Theological Differences, Respectful Debate: A Concluding Conversation with John Mark Hicks on Gender and the Bible
*Editor’s Note: In our 12-article series on Gender and the Bible (summarized here), we interacted with biblical scholars with whom we found both agreement and disagreement. One of our primary interactions was with John Mark Hicks’s book Women Serving God: My Journey in Understanding Their Story in the Bible. Although there are significant disagreements we have with some of the exegesis in his book, we are grateful for his friendship and his scholarship. We have invited John Mark to pen a summary response to the series, and then we too have written a response after his. Our hope in this last article is twofold: first, that the reader engages the debate and comes away with biblical convictions. Second, we hope that this serves as a model of sorts for how to respectfully engage theological debates which are far from the center of our faith’s bullseye, but which are nonetheless important in faithfully living out God’s plan for the church.
John Mark Hicks’s Response to On Gender and the Bible
I am grateful to Renew for the invitation to offer a 2500-word response to their 12-article series “On Gender and the Bible.”
In their first article, Renew identified my book, Women Serving God, as a primary interlocutor. Several articles directly interacted with it; others did not. I responded to those articles where Renew engaged my book specifically. A list of the article interactions, with links may be found here. I recommend everyone read both Renée’s book (On Gender) and mine as well as the articles for a full account.
First, I will address our differences about the participation of women in the assembly. Second, I will offer some general perspectives regarding Renew’s 9,000+ word summary (article #12). My response is entirely too brief, but I appreciate the space Renew has afforded me.
The Use of Gifts in the Assembly
My book focused on a specific question, “Does God invite women to fully participate through audible and visible leadership in all the assemblies of the saints where men and women are gathered to glorify God and edify each other?” (p. 16).
On this question, Renew and I find significant common ground.
- We both affirm the practice of women praying and prophesying in the assembly as a function of audible and visible leadership.
- We both believe 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is a narrow concern and does not entail prohibiting women from speaking (e.g., praying, testifying, and reading Scripture) in the assembly.
- We both affirm there are forms of leadership within and outside the assembly (including teaching adult Bible classes and leading small groups among other functions) that do not dishonor “male headship (authority).”
Gratefully, Renew rejects the historic traditional position that silences women in the assembly except for singing (though much of history also silenced the singing of women). In other words, their interpretation of “male headship (authority)” is itself a new interpretation of the restrictive texts which began to emerge with some significance in the 19th century. The “soft complementarian” position is a new position in the context of traditional practices. Traditionalists see this as caving into the women’s movements of the last two centuries.
In relation to the assembly, our primary difference is simply this: Renew believes authoritative teaching belongs only to “male headship in the local church.” This teaching “leads and sets direction for the congregation.”
Does this mean any lesson delivered from the pulpit on a Sunday morning “sets direction for the congregation?” Does this exclude women from all preaching or only some forms of or contexts for preaching? In other words, how does one discern when a function exercises headship (excluding women) and another function only exercises leadership (including women)?
Renew and I agree women may lead the assembly, but Renew restricts women from “authoritative teaching,” that is, the task of the “main preacher” and elders/overseers. They do so primarily on this basis:
- They see prophesying as less authoritative than teaching because women prophesied in the assembly but they are not permitted to teach authoritatively. The gift of prophecy, however, is given priority over teaching in the same way apostleship is given priority over prophesying in 1 Corinthians 12:28: “first, apostles; second, prophets; and third teachers.”
- Women should not exercise ecclesial [my word] authority over men (Renew’s interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12). However, (a) the translation of the rare word as “authority” is highly disputed; (b) it is not Paul’s word for ecclesial authority anywhere else (including 1 Timothy), and (c) women elsewhere exercised communal authority over men in Scripture (Deborah and Esther).
I don’t find these two points credible.
- Prophesying is speaking the word of God for the sake of edification, teaching, encouragement, and revelation. The distinction between prophesying and teaching in terms of authority is weighted in the wrong direction; prophesying is more weighty than teaching. It is also a distinction of recent origin—a new interpretation.
- To exclude women from authoritative teaching on the basis of 1 Timothy 2:12 is precarious because the grammar, lexicography, and context is problematic. I have identified twelve different interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:12. Renew’s own discussion of 1 Timothy 2:12 identified their position as “likely” rather than certain. Their interpretation is dubious (see this video for a more thorough discussion).
Contrary to identifying a single office or gender as leaders in the assembly, 1 Corinthians 14:26 says, “What is the outcome of this, brothers and sisters? When you meet together, each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. All these things must be done to build up the church.” When Paul says “brothers” in 1 Corinthians, he includes both men and women (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:1; 14:6, 20; 15:1). Both men and women are singing/praying (psalm), teaching, prophesying (revelation), and speaking in tongues in the assembly. Women were teaching as well as prophesying and praying. Renew does not think 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 totally silences women except disorderly ones (Oster) or those who judge the prophets in 14:29 (Sproles). This leaves lots of space for women to exercise audible and visible leadership in the assembly.
My point is a simple one. In terms of the assembly, Renew and I disagree only on one particular: they exclude women from serving as authoritative teachers.
Renew and I agree that whatever “male headship (authority)” is, it does not silence women in the assembly. The problem of identifying exactly what is a “male headship (authority)” function in the assembly is not explicit in the New Testament. It must be inferred, which is why soft complementarians (including those in the Renew network) often disagree about where to draw the line.
- Some don’t permit women to teach adult male Bible classes; some do.
- Some don’t permit women to co-preach with a male leader; some do.
- Some don’t permit women to lead worship; some do.
- Some don’t permit women to officiate at the communion table; some do.
- Some don’t permit women to permit women to permanently lead small groups that include men; some do.
- Some don’t permit women to be lead ministers over programs in the church involving men; some do.
- Some don’t permit women to preside over a baptism; some do.
I could go on. In 1995 (revised in 2006 & 2013), Grudem identified nine governing activities, ten teaching activities, and one “public visibility or recognition” position that are restricted to men while he detailed nineteen governing activities, twenty-five teaching activities, and nineteen activities related to “public visibility or recognition” that are open to women. The application of “male headship (authority)” is no simple matter.
Should not such an important principle that is foundational to male/female relationships be more clear?
Such applications, however, are unnecessary. No text explicitly restricts the participation of women in the assembly based on “male headship (authority).” Women prayed and prophesied even as they honored their heads. Headship (whatever that means) actually supports women in their praying and prophesying in the assembly, and prophesying—speaking the word of God to the assembly—carries authority to which the assembly should submit, after they are properly tested like all words should be. Since prophecy bears authority, it might be that 1 Timothy 2:12 does not mean what Renew thinks it “likely” means.
Summary of Article #12
If we appeal to history (not necessarily a bad thing), it cuts both ways. Perhaps worldly patriarchy has always (for centuries) influenced the interpretation of Scripture just as much as some think worldly egalitarianism influences the interpretation of Scripture today.
- The vast majority of Christians were traditionalists (totally silencing women in the assembly).
- The vast majority of Christians excluded women from any public roles in society as well the home and church. As late as the early 20th century, many Christians opposed suffrage because a woman should only exercise authority through a man (supposed meaning of 1 Timothy 2:12).
- The vast majority of Christians believed women were inferior intellectually, inherently gullible (easily deceived), and too emotional for leadership, even into the early 20th century (if not still among some).
- The vast majority denied women and men were equally created in the image of God. For them priority in creation implied Adam was a superior human. This includes some of the most renowned Christian theologians. Thomas Aquinas, for example, said females—as created—were inherently “deficient” and not made in the image of God in the same way males are.
- Many (though difficult to quantify) Christians overlooked, sanctioned, or even justified the maltreatment of women from domestic violence to sexual abuse.
Historically, female itinerant preaching emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries at about the same time Christians began to advocate for the abolition of slavery.
Nevertheless, it is better—Renew would agree—to seek the restoration of God’s intent in creation rather than use historical arguments as theological principles. History is filled with good and bad, and the way to adjudicate is through biblical theology.
1. God created males and females to be different.
I prefer to say, God created males and females different. Males and females are differentiated, This a created good. God created diversity within nature and humanity. This diversity enriches life and brings different perspectives and experiences to the table. Difference does not imply a difference in authority, however. Rather, God enjoys the diversity of the human community because it enriches the community as they share life together in mutual submission.
2. God created male headship (authority) in the beginning.
This is the crux because it fundamentally and unnecessarily conflates primogeniture (authority as first created) with headship.
Does the creation of Adam have primogeniture significance?
This is an unnecessary inference because (a) the text of Genesis does not read as a primogeniture text because the climactic moment is the creation of women so that humanity is whole (good); (b) primogeniture is not absolute in Genesis as Isaac is given the promise over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Judah over Rueben, and Ephraim over Manasseh; (c) the only explicit identification of authority in Genesis 1-2 is their shared authority over the creation; (d) the woman was created as an equal help/ally (one who corresponds or is “face-to-face”); (e) if it is primogeniture, then men should have authority over women not only in the home and church but in all social relationships; and (f) 1 Timothy 2:13 may be read differently as a narrative sequence rather than assuming primogeniture (see this article).
Does Paul use the word “head” as a synonym for authority?
This is not certain. There are other potential meanings from “ontologically superior” (traditional reading) to “source” to “head/body-unity/nourishment” to “prominence in terms of what came first.” I don’t think Paul means “authority” because (a) women participate in the assembly with their own authority (1 Corinthians 11:10, NIV, CEB); (b) though women came from men, now men come through women, and all things come from God—in the Lord, there is mutuality rather than gendered authority; (c) this is the only text (1 Corinthians 11:3) that indicates that “headship” is a relationship that every man sustains to every woman, but if it means authority, then this should apply to society as well as home and church (why is this not universally true rather than only in the home and church?); (d) headship in Ephesians 5 is about the head/body analogy where the head nourishes the body (rather than having authority over the body) and this relationship is characterized by mutual submission; and (e) if “head” means authority, then it appears men have authority over women in analogous way that Christ has authority over the church—which is absolute authority, a Lordship authority.
In other words, this claim is far from certain, based on a few ambiguous lines in a few texts, rooted in inferences rather than explicit statements, and has created a primogeniture understanding in place of the mutuality and shared authority of Genesis 1. I think perhaps worldly patriarchy has influenced Christian interpreters throughout the centuries (leading them to traditionalist conclusions) rather than hearing the intent of the word of God. Soft complementarians, I believe, need to reclaim the original divine intent for creation rather than one influenced by worldly patriarchy.
I understand Ephesians 5 in a much more mutual sense than a hierarchical one. Since my book did not discuss this question, I will move on due to space limitations.
5. Male Headship in the Local Church is Reflected in the Teaching-Authority and Elder Roles.
I offered my perspective on “teaching-authority” in the previous section. As to elders, my book makes no case about elders, so I will conserve space. Yet, though insufficient, I note that elders are never described as “heads” as part of their function in the local church, there are no male pronouns in the Greek text when Paul describes the qualities of elders/overseers, and Paul begins 1 Timothy 3:1, “if anyone” which is gender neutral.
6. Men and Women are to submit to and honor the authority of male headship in the church.
Of course, this sense of “authority” depends on: (a) the meaning of “head” and (b) the meaning of authority in 1 Timothy 2:12. These are dubious conclusions and far from certain.
I have no problem with believers submitting to teaching and appropriate functions/gifts of other believers. The question is whether that authority is gendered such that no females may serve as authoritative teachers (though women prophets did). Since believers are to submit to every fellow-worker and laborer, and women are included among Paul’s fellow-workers and laborers (20% are women in Paul’s letters; 1 Cor. 16:15-16; Romans 16:3, 6, 12; Philippians 4:3), then believers should submit to women as they serve within the community of faith. Submission is not about a gendered hierarchy of authority among believers but mutual submission to each other in the exercise of our gifts.
Authority lies in giftedness rather than gender. We submit to those who exercise their gifts within the community.
7. On Blessing the Church.
I have some questions.
- What if we have perpetuated worldly patriarchy instead of embracing mutual submission?
- What if we excluded gifts (including teaching) from the assembly because of worldly patriarchy?
- What if we have suffered loss (the common good for which gifts are designed) because we have excluded women from the exercise of some gifts due to worldly patriarchy?
I could ask more questions, but I am out of space.
“Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have victims.” Many women can testify to that. They have been victims throughout church history.
I, with Renew, affirm: “men and women were created by God to equally reflect, in gendered [sexually differentiated, JMH] ways, the nature and character of God in the world.”
We mirror the glory of God in differentiated but mutual ways. Neither spiritual gifts nor authority are gendered. Rather, God’s glory is manifested through the diverse exercise of gifts within the community of faith.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all.
Response to John Mark Hicks
We appreciate the opportunity to complete our dialogue with John Mark Hicks regarding gender and the Bible. Each of us is better for having respectfully listened to the other. Because John Mark has graciously noted our points of agreement, we will move to a summary of our four key disagreements with his position.
Our fundamental disagreement is with Hicks’ rejection of male headship. We believe that God’s Word—in contradistinction to the voice of our culture—teaches that it is vital to uphold male headship. Four points elucidate our disagreement:
- Prophecy and teaching
- Primogeniture and headship
- The Church Fathers
1. Prophecy and Teaching: Which Is More Authoritative?
Hicks is right: prophecy is speaking the word of God for the sake of edification, teaching, encouragement, and revelation. But we disagree on the question of whether prophecy is weightier than teaching.
In Greek and Roman culture, there were pagan, Jewish, and Christian experiences of prophecy. Scholars David Aune and Wayne Grudem have demonstrated the diverse spectrum of what constituted prophecy in the early church (see Acts 16:16). So, in places like 1 John 4:1 and 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, the church is instructed to test prophecies. And how do they test them? In the same way priests used Scriptures in the Old Testament period.
Do not miss the Old Testament model, given by God: male priests were the authoritative teachers. Malachi 2:7 described their job succinctly: “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth.” Prophets—male and female—appeared here and there. But the burden of teaching was on the male priesthood in Israel.
This model was also the norm in the synagogue in the first century. In those meetings, “there was a large core of dedicated men who had given their lives to the study of the Scriptures, and who prepared themselves to preach when the leadership of the synagogue invited them to do so.” The synagogue thus became a natural model for the early church.
Consistent with this norm, God inspired Paul to teach women to honor male headship when they prophesied (1 Corinthians 11:3-5) and Paul teaches women to be silent during the disruptions or the judging of prophecies (1 Corinthians 14:29-34). This was to be the norm in all New Testament churches (1 Corinthians 11:16; 14:33-34).
And this is why women prophesied, but did not serve as authoritative teachers in the gathered church (1 Timothy 2:11-15).
We believe Hicks is mistaken to place prophecy above authoritative teaching based on God’s Word to the Apostles.
Hicks says the translation of the rare word authentein, often translated as “authority” in 1 Timothy 2:12 is disputed. And, “to exclude women from authoritative teaching on the basis of 1 Timothy 2:12 is precarious because the grammar, lexicography, and context is problematic.” But respected contemporary scholars who specialize in the meaning of this word present a different view (see Thomas Schreiner’s summary article from 2018). Their counterargument, coupled with exegetical disagreement described in our posts, make Hick’s interpretation unlikely (See Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12).
But there is an even more important point to be made about Hicks’s view of authority and submission.
Hicks writes: “Authority lies in giftedness rather than gender. We submit to those who exercise their gifts within the community.”
However, this principle is being assumed even though it is not taught in the New Testament. Meanwhile, the verses that clearly tie authority to the male gender are being reinterpreted. Paul consistently uses the theological principle of male headship to address authority in the churches and home (1 Corinthians 11:8-10; 1 Timothy 2:13; Ephesians 5:21-33).
Hicks, unwittingly replaces what Scripture teaches with a cultural value.
Isaiah was clearly better qualified and gifted to be the Davidic king rather than Ahaz, but he was not chosen by God to serve in that capacity. He could have been the most spiritually gifted person in Judah, but he couldn’t be king—or even a Levitical priest. He was chosen to be a prophet.
In a theocratic model, which is the model featured in the Bible, giftedness is not the foundation of authority. Westerners chafe at that. We don’t like to hear that. But Scripture must be our guide.
In this context, Hicks often uses the phrase “mutual submission,” but his concept of mutuality is more cultural than biblical. “Mutual submission” implies interchangeability, a 50/50 relationship. Jesus submitted to the cross for the sake of the church, but his submission is not interchangeable, nor a 50/50 relationship with the church. Jesus provides headship for the church, but the church does not provide headship for Jesus. The same applies to husbands and wives (Ephesians 5:21-33).
Our culture is increasingly eliminating hierarchies. But we must remember that Jesus participated in the value system of male headship, which included authority and submission. And lest we be tempted to see this as accommodation to the culture of his time, let’s recall that, throughout the New Testament, male headship is persistently rooted, not in human culture, but in God’s created order in Genesis 1 and 2.
3. Primogeniture and the Order of Creation
Primogeniture holds that headship is based upon birth or creation order.
When Hicks calls the significance of Adam’s primogeniture an “unnecessary inference,” he implies that Paul misunderstands Genesis. Paul clearly uses the word protos, meaning first in time or order, first in dignity or importance, when describing the relationship between Adam and Eve (Genesis 2; 1 Timothy 2:13; 1 Corinthians 11:8-10). It is a primogeniture argument for the principle of headship.
Despite his contention that this is “far from certain, based on a few ambiguous lines in a few texts, rooted in inferences,” primogeniture was understood as authoritative in the ancient world, whether in homes or in society at large.
A modern-day example of primogeniture is the British monarchy. The Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, is the firstborn son of The Prince of Wales and Diana, Princess of Wales. As firstborn, he will one day be king. When this happens, he will not have a license to do whatever he wants; rather, he’ll have great responsibilities toward the subjects of the United Kingdom. He will submit to the needs of his subjects, and his subjects will submit to his authority, but these roles are not interchangeable nor do the play out in a similar manner.
Whether it is an argument our culture uses or not, the primogeniture/headship argument is the posture of the New Testament regarding men and women in churches.
4. The Church Fathers
To be clear, Hicks and Renew both seek God’s intent as described in Scripture rather than in history. And Hicks is right to say that Renew.org’s position is more expansive than that found in many places in the earliest church. But the appeal to early church history does not cut both ways equally as he says.
We think it is important to look at the interpretation of the earliest Church Fathers (leaders of the second and third centuries).
They were 1) discipled by the apostles, 2) assumed leadership in the churches established by the apostles, 3) spoke the same language, and 4) and typically lived in the same culture as the apostles. It is instructive to see which view they embraced.
What do they show us?
We cannot find Hicks’s arguments (or egalitarian ones) in their writings. The historical sources are silent when we look for the theological/spiritual perspective regarding the ministry of women proposed by Hicks. It does not exist.
Instead, they make complementarian arguments.
To be sure, we can find a few misogynistic writings, which we, like Hicks repudiate. And, truth be told, men in the first century, like men in the twenty-first century, often needed help to understand Jesus-style headship. A man’s “harsh” tendencies can naturally creep in anywhere testosterone is found. We believe discipleship in the ways of Jesus is the best antidote for a man’s sinful tendencies, not culturally derived understandings of gender.
But, at the same time, we find second and third century affirmations that are in step with Renew.org.
- They stated their belief in male and female equality.
- They stated their belief in male headship in the home.
- They stated their belief in only male preachers and elders of the gathered church.
- They supported female teachers for ministry outside the gathered church.
- They supported female deacons for baptisms, anointing for prayer, etc.
- They supported a special order of female widows for prayer, care of the sick and benevolence.
- The supported female missionaries.
We leave this discussion with an acknowledgement that theological disagreements on important topics like this one can be hard for all of us. We disagree with him, but we love and respect John Mark more than we can say.
 See Everett Ferguson, “Using Historical Foreground in New Testament Interpretation,” in The Early Church and Today, Volume 2 (Abilene Christian University Press, 2014).