The Domino Theory and Egalitarian Pulpits

Aimee Byrd had her first preaching debut this past Sunday. Since many women in our churches have read Byrd’s books and listened to her speak, I think it’s important to be made aware of this development. In response to others who have expressed concern, Byrd expressed her freedom from the modern categories of complementarian and egalitarian, saying that she doesn’t fit nicely into any category. Byrd then asserted that the church is confused as to what preaching is in the church today (really, we’re all confused about preaching?), as she affirmed the inviting pastor who, ex cathedra, championed a distinction between “the act of preaching from the office of the preacher.”

When a present charge of confusion is made against a clear practice of the church, what is required is a reminder of the basic, biblical teaching on the matter without fear that these issues have already been covered. Sometimes, as a pastor, I feel like present challenges to our theology and practice are hijacked in such a way that to restate the basic, biblical and confessional truth of the matter seems elementary, unnecessary, or even assumed. But the church is always in need, when errors are introduced, to have clear, biblical responses to be set before the people to wash away the actual mud of confusion.

Deja Vu, All Over Again

In 1996 the first woman pastor was ordained in the Christian Reformed Church. The issue of women in ecclesiastical office had already been an issue in the CRC for over twenty years. A minority report at the 1984 Synod called into question the validity of the headship principle and whether it should be understood as a creation norm. (Acts of Synod 1984, p. 376). After the appointment and work of various study committees the Synod of 1992 adopted the following declaration:

The scriptural teaching that the husband is head over his wife within marriage cannot be broadened to claim the headship of all males over all females in the church and so to prohibit women from serving in the offices of the church (Agenda of Synod 1992, p. 377).

Based on this declaration, the CRC opened the door for the churches to use “discretion in utilizing the gifts of women members in all the offices of the church” (Acts of Synod 1990, p. 650).

The issue was and still is one of how Scripture is to be interpreted. At the end of the day the question is always the same, “Does the Bible gives us a comprehensive and clear teaching on whether or not women should preach or be ordained to the office of elder and pastor? And if so, on what basis?

The root of the disagreement lies in the application of the word equality. Proponents of women being ordained as elders or pastors believe that equality must be understood in its fullest sense. As Dale Groothuis expressed, “To posit a radical disjunct between being and function is viewed as counter to the biblical teaching and the most rudimentary principle of social justice.” The problem is that many egalitarians only seem to speak from an ontological reality. But why is it arbitrary to say that the exercise of authority does not originate ontologically but is expressed in terms of functionality assigned by God in creation? This equality is not in tension with the fact that God has assigned functional responsibilities for men and women.

In Genesis 2:18-20, the woman is referred to as a “helper” of man. She was created “out of” Adam, and “for” Adam. Moreover, Adam had the responsibility to name the woman. The gender role distinctions in Gen. 1 and 2 in the state of perfection demonstrate a certain creation order between man and woman. The man was created to lead his wife, and the wife was created to be a helper to the man. In Ephesians 5:22-23 Paul gives instructions to husbands and wives based upon this principle. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and he is the savior of the body.” Functionally, the woman was created to be the glory of man; she was taken from him to be his helper. Functionally, the man is to be the head of the wife, leading her with love.

The Bible does not posit a tension between the constitutional equality between man and women, and functionality in the assignment of roles between men and women.

Creation Norms & Authority

Egalitarians stress that the creational relationship of Adam and Eve was one of complete partnership without any inferiority or subordination. In the state of perfection, Adam and Eve were involved in a side-by-side relationship of parity. But in the fall, this parity was damaged and the curse entailed a cruel oppressive relationship between the man and women. It is in Christ that the “hard curse”, as it is often expressed, of Genesis 3:16 is reversed; the rule of the man over the women is now abolished. With the coming of Christ, oppressive social structures are removed, the curse of Genesis 3 is reversed, and women can now exercise their equality (in the fullest sense of the term), with man in the church. “This is beautiful,” as Byrd states. The woman is now elevated to her original state of equality and pristine role of partnership and equality with man, and, to go further, as Byrd does, “Redeemed humanity is a mankind who has become “womankind”.

But the entire view breaks down if it can be demonstrated that God assigned certain principles of headship and functionality as flowing out of the original created order and not as a result of the fall.

1 Timothy 2

In 1 Timothy 2:11-12 Paul gives detailed instruction about how men and women are to order themselves in the church. Paul writes, “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.”

Paul was concerned that his young protégé Timothy maintain a proper order in the church. In 1 Timothy 3:15 he wrote, “…I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God…” The fact that Paul gives instructions for women to remain silence with all submission “in the house of God” demonstrates that the headship principle extends beyond the family to the church. A woman demonstrates a proper submission to her husband when she learns with silence and submission in the church. Paul qualifies this by commanding women not to teach or have authority over a man. In context, the Greek word didaskein implies an official authoritative act of teaching in the church. This extends to the official functions of the church so that a woman is not to teach or have any authority over a man when the church comes together.

Opponents of this view call into question Paul’s purpose for giving instructions for women in the church. Many assume that the problem Paul and Timothy faced was one of improper behavior on the part of women. Clarence Boomsma writes,

It is reasonable, then, to expect that Paul found it necessary to restrain women in the congregation. Women who were influenced by the false teachers and feeling themselves emancipated by their freedom in the gospel, engaged in noisy, disruptive, and offensive behavior in the worship serviced, parading their new status in a usurping, domineering attitude toward the men in the congregation. This would account for Paul continuing in verse 12: ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.’

Boomsma and many others want to interpret this text as a historically specific circumstance. Byrd makes the same argument: “It seems that some women in Ephesus were dressing ostentatiously, lacking decency and self-control, and domineering over men. They needed to hear that is not permitted by Paul.” Paul was directly countering the feminism of his day, bossy women who were placing a hindrance to the advancement of the gospel.

Those who teach that Paul was dealing with the specific cultural problem of feminism when writing to Timothy have no historical basis. As NT scholar Steve Baugh observes, there simply is no evidence that a feminist movement influenced Ephesian politics. Baugh writes,

But let us suppose that I am wrong; that there was a radical feminism at Ephesus, which led Paul to forbid all Ephesian women from holding the pastoral office. Would we not be forced to apply 1 Tim. 2:12 directly to our situation as well and forbid all women today from holding pastoral office?

There is simply no evidence to posit this prohibition as something of a cultural phenomenon. The apostle roots the command for a woman not to teach or have authority as belonging to the created order. Following these prohibitions the apostle wrote,

For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. Nevertheless, she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control (1 Tim. 2:14-15).

Paul highlights the pre-fall, creational order of the man then woman. Before the fall there was undefiled functionality between man and women. What disrupted this order was the fact that the woman stepped outside her assigned role of helper, and she was deceived. Paul uses the reality of the creational order to demonstrate that a woman should not do those things in worship that are contrary to the assigned role given to her in creation, namely that of being a helper to her husband.

A woman should not seek to teach or have authority over a man as a pastor or elder because it was this type of deception that originally led to the rebellion at the fall.

1 Corinthians 14

The other major command against the ordination of woman as pastors and elders is found in 1 Corinthians 14:34-38,

Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. Or did the word of God come originally from you? Or was it you only that it reached? If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord. But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant.

Like 1 Timothy 2:11-15, egalitarians generally interpret this passage as a historically specific circumstance that occurred in Corinth. But there are a few important things that militate against this view. First, the command for a woman to keep silent and remain submissive is seen as something that is also stated in the law. The prohibition therefore extends beyond any cultural specific situation in Corinth, or Ephesus for that matter.

Second, verse 33b speaks of these instructions as binding “in all the churches of the saints.” Third, Paul asks, sarcastically, if the word of God only reached the members of the church of Corinth, as if to say, “do you think that other churches have not received the same commands, you do not have the liberty to challenge them.”

Paul leaves the recipients with a strong warning, if they choose to reject these clear commands of God, he will disregard them.To reject these biblical prohibitions is to reject the creational design God established from the beginning.

The Bible, due to the creational order, that is recovered in Christ, does not permit a woman to preach or hold offices in the church.

In 1992 Robert Godfrey challenged the Christian Reformed Church about the ramifications of ordaining women as pastors and elders. “The domino theory,” writes Godfrey, “suggests that one event will inevitably trigger other events.” Godfrey then went on to ask, “Will the CRC soon be debating the ordination of homosexuals?” It is no mere coincidence that many today in the CRC are promoting the tolerance of openly professing homosexuals. Is that what this fallen domino is next to knock over? As Godfrey writes, “dominoes are sometimes more than a game.”


  1. Pastor, could you elaborate on this a little further by specifying what in 1 Cor 14 is meant by the law, and how/where the law says women are to be silent/submissive (not teaching) in the churches?

    Also, wouldn’t you agree the Bible’s teaching that the husband is head over his wife within marriage *cannot* be broadened to claim the headship of all males over all females? And, nevertheless, it is true the Bible teaches that a husband’s headship of his is a (creational) reason women are not to teach in the church, nor to have elder/pastor office authority? Right?

    Also, could you say more about the proper meaning of Gen 3:16? Wouldn’t you agree that God’s saying Eve’s desire would be toward Adam, and that he would rule over her is not in fact an element of curse, but rather God’s confirming their (husband and wife’s) reconciliation?

    I appreciate your article here. Especially with elaboration on the above points I ask about, it will be very helpful in clarifying the issue for many. Your pointing out, contrary to patriarchalists and some complementarians, that Paul specifies that women may not teach in the church(es), also seems key. It is not a prohibition of women teaching men outside the church, or of female leadership/authority outside marriage and the church.

    • Also, wouldn’t you agree the Bible’s teaching that the husband is head over his wife within marriage *cannot* be broadened to claim the headship of all males over all females?
      I see people in Byrd’s camp use this talking point but I’ve never seen anyone else argue that headship means all women should obey all men. Rather, Patriarchalists – if that is who this straw man is set against – argue that God created the first woman and the first wife at the same time and all women descended from Adam and Eve. Every woman is thus a wife or a daughter and has some man to obey who is either a husband or father. By natural extension, the magistrate is usually composed of men. In fact, if you look at how society is ordered in most of the world or watch old movies, this is how things work to greater or lesser degree – husbands and fathers rule the home and society. This is just reality flowing from Creation.

      Echoes of this rule can still be seen in the feminist West – most magistrates are men and even my unbelieving, egalitarian father-in-law said I did the right thing by asking him if I could marry his daughter.

      Seems like Byrd et al have thrown out the fifth commandment, much of Genesis (including 18 and 19 more recently), and all of the normative appeals to Creation and nature in the Bible and our standards.

  2. Women do not meet the physical requirements for the office of elder (pastor) or deacon. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, both state very clearly, the elder (or deacon) must be the ανδρα of one γυναικοσ. The officeholder must be male, not female.

  3. “the exercise of authority does not originate ontologically but is expressed in terms of functionality assigned by God in creation”

    How is “creational” to be distinguished from “ontological”? Both refer to “being.” To derive function from creation is to derive it from the differing male and female being/nature/ontology that God created (Gen. 1:27). In other words, there is ontological differentiation within human ontology. (Although not in terms of “higher” or “lower” being.)

  4. While you cite the CRC, one only need to look at the PC(USA) and it’s two immediate predecessors regarding the domino theory. Starting with the rejection of a number of points regarding the doctrine of Scripture, that denomination has gradually accepted one unscriptural thing after another to the extent in the current environment, the current national entities epitomize Romans 1, while certain leaders epitomize I believe it is II Cor. 11 on the devil and his servants masquerading as angels of light. Secularism rules the day there, and any historic understanding and meaning of doctrines and polity, such as christian liberty, means that one can essentially deny core, essential doctrines, such as those pertaining to the nature and deity of Christ, and is still considered a Christian. Of those churches professing to be Reformed, the PC(USA), at the national level, is the perfect example of a false church.

  5. Good article. Thank you for speaking clearly to an issue that really isn’t altogether difficult to understand.

  6. Christ loves His Bride so much He laid down His life to deliver His Bride from Satan. When a Christian husband does the same deception doesn’t have a foothold or deception is discerned and removed from the household. Instead Adam blamed Eve.

  7. Rather than trying to convince the unconvincible with picayune scriptural wordsmithing, just ask the basic question: Why do we need women in the pulpit? Let THEM explain it and then watch them squirm!

    • Well, that’s probably true, but I kind of like Scriptural wordsmithing, although I’m not sure it’s all picayune.

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