When my wife and I were newlyweds, we attended a small group about marriage at our church. It was based on Emerson Eggerichs’ book, Love & Respect. Eggerich suggested that men are meant to lead and women are designed to follow. He taught that there is a hierarchy of leadership that works best when wives submit to their husbands. Eggerich explained it like this: "To set up a marriage with two equals at the head is to set it up for failure. That is one of the big reasons that people are divorcing left and right today."1
Initially, my wife and I accepted that statement as fact. At the time, we believed the traditional view that women were not called to be pastors. If men were designed by God to have authority in church, shouldn’t they also have headship in the home? We decided that my masculinity gave me the trump card when disagreements arose.
It didn’t take long to see the impracticality of this arrangement. Telling my wife, "You need to listen to me because I am the man," was not the best way to gain her respect or settle an argument. Lording authority over her on the basis of genitalia also wasn't the most loving thing to do.
We came to believe that relationships work best when they are based on mutual respect and submission. Marriage isn’t about domineering, it's about giving. Successful marriages aren't about who holds the power, it’s about a shared willingness to give power up.
This is something the research by John Gottman attests to: “Research shows that when husbands are unwilling to share power in their marriages, they have an 81% chance their marriage will self-destruct.”2
Eggerich presents his case as "biblical," but he sees things through an authoritarian lens of hierarchy and power. Yet, as Beth Allison Barr explains, “Hierarchy gives birth to patriarchy, and patriarchy gives birth to the abuse of both sex and power.”3
Lording authority over others goes against the clear teaching and example of Christ. Jesus said, “The rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.”4
My assumption about hierarchy caused me to oppose female pastors. I listened to sermons that justified discrimination by saying "women are too emotional"5 and "they are less intelligent,"6 but the most repeated idea was that advocating for full equality was a "slippery slope" that undermines the Bible itself.
If advocating for equality and love is a slippery slope, I am here to tell you I am ready for the ride. The Bible was not undermined when abolitionists argued for freedom. And the Bible is not undermined when ladies are pastors. Recent scholarship has shown that many of the statements used against women are misreadings of scripture.7
The idea of the slippery slope is a logical fallacy based on fear. The Bible should never be interpreted through the lens of fear or self-righteous certainty. Such reading produces bad fruit. Consider it a litmus test. If theological opinions do not coincide with the fruit of the Spirit, it may be because the fruit from that theological tree is rotten.
In an article entitled, The Slippery Slope of Hierarchy Theology, Keith Gregoire explained the following:8
"Intuitively we know that men and women are created equal. But if enough pastors say that the women's role is to serve, and a man's role is to lead ... it can take us down a slippery slope where we actually think God himself believes in the subjugation of people. The idea that if you stop believing in hierarchy in marriage, your theology will get progressively more off-base is completely unfounded. In fact, the very opposite is true."
Traditionally, the church and society saw women as fundamentally less capable than men. Aristotle believed that a woman is a deformity that occurred in the ordinary course of nature.9 Historically, many of the founders of Christianity held teachings about gender roles that are shocking to even the most conservative Christians today.
Tertullian called women, “The devil's gateway.”10 Origen proclaimed, “It is improper for a woman to speak in assembly no matter what she says ... since it came from the mouth of a woman.”11 And Calvin said, “All women are born inferior and a consequence of the superiority of the male sex."12
The patriarchal view was that women were inferior and incapable of leading. This is not true of our society today. At the General Conference in 1990, our church voted for female elders,13 and it is generally acknowledged that the most significant leader and founder of the Adventist church was a woman. This creates a problem because we can no longer make a case for female subjugation based on women being innately inferior to men.
So now complementarians say men and women are equal, they just have different roles. This is meant to smooth everything out, but notice that a man’s role comes with power and prestige, and a woman's role comes with submission to the man. As George Orwell said, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”14
Just as we know racial discrimination is wrong, our intuitive sense of justice also informs us that gender based discrimination is wrong. Yet it is still part of official church policy. As a pastor, all I can say is I am sorry. We must do better.
Churches that teach male headship say they are against abuse. But the theological underpinnings of male headship provide the moral cement that enables abuse to flourish. They send the message that protecting that theology is more important than protecting the people who have been harmed by the abuse.
Those who promote the biblical teaching of equality for all believers do not ignore the real biological differences between men and women. They simply don’t see those differences as an excuse to lord authority over one another. If we follow the teachings of Jesus, we would all fight the impulse for authoritarian power and seek to serve one another.
This is a theological hill I am willing to die on. The gospel is good news for men and women because it tears down the walls of hierarchy and separation. The church needs both men and women to share in spreading the truth that sets people free.
Editor's Note: The views expressed are those of the writer and may not fully reflect those of the North Pacific Union or its leadership. Respond to any Gleaner topic by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or nwadventists.com/talk.
1. Eggerichs, E. (2004). Love & Respect: the respect he desperately needs (p. 221). Integrity Publishers; Colorado Springs, Colo.
2. Brittle, Z. (2015, April 29). Manage Conflict: Accepting Influence. The Gottman Institute. gottman.com/blog/manage-conflict-accepting-influence/
3. Beth Allison Barr. (2021). The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. Brazos Press, A Division Of Baker Publishing Group.
4. Matthew 20:25-27
5. Doug Batchelor’s 28 Fundamentalist Arguments Against Women Ministers. (n.d.). Retrieved March 1, 2023, from https://spectrummagazine.org/article/jared-wright/2010/03/19/doug-batchelors-28-fundamental-arguments-against-women-ministers?fbclid=IwAR1Ln4VjFzh78Uwfku2RJkRdpEzIbVFYb0DzTbjcLkrKHzlz868dnIlu_Dw
7. Cynthia Long Westfall. Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ. Baker Academic, A Division Of Baker Publishing Group, 2016.
8. Gregoire, K. (2021, June 23). The Slippery Slope of Hierarchy Theology. Bare Marriage. baremarriage.com/2021/06/the-slippery-slope-of-hierarchy-theology/
9. Sententiaeantiquae. (2018, January 19). Male, Female and Monstrosity in Aristotle. SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE. sententiaeantiquae.com/2018/01/19/male-female-and-monstrosity-in-aristotle/
10. Women in the Early Church: The “Devil’s Gateway?” – Jon Huckins. (n.d.). jonhuckins.net/missionalivingandadvocacy/women-in-the-early-church-the-devils-gateway/
11. Tarico, V. (2013, July 1). Twenty Vile Quotes Against Women By Church Leaders from St. Augustine to Pat Robertson. AwayPoint. valerietarico.com/2013/07/01/mysogynistquoteschurchfathers/
12. Misogynistic Quotations from Church Fathers and Reformers. (2013, January 24). Marg Mowczko. margmowczko.com/misogynist-quotes-from-church-fathers/
13. Has a General Conference Session Approved Female Church Elders? (2018, June 14). Adventist Today. atoday.org/has-a-general-conference-session-approved-female-church-elders/
14. Orwell, G. (1945). Animal Farm. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Corp. (Original work published 1945)