By Peter Amsterdam
May 31, 2016
(This is the last in a series of four articles that explore the role of women within the New Testament, in order to shed light on the significant part they played in the beginnings of Christianity, as well as the importance of their role in the church today.)
As seen in the first three articles in this series, Jesus, Paul, and the early church broke from the Jewish religious, cultural, and gender barriers of their day. Jesus instructed His disciples to preach the gospel to everyone, not just to the Jewish people.1 Paul taught that when it comes to believers, there is no difference between slaves and free persons. He also made the point that there is no difference between male and female, that in Jesus all persons are one.2 Paul’s writings also acknowledge the value of women in spiritual ministry, recognizing that they can equally have the gifts of the Spirit, showing acceptance of them as prophets, teachers, deacons, and fellow workers, and highly commending them in his Epistles.
The question is often posed:
Why, when Paul clearly stated that in Christ men and woman are equal, did he write the following? I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet,3and women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.4
Within the church today, there are two schools of thought on how to interpret these verses (and a few other Pauline verses that seem to be saying that men and women are not equal in spiritual matters).
One is the Complementarian interpretation, which holds that there is a God-ordained distinction between male and female, and that God created females to be in subjection to, under the final authority of, and led by males in the home and in the church.5
The other is the Egalitarian interpretation, which holds that there is biblical equality between the genders, and that the Bible does not teach a gender role which subordinates women to men. This interpretation supports the equality of essential worth, rank, privilege, and standing without stereotyped gender functions as a part of each person’s basic identity.6
Churches that hold to the Complementarian interpretation restrict positions women can hold within the church. While they can teach Scripture or preach to other women, and children, they can’t teach or lead men. They can’t be pastors or elders within the church, as in such a position they would exercise authority over men. When Scripture says that “the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church,” this is interpreted to mean that the husband is the head of the household, that he is above the wife, and as such wives should submit to their husbands.7 Those who hold to the Egalitarian interpretation, on the other hand, believe that women are equally capable and authorized to preach and teach and hold leadership positions, and that in marriage the husband and wife are equals.
Delving into the meaning of each of the Bible verses where these two lines of interpretation differ would be very technical and would require a multitude of words. Instead of attempting that, I will touch on a number of points of the Egalitarian interpretation, as I believe these more closely follow the principles Jesus taught about women through the things He said and His interactions with them.
When the verses in which Paul said that women should be silent and not exercise authority over a man8 are compared with Paul’s overall view of equality for all who are in Christ, we understand that he must have been speaking to specific situations in the churches he was writing to. It is likely that in 1 Timothy, he was referring to a specific problem which had something to do with women having learned some false teaching and therefore not being allowed to teach. In addressing women’s apparel, the issue he was addressing would likely have been the presence of well-to-do women who were flaunting their wealth.9
In 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks about God not being a God of confusion,10 and he goes on from there to speak of women keeping silent in the church and says that if they have questions, they should ask their husbands at home. Numerous interpreters see the purpose of these verses as addressing local situations in which Christian women, who were freed from the earlier societal patriarchy, were excessively using their right to speak to the point of causing disruption. Paul was making the point that the church worship service was not the right setting for their questions, as it was disruptive.
Examined in the context of Paul’s overall writings, his point that women should learn in silence was most likely addressed to specific churches about specific problems that some women were causing. Elsewhere, Paul spoke positively of women praying and prophesying in church, so on balance it can be understood that saying in one instance that women shouldn’t speak in church was not meant to be a universal rule that women should never speak in church.
In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul states that a husband is the “head of the wife,” which can be understood as teaching that wives are subordinate to their husbands.
I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.11 For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.12 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.13
Ephesians 5 says something similar:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.14
One key aspect in understanding what Paul was teaching has to do with the meaning of “head.” The Greek word for head, kephalē, seldom meant “leader” or “boss” in ancient Greek. It frequently meant “source,” as in the head or source of a river. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul was referring to Genesis 2, where we’re told that Eve was made from one of Adam’s ribs. As such, man is the “source” of woman in a literal sense. In similar ways, God the Father is the source of the Son, and Jesus is the source of the church. Paul was saying that the head (source) of every man is Christ and the head (source) of the woman is the man, and the head (source) of Christ is God the Father.15 If Paul was trying to make the point that the husband is the boss, he would have used the Greek word archon, which refers to a commander or ruler, but he didn’t.
In Ephesians, it was Christ as Savior, servant, and source of salvation—not Christ as ruler and master—whom Paul had in mind when he said “Christ is head of the church.”16 He wasn’t saying that the husband was to act with the typical patriarchal attitude that was common in his day, when the husband sternly ruled within the home. Instead, he was saying that the husband should be the head by imitating Christ’s self-sacrifice and death for the church. Jesus laid down His life out of love for humanity. Husbands are called to also lay down their lives for their wives. A wife’s submission is made possible by a husband’s Christlike love, which puts her interests above his own. In his love for his wife, the husband submits to the wife’s interest. There is a mutual submission. Husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.17 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.18 Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.19
Paul told Christians to submit to one another, then in the next verse he said wives should submit to their husbands.20 This is meant to be mutual submission. Such submission is also seen where Paul said:
For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.21
As males and females are equal before God, so husbands and wives are equal in marriage. While they may play different roles in their union, those roles are not hierarchal, but are gifts-oriented. For example, if one member of the marriage is more gifted at managing the finances, then that person should probably manage them.
Those who hold to the Complementarian view see women as being subordinate to men, rooted in the story of creation, in four ways: Woman was created after man, woman was created from man, woman was named by man, and woman was created for man. They appeal to Paul’s statement:
For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.22
In looking at these concepts, we see that there are other possible interpretations of these verses than that women are subordinate to men.
God may have made woman from man in order to indicate that she alone of all the creatures is a fit companion for man. It may be intended to emphasize the similarity between the male and the female, which allows the woman to be “a helper of his like/kind.” In the Old Testament, naming a person indicated authority over the person. As far as the woman being named by the man, when Adam first sees Eve he doesn’t give her the name Eve. He calls her woman, indicating that he recognized her as his counterpart. He is only recorded as calling her by the name Eve after the fall, not before.23
Some look at God saying that “it is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him”24and come to the conclusion that the woman was made to hold a subordinate position to man. Properly understanding this verse, however, hangs on the meaning of the Hebrew word `ezer, translated as “helper.” Of the 20 other times it’s used in the Old Testament, 17 are in reference to God as our helper, and the other three are referring to military allies. It is translated as succorer, rescuer, deliverer, strength, and power. Never is it used in the sense of being subordinate. Rather than viewing Eve as either inferior or subservient to Adam, the creation of woman “for man” or as his “helper” means that she rescues him from his solitude. There is no sense of a subservient role.25
Adam and Eve equally chose to disobey God. According to Genesis, Eve was the first to disobey, but Adam was with her and he freely chose to eat of the forbidden fruit. Both were equally guilty. As a consequence of their sin, certain things changed. The serpent (the devil) was cursed and will eventually be defeated, women have increased pain in childbirth, the ground was cursed, people were going to have to toil for food, and would eventually physically die. When speaking to Eve, God also said:
Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.26 This is understood as “you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.”
God allowed them to eat of every tree except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.27 Once they disobeyed, they were driven from the presence of God, sent out of the garden so they wouldn’t have access to the tree of life. While Satan and the ground were cursed as a result of sin, Scripture doesn’t say that Adam and Eve were cursed, but circumstances changed which made things more difficult for them. The entrance of sin into their lives brought changes in their relationship. One of the changes was that the wife would desire to control the husband, but the husband would rule over her. Egalitarians see this not as a decree from God that the husband would rule over the wife; rather as a description of the consequences of their sin, as well as the state of humankind produced by the entrance of sin and separation from God. Looking at it that way, male domination isn’t something put in place by God; it is an outcropping of sin.28
Generally speaking, the verses in the New Testament which seem to relegate women to a subordinate role or position in the church and/or in marriage are some of the more difficult verses in the Bible to understand. Because of this, we must look at them in the context of the full teaching of the New Testament. Within Jesus’ ministry, we read that He featured women as positive examples in His parables and teaching, and that they were considered to be true witnesses, and even disciples. In the early church, we see women playing a variety of important roles, including in leadership and teaching. We read of the need for mutual submission of Christians one to another. So when faced with some of Paul’s writings which deal with problems being caused by some women in specific churches, that tend to stand in opposition to Paul’s general stance on women and men being equal in the Lord, we understand these to be temporary injunctions for specific places rather than universal rules.
Both sexes are created equally in the image of God. We are equally offered salvation, and those who accept it are equally saved before God. We each receive gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to the Spirit’s choice. Men and women are equally called to preach the gospel. In marriage we are equal partners, called to submit to each other in love.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:19–20).
2 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:27–28).
3 1 Timothy 2:12.
4 1 Corinthians 14:34–35.
5 Stanley J. Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1995), 18.
7 Ephesians 5:23–24.
8 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet (1 Timothy 2:12).
The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:34–35).
9 Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works (1 Timothy 2:9–10).
10 1 Corinthians 14:33.
11 1 Corinthians 11:3.
12 1 Corinthians 11:7–9.
13 1 Corinthians 11:11–12.
14 Ephesians 5:22–24.
15 Alan F. Johnson, ed., How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 230.
17 Ephesians 5:25.
18 Ephesians 5:28.
19 Ephesians 5:33.
20 Ephesians 5:21–22.
21 1 Corinthians 7:4.
22 1 Corinthians 11:8–9.
23 Grenz and Kjesbo, Women in the Church, 162–63.
24 Genesis 2:18 NAU.
25 Grenz and Kjesbo, Women in the Church, 164.
26 Genesis 3:16.
27 Genesis 2:17.
28 Grenz and Kjesbo, Women in the Church, 168–69.