What does the Bible really say about the roles of women and men in the church and at home?
Within evangelical Christianity, this question is anything but abstract theology. It has sparked a fundamental and sometimes fierce debate, with significant consequences for people's daily lives and livelihood - and perhaps for the future of the church.
America's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), for example, now insists the Bible prescribes male pastoral leadership in church and the "gracious submission" of wives to their husbands. As a result:
• Teachers at their seminaries and missionaries around the world who refuse to sign a statement in agreement are being fired or forced to resign their posts.
• Hundreds of women pastors find their contributions no longer recognized.
• A former woman leader in the Baptist World Alliance speaks of a "rising tide of female suppression in US Christian churches."
Some other denominations, including Pentecostal groups whose early preachers were women, are taking a similar tack.
But many evangelicals vigorously disagree. To the contrary, they say, the Bible teaches the fundamental equality of men and women, and they are developing materials and resources to demonstrate it.
"We call ourselves Bible egalitarians," says Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality, a "reformist movement" of individuals and churches from 85 denominations. Earlier this month, Christians from every continent met in Orlando, Fla., for CBE's biennial conference. "Individuals around the globe who are conservative theologically, as we are, are seeing in the pages of the Bible ... a call for gift-based, not gender-based, ministry," Ms. Haddad says.
Roles in the church should be based on the God-given gifts of individuals, which are without regard to gender, class, or race, they say, pointing to Gal. 3:28: "There is neither Jew or Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
The gender-based position within churches, many say, is a reaction to secular feminism.
"Prior to this time there has never been a Baptist doctrinal statement on the role of women or gender," says Catherine Allen, a lifelong Southern Baptist in Birmingham, Ala.
Haddad emphasizes that Minneapolis-based CBE is not coming from a feminist stance, but strictly from biblical teaching. "We are radically traditional - radical in representing the heart of scripture and coming against an evangelical culture which has embraced a view of gender we think is not biblical."
Taking the contrary view is the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, in Louisville, Ky., (www.cbmw.org). "Men and women are created equal in the image of God, but according to the Bible there are differences in role and function based on gender," says Randy Stinson, the council's executive director. They have complementary roles, but under "male headship." "Since the Bible has prescribed a particular arrangement for the home, then successful homes are at stake; since it has prescribed a structure for the church, the witness of the church is at stake as well."
Much of the debate swirls around the New Testament teachings of Paul, with egalitarians saying that some verses referring to specific situations have been inappropriately universalized, and that verses about wives submitting to husbands must be seen in the context of teachings about Christians submitting to one another.
"Paul taught mutual submission; he doesn't mean that women are always submissive," says John Kohlenberger III, an evangelical author of biblical commentaries and reference books.
Dr. Kohlenberger and other scholars contribute articles for CBE's quarterly journal, Priscilla Papers, which takes the message to colleges and seminaries as well as to organization members. CBE also runs a resource center on biblical equality (www.cbeinternational.org), and publishes Mutuality magazine, with news on how churches are confronting the issue.
A recent edition shared the experiences of Willow Creek, the influential megachurch in South Barrington, Ill., which was founded on an egalitarian basis, as well as that of a small, very conservative Lititz, Pa., church whose congregation went through a radical shift and now has a female senior pastor.
Educated in conservative evangelical circles, Kohlenberger says he's only recently completed his own journey to egalitarianism. Though his wife was concerned about the issue 20 years ago, he never paid attention until, while teaching at a Bible college, he began noticing "a lot of couples in which the female partner was definitely the more gifted, and was being intentionally held back by the husband."
Still, it wasn't until 1997, he says, that he started looking into the subject seriously. After a couple of years of study, he became "fully convinced that much had been ignored in the text and in early church history that made a very strong case for the egalitarian perspective.
"We see women in the first three centuries called by every title there is in the church - deacon, apostle, elder," he says. "It wasn't until the fourth century when the church became more institutionalized that women started to get forced out."
This is what worries Ms. Allen today. A former head of the women's department in the Baptist World Alliance, she says that with women being forced out of mission leadership, the needs of women around the world will be undervalued. "I'm concerned that it is a corrupt version of the Christian message that will be presented, and ... that men will go to reach other men, and expect women to believe what the men tell them."
According to Haddad, some Christians working in Eastern Europe have found that promoting female subordination undermines their evangelism. After years of communist egalitarianism, people aren't very receptive.
Mr. Stinson counters, "Being faithful to Scripture never hinders evangelism.... We are seeing just how countercultural God has called the church to be. I think it's a test for the church to be faithful to the Bible in this area." Some suggest that it's mostly middle-aged people who will stand by the hierarchical position, that younger people already have a different worldview.
Haddad has been invited to present CBE workshops at the Cornerstone Festival, a big Christian rock 'n' roll gathering held annually, and at the Urbana Conference, the world's largest evangelical missions meeting attended by many young leaders. CBE is also helping raise the awareness of young scholars at annual meetings of groups like the Evangelical Theological Society.
Southern Baptists disenchanted with SBC's direction are also helping to swell the ranks of the CBE. Some seminary professors forced to retire or resign are putting their talents to work for CBE. Allen joined when she realized the need for a coherent, studious response to the fundamentalist position.
"This is a drastic thing, and it's going to make a change all across the evangelical spectrum to have an elephant like the Southern Baptist Convention setting the pace," she says. "The forces speaking for the subordination of women are very articulate and well funded."
Yet she also sees CBE making a difference. "Couples are studying together and marriages are being transformed," Allen says. "And entire churches are using [CBE] resources to study the issue and change their policy on who will be in leadership."