Updated: May 12
The professor was Dr. William Webb, and he wrote a book called Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals, which at the time and for those circles argued a controversial notion: the Bible spoke redemptively in a way that accommodated to the possibilities available in an ancient context. In doing so, it was moving that culture forward, closer to the redemption God ultimately wants. However, if we tied to apply some of these commands today, they would be quite regressive. So, we need to look at the “redemptive movement,” which suggests the principle or spirit of the text that we are to follow today. He argued that the treatment of slaves and women illustrated a progressive movement for better treatment, and in order to be faithful to the Bible’s spirit, one had to do the same today going further.
I know this because I had to read his book for his class on biblical interpretation called “Hermeneutics.” As I read the book, however, Bill, being the kind of scholar he was, also made us read all the critiques of his book as well, including the really tough and even mean ones. Now, I did not make that class easy for him either, as I recall. I asked a lot of questions. Bill, as I realized, is as articulate as he is gentle and kind.
“What about how Adam was made first, then Eve? Doesn’t that mean men lead over women?” I asked. While humanity is referred in in Genesis 1 as in “Adam,” the image of God is equally found in both men and women, together who have the task of stewarding creation. While the ancient world regarded the “image of God” to be something found in kinds and high priests, here the image is for everyone. Bill further noted that the logic that the first created is therefore automatically the leader (called “primogenitor logic”) does not really hold up in the book of Genesis: for example, humans were made last after the animals in Genesis one yet are superior; Abel, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph were not the eldest-born brothers, yet they were the ones favoured by God. If anything, the contours of the Genesis narrative point the opposite way.
“What about how Eve was made the ‘helper’ of Adam?” I asked. Again, Bill responded by noting that the word for “helper” (Hebrew: ezer) in Gen. 2:18 does not imply inferiority or servitude. In fact, God is the “ezer” of Israel in several passages in the Bible. For example, a form of the word appears in Psalm 121:1-2, which says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” God rescues and aids the Psalmist, but God is not subservient much less inferior to Israel. If anything, Eve is the rescuer of Adam. Through her, Adam is no longer alone. Adam is not superior to Eve in this passage: he is deficient without her. She is not his property (as the culture regarded); she is his companion and completion. Eve is made from Adam’s side rib, implying equality and comradery. If Eve was made from, say, the bones of the foot, that might imply Eve was lower than Adam. Adam sees her and exclaims she is “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). Adam sees himself in her, and it says that marriage is defined here as a man leaving his father and mother and “clinging” to his wife (Gen. 2:24). The word picture there is like how someone might stick a sticky note to a wall: the wall is clearly the stronger object, holding up what is clinging to it. For a narrative like this to be written in a time that regarded women as inferior, sub-human, purely objects to be possessed, the spirit of this text is decisively elevating the status of women. That is redemptive movement
“What about the curse in Genesis chapter 3? Aren’t women now under men because we live in a fallen world?” I asked. Bill continued with an interesting anecdote. Apparently, in the 1500s, a woman named Eufame LacLayne got pregnant with twins. During childbirth she took pain. This seems like a reasonable thing to do, no? The ecclesial authorities heard about this and put her on trial. Why you might ask? At the time it was believed that the curse of sin on women involved pain in childbearing (as it says in Genesis 3:16) and being under the rule of men also, and since she was attempting to get out of the curse of sin, in their view, this was a crime. Her punishment? She was burned at the stake for this!
I was flabbergasted. I remember Bill, with his gracious but also mischievous smirk, noted, “Who here disagrees with a woman in labour having pain medication?” No one did. So, he continued, “If the curse of sin is patriarchy, men ruling over women, just like pain in childbirth, isn’t it the church’s mission to undo the effects of sin?”
While the arguments can get quite long and complicated after this, the case can be made right here: if patriarchy is the result of sin, as it was impressed on me from Bill’s class, it seems against the grain of the Bible to interpret certain texts as upholding and reinforcing patriarchy today when really, in their own context, the text was accommodated to its own time but engaging in slow but steady redemptive movement. If the church is the place where salvation is lived out and patriarchy is the result of sin, then the church simply cannot condone positions that restrict women based on their gender, especially not today. It’s our job to push the envelope of God’s longing for a kingdom of equality not uphold the status quo.
When one starts to see Scripture through these movements of redemption, when it comes to the treatment of women (and many other issues), you then see the contours of the Bible in a whole new way. You kick yourself for not seeing it before. It explains moments of redemption breaking in like Deborah, who was a prophet and judge over all of Israel. Complementarians try desperately to undermine the biblical text here to minimize the significance of Deborah, but the reality is quite apparent: the Holy Spirit acted to empower a woman in a very patriarchal culture to be the religious, judicial, and military leader of Israel (see Judges 4-5). To me, this suggests that even the most ardent critic of women in ministry must admit that if the Spirit can decide that in such a time and culture, they must admit that nothing is stopping the Spirit from doing it again today. What right does one have to prevent another Deborah from leading a gathering of God’s people? What right does one have to limit the Spirit of God?
What does Deborah mean for the office of pastor today? I would note that while the office of “overseer” or “elder” (what is often described as the position of pastor in most churches today¾I’ll spare you the complicated lecture on the nature of New Testament ecclesiology here) is described as a man (cf. 1 Tim. 3:2), if Deborah was a judge, this offers no ultimate defeater to women in this position. The original description of judges in Exodus 18:21 only mentioned men for Deborah’s role as judge, yet she was the judge over all of Israel. If this is the case, describing a position in male terms (these passages use the language “a man who…”) and yet a woman, in fact, is called by the Spirit to do this role, simply, by precedent, necessitates that a woman cannot on principle be prevented from a role similar to it. If Deborah is truly what the text says, then no complementarian can restrict women from preaching and leading the church as an absolute rule.
If we read Scripture for this redemptive movement, we see little breakouts towards God’s kingdom like Huldah, a female prophet whose authority by the Spirit allowed her to rebuke the king (see 2 Kings 22 and 2 Chr. 34). Huldah is an underrated gem. The king turns coimes to her, perhaps to manipulate her into blessing his rule, but she rebukes him feistily. If the most powerful position in all Israel held no sway over a person empowered by the Spirit to say what is true and right, don’t ever let someone claim you have to submit to them because they have some kind of God-ordained position over you, much less one based purely on gender. The Spirit doesn’t play that game.
These breakouts like Deborah and Huldah are glimpses of God’s kingdom where the effects of sin are thrown off. These are moments of longing in the Old Testament, longing for the fullness of justice to break in. The Prophet Joel yearns for the day when the Spirit is poured out on all flesh, male and female, young and old (Joel 2:28-29), and in the New Testament, that Spirit moves. The Spirit comes upon Mary, who describes the gift of bearing the Messiah as a moment reassuring her that God is faithful to bring about his promises to lift up the humble and put down the proud (Luke 1:52). And these promises are fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus continues this proclamation, announcing that the kingdom is one of liberation: “ good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, letting the oppressed free (Luke 4:18, quoting the Isaiah 61:1). Jesus’ kingdom is one where the first will be last, and the last will be first (Mark 10:31), and all this means that Jesus’ good news implies overcoming the sin that has harmed and hampered humanity.
The Gospel narratives show particular moments of how patriarchy is overcome in Jesus’ ministry in ways pertinent to Jesus’ culture. Jesus revealed his messianic nature first to an outcast woman at the well, privledging her over his own male disciples or teachers like Nikodemus. Jesus touched and healed a woman with unclean hemorrhages, transgressing purity rules to improve a person’s physical well-being. Jesus teaches Mary as she reclines at the Rabbi’s feet instead of consigning her to kitchen duty with Marsha, transgressing gender roles that restricted women from learning due to their household responsibilities. The text goes out of the way to note that the males disciples fled Jesus where the female disciples stay with him at the crucifixion. If anyone wants to argue that only men are apostles because the 12 disciples were men, Jesus appears to the women first in the resurrection and chooses them to be the first massagers or heralds (that’s what “apostle” means, by the way) of the good news of the resurrection to the rest of the (male) disciples. Reading the Gospels, you get a sense of Jesus’ kingdom: where the ways of the world and sin get flipped, where true power is mercy and righteousness, where the last are made first, and where women are empowered.
The Word of God must be read with the Wind of God, for the Scriptures without the movement of the Spirit is a dead letter. This Spirit acted to empower the church at Pentecost with the gift of salvation and the gifts of saved living in the church. In Galatians, Paul sees Jewish Christians telling Gentile Christians they need to get circumcised and, in essence, become Jews to be a part of God’s people. What is interesting about this is that Paul offers his famous doctrine of justification by faith apart from works of the law (Gal. 2:16). Justification is based on the Gentiles’ experience of the gift of the Spirit coming upon them (Gal. 3:2), their trust in this despite a lack of stringent conformity to the Law, and this is the basis of why they are able to be included in the church. And so, Paul declares, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). It is fascinating here that while Paul is talking about Jews and Gentiles in Galatia, he also mentions women and slaves. What is this suggesting? Paul actually removed the barrier of circumcision because it is against the new equality between Jews and Gentiles in God’s household, where certain Jewish believers were trying to insist on their superiority using the mark of circumcision. Yet, Paul, seeing the freedom one has in Christ removes this law, despite it being an Old Testament law (an important one at that). What does this suggest for women? It seems that the Spirit bestows the gift of salvation without prejudice: it does not matter your race, and Paul also mentions gender and social status too. In 1 Cor 12:13, Paul gives a similar principle before listing the gifts of salvation: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” He uses the same principle of non-discrimination there as well a longer version in Col. 3:11. In that same chapter, in 1 Cor 12:28, he lists the result of drinking of the one Spirit: “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.” It seems that the Spirit who gives the gift of Salvation without prejudice also¾indeed must¾give the gifts of the Spirit without prejudice.
When I noticed this, I had to chuckle. Some of the most ardent critics of biblical equality I know are those who call themselves “Reformed,” for whom the doctrine of justification by faith is the doctrine in which “the church stands or falls” as one reformer said. However, ironically, the logic of justification implies this: Gentiles are justified by faith by the moving of the Spirit, because the Spirit acts without prejudice even against the letter of the law. If one restricts the freedom of women in the church, one is, sadly, insisted that this very Spirit who justifies us Gentiles is actually prejudiced. Put another way: if Gentiles are justified by trusting the Spirit, so women also must be justified in leading the church. The gift and the gifts of the Spirit are one.
If you start reading for the redemptive movement, it makes a lot more sense of some of those passages that are typically cited for restricting women. Take, for example, Ephesians chapter 5, verses 21-33 (and all the way to 6:9). This is a favourite of complementarians. Verses 22, 23, and 25 read as follows:
Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour….Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…
This is seen as the biblical “household code,” where wives must submit to men, children to parents, and slaves to masters as God’s order of things. However, this passage is often not viewed in its context, both in the passage leading up to this and in how it would have been heard in its own day (what we might call its “rhetorical force”).
For starters, in the passage before it, the task of submission is not just to women but to everyone: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). Similarly, at the top of this whole discourse in the passage, everyone is to “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (5:2). In other words, wives submitting to men and men loving their wives are just mirrored examples of both being called to love as well as submit to each other. The guiding principals of this passage is that all Christians submit and love one another. There is not something gender specific.
While we tend to feel the force of the statements on submission, this is not what would have struck the original audience as the starkest from their culture. Ephesians 5-6 is very likely alluding to a household code like the one in Aristotle’s Politics, where Aristotle argues that a proper household is one where women submit to men, children to parents, and slaves to masters. It reads,
Of household management, we have seen that there are three parts—one is the rule of a master over slaves... another of a father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the older and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature... [W]hen one rules and the other is ruled we endeavour to create a difference of outward forms and names and titles of respect... The relation of the male to the female is of this kind, but there the inequality is permanent.
There is more to be said about Aristotle’s views on women, but I have said enough here. The irony is that most complementarians are living out better Greek philosophy than Pauline theology. The difference between the two is fundamental. Aristotle believes in a state of permanent inequality; Paul believes in reciprocity. The accountability in Ephesians are altogether absent in the household codes of the Greek culture. According to the principles of redemptive-movement, it is the contrast between the culture and the text that suggest what is the abiding spirit of the text. In other words, the culture believed in absolute patriarchy, but Paul seeks to minimize this based on what the kingdom is ultimately about. Paul adds that men must love their wives self-sacrificially like their very body (5:28), parents must not embitter their children (6:4), and masters must respect their slaves the same way the slaves ought to towards them (6:9), knowing that they have a master to be accountable to (6:9).
And by the way, if anyone wants to say that I am being fast and loose with the details of this text, I would remind you that unless you believe that slavery is viable today, you too have read this passage for some redemptive movement. Applying the master-slave relationship to contemporary employer-employee relations as some preachers do (especially if you believe in things like worker rights and unions and HR mediation, etc.) is far more a dynamic interpretation towards equality than what I am suggesting the husband-wife relationship is. Yet, both are consistent with redemptive movement.
While I could spend a lot of time unpacking this passage, the thrust of this passage is made quite apparent when you compare it to the household codes of the culture: Paul is introducing equality, accountability, and mutuality. In a patriarchal world, Paul is minimizing the power a man has over a woman as if to say, “Fellas, if you believe you are the leader of your household like what the Greek cultures say, then be a leader like Jesus and give up your power. If you believe you are the head of the house like Aristotle says, then be like the church’s head, Jesus, and serve.”
If we read that text in the Spirit of what it was intended, we should be minimizing patriarchy today. Marriages based on mutual submission and reciprocal love would be one where decision making is shared, workload, whether at the office or at home, is shared, child-rearing is shared, etc. To fall back on the notion that men are the heads of the household is to completely miss the point of this passage. To do this, as my father used to say, is to “put your em-phas-is on the wrong syll-a-ble,” to the point that you will get yourself “bass-akwards.”
One of the more difficult passages to explain has always been 1 Tim. 2, where Paul says, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (v.12). The context of the letter to Timothy is that there are false teachers in the church, teaching myths and causing trouble. So, Paul is doing some damage control, one of which is ending women teaching. This suggests that these women could be the false teachers mentioned. But there are some odd bits about this passage: Why does the passage begin with women dressing immodestly (“women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes,” vv. 9-10)? Why does the passage mention the rational, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (vv. 13-14)? Here is the real red flag for any literalist: why does it say “she [Eve and women in general] will be saved through childbearing” (v. 15)? Is it trying to say that women will have salvation only if they have babies and be moms?
A few qualifications need to be made for this passage. Historians have found that there was a cult to the goddess of Artemis in Ephesus (mentioned in Acts 19:28-37). The temple to this goddess had concubines called hetaerae. These hetaerae were intelligent women versed in Greek mythology (which was often dualistic, which allowed them to be sexually libertine). They believed that women were superior and made before men. They did not believe in being bound to men, so they did not believe in having children. They also used their sexual allure to manipulate men. Do you see a connection?
Commentators note that the word for having “authority” in this passage (the Greek word authentein) is actually a word that suggests a forceful act of domination or usurpation and thus, could better be translated as “I do not permit a woman to teach in a dominating way.” While the passage does not mention the hetaerae by name, their qualities fit the women in this passage. Taking this passage at face value, as if the writer of First Timothy is laying out a timeless statement for church order, simply leaves the reader with too many questions. Is this implying that all women are more easily deceived than men? Is this implying that barren women are not saved? Why is Paul introducing a law that is found nowhere else in the Old Testament or the Gospels if it is for the whole church? If the passage is curbing the manipulation of hetaerae and their pupils in Ephesus, it makes sense that this is a damage control measure Paul is laying down that is not intended for all churches everywhere. Its rationale is contextual and rhetorical. In fact, notice that the passage recommends that the women will learn the appropriate teaching, implying as some note, that once they are properly instructed, they can teach again (1 Tim. 2:11). Now, this is a cursory sketch I have offered here, but remember that while the details on texts like this are quite complicated, they ultimately become mute points based on the larger framework seen in Genesis and the movement of the Spirit for God's kingdom in the Prophets and Gospels. There is a standard interpretive axiom that says that the clearer passages of the Bible must interpret the less clear ones. I would simply invite some consistency on this matter.
So, some of these passages, as I said, get a lot of airtime in complementarianism. However, this fact really exposes that the position makes its case by drumming away at a few proof texts used out of context, and apart from any consideration of history or the wider dynamics of the Bible, its redemptive movement that is constantly seeking to minimize patriarchy, not reinforce it. As you can tell, Dr. Webb (and a bunch of other writings I picked up along the way) permanently changed the way I see the Bible. I hope this brief sketch offers a new way of seeing the Bible as well.
However, as I have learned, it is one thing to have a change of opinion. It is quite another thing to live out a change of one’s convictions. It was time for me to live out redemptive movement with what I was experiencing at home…
 I make this argument in a fuller way in a sermon that was published by the Council for Biblical Equality, entitled, “The Spirit without Prejudice,” Priscilla Papers (November 1, 2022): https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/spirit-without-prejudice  Politics, Book I, chapter 12.  The book that first presented these arguments to me was Stanley Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1995)
Spencer Boersma is the Assistant Professor of Theology at Acadia Divinity College. He lives in Kentville, Nova Scotia, with his wife and five boys, and he serves on the board of ASBE.