In an age of women's liberation, modern Bible readers have understandably scrutinized Scripture for its teachings on gender. Assessments have alternately found it hopelessly patriarchal and gloriously redemptive. A brief survey can do no more than scratch the surface of key issues and perspectives.
Creation. In the first creation account, God fashions man and woman as fully equal bearers of his image. They jointly receive his blessing and commission to rule the earth ( Gen 1:26-31 ). In the second account, it is specified that God created the man first, and that he created the woman from the man's rib only after all the animals proved inadequate companions ( Gen 2:18-23 ). The controversial words, "suitable helper" in verse 18 have traditionally been taken to imply a functional subordination of the woman to the man as part of God's design in creation, but this interpretation is increasingly being rejected. Certainly, the emphasis of Adam's outburst, "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (v. 23) highlights the similarity rather than any differences between these first two human beings.
The Fall. The utter goodness of this primeval human pair ( Gen 1:31 ) quickly turns into rebellion. The serpent coaxes the woman to eat forbidden fruit, and her husband, in apparently more conscious disobedience ( 1 Tim 2:14 ), follows suit. As a result, God utters a three-part curse on the triad of rebels. To the woman he promises increased pain in childbearing and then adds, "your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you" ( Gen 3:16 ). For those who see hierarchy in Genesis 2, what was intended to be fully harmonious will now deteriorate into seduction and tyranny. For others, here is where relationships of authority and submission first appear. "To love and to cherish" has degenerated into "to desire and to dominate."
Old Testament Culture. Old Testament culture was overwhelmingly patriarchal. Women were valued most for their roles as wives and mothers, as bearers and rearers of children. Because of the importance of having children to preserve the family line and inheritance, barren women were particularly disgraced. On several key occasions, God miraculously intervened to overcome such barrenness (as with Sarah Gen 16 ; and Hannah 1 Sam 1 ). Although never condoned, this same desire for progeny could lead to illicit sexual relationships (e.g., Lot's daughters with their father Gen 19:30-38 ; Tamar with Judah Gen 38 ).
Old Testament wives can function as windows to their husband's career and character. David's first wife, Michal, aids his escape from Saul ( 1 Sam 19:9-17 ). Abigail stands out for her intelligence and good judgment ( 1 Samuel 25:3 1 Samuel 25:33 ) and comes to the fore during David's ascendancy to the kingship. Bathsheba, as the victim of David's seduction and adultery ( 2 Sam 11 ), portends the decline of David's family and fortunes.
Yet despite all these androcentric illustrations, the ideal woman of Old Testament times can seem surprisingly modern. The wife of noble character ( Prov 31:10-31 ) works industriously not only in traditional domestic spheres but in running a business out of her house, purchasing property, making investments, speaking wisely, and ruling her household. Men should value such a prudent wife far above property and wealth ( Prov 19:14 ; 18:22 ).
The Old Testament consistently commends women to monogamous marriage and sexual fidelity, based on God's creation ordinance ( Gen 2:24 ; endorsed again by both Jesus [ Matt 19:5 ] and Paul [ Eph 5:31 ]). Song of Songs celebrates the erotic bliss of newlyweds, often from the woman's perspective and initiative. Subsequent faithfulness remains equally crucial ( Eccl 9:9 ; Mal 2:14-16 ). The ordeal for a suspected adulteress seems harsh today ( Num 5:11-31 ), as does Ezra's edict for the Israelites to divorce their newly but illegally married foreign wives (Ezra 9-10). But the positive side of each of these episodes is the high value placed on sexual and spiritual fidelity. The notion that polygamy was common or condoned in ancient Israel is seriously misguided. Polygamy remained the exception rather than the rule; in twelve of the thirteen Old Testament instances in which it occurred, the husbands were men of great wealth kings and aristocrats. Few others could afford such luxury! Solomon's many wives clearly led to his ruin ( 1 Kings 11:1-13 ); concubines often played more a political than a romantic role ( 2 Sam 16 ).
As in all ages of human history, the Old Testament shows women who were victimized by abuse, rape, and even murder: Dinah ( Gen 34 ), Tamar ( 2 Sam 13:1-22 ), Jephthah's daughter ( Judges 11:29-30 ), and the Levite's concubine ( Judges 19 ). The latter two atrocities illustrate the depravity of a society in near-anarchy; the former two are each avenged by kinsmen. In other instances, women seduce men (Delilah and Samson Judges 16 ) or unjustly accuse them (Potiphar's wife and Joseph Gen 39 ). God never condones such behavior, but, like evil in general, he often permits it. An overriding and encouraging message of the Old Testament is God's sovereign outworking of his plans in spite of his people's failures.
In the same vein, the queens of God's own people may prove murderous and idolatrous, leading them to ruin (Athaliah 2 Kings 11 ; Jezebel 1 Kings 21 ). Or God may use the compassion of pagan royalty to preserve and nurture the savior of his own people (Pharaoh's daughter and Moses Exe 2:1-10 ). Perhaps the paradigm of God's sovereignty through the grace of unlikely heroines is the story of Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute, who believes in the God of the Israelites, protects their spies from her own officials ( Joshua 2 ), and becomes one of the great persons of faith praised in Hebrews 11 (v. 31). Similarly, Ruth the Moabitess epitomizes the foreigner who attaches herself to Israel. Her devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi leads to her covenant-faithfulness to Yahweh and to a surprising proposal of marriage to her redeemer-kinsman Boaz ( Ruth 3:9 ).
Old Testament Legislation. Old Testament laws also send mixed signals. In some places, women are clearly prized as equals to men. Both father and mother deserve equal honor from their children ( Exod 20:12 ) and share in the trial of a rebellious child ( Deut 21:18-19 ). In cases of alleged rape, if unable to summon help, the woman is given the benefit of the doubt ( Deut 22:23-27 ). But women consistently remain under the control of their fathers or husbands ( Exod 21:7 ; Num 30:3-15 ), although in the (unusual) absence of such men may be granted equal rights with them ( Num 27:1-11 ). Various laws seem to value women less than men. They incur greater uncleanness for menstruation than do men for seminal emissions ( Lev 15:16-33 ) and for giving birth to female children than for males ( Lev 12:1-5 ). Male slaves command a higher price than do females ( Lev 27:1-8 ); the more important sacrifices require male animals only ( Num 15:22-29 ). In other cases, certain laws simply did not apply to women ( Exod 23:17 ). Some of these injunctions may be seen as accommodations to the prevailing cultures, but it is hard to explain them all in this fashion.
Widows are consistently presented as a paradigm of the dispossessed. Because they came under no specific man's care, they became the responsibility of the whole community ( Exod 22:22-24 ).
Old Testament Leadership. Although women were not permitted to be priests, they did on occasion hold other offices or leadership roles in Israel. Deborah was a judge (the "political" leader of her day) and, like Miriam ( Exod 15:20-21 ) and Huldah ( 2 Kings 22:11-20 ), a prophetess ( Judges 4 ). Jael ( Judges 4 ) and the anonymous woman of Judges 9:53 proved timely and valiant in battle. Although Athaliah was a wicked queen, Esther, who came to power in Persia under most unusual circumstances, used her position to save her Jewish kinsfolk. The wise women of Tekoa ( 2 Sam 14 ) and of Abel Beth Maacah ( 2 Sam 20:14-22 ) probably were the heads of city councils. Although each of these examples of women in leadership were exceptions and not norms, there is no evidence to support the claim that God used women only when there were no available or willing men.
Jesus and Women. The first-century Jewish world shared many of the cultural assumptions of the Old Testament concerning women. In the Hellenistic world, women at times gained greater wealth, freedom, or privilege. Against these prevailing cultures, Jesus' own teachings and practices stand out as radically liberating. God highly favored Mary with the privilege of bearing and rearing his Son; the most detailed accounts of Christ's birth seem to reflect Mary's (and Elizabeth's) perspective and may well have been transmitted by her (Luke 1-2). Several of the recipients of Jesus' healing were women (Jairus's daughter Matt 9:23-26 ; and the crippled woman Luke 13:10-17 ). In two instances their faith is particularly praised (the hemmorhaging woman Matt 9:22 ), even when one is not a Jew but a Syrophoenician ( Matt 15:21-28 anticipating the church's ministry to Gentiles ). In another episode, the woman healed was Jewish but still illustrates Jesus' ministry of compassion to the outcasts of society (Simon's mother-in-law [ Matt 8:14-15 ]), as the third in a series of such miracles (cf. Matthew 8:1-4 Matthew 8:5-13 ). In the same spirit, Jesus forgives a notoriously sinful woman who demonstrates her repentance through her love, even when she expresses it in culturally suspect ways ( Luke 7:36-50 ). The later, similar actions of Mary of Bethany elicit Jesus' praise in language evocative of the memorializing of Jesus himself in the Lord's Supper ( Mark 14:9 )!
Women play an important role among Jesus' followers. An unspecified number forms part of the larger company of disciples that regularly follows him on the road and forms his "support team" ( Luke 8:1-3 ; cf. Acts 1:14-15 ). Jesus specifically praises Mary of Bethany for choosing to "sit at his feet" and learn from him ( Luke 10:38-42 )a quasi-technical reference to a disciple being trained by a rabbi and a practice usually denied to women in Jewish circles. Martha's traditional preoccupation for domestic chores receives only censure! Jesus chooses women as the first witnesses to his resurrection ( Luke 24:1-12 ), even though their testimony would have been thrown out of a legal court, and Mary Magdalene becomes the "apostle to the (male) apostles" ( John 20:1-2 John 20:18 ). No woman appears among the company of the Twelve; but it is not clear if this reflects any timeless principle besides a commitment to present the gospel to a given culture in ways which will most likely speed its acceptance.
Jesus' ethics preserve and intensify the strong Old Testament emphasis on sexual propriety ( Matt 5:27-30 ; 19:1-12 ), but for the first time make clear that women and men will be judged by identical standards ( Matt 5:32 ; Mark 10:11-12 ). Luke frequently pairs episodes in which men and women function in identical ways. Both Elizabeth and Zechariah praise under the Spirit's inspiration ( Luke 1:41-45 Luke 1:67-79 ). Both Simeon and Anna prophesy that in Christ they have seen Israel's salvation ( 2:25-38 ). Male and female cripples receive identical healings ( 13:10-17 ; 14:1-6 ). The parables of the mustard seed and leaven (like the lost sheep and coin), each make the same point but alternate between male and female protagonists ( 13:18-21 ; 15:1-10 ). Clearly Luke wants to highlight God's care for both genders and Jesus' concern to relate to both. The story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman perhaps epitomizes his commitment to revolutionizing the lot of the disenfranchised of his day. Despite strong cultural taboos against any social exchange between a Jewish holy man and a sexually promiscuous Samaritan woman, Jesus speaks to this woman in private, affirms her personhood and leads her to faith in himself and to service as an evangelist ( John 4:1-42 ).
Acts. With the arrival of Pentecost comes the fulfillment of Joel's prediction about the egalitarian outpouring of the Spirit ( Acts 2:17-21 ). Women as well as men prophesy. Apart from the ministry of the New Testament writers, Christian prophecy does not supplement or contradict the canon but applies spiritual truth to specific contexts in the lives of God's people. To the extent that contemporary preaching involves this spiritual gift, gifted women must be encouraged to preach. Acts also describes a significant Christian woman teacher, Priscilla, who with her husband Aquila enabled Apollos to learn and disseminate correct doctrine ( 18:26 ). Inasmuch as her name more often than not appears before her husband's (cf. vv. 18, 19), she may well have been the more prominent.
Women in Acts continue to receive other spiritual blessings. As in the Gospels, they benefit from miraculous healings (the slave girl 16:16-18 ) and resurrections (slave Tabitha 9:36-42 ). Lydia is the first-mentioned European convert ( 17:11-15 ); Paul's willingness to preach to a group of God-fearing women without any men present itself carries on Jesus' tradition of boundary breaking. Damaris, a woman, is among the few to respond favorably to Paul's Areopagus address ( 17:34 ).
The Epistles. Just as in the Old Testament women enjoyed many prominent roles save one, the rest of the New Testament reveals women in all positions of spiritual leadership save that of elder or overseer. But their participation in these roles was much more common and accepted than in Old Testament times. Paul calls Phoebe a diakonos [diavkono"] (probably "deacon") and prostatis [prostavti"] (most likely "patron") of the church in Cenchreae. First Timothy 3:11 is best understood as containing injunctions for women deacons rather than deacons' wives (it would be incongruous for Paul to be concerned about deacons' wives but not overseers' wives!). Junia(s) in Romans 16:7 is most likely a woman, and she is called "an apostle." This will be in Paul's broader sense of the term as a missionary or church planter.
Chloe in Corinth ( 1 Cor 1:11 ) and Nympha in Colossae ( Col 4:15 ) are women whose households figure prominently (and the fact that the households are attributed to these women suggest that no male heads are present). The elect ladies of 2 John 1, 13 almost certainly refer to house-churches, although quite possibly hosted by individual Christian women (as more clearly with Nympha). Paul calls Euodia and Syntyche his fellow workers ( Php 4:2-3 ) and frequently praises women as co-laborers in ministry ( Romans 16:6 Romans 16:12 ). First Timothy 5:2 commands respect for older Christian women. The term used here, presbytera, is the feminine form of "elder" (presbyteros [presbuvtero"]), but the context and parallel passage in tit 2:3, which uses a more unambiguous term for "old woman" (presbytis [presbuvti"]), suggests a nontechnical sense. tit 2:4-5 also insists that older women train younger women in godliness, which includes being good "home-workers."
In the domestic sphere, wives must remain submissive to their husbands, who are the heads of the family ( Eph 5:22-24 ; Col 3:18 ). Attempts to interpret "head" (kephale [kefalhv]) and "submit" (hypotasso [uJpotavssw]) so as to remove all vestiges of hierarchy or authority (as, e.g., with the respective translations "source" and "defer" prove unconvincing on both lexical and contextual grounds). The command to mutual submission of Ephesians 5:21 becomes incoherent if it is assumed that all Christians must subject themselves to all other believers; this verse is best taken as an introduction to all three examples of submission in 5:22-6:9. But Paul's commands to husbands in 5:25-33 radically redefine their authority particularly in light of similar "domestic codes" of antiquity. The man's headship is now one of greater responsibility rather than privilege. And given the voluntary nature of entering into marriage, individuals not prepared to accept the responsibilities of submission and headship need not marry at all. Indeed the best interpretation of a woman as the "weaker vessel" ( 1 Peter 3:7 ) probably has nothing to do with physical or emotional weakness but rather refers to a voluntarily adopted position of greater "vulnerability."
Two passages in the epistles that do not directly refer to women doing anything nevertheless have far-reaching implications. First Corinthians 12:7, 11, makes clear that God's Spirit dispenses his spiritual gifts as he wills, which surely implies "irrespective of gender." This means that Paul envisioned women not only as apostles, prophets, and teachers but speaking in tongues, working miracles, ministering as evangelists, and pastors/shepherds ( 11:5 ; 12:8-10 ; Eph 4:11 ), indeed, exercising every other spiritual gift that God may choose to give them. Galatians 3:28 proves even more programmatic, declaring that in Christ, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female." It cannot be demonstrated from this statement that Paul thereby imagined no timeless role differentiation among women and men; clearly patriarchal rabbinic sources could nevertheless make quite similar claims. But the baptismal context (v. 27) does suggest that Paul had more in mind than merely equal access to salvation. As an initiation rite that included women (unlike Jewish circumcision), baptism publicly affirmed the equal value of women and men in a way that suggests that the church should continue to seek outward, visible forms for demonstrating this equality.
Restrictions on Leadership. Notwithstanding the overwhelming emphasis on liberation, privilege, freedom, and equality for women that characterizes most of the New Testament teaching, three passages stand out as implying certain limits on women in church leadership, perhaps analogous to the relationship of wife and husband in the family. At least they have traditionally been so taken, throughout almost all of church history, corresponding to the general lack of women in the highest or most authoritative positions of ecclesial office (even as women's roles in all other positions of leadership have been more plentiful than the average textbook of church history discloses). Today, however, Christian feminists have seriously challenged the traditional interpretations of all three of these passages.
In 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, Paul commands women to cover their heads (with either veils or long hair) as a sign of respect to their spiritual heads their husbands. The cultural impropriety of women either unveiled or with short hair (often involving sexually misleading connotations) probably lay behind these commands. But a timeless principle appears as well: "man did not come from woman but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man" (vv. 8-9). These observations are immediately qualified with reminders of the mutual interdependence of the genders in Christ (vv. 11-12), but it is not obvious that these verses imply the reversibility of the statements in verses 8-9. Although not immediately germane to the question of church office, the reminder of the relevance of the structure of the family for church life probably provides a foundation for Paul's teaching in the next two passages below.
In 1 Corinthians 14:33b-38 Paul enjoins women to be silent in church. In view of 11:5, this cannot be an absolute prohibition. Many have taken it to be entirely time-bound (due, e.g., to gossiping or noisy or uneducated women), but Paul bases his rationale in the law (v. 34) and says nothing of these cultural phenomena. Others take verses 33b-35 to be a Corinthian slogan that Paul refutes in verses 36-38, but this relatively new interpretation ignores the quite different length, style, and content of all other Corinthian slogans (e.g., 6:12-13 ; 7:1 ; 8:1 ). Inasmuch as twenty of the other twenty-one references to "speak" (laleo [lalevw]) in 1 Corinthians 14 refer to tongues, their interpretation, prophecy, or evaluation, it is probably better to see one of these forms of speech in view. Given that the first three of these are spiritual gifts that the immediate context is one of the proper response to prophecy (vv. 29-33a), and that the ultimate responsibility of reevaluating prophecy would have fallen to the (presumably) all male leadership of the Corinthian congregation, it is best to limit Paul's prohibition to speech in the context of the church's authoritative response to prophecy.
The text which is most hotly debated of all is 1 Timothy 2:8-15. Here Paul forbids women "to teach or to have authority over a man" (v. 12) in church ( 3:15 ). Again this prohibition cannot be absolute (recall Acts 18:26 ), and in view of Paul's penchant for hendiadys, or pairs of largely synonymous expressions in 1 Timothy 2 (cf. vv. 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, 3, 4, 5, 7a, 7b, etc.), it is probable that "teach" and "have authority" are mutually interdefining Paul is prohibiting "authoritative teaching." In view of the distinction between (apparently) all male overseers and both male and female deacons in 3:1-13, a plausible interpretation of 2:12 is that women may not hold the highest office in a given ecclesial context (perhaps roughly analogous to modern-day senior pastors in congregationally governed churches). Again, egalitarians have regularly proposed some historical background (most notably the presence of heresy in Ephesus 1 Tim 1:3-7 ) as the rationale for Paul's mandate, which is then seen as culturally limited in application. But Paul's own explanation appeals instead to the order of creation ( 1 Tim 2:13 ); the explicit evidence of women's roles in the Ephesian heresy elsewhere in the Pastorals is entirely limited to their roles as victims rather than propagators ( 2 Tim 3:6-7 ).
Conclusion. Christianity will doubtless be divided for the foreseeable future over women's roles in the contemporary home and church. The scriptural evidence is sufficiently ambiguous that room must be given for both complementarian and egalitarian perspectives. Charges that one or the other are heretical are unfounded and destructive. Church history does not inspire much confidence that Christian consensus will ultimately be based on exegesis rather than the trends of secular society. But Bible-believing Christians should stand against this tide and seek to ground their views on the best understandings of Scripture possible. Perhaps team-ministry remains the most appropriate model, in which team leaders remain male but in which women are warmly encouraged to participate and exercise pastoral gifts. So too, in the home, if husbands do retain any unique authority, they must exercise it entirely in seeking the well-being of their wives.
Craig L. Blomberg
Bibliography. A. Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative; G. Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles; E. Cantarella, Pandora's Daughters; D. Dockery, CTR1 (1987): 363-86; R. B. Edwards, The Case for Women's Ministry; E. S. Fiorenza, In Memory of Her; M. Hayter, The New Eve in Christ; J. B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective; ISBE, 4:1089-97; W. C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics; R. C. and C. C. Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman; A. Mickelsen, ed., Women, Authority and the Bible; J. Piper and W. Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood; A. B. Spencer, Beyond the Curse; J. Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today; L. Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Woman; P. Trible, Texts of Terror; R. A. Tucker and W. Liefeld, Daughters of the Church; L. Wilshire, NTS 34 (1988): 120-34; B. Witherington, NTS 27 (1981): 593-604.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Woman'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".