Women In the Bible
Note: As the author of this position paper I want to state how I came upon the material I am about to write. For the many years I have been a Christian I have been bothered by the way in which I saw women being treated in man made church organizations. Additionally, I have been the recipient of numerous sermons delivered from various pulpits that contained information on what the speaker stated as his/her opinion of what the Bible teaches about women in the church. A long time ago I began to keep a file folder of hand written notes on sermons I have heard, documents, books and literature I have read as well as the verbal testimony of others who call themselves Christian and speak out on this issue. Many of my notes have lost their point of origin over the years. Due to the lack of the original source, anything I have written that might encroach upon any copyright is completely unintentional on my part and I would be happy to remove that content if the original author were to contact me and illustrate that a copyright has been violated. I think that the majority of what I write is coming from things I have heard and my own personal study of the Scriptures; however, if I am incorrect about this I am open to readjusting the text of the material if I have violated a copyright.
It is unfortunate that evil women in the Bible like Jezebel and Athaliah are singled out to show that women are not to be trusted while at the same time Godly women such as Deborah, Phoebe, or Junia are never mentioned. The friction between Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2) has at times been used as evidence that women cannot stand the pressure of ministry, while the place of these two women as Paul’s fellow workers is completely ignored. Yet Paul’s words in Philippians 4:3 could not be more complimentary when he described them as “…women which laboured with me in the gospel…” To hold such an unbalanced attitude toward women is similar to concentrating only on John Mark’s failings, rather than his usefulness, or mentioning only the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas and not their ultimate unity.
Some Women Of The Old Testament
During the Exodus period, Moses’ sister Miriam was his companion in leadership. She was a prophetess (Exodus 14:20) and, along with their brother Aaron, a visible figure at the head of the Hebrew people. Yes, she had a moment of failure (shared with Aaron), but we do not write off Aaron for joining her in this or for his abysmal sin in the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32). Nor do we write off Moses for his murder of an Egyptian (Exodus 2) or his impatient anger (Numbers 20). Therefore, we should not write off Miriam because of the incident in Numbers 12. We should listen to the words of Micah 6:4, which give God’s estimate of the calling on Miriam: “…I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” The plain biblical fact is that God sent Miriam to be a co-leader of the children of Israel.
Prominent in Old Testament history was the judge Deborah. Judges 4:4 tells us, “And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, judged Israel at the time.” This woman was not only a spiritual and government leader, but she was the inspiration behind Barak’s military expedition against Sisera. She delivered the word of the Lord to Barak and then, at his express request, accompanied him on the campaign. The text of Judges four and five shows that she was a dominant figure of this era. The Scripture includes no disclaimer to the effect that the Lord could not find any man willing to lead Israel, so He was forced to settle for a woman (something we occasionally hear from Bible teachers). Not only was Deborah a multi-talented individual whose qualities made her accepted by the people as their prophet and judge, but she also used her encouragement and exhortation as she helped Barak move out to obey God’s command.
The prophetess Huldah appears in the parallel accounts of 2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34. During the reign of King Josiah, the book of the law was rediscovered and read to the king. His command was: “Go ye, inquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that is found…” (2 Kings 22:13). Both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles tell us that the king’s emissaries went directly to Huldah and that God spoke His message through her (2 Kings 22:14). His emissaries relayed that message back to King Josiah, who then acted on Huldah’s words and called the nation to return in obedience to God’s word.
Nothing could be plainer than the fact that Huldah gave out the authoritative word of the Lord and that the king and his counselors understood it clearly. We cannot ignore that in His wisdom God chose the woman Huldah as His spokesperson in presenting His word to Josiah and that her words helped institute a period of national revival. We also cannot ignore that through Huldah’s message Scripture was used as a measuring rod for spiritual practice and life views.
The Old Testament gives a strong example of the capability of women in Proverbs 31:10-31. These verses present the virtues of a wife who is considered to be an example of womanhood. Here the woman is portrayed as the backbone of the family! The verses do not make clear what her husband did at the city gate, but one thing is obvious: while he sat at those gates this woman was a busy person. She supported her family in a variety of ways that many in the church today might consider nontraditional and unfeminine. She ran the family business, supervised servants, bought and sold real estate, marketed goods, and administered a large household. She played a number of roles in life: artisan, businesswoman, educator, advisor, devotional leader and parent.
The Old Testament women mentioned in the scriptures are extremely varied and cover the landscape. Miriam was a single woman leader. Rahab was a resistance leader, and Jael was a “good soldier.” Deborah was a spiritual leader as well as a wife and mother. Huldah was a prophetess and wife, while the woman in Proverbs 31 was a multi-career wife and mother. Like Abigail, these women were not locked into some artificial role, nor did the men in their lives limit them. They lived in a patriarchal society, but they operated in non-patriarchal ways, and the Bible text commends them for their actions!
Some New Testament Women & Passages
Although the Apostle Paul is frequently characterized in the organized church as an “enemy” of women, the biblical facts are that the Bible reveals no such thing. A study of Paul’s interaction with women indicates just the opposite. For example, Acts 16:11-15 tells us that Paul preached his first message in Macedonia to women. In a most natural way, the account shows Paul unashamedly preaching his first European sermon to women and then going to stay with the first European convert, a Philippian businesswoman named Lydia.
Paul’s good friend Priscilla, and esteemed teacher in the early church, is particularly interesting to our study because in the Bible text her name usually precedes that of her husband (although some translators arbitrarily reverse the order which is in the Greek text). This couple had opened their home to Paul (Acts 18:3). In Romans 16:3-4, Paul described them as his fellow workers and expressed his appreciation for their courage in risking their lives for him and the Gentile churches. Priscilla took an active part in the early church, and Paul commended her actions. She and Aquila must have been among his closest friends, because they were in the group receiving his last farewell (2 Timothy 4:19).
Phoebe, another of Paul’s significant people in the church, stands out in connection with Romans 16:1-2. Although many translators discriminate in rendering these verses into English, in the original Greek language the words of Paul used to describe Phoebe indicate her high position in the early church. The verses tell us that Phoebe was a “diakonos,” using the exact same word translated “deacon” or “minister” elsewhere in the Scriptures. The word is not a feminine one, so even the translation “deaconess” is incorrect. Paul’s words tell us that Phoebe was a “prostatis,” a strong word indicating some sort of position of overseeing. Dr. Aida Besancon Spencer’s book, Beyond the Curse, gives convincing evidence that only an English translator’s bias would term Phoebe a “servant” and “helper” rather than a “minister” and “leader.”
In many other places in Paul’s letters we can see that he valued women as strong and capable co-workers. If what these women were doing was in the slightest way questionable, or if they acted in ways never to be repeated, certainly Paul would have mentioned this. Even a superficial reading of Paul’s epistles shows he was not shy about criticizing people, nor was he reticent in pointing out error.
“But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster (the law, see verse 23). have put For ye are all children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” The plain reading of these words makes the meaning self evident!
1 Corinthians 14: 33-35
“For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, in all churches of the saints. Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” At first reading, this passage looks like real trouble to the status of women in the church! What you need to know about this text is that the phrase “they are commanded” does not appear in the original language! This leads one to wonder if the translators did not bring their preconceived doctrines into their Bible translation work! Secondly, could it be that the men in the Corinthian church wanted to put women back under “the law?” The verification of this idea becomes clear when we go on to read the next verse in the passage, 1 Corinthians 14:36, “What? Came the word of God out from you? Or came it unto you only?” You can see and sense the surprise in Paul’s words. He is obviously reacting to a statement or question raised by the Corinthians in their communication (letter) to him. What has taken place in verses thirty-three through thirty-five is that Paul is repeating what the Corinthians themselves had asked of Paul! His answer to them is essentially, Are you kidding me!
If the above were not true, how could Paul in the same epistle (1 Corinthians 11:5, 13), say that women are to have a head covering on while praying or prophesying? By this statement, Paul is validating the appropriateness of women as participants in public prayer and prophecy in the church. What he finds invalid and unacceptable is that they engage in this activity without a head covering, since that rejection of cultural/religious custom creates a potential stumbling block. Paul even affirms, in that context (verse sixteen), that the churches of God recognize no other practice. In Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:17-18), it is stated that the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy has come (that your sons and daughters shall prophesy). Luke also mentions that the evangelist Philip (Acts 21:8-9), had four daughters who were engaged in the prophetic ministry.
The Word “Head” in Scripture
In 1 Corinthians 11:2-4, we have scripture that has raised some questions in the minds of Christians. This passage is one of the most difficult and debated passages in all of Paul’s epistles. What, precisely, did Paul mean when he said that “the head of the woman is the man”? In 1 Corinthians 11:3 the debate centers on the meaning of the word head (which is a literal rendering of the Greek word “kephale”). For most English readers of the text, the common figurative sense of “head” as ruler, leader, chief, boss, suggests itself almost immediately. Such an understanding of “head” as connoting “authority over” leads to an interpretation of this text as Paul’s teaching about hierarchical order in the relationship between man and woman. Some who stand within this interpretive tradition go as far as to propose a “chain of command,” where authority is passed along: from God to Christ to man to woman.
While the NIV, RSV, NASB, and the NEB Bible translations are cautious in their translation, rendering the Greek “kephale” with its literal English equivalent “head,” other contemporary versions opt for a figurative meaning. Thus the TEV renders “kephale” with “supreme over.” The Living Bible’s paraphrase becomes even more interpretive in this particular direction when it renders the text: “a wife is responsible to her husband, her husband is responsible to Christ, and Christ is responsible to God.”
Even when such explicit interpretations of the term “kephale” are not employed, the literal “head,” as in the NIV, implicitly suggests an interpretation along the same lines because of the common misunderstanding of “head” in the English when applied to persons in relationships such as marriage or other institutions. Common phrases like “she is the head of the division” or “he is head of his family” illustrate this everyday metaphorical meaning of “head” in our language.
Apart from the question of whether the common English meaning is also the common Greek meaning of head when used figuratively, serious issues are raised. How are we to see the relation between Christ and the Father? If the Father occupies a rank superior to Christ, then we have a revival of the ancient heresy of “subordinationism” and a challenge to the classical doctrine of the Trinity.
Further, if husbands (or men; the Greek word is the same) are under the authority of Christ, and wives (or women; the same Greek word) are under the authority of husbands/men, do we have a situation where women stand only in direct relationship to Christ, via their husbands? Such a conclusion is in fact reached by some when they understand the series (Father-Christ-Man-Woman) as indicating a “growing distance from God,” or by others who extend the “chain of command” to children (on the basis of Ephesians 5:21-6:4) and maintaining that the woman’s authority over her children is a “derived” authority; that is, she exercises that authority “on behalf of” her husband.
The core issue in our attempt to grasp Paul’s instruction is this: What meaning or meanings, did the word “kephale” have in the common Greek language of the New Testament period? How would Greek-speaking Christians in Corinth have understood Paul when he used “kephale?” And how did the meaning of “kephale” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 help them to understand Paul’s instructions concerning appropriate decorum in their public worship (1 Corinthians 11: 4-16)? To answer these questions attention must be given to linguistic data and Paul’s use of “kephale” elsewhere in his epistles, as well as the thrust of his argument in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.
The linguistic evidence points strongly, if not overwhelmingly, away from the common reading of “head” as “chief,” “ruler,” or “authority over,” though there are many conservative scholars who would challenge this. The most exhaustive Greek-English Lexicon covering Greek literature from about 900 BC to AD 600, among numerous metaphorical meanings for “kephale,” does not give a single definition that would indicate that “kephale” included the meaning “superior rank” or “supreme over” or “leader” or “authority.”
What is especially interesting in this lexicographic evidence is that in the 1897, eighth edition of this lexicon, the final entry under “metaphorical” meanings is “of persons, a chief” (Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 2 Vols., rev., H.S. Jones & R. McKenzie – Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940, 1:944-45). But, not a single citation from the literature is given to support or illustrate such a definition. Because of the lack of evidence, that definition is not included in the later editions. However, among the range of meanings which “kephale” had in ordinary Greek were “origin” or “source” or “starting point” and “crown” or “completion” or “consummation.” As we shall see below, these meanings of “kephale” do far greater justice to the Pauline usage of “kephale” than the “authority” nuances conveyed by the English “head.”
Strong support for the linguistic evidence (that the metaphorical range of the meanings of “kephale” did not normally include the idea of “authority over” or “superior rank”) comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (known as the Septuagint) made approximately between 250-150 BC by a group of Jewish scholars for the Jews living outside of Palestine whose first, and sometimes only, language was Greek.
Like the English word “head” and the Greek word “kephale,” the Hebrew word “ro’sh” has first of all the literal meaning “head of man or beast.” But like English and Greek, it also has numerous figurative meanings. In an exhaustive study of how the Septuagint translators rendered the Hebrew word “ro’sh” (Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen, What Does Kephale Mean in the New Testament?” in Women, Authority & the Bible, ed. Alvera Mickelsen – Downers Grove, Ill., Intervarsity Press, 1986, pp. 97-110) the following data emerge. In the more than two hundred times when “ro’sh” refers to a physical head, the translators almost always used “kephale.” About one hundred eighty times, “ro’sh” clearly has the figurative meaning of “leader” or “chief” or “authority figure” of a group. There is thus a close similarity between the English “head”: and the Hebrew “ro’sh;” figuratively, both frequently designate an authority figure. When the translators, however, sought the appropriate Greek word to render this figurative meaning, they used not “kephale,” but “archon” (and its derivatives) in the great majority of cases (one hundred thirty eight times). “Archon” means “ruler,” “commander,” “leader.” It’s derivatives include meanings such as “authority,” “chief,” “captain,” “prince,” “chief of tribe,” “head of family.” Most of the remaining occurrences of “ro’sh” (when it designates an authority figure) are translated by several other specific Greek words, such as “hegeomai,” “to have dominion over.” In only eight out of the one hundred eighty cases was “kephale” used to translate “ro’sh” when it designated the leader or ruler of a group. It is very possible that one of the figurative meanings of “kephale,” namely, “top” or “crown,” allowed the translator to use it in describing a prominent individual.
It is clear from this data that the Greek translators were keenly aware that “kephale” did not normally have a metaphorical meaning equivalent to that of “ro’sh;” else they would have used it for most, if not all, occurrences of “ro’sh” when it carried the meaning “chief” or “leader.”
This linguistic evidence, which suggests that the idea of “authority over” was not native to the Greek “kephale,” has led numerous scholars to see behind Paul’s use of “head” either the meaning “source,” “origin,”or “top, crown, completion” (see for example, Stephen Bedale, “The Meaning of Kephale in the Pauline Epistles, Journal of Theological Studies n.s. 5-1954: 211-215; C.K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians – New York: Harper & Row, 1968. H.N. Ridderbos, Paul, An Outline of Theology, trans. J. Richard deWitt – Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1975, pp. 379-82; S. Scott Bartchy, Power, Submission, and Sexual Identity Among the Early Christians, in Essays on New Testament Christianity, ed. C.R. Wetzel – Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1978, pp. 50-80.
Another factor to take into consideration is that nowhere else in the New Testament is “kephale” used to designate a figure of authority. If that had been a prominent meaning, it could have served well in numerous places in the Gospels where the head or master of a household appears; yet “kephale” is never used to convey this meaning (see, for example, Matthew 10:25; 13:52; Luke 13:25; 14:21).
If the readers and hearers of Paul’s Greek did not hear our headship concept in the word “kephale,” but rather the idea of source or origin, what did it convey to them, and how did that meaning in 1 Corinthians 11:3 lay the foundation for Paul’s admonition about appropriate hair length and decorum in public worship? Cyril of Alexandria, an important Greek-speaking leader of the church in the fourth century, commenting on this text wrote: “This we say that the “kephale” of every man is Christ, because he was excellently made through Him. And the “kephale” of woman is man, because she was taken from his flesh. Likewise, the “kephale” of Christ is God, because He is from Him according to nature” (G. W. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon – Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 749).
This interpretation meets all the requirements of the passage and its context, and at the same time sheds light on several other of Paul’s statements where both Christ and man are designated as head of something or someone (Ephesians 4:14; 5:23; Colossians 1:15-20; 2:19). Paul, and other New Testament writers, affirm Christ as the one by whom all things were created (Colossians 1:16; 1 Corinthians 8:6; John 1:3). Thus Paul can say that Christ, as God’s agent of creation, gave the first man, and thus very man, life (Christ is the source of man’s life). Such a meaning is confirmed by the fact that in the same passage (verses 7-9) he clearly has the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2 in mind. Though it is obvious that, in a final sense, Christ/God is also the source of the woman’s life (verse 12), Paul is here considering the sequence of creation of the human species in Genesis 2.
This temporal, sequential thought continues in the sentence, “And the head of woman is man” (that is, “the man is the source of woman’s life”). According to Genesis 2:21-23, Adam is the origin of Eve’s being. And it is precisely this Old Testament text which Paul has in mind (verses 8, 12). That “source” is the appropriate meaning of “kephale” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 and confirmed by Paul’s “source” language in his reference to Genesis 2.
Behind this temporal sequence stands God (everything comes from God – verse 12 – that is, God is the source of everything; see 1 Corinthians 8:6). Therefore, “The head of Christ is God” (that is, the source of Christ’s being is God). Cyril of Alexander said, the “kephale” of Christ is God because He is from Him according to nature.” Cyril’s language is solidly grounded in the New Testament. According to John 1:1-14, the Word, which was God, came forth and became flesh in the incarnation. In John 8:42; 13:3, and 16:27, Jesus is said to have come from God.
On the basis of the data above, it would seem best to translate 1 Corinthians 11:3 as follows: “I want you to understand that Christ is the source of man’s being; the man is the source of woman’s being; and God is the source of Christ’s being.” When read like this, it lays a solid foundation for, and sheds light on, the rest of the passage (1 Corinthians 11:4-16).
Oswald Chambers once wrote, “The majority of us are blind on certain lines; we see only in the light of our prejudices. A searchlight lights up only what it does and no more, but the daylight reveals a hundred and one facts that the searchlight had not taken into account. An idea acts like a searchlight and becomes tyrannous.” When only a narrow searchlight guides people, they can get off track. For example, some groups have developed an expanded vision of headship that would make all men “authoritative over” all women. This position depends on a presuppositional approach to the order of creation, misunderstands the Hebrew word “ezer” as meaning “subordinate,” and arbitrarily imposes its preconceptions on the dozens of difficulties in the “hard passages” on this topic. Then as the tyrannous searchlight focuses on Ephesians 5:21-33, the analogy of the husband to Christ and the wife to the church, the person holding the searchlight concludes all too quickly that because these verses liken the husband to Christ, all men must have a dominant role over all women.
This argument completely overlooks the fact that the biblical imagery used here does not lock people into male/female roles. Note that the Christian husband is part of the church (or bride) of Christ and therefore is included in the “feminine imagery” used for the wife, as Paul teaches in Romans 7:1-6 and 2 Corinthians 11:2.
Furthermore, concentrating only on the analogy of Ephesians 5:21-33 will overlook the parallel teaching of Peter. In 1 Peter 3:1 the apostle refers to Christ’s sacrificial death in urging wives “in the same way” or “in like manner” to express Christ to their husbands. In so acting the wives are now included in the “male imagery” that refers to the incarnate Lord.
So not only must the wife think of the husband as expressing Christ to her, but also the husband must think of the wife as herself expressing Christ to him. Scripture states that all believers express their Lord (Ephesians 5:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). Husband and wife can express Christ to each other, because both sexes were created in God’s image; and because Jesus is God, they can express Him. Furthermore, the epistles are clear that Christ lives in the believer. Any teaching that focuses solely on the analogy in Ephesians five, in order to place the husband (much less all men) in an exalted position over women, would be a dangerous road to go down, verging on male idolatry.
A second example of getting off the track is the teaching that says the husband is “head of the home” (sometimes even further expanded to mean high priest of the home). Because some Christians have so often repeated and heard this notion, it, too, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, no passage in the Bible states this concept. Not only is “the husband is the head of the home” not found in the bible, but the slogan also contradicts the many passages where God’s word teaches that both parents share responsibility for the family.
Ephesians does give us a specific word to fathers only: “…fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). A similar statement occurs in Colossians 3:21. However, in light of all Scripture and not just the searchlight of male headship, it is evident that the source of these statements are in the context to the father because he was the person society empowered to be “over” the children. In most first-century marriages the mother was not considered a responsible individual. But it would be wrong to be so literal minded as to say that, because it does not specifically mention her, Scripture exempts the mother from the intent of Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21. Certainly a Christian mother did not have a carte blanche to exasperate or embitter her children!
Just as serious, we would be wrong to become so literal minded as to say that because the word mother is omitted from Ephesians 6:4 to provide for the children’s spiritual training, mothers are not equally responsible for that training. We know from Paul’s own words of praise in 2 Timothy 1:5 how well taught Timothy was due to the godly instruction he received from his grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice!
Family Decision Making
Another example of getting off the track is the constant preoccupation with authoritative decision making within the family. If we are honest with ourselves, we feel uneasy with and even repulsed by a husband or father who “throws his weight around.” How desperately we need to see that mutual submission in marriage and family is not subtraction of wifely submission, but the addition of husbandry submission. Only that is the perfect biblical equation. In decision making within marriage, the “one” who makes the decisions should be the “two become one.” If deadlocks occur in a marriage, we should ask ourselves: How Christian is this marriage? If the marriage partners are constantly polarized, how can they act as “one flesh?” Can two walk together, except they agree? The answer to this question is that they cannot. Any marriage characterized by persistent division and not mutuality of both operation and goals is in trouble. Christian partners are not competitors or adversaries! In truly Christian marriage, each partner must want only the best for each other. No partner should ever want to domineer or manipulate to get their way. If partners frequently find themselves at odds, they should both focus on Christ’s Lordship and the biblical fact that Christ lives in both of the believers!
The various New Testament passages about male/female relationships all occur within the larger context of the Christian’s new walk and the Christian’s new attitude. Inescapably, we must conclude that Christ abandoned claims to power and position, so also must the Christian. The overall thought in these passages is always to put the other person’s interests over that of our own, which brings us back to mutual submission.
Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:11 help us to put the biblical male/female ideal in proper perspective: “Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.”
Paul also helps us to understand the divine ideal of equality and mutuality in the marriage relationship in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, where he writes that each partner has power over the other and that each partner should yield to the wishes of the other.
In Ephesians 5:21-33, Paul’s own words present “head” as a sacrificial figure, by referring to Christ as “Savior” and telling husbands to “love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it…”
In 1 Peter 3:7, Peter reiterates this description of the husband’s role, when he states that men should treat their wives “…giving honour…” with that phrase clearly referring to the great passage about Christ the suffering servant in 1 Peter 2:21-25.
1 Timothy 2:11-12
This can be described as a difficult passage, but perhaps some background information will be helpful. The Bible shows us that women functioned in prominent leadership roles in the church. The group of women (Phoebe, Euodia, Syntyche, Priscilla and Junia) were designated in Scripture as servants (Romans 16:1), helpers to Paul (Romans 16:3), co-laborers in the gospel (Philippians 4:2-9), apostles (Romans 16: 7). In light of these considerations, reasons for the particular restriction imposed on women in Timothy’s congregation must be discovered from within the text and the situation in the church group.
Upon reading 1 Timothy, one becomes immediately aware that the integrity of the Christian faith is at stake. There are some in the church who were teaching false doctrines and were occupied with myths and other speculative ideas, which were against sound doctrine and sincere faith (1 Timothy 1:3, 4). Some had wandered into vain debates, seeking to be teachers without understanding and discernment (1 Timothy 1:6, 7). There is throughout the epistle a concern for maintaining and guarding the truth of the faith (1 Timothy 1:19; 2:4-7; 3:14-16; 4:1-3, 7, 19; 6:1-5, 12). We do not know the identity of the false teachers or the full content of their teaching, however, they are most likely women. If you read 1 Timothy 1: 3, 6, in the NIV or NAS, the translators translate the Greek words to mean “men” while the translators of the KJV, RSV, MOD LANG, and Douay render the words to neuter by using “some” and “certain persons.” This later translation is probably the most accurate. From the text we can conclude that the false teaching led to a disregard for proper decorum and practice in the church (1 Timothy 2:8-15) as well as a rejection of the institution of marriage (1 Timothy 4:3). In light of this last aspect of the heretical teaching, it is noteworthy that particular attention is directed to young widows (1 Timothy 5: 9-15), who are urged to marry, have children and manage their homes (1 Timothy 5:14). When these normal socially prescribed roles and functions are neglected or rejected, these women are prone to “gossiping” and being “busybodies, saying things they ought not to” (1 Timothy 5: 13).
The situation in the Ephesian church is addressed in 2 Timothy 3: 6-9 where a certain group of women are described as those “…who resist the truth…” (2 Timothy 3: 8) “…ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3: 7). Paul’s word in 1 Timothy 2: 11-12, must be understood within the context where false teaching is at issue. The general prohibition against all those who teach false doctrines (1 Timothy 1: 3) is focused specifically on the women who have fallen prey to such false teaching or who are involved in spreading it.
The admonition of 1 Timothy 2: 11 – “…learn in silence with all subjection” is thus directed at the women who, on the basis of the heretical teaching, have become loud voices, and advocates of ideas which are upsetting the church and home life. The “subjection” spoken of is most likely a subjection to the others in the church. The prohibition against their teaching (1 Timothy 2: 12) is occasioned by their involvement in false teachings.
Finally, the prohibition against “…authority over the man…” (1 Timothy 2: 12) can be understood by looking at the Greek word for “authority” which is “authentein.” This word carries primarily the negative sense of “domineering” and “dominion.” Thus, these women were involved in (1) false teaching, and (2) a lack of mutual submission to others in the church by acting with a domineering attitude (an attitude that no Christian, male nor female should have).
1 Timothy 3: 8-13
The entire passage of 1 Timothy 3: 8-13, addresses the subject of bishops and deacons. It is curious to see verse eleven sandwiched between these verses on the requirements for deacons – or is it sandwiched? In verse twelve, the scripture states that “the deacons are to be the husband of one wife” which seems to preclude a woman from being a deacon! It is also important to note that the words “must their” and “be” are NOT in the original text!
However, in Romans 16: 1, 2, we find the text “I commend unto you Phoebe, our sister which is a servant (actually, deaconess) of the church which is at Cenchrea, that ye receive her…” Phoebe is here called a deaconess! In fact, in Romans 16: 7, we find Junias, who is a woman, being an apostle!
A little information on the word “helper.” Much has been made of women as merely helpers, but any suggestion that the word “helper” indicates a secondary function is not in keeping with the meaning of the original Bible language. The Hebrew word for helper is “ezer” and does not indicate a weak or subordinate person, but someone who is strong. Of all the times the Old Testament uses this word, most of the uses refer to God. For example, Psalm 121 describes the Psalmist’s help “ezer” as coming from the Lord, which made heaven and earth, (verse two). If in the many instances where “ezer” is used of God we gave it the subordinate meaning that has traditionally been used in the case of women, what heresy we would perpetuate about the nature of God! No, “ezer” does not indicate subordination or subservience! Genesis 1: 26-28 had already declared that both men and women were to rule together. Yet think of the tension and competition between men and women, single or married, that has arisen because of the tragic misconception that the word “ezer” means subordinate. When God took woman from man’s side, she was to be his “completer,” not his competitor! Men and women are designed to complement and complete each other, as the marriage union demonstrates. Scripture says that when they unite, the two “become one flesh,” not “the two become a hierarchy.”
Those of us who wish to base our worldview on God’s word must take these scriptures seriously. When we do, we see that God used many women in a variety of what we might call nontraditional ways. Some may say that these are “exceptions.” At first this answer seems plausible, but when reflected upon one realizes that these people want it “both ways.” They want to retain their notion that women have a restricted “female” role, but they also want to be scriptural. So when confronted by the undeniable fact that the Bible itself tells us God used women in ways that transcend the notion of role playing, they have to answer, “These are exceptions.”
Other people will point out that there are limited Bible case histories showing women used in nontraditional, nonpatriarchial, and nonsubordinate situations. Concentrating on the number of these “exceptions,” will cause us to miss the basic point: If there is only one “exception” – only one Deborah or Huldah or Phoebe – that single case undermines the traditional position. If there is only one woman commended by the text for a nontraditional action, we must draw the conclusion that the Bible does not teach role-playing.
The Bible should always be our highest authority, but it should also become our source of strength when discussing these issues with our Christian brothers and sisters. How could rigid role-playing be a timeless truth when Scripture itself not only gave “exceptions” to such a concept, but also commended the women for their actions?
Our creation in God’s image is a truth that transcends gender. Our New Covenant position in Christ Jesus is a truth that transcends gender. When we examine the Bible carefully, putting down our cultural baggage, of which we have a great deal, we find that the Bible does not teach that biology is destiny. Men and women are not interchangeable as males and females, but they are interchangeable as new creatures in Christ which is a major part of the New Covenant reality!
Hopefully, the time is coming when Christians will not only dare to be a Daniel but also dare to be a Deborah! Could it be that after all is said and done, “there is nether male nor female” but we are all one in Christ Jesus in these issues?
Some Further Ideas
What about the traditionalists who argue that the basic reason for preserving rigid male/female roles in the church is that only men can effectively represent God. These people state that women representing God would cause theological confusion. This position is linked to the Old Testament male priesthood with the masculine language and imagery used by God in the Bible. Their thinking is that as God’s message of salvation through Christ is presented, the general populace would more readily identify with the person proclaiming the Good News if the person were a male.
There are a number of problems with this theology. Carrying over Old Testament priesthood into the New Covenant by considering Christian’s as an extension of the Old Covenant priests violates the Book of Hebrews which clearly teaches that the Old Covenant priesthood is superseded by Christ the Perfect Priest, who made His sacrifice “once for all.” Matthew 27:51 tells us that there is now no more physical temple barrier between humanity and God, and 1 Timothy 2: 5 assures us that in the New Covenant there is no mediator needed between God and humanity, except Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2: 4, 5, proclaims the new priesthood consisting of all believers. As such, ministers are no longer types of Old Covenant priests who performed blood sacrifices. Secondly, while the Old Covenant priest represented the people before God, the prophet represented God to the people. Our authority, the Bible, tells us that women like Huldah and Phillip’s daughters prophesied, and Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11: 5 indicate that women were free to prophesy. In addition, the awesome responsibility of representing God to the people means representing His word, not His self. No one can or should ever dare to say, “My male body is a representation of God.” Those who believe that a male must proclaim God’s message only because males can harmoniously and effectively represent God do indeed end up with a male God – larger than life masculine deity. Such believers have fallen into the trap of creating a God in their own image. But what do the Scriptures say about God? Numbers 23: 19 tells us, “God is not a man,” and in Hosea 11: 9 God distinctly says that He is not a man! Passages like Job 38 – 41 should humble all who try to liken humanity to deity or vice versa. See also Isaiah 55: 9 and John 4: 24.
Nor can the male container for the incarnation be used to imprison God in human sexuality. The Bible’s language for God is a communication device, not a gender preference! Nowhere in Scripture does God say, “I like men better,” or “Men are more like me than women are.” Yes, Christ did come in the form of a man, but maleness or masculinity cannot be the essence of God who is Spirit, or woman’s creation in the image of God is not true. The male language used for God and God’s use of a male body in the incarnation must remain a mysterious method of communication between infinite and finite, but we cannot seize upon it as a reason to exclude women without sliding into male idolatry. Such appropriation of male language as an exclusionary device completely overlooks Scripture’s own use of feminine imagery for God. In Isaiah 42: 14 God likens Himself to a woman in labor; in Luke 13: 21 the kingdom of God is likened to a woman using yeast; in Luke 15: 8-10 Christ’s parable likens God to a woman with a lost coin; in Matthew 23: 37 Jesus likens Himself to a mother hen gathering her chicks. How can we ignore God’s beautiful assurance in Isaiah 66: 13: “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you…”
The emphasis among those who subscribe to equality of all persons in the body of Christ is on servanthood rather than on positions or prescribed roles in life. We cannot isolate passages about women and refuse to consider how they relate to their immediate context and to all of Scripture. For example, when we hear some intricate exposition of 1 Timothy 2: 11, 12, proclaiming those verses “the” definitive word on the role of women in the church, you should ask yourself, “How does that fit with 2 Corinthians 5: 17 or Galatians 3: 26-28 (or even with the preceding two verses in Timothy!)?” So often the person who can see only 1 Timothy 2: 11, 12, comes back with something equivalent to “that’s not my century.” Here again we must be alert to the danger of selective exegesis. Many who would cling to 1 Timothy 2: 11, 12, as restricting women’s role have felt free to ignore 1 Timothy 2: 8, 9.
If our scholarship is to have integrity, it cannot serve special interests. Our teaching must be compatible with larger known truth and in harmony with scriptural principles that are accepted as clear. We cannot isolate any scripture portions as final, transcultural truth without studying them in their immediate context and subjecting them to the broader truth of each believer’s full redemption and equal spiritual standing as a new creature in Christ Jesus.
Scripture assures us that our new standing in Christ must destroy all division between believers (1 Corinthians 12: 12, 13; Galatians 3: 26-28; Ephesians 2: 11-22; Colossians 3: 9-11). Nowhere does Christ teach gender, race, age, physical condition, socio economic circumstances, political affiliation, or any other factor to hinder our salvation or bar us from expressing Him to the world around us.
“For there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28).
All Christians are one in Christ as far as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are concerned. We are all one. Those who believe in Christ have all been put into Christ. Believers are all equal to each other and one in Christ. Believers all belong to Christ. Believers are all heirs of the promise.