The Pink Pamphlet: Soul Survivor’s Position on Women in Leadership
I also love Soul Survivor. How could I not? The largest Christian youth event there is, a passion for the Bible and the Holy Spirit, hundreds making responses to the gospel every year, led by one of the country’s most gifted communicators, a veritable factory of young worship leaders, and many of the best songs to be written in my generation. Tim Hughes, Matt Redman, Ben Cantelon, Mike Pilavachi and Jeannie Morgan have all come down to serve our church brilliantly in the last few years (and two of them were instrumental in getting my books off the ground), I’ve spoken there, and a bunch of my friends spend most of their summers there. It’s an amazing event, and an amazing movement.
But. (You knew it was coming.) A friend of mine, who leads young people at a Baptist church, recently sent me a copy of the pink pamphlet they handed out this year entitled, “Women in Leadership: Soul Survivor’s Position on Women in Leadership”, written by Graham Cray, and asked me what I thought about it. Normally, I’d just email back my brief reflections and move on. But the scale of Soul Survivor, the number of young people I know who go, and some of the errors and problems with the argument within it, taken together, made me think a careful review was in order. So here goes.
I’ll start by saying that there is a lot in the pamphlet that is excellent. As is so often the way with these things, there’s far more to agree with than to disagree with, which is a good thing: the equality of men and women, the story of women with leadership roles in the Old Testament, the massive affirmation of women in the story and ministry of Jesus, the implications of the cross and of Pentecost, the roles women played in Paul’s apostolic ministry, and the broad interpretation of the controversial passages about head coverings and silence in churches, to name but a few. I haven’t counted, but I suspect the total percentage of sentences I would take issue with is extremely small – and that is hugely encouraging for future dialogue.
Having said that, the pamphlet is tainted by some obvious errors. Aside from the typos (which I presume indicate it was put together quickly), there are a number of factual inaccuracies. 1 Corinthians 16:19 does not indicate that Priscilla and Aquila were leaders at Corinth, but (and this may be relevant for the interpretation of the Pastorals) at Ephesus, from where Paul was writing at the time. The nouns for New Testament leadership offices like presbuteros and episkopos are masculine, not neuter, and so are some of the qualifications (husband of one wife, managing his household well, and so on). John does not tell us that Mary Magdalene was sent to the other apostles, and the word apostello is not used, and it does not “literally” mean “apostled” anyway; in fact, the only people whom we know Jesus to have sent in the gospels with the verb apostello are men (e.g. Matt 10:5, 16; Luke 24:49; John 20:21; etc.) It is simply false to say that “in the Hebrew or Greek way of thinking, being the head had nothing to do with being charge or making decisions”, as a quick survey of the lexicon entries for, or the hundreds of biblical occurrences of, rosh (Hebrew) and kephale (Greek) will make clear. Nor is it the case that Paul always used the word “Lord” rather than “head” when he was talking about Jesus being in charge of the church (Eph 1:22 is the most obvious counterexample). It’s hard to tell which of these are mere slips of the pen, and which are more central to the argument – but either way, the fact is that these statements are incorrect.
The pamphlet also makes some highly contentious exegetical judgments without notifying the reader that they are contentious at all. Perhaps the most obvious concerns the (hugely debated) meaning of kephale:
There is just one use of the word ‘head’ in the English language that gives some indication of what the original language meant and that’s the head of the river. This doesn’t mean a part of the river that’s ‘in charge’ but the part where it starts before it becomes a more fully flowing river. It’s a word that means ‘source’ or ‘origin’.
The risk here is one of bamboozling the unwary by appeal to original meanings to which readers do not have access, and doing so in a way that implies a scholarly consensus that does not exist. Twenty five years ago, Gordon Fee made the case that kephale meant ‘source’ in his commentary on 1 Corinthians (not Ephesians!), and a number of other scholars have agreed (Murphy-O’Connor, Schrage, Barrett), but the vast majority of articles and commentaries in the last fifteen years have rejected this interpretation, preferring either the view that kephale connotes ‘authority’ or ‘hierarchy’ (Fitzmyer, Grudem, Ciampa and Rosner) or ‘pre-eminence’ (Perriman, Horrell, Thiselton, Garland, Best) – including leading egalitarian scholars like Howard Marshall and Ben Witherington. To argue for the meaning “source” at all, in academic circles, is controversial; to simply state it without alerting the reader to what a minority position it is, with reference to Ephesians 5:23, is extremely misleading. The same sort of thing happens with reference to 1 Timothy 2:11, where the submission is claimed to be to God, rather than (with most commentators) to the teachers and/or the teaching. Minority views aren’t necessarily wrong, of course; we wouldn’t have had a Reformation if they were. But when so many scholars reject your views, it is at best confusing and at worst disingenuous to drop them in without qualification, when writing for young people who usually won’t have the original languages.
The texts which are omitted from consideration are also, in my view, of some significance. The structure of the pamphlet is fairly simple: start with some basic affirmations; move through Genesis, the Old Testament, Jesus and Paul, demonstrating how men and women are equal throughout (amen!); and then with that foundation in place, deal with the four “passages that cause controversy” in Paul’s letters (Eph 5:21-33; 1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:8-15). The approach, unsurprisingly, is to limit the number of “problem texts” to four, and then explain why they do not conflict with the argument being made. But Ephesians 5 is not the only text that talks about submission in marriage. What about Colossians 3:18-19? More extensively, what about 1 Peter 3:1-7? Why do we die “in Adam” if Eve sinned first (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:21-22)? If one-way submission indicates inequality, then what about the passage that talks about Jesus submitting to the Father when he returns (1 Cor 15:28)? Similarly, what about the texts that deal with qualifications for eldership (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9)? As far as I can tell, the word “overseer” never appears and the word “elder” only appears once in the pamphlet, in the very last paragraph, despite its centrality to the wider discussion about gender roles. Even there, the explanation is not at all satisfactory:
As the letter goes on in 1 Timothy 3 we read instructions for appointing elders and deacons. Although many Bibles translate the commands as ‘he’ (i.e.’he must manage his own family well’) the original texts didn’t use masculine nouns for these leadership titles but neuter ones, so they do not automatically exclude women. That would again point to the fact he was only temporarily stopping women from teaching until they themselves had been taught.
I’ve already pointed out the inaccuracy of the statement about neuter nouns, which is the primary response in this paragraph to a commitment to male eldership. At least two of the qualifications are explicitly addressed to men (3:2, 4-5), and the same is true when we consider the qualifications in Titus (1:6). Furthermore, for what it’s worth, I have yet to encounter a commentator, of any theological commitment, who does not believe that the Pastorals assume overseers/elders will be men. Of course, a twenty-page pamphlet cannot address every passage. But given that the two main differences between complementarians and egalitarians concern marriage and the office of overseer/elder, it does not seem at all adequate to treat the two passages which list qualifications for the latter so briefly and inaccurately, and to ignore two of the three passages which address the former altogether.
A further problem is the pamphlet’s confusing use of language. It is not clear to me, as a relatively well-informed reader, how exactly the differences between terms like “hierarchy”, “authority”, “leadership”, “in charge”, “take priority” and “dominance” are to be understood. From what I can tell, “leadership” is compatible with “equality” and is used whenever the nuance is intended to be good, and the other words are incompatible with “equality” and are used whenever the nuance is intended to be bad – but that may be an oversimplification. Jumping between them makes the argument difficult to follow: there is no hierarchy in the Trinity, and man is not supposed to be in charge of woman or take priority over her, but men and women can both exercise leadership. Which makes me want to ask: if a woman “leads”, is she thereby exercising “authority”? Part of a “hierarchy”? “In charge”? “Dominant”, even? I’m not being awkward here; I genuinely don’t understand the differences being drawn, and it makes me suspect (though I hope I’m wrong) that the main differences are in the emotional freight they carry. If a find-and-replace was to take place on the document, and every one of these terms was replaced by “servant leadership” – which, for Jesus as for Paul, is the only sort of gospel-shaped authority there is – I wonder if the pamphlet would take on a different, and perhaps more even-handed, flavour.
On a related note, the pamphlet frequently pitches equality against hierarchy / authority / leadership (men and women are equal, so neither of them ought to be leading the other). This approach, although (sadly) common in the debate, is very problematic. Take this very important question, for example: is it possible for one person to have a leadership responsibility with respect to another, and yet be equal with them? If the answer is yes, then the fact that a husband and a wife are equal (which, of course, I believe) is in no way an argument against one having leadership responsibility for the other. If the answer is no, on the other hand, then a whole series of questions emerge: is a woman church leader not equal with the people she serves? Does the fact that the author of the pamphlet calls himself “Bishop Graham Cray” several times indicate that he believes he is superior to others? Does acknowledging the leadership responsibility of an Emperor, or a Prime Minister, make me somehow unequal with them before God? Surely not. One would assume the answer, then, was that leadership – authority exercised in such a way as to serve others – is compatible with equality. As such, affirming (rightly) the equality of men and women has no bearing at all on who gets to be overseers/elders, and whether the husband leads his family.
Finally, when it comes to marriage, the pamphlet seems to come out against any role distinctions in marriage at all, but it doesn’t quite say that. To be honest, in a document explaining why Soul Survivor believe women can lead in the church, this section need not have been included at all; many leading egalitarians, including several of those cited at the end of the pamphlet, argue that women can be overseers/elders/bishops in the church, but that men should take primary responsibility for their families as servant leaders (Tom Wright, Ben Witherington, Chris Wright, and so on). At any rate, the standard popular egalitarian arguments on Ephesians 5 are presented, namely (1) headship means source, and (2) Paul was talking about mutual submission. But again, when the weight of church history and New Testament scholarship are considered, (1) becomes virtually untenable in this context – even egalitarian scholars cited in the pamphlet (Tom Wright, Howard Marshall), who tentatively suggest it might mean “source” in 1 Corinthians, admit it must refer to leadership in Ephesians 5 – and consequently, (2) does not have the force the pamphlet implies, since the way husbands and wives submit are clearly different (husbands, like Jesus, as servant and self-sacrificial leaders, with wives, like the church, responding in joyful and voluntary submission). There are, of course, a whole bunch of egalitarian scholars who agree with the pamphlet’s basic position. But their way of getting there – effectively, admitting that Paul and Peter affirmed male leadership (Eph 5:22-33; Col 3:18-19; 1 Pet 3:1-7), but that we have moved beyond that now – is wholly different, and would, I suspect, give many of the team at Soul Survivor significant hermeneutical concerns. And rightly so.
I began this article by affirming my support for women in leadership, and my love for Soul Survivor as an event, a team and a church. This morning I listened to a Soul Survivor worship album before leaving for work, two weeks ago I introduced a woman deacon in our church to speak in our Sunday morning meeting, and as I write this article my wife is on Eastbourne seafront with our children, exercising the most important leadership role there is in life. So the significant concerns I have with the pink pamphlet, and my continued view that God intended men to be elders and to lead their families, does not affect my support for women leaders, my thanks to God for Soul Survivor, and my ongoing love and appreciation for them. Graham, Mike, Jo Saxton, Jeannie Morgan and many others have repeatedly shown that their love for people and their partnership in the gospel matters far more than any theological disagreements they may have. I wholeheartedly agree, and my hope is that this review comes across in the same spirit.
For further reading, you may want to look at Andrew’s short series on gender: Mutual Submission, Twenty Myths in the Gender Debate, Twenty Facts in the Gender Debate, The Presumption of Complementarianism, and Twelve Words, Twelve Interpretations.