[My thanks to Philip B. Payne, author of Man and Woman, One in Christ, an outstanding theological book on women that I reference frequently. He was kind enough to look over the manuscript and make a number of suggestions and corrections. This book is stronger and more accurate because of his input. All mistakes are my own.]
Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation. Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Copyright Felicity Dale © 2014
WHAT’S A WOMAN TO DO
When I describe some of the amazing things being done by women in the Kingdom of God, or when I explain an alternative understanding of the challenging passages on women, I sometimes hear this comment from both men and women: “It’s more important that a woman obey the Scriptures.”
The obvious implication from the context of the comment is that a woman should stop what she’s doing if it involves teaching or having any kind of authority over men in order that she can observe 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.
So what’s a woman to do? It gets up close and personal. Should I stop writing books? Should I stop blogging? (I can’t help it if men choose to read what I’ve written!) Should I stop training church planters around the world? Should I not give advice to men when they write and ask me questions? That’s the logical conclusion of their argument.
OBEDIENCE TO THE SCRIPTURES
Throughout the centuries, the church has muzzled women because of a few key and challenging Scriptures. But the passages in the New Testament that are often taken to limit the role of women in the church stand against the general tenor and sense of the Scriptures. In a few isolated verses, the Bible apparently allows the subjection of women, but the general trend of the Scriptures as a whole, especially the New Testament, points towards women being co-equal heirs, and co-equal laborers alongside their male counterparts. Therefore, we are faced with a choice. Do we take the principles demonstrated throughout the Scriptures, or shall we isolate the challenging passages and follow them religiously without taking the rest of the Bible into consideration?
All of us, both men and women, want to obey the Scriptures. If the Bible genuinely limits what I, as a woman, may do, then I may not like it, but I will obey Jesus. However, if these same passages can, with integrity, be understood differently, then I choose to listen to and obey the Holy Spirit, even if it goes against church tradition down the centuries.
I’ve come to peace with it all.
The challenging Scriptures are ambiguous, and they go against the general trend and tenor of the overall message of the Bible. They can be understood, with integrity, to have an alternative meaning that doesn’t inhibit women. I don’t believe God puts limitations on women. Nor does Jesus. Or Paul. Nor do I believe that the men who hold to the traditional understanding of these passages are deliberate misogynists. It is vitally important that we all understand the Scriptures and obey them.
JESUS AND WOMEN
One of the ways in which Jesus defied convention was in his treatment of women. Think, for example, of his willingness to have a conversation, alone, with a Samaritan woman of very dubious reputation (John 4). Jesus always treated women with dignity and respect. Whereas I can think of several examples where he publicly rebuked men, I cannot think of a single example where he scolded a woman or publicly shamed or embarrassed one. On the contrary, he went out of his way to defend them. (Luke 7:36-50, John 8:3-11) But Jesus went beyond that. In a society that was highly patriarchal:
- He gave illustrations that women would relate to—for example, about yeast in a lump of dough (Luke 13:21), sewing a patch on an old garment (Matthew 9:16).
- Women, as well as men, were the heroines of his stories—the woman who lost a piece of silver (Luke 15:8-10), the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-5).
- He never told a story where a woman was the “villain” of the piece. (The closest example would be the five foolish virgins.) Men were often cast in that role.
- He publicly honored women as examples to follow—the widow who gave two small coins (Mark 12:41-43), the woman who poured ointment on his head (Matthew 26:6-13).
- He welcomed their children. Although the text doesn’t specifically state so, I suspect it was mothers who brought their children to Jesus so he could bless them (Matthew 19:13-15).
- He defended their rights. Jesus stood against the common practice that a man could divorce his wife for no reason (Matthew 19:3-8).
Jesus didn’t dumb things down when he talked to women. Some of the most profound conversations recorded in the Gospels occurred with women. Think of the talks he had with the woman at the well in John 4 (the first time he revealed his Messiahship) or with Martha about the resurrection (John 11). The story of Mary and Martha shows Jesus encouraging Mary to sit at his feet learning from him rather than being relegated to the kitchen (Luke 10:38-42). In a society where a woman was not viewed as being a credible witness, Jesus revealed himself after his resurrection to women, and entrusted them to take the news that he had risen to the disciples (Matthew 28:1-10). Jesus chose twelve men to be with him. What is often forgotten is that a group of women accompanied him too. Luke’s gospel describes these women:
Soon afterward Jesus began a tour of the nearby towns and villages, preaching and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom of God. He took his twelve disciples with him, along with some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases. Among them were Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons; Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s business manager; Susanna; and many others who were contributing from their own resources to support Jesus and his disciples. (Luke 8:1-3) Another relevant passage comes in Matthew 27: 55-56 which describes the scene at Jesus’ crucifixion. And many women who had come from Galilee with Jesus to care for him were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary (the mother of James and Joseph), and the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee. (Matthew 27:55-56)
If you trace back to see when Jesus left Galilee for Jerusalem, it is clear that this occurred in Luke 9. So a group of women were with Jesus throughout most of Luke’s Gospel. Paul had a group of co-workers who were women. In fact, of the 27 people mentioned in Romans 16, ten were women. So let’s take a closer look at the Scriptures that have traditionally been used to prevent women from fully participating in all that God has for them.
THE CHALLENGING SCRIPTURES
I believe that God is in the process of releasing women to join as equal partners with men in the work of the Kingdom. One of the reasons they have held back, or that men have not given them their wholehearted support, is because certain Scriptures apparently limit their role. Many people have an intuitive understanding that there’s something wrong with the traditional understanding of the Scriptures concerning women. But because they do not have the background in Greek and Hebrew to study the original manuscripts for themselves, and because of centuries of tradition within the church that tends to marginalize women, they do not feel equipped to challenge the status quo.
Understanding these Scriptures was crucial for me to be set free to follow the call of God on my life. I am no theologian, but I have studied the writings of scholars and others who have researched these areas for several decades, and my hope is that this synopsis of what I have found to be most helpful in these areas will give you more insights into the challenging Scriptures concerning the role of women.
Two passages from the New Testament and two from the Old Testament are usually cited by those who believe that only men should hold positions of leadership or be allowed to teach in the church. This system is known as patriarchy, and is pervasive in the Western church. It is backed by centuries of church tradition. But equally respected theologians interpret these same Scriptures in other ways. When a passage of Scripture is unclear in meaning, or different interpretations are possible, then we go to the principles in the Bible as a whole to see what they mean.
The challenging passages for women stand against the trend of the Bible as a whole. A good comparison is that of slavery. There are more Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, that support slavery than those that suggest that women should be limited in their roles. Here are the four passages and alternative ways to understand each of them. Any single explanation in itself is sufficient to cast doubt on the traditional understanding of each passage. But taken together, and balanced against the whole Bible, a more credible interpretation appears that gives women freedom to do and be anything that God calls them to, even if this includes traditionally male roles such as church planting and baptizing.
A. 1 CORINTHIANS 14:34-35
Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings.
At first glance, these verses are totally clear. Women are to keep silent in the church. I know of churches where the women literally don’t open their mouths because they take this passage so literally. A friend recently told me this story. He had just started a missional community and the question came up, “Are we a church?” The group decided together that they were a church. One young lady, who previously had taken an active role, stopped speaking. After a while they asked her why. Her reply: “If we are now a church, then I’m not allowed to speak any longer.” How sad, but also how telling.
However, these verses can be interpreted quite differently.
The context of these verses that Paul wrote to the Corinthians is important. First Corinthians 11:1-16, (no matter what one thinks about head coverings), gives instructions on how both men and women are to wear their hair when they pray and prophesy in church meetings. The 1 Corinthians 14 passage, therefore, cannot be taken literally in all circumstances. Women can pray and prophesy in church gatherings. In verse 26 of chapter 14 the word adelphoi, meaning brothers and sisters, is used: Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you. Most modern versions of the Bible accurately translate adelphoi as brothers and sisters rather than just brethren. Wherever this word is used in the context of community, it is generally taken to mean both genders. For example, in Romans 16:17, adelphoi is used again, and in this context, it obviously addresses the men and women Paul mentions in this chapter. So if it is clear from these examples, that Paul could not have meant that in every circumstance when the church comes together, that women are to be silent, there must be a different way of understanding the challenging verses. I find three different ways of understanding this passage can explain these verses very satisfactorily.
a. Use of the Greek word sigao
Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. (1 Corinthians 14: 34)
The word “silent” used here is the Greek word sigao, and the word for speak is laleo. What many people don’t realize is that two other sets of people are told to be silent (sigao) in this chapter, both in the context of speaking (laleo).
In verse 27, a person speaking in tongues is to be silent (sigao) if no interpreter is present. In verse 30, if a person is prophesying and another person hears from the Lord, the first person is to be silent (sigao) and let the second one speak. In neither of these two situations are people silenced for all time within a church gathering. It’s easy to see that their silence applies under certain conditions only.
Here’s the likely scenario for these passages. Paul is answering questions the Corinthians have asked in a previous letter to him (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7:1). In the first two instances, the question the Corinthians asked is obvious. “Paul, what do you do if someone gives a message in tongues but there is no one to interpret it?” “Paul, what should we do if someone is prophesying and another person gets a message before the first one has finished talking?” The answer to both involves silence, but within those specific circumstances. The problem with the verses about women is that Paul doesn’t state the question within his answer. Perhaps he thought it was obvious. But you can picture the question. “Paul, what should we do if women disrupt the meeting by asking questions?” As with the other situations where people are to be silent, it’s under certain conditions only. If women have a lot of questions—and remember, women in those days were uneducated—then let them ask their husbands at home. In other words, this passage can be understood within a cultural context where women were disrupting the meetings. It was not an instruction that applied to all women at all times.
b. An inserted text
Many scholars and most major recent commentaries believe that verses 34 and 35 were not in the original manuscript. Their reasoning? In some of the ancient manuscripts (known as the Western Text) these verses come after verse 40, not after verse 33. A likely reason is that, because of the incredible expense of papyrus or vellum (a page cost around a day’s wages), people tended to add comments in the margin. Then later, when scribes came to copy the manuscript, they assumed the comment had been left out by mistake and added it where they thought it made sense. There’s even a standard mark that is used to show where a block of text has been added after verse 33 in the ancient manuscript known as the Codex Vaticanus. One other possibility is that Paul’s secretary added it as a summary of a false prophecy in the margin beside Paul’s comments in verse 37 that says that spiritual people should acknowledge what Paul writes is from the Lord (and by implication, that this prophecy was not). These verses (an absolute prohibition on women, emphasized three times) are in such contrast to Paul’s known beliefs about women, that this is the most likely explanation.
c. King James had it right!
I’m not one of those who believe King James to be the only inspired version of the Bible (as used by Paul and the other apostles!), but sometimes this version gets it right. One of the more complicated ways to explain what Paul was getting at when he said that women should be silent in the church is best understood from the King James Version. Here’s how it reads:
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 any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. What? Came the word of God out from you? Or came it unto you only? (1 Corinthians 14:34-36)
It is not Paul who says, “I do not permit a woman to speak.” He is referring to others who have taught that women should be silent. Not only that, he is going out of his way to refute this teaching. Since the Old Testament law does not command women to be silent or to be obedient, this “law” must refer to the Talmud, a collection of oral rabbinical teachings. Here’s an example: Women are sexually seductive, mentally inferior, socially embarrassing, and spiritually separated from the Law of Moses; therefore, let them be silent. (Summary of Talmudic sayings) taken from an unpublished chapter by Frank Viola on the subject of why women are able to fully participate in the life of the church. Equally, the word for “shame” used here is a very strong word (the Greek word skandalos from which we get our English word “scandal.”) It is very hard to picture Paul describing a woman speaking in church in such terms, especially since earlier in the same letter, he has encouraged them to pray and prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:1-16).
In the original Greek, there were no such things as quotation marks. Remember that Paul was writing in response to questions the Corinthians had written him. So try putting the first couple of sentences in quotation marks—a quote from their original letter. “Let your women keep silence in the churches… for it is a shame (scandal) for women to speak in the church.” Paul’s response is one of indignation and horror. “What?! Did God’s word originate with you?” The Greek participle that the KJV translates as “What?” has the effect of negating what has come before. So rather than Paul being a misogynist, one who was trying to “keep women in their place,” he is actually standing up for their right to speak in public.
B. 1 TIMOTHY 2
Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. (verses 11-12 NKJV)
Is 1 Timothy 2:12 an absolute prohibition on women teaching men? People sometimes go to ludicrous lengths to accommodate this verse. Renowned Chinese teacher, Watchman Nee, benefited greatly from the teaching of two Chinese missionaries/leaders. So when they visited him one day, he wanted his church to hear them. But there was a problem. They were women, and therefore could not teach the men. In order to “fulfill the letter of the law,” he strung a curtain along the middle of the meeting room. The two Chinese missionaries taught the ladies on one side of the curtain while the men sat and listened on the other side!
Ridiculous, you may say. But the church often loses out on what gifted women could contribute because of this Scripture. Consider the following:
- 1 Timothy 2:12 is the only verse in the Bible that apparently explicitly states that women cannot teach men.
- Paul and Timothy had traveled together for some time, and Timothy would have known if Paul forbade women to teach (I Corinthians 4:17). It would have therefore been surprising if Timothy and Paul hadn’t made that clear right from the start in Ephesus, and even more surprising that Timothy was allowing women to teach and the practice needed to stop.
- Paul acknowledged the very real role that women had in teaching Timothy (his mother and grandmother).
- Priscilla (named first) and her husband, Aquila, taught Apollos a “more accurate way.” (Acts 18:26)
- 1 Corinthians 14:26 gives a list of things that everyone is expected to participate in. “When you come together, each one has…” The Greek word for each one, hekastos, is a word that encompasses both genders. This list includes teaching. Several times in chapter 14, the word “all” is used. Verses 24 and 31 both say that all may prophesy, and we know from Paul’s teaching in chapter 11 that this includes women. If Paul really forbade women to teach, why didn’t he mention it here?
- A number of gifts to the church, including teachers, are listed in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. For some of these gifts there are female examples in the Scriptures (Junia was an apostle, Philip’s daughters prophesied), but there’s no qualification here that women aren’t allowed to teach. Paul asks, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?” While the obvious answer to this question is “no” there is absolutely no indication that some of these gifts are gender specific.
- Colossians 3:16 exhorts us to teach and admonish one another.
- In Revelation 2, the church in Thyatira is chastised for allowing “Jezebel” to lead people astray. It’s what she teaches that is the problem, not the fact that she’s a woman teaching.
- 2 Timothy 2:2 is the classic passage on discipleship. It is often rendered “The things you have heard me say… entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. The word “men” in the Greek is anthropos, a generic term for humans rather than gender specific.
This verse, then, appears to contradict what Paul says in other places. So is there another explanation for what Paul says in this verse? Again, there are a several ways to understand this verse.
1.THE CULTURAL EXPLANATION
The book of 1 Timothy was written to Timothy whom Paul had left in Ephesus. Let’s review the background of this letter. Paul was writing to combat heresy in the church in Ephesus (I Timothy 1:3). These problems are mentioned throughout the letter. (1 Timothy 1:6-7; 1:20; 4:1-3; 4:7; 5:15; 6:2-10; 6:20) In Acts 20, Paul had warned the Ephesian elders that false teachers would come in, including some men who would distort the truth. There are two main cults or heresies that Paul might have been warning Timothy to beware of, both prevalent at the time in that region:
a. The worship of Artemis:
Jon Zens in his excellent book, What’s With Paul and Women? makes the following points about this:
- The worship of Artemis, goddess of the Ephesians, was a female-dominated cult ruled by women priests that influenced all of Ephesus. (Think of the riot that occurred in that city in Acts 19 when the silversmiths were concerned their living was being threatened.)
- Their worship included public sexual displays and fancy clothing and jewelry.
- This cult taught that Artemis was born before her twin, Apollo, and therefore women were the superior gender and could dominate men.
- Women in Ephesus looked to Artemis, the mother goddess, for protection—for their virginity, for aid in barrenness and for help in labor.
This would make sense of several things Paul wrote in this passage. For example, explaining that Adam was born before Eve was a direct contradiction of their culture.
b. The heresy of Gnosticism
Considerable light was shed on the heresy of Gnosticism in 1945 when a number of ancient gnostic manuscripts were found in the Nag Hammadi Valley in Egypt. (Gnostics believe in secret or hidden knowledge and reverence women.) It became clear from these new discoveries that Gnostics believed that Adam and Eve were mythical figures and represented soul (Adam), and spirit (Eve). In gnostic teaching, the role of Eve was to awaken Adam, who was in a deep sleep. According to Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger in their book, I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking I Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence, an alternative reading to 1 Timothy 2:12, based on the Greek word authentein might be: “I do not allow a woman to teach nor to proclaim herself as originator of man.”
Another gnostic belief was that Satan was good and that Eve ate from the tree of gnosis (knowledge) in order to bring enlightenment to Adam.
If the 1 Timothy 2:12 passage were written to combat the heresy of Gnosticism, what Paul writes makes sense. For God made Adam first, and afterward he made Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived by Satan. The woman was deceived, and sin was the result. So is 1 Timothy 2 a “timeless universal restriction” on women? Or was it written into a specific situation where certain women in Ephesus had been deceived by false teaching and were passing it on to others? Do we run into danger if we allow a cultural understanding to balance a literal obedience to the word?
2. THE SCRIPTURAL EXPLANATION
Again, let’s look at the relevant verses: Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. (NKJV)
a. “I do not permit”
There’s no command in these verses. It’s a present tense verb—“I am not allowing.” The verb “permit,” with one dubious exception, never refers to a universal or permanent situation. So it’s likely that this was only a temporary disciplinary measure.
The Greek word, authentein often translated as to “have authority” (e.g., NKJV) or “assume authority” (NIV) is only used this one time in the whole Bible. Paul had many other choices of words he could have used that mean authority in the classical sense, but there was another nuance he wanted to convey. In the Greek literature of the time, the word had a more violent connotation, including murder, or contracting for murder to take place. A better translation might be “to control in a domineering manner.” Philip B. Payne in Man and Woman, One in Christ puts it like this: ...[Paul] institutes a present prohibition against any woman seizing authority for herself to teach a man. Paul’s goal is to exclude any unauthorized woman from teaching men in the church. This prohibition does not, however, restrict teaching by authorized women, such as Priscilla (2 Tim 4:19), since just such teaching might be critical in influencing deceived women to reject error and embrace the truth. Paul’s prohibition of women with self-assumed authority teaching men does not imply that he approves of men teaching with self-assumed authority, particularly if they also promote false teaching.
c. Teach ‘n usurp authority
At first glance, it appears there are two prohibitions for women in 1 Timothy 2:12. The first is teaching, the second, assuming or usurping authority, But they are separated by the little word oude. I’m indebted again to Philip Payne’s outstanding book, Man and Woman, One in Christ for this understanding.
Philip Payne studied the Bible in its original languages from his youth. His father was a Bible scholar who every day, after breakfast and dinner, gave his children a fresh translation of a chapter from either the Greek New Testament or the Hebrew Old Testament. Spirited discussions would follow. In 1973, Payne’s assumptions about male headship were profoundly challenged when a scholar stated, “no passage of Scripture properly understood and in its context excludes women from any form of Christian ministry.” To check this out, he read 1 Timothy in the Greek daily for several months. Key word studies led to some shocking discoveries, such as how the English translations introduce masculine pronouns into the list of qualifications for overseers and deacons.
Here’s what Payne says about the use of oude in 1 Timothy 2:12: Roughly three-fourths (17 out of 23, if you don’t include two ambiguous uses in 1 Thessalonians 2:3) of Paul’s uses of the word oude to conjoin two elements, express a single idea. When followed by “but” (alla), the central core of this complex construction is a contrast between two ideas: “not this, but that” (ouk … alla …). Both Paul’s and the New Testament’s overwhelmingly dominant use in ouk + oude + alla syntactical constructions conjoin the ouk + oude statements to convey a single idea that stands in sharp contrast to the following alla statement, (they are to learn) strongly supports this same understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12.
His conclusion? There are not two prohibitions in I Timothy 2:12
- Women are not allowed to teach
- Women cannot have authority over a man
There is only one single prohibition for women. It’s a bit like “hit ‘n run.” The phrase means more than the sum of its parts. In this case, it’s “teach ‘n usurp authority.” Women cannot teach with self-assumed authority over a man. I don’t think any of us would disagree with this statement applied either to women or to men. It works grammatically; it fits the context of false teaching in Ephesus and it doesn’t prohibit women like Priscilla, who was in Ephesus at the time, from teaching men.
d. “Be in silence”
The Greek word hesuchia, translated in both verse 10 and 12 as “in silence” is used in other places to mean “quietness,” or “stillness.” For example, earlier in the same chapter, in 1 Timothy 2:2, Paul urges people to pray for kings and those in authority that we might live a quiet (hesuchios) life. No question of silence here. Perhaps what is most remarkable is that, in an age where women were not deemed worthy of education, here they were encouraged to learn.
e. Adam and Eve
Now onto the second part of that passage: For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control (verses 14 and 15 NKJV)
Two definite facts:
- Adam was formed first, then Eve.
- Eve was deceived and then sinned.
As a young Christian I was taught that Adam was created before Eve, and therefore all women should be in submission to male leadership—whether that’s husband, pastor or some other Christian man. Also women are more prone to deception than men, therefore men should be the teachers. (I shudder even now to think how, albeit unwillingly, I swallowed these maxims. But I wanted to be a good Christian woman, and if that’s what it took….)
But here are some pointers: “First” is a function of time, not of superiority. Nowhere in the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 where both Adam and Eve are given the command to have dominion over creation, or in I Timothy 2:12, is there evidence that women are to be subordinate to men. If the order of creation created a hierarchy, then Adam should have been subordinate to the animals!
A cultural explanation answers this. Eve being deceived by the serpent was not an example of what goes wrong when a female usurps male leadership, but of disobeying one of God’s commands. Paul uses the same example in 2 Corinthians 11:3 to show how an entire congregation can be deceived, both males and females. The history of the church shows that most false teaching has been propagated by males. I’d always puzzled over why the woman will be saved by childbearing. However, if “she” refers back to Eve, as representing women, and childbearing (literally, in Greek, the childbirth) to the birth of Jesus, this makes sense.
f. A likely scenario
The book of Timothy is written specifically to an individual, Timothy. (Every time, “you” is mentioned, it’s in the singular.) It’s therefore not a manual of church order.
Here’s a likely scenario.
There were problems in the church in Ephesus. False teachers had deceived many people—men and women. (Hymaenaeus and Alexander, both men, are mentioned specifically. Their punishment was to be thrown out and handed over to Satan so that they learn not to blaspheme. It makes the women’s discipline seem mild by comparison!) The pronouns used elsewhere in the letter concerning false teaching are not gender specific (e.g., if anyone teaches false doctrine). We know some women were involved—probably tied in with the various pagan religions and heresies prevalent in Ephesus at that time. To correct this problem, Paul tells Timothy to let women learn quietly. As a temporary measure, to deal with the situation, he did not allow unauthorized women to seize authority to teach men. Instead, they were encouraged to learn. Again, a woman like Priscilla, who was in Ephesus at that time, would not have been prohibited from teaching.
C. WOMEN ARE “HELPMEETS” (Genesis 2:18)
For many years I was taught that my purpose as a wife/woman, was to help my husband. A sort of divinely appointed personal assistant to him. He was the one to take the initiative; I was there to help him fulfill God’s vision and call on his life. If I was to have any kind of strategic role, it was to be through my husband.
While I am happy to serve my husband, there seemed an inherent injustice in how this outworked itself in church life, where it was reinterpreted to mean that only the men lead while the women are in support roles (like making the coffee). This teaching mainly came from Genesis 2:18, which in the King James Version of the Bible says this:
And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.
More modern versions also describe the woman as a helper for man. It was very enlightening for me to discover more about how this word “helper” is used in the rest of the Old Testament. Sixteen times the word ezer is used to describe God as the helper, the rescuer of people in need, their strength or power; the remaining three times it describes a military protector. Typical examples include, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence comes my help (ezer). My help (ezer) comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1, 2) or “Our help (ezer) is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8). It contains the ideas of power and strength, a guide, mentor and shield. The Hebrew word translated “meet” or “fit” means literally “in front of” with the understanding of “comparable to.” The impression is more of a valued consultant than a personal girl Friday. It’s a delight to be an ezer.
D. HE SHALL RULE OVER YOU (Genesis 3:16)
One of the verses used to justify the relegation of women to “second-class” citizenship within the church comes in Genesis 3. As a result of the Fall, God says to the woman: Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you. (verse 16) But is this verse descriptive or prescriptive? This verse has certainly proved true (descriptive) down the ages. Men have ruled over women. Women have been raped, aborted, mutilated, beaten, traded, brutalized and killed down through the centuries. It’s obvious this is not what God intends.
But is it prescriptive—i.e. does God want men to rule over women in a just and fair way? The tense of the verb, ”rule” is a simple future tense, not an imperative or command. It gives the meaning “he will rule over you,” not the moral imperative “he ought to rule over you,” or “he should rule over you.”
If it were prescriptive, and knowing that God is always consistent with himself, how do you explain Deborah, Esther, Priscilla, Phoebe, let alone a host of other women God has used in positions of leadership down through the pages of history. This is the only verse in Scripture that implies that men rule over women. Prior to the Fall, there’s no hint of hierarchy between men and women. And since Jesus came to set us free from the results of the Fall, it’s hard to justify gender-based hierarchy within the church.
A basic principle of Biblical interpretation is to look at the life and actions of Jesus to see how he lives out Biblical (Old Testament) ideas. For example, the Old Testament is very clear that ordinary people could not eat food that had been offered to God, but Jesus reminded those who tried to be legalistic that David was well within his rights in doing this “prohibited” thing. Christocentric Biblical interpretation looks at unclear ideas and asks, “What would Jesus do?”
Everything shouts out that Jesus’ sense of justice demanded that women be treated equally, be valued as equals, and be released to be all that his Father had called them to be. When the 120 were in the upper room after his resurrection, his instructions to the group of men and women pointedly challenged them all to “Go!” And “go” is exactly what they and subsequent generations have done, with women taking a prominent role, from Mary Magdalene and the women of Romans 16 to the modern day heroines of the faith such as Lottie Moon, Heidi Baker and the countless and nameless women leaders of the Chinese house church movement. For too long the Church has been weakened by their ambivalence or even worse, their antagonism to the role of women. Satan began this tactic in the garden. Now it’s time for the church to fight back.
[The Black Swan Effect: A Response to Gender Hierarchy in the Church is a book I compiled that looks at these issues in more detail.]