The gender discussion in the church today is captured succinctly by New Testament scholar Gordon Fee in Listening to the Spirit in the Text. He writes:
Perhaps the worst thing the evangelical tradition has done on gender matters is to isolate them from the bigger picture of biblical theology. Indeed, I think we are destined for continual trouble if we do not start where Paul does: not with isolated statements addressed to contingent situations, but with Paul's theology of the new creation, the coming of God's eschatological rule inaugurated by Christ -- especially through his death and resurrection -- and the gift of the Spirit.
Paul's theology of a new creation is a baptismal theology, Fee suggests. Because Christ died and rose again, as we "assume our own role in that death and resurrection" (Romans 6:3-10), we are clothed in Christ, that we "might walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4). As our sins are appropriated to Christ, he dies on our behalf and we thus receive a spiritual rebirth -- a new life fueled by the Holy Spirit (p. 57).
Unlike the old life, which was governed by the flesh with its hatred of difference and its oppression of "other," our newness of life in Christ embraces unity. It creates oneness between groups of people who were enemies before their rebirth in Christ (Jews and Greeks), or whose relationships were characterized by prejudice, exclusion, and oppression (e.g. males and females, slaves and free). This welcome and reconciliation of all people in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, attracted significant numbers of slaves, women, and Gentiles to the gospel. They not only became Christians, but they also occupied all levels of service and leadership in the church. As the focus of human significance shifted from the world's values to those esteemed by Christ, change could occur. As Fee notes, the "all-embracing nature of this affirmation, its counter-cultural significance, the fact that it equally disadvantages all by equally advantaging all -- these stab at the very heart of a culture sustained by people maintaining right and position" (p. 61).
How does our newness of life as God's people impact gender, class, or ethnic relations? The answer is seen not by assessing the limitations Paul places on those women who domineered over men in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, or those women who were distracting worship in 1 Corinthians 14:34, but by the numerous biblical accounts of Christ's newness of life active in women's shared leadership and service with men. Romans 16 is but one example of the gospel's social impact as it redeems human relations within the church. Here we note the vast number of women, slaves, and Gentiles who served the church as leaders. Those who believe that women are excluded from positions of leadership are reading scripture through isolated passages and miss the inauguration of Christ's kingdom, which thankfully cannot be stopped.
Mimi Haddad is president of Christians for Biblical Equality.