Are Men and Women Equal?
Q: Hi Andrew, are men and women equal?
AJW: What do you mean by ‘equal’? I mean: we’re not identical. Men generally smell worse and eat more, for a start.
Q: That’s true! But our differences don’t end there. In the Bible we read that Adam was created before Eve, men are to lead women, church elders should be men, etc. So are men more important than women? Or senior to us?
AJW: No, men are not more important than women. (Seniority depends on context, doesn’t it? The Queen is senior to me in the nation, but I might be senior to a woman whom I manage at work, for instance.) In the beginning, men and women were both commissioned to fill the earth, subdue it and exercise dominion over it (Gen 1:27-28); it wasn’t that men were given dominion over women, but that men and women together were given dominion over everything else. Men and women are equally made in the image of God, and so we are equal in dignity, value, meaning, representation of God, redemption and future hope.
Q: But most of the leaders in the Bible are men, and in the New Testament we read that only men can be elders, so even if we are equal in value, we’re not necessarily equal in roles and responsibilities?
AJW: That’s a good way of putting it! There are two analogies in the New Testament for the relationship between a husband and a wife (which, when it comes down to it, is behind the instructions about elders as well): the relationship between Christ and the church (Eph. 5:22-33), and the relationship between God and Christ (1 Cor. 11:3). Both show how equality and differentiation work in practice.
Christ and the church clearly have different roles, or parts to play, in their relationship: Christ serves the church by loving her and laying down his life for her, and the church serves Christ by submitting to him and following his lead. This is the comparison in Ephesians 5. God and Christ, obviously, are equal in value, dignity and divinity – and to deny that point would be to undermine the Trinity – but we should also, according to 1 Corinthians 11, understand the Father as being the “head” of the Son. If husbands and wives are like this, for Paul, then it should be clear that they are both equal, and differentiated in the parts or roles they play in a marriage.
Q: So how should we handle ‘equal-yet-different’ in our churches, practically speaking?
AJW: You could write books on that, and people have. But three things stand out, I think.
The first, which might sound strange, is to focus more on what it means to be human than on what it means to be masculine or feminine. This is a point Hannah Anderson makes really well in Made for More: often, churches who believe men and women have different parts to play get so preoccupied by those parts that they forget to tell (particularly) women what it means to be image-bearers of God. When that happens, we risk identity by negatives: women are not men, not this, not that. Men and women alike need identity by positives: we to know that we’ve been called to bear God’s image, rule his world, bring order and beauty to our environment, be fruitful within it, and so on.
The second is to cast a vision for marriage (which is where many of the differences are most beautifully shown) that is based on the way Christ and the church serve, and are served by, each other. If marriages have a Christ-and-the-church shape, then a great many questions about how men and women best flourish in the church are solved almost automatically. (For instance, if men and women realise that they both flourish best when the husband is charged with protecting the family, then it will be fairly obvious whose responsibility it is to protect God’s family, the church. And so on.)
And the third – which often fails to happen – is to actively encourage women into every area of responsibility and ministry (other than church eldership). We need to read Romans 16, with its women as patrons, deacons, life-risking fellow missionaries and so on, and then ask ourselves whether the mix of men and women would look the same if Paul wrote to our church. If it wouldn’t, then we (the elders and leadership teams) probably need to work harder at releasing and encouraging women.
That’s for starters, anyway.
Q: That’s great, thanks Andrew.
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