When I asked a handful of prominent Christian egalitarians (those who oppose gender hierarchy or “gender roles”) recently who they considered to be leaders of their movement, all mentioned Dr. Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE). In the evangelical “gender wars,” it seems Haddad has risen to the rank of general. She isn’t always fighting on the front lines, but she works tirelessly to resource those who are.
Haddad speaks widely at Christian colleges, churches, and seminaries and has serious academic credentials. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the University of Durham (UK). Mimi is also an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Bethel University, and North Park Theological Seminary.
CBE’s mission is to affirm and promote “the biblical truth that all believers—without regard to gender, ethnicity or class—must exercise their God-given gifts with equal authority and equal responsibility in church, home and world.”
Because of her felt presence in this important debate, I contacted her to discuss her beliefs about the Bible’s teaching on gender and how she formed them.
RNS: What was “gender” like in the family in which you were raised?
MH: My parents devoted much attention that their daughters might become fully-developed people. Dad said I didn’t need to get married to be happy—how many people talk about marriage as if it isn’t the pinnacle of existence? Dad said, “It’s not! The pinnacle of existence is becoming exactly who you were supposed to be. And marriage may or may not be in the equation.” So that really created some comfort and relaxation around relationship expectations and may explain why I married later in life, unlike so many of my friends.
Because of this, there was a welcoming of personal development and a welcoming of higher education. And so as I pursued first a Master’s and then a doctorate, I never sensed that it was sort of a second-tiered option for a woman. I had the confirmation and support of my family to say, “You’re not defined, first of all, by your gender, and second, by the relationships you establish with men. The equation of your life is complex. It’s more complex than gender and relationships.”
RNS: What is that you find problematic in churches in terms of gender relations?
MH: Gender hierarchy is not God’s ideal, and it’s very destructive to people and families. It is especially problematic when Christians portray the consequences of the fall as a biblical ideal. And that creates a diabolical circumstance for women. It’s a complete and dangerous misreading of the Bible. Unfortunately, that’s been the teaching for too long, until egalitarians like Margaret Fell Fox, Katharine Bushnell, Catherine Booth, and other great reformers came along to challenge those assumptions.
RNS: These are some strong words. You say gender hierarchy is not God’s ideal, for example, but isn’t that what Scripture teaches? Your critics certainly think so as have many Christians throughout history.
MH: It can be challenging to discern the differences between moral precepts and teachings of the Bible and those from “Bible culture.” Making this distinction requires understanding the historical context of Scripture. It’s as true in the first century as it is today. It’s critical to grasp that, “Slavery and patriarchy were part of Bible culture, yet they stand against the moral precepts of Scripture.” It’s important to note this distinction in the writings of Paul, and the Old Testament Scriptures. Why? Because our naturally tendency is inclined toward privilege and of power and reason itself to distort logic for personal gain.
Theologians call this the noetic effects of the fall. For that reason, we must be scrupulous in self-critique, power and privilege recognizing that patriarchy and a patriarchal reading of Scripture benefits males who happen to be a majority of bible translators and exegetes among conservative Christians.
RNS: Who has influenced you on your journey?
MH: The people who have mentored me the most have been dead for centuries. I’ve always been passionate about history. My PhD is in historical theology, the 19th-Century Women’s movements. So the women in church history have been some of my closest friends. Those who inspire me have been great reformers of the past and present whose work continues to stir the church and the greater Christian community. My mentors are people like Jessie Penn-Lewis, Josephine Butler, Sojourner Truth, and those who worked with them in the “purity crusade,” which was the anti-trafficking movement of early evangelicals.
RNS: Where are you seeing signs of change, in terms of biblical equality, around the globe? Which direction are people moving?
MH: I think of Christians who are under forty. And, I think of egalitarian Christians who are working to challenge injustice in their churches, denominations and communities. Also, in places like the South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, India and Cambodia, Christians here have experienced tremendous gender injustice and are determined to make a difference. The Christians in Cambodia have a very strong faith and they’re asking some important questions about gender and the impact of patriarchy in their culture. Same with India. Same with many African countries. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example.
We’re seeing Christian women leading nations. Rwanda has one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, and women have assumed positions of leadership there. What is more, their style of leadership is collaborative and one that considers whole communities. NGOs call this the “girl effect.” It’s a phenomenon that continues to inspire generosity toward ventures run by women. Microloans to women’s businesses around the world have been doubled returns. So many examples of this awakening of woman as strong help, as ezer, a term God uses to introduce woman in the Bible, in Genesis. It’s almost as if woman as ezer is rising up in many places.
RNS: What causes people to change their thinking on this issue?
MH: A number of complementarians just don’t have enough good information. Some never change the frequency on the radio. Others do not always have opportunities to hold a conversation with someone who holds another view. We tend to live in insular circumstances particularly when so many Christians fear intellectual engagement. I think of people in my own family who are very afraid of another perspective and for those in conservative evangelical circles, there’s a lot of fear to contend with on the gender issue.
I like the work of a number of egalitarians who give men and women biblical resources that create confidence in reading the Bible coupled with confidence to ask hard questions and to reason. Isaiah 1:18 tells us, “Come, let us reason together.” God is not afraid of our questions. A desire to please God pleases God, Thomas Merton told us, and Christian faith has always celebrated the life of the mind and the life of reason.