In Depth

What the Bible teaches on women, according to a conservative subversive

Australian theologian Kevin Giles on the evolution of his influential outlook

Let’s try a list of Australian exports to world Christianity that have made a difference. There’s the Sydney Anglican influence bolstering conservative Anglicans in the “Gafcon” movement, Hillsong, C3 and the Christian Revival Crusade among the Pentecostals. There’s also Moore College’s export of “biblical theology”, Michael Youssef, the satellite evangelist to the Middle East and, perhaps less well known, Aussie theologians in the Seventh Day Adventist church. And to that very incomplete list, you might think about adding Kevin Giles.

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It is not often that someone can be said to have affected the arguments used by people on both sides of a hard fought debate. But Giles, a strong debater in favour of women in leadership and against male headship in the home, can fairly be seen to have done just that.

“I would have described that [theological position] as believing in the Bible.” – Kevin Giles

A few years ago – if you were involved – you might have heard arguments about how relationship within the Trinity, between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, should influence how we thought of the human family. “The Eternal Subordination of the Son” is how many used a popular argument – that Jesus was somehow subordinate, not just as a human on earth, but for ever. (As in all things trinitarian in this article, this is far too brief a statement to do justice to a complex subject. There is an “order” within the trinity but the language of “hierarchy” should be avoided.)

This “Eternal Subordination” debate came to a head at the 2016 Evangelical Theological Society – a large-scale conference held in San Antonio in the United States – where evangelical egalitarian Giles and University of Portland Professor of Theology, Millard Erickson, debated with “complementarians” Dr Bruce Ware and Dr Wayne Grudem.

In his most recent book, What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women, Giles describes 2016 as the year when a seismic shift in complementarian thinking began.

In his preface, Giles in his late seventies describes it as “almost certainly my last book.”

The key statement Giles made was, “For the authors of the Nicene Creed, and virtually all orthodox theologians, the primary basis for distinguishing and differentiating the Father and the Son is that the Father eternally begets the Son, and the Son is begotten of the Father.” Giles recalls stating categorically that the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son is not about the eternal subordination of the Son, but instead teaches the eternal co-equality of God the Father and God the Son.

Reflecting back on it, Giles said Ware rose to speak after his presentation and started by saying: “I have now changed my mind [on the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son].” Ware and Grudem had downplayed the doctrine of the eternal generation of the son, and maintained that an order in marriage and the church should reflect a pattern of order in the Trinity.

Ware and Grudem remain complementarians. The 2016 engagement removed a needless distraction and prompted conservatives to be far more circumspect (if not hesitant) when employing a trinitarian argument to discuss gender distinctions.

The upshot is that arguing for a view of marriage or who should lead churches on the basis of authority within the Trinity is much less common than it used to be.

Kevin Giles’ theological journey began in 1964 as a fresh faced, eager first year student beginning his ministry training at Moore College, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney’s theological training institution. Giles studied alongside other called young men, many of whose names are now revered in Sydney evangelical circles.

He completed his degree in 1968 with first class honours. After four years in parish ministry, Dr Broughton Knox, the then principal of Moore College, awarded him a scholarship to do post-graduate study in England.

Looking back, he describes his theological position as fully complementarian, although there was no such word then.

“I would have described that as believing in the Bible; it was a Biblical evangelical point of view, monolithic,” Giles explained.

“I was convinced that men should be the ‘head of the home’ and women should not be in church leadership.”

Giles’ conversion to an egalitarian view of Scripture occurred soon after his return to Australia late in 1974 to become the university chaplain at Armidale University.

At this point of time, the ordination of women was a very hot issue in the church. The then principal of Melbourne’s Ridley College, Dr Leon Morris, was the lead author of a newly released booklet on the ordination of women. Broughton Knox was opposed, and Dr Morris and Dr John Gaden (Chaplain to Monash University, and chaplain and secretary to the national Anglican church’s commission on doctrine) were supportive. (Gaden led the first Australian campaign for the ordination of women as priests in 1976.)

“I went off naively thinking, I am just preparing a study on what the Bible says on women. No big deal.” – Kevin Giles

The soon-to-be-held Armidale Anglican Synod planned to discuss the question of ordination of women. Giles recounted it was a request from the Bishop of Armidale, Clive Kerle, that was to seismically change his theological direction.

The Bishop told him two young Moore College graduates wanted to give a joint paper in opposition to the ordination of women at the Synod.

“Bishop Kerle said to me, “I’ve no idea what you believe, Kevin, but I’m sure you’ll provide a little bit of a balance, so could you prepare a paper. We’ll have the morning in Synod with the two papers presented.”

“I went off naively thinking, I am just preparing a study on what the Bible says on women. No big deal.”

As Giles researched what the Bible actually said, he began to change his mind. “I came to the conclusion that everything in the Bible was incredibly positive except [the first letter to] Timothy. So I stood up in Synod and said Creation is actually about women’s subordination being the consequence of the fall.”

“The Old Testament is about life in the fallen world and Jesus has the most revolutionary ideas about women you’ve ever seen. Paul’s got the Spirit rushing around giving leadership gifts to men and women.

What does it mean to be a complementarian and why has it caused such division within evangelical churches?

The Equal But Different website run by Australian complementarians affirms “the absolute equality of men and women in [God’s] purposes with respect to status, honour and dignity” but includes some differences:

  • “that God’s purposes for humanity include complementary relationships between the genders;
  • “that men are called to loving, self-denying, humble leadership, and women to intelligent, willing submission within marriage;
  • “that within the church, this complementarity is expressed through suitably gifted and appointed men assuming responsibility for authoritative teaching and pastoral oversight.”

A number of Christian denominations both here in Australia and around the world support complementarianism. The Anglican Diocese of Sydney, most Presbyterian Churches, the Roman Catholic Church and some Pentecostal Churches are complementarian in their theology.

“At 21 it’s a hard life for young men. To be told that God has appointed men to lead is tremendously appealing.” – Kevin Giles

Reflecting on his alma mater, Giles stands strongly opposed to what he describes as the dogmatic complementarian teaching of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney and its theological college. However he is affirming of the many strengths of the diocese, Moore College and its rigorous theological training of which he is a direct beneficiary. He attributes his clarity of thought, comprehensive knowledge of the Scriptures and ability to argue theologically to his Moore College training.

He says, “Sydney Diocese is committed to evangelism, encourages good preaching, stresses the importance of youth ministry in parishes and prioritises ministry among university students. Many of their most able students at Moore College are the fruit of this university ministry.”

He notes, nevertheless, that it is among young people, especially at university, that the doctrine of “male headship” finds its greatest acceptance.

“At 21 it’s a hard life for young men. To be told that God has appointed men to lead is tremendously appealing.”

Giles’ extensive work analysing and refuting the theological and biblical arguments presented by key complementarian scholars has largely been ignored by most evangelical theologians in Australia or summarily dismissed as a denial of “what the Bible teaches.”

He is angry about the divisive nature of the complementarian argument. “I think it is disgraceful, and I believe it undermines the Christian faith, which is about setting people free.”

“Evangelicals should openly and honestly interact with other evangelicals when what the Bible teaches on any matter is disputed.”

As in some other church disputes, people’s perceptions about how things went does differ. Eternity understands that leading figures on the “other side” are convinced they have interacted with Giles at length. He also contends that a Church where male headship is not held up as the biblical model has beneficial effects into the home and community.

“The Church is happier and healthier when women are affirmed. Marriages are better when men and women are equal.”

“Complementarians have lost the biblical argument. They can’t make any answer to a coherent egalitarian presentation.” – Kevin Giles

Complementarians think it is more complicated than that, pointing for instance to the “Nordic paradox” where egalitarian societies experience relatively high levels of domestic abuse. The research featured in the debate on churchgoers’ marriages, which started with Julia Baird’s ABC report, was also complex. Sporadic church attenders had more violent marriages. But regular church attending men were 72 per cent less likely to abuse their partners. Evangelical protestant husbands were the least likely to be engaged in abusive behaviour.

But as this article is about Kevin Giles, he can have the final word.

“We are philosophically an egalitarian culture. Virtually everybody thinks that treating women as equals is a good thing. Complementarians have lost the biblical argument. They can’t make any answer to a coherent egalitarian presentation. They simply cannot answer it.”

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What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women

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