 2005, pp. 334-354).

The next section, ‘Addressing the Issues’ shows how methods used in interpreting Scripture impacts upon our understanding and application of Scripture.  I particularly applaud William Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic (Webb 2005, pp. 382-400).   With the aid of a couple of simple diagrams and examples such as slavery, marriage and divorce laws, Webb shows that when a redemptive dimension is brought to the text, the exegete not only uncovers what the text meant at the time it was written, for the audience it was written, but how it moves all cultures toward an ‘ultimate’ ethic.  In his ‘ladder of abstraction’ (p. 399) he discusses pragmatic factors within the text as distinct from underlying principles, which tend to be more abstract and transcultural.  Other essays included in this section of the book include the ‘hot topics’ of ‘Gender Equality and Homosexuality’ (Webb 2005, pp. 401-413) and ‘Feminism and Abortion’ (Mason and Mason 2005, pp. 414-430).  These essays put to rest the false notion that acceptance of gender equality opens up the gate for the acceptance of homosexuality and abortion.

Finally, in ‘Living It Out’, insights and practical applications of gender equality are given in relation to women’s self-esteem; marriage as a partnership; nature, culture and gender complementarity; helping the church understand biblical equality; and how both sides of the debate can get along and move towards some form of reconciliation.  The irenical note of the book is particularly born out by the concluding essay ‘Toward Reconciliation: Healing the Schism’ (Mathews 2005, pp. 494-507). Alice Mathews offers three practical steps for both sides of the debate in the pursuit of biblical truth:

First, we must all continue to explore honestly the competing paradigms, using the tools of biblical theology, logic and courtesy…Second, we are obligated to explain the competing paradigms at many levels…Third, while the first two steps are being carried out, we must acknowledge the chasm between the paradigms and embrace as fellows believers those on the other side of the chasm (pp. 501-504) 

This book is a step towards such open discussion.  The depth and breadth of essays contained in this one-volume book make it a valuable resource, not only for scholars and ministers, but also for lay people.  It is a book that can be passed around to encourage and inform men and women of God.

© 2012 Jeanette Fogarty

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