Different From and Different For

Egalitarians and the State of Christianity Today

If the state of Christianity today is disconcerting, the state of Christianity Today (CT) is more so. The magazine that was founded by Billy Graham with Carl F. H. Henry as its first editor-in-chief has 

drifted from its historically evangelical roots toward theological and political progressivism. To be sure, CT isn’t alone in this regard. As one theologian lamented, 

“You see the collapse of evangelicalism all around us. Pick up Christianity Today: Christianity Today is written by mainline Episcopalians. Go to Wheaton College: Wheaton College faculty is a mainline Episcopalian faculty. Look at Fuller Seminary: It is easier to find a creationist on the faculty at Berkeley than at Fuller Seminary. We [evangelicals] have turned into the culture because we want to be like them.”

Those are the words of Russell Moore in 2006. (Start at the 41:44 mark and stick around until 44:06.) It is more than a little ironic that Moore is now the editor-in-chief of CT. It would seem that not only have the times changed—his convictions have, too. Yet the Scriptures do not change. That is why I am saddened (though not surprised) to see an egalitarian view of the sexes all but cemented at CT these days. 

For those who haven’t kept up with the gender debates over the last forty years: egalitarianism is the modern, mixed-up notion that because men and women are equally made in the image of God (which is true) they are therefore interchangeable in various roles within God’s world (which is false). Such an approach entails a quasi-gnostic view of gender that treats God’s design for men and women as arbitrary or superfluous. This contradicts the longstanding consensus of the church across Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant lines, who, for over 1900 years, stood together in affirming that God’s differing directives to men and women in the Scriptures are rooted in God’s complementary design of men and women in creation. (This view goes by many names such as “biblical patriarchy” or “complementarianism,” a term that has picked up further qualification due to divergent trends within the movement.)

CT’s egalitarian trajectory has long been apparent to anyone who was paying attention. But over the last several years, CT has ramped up its promotion of egalitarianism in various forms. They’ve run articles decrying “toxic masculinity” (see here and here) but never toxic femininity. They have published articles discouraging men from asserting traditionally masculine traits and tendencies (see here and here). And they have interviewed Kristin Du Mez on evangelicalism’s alleged obsession with John Wayne

CT has also run several articles exhorting us to transcend gender roles (see here, here, and here), which is a quintessentially egalitarian way of framing the discussion. Similarly, CT’s editor-in-chief (Moore) recently issued the call to rethink the evangelical “gender wars”, citing his frustration over the “ever-narrowing definition of complementarian [sic]” and his sense of the need for “rethinking who we once classified as ‘enemy’ and ‘ally.’” Meanwhile, other CT articles employ a strategy of dismissing theological discussion about God’s design for men and women as “a political battle that distracts from the gospel.” 

CT has also hosted several I’m-not-that-kind-of-complementarian authors who wrote pieces like this one, which affirms the Danvers Statement while decrying attempts to faithfully apply it, or this one, which argues that those who hold to the church’s traditional view of the sexes are paternalistic. And in a move reminiscent of Screwtape’s strategy to entice Christians to bring a fire-extinguisher to a flood, CT ran an article worrying about a “narrowing” complementarianism in the SBC at a time when over a thousand SBC churches have women serving as pastors in open violation of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. 

In addition to all this, CT ran an article about using “preferred pronouns” with no substantive consideration of how lying to others is neither loving nor helpful (Eph. 4:15, 25) or interaction with Scripture’s clear “male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27; cf. Matt. 19:4). Instead, the article calls for us to “give each other grace” as people who are “figuring it out together.” (Which, in truth, is how people tend to talk when they’ve already figured out what they think and are just waiting for a sufficiently large sociological shift before announcing their stunning and brave conclusions.) 

Comes now the latest barrage of egalitarian articles from CT, forming the central theme of their April 2024 issue: The Division of Labor. All the usual suspects are there: an article openly endorsing egalitarianism, an interview that calls the church to learn from the world’s diversity of viewpoints on gender roles, an article that attempts to carve a chimerical middle way between complementarianism and egalitarianism, and an article from a reluctant complementarian woman (Have men ever been permitted to write about complementarianism for CT?) who blames conservative Christians—not the gale force winds of the progressive zeitgeist—for the church’s setbacks. In addition to these cover stories, the issue also features an article on Mary Magdalene, which—following the work of Jennifer Powell McNutt, a Wheaton College professor and pastrix in the PC(USA)—equivocates the meaning of “apostle” in order to claim Mary for the egalitarian side of the debate.  

Each of these articles probably deserves a rebuttal that roundly criticizes their methods and conclusions, but life is short and I’ve only got time for one. So here’s lookin’ at you, Gordon P. Hugenberger. Arguing that “the biggest New Testament passages on gender roles may have more to do with marriage than with ministry,” Hugenberger’s article is titled, “Complementarian at Home, Egalitarian at Church? Paul Would Approve.” 

But actually, he wouldn’t.

Why Paul Isn’t an Egalitarian (And We Shouldn’t Be Either)

In the first place, Paul calls the church the household (oikos) of God (1 Tim. 3:15), that is, the family of God (cf. Matt. 10:6; 1 Tim. 3:4; 5:4). However, positing that God wants his children to live as complementarians in their own households but as egalitarians in God’s household (i.e., the church) would make God schizophrenic. For if men and women are differently directed in view of God’s differing design, then what is good and right in one realm would be good and right in the other. 

Hugenberger seems to be unaware of the tension created by his view, as he devotes his arguments to affirming male headship in marriage (with a heavy dose of caveats and condemnations of “meanness, abuse, or even violence against women”) while denying male headship in the church. As I will show below, such a view is internally incoherent.

To advocate for egalitarianism in the church, Hugenberger marshals boilerplate egalitarian arguments, like the argument that ministry is a matter of spiritual gifts, which women possess as well as men (1 Cor. 12:7), or the argument that all Christians are called to teach and admonish one another (Col. 3:16) with “nothing in the context suggest[ing] that Paul has only men in view.” Next comes Abigail’s rebuke of David (1 Sam. 25), followed by Priscilla’s instruction of Apollos (Acts 18:26). 

The next stop for Hugenberger is 1 Cor. 11:5 and 14:3, where women prophesy as well as men. This naturally leads him to highlight women like Deborah the prophetess (Judges 4 and 5), Hannah the mother of Samuel, (1 Sam. 2) and Mary, the mother of Jesus (Luke 1), all of whom “were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write various portions of Holy Scripture.” In this way, Hugenberger says, “Through their writings, these women have taught both men and women with inerrant authority down through the ages.” 

There are two problems here. To begin with, Hugenberger is equivocating what it means to “teach.” The apostle Paul knows what he wrote in Col. 3:16, and he knows what he wrote in 1 Tim. 2:12. Thus, unless we were to conclude that Paul is too stupid to realize he has contradicted himself, he clearly refers to a certain kind of teaching (or perhaps to teaching in a certain context) in one verse that he does not refer to in the other. It is not difficult to make this distinction. The second issue is that Deborah’s and Hannah’s and Mary’s words—as wonderful as they are—were not actually written into Scripture by these holy women. Instead, they were incorporated into Scripture by men named Samuel and Luke. This is not a throwaway detail, for the Scriptures sometimes quote pagans (Acts 17:28) and Apocrypha (Jude 14), so the mere presence of words in holy writ does not convey special teaching status or authority on the person who first uttered them.

Back to Hugenberger’s main argument. He is aware that 1 Tim. 2:11 and 12 present a formidable challenge to the egalitarian view of ministry. There Paul writes, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” Whole books have been written on these verses, so I can’t touch upon all the interpretive issues here. Instead, I’ll limit myself to what Hugenberger says about these important verses.

To his credit, Hugenberger seems to reject egalitarian arguments that Paul’s instructions here were some kind of “temporary measure” (for a time when women were less educated than men) or else some kind of church-specific instruction meant to address context-specific issues (which, if true, would not be universally binding). I find such arguments to be unpersuasive in the highest, for they rest on special pleading and speculative historical reconstructions to subvert the very plain meaning of the text, not to mention Paul’s rather explicit argument that he grounds in God’s created order. 

Speaking of which: Hugenberger badly misreads Paul’s argument in 1 Tim. 2:13–15, arguing that Paul’s appeal to Adam and Eve in those verses “was not a prohibition about gender roles but rather a prohibition about marriage roles.” To justify such a conclusion, he focuses on the lexical meaning of the Greek words used in 1 Tim. 2:12—words that can mean woman and man or wife and husband, depending on the context. Following Martin Luther (who, despite his idiosyncratic view of this passage, was not egalitarian) Hugenberger concludes that Paul was restricting wives—not all women—from teaching or exercising authority over their own husbands—not all men.

Yet just a few paragraphs prior, Hugenberger reminded us that all Christians are called to teach and admonish one another (Col. 3:16), so why couldn’t a wife teach and admonish her husband? To get around the contradiction he has created for himself, Hugenberger retranslates 1 Timothy 2:12 with words that sound like more The Message than the New Testament: “I do not allow a wife to lecture or boss her husband, but to be quiet.” 

This brings us to the second major issue with Hugenberger’s article. Namely, he fails to consider the reasons behind the rules in all of Paul’s instructions regarding gender. In other words, Hugenberger acts as if Paul’s instructions to wives and husbands come from nowhere. Not only does this make God out to be arbitrary, but it overlooks the fact that the complementary nature of men and women is a fundamental aspect of reality before it is a matter of “rules and roles.” To say the same thing another way, the rules governing male and female roles in the Scriptures—whether in the private household or the household of God—are rooted in the prior reality of God’s design. 

The Reason Behind Gendered Rules and Roles

Many verses in the NT clearly address the conduct of men and women in the household of God, and these everywhere uphold the complementary differences of God’s design as a preexisting reality upon which the rules and roles are dependent. 

1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is one such example, where (regardless of what you think about the nature of head coverings) the main point of the passage is painfully obvious: men and women are different and should act—and dress (Deut. 22:5)—differently. In that same passage, we see that women are permitted to pray and prophesy (neither activity was new to the New Testament, by the way, so put away your trajectory hermeneutic). Yet Paul later says that women must remain silent in matters of authoritative interpretations or judgments of prophecies (1 Cor 14:28–34). So a distinction is made: praying and prophesying are permitted, but clearly, this does not involve the sort of authority that would contradict what Paul says in the same letter (not to mention 1 Timothy 2:11–12).

1 Cor. 14:34 is so clear, in fact, that egalitarians resort to arguments that these words are not Pauline (i.e., not original to 1 Cor. 14), or that they were somehow limited to the church of Corinth. As for the first claim, there is no evidence that anyone other than Paul wrote these words. As for the second, egalitarians do not treat verses like Galatians 3:28 as limited to the Galatians! Their selective contextuality demonstrates their ulterior agenda, which is to hold on to God’s Word while subverting portions of it at the same time. Such an approach is poisonous to the soul, for it trains the reader to take what he likes and disregard (via reinterpretation) what he does not like—which, of course, is just another form of whittling away at the Scriptures until what remains looks like the person who fashioned it.

Going back to 1 Timothy 2, Hugenberger’s insistence that Paul is addressing only wives and husbands overlooks the fact that Paul explicitly tells Timothy his words up to this point in the letter have been given as instruction for the household of God (1 Tim. 3:15), not just for the private domain of the home. Not only this, but the immediate context of 1 Timothy 2 is sufficient to know that Paul has more than husbands and wives in view. That is why Paul says he wants men “in every place” to pray by “lifting holy hands without anger [wrath] or quarreling” (1 Tim. 2:8). Clearly, such instructions are not limited to husbands. Similarly, Paul goes on to say that women should adorn themselves with respectable apparel, that is, with modesty and self-control, instead of with showy attention-seeking displays (1 Tim. 2:9–10). 

Hugenberger notes that Peter uses similar language to describe conduct for wives in 1 Peter 3:1–7, but this is entirely beside the point, for it in no way diminishes the universality of what Paul says here. On the contrary, Peter’s ability to apply Paul’s general words (to all men and women) to the specific relationship of a husband and wife reinforces the complementary design about which we have been speaking. That is to say, both Paul and Peter can speak as they do because they understand a truth that Hugenberger gives little to no weight, namely, that before God gave men and women differing duties, he gave them differing designs such that their callings might be consonant with their constitutions. 

This is why Paul explicitly calls men to avoid wrath and quarreling but does not explicitly say the same to women (1 Tim. 2:8). Likewise, Paul explicitly tells women not to draw attention to themselves without reciprocally saying the same to men (1 Tim. 2:9–10). This is because men and women were created differently and given differing tendencies and traits that serve their fundamental callings. Men are stronger (1 Pet. 3:7; 1 John 2:14) and more aggressive by nature, for example, which makes men great protectors and providers… but also potential tyrants and assailants. Hence Paul says that holy men should channel their strength and aggression toward fruitful ends. Parallel to this, Paul urges women to avoid a sinful desire for affirmation or attention and to pursue the sort of adornment that draws attention to God instead. 

And it is here, immediately after Paul’s asymmetrically gendered instructions, that we read his prohibition against women teaching or exercising authority over men. The reason for this command, Paul says, has to do with the way God made men and women in the beginning. Adam was made first, Paul reminds us (1 Tim. 2:13), not alluding to primogeniture but to Adam’s unique capacity for representation and responsibility. Indeed, Eve is not even alive when God commanded Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge (Gen. 2:16–17), which is why nothing happened when Eve first ate of the fruit (Gen. 3:6). But after Adam ate, “then the eyes of both were opened” (Gen. 3:7)

Thus it is not Eve, but Adam, whom the Lord holds responsible for the fall, saying, “Because you listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten to the tree of which I commanded you [2nd person, masculine, singular]…” (Gen. 3:17; cf. Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:21). In other words, Paul’s argument 1 Timothy 2 says in effect: “Do not reverse the roles of men and women in the household of God. Do not repeat the fall of mankind which plunged the world into ruin in the first place!” 

God’s Good Design: Different From and Different For

Summarizing all that I have said, the core of Hugenberger’s argument is to limit Paul’s restriction in 1 Tim. 2:11–12 to wives and husbands instead of all women and all men. But this effectively turns God’s commands into incoherent restrictions that portray God himself as arbitrary at best or schizophrenic at worst. By contrast, once you grasp that the differing roles of men and women—in marriage, yes, but also in the church—are rooted in the preexistent design of God, then you are liberated from the errors of egalitarianism to embrace the goodness of God’s design. To modify a phrase from Alastair Roberts, we might put the matter like this: men and women are not only different from each other but also different for each other, that is, different for the good of both, but only so long as we maintain the differences of God’s good design. 

Such a starting point also has great explanatory power for why God acts and speaks as he does throughout the Scriptures. For example, it is not arbitrary that the Aaronic priesthood of the Old Covenant was restricted to men, just as the pastoral office of elder or overseer is restricted to men in the New Testament. Both of these follow a gendered pattern that was already established in Genesis 1–3. Everything about humanity follows from this. 

In other words, I am saying that there is something about the way God made men and women that makes (qualified) men suitably fit for priestly/pastoral work in ways that were inappropriate or unfitting for women. Unfortunately, this is obscured in the modern world, where pastors have been reduced to managers and therapists. But it was not always so. 

The leaders of God’s people are supposed to be men who understand that they must guard others against wolves, both literal and metaphorical. They should be men like Moses the shepherd (Ex. 3:1), who not only killed an oppressive man in his youth (Ex 2:11–12) but also “struck” the oppressive Egyptians with the plagues of God (Ex. 7–12). Or again, they should be men like David the shepherd, who killed his “tens of thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7) and who stopped the lion and the bear from marauding his sheep (1 Sam. 17:34–36). 

They should be men like the Levites, the priestly tribe of Israel, who were ordained to the priesthood on the day when they slayed 3,000 of their own brothers following the golden calf incident (Ex 32:27–29). They should be men like Phineas the priest, who ended the unholy union of a couple with the tip of his spear (Num 25:7–8) and men like Samuel the priestly prophet (1 Sam. 2:12–18), who “hacked Agag to pieces before the Lord” (1 Sam 15:33) after Saul spared the life in disobedience to God’s command (1 Sam 15:9). 

They should be men like Peter and Paul, as well as James and John (Luke 9:54), who were repeatedly characterized by their zeal for the Lord of hosts. Even our Lord himself—the Good Shepherd—was driven zeal for his Father’s house to fashion a whip and cleanse the temple (John 2:13–17). 

The point here is not that male strength and aggression is an unbridled good. (Indeed, the glory of Christian men is their ability to restrain their aggression and redirect their strength to the glory of God and the good of those around them.) Rather, the point is that behaviors—and callings—suitable for holy men should be filled by holy men. And same goes for behaviors and callings suitable for holy women.

As C. S. Lewis said in his critique of egalitarianism, “We men may often make very bad priests. That is because we are insufficiently masculine. It is no cure to call in those who are not masculine at all.” Lewis continues, “A given man may make a very bad husband; you cannot mend matters by trying to reverse the roles. He may make a bad male partner in a dance. The cure for that is that men should more diligently attend dancing classes; not that the ballroom should henceforward ignore distinctions of sex and treat all dancers as neuter.” 

I am glad that Hugenberger resists the urge to do so in the home, but that is precisely what he has argued for in the church. Egalitarianism treats men and women not just as equals but as persons who are equally fit for various roles. This is a radical departure from the wisdom of our God, who made men and women different from each other and different for each other. And to speak or act in any way that ignores, diminishes, or denies God’s good design is to ignore, diminish, or deny the gender-specific blessings that God intends. And that never goes well for those who do so—whether in their own household or the household of God. 

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Doug Ponder

Doug Ponder is the Dean of Faculty and Professor of Biblical Studies at Grimké Seminary. He is also a teaching pastor at Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he lives with his wife and their four sons. He has contributed to several published works as an author, editor, and researcher. He writes regularly at Sola Ecclesia. Follow him on X/Twitter @dougponder.

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