Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part I: Setting the Stage (The Historical Back Drop)
Chapter 3 – Contemporary Evangelicals for Gender Equality. By Ronald W. Pierce.
Dr. Pierce walks us through a brief history of the egalitarian movement of the last three decades. He notes that changes in the culture in the 1960s, and the evangelical reengagement of culture in the 1970s, once again raised the question of women in the life of church and society. Pierce points to The Place of Women in the Church (1958) by Charles Ryrie as symbolic of the virtual equation of the Victorian stereotype of women with “the biblical view.”
Dr. Pierce points to books authored by Letha Scanzoni, Nancy Hardesty and Paul Jewett, published 1974-1975, as some of the first efforts by modern egalitarian scholars to reopen the issue. Some of these books (like Jewett's) were outside the mainstream of evangelical scholarship. More articles and books began to be published within the mainstream of evangelicalism but as Pierce points out, “Throughout the 1970s 'biblical feminism' was regarded as an oxymoron by most evangelicals, as well as by liberal and secular feminists.” (60)
Dr. Pierce characterizes the period 1980-1986 as a time of increasing dialog. In academic circles egaliterian thinking made great advances but there was a cultural backlash against secular feminists that took its toll on evangelical egalitarians by the end of the decade. By 1986 J. I. Packer wrote that “…the burden of proof regarding the exclusion of women from the office of teaching and ruling within the congregation now lies on those who maintain the exclusion rather than on those who challenge it.” (62)
Pierce describes the period 1986-1989 as a time of formalizing the division between traditionalists and egalitarians. He describes the “Men and Women in Biblical and Theological Perspective” conference in Atlanta, sponsored by the Evangelical Theological Society, as a turning point because both sides came face to face with how difficult it would be to persuade the other of their position. Pierce believes that traditionalist came to realize the truth of Packer’s observation and they were on the defensive. The year 1987 witnessed the founding of both Christians for Biblical Equality and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
Since that time Pierce notes that the debate has moved out of the academy and into the wider church. He notes the emergence of the (in my opinion peculiar) “equal in being but unequal in function” perspective advocated by the traditionalist. He also notes the growing trend among traditionalists, who came to prefer the moniker “complimentarians,” to become more strident about hierarchy while behaving increasingly like egalitarians. Meanwhile, as gender issues relating to homosexuality came to the fore in culture, egalitarians began to make explicit why the exegesis and hermeneutics that led them to an egalitarian position does not lead to an endorsement of homosexual relationships.
Dr. Pierce closes his chapter with the following paragraphs which also makes a good conclusion to Part 1 of the essays:
The following observations are warranted by a representative survey of evangelical egalitarian literature over the past thirty years. First, a theology of gender equality has been recovered from its nineteenth-century roots. Though undoubtedly influenced by the modern feminist movement, it was not the result of it; rather the secular served as a catalyst to awaken the sacred.
Second, the struggles within evangelicalism in the 1980s had the long-term effect of strengthening the resolve of biblical egalitarians, forcing them to move to a greater level of maturity as the result of vigorous self-defense.
Third, although the initial backlash of the late 1980s is past, the resultant polarity of the two sides presents an ongoing challenge for evangelicals. The need to get beyond this impasse in order to demonstrate unity with diversity in the body of Christ is greater than ever. Thus another matter of unfinished business is resuming dialogue with a spirit of reconciliation.
Fourth, the rise of the biblical equality movement has effected a change of practice, if not of mind, for many traditionalists. Not only have scores changed to and egalitarian position, but many others have modified their traditionalism into a position that ends up being virtually egalitarian in practice. The result is that things seem to be generally better for evangelical women in marriage and ministry at the beginning of the twenty-first century, even in many so-called complemetarian circles.
Fifth, a high view of Scripture has been an explicit part of evangelical egalitarian theology from the beginning. Despite some accusations to the contrary, these conservatives have not dismissed the teaching of the Bible as “merely cultural” nor have they developed a special hermeneutic to get around it, nor have they simply refused to submit to its authority. The evidence for this can be found in the chapters that follow in this volume. (74-75)
Ronald W. Pierce received his M.Div and Th.M from Talbot School of Theology and PhD. from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is professor of biblical studies and theology in the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, as well as an ordained minister with the Evangelical Free Church of America. His publications include OT Interactive (a computer learning program for Old Testament survey classes) as well as several articles in the JETS, TrinJ and BBR. He also serves on the steering committee and occasionally cochairs Evangelicals and Gender Study Group at ETS. Ron and his wife, Pat, have directed Biola’s travel-study program to the Holy Land for fifteen years. They currently reside in Fullerton, California, and have two children.
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