The Egalitarian Impulse in the Black Church


Any social or theological critique of gender roles in African American homes and churches, or any discussion of the “break-down” of the black family, must not begin with our contemporary context. The present problem roots in past pain.

Millions of black bodies were wrenched from their homeland and forcibly transported to the Americas in the transatlantic Middle Passage. In all, just under 400,000 slaves were brought to what would become known as the United States. And while this first migration constituted the initial devastating disruption of the familial bond, it would be followed by what historian Ira Berlin refers to as the Second Middle Passage[1]—the internal slave trade whereby a million blacks were relocated to the southern American interior via auction blocks and chains. It was during this period in between the American Revolution and abolition that the separation of black families became common. These migrations, coupled with the violent realities of plantation life, eventuated in the emasculation and disenfranchisement of black males. Thus, historic black matriarchy is not so much a myth as it is the result of generations of father figures rendered impotent and absentee not by choice, but by force.[2]

In God’s providence, just beyond the visibility of the slave master, an “invisible institution” came into being. The first sizeable wave of black conversions to Christianity took place during the Great Awakenings of the eighteenth century. Still, as African American scholar Albert Raboteau explains, the Christian faith was not only adopted by slaves, but adapted to the slave experience:

In the secrecy of the quarters or the seclusion of the brush arbors (‘hush harbors’) the slaves made Christianity truly their own. The religion of the slaves was both institutional and noninstitutional, visible and invisible, formally organized and spontaneously adapted. Regular Sunday worship in the local church was paralleled by illicit, or at least informal, prayer meetings on weeknights in the slave cabins.[3]

Thus, the black church was birthed in protest. Given the privileging of Pauline “slave texts” and the overall oppressive tones of their “Christian” catechism, black slaves quickly discerned the hypocrisy inherent in the teaching they received from their slave masters.

With the subsequent rise of independent black congregations, the church meeting became a site of slave agency—a space where slaves could exert a degree, albeit limited, of self-sovereignty and rebellion. And the pulpit became a place where the black male could lay claim to dignifying leadership.

The Ecclesial and Familial Efforts of Black Women

In the decades following emancipation, the black church[4] began to take a distinct shape: the overwhelming majority of church pews became filled with women. They got heavily involved within their congregations, and they began to create various auxiliary organizations and missionary societies. In all this, these black women expressed their “righteous discontent” at injustices identified both inside and outside of the church. Such efforts were most clearly seen among black Baptist women. Historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham writes,

The leadership of the women’s convention movement formed part of an emergent class of school administrators, journalists, businesswomen, and reformers who served an all-black community. This educated female elite, frequently consisting of teachers or wives of ministers associated with educational institutions, promoted middle-class ideals among the masses of blacks in the belief that such ideals ensured the dual goal of racial self-help and respect from white America. Especially in the roles of missionary and teacher, black church women were conveyers of culture and vital contributors to the fostering of middle-class ideals and the aspirations in the black community.[5]

During the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, a distinctly black feminist theology would begin to emerge from a segment of the black church. Drawing on the liberation and resistance themes that served and solaced Christian slaves, and reminiscent of Sojourner Truth’s extemporaneously delivered “Ain’t I A Woman?,” black female theologians gave voice to their distinct grievances, and at the same time connected their causes to the waves of the broader feminist movement.[6] Specifically, these women gave a liberal theological perspective to what one feminist activist would identify as the triply oppressed and exploited reality of black women at the interstices of race, gender, and class.[7] As black men in the church were increasingly enjoying spaces of leadership and social recognition, an increasingly pressing question emerged from black women: “When will our season of affirmation begin?”

Moving to the mid-twentieth century, aside from a few noteworthy exemplars,[8] the Civil Rights Movement originating within the black church was mostly male-led, with black women relegated to positions of administration with little-to-no recognition. That said, the twentieth century did bequeath something immensely useful to black women bent on laying claim to what they regarded as rightfully theirs: liberation theology. Though bereft of any gendered analysis in its initial articulations, liberation theology provided a vernacular that was easily adaptable to egalitarian aims.

In turning attention to the home, space does not allow for rendering proper praise to the indefatigable efforts of black women. It is no exaggeration to say that, ever since the days of slavery, black women have, in myriad ways, served as the glue that has held together the familial bond threatened by forces external to the family itself. Yet all too often, black women have also had to face the reality of managing single-parent homes due to the willful absence of black fathers. Through these challenges, black women present and past—particularly black Christian women—have modeled an enduring hope and an inimitable faith.

Understandably, such realities progressively led to the formation of a female characteristic that, energized by the ongoing waves of feminism, persists today: the independent black woman.[9] In light of the unique history of oppression and exploitation experienced by black women, progress and often times outright survival meant that they had to cultivate a persona marked by self-sufficiency, independence (even and especially from black men), and a determined drive for upward mobility, success, and social equality.[10] To be sure, determination and a “go-getter” spirit is not all bad. Such qualities have marked the trail of progress in African American history. An imbalance of such qualities, however, can prove unhealthy for the home and the church. Unfortunately, such self-sufficiency and independence can become outright unbiblical.

The Bible and an Egalitarian Hermeneutic

The aforementioned historical perspective, though brief and somewhat simplistic, is crucial in understanding the egalitarian positions of many contemporary black congregations. For many, the themes of resistance, progressive liberal ideology/theology, liberation, and the notions of equality and political correctness that have attended this present wave of the feminist movement have all coalesced in our contemporary moment. For other black egalitarians, the biblical witness alone is believed to settle the issue.

Liberation theology subsists on two undergirding perspectives: The first is that the Old Testament God made it his central aim to liberate an oppressed people from social and political bondage. The second is that the New Testament Christ has since self-identified with the marginalized and oppressed. Unsurprisingly, these two perspectives undergird many black egalitarians’ hermeneutic. But their arguments orient around a unique reading of a few biblical passages.

Firstly, black egalitarians do not see gender role distinctives in the created order. Rather, appealing to Genesis 1:26-28, ontological equality is said to yield functional equality. If the imago dei is equally reflected in men and women, then equal roles must follow. Any distinction between gender roles is regarded as a result of the Fall.

Black egalitarians look to the prophetess and judge Deborah—as well as Esther and Miriam—as paradigmatic for women and church leadership. Moreover, Joel 2:28-29 is interpreted as the decisive Old Testament passage that foreshadows what is regarded as the democratization of the Holy Spirit, empowering and authorizing women for the preaching ministry.

In the New Testament, the picking of passages is a bit more complicated as blacks have always had a love-hate relationship with Pauline literature. Nevertheless, Galatians 3:28 serves as the interpretive lens through which to read all other Pauline passages relevant to this issue. It’s argued that Paul’s words demolish gender distinctions, making the function of men and women interchangeable in the home and in the church.

When it comes to the explicitly complementarian texts, the black egalitarian hermeneutic makes some interesting moves. For instance, 1 Timothy 2:12-15 is interpreted as an example of Paul dealing with a context-specific reality in the church at Ephesus. Whether Paul was faced with an uneducated female community or a persistent party of false female teachers depends on the interlocutor. Others interpret Paul as merely playing to the patriarchy that characterized his day.

Finally, there are other New Testament texts that supposedly bolster the egalitarian claim. It’s frequently noted that Jesus’ initial post-resurrection correspondence is with women who are thereafter instructed to “tell the good news” to his disciples (i.e. the first example of women “preachers”). Moreover, figures like Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11), Priscilla (Acts 18:26), Phoebe (Rom. 16:1), and Junia (Rom. 16:7) are all treated as examples of women in church leadership.

Commending a Corrective

Before addressing the biblical data, the impact of the past on the present cannot be overstated. Again, for black Christians, biblical interpretation historically saw the Israelite experience as paradigmatic, while also treating justice, equality, and love as overriding Christian themes. These impulses—originating in the hearts of slave converts in the antebellum South and rehearsed by blacks during the Civil Rights Movement—proved to be much needed correctives to a compromised and contaminated Christianity in America.

Black egalitarians regard their stance on this issue as commensurate with such a history. In other words, many of the black male pastors I know who affirm egalitarianism regard their roles as ongoing civil rights actors as necessitating this position. Moreover, following this line of thinking, to deny egalitarianism would be to align oneself with the racist, hegemonic, and oppressive European tradition that upheld the institutions of slavery and Jim and Jane Crow policies—all with Bibles in hand and fingers placed on self-justifying verses. While I understand this reasoning, it’s at the heart of this felt-dilemma that I must direct my initial critique.

The question that black Christians must ask themselves—one that, in light of the history of race and religion in America, does not seem fair, but is yet posed to all image-bearers who profess Christ irrespective of ethnic identification—is a question of final allegiance. Is your fundamental commitment to blackness or to Christ? To be clear, the latter does not call one to deny the former, but rather submit the former in faithful obedience to the latter (Gal. 2:20). As one of my pastors recently intimated, Jesus came not to destroy our ethnic identities, but to purify each of them and unite them under his Lordship.

Additionally, another problem with this felt-dilemma is that it fails to acknowledge the true discerning agent in the aforementioned social realities—biblical Christianity. Black egalitarians often wrongly parse their choice of a hermeneutical paradigm as one between an oppressive lens or a liberating lens. However, the aim should be a biblical, Christ-centered lens. After all, true liberation is only found in union with Christ (John 8:31-36).

In an effort to deal with difficult and undesirable biblical passages, some have proudly affirmed what they call a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” ironically rendering themselves and their conclusions suspect according to orthodox standards. Instead, I commend a return to fundamental principles such as the inerrancy, infallibility, and authority of the Bible, a return to upholding and defending a literal interpretation of the Bible in its historical, grammatical, and canonical contexts.[11] For many black Christians, such principles are untenable given certain Old Testament realities and New Testament statements. However, the Bible did not support the transatlantic slave trade, even if abusers of the text said it did. And abuse should not negate proper use.[12]

In turning to the biblical witness on the distinct roles of men and women in church and home, I would suggest that the Bible teaches a complementarian relationship between men and women in both locations. It’s a glorious truth that men and women were created equal in dignity and worth as bearers of the divine image. And yet God calls the man to lead, protect, and provide and the woman to affirm, actively support, and assist his leadership.

First, the narrator carefully demonstrates that Adam was created first (see 1 Tim. 2:13), and that the prohibitive command was given to him directly by God (Gen. 2:7-17). Moreover, the text goes on to state that Eve was created (i) from Adam (ii) in order to be a “helper” for Adam (Gen 2:18-22).

To conclude that distinguishing their roles negates ontological equality is to give credence to a culturally influenced worldview that runs afoul of basic Trinitarian theology. Within the Godhead we find equality of essence and worth, yet distinction in function. These functional differences show up in the economy of salvation. The Father possesses the distinct role of sending the Son for our redemption; the Son possesses the distinct role of accomplishing the work of redemption; and the Spirit possesses the distinct role of applying that redemptive work. The Son, having been sent by the Father, is subordinate to the Father, and the Spirit, having been sent by the Father and Son, is subordinate to both the Father and the Son. The Spirit does not share the prerogatives of the Son, and the Son does not share the prerogatives of the Father, and yet the three are co-equal and co-eternal. The complementarian position finds its legitimacy in such an understanding of the Trinity.

Regarding prominent women in the Old Testament, we certainly want to acknowledge their faithfulness and service as well as God’s providence in choosing them to accomplish his purposes. Moreover, we should draw godly principles from their lives as we would of any other figure in the Old Testament. However, it does not follow that such Old Testament occurrences are paradigmatic for the church. The church born in Acts 2 is to be ordered by standards found in the New Testament passages concerning church polity. Old Testament prescriptions for the civil order (as with Deborah) or even temple worship do not automatically equate to prescriptions for church order.

Regarding Deborah in particular, it’s worth recalling that the book of Judges features Israel’s disobedience and idolatry in the face of God’s enduring faithfulness. The closing verse of the book states, “in those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Israel is hardly a model at this point, but more a picture of disobedience. Why would one use this book to look for standards for the church?

Much has also been made in black egalitarian circles about Joel’s prophecy and its fulfillment on the day of Pentecost. Egalitarians explain, “the Bible is clear that ‘your sons and your daughters shall prophesy’!” However, two things must be acknowledged. First, there is no reason to think that Peter’s statement concerning Joel’s prophecy had anything to do with church polity and who is qualified to preach/pastor in the local church. Second, Peter clearly indicated what constituted the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy: “this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel.” The antecedent for the demonstrative pronoun, this, is the occurrence described in Acts 2:5-11. To apply Joel’s prophecy to the issue of church polity is illegitimate.

The case remains that 1 Timothy 2:12-14 prohibits women from serving in the office of elder in the local church. One of the problems that has further complicated the interpretation and application of this verse is the persistent misunderstanding regarding the local church office of elder, and the relationship between preaching and that office. The New Testament Greek makes it clear that “elder,” “pastor,” and “bishop” are used interchangeably.[13] Any distinctions attached to these designations are mere fabrications. Also, the main role of the elder/pastor is preaching.

Traditionally, the pastorate in the black church has included an exhaustive list of tasks and responsibilities. Many of those tasks are inherent to the calling of pastoral ministry. However, it remains the case that the most important of those tasks is delivering the Word of God, which builds the church of God. I make this point because some have thought it expedient to make a distinction between preaching and pastoring so as to allow for women preachers. To be sure, every who preaches is not a pastor. However, every preacher, in the preaching event, does takes part in what is the central role of the pastor in shepherding the congregation according to the Word of God.

In other words, the issue is not merely titular.[14] It’s also an issue of function. Thus, the prohibition: when the church is formally gathered in any respect,[15] women should not serve as teachers of men. The reason for the prohibition is clearly stated in verse 13: the created order and the process by which the Fall occurred.[16] The immediate historical context of a text is important for interpretation and application. But our reconstruction of the historical context should hardly cause us to interpret the text contrary to what the grammatical context itself conveys.

This brings us to the question concerning the egalitarian interpretation of Galatians 3:28. An important question to consider would be: What is the book of Galatians in general or chapter 3 in particular about? I would argue that the answer has everything to do with justification by faith (as opposed to works of the Law) and nothing to do with church polity. In other words, the issue at stake is equal access to salvation in Christ and the promised Sprit, not the pulpit. Moreover, contrary to the egalitarian reading of the passage, Paul is not saying that in Christ gender disappears (i.e. there is no such thing as a “man” or a “woman”). Rather, Paul is concluding that, in Christ, no one is spiritually superior over anyone else. A believing Jew, free person, or man does not possess a more privileged position before God than a believing Greek, slave, or woman. Noteworthy, the egalitarian interpretation of this passage is identical to that which is made by those who would argue in favor of an alternative sexual ethic. Logical consistency would almost demand that those in favor of an egalitarian position from this passage also affirm the validity of homosexual practice as commensurate with a Christian testimony.

Lastly, there is no indication that the women often appealed to throughout the New Testament as examples of female leadership behaved in any way contrary to the prohibition that is given in 1 Timothy as explained above and in the footnotes below. Rather, what we do find in the New Testament are clear, prescriptive passages in Titus 2:3-5 and 1 Timothy 5:14 where women are encouraged to teach other women, submit to their husbands, and manage their households.[17] The appeal to these passages is not to suggest that women are not gifted in other areas of ministry in the local church. God has gifted women to serve in every capacity that does not run afoul the prohibition previously discussed. According to this view, women possess the gift of teaching and are also called to serve as deaconesses.[18]

For black female egalitarians, the question of identity needs to be addressed. The suggestion that women are prohibited from preaching and pastoral ministry and are called to submit to their husbands is not a denigration of personhood and value any more than any man’s calling to submit to church leaders (Hebrews 13:17) is a denigration of his personhood and value. As with the Trinity, function is not indicative of value and worth. To say otherwise is a cultural claim, not a Christian one.


Based on my convictions concerning the Word of God, I do believe that many black women are functioning in homes and in the local church in ways contrary to God’s intended design. However, the indictment is not to be initially laid at their feet. Just as God asked Adam in the garden, so too does the question need to be posed to many black men today: “Where are you?”

This article has sought to provide a historical perspective in an attempt to begin to answer that question. However, what is needed is the gospel and the truth of God’s Word. What’s needed is the mentoring of young black men by godly Christian men, and the mentoring of young black women by godly Christian women. What’s needed are testimonies of healthy black marriages—faithful husbands and faithful brides—that will serve as enduring paradigms of what covenants really are, especially those modeled after Christ and his bride, the church. What’s needed is a model of complementarity that does not relegate itself to caricatures of female mindlessness and male machismo. And yes, what’s needed are pastors with deep convictions, pastors who refuse to cave to cultural pressures, but rather hold in high esteem God’s Word rightly taught for the good of the church.

May all our prayers be to this end, not just for the “black church,” but for the Lord’s church, wherever it may be found.


[1] Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2004). Space does not allow for the analysis of what was yet another site of familial disruption: female slave rape. The mulatto offspring of such horrid encounters were often relegated to both fatherlessness and communal ostracization.

[2] Of course, an immediate causal relationship between slavery and fatherless homes in the contemporary black community cannot be argued. However, it is more than reasonable to suggest a correlation whereby the absence of a generationally ingrained ideal model, coupled with certain besetting sins common to all men—such as lasciviousness, selfishness, and outright unbelief—has resulted in the present plight of many black homes.

[3] Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 212.

[4] My use of the phrase “black church” is in like manner to that of C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya: “…as a kind of sociological and theological shorthand reference to the pluralism of black Christian churches in the United States.” The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), 1.

[5] Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 14.

[6] For a historical analysis of black feminist thought see: bell hooks, Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston: South End Press, 1999).

[7] See: Erik S. McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

[8] I.e., Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Daisy Bates, Prathia Hall, Diane Nasha, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks.

[9] This characteristic can be seen championed in black popular culture. From the 1999 song by Destiny’s Child, “Independent Women,” to the 2008 song “Miss Independent” by the artist, Ne-Yo, to the even more recent 2011 song by Beyonce, “Run the World (Girls).” Presently, this theme is exemplified in the television drama characters of Olivia Pope (Scandal) and Professor Annalise Keating (How to Get Away with Murder).

[10] Understandably, even for black fathers who are present in the home, often the decision is made to inculcate in their daughters the pursuit of this persona in an effort to ensure the security and protection from former oppressive and exploitative realities.

[11] See: William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004); Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006); Andreas J. Kostenberger and Richard D. Patterson, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2011); Robert L. Plummer, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2010).

[12] I have written an article on this issue, here:

[13] See Acts 20:17,28. In the former verse, Paul calls for the Ephesian elders (presbuteros). In the latter verse he says that the Holy Spirit has made them “overseers” (episkopos – which is often translated, “bishop”). Also, see 1 Peter 5:1-2. In his exhortation to “elders” (presbuteros), Peter admonishes them to “shepherd” (poimaino, the verb form of the word for “pastor/shepherd”) God’s flock. He then tells them to exercise “oversight” (episkopeo, the verb form of the word for “bishop”).

[14] The same is also often done with the title of “Associate Minister.”

[15] In 1 Timothy 3:14-15, Paul indicates the sphere to which his instructions refer: “in the household of God.” Moreover, given that the prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 refers to teaching or exercising authority over men, it would seem appropriate to apply the prohibition to all contexts within the local church where the instructed community consists of both men and women. However, the prohibition does not extend to those instances and areas where the community gathered is not the local church community. The reason for Paul’s focus on the formal gathering of the community is due to the fact that, contrary to the conviction of many contemporary Christians, the local church is to be the main source of one’s spiritual development.

[16] The Greek word translated “for” (gar) in verse 13 indicates that what follows is the grounds, or reason, for the statement made in verse 12. The reason stated is not the education of women, or the errant actions of a particular group of local women, or any other occasion-specific reason. Paul grounds his reason in something that transgresses the bounds of his own historical context—the order of creation itself. Moreover, he appeals to the details of the fall. These reasons imply that the prohibition given is universal in scope, and ought be universal in application.

[17] Whether reference is made to the admonishment to be “keepers at home” (Titus 2:5) or to manage the house (literally, “rule” the house, 1 Timothy 5:14), it is not my contention that these verses prohibit women from working outside of the home. The virtuous woman described in Proverbs 31 precludes such a conclusion. However, these passages do teach that the home should be the place of priority for women.

[18] To affirm deaconesses might seem contradictory in light of the previous arguments. However, a right regarding of the deacon’s role is a much needed corrective in many black churches. The role of the deacon is not one of authoritative, spiritual leadership, but rather service. As a matter of fact, Phoebe is commended by Paul as a servant (same word translated “deacon” elsewhere, diakanos) of the church.

Editor’s note: Photo credit—Getty

Steven Harris

Steven Harris is a graduate student at Yale University, focusing on black religion in the African diaspora. He is a member of Trinity Baptist Church in New Haven, Connecticut.

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