This is an interview with Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger, coauthors of God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey.
Why did you write God’s Design for Man and Woman?
Because it is sorely needed in our judgment and because there is no other book to our knowledge that accomplishes what we set out to do, namely to survey the biblical teaching from Genesis to Revelation regarding God’s design for man and woman using a biblical-theological approach. Anyone who has followed the news for the past decade will recognize that our culture is in a tailspin on the issue of gender, not only with same-sex marriage but also with transgender. Repentance and a return to God’s word are the only way to reverse this tailspin and to move from rebellion to revival, and it all starts with serious study of what Scripture teaches regarding God’s sovereign and wise design.
Both of us have written and taught on the subject for many years. The book started out as a class we taught jointly at Southeastern Seminary. Margaret would lecture on the history of feminism, the nature of submission, women’s ministry in the vein of Titus 2, hospitality, and other topics, while Andreas walked students through the Bible, focusing on important interpretive issues along the way.
Time and again, students responded very favorably to this mode of presentation, and so we felt that it would be helpful to write down the essence of our teaching in book format so others could benefit from a study of the biblical theology of man and woman in a narrative format.
How do you distinguish the descriptive elements of Scripture from the prescriptive elements of Scripture?
Essentially, distinguishing the descriptive from the prescriptive elements in Scripture is a question of hermeneutics, that is, of properly reading the different genres of Scripture passages, in this case on what it means to be a man or woman according to God’s design. For this reason determining the genre of a given passage dealing with gender roles is of critical importance. This is why the opening chapters of Genesis (understood as historical narrative, not myth or legend) are so vitally important because they set forth God’s design for man and woman at the very outset before it was corrupted by sin.
Also, what is important in terms of biblical theology is tracing certain patterns throughout Scripture. In our case, this means particularly tracing the pattern of male leadership, which encompasses the first man, Adam, the patriarchs, kings, and priests, Jesus himself, the Twelve, Paul and the Pauline circle, and New Testament elders. Within this framework, it is also helpful to explore interconnections, such as Jesus’s or Paul’s references back to the Old Testament (Genesis in particular), the relationship between the book of Acts and Paul’s letters, and so on. This is where description coalesces into prescription, that is, where patterns emerge that are not merely culturally relative or situational but permanently valid because they are a natural outflow of God’s design for man and woman from creation until the new creation.
Does embracing evangelical feminism necessarily imply a low view of Scripture?
We’ll let evangelical feminists (egalitarians) answer that question for themselves. They profess a belief in inerrancy, and we have no reason to doubt that. Andreas once wrote a review of the hermeneutical chapters in a major egalitarian work (by Gordon Fee and Roger Nicole) and concluded that what separates complementarians and evangelical feminists is not so much their hermeneutic but the execution of their hermeneutic.
In other words, evangelical feminists take Scripture seriously, but in our view their egalitarian beliefs tend to lead them to interpret different passages of Scripture in a way that is not the most natural or compelling way of reading the original intent of the authors. We deal with some of their views along the way, though the majority of our new book is an overall holistic and positive presentation of what the Bible teaches on the subject as opposed to wrangling over verses where people disagree.
How do you guard against allowing culturally conditioned notions related to gender identity and roles to unduly influence your understanding and application of the Bible’s teaching?
We all have a tendency to read Scripture in light of our culture and tradition. The only way to overcome this, over time, is to keep reading Scripture, on its own terms, and to immerse ourselves in the biblical worldview. For example, while we were working on the chapter on Genesis 1–3 in our book, it became increasingly clear to us that not only evangelical feminists but to a lesser extent complementarians, when speaking of male-female equality, may have taken their cue more from the current debate than from biblical terminology.
As we keep reading the Bible, and as we try to do so historically, literarily, and theologically, we can gradually enter into the Bible’s own story, which can help strip away our cultural lenses and replace them with biblical lenses, at least to an increasing extent.
What are some dangers that are unique to those who do not subscribe to “traditional” notions related to gender roles (i.e., “evangelical egalitarians”)?
The primary danger we see is that of taking the cultural notion of equality and imposing it on Scripture in a way that is anachronistic since equality of the sexes was demonstrably not an overriding concern of the biblical writers and, understood in contemporary cultural terms, does not actually reflect the viewpoint of the biblical authors themselves.
By making the equality of men and women (egalitarianism) a functional non-negotiable, evangelical feminists choose to embrace a presupposition that may not always be borne out by the biblical data, and they have insufficient methodological checks and balances to accommodate a range of interpretations since they are already a priori committed to interpreting Scripture within a framework that reflects and supports unfettered male-female equality including with regard to familial and ecclesiastical roles.
What are some dangers that are unique to those who do subscribe to “traditional” notions related to gender roles (i.e., “complementarians”)?
First of all, we do not necessarily consider ourselves “traditional” but rather biblical, though the outcome of our interpretation results in similar practical outcomes. To be traditional, though, is not necessarily biblical if the Bible is not interpreted on its own terms and one’s interpretive insights are not acted upon in the power of the Holy Spirit.
One key danger for those who believe that certain authoritative roles in the home and in the church are limited to men is that they may become satisfied with being “traditional” rather than with being actually biblical. There is in Scripture a pattern of male leadership that has the best interests of the woman at heart and that provides and protects the woman and cares for her physically as well as spiritually, which is not always recognized in traditional models.
Only men who are regenerate and Spirit-filled are truly able to live out God’s design for them in all humility as loving responsible leaders, just as only regenerate and Spirit-filled women are able to truly live out the kind of partnership that calls for them to submit to their husband the way the church submits to Christ.
Would you make a distinction between “evangelical feminism” and other forms of feminism? If so, how?
Certainly; in Margaret’s book, Jesus and the Feminists, she discusses three kinds of feminism that in some shape or form are related to the church: radical feminism, reformist or liberationist feminism, and evangelical feminism (also called egalitarianism). While secular feminism upholds unfettered male-female equality politically and socioeconomically and does not allow Scripture to guide its thinking in any way, the three different kinds of feminism discussed in Margaret’s book approach Scripture in different ways.
Radical feminists reject Scripture as irremediably patriarchal. Reformist feminists believe that Scripture was written by men and therefore reflects male bias but nonetheless advocates employing a hermeneutic of suspicion that uncovers genuine affirmations of the value of women in Scripture while screening out patriarchal texts. For them, Scripture is a mixed bag, and a special feminist hermeneutic is required to sort through what are acceptable or unacceptable passages. Evangelical feminists, finally, believe that Scripture, rightly interpreted, actually teaches feminism (hence the title of one of their major works, Discovering Biblical Equality).
The bottom line is, the three kinds of feminism can’t all be correct. Either Scripture teaches equal gender roles as evangelical feminists claim, or it doesn’t (as reformists and radical feminists assert, though as feminists they obviously disagree with Scripture, the way they understand it, at this point). In fact, in the course of the past several decades there have been some interesting interchanges between, for example, reformist and radical feminists in which the latter charged the former with compromise if not a betrayal of their feminist ideals and convictions.
So, yes, evangelical feminists (egalitarians) are one form of feminism, but egalitarianism (the equality of men and women in every respect) is the bedrock belief underlying all of feminism, denying God’s unique design of male leadership roles and female roles of nurture and submission in the home and church.
Practically speaking, how do you—as a married couple—work through significant disagreements?
Because we believe in both male leadership and female partnership as we “rule the earth” together for God in our particular sphere, including church and family, there is a lot of interaction where we are working things out together, and more often than not Andreas comes around to Margaret’s way of thinking when the decision finally needs to be made on what to do. Occasionally, Andreas, even after listening to Margaret’s reasoning, is not convinced and takes the lead in choosing a certain course of action that differs from what she would suggest, and in those cases Margaret is submitting to Andreas’s leadership anyway.
In many cases, disagreements are a matter of differing perspectives, so even if Andreas still believes a given course of action is best, he benefits from Margaret sharing her perspective with him which enables him to get to know her better. There aren’t necessarily any hard feelings nor should there be. This is how you can have genuine partnership as well as male leadership in a marriage.
The problem really comes if either of us harbors an attitude of superiority because of sin. This actually cuts both ways. You might initially think that the husband might tend to disparage the woman’s role because it is at times considered less significant in our culture, but it is also possible for the woman to disparage her husband when he doesn’t live up to her expectations. Because of her fallen nature, she may tend to criticize him or resist his efforts to lead, however imperfect they may be. Living in the Spirit and trusting in God’s good design while extending forgiveness in these situations is the grace-filled solution.
We’re all a work in progress, and need a lot of grace, and so should extend grace to our spouse as well!