The roles played by men and women in our culture have been radically altered over the past fifty years. Those same roles are also being significantly challenged in the church, and in Christian families, by those who call themselves egalitarians.
Many egalitarians seek to be faithful to the Bible, but their approach to it seems to require a fundamentally different way of looking at scripture than that of historic Christianity.
Although this issue may not be at the heart of Christianity, the way we interpret the Bible is, and the manner in which we look at male and female roles profoundly affects how we look at other Biblical issues.
Pastor Tom Hilpert, a former egalitarian, takes a close look at the issue of male and female roles in the Bible, sharing more than fifteen years’ worth of research, study and practical experience on the subject. With careful, clear biblical interpretation, In His Image guides readers through the relevant scriptures, and the many important additional issues related to the subject. Egalitarian arguments are carefully considered and answered, and a number of practical applications are offered.
If you are interested in male-female roles, or even simply Bible interpretation, you will find that In His Image provides insight that is both thought provoking and clear.
“Hilpert’s frame of reference is the Bible. What the Bible teaches, he presents as authoritative. He demonstrates clearly how the Bible’s basic references to gender are rooted not in some ancient culture, but in spiritual truth that transcends culture.”
- Larry Christensen, author of The Christian Family
Tom Hilpert is a graduate of the Lutheran Bible Institute, Oregon State University and American Lutheran Theological Seminary, in each case, summa cum laude. He has been studying and teaching the Bible for more than twenty years.
Chapter One - The Middle
Perhaps I had better start in the middle, with how this looks in real-life ministry situations.
I believe whole-heartedly that women, as well as men, are called by the Lord to many and various vital roles in ministry for the kingdom of God.
I have been a church planter, and pastor, for twenty years. I have been married for all of those twenty years plus several more. For twenty-one years, I have been raising daughters (I have three, and also a son).
In every church that I have led, women have played vital, indispensable roles. A year ago, our present congregation was at a crossroads. We had an open, family-style church meeting, where we all talked about what we felt the Lord wanted us to do. Women spoke up about twice as often as men. Some of them offered tremendous insight and wisdom. As a congregation, we paid attention to that wisdom, and it affected our decisions. Afterwards we prayed. Many of the women were vocal in public prayer – more so than the men.
About two weeks before I wrote this portion of the book, one of the women in our congregation, along with her husband, was visiting with my wife and me. She shared with us what she felt was a prophetic word for our church. I am inclined to agree with her that it was a message from the Lord. We received it as from Him, with no reservations about the messenger or her gender. This has happened many times in my ministry, with the Lord speaking through both men and women.
Every church I’ve served has had women deaconesses who looked after the financial and administrative matters of the church. Sometimes both men and women have served in this capacity, sometimes women alone, but never only men.
I have been blessed countless times when women laid hands on me and prayed for me. I have received many other spiritual and physical blessings through women.
I have raised my daughters to believe in their intrinsic value as God’s redeemed creations. I have encouraged them to get their self-esteem not from their relationships with men or boys (or any human beings), but rather from the Lord. I have encouraged them to learn and use their spiritual and natural gifts to serve the Lord. I will be happy for them if the Lord leads them to get married. I will be happy for them if He does not. Their happiness and fulfillment is not dependent on any human man.
My wife is a strong-minded, talented woman, beautiful both inside and out. In ministry, I rely on her more than on any other individual. I value her wisdom, judgment and ability to get things done. She is far more capable than me when it comes to empathizing and connecting with people, and knowing what they need.
Some churches have de-valued women and their ministries, simply because they are women. Some men have tried to use Bible verses to justify abusing women emotionally, and even physically. These are awful tragedies, and I deplore them.
I’ll say it again: I believe whole-heartedly that women, as well as men, are called by the Lord to many and various vital roles in ministry for the kingdom of God. As a pastor, I have always encouraged both women and men to get involved in ministry.
I also believe that femininity is beautiful, in part, because it is different than masculinity. I believe masculinity is attractive because it is distinct from femininity. I have been blessed by God through both femininity and masculinity. To put it another way, I believe that God created men and women different from each other, and the essence of that difference is important to God. It should be important to us as well. In fact, the Bible teaches that gender differences affect how women and men should relate to each other in marriage, family and the church. Our differences are supposed to be a reflection of the glory and beauty and joy of God. We are supposed to honor them in a way that shows the world the image of God.
Unfortunately, while many people would whole-heartedly approve of almost everything I have written so far, there are many who would become uncomfortable reading the last paragraph before this one. In fact, over the past few decades, the ideas presented in that paragraph have become controversial. Many Christians today claim that the Bible does not teach that gender affects how we are to relate in the church and in the family. Christians who feel this way used to call themselves “evangelical feminists.” Today, they prefer the term “egalitarians.” I use the terms interchangeably. An egalitarian would say that there is no role unique to men or women in marriage, or in the leadership and teaching of the church. An egalitarian may allow that God has a purpose for gender, but that purpose cannot affect the roles that men and women have.
The vast majority of my friends and ministry-colleagues are egalitarians. I belong to two ministry networks, both of which take the egalitarian position. I have recently begun church-planting talks with a third denomination that is committed to evangelical feminism. I have worked with female pastors on a number of occasions. Some of the people whom I count as friends are ordained female pastors.
I share this so that you understand I am not writing from a place of fear of the unknown, or of change. I am not writing from a place of prejudice, viewing egalitarians as “those people.” “Those people” are my people. I grew up with egalitarians. I went to college with them. I have worked alongside them for twenty years. I was raised on the mission field by parents who were (for all of my childhood) egalitarians. Until I began to seriously study this issue in the Bible, I was an egalitarian myself.
My own position about this issue has changed, however. Therefore, before I offend too many of my egalitarian friends and colleagues, let me make a few things clear. I will be making some very strong arguments against egalitarianism in the following pages. Even so, I have tremendous love for my egalitarian friends, and I sympathize with many of their reasons for holding the position that they hold.
In addition, though I believe the Bible is infallible, I do not think that my own interpretation of it is without error. In other words, I freely admit that I could be wrong in my understanding of what the Bible teaches about this.
However, if I am wrong, it is not because I have failed to be truly open to the alternatives; if I had any prejudice to begin with, it was in favor of feminism. If I am wrong, it is not because I have failed to diligently study what the Bible says about gender, nor have I failed to study and understand what egalitarians say, and how they interpret the scriptures. If I am wrong, it is not for lack of wrestling in prayer and crying out to the Holy Spirit to speak to me about this subject. In fact, I have prayed numerous times, over a period of years, “Lord, change my heart and my mind! Show me how I can return to being an egalitarian!” Instead, He has shown me what I share with you in this book.
In short, I have no chip on my shoulder, and I wish no one any ill. To all women who are serving as senior pastors, I say, I don’t have a problem with you. My “problem” is that my conscience is convinced that the word of God does not support modern egalitarianism. I fully acknowledge that I could be wrong. But I must also say that at this point, my conscience is convinced, and I agree with the apostle Paul and Martin Luther that it is a dangerous thing to violate one’s own conscience (Romans 14:2-12). If I am wrong it is with sincere motives, a great effort to find the truth, and a desire to hurt no one, and I hope my readers will attribute those things to me in all that follows.
As I mentioned, I was raised as an evangelical feminist, and only began to change my views after seriously studying what the Bible has to say about it. On the other hand, many of my friends and colleagues seem to have become egalitarian by a kind of osmosis. Like me, they have worked with others who take the egalitarian position. We have all felt peer pressure to conform. Several of my female friends who are now ordained pastors originally went to seminary without intending to seek ordination or pastoral ministry. Once there, they were strongly encouraged, even pressured, to study for an M.Div. and pursue ordained ministry.
Many of us working in egalitarian contexts have seriously considered the possibility that we should conform “for the sake of mission.” When a male pastor finds himself on a committee or task-force with a female pastor (as I often have) it seems rude to bring up the issue, especially if it has nothing to do with the purpose of the committee. It is much easier to just go along with things. I meet many pastors who are wonderful women of God. They are not heretics, nor are they strident. It seems boorish to bring up a fine point of biblical theology while we are in the midst of mission.
I was once invited to sit in on an informal meeting of the leadership team of one of my ministry networks. It was mostly a social meeting, but they spent almost two hours forcefully asserting egalitarianism, and bashing (in general) anyone who would disagree. Since a few of them knew that I am no longer an egalitarian, it was an extremely uncomfortable time for me. I did not participate in the conversation (I was only there by courtesy in the first place), but I felt tremendous pressure to conform my view to theirs. The pressure was not based upon sound biblical teaching – it was simply peer pressure, and I’m sorry to say, it wasn’t even subtle. I could have made the discomfort go away by just agreeing with them.
In fact, what often happens is that practice comes first, and theology is then conformed to fit the reality of working with female senior pastors, bishops or apostles. This is important, because it means that the change to egalitarianism starts not with the words of scripture, but instead with our cultural situation. Our theology of gender is determined not by the Bible, but by current cultural practices in the church, which we then seek to justify. In this way, a number of people seem to accept egalitarianism without ever seriously studying the Bible on the subject. In fact, we will learn later that at least one entire denomination became egalitarian without ever referring to the Bible, only retroactively trying to justify it by scripture. Many of my egalitarian friends and colleagues are in organizations and ministries which sprang originally from that very denomination.
I do have some egalitarian friends in another category. These did not conform to peer pressure, but rather have quite deliberately chosen to champion an egalitarian position. Most of these evangelical feminists were born in the 1960s or earlier. They can remember times when churches were oppressive toward women. They see egalitarianism as a just cause, almost a civil-rights issue. Even so, while they are deeply passionate about it, many of them have not seriously applied careful biblical scholarship to this issue. Even with them, it is a matter of taking the position first, and then seeking biblical justification, if at all, only after the issue is decided.
However, the more I study what the Bible says on this subject, and compare it with what egalitarians say, the more concerned I am about the evangelical feminist/egalitarian movement. In fact, I have become convinced that the egalitarian approach to the Bible represents a serious long-term danger to biblically-based Christianity.
Some of you may think that my last sentence is ridiculous and over-the-top. You may be an egalitarian yourself, and you have not suddenly become a heretic. Some of my friends might feel hurt that I could think this.
I want to be as honest and gracious as possible throughout this book. The fact is that none of my many egalitarian friends have yet become heretics. Knowing them as I do, I don’t expect that they ever will. My point is not personal in any way.
However, I do not think most of my friends and colleagues have realized what the egalitarian way of interpreting the Bible really means. In fact, perhaps in most cases, they have not even seriously considered the biblical issues involved in all of this.
Even so, ignorance about the issues does not change the fact that by embracing evangelical feminism, many have opened a door for their churches and organizations to much more than ordained female leaders. They may not have deliberately invited the consequences that will eventually follow, but those consequences will come, nonetheless. They already have, in many places. In most cases, the real damage will be done by the generation that follows those who first embrace egalitarianism. I realize how this sounds. I only ask that you carefully consider my arguments before you dismiss them.
The late Francis Schaeffer, one of the most powerful voices for Christianity in the twentieth century, spoke of “watershed issues.” He felt that on certain issues, the first generation of leaders may change just one small thing. But, on a watershed issue, that minor change will lead to tremendous consequences as future generations work out more fully the implications of that change.
It is my contention that the topic of male and female roles in the family and the church is a watershed issue. I am not concerned that women will tend to lead people astray more than men will. The very fact of having female pastors or elders may not change much. But the way you must approach and interpret the Bible to justify doing it changes everything.
I am not alone in thinking this. Shortly before he died, Schaeffer wrote
The world spirit in our day would have us aspire to autonomous absolute freedom in the area of male and female relationship – to throw off all form and boundaries in these relationships and especially those boundaries taught in the scriptures…
Some evangelical leaders, in fact, have changed their views about inerrancy as a direct consequence of trying to come to terms with feminism. There is no other word for this than accommodation. It is a direct and deliberate bending of the Bible to conform to the world spirit of our age at the point where the modern spirit conflicts with what the Bible teaches.
Mark Dever, an influential blogger at “Together for the Gospel” writes:
Dear reader, you may not agree with me on this. And I don’t desire to be right in my fears. But it seems to me and others (many who are younger than myself) that this issue of egalitarianism and complementarianism is increasingly acting as the watershed distinguishing those who will accommodate scripture to culture, and those who will attempt to shape culture by scripture. You may disagree, but this is our honest concern before God. It is no lack of charity, nor honesty. It is no desire for power or tradition for tradition’s sake. It is our sober conclusion from observing the last 50 years.
…Of course there are issues more central to the gospel than gender issues. However, there may be no way the authority of Scripture is being undermined more quickly or more thoroughly in our day than through the hermeneutics of egalitarian readings of the Bible. And when the authority of scripture is undermined, the gospel will not long be acknowledged.
- Ligon Duncan III, a senior-pastor and an adjunct professor, writes:
The fundamental issue of Biblical authority is at stake in the debate between complementarianism and egalitarianism – because if you can get egalitarianism from the Bible, you can get anything from the Bible.
My deep concern about where egalitarianism will eventually lead us is the reason for this book.
I have already explained the terms “egalitarian” and “evangelical feminism.” There are, of course, other approaches to gender in the Bible. For far too many years, many churches were oppressive toward women. Even today, in some churches, the ministry of women is restricted in unbiblical ways. There are places where women are not valued in the fullness of their equality; there are places where their gifts are not recognized, simply because they are women. I call this restrictive approach to gender roles: “traditionalism.”
In some traditionalist contexts, women have even suffered emotional and physical abuse. This is a terrible evil, and a terrible tragedy, and there is no justification for such things.
I believe traditionalism is just as wrong as egalitarianism. But there is an important difference between the two. Today, traditionalism is far less widespread than egalitarianism. More than three out of four Americans believe that women should be allowed to serve as ordained pastors. In most Western societies, egalitarianism is enforced by law in secular society. I think traditionalists are wrong, but I also think they have largely lost the argument already. If you don’t like your traditionalist church, it is no trouble at all to find a church in almost any neighborhood in America that practices egalitarianism. On the other hand, you might have to look a lot harder to find a church that represents traditionalism. Even where I currently live, in the rural Southeast USA, this is true.
Fuller Seminary, Intervarsity Press, Christianity Today, Baker Book House, Zondervan, The Presbyterian Church (USA), The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, The Assemblies of God (USA) and a host of smaller denominations, publishers and seminaries are all among those organizations which actively support and promote egalitarian ideas. Together, they represent a majority of Protestant Christians in the United States and Canada.
For this reason, as we evaluate the biblical texts, I will sometimes point out the arguments and errors of traditionalism in reference to specific Bible passages. You will notice, however, that more often I will consider the arguments and errors of egalitarianism. This is not because I am giving traditionalism a “pass.” I just think it is already on the way out.
Traditionalism obviously diminishes women and femininity, as well as men and masculinity. But the truth is, egalitarianism does exactly the same thing, through different means. Thankfully, the choice is not between heresy and bigotry. You don’t have to be a radical feminist if you disagree with traditionalists. You don’t have to be a Neanderthal if you disagree with egalitarians.
I believe there is a third way.
Some people have called it “complementarianism.” The reason for this word is the concept that men and women were created to complement each other. Complementarians affirm that men and women are equal. They also affirm that God, through the Bible, instructs men and women to take slightly different roles at times, because they are men and women. The reading I have done of complementarian authors leads me to believe that I could accurately be called a complementarian. I prefer a different term, however. Complementarianism, besides being awkward to write and pronounce, has sometimes been associated with traditionalism. In fact some traditionalists may call themselves complementarians, inaccurately, I believe. In so doing, traditionalists have distorted the idea of complementarianism. Also, many egalitarian writers seem to lump traditionalists into the same category as complementarians, often failing to note the significant differences. Thus again, what complementarians believe is distorted.
In addition, I believe the idea that men and women complement each other is only part of the overall biblical picture of gender. I believe the key concept comes from Genesis 1:27, where it shows us that God created both female and male, both distinct, but both in God’s image, for a purpose. Yes, we complement each other. But the purpose of that complementarianism is to reflect the beautiful image of God to the world. For this reason, I prefer the term: “imagism.”
It is my deeply-held hope that you are still reading this, even after finding out I am no longer egalitarian. I think that for years the church missed the boat, thanks to the abuses of traditionalism. Women were devalued, and even oppressed, in some places. But we have moved so quickly to the other end of the scale that I think we have again missed out on how our God wants to express His love and joy to the world through women and men. I hope to show that there is a grace-filled balance, a way for women to express themselves freely in the fullness of femininity, and for men to express themselves freely in the fullness of masculinity, and for men and women to weave a joyful dance together, a dance that shows the world the beautiful image of our God.
Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Westchester, IL: Crossway 1984), 134-135, 137.
Undermining the Tolerance of Egalitarianism,” posted May 31 2006 by Mark Dever at http://t4g.org/2006/05/undermining-tolerance-of-egalitarianism/ Accessed on February 11, 2013.
An excerpt of his endorsement of the book by Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006).
 “With four in five members female, Churches want to again reach Men,” in the Vancouver Sun, December 15, 2012. Author not credited. http://www.canada.com/story.html?id=4333b9da-b61b-487a-934a-21cf4e2262c7 Accessed September 13, 2013.
While I have observed that most complementarians are willing to show respect by calling egalitarians/evangelical feminists by their self-chosen terms, I have found that most egalitarian writings do not return the favor. Generally, egalitarians designate complementarians as “Patriarchalists” or, “Hierarchalists.” This is inaccurate, and makes the logical fallacy of “begging the question.” It is also disrespectful and only confuses honest seekers, sometimes leading them to believe what is not true. This practice does not reflect well upon egalitarians.
Chapter Two - The Dance
I intend to spend a great deal of this book examining specific Bible passages, but before I do, I want to set before you a vision of what biblical manhood and womanhood in harmony could look like. To do this, I want you to imagine gender-relationships as a dance.
As I write this, the 2014 Winter Olympics have just ended. Although my son watched some of the events with us, my wife and I mostly watched the Olympics with our two younger girls. We enjoyed the snowboarding, especially the snowboard cross events. But one of our favorite events was ice-dancing. Early on, the girls decided that with so many hours of coverage, and not very much time to watch, we should view mostly the couples’ ice-dancing. The girls were least interested in the men’s solo ice-dancing. The women’s solo event came second. But what they loved (and I had to agree was more interesting) was the couples’ dancing events.
There is something beautiful and breathtaking about watching the best ice-dancing athletes in the world. They weave in and out, split and separate, only to rejoin and twirl and dip and spin. They move in harmony with music that comes from outside themselves, music that we can hear. The music sets their rhythm and time, but beyond that, does not restrict how they choose to express themselves.
Male ice-dancers are strong, and they show it in the dance. They make moves that are graceful and refined and even delicate, but their strength shows unmistakably. They lift their partners, often holding them in positions that would strain a body-builder. Sometimes they even throw and catch their partners. Their masculinity shines in the dance.
Female ice dancers are beautiful. I don’t mean in physical appearance, though that may be true as well. But the moves of the dance show off their grace and beauty as they express themselves. The women are strong too – you have to be, to engage in that sort of sport. But their beauty shows unmistakably as they glide and twirl and raise their arms. Their femininity glows as the dance shows it off in all its strength and beauty.
Men and women are not mirror images of each other in the dance. The woman does not lift the man, or dip him, or catch him as he spins through the air. The man does these things for the woman. The man does not make all of the same moves as the woman. There are usually many points in the dance where the man’s main job is to highlight the beauty and grace of the woman as the focal point in a certain sequence. The dance is beautiful precisely because men and women are not the same, and do not do all of the same things. They do their moves together, but at many points what the woman does must be different from what the man does. Those differences make the dance beautiful.
Is it better to be the man or the woman in the ice dance? That is a silly question. It is better to have both, each doing their moves in harmony with each other.
What if the man wants to do some of the steps that were originally assigned to the woman? I’m no expert on ice-dance, but I imagine that some things are probably negotiable. Many moves might be interchangeable. But there are certain things that cannot change, things that will not switch between the man and the woman. The woman is never going to get to throw and catch the man, or hold him above her head with one hand. There may be other such distinctions, as well, that I am unaware of, required by the rules of the sport.
The overall purpose of the dance is always in mind, and that is to show off strength, beauty and harmony in time with the music.
I believe that when men and women relate to each other as God intends, it is a little bit like an ice-dance. The purpose is to show off the beauty of God as it shines through femininity and masculinity in harmony with each other and with God. Genesis 1:27 tells us that God created both male and female in His image. We will look at that verse in detail shortly, but for now, understand that there is a connection between masculine and feminine humanity together, and the image of God. God provides the music, the backdrop for showing the beauty and strength of His image through female and male human beings.
No doubt many of the “dance-moves” are negotiable, and might be done by either men or women. But there are certain things that are not done by both sexes. Only women have babies, and nurse them, for instance. There are a few other things also, as we shall see.
If women and men were the same, it would be like two men ice-dancing together. Imagine it. The picture loses something, doesn’t it? Take homophobia out of it. The simple fact is, it just is not the same to have two men, or two women dancing together. Variety and distinction are necessary to the beauty of the dance. If the partners were male and female, but each only did what the other did, it would also be significantly more boring.
As with the ice-dance, there may be certain points in gender relationships that God designed to highlight the strength of masculinity. There may be other points designed to show off the beauty of femininity. In the dance, both femininity and masculinity are supposed to be lifted up and glorified, given honor, each by the other.
God designed masculinity and femininity to dance in such a way that together they show off a beauty and strength that originates with God Himself. As with ice-dancing, there are many means to engage in this, to dance to God’s music, and still allow individuals to express themselves in different ways. But, as with the ice-dance, there are a few elements that must remain consistent if the dance is to remain an expression of God’s image.
One of the most important factors between ice-dancing partners is trust. I would say, as an observer, that more trust is required of the woman. She must trust that the man will catch her if he throws her, hold her when she allows herself to be lifted, twirl her without hurting her. There are other areas that require mutual trust. Often the dancers separate and then come back together. Their hands are supposed to meet at a certain time in a certain way. Each must trust that the other will be there as they are supposed to. The man needs to trust that his partner will allow him to lift her and hold her and throw her, without upsetting his balance by fighting him.
Trust is required in God’s gender-dance also. I don’t know why, but it seems to me that more trust is required of women than men. Perhaps ice-dancing, in its beauty, carries echoes of God’s original good creation. But, again, as with the ice-dance, a lot of trust must go both ways.
The fall of mankind has made the gender-dance harder and more burdensome than it was originally intended to be, but it did not change God’s original purpose and plan, which was implemented before the fall, at creation.
It is my fear that as we erase distinctions between women and men, we are rapidly losing that beautiful and strong picture of who God is. We are replacing ice-dancing with mosh-pit style dancing, where everyone gyrates to his or her own rhythm in a formless, genderless mob.
This issue of gender roles is not about keeping people in their place, or freedom or even equality. It is about God shining His beautiful image through us to the world.