Book Review: Discovering Biblical Equality (third edition, 2021, edited by Ronald W. Pierce and Cynthia Long Westfall)

Have you engaged with the best version of egalitarian theology?

Undertaking my theological education was an exercise in examining one’s assumptions and “returning to the sources” (to quote the Reformation Humanists). It is all too easy, I have discovered, to argue against a strawman. I recall one lecturer saying that we should be able to express our opponent’s argument in such a way that they themselves would recognise their view in our explanation. I must confess that for much of my theological formation and even ministry, I was somewhat ignorant (and sadly dismissive) of egalitarian scholarship. This book, Discovering Biblical Equality, has been a chance to redress that outlook and to critically engage with the best and latest of evangelical scholarship which comprehensively argues for gender equality in the home, church, and society. At over 700 pages it is a reference book (designed to be dipped in and out of) and offers 31 self-contained chapters (from various contributors), ranging from biblical studies, theological reflection, interpretive methods (hermeneutics), and practical applications. Given the length and complexity of the topics addressed in the book, in what follows, I offer only some brief musings on some of the chapters that I found particularly pertinent to me as I seek to understand the best version of egalitarian theology.

Chapter two, Gender in Creation and Fall: Genesis 1-3 by Mary Conway, is an exegetical study of Genesis 1–3 with some analysis of the New Testament texts in which this Creation story features. If you will forgive me for a digression so early in this review, it is curious to me that Genesis 1–3 can be interpreted by complementarians and egalitarians in opposite ways. Much of the former position relies upon the way in which the Apostle Paul frames the creation order and deception of Eve in 1 Timothy 2: 13–15. However, this text is not as clear as many would suggest. No one, for example, is quite sure what Paul means by his reference to salvific childbearing (v15). Moreover, whereas “quiet learning” is the application of the created order in this text, it is the very opposite in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 where the creation story serves to reinforce head coverings during female public prayer and prophecy. Furthermore, while Eve shoulders the blame in 1 Timothy 2:13–15, Adam seems to be the sole culprit of the fall in Romans 5:12ff. In other words, I am suggesting that the Creation story seems to operate with literary flexibility. For all these reasons and more, while I understand the complementarian reading of Genesis 1–3, in the final analysis I suspect it overreaches, so this chapter is a helpful starting place to get “inside” the egalitarian reading of creation.

Chapter four, Women Leaders in the Bible by Linda Belleville, is a straightforward summary of the way in which the Bible quite unashamedly describes female leadership, and not, as the author notes, because there were no decent males around. The list of women in the New Testament is significant and their descriptions of being co-workers, deacons, benefactors, and their position as house church leaders is noteworthy. The fact that translations have obscured this, or that complementarians have not noticed the extent of female leadership, is indicative (the author suggests) that our hermeneutical (interpretive) approaches need to be reviewed.

Chapter six, Mutuality in Marriage and Singleness: 1 Corinthian 7:1–40 by Ronald Pierce and Elizabeth Kay, addresses the much-neglected marriage text which clearly describes Paul’s expectations of mutual authority and service and decision making within marriage. It is my view that this text presents one of the most significant challenges to marital headship theology.

In chapter seven, Praying and Prophesying in the Assemblies: 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, renowned scholar Gordon Fee addresses the difficult text of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16. The interpretative issues are too complicated to outline here but his tentative conclusion is that Paul is responding to the deliberate casting aside of external markers that distinguish women from men. In whatever way one reconstructs the text, all agree that Paul assumes here that women had the same public ministry of prayer and prophesying as men.

Lyn Cohick’s chapter ten, Loving and Submitting to One Another in Marriage: Ephesians 5:21–33 and Colossians 3:18–19, is a succinct summary of her ground-breaking work on the household codes available in her NICNT Ephesians commentary. Essentially, it describes how head-body metaphors functioned in the ancient world and offers a rhetorically sensitive reading of the household codes which show that Paul was modifying cultural expectations rather than reinforcing an ontological order.

I have already noted the importance of 1 Timothy 2 for the gender debate, and this text is taken up by Linda Belleville in chapter 11, Teaching and Usurping Authority: 1 Timothy 2:11–15. After outlining the literary evidence for a socio-historical setting that best explains Paul’s gender specific instruction, the author spends significant time on the unique term authentein. Belleville argues that there is a long history in translation and in extant literature indicating that this word cannot simply be translated as authority but is a controlling and domineering or usurping activity. The author suggests that a type of “battle of the sexes” best explains the reason why Paul is intent on correcting both bad male behaviour and the dominating intentions of certain women.

In Chapter 15, Image of God and Divine Presence: A Critique of Gender Essentialism, Christa McKirland offers a fascinating critique of overly prescriptive theological accounts of masculinity and femininity. She argues that too often, gender definitions are read into Scripture when in fact the focus of such texts are more generic and inclusive of humanity together. Included in this chapter is some reflections on inter-sex considerations and gender dysphoria where rigid definitions of masculinity and femininity can, she argues, contribute to an individual’s sense of dissonance.

In chapter 19, Biblical Images of God as Mother and Spiritual Formation, Ronald Pierce and Erin Heim offer a thoughtful analysis of language, feminine metaphors in Scripture, and how such language contributes to spiritual formation. The authors are careful to distinguish the essential nature of the Triune God as Father, Son and Spirit, and the way in which this trinitarian love is expressed in Scripture, including through feminine imagery. Despite the trinitarian theological implications being not as developed as I would have hoped, this chapter is well worth reading.

Chapter 20, “Equal in Being, Unequal in Role”: Challenging the Logic of Women’s Subordination by Rebecca Groothuis, is one of the most important chapters in the book. In it, Groothuis interrogates the complementarian differentiation between essence (where men and women are equal) and role (where they are different), mounting a significant philosophical challenge to this theoretical construct. The evangelical movement is committed not simply to a deontological (divine command based) perspective, but to searching for, and articulating, the good of the moral order. Groothuis’ chapter is an important challenge for complementarian (and egalitarian for that matter) claims to be grounded in such a robust philosophical and theological foundation.

Cynthia Long Westfall’s chapter 21, Interpretive Methods and the Gender Debate, invites the interpreter to explore the issue underneath the issue: hermeneutics. While all acknowledge that there are apparent contradictions within the Pauline corpus on gender theology, Westfall invites us to critically engage with a robust methodology grounded in linguistic studies, socio-historical research, and an awareness of the occasional nature of many passages. She does not explicitly mention the emergence of rhetorical studies but regardless, this chapter is gold.

Chapter 22, Gender Differences and Biblical Interpretation: A View from the Social Sciences by M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall, is a fascinating and scholarly review of the social science research around gender difference. It is a helpful reminder to test one’s own assumptions which are often ignorant when outside our areas of expertise.

Chapter 28, Complementarianism and Domestic Abuse: A Social-Scientific Perspective on Whether “Equal but Different” Is Really Equal at All by Kylie Pidgeon, is a sobering warning for systems that, by design, distribute power according to gender roles. A 2021 Australian Anglican Report highlights such risks associated with “headship theology”.[1] Regardless of one’s theology, it would seem to me that information such as this is important for pastors to know and understand.

I hope my brief comments on a selection of these 31 chapters have been sufficient to encourage you to order a copy for your own bookshelf and to further explore the depth and scope of the most recent edition of this helpful reference work. Whether your interest is theological, exegetical, social, or applied, you will find this resource something of a “one-stop shop” for a robust egalitarian outlook. Even if you disagree, at least you will be doing so having read some of the best scholarly and evangelical explanations of egalitarianism available.

[1] See section 6.2.5 and 7.2.1 in Powell, R. & Pepper, M. (2021). National Anglican Family Violence Research Report: for the Anglican Church of Australia. NCLS Research Report. NCLS Research. Cited online 26/10/21:

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