I always worry when bringing up such a controversial topic, especially given that I was at one-time (during my neo-orthodox phase about 10 years ago) a theological – and even political – feminist myself. However, after much study I grew convinced that though many Evangelical churches do not empower women nearly enough in ministry, even more frequently, especially among the more broadly popular charismatic churches, women are given equal authority to that of their husbands (sometimes ABOVE their husbands) from the pulpit. This I find VERY troubling, not because I haven’t known women with incredible ministry gifts, but because the best reading of the relevant texts seems to lead away from those extremes.
It’s pretty obvious that the Bible suggests some variance in roles for men & women (which the Bible also suggests for the various ‘members’ of the trinity, all of which are still understood as divine, and all of which are still considered equal, and even ultimate value), I admit that the Bible itself, and especially Jesus’ teaching (heck, even Paul’s) are quite ‘women’s lib’, especially when compared to the general view of women that was prevalent in Jesus’ day.
When I was a campus minister I would often ask the men I was counseling a series of questions; 1.) Do you hope to one day marry? 2.) If so, what sort of woman are you looking for?
The issue was this, if they thought of their future wife as a woman staying home, barefoot and pregnant, as only a homemaker, while the guy acts as the breadwinner, that’s not a Biblical concept.
The fact is, this option wasn’t even a possibility until after the industrial revolution – till then almost ALL work was based out of one’s home, and the whole family was involved; the wife, and children were co-laborers for the business. In those days everyone HAD to work were they to survive. We see hints of this in the “Proverbs 31 woman”; “A wife of noble character who can find?…she selects wool and flax and works with eager hands…she gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls…she considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard…she sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for the task…” READ THAT LIST! WOW! This woman is an intelligent, strong, go-getting businesswoman, stock-trader, gardener, provider, cook, real-estate agent, fashion designer, and teacher! And lastly in that passage we read, “Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the City gate.” The “barefoot and pregnant” helpless homebody housewife is simply not a Scriptural mandate.
Now, addressing the ‘problem’ verses that I’m sure you’ll bring up, as you seem somewhat versed in the Bible…again, it all comes down to being aware of the passage’s context.
1 Corinthians 13:33b-35;
“As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.”
Let’s put this in context; shortly before this appears the line, “God is not a God of disorder but of peace”, and this passage followed closely by “…everything should be done in a fitting and orderly manner.” So, how would you understand this passage in context? Orderly worship is the issue here.
Setting a historical context, women were not allowed in the Jewish Temple, but were to be taught, what little they actually learned, at home by their husbands. Christianity was very surprisingly inclusive in regards to women in a way that Judaism had never been.
So—what can be derived from the passage itself?
It seems that “inquire”-ing women are “disgracing” (embarrassing?) their husbands at church, likely by continually disrupting the service with very basic questions simply because they were uninformed, coming from a Judaic culture, because they’d had so little exposure to Biblical teaching. Given the context of this passage, it would seem this was causing “disorder” and chaos, and this was not taken lightly, as can be well understood. Imagine if people continually were interrupting a sermon with questions about the basics of Christianity at every turn?
Normally I am VERY uncomfortable with dismissing a passage as merely cultural, but it seems to have little application to our current culture – we rarely have women (or anyone else, for that matter) incessantly questioning our pastor during a sermon. Given the context, I do not believe this passage can have any direct correlation to the service of women in today’s congregations – it was simply not written for such an end.
Though many have tried, I admit that this next passage is not nearly so easy to dismiss.
1 Timothy 2:11-15; “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.”…“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing –if they continue if faith, love, and holiness with propriety.”
Now, not yet troubling ourselves with the REALLY weird stuff at the end of this passage…what is Paul’s argument that women should not “teach or have authority of a man” based on?
First, the pre-fall created order (in other words, this is the way God made things), and secondly, on the fall of man itself. Man should have authority for he was made first, is Paul’s main point. Don’t let this reading imply that the fall of man is to blamed on the women – keep in mind, if Adam was to be the head, he is held responsible for her actions – in fact, we are not born into Eve’s sin, according to Scripture, but Adam’s. Even more troubling is this; Genesis 3:6 says, “…and she (Eve) also gave some to her husband (Adam) WHO WAS WITH HER, and he at it.” Adam stood silently by and did nothing during the whole of Eve’s temptation by the Serpent, then ate of it himself!
Anyway, back to Timothy’s passage, the admonition seems to not apply to the teaching of simply anyone who is male, since surely a son may learn from his mother (which is implied by the Biblical command to honor one’s father and mother). I must admit, even, that oft-times I have been challenged and encouraged by women’ exhortations WITHIN the church, and I’m sure such Godly encouragement could not be condemned. So WHAT IS PAUL SAYING?
It seems to me that this applies to official teaching roles within the church; BUT, there is evidence that some women in the Scriptures may have had some sort of leadership role within the New Testament Church…that is why some argue that the only role excluded by this passage is that of minister, or preacher, since, were a woman teaching UNDER the minister, she may be doing it under HIS authority and not her own. Teaching however, to some extent seems to be equated with Authority within the Scriptures, so I believe this to be a COMPLEX issue to tackle, and one to take very seriously.
Concerning the END of the passage – “women will be saved through child-bearing” – there is NO ideal reading of this…it seems odd no matter WHAT, but my first thought is to look at other, possibly more reliable translations than the NIV and see if there are any significant differences. The NAS reads, “But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.” The RSV reads “Yet women will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” Lastly, the KJV reads “Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue if faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.” As I suspected, the Greek word for “through” can also mean “in”, which can significantly alter our reading of the passage. Paul also seems to be using the term “save” (there are MANY biblical meanings to this word) to mean “kept safe from injury”/”restore to health”/”keep from perishing”/or “preserve”. This use of the word here is also consistent with Paul’s theology, which often speaks of God preserving and protecting his people in and through calamities. So, it seems that Paul is reassuring women in his congregation that Christ is their savior, even in the dangers of childbirth. I do not believe it is an absolute promise that they will not die, but they will indeed be “saved” in the dangerous act of giving birth. I admit, it’s a complex passage, but other scholars do indeed agree with my interpretation.
Now for what is likely the most problematic of passages in the New Testament regarding this issue; “Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head–it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice–nor do the churches of God.”
– 1 Corinthians 11:3-16
I’m sure you’re jaw’s not on the floor, because I simply assume that you’d punt to this verse next. The temptation for theologically liberal Christians, and even some ‘moderates’ is to say “sure, this is just cultural” and punt it far beyond the necessity of observance, but before you do so do not miss the foundation of Paul’s argument; “Does not the very NATURE of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him…?” Well, I feel no remorse for growing my hair long, and believe neither should a woman for not wearing a bonnet during service.
First, look closely at the context – Paul has just pointed out that, for the believer “…everything is permissible”, thus quickly dismissing the idea that this is some sort of legalistic notion, personally binding to all. Similarly, verse 11:13 says “…judge for yourselves…” (though he seems to think it common sense how they will judge on the matter) and 10:29; “…why should my freedom be judged by another man’s conscience?”
Also, like the other passage in Corinthians regarding women, this also demands to be understood within the context of worship, but rather than “orderly worship”, the key issue here is “propriety in worship.” “Propriety”, according to the Random House Dictionary, means “1. conformity to established standards of good or proper behavior or manners. 2. appropriateness to the purpose or circumstances; suitability.” A few helpful synonyms of “propriety” are “decency” and “modesty.” So, the context of this passage is decency or modesty in worship, and is to be applied with discernment by each individual. So, with that said, are head-covering and hair-length the actual issue here? Well, WHATEVER Paul is arguing for here, his reason for it is that “A man…is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”
A proper reading of this hinges on the Biblical meaning and use of the word “glory.”
The Hebrew word for “glory” means “heaviness” and “weightiness”, but the Greek word, as it is used here, means “to think”, usually referring to the thing that makes one or other’s think highly of oneself or another. So, “glory” when applied to God usually refers to that importance or “weight” which gives God a high stature in the eyes of others – in other words, those very things that make Him God; the god-ness of God (Holiness, Righteousness, Sovereignty, Love, etc and so on). Applied to human-kind, however, it reflects the things which man a man great; Jacob’s wealth was his glory in Genesis 31:1, Joseph’s position in Egypt is called his glory in Genesis 45:13, Job was stripped of his glory when God took everything from him, the nobility of Israel is her glory in Isaiah 5:13, and lastly, Psalm 45:16-17 reminds us that the wealthy man’s “…glory shall not descend after him.” Not only does this use of the word make sense here, but it is also Biblically consistent for woman completes man, “…it is not good for a man to be alone, “ and a husband with a wife of noble character “…lacks NOTHING of value.” The Bible seems very clear that the world as a whole, and men in particular, are better off with women – she can make or break a man – a woman can make a man be “thought of highly”, honored and respected, and completes him, making human-kind whole – THIS is the “glory” of man which woman is; she reflects upon her husband’s standing, as a man of God reflects upon his Lord. As man is the glory of God (as the head of the household, he represents the household), so woman is the glory of her husband – that is an HONORABLE, POWERFUL, and IMPORTANT position!
So, this particular passage seems to be saying that women bring glory to their husband and ultimately to God by being modest, rather than showy, in church. Also note; this passage does not deny that women are created in God’s image, it merely places the emphasis on who’s “glory” she reflects upon most immediately. Also, note that Paul keeps this passage from being misinterpreted by adding; “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as a woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” This evens the scales – we both come from God and are both made in His image, and are both, therefore, glorious in His sight and EQUALLY important and of the same value. It’s simply the issue of – here, on this earth among others, who someone’s actions reflect on most immediately.
Women’s hair was considered so beautiful (this culture, remember, was much different than ours) that having a woman’s head uncovered in church drew attention to itself in the same way (in the culture, but likely also in ours) a bald woman would (see 11:5-6), and therefore in it’s showiness drew attention away from God. Hence, prostitutes would often make others aware of their ‘position’ by the elaborate decorating of their hair. This would be the ancient equivalent to wearing daisy dukes or a high cut mini-skirt to church. This applies today not so much to how people wear their hair, but to modesty in church – church is NOT a fashion show, or a place to attract the opposite sex, but a place to give glory to God, part of which includes not making ourselves the focal point of the service.
I think the Scriptures do indeed affirm that genders serve different roles both in the church, and even more-so within relationships, but with that said, let me also make it clear that I think women are often under-utilized, and under-honored for their work, within the church. On top of that, even if in a position of lesser authority, are none-the-less of equal, if not GREATER importance than men. We have as our model God himself: Jesus is subservient to God the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both of them, but all are equally God – they have different roles in what we refer to as “salvation history”, but none are less valuable because of their individual roles.
Differences are good, are to be enjoyed, and ultimately to be used to the glory of God, who Himself created us different. Women and men are made in a way that women can be a help-mate, making what might otherwise be impossible for man to accomplish be well within his grasp – that is what is means for two to become one. And two are stronger than one, especially when the two have different strengths, roles, and callings to ministry. That is the beauty of it all – that’s God’s picture of how the sexes were MADE to operate: not as two ‘heads’, but as ‘one body’, each fulfilling the God-ordained roles to which we’ve been called in our relationship, and our ministry.