Secular commentary on egalitarianism

The Claim

Some egalitarians claim that the egalitarian interpretation is uniquely positioned to convince unbelievers that the New Testament Christian community was egalitarian.[1]

The Facts

Although the complementarian case certainly receives criticism from general society, secular scholarship overwhelmingly supports the complementarian case and typically rejects egalitarian revisionism as ideologically motivated fiction. Ironically, it is often the egalitarian case which brings the Bible into disrepute with the non-believer.

Secular commentaries on early Christian history do not hold these views simply because they are driven by the desire to depict the Bible as negatively as possible, or because they assume the Bible is misogynist, patriarchal, and sexist. Many affirm that the Bible contains positive affirmation of women. But they are skeptical at best of egalitarian revisionist treatments of the Biblical texts, and of well established historical facts.

Alastair Campbell

Despite acknowledging the possibility of women as leaders of ecclesial meetings held in their households, historian Campbell’s overall response to egalitarian historical revisionism is negative.[2]

Instead, Campbell argues, modern Christians should simply accept that their position is different to that of the 1st century ecclesias, and acknowledge that they will necessarily abandon the apostolic teaching and example as a result of living in a different culture.[3]

Judith Lieu

Lieu is a respected academic commentator on early Christianity holding views sympathetic to egalitarian revisionism. Lieu is skeptical of such attempts firstly because of their origin.[4] She is also skeptical of them on the basis of their methodology.[5]

Lieu identifies the fact that such criticism of egalitarian revisionism is well established, and notes the methodological flaws typical to such revisionist efforts.[6]

She is unpersuaded by attempts to present Christ or Paul in an egalitarian light,[7] and unconvinced by the dramatic claims made by egalitarians for Galatians 3:28.[8]

Gerd Lüdemann

Lüdemann is unconvinced by egalitarian claims, and criticizes the revisionist work of the respected Biblical scholar Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.[9] [10]

Also receiving sharp rebuke from Lüdemann are the egalitarian attempts to read into the text more than is there. [11]

Like other secular scholars, Lüdemann is unconvinced by egalitarian claims for Galatians 3:28.[12]

Lena Ksarjian

Lena Ksarjian is sympathetic to egalitarian and feminist efforts to re-interpret the Bible,[13] but does not find these efforts convincing.[14] Ksarjian is particularly critical of the claims made by Schüssler Fiorenza.[15]

Craig Martin

Craig Martin describes the flawed interpretive methods he used to use when he was an egalitarian Christian.[16]

He explains how, on the prior assumption that the New Testament taught egalitarianism, he used these methods was to interpret the text in a manner which was acceptable to his theology.[17] [18]


[1] ‘However, there is another apologetic mission that egalitarians are in a unique and opportune position to fulfill. This involves presenting the message of biblical equality to the unbelieving world in a persuasive manner, thus winning to Christ people who might never be touched by traditionalist approaches.’, Groothius (egalitarian), ‘Apologetics: The Egalitarian Imperative’, (2002)

[2] ‘Rather than striving to show that women played a more prominent part than our evidence suggests, or that the prohibitions of the Pastorals do not mean what they appear to say, it would be more honest to admit the facts and then, if so minded, set them aside. Again, rather than using the New Testament to establish a primitive, egalitarian innocence for the church, while discarding much of the New Testament in the process, those for whom the New Testament documents speak with authority would do better to take them as a whole and ask what we learn from the disciples of the apostles and the fact that they in their generation closed the door to women in leadership after Jesus and Paul had seemed to open it.’, Campbell, ‘The elders: Seniority within earliest Christianity’, p. 275 (2004).

[3] ‘They would say to us, I think: We did what we thought was right in our situation for the sake of the spread of the gospel (1 Cor 9:20–23). The spread of the gospel is still paramount, but your day is not ours. We refused to bring discredit on the gospel by an untimely and intemperate rush for freedom. See that you do not bring discredit on the same gospel by denying a freedom whose time has long come!’, ibid., p. 275.

[4]The politics of such a view are self-evident, for much study of the subject has developed within a context where women were struggling to establish a proper role for themselves within the contemporary church; to this end they have sought an egalitarian past to act as a model for present polity.’, Lieu, ‘Neither Jew nor Greek? constructing early Christianity’, p. 83 (2002).

[5] ‘While other enthusiastic assertions about the distinctiveness of early Christianity and/or of the teaching of Jesus have been somewhat tempered in recent years, this one, [better treatment of women by early Christianity than in early Judaism] for those same reasons, has continued to be repeated. It is the purpose of this discussion neither to prove nor to disprove that claim, something which with our evidence may not be possible, but rather to explore the rhetoric which surrounds it and to expose the hazards of the naive use of sources which often accompanies it.’, ibid., p. 83.

[6] ‘To do so is not totally new: a range of recent studies has shown that such wishful thinking about Jesus’ or Paul’s ‘liberalism’ is deeply flawed, resting on a naive use of the early Christian sources, particularly regarding Jesus, and on a, perhaps less naive, misuse of the Jewish sources, taking as descriptive of the first century, the prescriptive construction of a world by the second-century male scholarly elite we know as the rabbis.2 [original footnote reproduced in footnote [6]  below]’, ibid., p. 83.

[7] ‘This essay has already rejected any model which starts with ‘the good’ that Christianity or Judaism could offer women, for such models tend to personify Christianity, usually in the person of Jesus or Paul, when recent study suggests that both Jesus and Paul were ambiguous regarding this issue, and that any place women had in their movements was ancillary to their definition of those movements.’, ibid., p. 97.

[8] ‘The arguably pre-Pauline formula in Gal. 3:28, ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, and not male and female’, has been celebrated with enthusiasm as the cornerstone of early Christian egalitarianism, particularly within feminist exegesis. Yet the rhetoric of Galatians remains unaffected by the last clause of that confession.’, ibid., p. 112

[9] ‘For all those seeking historical information and plausible historical reconstruction in Schüssler Fiorenza’s feminist-theological reconstruction of Christian origins, reading is a torment. With arbitrary exegesis she attempts to show that the early Christian movement opened up positions of leadership for women and therefore could be called egalitarian.’, Lüdemann, ‘Primitive Christianity : A survey of recent studies and some new proposals’, p. 87 (2003).

[10]Many textual analyses are very farfetched; those mentioned in the report could easily be supplemented.113 [original footnote reproduced in footnote [10]  below]  …The theological zeal behind this book is at least as absolutist as the patriarchalist exegesis of primitive Christianity and modernity which Schüssler Fiorenza attacks. It is hardly much use in moving forward constructive research into primitive Christianity.’, ibid., p. 87.

[11] ‘Scattered through the chapter there are again theses that serve to re-evaluate the role of the woman in early Christianity: Phoebe (Rom. 16:1–2) was not a deaconess commissioned for women’s work but a minister of the whole church of Cenchreae (170). That does not emerge from the wording. Three women, namely Lydia and her companions (cf. Acts 16:15), are said to have been founders and leaders of the church of Philippi, with whom ‘Paul had entered into a “communal partnership” (societas)’ (178). This thesis is derived solely from Acts. Finally Prisca—by means of an uncertain historical judgement—becomes the teacher of Apollos (179).’ , ibid., p. 87.

[12] ‘Ch. 6 is headed ‘Neither Male and Female. Galatians 3:28—Alternative Vision and Pauline Modification’ (205–41). Schüssler Fiorenza rightly regards the text as a pre-Pauline baptismal declaration. The text is ‘best understood as a communal Christian self-definition rather than a statement about the baptized individual’ (213).’, ibid., p. 87.

[13] Ibid.

[14]In conclusion, I am sympathetic with the feminist project. I do not believe that feminist scholars are engaging in some intellectual sleight of hand or are pulling a nonexistent rabbit out of a nonexistent hat. I do believe these scholars are well-intended. However, some of these intentions serve to promote patriarchy rather than help eliminate it.’, Ksarjian, ‘Trying to Prove that the Bible Is Pro-Woman How some feminists perpetuate patriarchy’, Free Inquiry Magazine, (19.1.1999)

[15] ‘’In Schüssler Fiorenza’s view, Galatians 3:28 is the “magna carta of Christian Feminism.”9 From the historical point of view, Schüssler Fiorenza’s interpretation is vulnerable.'[15]

‘In light of these complexities I do not see how Schüssler Fiorenza’s interpretations can withstand historical scrutiny.’, ibid.

[16] ‘Another example of selective privileging can be seen with the way in which Christian communities interpret the comments about the status of women in the Pauline and deuteroPauline letters. Some passages in these letters recommend measures that we would now consider to be sexist; other passages suggest Paul apparently supported women in leadership positions.’, Martin, ‘How to Read an Interpretation: Interpretive Strategies and the Maintenance of Authority’, The Bible and Critical Theory, p. 05.14 (5.1.2009).

[17] ‘This was exactly the position I took in my early undergraduate studies: reconciling my assumption of the inerrancy and authority of the Bible with my view of God as necessarily egalitarian required exhaustive mental gymnastics.’, ibid., p. 06.14.

[18] ‘I tended to privilege selectively the passages that appeared to support women in leadership positions, and then I read the passages that disparaged the role of women in light of those, often attempting to interpret the sexist passages as if they were not sexist. How could the apparently sexist passages be interpreted as not sexist? Sometimes with the simultaneous deployment of ventriloquism – ‘Paul really means something completely different than what he seems to say’ – and sometimes with the simultaneous use of disabling contextualization – ‘this comment was only applicable to the specific context in which Paul was writing, and doesn’t apply to other contexts.’’, ibid., p. 06.14.

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