Women in the Bible
I would like to try and summarize my views on what the Bible teaches about women. The question of so-called complementarianism vs. egalitarianism takes us on a wide-ranging tour of the Bible, and is thus difficult to cover concisely. Top proponents of each view have written volumes and still cannot resolve their differences. But summarizing is my “thing”, and this will be a good test. I’ll try to cover the pertinent passages concisely without omitting key points.
I should first point out that appeals to OT post-fall passages really are irrelevant to roles and relationships in the church. Jesus is, after all, the “last Adam”– not the last Moses or Abraham. Paul wrote extensively about how different things are to be among believers in the risen Lord Jesus, not only from the world, but also from the Mosaic Law. We no longer “worship God on this mountain or in Jerusalem… but in spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-24). The entire book of Hebrews is all about how we cannot mix the old and the new, as Jesus also said in his parable of the wineskins. This principle of course applies to much more than comp/egal, extending to all areas of Christian life such as tithing, the Sabbath, and many other controversial topics.
So I’ll be looking at Creation to the Fall, then at how Jesus treated women even before the Cross, and lastly the examples and explicit teachings of the NT. We should keep in mind even then that Jesus’ time before the Cross was one of transition, of only the beginning of what was to come. So also the things we read in Acts are during a time of transition, so we must not jump to conclusions about what must apply to the church.
(I use the term “church” mainly for convenience and familiarity. I really don’t like it and prefer “the assembly”.)
Beginnings: Genesis 1–3
In the account of creation, we see that humans were the very last item on the list. It is humans alone who were made in the image of God, “male and female”. It’s possible, though certainly not necessary, that this “male and female” is not talking about the point at which both Adam and Eve were in existence, but that Adam was originally androgynous. This would make sense of why God took something out of Adam in order to make Eve, that is, the “female” part. Scholars seem to generally agree that “rib” is not in the Hebrew.
Either way, it is clear that both male and female are made in the image of God. It is also clear that order of creation is not portrayed as order of importance or authority, either expressed or implied. We’ll get to why Paul referred to creation order later, but nothing in this passage hints at chronological order as having any relation to authority or God-likeness; the opposite is true.
So we see in these chapters that Adam and Eve are made in God’s image, jointly charged with tending the garden, to rule over all other living creatures, and to “be fruitful and multiply”. We also see that there was one thing called “not good”: that the man should be alone. God decided to make a suitable helper for him. Does this mean an inferior, a subordinate? Hardly. The one who needs help is lacking something which the helper provides. This helper, however, would be taken from Adam and so be absolutely equal, not superior, in spite of being his helper. Thus Eve was the provider and Adam the needy one, yet they were of the same flesh. If anyone was “completing” the other, it was Eve.
But Eve had one weakness: inexperience. She never saw God create anything, while Adam saw him create, at the least, her. (There is speculation that when God brought the animals for Adam to name, he at that time created the females of at least some of the animals. This can be supported by both the Hebrew and the LXX. So it’s possible that Adam also saw God create some of the animals.) Adam knew first-hand the difference between himself and God, and that he could never be like him. Eve, though, did not have this first-hand knowledge.
This made her vulnerable, as the serpent well knew. She alone could be led to believe it was possible to be like God. Notice some important facts surrounding the temptation:
- Adam is there with Eve while she is being tempted (3:6b)
- Neither Adam nor the serpent make any objection to Eve’s expanded statement about what God had said (3:3)
- Eve never attributes this expanded statement to Adam, but only to God; there is no mention of her having gotten this information second-hand from Adam
- It is the serpent, not Eve, who adds to what God said (3:4-5): (1) you will not die, and (2) you will be like God, knowing good and evil
- There is no place in the entire Bible that says Eve purposely added to God’s command about the Tree.
So Eve was fooled, while Adam watched. Adam then willingly and knowingly did that which God had told him not to do, in spite of not having been deceived. He sinned deliberately.
Now look at what God does. First he confronts Adam, who immediately blames God because of the woman he had made. He has no excuse and decides to shift blame, even to God. Then God asks Eve what happened, and she tells him the truth: she was tricked into disobeying God, and it was the serpent who did it. The serpent doesn’t even get a chance to explain himself.
So God issues two curses: on the serpent and on the earth. Neither Adam nor Eve are ever cursed directly. In cursing the serpent, God makes what most scholars consider the first prophecy of the Messiah in 3:15. Notice that this savior will come only through “the seed of the woman”. Why? Given the context, we can support the theory that it was because only Adam sinned with his eyes wide open. His sin was deliberate and without excuse. But more importantly, he blamed not only Eve but God Himself for his actions, and ignored his own failure to raise any objection while Eve was tempted. He never blamed the serpent at all.
Adam had thus taken a stand against God and with the serpent, but Eve honestly confessed her sin to God. This would explain why the “enmity” would be between only the woman and the serpent; she was on God’s side and Adam was not. Ever since then we have seen how women seem to be hated by Satan even more than he hates mankind in general.
Now we need to take a careful look at what else God said to Eve, in 3:16. First of all, it is not a curse but a prediction: “he will”, NOT “he shall”; most translations gloss over this. According to Dr. Katharine Bushnell, the verse reads like this:
“A snare has increased your sorrow and sighing, in sorrow you will bring forth children. Your turning will be to your husband, and he will rule over you.” (GWTW Lessons 13-19).
There is nothing about sensual desire or some kind of power struggle by Eve here. She had been fooled (“a snare”) which would result in causing her to bear children in sorrow. God is also predicting that she will follow Adam out of the garden (“turning”), after which he would rule over her. (Note vs. 22-24: only “the man” was driven out and forbidden to eat of the Tree of Life.) It makes little sense to believe that God would turn from blessing Eve with the promise of the Savior through her seed, to cursing her with servitude to the man who had blamed her and God for his sin and failed to step in while she was being tempted. To say God was giving Adam rulership over Eve is to say God rewards poor leadership and refusal to take personal responsibility for one’s sins.
Another important point is that this is all said directly to Adam and Eve, NOT to all their future generations. The only thing said about that is concerning the Messiah. It does NOT say “All husbands are hereby ordained to rule over their wives for all time”, much less “All men are hereby ordained to rule over all women for all time”. God only mentioned how it would be between Adam and Eve, not something He ordered but something He predicted. (I realize many believe that it is logically impossible for God to predict without ordering, but that’s another topic. Suffice it for now to say that the Bible never says any such thing.)
Conclusion: Genesis states that both Adam and Eve had authority over the earth and animals, but never each other. Eve, as Adam’s helper, was hardly inferior for that reason, and as being made of the same flesh, was at least fully equal. Neither prior existence nor naming persons or animals was ever portrayed as an act of authority or superiority. And the chronological order of sinning was not what God used to determine whose sin caused the cursing of the earth. When temptation came, Adam stood with the serpent against God and Eve, while Eve confessed openly and correctly blamed the serpent for the temptation. God blessed Eve with a promise, while banning Adam from Eden and cursing the ground because of him. Nothing is said of all women/wives and all men/husbands, or of any hierarchy as being God’s desire or commandment.
Therefore Genesis give no support to any kind of God-ordained hierarchy of men over women, or even husbands over wives, either before or after the Fall.
Transitions: The Gospels and Acts
In reading the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, we see some radical departures from societal norms. He said things like “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath” and “Among the gentiles, people rule over other people, but it must not be that way among you”. He internalized religion instead of the tradition of outward performance. But he also treated women as equal with men in every way.
Take the account of Mary and Martha for example (Luke 10:38-42). To sit at the feet of a rabbi was an exclusively male right, yet Jesus defended Mary for doing so. And then there is the account of Jesus being anointed by Mary, his being touched by the “sinful woman” of Luke 7:38, and the Samaritan woman with whom he spoke publicly. And of course the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection were women. Women were also among his traveling companions, another scandal at the time.
In Acts we see that on the Day of Pentecost, both men and women were given the Spirit and spoke in other languages, in at least partial fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy (Acts 2:17-18). Note that women too would prophesy, that is, speak to the crowds of men and women publicly about God. There is no indication that female prophets were of a lesser rank than male prophets, or that female prophets only ever spoke to women or only in private. We can add the teaching ministry of Priscilla and Aquila, and the fact that Ananias and Sapphira were each held accountable for their own sins.
I can’t find any instance where these passages in any way discount the ministry, worth, or roles of women in the church. In the absence of explicit commands or examples, complementarianism must draw inferences. For example, it is often pointed out that all Jesus’ inner group of disciples were men. Yet we cannot forget that this precedes the church, and is still tied at least symbolically to the 12 tribes of Israel. They had to be witnesses to the Jews, something that would never have been accepted from women. And of course many English translations use “men” where the Greek uses “people”, adding to the alleged male-oriented impression.
Another inference is that since Jesus was physically a male, then all church leaders must also be male. But of course Jesus was more than just male; he was also Jewish and single. But somehow these other qualities are not cited as proving that all church leaders must be Jewish and single. One cannot only choose one quality as a necessary representation of Jesus.
Conclusion: The Gospels and Acts give examples and teachings that treat women as full equals with men, in a society that did no such thing. There is no hint of hierarchy among the believers, but only recognition of the Twelve as having authority over the teachings of the early church, and such teachings never involved setting up a chain of command or segregating believers by race, class, or gender.
Letters to the Churches: The NT Epistles
Let’s start with Peter, then move on to the more voluminous writings of Paul. In 1 Peter 3 we see the Greek word hupotasso, which does not mean “submit” but “support”. Wives are to support their husbands, and for a purpose: to win unbelieving husbands to the Lord. He goes on to urge wives to develop character, the inner person, as did the godly women of old. This same attitude is then commanded of husbands toward wives. The women of that day had a “weaker livelihood” (NOT “vessel”) even though in Christ they were joint-heirs. Husbands are further warned that failure to so honor their wives would prevent their prayers from being answered! He then goes on to urge mutual kindness and support among all believers. The passage in chapter 5 about church leaders expressly states that “lording it over” is wrong by anyone, but that the weak should respect and trust the strong who protect them until they too are strong.
Now on to Paul.
In several places Paul gives lists of spiritual gifts, but never divides them into “blue” and “pink” categories. Such gifts, not “offices”, include pastor, teacher, and prophet. Those who claim there is such an office as “the pastorate” or “the pulpit” seem to have forgotten that these are gifts, and that the Spirit gives them as he wills. And there is no hint of the Spirit making his choices on the basis of any human criteria.
At the end of his letter to the Romans, we see mention of one Phoebe, who is called a deacon. This word is the grammatical male gender; it does not say “deaconess”. Neither is there any excuse to translate it differently here as when the person is a male elsewhere, and for them it is typically translated “deacon” or “minister”. Phoebe is also called a prostatis which was a presiding officer or protector of many. And there is no contextual support for treating Paul’s terminology here as metaphorical.
And then there is Junia. In an effort to explain away the obvious, complementarianism has three ways to interpret this:
- Junia is really a man, Junias
- She is not an apostle herself but known to them
- She is not an “authoritative” apostle
I can’t take up space here to cite all the sources, but my personal study has convinced me that Junia is in fact a woman, numbered among the apostles and counted as outstanding, and has the same authority as any male apostle.
1 Cor. 11 (see also Eph. 5:21-24) is where we see the term “head” as something that describes how Christ relates to the church and how men relate to women (not just husbands to wives). But current Greek scholarship tells us that the Greek word kephale translated “head” cannot mean “boss”. It can mean the literal physical head of a body, a headdress, the source of something (ex. a river), a person’s life, or the conclusion or pinnacle of something. The head and the body are “one flesh” and not separate from each other; they are interdependent. By speaking of Christ as the “head” of the church, the scriptures are speaking of his being one with us and we with him, just as Jesus prayed before his death.
Certainly no one would deny that Christ has authority over the church, but the context here is not about that aspect of Christ. Paul is prefacing what he is about to say concerning head coverings, and so is using a play on words with “head”. He goes on to talk about whether men or women should wear them in the churches, and only uses the word “authority” (Gk. exousia) when he talks about a woman’s right to choose for herself whether or not to cover her own head. The words “a sign of” are not in the Greek at all.
Paul speaks of man being the “image and glory” of God. If something is the ’crowning glory’ of another, that in no way implies authority, but just honor. And as Paul states elsewhere, we in the body of believers are to show “special honor” to the “weaker parts”. Woman is portrayed as the ’crowning glory’ of man, not his servant or footstool. She is to be honored, not enslaved. Jesus honors his body by serving it, not by “lording over” it or hiding it. Regarding vs. 13-16, Paul is saying nature tells us nothing at all about the morality of hair length; both men and women can grow long hair. But most English translations turn this backwards into some law of nature that doesn’t exist. (See the ISV wording for this passage for the exception.)
In addition, Paul reminds the people that although the first woman came from the first man, every other person has come from a woman. More importantly, everything comes from God. So there is no room for boasting or pride over one’s origins. Man and woman are “one flesh” they are equals, of the same substance. Is the ’side’ of Adam that he kept superior to the one he lost? Did God remove a defective part from Adam? Not at all.
Moving on to chapter 14, we see in verses 34-38 what surely is the most misunderstood passage of scripture. Everyone agrees that Paul has been writing to answer questions and deal with problems in the church at Corinth, and sometimes quoted them before issuing his rebuttal or answer. But Greek has no quote marks as such; quotes have to be determined from context. One indicator is the practice of beginning the sentence following a quoted text with the Greek word He (eta with rough breathing mark), typically translated “Or”. We see it twice in vs. 36: “Or has the word of God come only to you, or has it reached only you?” This comes across weakly in English. Instead, Paul is using great force to rebut what he has just quoted, which came from the Corinthians: “Hogwash! Has the word of God come only to you? Hogwash! Has it reached only you?”
The text of vs. 34-35 is a quote from the Talmud, not the scriptures. No such “law” is found anywhere in the Bible. So even without the “He”, we can tell that these two verses are nothing Paul would promote, especially since Paul spent so much effort combating the legalists. In other words, if he strongly opposed the imposition of the OT laws on the church in all his other writings, why would he do the opposite here and appeal to it, even if this quote were an actual OT law?
So this most fundamental of complementarian proof-texts is saying exactly the opposite of what they claim. Paul strongly opposed the silencing of women in the churches! This view is also consistent with his other statements about the prophesying of women in the congregation.
In Galatians 3:28 we see Paul’s overturning of an old rabbinical prayer/boast: “Thank God that I was not born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman!”. Instead, the former Pharisee writes, “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This comes in the middle of a discussion about our freedom in Christ, our equality, and our adoption and spiritual baptism. Paul is writing passionately against the very same legalistic mentality that would have silenced the women at Corinth. If, as the complementarian argument goes, Paul only means that we are all equally saved, then why can we not also say that there are still restricted roles for gentiles and slaves? All three are listed in the same sentence, so we can’t only put restrictions on women without also putting them on gentiles and slaves.
I’ve already briefly mentioned Ephesians, but also look at Eph. 5:25-33. Notice that the reference to Gen. 2:24 tells us that in marriage, the man is the one who is to leave his parents and join to his wife– not the other way around as tradition has always had it. He joins to her and leaves his home. Yet this never seems to be cited by the complementarian argument. Had the Bible said “A woman must leave her home and join to her husband”, it would surely be used to support the husband’s rule over his wife, as the one doing the leaving and joining to the other must certainly be inferior!
Now to 1 Timothy 2:10-15, another hotspot in the comp/egal debate.
Greek scholarship has determined that vs. 10 should read “which is fitting for women while they are giving a convert to Judaism instructions”. The Source footnote on this verse by classical Greek scholar Dr. Ann Nyland explains that the words are a formal designation for a group of converts enrolled in a synagogue. Historical record has shown that women could teach such groups and be synagogue leaders. Such were also recognized as elders in the churches. As leaders then, Paul wants them to be good examples even in the way they dress, as well as their overall behavior.
Verse 11 reads like this: “A woman must learn and she is to learn without causing a fuss and be supportive in everything.” While this could refer to all female believers, there is a good case for Paul’s use of “a woman” to refer to a specific unnamed woman. Notice that Paul has turned from discussing women (plural) who teach to a woman (singular) who learns. Either way, it is not a universal prohibition against all women, forcing upon them a subservient and silent role in the assembly. This woman is to quiet down and learn like any good student. She is not yet qualified to be a teacher.
Now verse 12: Paul does not “grant authority to a woman to teach that she is the originator of a man”. Two things here: that this is a woman and a man, and that it is about the Gnostic heresy of woman originating man instead of man being the source of woman.
The language suggests that this is a married couple, and that the wife is teaching her husband that Eve was the source of Adam. This makes perfect sense in light of the very next verse, where Paul refers to creation order. The phrase mistranslated “have authority over” is authenteo tinos, and it is only used this one time in all the New Testament. There are other, more common words for “have authority over” but Paul instead chose this unique expression. Notice that he did use “authority” (epitrepo) concerning not allowing this false teaching to go on.
The word authenteo is even rare in classical literature, and can mean “murderer, perpetrator, or author”. In English, we use the word “author” to mean the person who originates a writing. And since Paul ties this in with the fact that Adam was created prior to Eve, it is clear that it is chronological order that Paul is concerned with, not any kind of pecking order or hierarchy. Further weight is given for this meaning due to Paul’s statement about deception. What, we must ask, does the order of creation have to do with deception? This is where we refer back to Genesis, to the fact that Eve never saw God create anything.
Paul is saying this: that this woman was not to teach that Eve came first and Adam came from Eve, and she was not to lead her husband into error due to her having been fooled, just like Eve. As if all that weren’t complicated enough, Paul now makes a statement that is considered one of the hardest to understand in all the New Testament, and it reads like this: “And she will be saved through The Childbearing if they continue…”.
Remember that Paul is in all likelihood addressing a particular married couple, so “she” is the wife. “The Childbearing” (a noun) refers to the birth of the Messiah, our only true Savior, and “they” refers to the couple. So this false teacher, the wife, is not excluded from salvation because of what she’s been teaching, but the couple must turn away from this falsehood and toward the truth of the gospel and the scriptures.
“She” cannot refer to Eve because of the use of the future term “will be saved”. Yet there is obvious significance in Paul’s referring to salvation in this way, as Eve was promised that “her seed” would eventually crush the serpent’s seed. But it also makes no sense to say that Eve would be saved if some other group of women in the future would be faithful.
Another possible meaning of authentein is “to usurp authority”. Interestingly, it isn’t only the newer translations that use this meaning; the KJV uses it also. It refers to an unlawful or improper taking of authority that a person is not qualified or permitted to have - not any and all authority. So it can mean that Paul just doesn’t permit this improper kind of authority for women. And in fact, if there is anyone who is taking improper authority in the churches, it’s male supremacists and those who teach clergy/laity class distinctions.
I’d like to finish with a look at Paul’s letter to Titus.
In chapter 1 Paul gives qualifications for “elders” (Gk. presbuterous). The phrase translated “the husband of one wife” (“mias gunaikos andra”) is one which has appeared on the epitaphs of both men and women of the first century, and it meant something like “a one-woman man” or “one-man woman”, that is, a faithful spouse. It definitely does NOT mean that only males can be elders, as is commonly claimed. Paul goes on to talk about the importance of such qualities in the culture of Crete at that time.
In chapter 2 Paul adds to the qualifications for elders, both male and female. The Greek word here is one from which we get “presbyter”. It is the very same word as in chapter one: “presbyters” were to be appointed in every town. So when many translations use “older men” and “older women” here, they are being inconsistent at best. These are the appointees of chapter one, not all elderly people. Age is not something people have to be appointed to! Similarly, the Greek word typically rendered “young” is one from which we get the prefix “neo” meaning “new”, not necessarily “young”. So Paul is saying that male and female elders are to train new believers in appropriate doctrine and behavior.
Why would translators want to give the impression that this passage is about all elderly people teaching young people? Because otherwise they’d have to admit that there were female elders. Ironically, it’s such people who accuse egalitarians of having an ’agenda’. It would of course be appropriate for the men to teach men and women to teach women, but if women can only teach women, then men can only teach men. And if this verse cannot be used to say men can only teach men, then neither can it be used to say women can only teach women.
Paul says “teach slaves to be subject to their masters”, but can we say he’s promoting slavery? No, only the proper behavior of believers in every situation. Slavery was a fact of life, and rather than promoting revolt and thus maligning the name of Christ, Paul taught (consistently with Rom. 14 for example) that believers should always have the highest standards of behavior. Likewise, when he says women should do various things, he is not endorsing the suppression of all females but simply appealing to us all to avoid bringing reproach on the name of Jesus.
Conclusion: All this is what I understand the Bible teaches about women in the church and the Christian home. Looking at context from every angle and considering what we know about the nature of God and the example of Jesus and the apostles, it seems consistent with how other passages are interpreted and does not require heavy reliance upon inference or tradition or translation. The Bible simply doesn’t say many of the things claimed for it, especially concerning women. At the very least, there is certainly room for disagreement with male supremacism even in its mildest forms. Jesus came to bring life and freedom from oppression for all– and that includes women.