Is patriarchy really God’s dream for the world?

'Hejaab' photo (c) 2006, Khashayar Elyassi - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Praised be Thou, O Lord, who did not make me a gentile; 
Praised be Thou O Lord, who did not make me a boor;
Praised be Thou, O Lord, who did not make me a woman.”
—R. Judah 

"Now there is neither Jew nor Gentile, 
neither slave nor free, 
nor is there male and female, 
for you are all one in Christ Jesus." 
- Galatians 3:28


Denny Burk, an Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College and influential leader in the complementarian movement, wrote a response to me yesterday in which he readily admits that complementarianism is simply a gentler word for patriarchy. Patriarchy—a cultural system in which men exercise unilateral authority over their households and (generally) over society—is, according to Burk, God’s ideal for this world. Today, the Gospel Coalition affirmed this position

Burk quotes fellow complementarian Russell Moore: 

“...To use the word ‘patriarchy’ in an evangelical context is uncomfortable since the word is deemed ‘negative’ even by most complementarians. But evangelicals should ask why patriarchy seems negative to those of us who serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God and Father of Jesus Christ...Egalitarians are winning the evangelical gender debate, not because their arguments are stronger, but because, in some sense, we are all egalitarians now. The complementarian response must be more than reaction. It must instead present an alternative vision—a vision that sums up the burden of male headship under the cosmic rubric of the gospel of Christ and the restoration of all things in him. It must produce churches that are not embarrassed to tell us that when we say the 'Our Father,' we are patriarchs of the oldest kind."

Burk concludes, “Whatever we call it (complementarianism, patriarchy, hierarchy), Moore’s point still rings true. Evangelicals who are unwilling to be counter-cultural are going to find themselves one way or the other accommodating themselves to the feminist spirit of the age and falling short of the biblical ideal.” Burk says he agrees with Moore’s assessment that too many complementarian marriages are complementarian in name only, that true “biblical patriarchy” requires more hierarchy in the home.

As distasteful as I find his position, I am actually grateful for Burk’s post, and the Gospel Coalition’s subsequent endorsement of it, because with it, we've finally cut through the crap to identify what this debate is really about: power.  

The question at the bottom of it all is this: Does patriarchy—(man's rule over woman)—represent God’s ideal for the world, or is it a result of sin?  The struggle is not between complementarianism and egalitarianism, or between traditional and non-traditional roles, but between patriarchy and equality.

I believe, with every bone in my body, that patriarchy is a result of sin, and that followers of Jesus are to be champions of equality. I believe it is our calling, as imitators of Christ, to reflect God’s new vision for the world, initiated through  Jesus Christ,  in which there is no hierarchy or power struggle between slave and free, Jew and Greek, male and female, for all are one in the family of God. 

Patriarchy is a result of "the Fall." 

As we discussed extensively on Monday, the author of Genesis tells a story of creation that presents the first man and woman as true partners.  Both are created in the image of God, and both are charged with tending to the earth God has made. With ezer kenegdo properly translated, (and with the creation of woman after man identified as a plot point meant to create drama, not subordination), we see that there are no explicit statements of a hierarchal relationship between man and woman until after the event that Christians have come to call “The Fall.”  

“Your desire will be for your husband,” God tells the woman “[but] he will rule over you.” 

It is within the context of judgment, not creation, that hierarchy and subjugation enter the Bible’s story of man and woman. Where there was once mutuality, there is subjugation. Where there was once harmony, there is a power-struggle.  The writer of the Genesis, who undoubtedly had observed this power-struggle in his own world, calls it for what it is: a tragedy, an example of our collective brokenness and our desperate need for redemption. 

Burk, Moore and the Gospel Coalition seem to think that a power-struggle is okay, so long as it is the man who comes out on top. But I believe the teachings of Jesus, and their application through Paul, lead us to the conclusion that power is overrated, and that the ultimate goal is harmony, just like we see in Eden.

 The effects of patriarchy in scripture...

The effects of the curse that “man will rule over you” are seen immediately in the stories we read in scripture itself.  If Burk and Moore indeed dream of a return to the “biblical patriarchy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” then we should be concerned.  

- In the patriarchal culture of scripture, women could not inherit property, pursue divorce, or be trusted to make a vow (Deuteronomy 21:16–17; 24:1–4; Leviticus 27:1–8). Wives were considered the property of their husband, though they held a higher status and more privileges than slaves and concubines (Exodus 20:17). When Sarah failed to conceive, Abraham did what was common in a patriarchal culture and impregnated his slave, Hagar. Jacob had two wives (sisters Leah and Rachel) and two maidservants (Bilhah and Zilpah) through which he had twelve sons. Rachel was Jacob’s favorite of the women, a fact that caused considerable strain between the sister wives.  

- Daughters  were considered the property of their fathers and could be either sold into slavery to pay off debt or married for a bride price (Exodus 21:7; Nehemiah 5:5; Genesis 29:1–10). Marriages were typically arranged by the male members of the family before a girl reached puberty.  While the virginity of young men was inconsequential, a woman’s could mean the difference between life and death. If a woman failed to bleed on her wedding night, she was to be executed on the doorstep of her parent’ home (Deuteronomy 22:21). Daughters of priests who engaged in sexual relations outside of marriage were to be burned alive (Leviticus 21:9)  When the home of Abraham’s nephew Lot was surrounded by a mob of men from Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot refused to send out his guests to be raped but offered his virgin daughters instead, as they were more expendable.  

- Virgins captured in war were considered plunder, along with children, livestock, and treasure taken from the besieged city.  (Women who were not virgins were often killed along with the men.) In the book of Judges, when the Benjamites were in need of wives, they simply abducted them from a neighboring city when they were out dancing in the vineyards. 

There are of course many more stories. The point is, our first glimpses into a patriarchal society, even one in which Yahweh is God, reveal inequity and violence against women.  Groups like the Vision Forum have long been advocating a return to “biblical patriarchy” that resembles the culture of the Old Testament, complete with fathers essentially owning daughters until they are given in marriage. I’ve always been careful to try and make a distinction between this group and complementarians, and am disheartened to see mainstream complementarianism move in this direction.

The effects of patriarchy around the world...

If scripture is not enough to convince you that patriarchy is a result of sin, you need only look at the world to observe its effects. 

  • Worldwide, women ages fifteen to forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined.
  • Every 9 seconds, a woman  in the US is assaulted or beaten. Around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime. I wish I could say that all complementarians categorically condemn female submission to male violence, but John Piper has said that, in order to model godly submission, a woman may need to quietly “endure verbal abuse for a season” or “getting smacked one night” before “seeking help from the church.” (He says nothing about contacting authorities). Similarly, in Created to Be His Help Meet, Debi Pearl advises a woman whose husband pulled a knife on her to “stop complaining” and focus instead on not “provoking” her husband’s anger. This is destructive advice and reveals something of an assumption that the preservation of male hierarchy is more important than preservation of a woman’s dignity.
  •  At least 3 million women and girls are enslaved in the sex trade.
  • Study after study shows that societies characterized by the subjugation of women are more violent, more impoverished, and more unjust than societies that empower women.  In their excellent book Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue that “in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.”  Empowering women increases economic productivity, reduces infant mortality, contributes to overall improved health and nutrition, and increases the chances of education for the next generation. Several studies from UNICEF suggest that when women are given control over the family spending, more of the money gets devoted to education, medical care, and small business endeavors than when men control the purse strings. Similarly, when women vote and hold political office, public spending on health increases and child mortality rate declines. Many counterterrorist strategists see women’s empowerment as key to quelling violence and oppression in the Middle East, and women entering the workforce in East Asia generated economic booms in Malaysia, Thailand, and China. (You can find all of these studies cited and analyzed in Half the Sky, which I highly recommend.)

Complementarians keep insisting that patriarchy is counter-cultural, and that advocates of mutuality are simply capitulating to culture. But patriarchy itself is a cultural system. The Greco-Roman Household Codes themselves are representative of a cultural system. And systems that reflect the values and dreams of only half of God's human creation, (only half of God's image!), are broken. 

Jesus did not come to preach a kingdom that affirms these systems, but rather, to preach a kingdom that transcends them. 

Jesus changes everything...

It was no accident that the first person charged with spreading the good news of Christ’s resurrection was a woman.  Despite the fact that, by virtue of being a woman she would have been considered an unreliable witness whose testimony wouldn’t hold up in court, Mary Magdalene is charged with telling the world that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  Talk about counter-cultural.

That’s because Jesus changes everything. With the resurrection of Jesus, and the inauguration of his Kingdom, the entire world is being made over! The old things have passed away, and “behold, new things have come"!

To participate in the Kingdom of Jesus is to participate in a whole new “system,” a whole new mode of being, in which the last is first and the first is last. Is it any wonder, then, that the early church included female apostles, deacons, teachers, and church planters? Is it any wonder that Peter and Paul’s version of the Household Codes broke with tradition by instructing men and women, slaves and masters to “submit one to another.” Even in a patriarchal culture, the early Christians were doing things differently. 

“In your relationships with one another,” Paul wrote, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:5–8).  

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,” wrote Paul, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

This doesn’t sound like patriarchy to me.  This doesn’t sound like hierarchy, and power, and “he will rule over you.” It sounds like dignity, grace, peace, and love. It sounds like mutual respect, mutual leadership, mutual support, and mutual grace.  

It sounds like Eden. 

For patriarchalists, the power struggle between men and women will only end when men win. 

For egalitarians, the power struggle between men and women can only end when, like Christ, we both choose to lose. 

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Ask an Egalitarian...(Response)

Transient

In a fun combination of our interview series and our mutuality series, I’m pleased to introduce Mimi Haddad.  

Mimi is president of Christians for Biblical Equality, a nonprofit organization of Christian men and women “who believe that the Bible, properly interpreted, teaches the fundamental equality of men and women of all ethnic groups, all economic classes, and all age groups.” She is a graduate of the University of Colorado and Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, and holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the University of Durham, England. Mimi has written more than one hundred articles and blogs and has contributed to nine books. In addition to all of this, she serves as an adjunct assistant professor at Bethel University and an adjunct professor at North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois. She and her husband, Dale, live in the Twin Cities.

Mimi did a fantastic job responding to your questions, and I’m thrilled that she covered a lot of ground that we haven’t been able to cover in our series.  I really learned a lot

[I should probably note that while I identify myself as egalitarian, I do not necessarily agree with every position/theological rationale of the CBE. And the folks at CBE would probably want me to say that my views are not necessarily reflective of theirs]]

Enjoy! 

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From Paula: Last week, Rachel hosted "ask a Christian Feminist."  In your opinion is an egalitarian the same thing as feminist?  If not, what are the points of departure and similarity?  What scripture, theory, theology etc. frames an egalitarian point of view?

In her “Ask a Christian Feminist” column, Dianna Anderson suggests that a feminist (whether Christian or not) is an individual who believes that females are human beings and, because of this, they deserve the same respect and dignified treatment as males. In its most basic sense, feminism seeks justice for females. But how do we know what is just and why do we care? This is where the main difference lies. Like “Christian feminists,” “egalitarians” discern and embrace justice for females through the teachings of Scripture where they observe that:

Women and men are equally:

• Created in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:27).

• Share authority, dominion and agency in the world (Genesis 1:28).

• Responsible for and distorted by sin (Genesis 2:17, 3:11-19).

• Redeemed by Christ (John 3:16).

• Gifted by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17-18; Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 28; Ephesians 4:11-13).

• Responsible for using our God-given gifts (1 Corinthians 12:7, 2 Timothy 1:6-7).

Many of the first wave feminists were deeply biblical individuals whose advocacy for women and children was inseparable from their advocacy of the Gospel. I celebrated their legacy this year at Fuller Theological Seminary. This history alone shows that egalitarians are not bowing to secular culture but locating moral ideals in Scripture.

So, is an egalitarian the same thing as a feminist? Just as all squares are also rectangles, egalitarians are also feminists in that they seek justice and dignity for women. But, not every feminist is a Christian or an egalitarian. Egalitarians and Christian feminists both share a common denominator—that justice and equality for females is a biblical ideal that can and should be part of the moral teachings and practices of Christians. This was true for the first wave of feminists whose priorities fueled not only egalitarian theologyand the Golden Era of Missions, but also social projects like suffrage and abolition. To read more about this see Mutuality.

From Eric: Since your doctorate is in historical theology, I'd like to hear your take on the shape the debate about women in the church has taken throughout history. (The complementarian version is often "This began when liberals threw out God's word for modern feminism," but I'm guessing there's a lot more to it than that.) To what extent is this a church-universal struggle to handle certain Scripture texts faithfully, and to what extent is it just a theological repackaging of modern American culture wars? Also, who are some good examples of historical theologians or church movements who took a more "egalitarian" approach to gender in the church? 

Throughout Christian history, the church has held three distinct views on gender. These include:

1. The Patriarchal Perspective: This view teaches that men and women are both created by God, but women are innately (ontologically) inferior and more prone to sin. Because of this, women are to submit to male authority. This perspective was the dominant view until the 1800s, when the early evangelicals challenged the devaluation of slaves and women based on ethnicity and gender—conditions that are fixed and unchangeable. 

2. The Egalitarian View: It was the early evangelicals who first challenged gender and ethnic prejudice biblically. Embroiled in the struggle for abolition and suffrage, the early evangelicals opposed the idea that Eve, and therefore all women, are the source of sin and that God punishes women because of Eve. It is not gender, they argued, but our rebirth in Christ that determines our identity, character and therefore our sphere of service. Christian rebirth—publically declared through baptism (which replaced circumcision)—was open to all people, regardless of ethnicity, class or gender (especially women, who could never be circumcised). 

The early evangelicals, like Katharine Bushnell, understood that for too long the church associated women with Eve’s sin and men with Christ’s victories over sin—a view that wreaks havoc on the Christian view of sanctification. Evangelicals likeCatherine Booth, A.J. Gordon and Fredrik Franson were at the forefront of correcting these theological inconsistencies as it concerned gender. Today’s egalitarians have taken up the same theological project—exploring how Christ’s new creation leads to a new tradition in the church. To read more about this history see my articles in Priscilla Papers and my recent series on Is God Male?

3. The Complementarian Perspective: In response to loosened morals in the 20th century, coupled with the growing influence of secular feminism (that placed feminist ideals above the teachings of Scripture) a third view emerged in the 1970s. This position argues that while men and women are created equal by God, they have different “roles.” By roles they mean one thing—males have authority over women. To hold that men and women are equal in being, but unequal in authority strips the term “equal” of its essential meaning. To deny females equal authority not because of their character, their intimacy with Christ or their giftedness, but solely because of gender—a fixed and unchangeable condition—creates communities, organizations, churches and marriages that are inherently unjustbecause they deny a people group shared authority based on an unchangeable condition-gender.

Is this debate a Theological Repackaging of America’s Culture Wars? 

As we have seen, egalitarianism predates modern America’s culture wars. The idea that males and females are equal in being was promoted by the early evangelicals until the 20th century, when Enlightenment intellectuals challenged the miracles of Scripture, and more importantly, the inerrancy and authority of Scripture. As a result, fundamentalists and many evangelicals moved from the vigorous intellectual life that characterized the early evangelicals, to a “plain reading of Scripture,” even though this was the very method of biblical interpretation used by the proslavery camp. It was also being used to exclude women from positions of leadership—a leadership that had led to a legacy we call the “Golden Era of Missions,” a movement unparalleled in its success for growing Christian faith in new centers around the world, as Dana Roberts notes. Through these events, egalitarians lost influence among evangelical institutes.

 As I have celebrated the leadership of early evangelical women, while speaking at evangelical colleges, not everyone has been terribly pleased. Once, my chapel lecture was boycotted by the Bible faculty who believe that Scripture prohibits women from preaching or teaching men, even while whole communities embraced the Gospel through their female graduates. Early evangelical women contributed to one of the greatest expansions of Christian faith in all of history. They were also the theological conservatives of their day. It was a zeal for Christ that directed their extraordinary lives. Even so, they were just too radical for today’s evangelicals, perhaps because they challenge us precisely where we have become anemic and theological deficient. Perhaps our view of the Cross needs further consideration? 

From Two-to-One: How can egalitarians more consistently challenge and reject patriarchy beyond the complementarian/egalitarian debate and women's roles in ministry? I'm interested in how egalitarians' worldviews shape their thinking and decision-making in a broader sense in rejecting patriarchy, similar to how feminists' worldviews shape their thinking on the intersectionality of many issues, including gender norms based on a patriarchal system of power.  Some concrete examples would be: How do egalitarians decide on last names upon marriage? How do they view the division of labor in the home? Do they connect issues like sexualized violence against women in conflict/war with good ole husband-is-the-final-decision-maker-in-the-home teachings? 

Alan Myatt observes that a corruption in one element of worldview distorts the others. Consider the patriarchal worldview critiqued by the early evangelicals:

A Patriarchal Worldview

Epistemology or knowledge: God has revealed, through Scripture and nature, that males are to hold authority over women the whole of their life.

Ontology or being: In their being, males are more godlike, and are therefore innately superior to females. God, and Christian faith, is therefore more masculine than feminine.

Teleology or purpose: Males are created by God to hold authority over females. This is their destiny. Females are created by God to submit to male authority. This is their destiny. Male authority is God-ordained and therefore best for marriages, families, churches and communities.

Ethics or justice: Males obey God by assuming leadership and holding authority over females, whereas females obey God by submitting to and obeying male authority. A similar worldview was constructed by proslavery Christians, Muslims, Brahmans and the Nazis to deny slaves, women and Jews religious and cultural equality, a marginalization that led to enormous abuse.

An egalitarian worldview looks like this: 

An Egalitarian Worldview

Epistemology or knowledge: God has revealed, through Scripture, that males and females share dominion, leadership and authority in accomplishing the purposes for which they were created as individuals.

Ontology or being: Females and males are created in God’s image to share dominion. Both are responsible for sin. Both are equally redeemed by Calvary and equally gifted by the Holy Spirit for responsible stewardship.

Teleology or purpose: Our destiny as Christians is to fan into flames the gift of God within us to advance the Gospel through our unique gifts. It is not gender or ethnicity that determines authority or service, but gifting, moral character, and intimacy with Christ.

Ethics or justice: We obey God through the responsible use of our God-given gifts, which are not limited by gender, ethnicity, or class. We disobey God when we exclude, marginalize, or deny others the fullest use of their gifts because of unchangeable conditions like gender or ethnicity.

As the early evangelicals freed women to shared spiritual authority and leadership in missions, it led to the largest advance of the gospel in all of church history—the Golden Era of missions. As women share decision making in marriages, it leads to happier and more stable marriages that experience less abuse (ethics) according to research by Prepare / Enrich

What are the practical implications of an egalitarian worldview for couples?They are free to make daily decisions based not on male authority but on their gifting and calling from God. Each marriage is different, because each person is unique. As the Meta-Analysis studies show, there are greater differences among women, than between men and women. 

It is enormously freeing to be who you are in Christ, without bondage to gender or cultural roles not found in Scripture. For this reason, each couple makes their own choice regarding their last name(s), the division of labor, parenting, or any other decision, taking into consideration the unique gifts, calling and opportunities available to each spouse. Together they ask, “What is best for the ‘team,’ the one-flesh relationship in which each spouse has an equal voice?” A great book on this topic is Partners in Marriage and Ministry, by Ron Pierce, professor at Biola.

From Katherine: I often wonder if I actually believe in egalitarianism or if I embrace it because it is beneficial to me as a woman, How do you approach this dilemma? How can we know for sure that God taught egalitarianism, and not that we are just seeing what we want to see because it makes more sense to us?

I so appreciate your willingness to self-examine and question your own motives. This is part of the approach abolitionists and first wave feminists propose as they developed a method of interpreting Scripture that exposed both theological errors and the self-interest of slave-owner. It goes like this: 

1. A plain reading of the Bible must include the historical and cultural context.  

2. The full testimony of Scripture must be heard. The obscure portions of Scripture must be interpreted by that which is obvious. 

3. A portion of Scripture should be viewed for its primary emphasis, not for its “attendant features.” Attendant features do not constitute the moral teachings of Scripture.  

4. Be scrupulous in assessing selfish motives when reading the Bible.

Here is an example of how this method might work to interpret 1 Timothy 2:11-15—a difficult text to understand not only because of its implications for gender and power, but because Paul suggests that women are saved through childbearing (1 Timothy 2:15), and, because he uses a strange Greek word found only once in the Bible—authentein (1 Timothy 2:12). We cannot build a universal application from such a text through a “plain reading” of the words. Its complexity demands more of us. To read with accuracy, we must analyze the historical, cultural and linguistic background, and allow what is clear in Scripture to shed light on what is unclear. In doing so we learn that 1st century writers nearly always used authentein for “authority” that was domineering, misappropriated or usurped. That is why the Vulgate, the Geneva Bible, the King James and others versions of Scripture translate authentein as “domineering,” or “usurping authority.” 

It is also helpful to learn that Ephesus was a city known for its worship of the fertility goddess Artemis, who promised women safety in childbearing. (Does this sound familiar? See 1 Timothy 2:15.) Unlike most goddesses, Artemis did not have a male partner and her followers held authority over men. This helps explain why some Ephesian women may usurp authority to promote myths and genealogies contrary to Scripture. Paul opposes their efforts by using the unusual Greek word authentein. 

Priscilla and Aquila were also well known in Ephesus through the church they built in their home (1 Corinthians 16:19), where Priscilla (mentioned ahead of her husband) taught “the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26) to a gifted speaker—Apollos. Priscilla instructed a gifted leader in the very city—Ephesus—where Paul asks women not to usurp authority over men. In doing so, she does not usurp authority or teach falsely. Rather, she explained the way more accurately! The universal principle of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is not to excludewomen (like Priscilla) from teaching accurately, but to exclude false teachers who usurp authority

Women may be concerned that such an interpretation is selfish or awkward in extending them freedom to exercise their gifts of teaching and leadership, yet it does represent the main stream of Paul’s work building the church beside women, slaves and Gentiles. Scripture celebrates Paul’s female coworkers, the deacon Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2) and Junia—a prominent apostle (Romans 16:7). For more information on this topic see Discovering Biblical Equality, Complementarity without Hierarchy. The Scriptures give us holy boldness to advance the gospel as equal partners beside men.

From Kevin: An egalitarian friend of mine (and fan of yours) made the statement that, while he is egalitarian, churches that go down this route tend to become theologically progressive on a host of other issues. Indeed, many of the arguments for women in the pastorate are also often applied to allowing gay marriage, supporting sex outside of marriage, denying the existence of eternal hell etc... Is being an egalitarian simply part and parcel of a liberal theological viewpoint, or is it distinct? Why or why not? 

There are a number of denominations that have been ordaining and /or licensing women preachers since the early 20th century and have not used the same methods of biblical interpretation to advance gay marriage, sex outside marriage, or to deny eternal hell, etc. I am thinking of independent churches, the Holiness traditions, the Assemblies of God, and the Nazarene Church, and the Baptist General Conference, which ordained its first woman in 1943—the Reverend Ethel Ruff. Ruff preached at numerous Baptist General Conference churches and also on the Moody Radio Show (WMBI) with the full support of her denomination and Bible Institute. She is one of many examples of women preachers from denominations that have not been embroiled in the gay marriage debate, etc.

Remember, the slippery slope has two sides! There have also been churches entrenched in a male-only model of leadership, whose leaders sound more like Plato than Jesus. One has recently argued thatChristianity has a masculine feel, thus suggesting that maleness is a part of God’s being. What is more, in their defense of male-authority, another evangelical leader (who served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society) insists that God the Son is eternally subordinate to God the Father. He now teaches Christians to pray to God the Father, rather than to Jesus. My series on Is God Male? challenges the orthodoxy of these positions, which were established to exclude women from positions of leadership.

To be fair, both sides of the gender debate have been guilty of sliding down a slippery slope, which in my view is unnecessary, given the wealth of excellent resources available to help us accurately interpret Scripture on issues related to gender, sexuality, and faith.

From Gina: How do you respond to the argument that complementarianism is the "traditional" interpretation of Scripture, and thus we shouldn't be quick to accept egalitarian interpretations? More generally, how do you respond to an interpretative tradition that is, for the most part, decidedly patriarchal? I sometimes feel like I'm standing against the rest of Christian history and don't know how to respond to my brothers and sisters who say I am believing a new, unorthodox notion about gender. Thank you for your time. I love the work CBE does.

Hi Gina. Thanks for your encouraging words about CBE. In my response to Eric, I explore how patriarchy (not complementarity) was the dominant view held by the church until the 1800s. 

Gender is not the only “traditional view” that the Church has debated and changed its mind. The church has altered its position on a number of key issues like astronomy, the practice of indulgences, the emancipation of slaves, and the authority of women. Gender is simply the most recent reform movement to capture our energies, but it probably won’t be the last. Reforms are needed, because in each age the Holy Spirit “cleans house,” allowing us to better reflect God’s holiness and justice.  

Reform movements challenge “traditional” views in the following way:

The Bible: Reforms begin when leaders, through a rigorous engagement with Scripture, perceive a truth that has gone unobserved by the church. They articulate the need for reform biblically, and their scholarship has global influence. 

Prayer: Mary Queen of Scots said she feared the prayers of John Knox more than all the armies of Europe. Prayer fueled the abolitionist movement and the slave communities, quickening its leaders and strengthening their cause. 

Popularization: Once the case is made intellectually, God recruits the artists, musicians, activists and literary geniuses who make intellectual arguments compelling to popular audiences, enabling laypersons to perceive the need for reform. The Protestant reformers built consensus using music like “A Mighty Fortress.” Abolitionists published slave narratives, African spirituals, and books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin to popularize reformist ideas. 

Globalization: Reformers find each other across cultural and continental lines. The international discussion grows into global momentum and solidarity. 

Change begins: The position under critique slowly admits to errors and abuses, and eventually yields to the consensus of the global church. 

For more on this see our book Global Voices of Biblical Equality and also in my article “Ideas have Consequences.”

From Kim: As an  egalitarian, how do you define the characteristics of woman- femininity and men- masculinity and what does this look like in a Christian marriage. As I am on my own journey, coming from a complementarian viewpoint  and  starting to lean towards more of an egalitarian one, this is one thing that I am trying to put into perspective. Even though I see the level playing field when it comes to value and calling, I also don't think that we are all unisex. God didn't just create two unisex persons... He created them male and female, so there must be strengths and weaknesses that specifically pertain to each gender. For instance I hear a lot of egalitarian woman say that it bothers them when women are portrayed as needing to be rescued and protected but I like it when my husband protects me and stands guard in our home. Can I feel this way and yet still call myself and egalitarian?

Different individuals have unique concerns regarding the care they desire from their spouse. What characterizes egalitarian marriage is that spouses make decisions together, as joint heirs of Christ’s kingdom. The important concept is that you empower one another, and that you use your unique gifts with equal influence to serve Christ, that you realize you are of equal worth, and that you understand that you have equal voice and authority to shape you marriage, family and vocation. You can certainly be an egalitarian and still prefer your husband’s physical protection, which is different from requiring his authority to make decisions. 

As for which strengths and weaknesses pertain to each gender. As I mentioned elsewhere that the research from “Meta-Analysis” studies show that the differences between women is greater than the differences between men and women, suggesting that we may overemphasize gender differences. Regardless of the degree or nature of gender differences, to propose that men and women share leadership and authority is not to say there are no differences between males and females. 

'01192011346' photo (c) 2011, amboo who? - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

No egalitarian argues that men and women are the same! No one want wants a culture of unisex beings! It may seem as if we do because (and this is very important) for centuries, males were viewed as superior and thus held authority over females. As egalitarians suggest that males and females are of equal value, and that men and women share authority, people hear “there are no gender differences.” This is because holding authority identified people as superior, and this is how males were viewed relative to females. As egalitarians advance the shared authority of males and females, people perceive sameness of being because authority was linked to being (ontology), and men were believed to be, in their being, superior to females.

As egalitarians suggest males and women are equal in being (not superior or inferior but fallen and in need of Jesus), we are not advocating androgyny, but a humanity comprised of males and females who are equal in value in Christ, and thus hold equal authority. Does this make sense? See my response to Two-to-One in this series, and also my article on this

From HopefulLeigh: As a single woman, I'm curious about how egalitarianism might play out in a dating relationship. Complementarianism provides some structure and cues (i.e. how or if he leads the relationship, even though you're not married yet). How would you suggest a couple broach this topic?

Dating, it seems to me, is an opportunity to develop a strong and beautiful friendship, built through honest communication, patience, prayer, mutual respect and understanding, and on a commitment to grow the fruits of the Spirit through lots of circumstances. For egalitarian couples, authority is shared equally between men and women, and for this reason, egalitarians work at making decisions together. They practice building consensus on any number of issues, like where they go on a date, who shares what portion of the expenses, how much time to spend together, with others, with family, etc.

I am not sure this means dividing all the tasks exactly down the middle because you should take into account the unique gifts and abilities of each person. How would you make decisions with a good friend? Whoever has the idea suggest it and you go from there. Dating is not so different. For example, my boyfriend (now my husband) had greater financial means when we were dating. Therefore, he often paid for meals and outings. And, there are other considerations too. Sometimes one of us felt really strongly about a decision. At other times, I was just too tired to come up with a good date idea, and deferred to Dale who often had great vision. We ebbed and flowed in taking initiative, as life would empower or drain us, but we did flow together. With egalitarian relationships, there are fewer prescribed roles, and taking leadership or initiative does not necessarily imply authority or supremacy, it can often just mean someone has a great idea, or a passion to see a movie, and decides to takes the lead. When we were first dating, my husband initially exercised the greatest initiative. But, as I felt more confident in the relationship I too joined in and orchestrated some really exciting adventures we both enjoyed. We worked it out. We each enjoyed leading at times, and following at other times. It was a dance that we developed that was unique to us, and one we believe was ultimately orchestrated and led by God. See Mutuality's issue on Dating.

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For the sake of the gospel, let women speak

This is the seventh post in our series, One In Christ: A Week of Mutuality, dedicated to discussing an egalitarian view of gender—including relevant biblical texts and practical applications. The goal is to show how scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all support a posture of equality toward women, one that favors mutuality rather than hierarchy, in the home, Church, and society. You can read the rest of the postshere.

It’s time! Today we discuss one of the most controversial passages of Scripture: 1 Timothy 2:11-12, where the apostle Paul writes that “a woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

Now, I’ve heard from a bunch of folks who are eager to point out that most modern scholars are doubtful that the apostle Paul actually wrote the pastoral epistles. I’ve done a little research on this, and indeed the evidence is compelling. However, for our purposes this week, and with my particular audience in mind, I’ve decided to stick with the assumption that Paul is the author of these texts. 

How do we read the epistles?

“I think Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into torah.” 
—F. F. Bruce

We forget sometimes that the epistles are just that: letters.

In our rush to find proof texts to support our various positions, we tend to skip past the initial greetings that designate the recipients of the message— “to the church of God in Corinth,” “to the churches in Galatia,” “to God’s holy people in Ephesus,” “to Timothy,” “to Titus”—or those odd little details that remind us that we are essentially listening in on someone else’s conversation--“I have made a fool of myself,” “I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else,” “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus in Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.” (You don’t see that last one on many desk calendars.)

I’ve never once heard a sermon preached on the passage in which Paul tells Titus “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12–13), and yet, if these words are truly the inerrant and unchanging words of God intended as universal commands for all people in all places at all times, then the Christian community needs to do a better job of mobilizing against the Cretan people, perhaps constructing some “God Hates Cretans” signs!

'letters' photo (c) 2006, liz west - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Hyperbole aside, it’s important to keep in mind that while the epistles are certainly written for us, they were not written to us.With the letters of Peter, Paul, James, John, and the other apostles, we are given the priceless gift of seeing how early followers of Jesus applied his teachings to their unique circumstances. While these letters are packed with important theological observations—“If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come,” “Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel,” “Have this attitude in you which was also in Christ Jesus”—they also include lengthy discussion concerning how first-century house churches should operate, how unprecedented influxes of poor widows should be handled, how women should cover their heads when they pray and prophecy, how slaves should behave toward their masters, whether Christian converts should be circumcised, whether Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols, how to endure persecution, how not to offend the surrounding culture, and how to follow Christ with conviction while avoiding unwanted attention from the suspicious Roman officials.

In other words, these letters have contexts. They are addressing very practical problems. 

The epistles were never meant to be interpreted and applied as universal law. Rather, they provide us with an instructive and inspired glimpse into how Jesus’ teachings were lived out by realpeople, in real communities, facing real challenges. It is not the details found in the letters that we should seek to imitate, but rather the attitudes. The details (head coverings, circumcision, meat offered to idols, widow management, hair length, etc.) are rarely timeless, but the attitudes (“as much as it depends on you, live peaceably with all men,” “do not cause your brother to stumble,” “avoid the appearance of evil”) provide guidelines that can instruct us as Christians today. So the questions we should be asking ourselves today are not: Should we eat meat offered to idols?, or Should women wear head coverings?,  but rather, How can we find peace when Christians feel convicted in different ways? and How do we avoid unnecessarily offending others by our appearance? 

When read this way, I am constantly impressed by the degree to which these early Christians were willing to sacrifice beliefs and traditions they held dear for the sake of love and for the sake of advancing the gospel. Such a reading does not devalue scripture, but rather honors it for what it is, not what we try to make it. 

What’s with the women at Ephesus?

Just as I’ve never heard a sermon against Cretans, I’ve also never heard a sermon on 1 Timothy 2:8, in which Paul tells Timothy, “I want men everywhere to pray, lifting holy hands without anger or disputing” that included a universal dictum that all men everywhere must raise their hands whenever they pray.  Nor have I heard a sermon on one of the most common instructions found in the epistles, to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” (1 Corinthians 16:20) Nor have I ever heard of a pastor being removed from the position in keeping with Titus 1:5-6 because one of his or her children had left the faith. (It’s an uncomfortable reality, but if complementarians were as consistent in their application of biblically-based pastoral qualifications as they claim to be, a few of their most prominent spokesmen would have had to resign from their pastoral positions when their children left the faith. They didn't.)

I haven’t heard any sermons on all of those biblical instructions, but I’ve heard more than I can count on 1 Timothy 2:11, which says, “a woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

So what was the context of these words? Were they really meant to be applied universally to all women everywhere?

Some context: In keeping with the trend of early Christianity, the first-century churches at Ephesus and Corinth attracted a lot of women, particularly widows. As a result, large portions of the pastoral epistles tackle the mounting logistical challenges of caring for so many unmarried women. Of particular concern to Paul was a group of young widows who had infiltrated the church and developed a reputation for dressing promiscuously, sleeping around, gossiping, spreading unorthodox ideas, interrupting church services with questions, mooching off the church’s widow fund, and generally making common floozies of themselves (1 Timothy 5).

'' photo (c) 2009, Sharon Mollerus - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Many scholars believe these women were likely influenced by the popular Roman fertility cults of Artemis that encouraged women to flaunt their sexuality and freedom to a degree that scandalized even the Roman establishment, hardly known for its prudish morals. Worship involved deviant sex, shirking off marriage and childbearing, possible abortions and infanticide, and immodest dress that made adherents indistinguishable from prostitutes. (This trend inspired Caesar Augustus to pass legislation regarding what respectable women ought to wear...and, oddly, what prostitutes and adulterers ought to wear!) It seems that enough of these women had joined the church to tarnish its reputation, repelling potential converts and giving the Roman authorities yet another reason to be suspicious of the church, which was the last thing the early Christians needed. (If you want to learn more about the cults, your best bet is Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities by Bruce Winter. See also The Letters to Timothy and Titus by Philip Towner.)

“Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need,” Paul tells the elders at Ephesus. But “younger widows,” he says, are “to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander” (1 Timothy 5:14; emphasis added). I suspect that Paul didn’t want the church, so full of unmarried women, to be seen as just another Greco-Roman cult. He also didn’t want pagans unfamiliar with the teachings of Christ and the Jewish culture interrupting services with questions or bossing around other converts. Is it any wonder, then, that he expected some women in Corinth to prophesy, but challenged others to “remain silent,” or that he advised the women at Ephesus not to seize authority over men but to “learn in quietness and full submission”? (Remember, the guys would have been seriously outnumbered!)

“We are thus led to the conclusion that when Paul asks women to be silent . . . he is not talking about ordinary Christian women; rather, he has a specific group of women in mind,” writes Scot McKnight in The Blue Parakeet“His concern is with some untrained, morally loose, young widows, who, because they are theologically unformed, are teaching unorthodox ideas.” It is reasonable, then, to assume that once these widows were trained, they could resume speaking.

What about Adam and Eve?

Things get a little trickier as Paul goes on with his letter. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve,” he writes. “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 in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”

Now, I’ll readily admit that the fact that Paul appeals to the creation narrative to support his point about Ephesian women complicates things for egalitarians. (Actually, the part about being “saved through childbearing” complicates things for everyone who believes people are saved by faith alone.) References to Adam and Eve certainly give a line of argumentation a universal feel.

But as I mentioned on Monday, when first-century rabbis like Jesus and Paul allude to the stories of the Torah, including the creation accounts, they are not participating in “straight exegesis” as we would understand it today. Rather, their creative interpretations of the text are influenced by the hermeneutical conventions of Second Temple Judaism, which allow for quite a bit of “play” with the narrative texts. According to Peter Enns, Paul often uses Adam and Eve as a way of “appropriating an ancient story to address pressing concerns of the moment.”

I’ve heard all sorts of explanations about what Paul meant with these few sentences—that he was countering teachings from the Roman cults that the gender order should be reversed, that he had simply accepted the widely-held belief that women are more easily deceived than men and responsible for the Fall, that by “saved through childbearing” refers to Christ’s arrival through Mary, that “saved through childbearing” is meant to discourage women from engaging in the anti-children activities of the cults, that childbearing has a special redemptive effect, and so on. (I have a hard time with that last one seeing as how Jesus consistently praised singleness and celibacy as an option for committed Christians, as did Paul in 1 and 2 Corinthians.)

No one seems to know for sure what this passages means, and frankly, I’ve just about given up on figuring out exactly what’s going on with it. But here’s the thing: Anyone who says that Paul’s instructions regarding the women at Ephesus are universally binding because he appeals to the creation narrative to make his point can be consistent in that position only if they also require women in their church to cover their heads, as Paul uses a very similar line of argumentation to advocate that. (See 1 Corinthians 11. )

What about women today?

So what about women today? Can we really compare women who have devoted their lives to studying scripture, many with seminary degrees and years of experience, to the promiscuous, first-century Roman widows mooching off the church and spreading idle tales from door to door?

Obviously, Paul didn’t have a problem with women teaching in generalAs we saw yesterday, he honored Priscilla, a teacher to the apostle Apollos, and praised Timothy’s mother and grandmother for teaching Timothy all he knew about faith. He recognized Junia as an apostle, Phoebe as a deacon, and Euodia and Syntyche as church planters.  

In fact, these days, women in the pulpit are more highly educated than their male counterparts. While over three-quarters of female pastors (77 percent) hold seminary degrees, less than two-thirds of male pastors (63 percent) can say the sameIt continues to amaze me that some evangelicals believe that Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, who was ordained at seventeen without a seminary degree, is more qualified to by virtue of being a man to speak to the Church than someone like my friend Jackie Roese, who received top honors at her seminary and is now a pastor at Irving Bible Church in Dallas, or Catherine Hamlin, who devoted her life to caring for fistula patients in Africa, or Sarah Coakley, who is one of Christianity’s most influential theologians and philosophers, currently working on a four-volume systematic theology.

Something needs to change. 

Me with the smart, over-achieving ladies of Truett Seminary - a reminder that things are changing for the better

Me with the smart, over-achieving ladies of Truett Seminary
a reminder that things are changing for the better

Where do we draw the line?

With all these bright, trained women running around, its’ no wonder complementarians have a difficult time applying their own restrictions on the roles of women in the Church. For example, John Piper was once asked by a man, “Is it wrong for me to listen to Beth Moore?”

 “No,” Piper said. “Unless you begin to become dependent on her as your shepherd-pastor. This is the way I feel about women speaking occasionally in Sunday school. We don't need to be picky on this. The Bible is clear that women shouldn't teach and have authority over men. In context, I think this means that women shouldn't be the authoritative teachers of the church-they shouldn't be elders.” He went on to say that women like Beth Moore and Elisabeth Elliot should be free to speak, to write, and to teach.

In other words, it’s okay to learn from women...just not too much.

'Woman with book and palm trees' photo (c) 1920, George Eastman House - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/

Piper appears to consider the first half of 1 Timothy 2:12 (“a woman should not have authority”) as universally applicable, but disregards the second half (“she must be quiet”) by encouraging women like Moore to continue speaking. If the first half of 1 Timothy 2 is so crucial to the complementarian hierarchal construct, why is the second half, (along with the silence command in 1 Corinthians 14:34) essentially ignored? Why is that complementarian women are forbidden from assuming leadership in churches, and yet permitted to speak? Nowhere does the Bible spell out this distinction between teaching and speaking or between leader and "shepherd-pastor," and yet Piper seems seriously committed to it.

I’ve spent far more time than I care to admit combing through complementarian literature, reading debates about whether women can read Scripture aloud in church, whether female missionaries should be permitted to give presentations on Sunday evenings, what age groups women should be allowed to teach in Sunday school, whether women can speak in small group Bible studies, what titles to bestow upon worship leaders and children’s ministry coordinators so that they don’t appear too authoritative, and on and on and on. If you really want to give yourself a headache, check out Wayne Grudem’s article “But What Should Women Do in the Church?” in which he painstakingly lists 83 church ministries in “decreasing order of authority and influence” to help churches decide which ministries are appropriate for women.  I confess that when I read this list, the first image to come to my mind is that of a man straining gnats and swallowing camels.

Scot McKnight himself changed his position on women and teaching when he realized that his favorite Bible professor, the one from whom he’d learned the most about interpreting and applying scripture, was a woman. “Anyone who thinks it is wrong for a woman to teach in church can be consistent with that point of view only if they refuse to read and learn from women scholars,” he concluded. “This means not reading their books lest they become teachers.”

And as one commenter noted yesterday, many complementarians don’t seem to have a problem with women assuming leadership and teaching roles as missionaries in developing countries,“because if it's happening 'over there', 'somewhere else', in some primitive place where lifestyles aren't quite as sophisticated, and buildings aren't quite so solid , and people are presumed to be simpler, then it's as if it isn't really happening...I'm thinking of the modern Junias like Lottie Moon, Jackie Pullinger, Mary Slessor, Amy Carmichael, Marie Monsen, Gladys Aylward, etc.”

I’ve been told by some complementarians that women are permitted to teach in such circumstances because “desperate times call for desperate measures.” But anyone who doesn’t see the entire world as desperate for the gospel isn’t paying much attention. Those who think the urgency of Pentecost has passed, that the world doesn’t need every trained and passionate advocate for the gospel it can get “have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear.”

'Utdeling av Nobels fredspris 2011' photo (c) 2011, Utenriksdepartementet UD - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

(Pictured: Leymah Gbowee is a Liberian mother of six who won the Nobel Peace Prize for organizing the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, a movement which mobilized both Christian and Muslim women to end Liberia’s long and bloody civil war through prayer, protests, sit-ins, diplomacy, and sex strikes. Her movement—which has saved thousands of lives— began when she delivered a sermon on peace at her church.

What should we do for the sake of the gospel?

I can’t know for sure, but I believe that Paul’s instructions to Timothy regarding the women at Ephesus were intended to protect the gospel from untrained teachers and to ensure that the Church remain distinct from the cults of the surrounding culture. And I believe that, just as he celebrated Junia and Priscilla and Phoebe, he would celebrate and affirm the many trained, gifted, and passionate women who are preaching the gospel from behind pulpits, in darkened slums, in front of classrooms, in busy homes, and before crowds of people longing to encounter God.

It has been pointed out that as long as Christians remain embroiled in endless debates about what women can and cannot do for Jesus, we are only utilizing half the ChurchWomen have so much to bring to Christianity—so many gifts, so many insights, so many new ways of looking at things, expressing things, enacting things, and questioning things. I am convinced that the gospel will only benefit from more women preaching it.

What a tragic and agonizing irony that instructions once delivered for the purpose of avoiding needless offense are now invoked in ways that needlessly offend, that words once meant to help draw people to the gospel now repel them! Research shows that the overall number of women attending church has dropped by 11 percent in the last twenty years. I suspect that part of this has to do with the fact that when female executives, entrepreneurs, academics, and creatives are told that they have to check their gifts at the church door, many turn away for good. In a more egalitarian culture ,where women are assumed to have the same value as men, restricting women’s roles based on their gender is unnecessarily offensive. It drives people away from the gospel -  and not because of the cost of discipleship.

And while our sisters around the world continue to suffer from trafficking, exploitation, violence, neglect, maternal mortality, and discrimination, those of us who are perhaps most equipped to respond with prophetic words and actions—women of faith—are being systematically silenced by our own faith communities.

Scot McKnight has wisely asked: “Do you think Paul would have put women ‘behind the pulpit’ if it would have been advantageous ‘for the sake of the gospel’?

Or, put another way: Do you think Paul would have prevented women from speaking if he knew it would hurt the gospel?

The answer to that question should be a lot simpler than it has become.

***

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Who’s Who Among Biblical Women Leaders

This is the fifth post in our series, One In Christ: A Week of Mutuality, dedicated to discussing an egalitarian view of gender—including relevant biblical texts and practical applications.  The goal is to show how scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all support a posture of equality toward women, one that favors mutuality rather than hierarchy, in the home, Church, and society. 

The reason I want to highlight the “who’s who” among biblical woman leaders today is this: Later, we will be discussing 1 Timothy 2:11-15, the passage in which Paul forbids Ephesian women from teaching in church.Unfortunately, when it comes to womanhood, many Christians tend to read the rest of scripture through the lens of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 rather than the other way around. By highlighting the many female leaders and teachers in scripture, I’m hoping to set the stage so that we see 1 Timothy 2 for what it is—an anomaly. It’s hard to argue that Paul’s statements there are meant to be universally applied when so many women from scripture are honored by God and praised by their community for teaching and exercising leadership. 

But before we begin, a disclaimer:  There is no doubt that the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture.As a result, men are named significantly more often, men serve as protagonists in the biblical stories more often, and men hold positions of leadership more often. In addition, there are stories and laws found in scripture regarding women that are profoundly troubling: women are identified as property (Exodus 20:17, Deuteronomy 5:21, Judges 5:30), rape laws require fathers to be paid for damages and the female victim to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), virginity expectations focused almost exclusively on girls, women are valued less in vow redemption (Leviticus 27:1-8), the birth of girls represents a greater impurity assessment in the Levitical Purity Codes (Leviticus 12:2-4), women are considered spoils of war (Numbers 31:32-35, Deuteronomy 20:14, Deuteronomy 21:10-15, Judges 5:30, Judges 21:11-23), adultery laws subjected women to more scrutiny and punished them more severely than men, polygamy was common, owning concubines was common, and impregnating slave women was common.  Furthermore, stories surrounding women like Tamar of Genesis, Dinah, Hagar, the dismembered concubine of Judges 19, Jephthah's daughter, Tamar of the Davidic narrative, and so on reveal the profound inequity that characterized day-to-day life for women living in the ancient Near East. 

Sometimes egalitarians, in their enthusiasm for advancing the equality and dignity of women in the Church, gloss over such passages or try to explain them away. I’m not interested in doing that. I can’t do that. I’ve tried, and frankly, it feels like I am dishonoring the suffering and the bravery of these women by pretending their oppression wasn’t really so bad. (I spend a lot more time discussing and wrestling with the “texts of terror” in A Year of Biblical Womanhood.) Still, it’s astounding that, in the midst of such a patriarchal culture, so many women are honored as leaders and teachers in scripture. This speaks volumes about the remarkable wisdom, resourcefulness, courage, and godliness it would take to teach and lead in such times, and says a lot about the value God places on women even when the world does not.

What follows is not a comprehensive list by any stretch. There are far too many women of valor found in the Bible to list in a single blog post, so I’ve tried to focus specifically on teaching and leading. 

Deborah  


In the midst of the violent and turbulent aftermath of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan,  “the Lord raised up judges” to provide leadership for the kingless people (Judges 2:16). One such leader was Deborah. At the beginning of Judges 4, the text reports that “Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time.”  As both prophet and judge, Deborah exercised complete religious, political, judicial, and militaristic authority over the people of Israel. She was essentially Israel’s commander-in-chief, said to issue her rulings from beneath a palm in the hills of Ephraim. 

Judges 4-5 famously recounts Deborah’s successful military campaign against Sisera. With the help of Deborah’s doubtful military commander, Barak, and another very gutsy woman named Jael (who exhibited her “gentle and quiet spirit” by driving  a tent peg through Sisera’s  skull), the Canaanite armies are defeated. Israel’s victory is punctuated in scripture by the Song of Deborah—one of the ancient Near East’s oldest military poems. Under Deborah’s continued leadership, the people of Israel enjoyed forty years of peace before the cycle of violence began again. 

Miriam

The prophet Micah identifies Miriam as one of the three leaders sent by God to bring Israel out of Egypt (Micah 6:4). Like Deborah, Miriam is identified as a prophetess, and she seemed to have held special responsibilities in leading the Israelites in worship. Her song, in Exodus 15 is especially beautiful.  Ironically, there are complementarian churches that forbid women from reading Scripture aloud in church, even Scripture like Miriam’s song, Deborah’s song, the reflections of the Shulamite girl in Song of Songs, the Prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, and, of course, the Magnificat—all of which reflect the thoughts and ideas of women.

Huldah

Described as Israel’s last good king, Josiah reigned for thirty-one years during a final period of peace before the Babylonian exile. About halfway through his reign, Josiah learned that the long-lost Book of the Law—the Torah—has been discovered in the temple. Upon hearing the words of the Torah read aloud, Josiah tore his robes in repentance and summoned a prophet, for he saw how far Israel had strayed from God’s ways. It’s important to note that contemporaries of Josiah included the famed prophets Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk. But Josiah did not ask for help from any of those men. Instead he chose Huldah, a woman and prophet who lived in Jerusalem. “Huldah is not chosen because no men were available,” writes Scot McKnight in The Blue Parakeet,  “She is chosen because she is truly exceptional among the prophets.”  Huldah first confirmed the scroll’s authenticity and then told Josiah that the disobedience of Israel would indeed lead to its destruction, but that Josiah himself would die in peace. Thus, Huldah not only interpreted, but also authorized, the document that would become the core of Jewish and Christian Scripture. Her prophecy was fulfilled thirty-five years later (2 Kings 22).

Other Prophetesses:

The Bible identifies ten female prophets in the Old and New Testaments: Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah,  Isaiah’s wife, Anna,  and the four daughters of Philip. In addition, women like Rachel, Hannah, Abigail, Elisabeth, and Mary are described as having prophetic visions about the future of their children, the destiny of nations, and the coming Messiah.  

When the Holy Spirit descended upon the first Christians at Pentecost, Peter drew from the words of the prophet Joel to describe what had happened, saying, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy...Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days,  and they will prophesy" (Acts 2:17–18). Thus, the  breaking in of the new creation after Christ’s resurrection unleashed a cacophony of new prophetic voices, and apparently, prophesying among women was such a common activity in the early church that Paul had to remind women to cover their heads when they did it. While some may try to downplay biblical examples of female disciples, deacons, leaders, and apostles, no one can deny the Bible’s long tradition of prophetic feminine vision.  And I believe this prophetic vision is as important today as it was in the days of the early church. We would do well to heed the words of Jesus: “Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward” (Matthew 10:41). For more on this, see “...Your daughters will prophesy...

Ruth

I remember attending a conservative Christian conference as a twenty-something, where a speaker told a room full of teenagers that a girl initiating a friendship with a boy was a violation of biblical principles that require men to be the leaders in a relationship. (One of the other girls in attendance started crying because she had invited a boy to prom!) I didn’t realize it then, but that speaker really needed to re-visit the book of Ruth, in which Ruth and Naomi hatch the plan to get Boaz’s attention, and in which Ruth is the one to approach Boaz under the cover of night and essentially ask for his hand in marriage. 

Other women who showed leadership in their personal relationships with men include Sarah (God told Abraham to “listen to your wife Sarah”), Rebecca, Rachel, Tamar, Leah, Abigail, and Bathsheba.  

The Shulamite Girl 

Another great example of a woman exhibiting leadership in her marriage is the Shulamite girl of Song of Songs. There’s too much to say about her here—I spent much more time on Song of Songs in my book—but suffice it to say, this girl knows exactly what she wants, and isn’t afraid to tell her lover to make it happen! 

The Shulamite girl is the first to speak in the poem, declaring, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (1:1). She actively seeks out the handsome shepherd in his fields, saying “Why should I be like a veiled woman beside the flocks of your friends?” (v. 7). When the two are separated, she goes out into the streets, looking for him, and at one point is accosted by the city guards. When she finds him, she brings him into a private room. There, she says, “I held him and would not him go” (3:4).  It is she who initiates a sexual encounter in a vineyard in the countryside, and it is she who offers her lover a frank invitation to drink her wine and to enter her “garden” to taste its choice fruits. Indeed some of the most beautiful lines of the poem—and arguably of the Bible—are hers: “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death” (8:6).

Alise Wright wrote a great post for our Week of Mutuality about the inconsistency of preaching mutuality in the bedroom, but not in other areas of life. (See “You don’t have to take your clothes off to be egalitarian.”)

Esther

Esther was something of an unwitting biblical leader, but an incredibly brave and wise one nonetheless. She was forced, along with perhaps thousands of virgin girls from Susa, into King Xerxes harem, where she became one of the king’s favorites.  

Despite some recent (and truly horrendous) complementarian interpretations that say Esther’s story is about godly submission in marriage, it is Esther’s defiance to her husband in speaking to him without being summoned (at the risk of death), that ultimately saves the Jewish people.

(I wrote more about Esther and complementarianism in a post entitled “Esther and Vashit: The Real Story”) 

Rizpah

Rizpah a sort of Old Testament Antigone, who protested the massacre of her sons by publicly mourning, night and day, at the site where their bodies had been left to the elements.  She cried out for months, “from the beginning of the harvest till the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies,” keeping watch over her sons and fending away wild animals and birds (2 Samuel 21:10). Her unrelenting despair won the solidarity of a war-weary people and finally moved King David to grant the men a proper burial, thus ending the famine that had swept the land.  She serves as an amazing example of the effectiveness of prophetic protest. 

Mary of Nazareth  

I loved what Mike Zosel wrote about Mary in his response to John Piper’s call for a “masculine Christianity”:  

“God did not consider woman’s flesh as something to be despised or ignored or covered up. No.  God selected it to be the very vessel of our salvation in Jesus Christ.  God saw fit to honor women by entering the world through one of them.  God partnered with a woman, in her flesh, to become flesh... So, all of this talk about the Church’s ministry being a ‘masculine ministry’, as  if women are primarily ‘alongside’ men (read: nonessential)?  Please.  In order to bring salvation to all men, even God needed the help of a woman.  In fact, God could never have done it without her!” (Read the resthere.) 

In addition to being charged with the task of bringing the Son of God into the world, Mary exhibited great leadership in the formation of Christianity. In the Magnificat, we see that Mary boasted a strong familiarity with scripture as well as a striking prophetic vision for what it meant (Luke 1:16-55). Mary’s clear passion regarding justice for the poor and marginalized undoubtedly influenced the teachings of not only Jesus, but also his brother James. (I realize Catholics will disagree with me on this!) It was Mary who urged Jesus to perform his first miracle, and it was Mary who must have provided information to the writers of the gospels concerning Jesus’ birth. 

Martha

Martha was one of Jesus’ closest friends and disciples. According to the gospels of Luke and John, she opened her home to Him, shared meals with Him, and stood by His side as He raised her brother, Lazarus, from the dead. John reports that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5). That Martha’s name appears before her brother’s suggests that this woman garnered considerable respect among the earliest followers of Jesus. 

Mary of Bethany

Rabbi Eliezer wrote in the first century that, “Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman...Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her obscenity.”(JT Sotah 3:4, 19a)

Jesus unabashedly defies this tradition by teaching the Torah to women, perhaps most notably Mary of Bethany. The fact that Mary is described by Luke as “sitting at the feet of Jesus” clearly identifies her as a disciple. And when Martha challenges Mary to get back to the more traditional role of serving from the kitchen, Jesus gently admonishes Martha to allow her sister to stay put.

“Martha, Martha,” he said, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” This is one of many, many examples of Jesus defying social norms to welcome women into his ministry. Any woman who is a follower of Jesus should remind herself now and then that, no matter what others may say, our esteemed status in Christ’s Kingdom cannot be taken away from us.  

“The Women” (female disciples of Jesus)

When referring to the earliest followers of Jesus, the Gospel writers often speak of two groups of disciples: the Twelve and the Women. The Twelve refer to the twelve Jewish men chosen by Jesus to be his closest companions and first apostles, symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Women refer to an unspecified number of female disciples who also followed Jesus, welcoming him into their homes, financing his ministry, and often teaching the Twelve through their acts of faithfulness and love. Just as Jesus predicted, most of the Twelve abandoned him at his death (John 16:32). But the women remained by his side—through his death, burial, and resurrection. (For more on why Jesus’ choosing of the twelve male disciples should not exclude women from leadership see Daniel Kirk’s post, “On Jesus Choosing Twelve Males)

Mary Magdalene

According to the gospels of Mark and Luke, Jesus cleansed Mary Magdalene of seven demons, after which she became a devoted disciple. She is mentioned by Luke in the same context as the Twelve as one who traveled with Jesus and helped finance his ministry. All four gospel accounts identify Mary Magdalene as among the first witnesses of the empty tomb. She is the one to breathlessly describes what she has seen to the male disciples, who initially discount her declaration, “I have seen the Lord!”, as the babblings of a foolish woman.

 It has been noted that Mary’s  announcement, “I have seen the Lord,” is the same credential used by Paul to insist on his own authority as an apostle:” 'Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lored?” (1 Cor. 9:1).  For her valor in twice sharing the good news to the skeptical male disciples, the early church honored Mary Magdalene with the title of Apostle to the Apostles.  That Christ ushered in this new era of life and liberation in the presence of women, and that he sent them out as the first witnesses of the complete gospel story, is perhaps the boldest, most overt affirmation of their equality in his kingdom that Jesus ever delivered. (For more, see “Women of the Passion, Part 4: Mary Magdalene – Apostle to the Apostles)


Tabitha 

A stalwart force in the first-century effort to restore the dignity of widows was a woman named Tabitha.  Likely a widow herself, but with means, Tabitha lived in the port city of Joppa at the time when Peter and Paul were busy spreading the gospel throughout Asia Minor. She was a renowned philanthropist, known throughout the land for “always doing good and helping the poor” (Acts 9:36). She was also a master seamstress, making robes and other clothing for the many widows in her care, presumably imparting on them the skills of the trade.

When first we hear of her in Luke’s book of Acts, she has succumbed to an illness, her body washed and prepared for burial. So critical was Tabitha’s ministry to the early church that Peter himself was summoned to her bedside, and when he arrived, he found widows from all across Joppa weeping together in Tabitha’s home. They showed him all the clothes she had made for them. Peter sent everyone out of the room and fell on his knees to pray. Apparently, God agreed that Tabitha was indeed indispensable, for Peter turned toward the body and said, “Tabitha, get up” (v. 40).  Tabitha opened her eyes and sat up. Peter took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the widows, who ran into the room to find Tabitha alive. It is one of just two resurrection stories in the book of Acts.  To Tabitha belongs the worthy distinction of being the only woman in the New Testament identified with the feminine form of the word “disciple”—mathetriaThe word literally means “pupil,” or “apprentice,” which may suggest that at some point, Tabitha studied directly under Jesus, like Mary of Bethany. 

Junia 

Although her name appears just once in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, the Apostle Junia is perhaps the most silenced woman of the Bible. 

“Greet Andronicus and Junia,” Paul wrote in Romans 16:7, “my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Junia is the first and only woman in Scripture to be explicitly identified as an apostle. (Mary Magdalene’s status as apostle is debatable.)  Apostles in the New Testament were disciples of Jesus devoted to spreading his teachings abroad. In addition to the original twelve apostles, the Bible speaks of apostles who served as traveling missionaries, teaching and leading the early church as it endured persecution and struggled through religious growing pains. Paul, Timothy, Barnabas Silas and Apollos were all apostles, as were Andronicus and Junia.

The fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, said of Junia, “To be an apostle is something great. But to beoutstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! . . . Indeed how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle”(emphasis mine).

But as time went on, the mention of a female apostle in Scripture became inconvenient for the increasingly hierarchal Church, so a medieval theologian found a creative solution to the problem: he turned Junia into a man. "Andronicus and Junia" became "Andronicus and Junias." This was no small error. The masculine name Junias does not occur in a single inscription, letterhead, work of literature, or epitaph in the Greco-Roman world, while the feminine name Junia is everywhere. None of the Greek manuscripts suggests that a masculine form of this name should be used, and for the first thousand years of church history, Christian theologians ranging from Chrysostom to Origen to Jerome all identified the apostle Junia as a woman. But the myth caught on, especially after Martin Luther used Junias, rather than Junia, in his German translation of the Bible and identified the pair of former prisoners as male. To this day, one can find English translations of the Bible that turn the apostle Junia into a man. She’s just a little too inconvenient. (For more on this crazy story,check out Junia is Not Alone by Scot McKnight and Junia: The First Woman Apostle by Eldon Jay Epp.)

Phoebe

In Romans 16:1-2, Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon in the church in Cenchreae. I ask that you receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and give to her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” 

Phoebe was one of many women in the early church to play an important role in directing the churches that met in their homes. Phoebe is not mentioned alongside a husband, so there’s a good chance she was single or a widow. She is identified as a deacon, which in the New Testament referred to a teacher and leader in the church, whether that person was a man or woman. (Yep, a “deaconess” is something we made up much later on.)  In Paul’s letters, deacons are connected to ministry and service of the word (1 Corinthians 3:5-9).

In The Blue Parakeet, Scot McKnight notes that “it is possible that Phoebe, a benefactor or wealthy patron of Paul’s ministry of bringing the gospel to the Roman Empire, was responsible for getting his letter to the right people. Most today think Phoebe was Paul courier for the letter to the Romans. Since couriers were charged with responsibility to explain their letters, Phoebe probably read the letter aloud and answered questions the Roman Christians may have had...Phoebe, to put this graphically, can be seen s the first ‘commentator’ on the letter to the Romans.” 

Again, how ironic that some complementarian churches forbid women from reading Scripture aloud in church when a woman may very well have been the first person to read the book of Romans aloud!

Priscilla

I was once asked if there was a marriage in scripture that I especially admired and would want to emulate in my own relationship with Dan. I immediately thought of the marriage between Priscilla and Aquilla. Complete with rhyming monikers, Priscilla and Aquila were the it couple of the early the church, always described as doing something interesting together— traveling, planting churches, teaching new converts, running a business. It’s unusual to find texts from the ancient world in which a woman’s name precedes her husband’s, but in the letters of Paul, Priscilla is often named before her husband, Aquila. Really, the two names appeared to be somewhat interchangeable in the minds of the early Christians. What a team these two must have made!

 When Paul set out on a mission trip across Asia Minor, he took the couple with him, leaving them in Ephesus so they could minister to the church there.  In Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila met Apollos, “a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of Scripture” who was preaching in the synagogues. They invited him into their home and together “explained to him the way of God more adequately,” making them some of the earliest known teachers of Christian theology. Apollos would go on to be one of the most influential apostles of the day. It appears the couple then planted a church in the region, for when Paul writes back to the Christians in Corinth, he passes along greetings from “Aquila and Priscilla and the church that meets in their house.”  (It’s hard to imagine that Priscilla, a gifted teacher, would have been prevented from speaking in her own home!)

Paul always spoke affectionately about Priscilla and Aquila, calling them his “co-workers in Christ Jesus,” and noting in Romans that the two “risked their necks” for him. “Not only I, but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them,” he writes (Romans 16:3-4). Some scholars are convinced that Priscilla wrote the mysterious, anonymous letter to the Hebrews found in the New Testament.  They’ve got some interesting evidence to support that conclusion, but the jury’s still out.  My personal theory is that Priscilla and Aquila wrote it together

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Additional Resources: Women of the Passion SeriesWomen of the Torah: Matriarchs and Heroes of Israel (Ancient-Future Bible Study: Experience Scripture through Lectio Divina) by Stephen J. Binz,  Women of the Gospels: Friends and Disciples of Jesus (Ancient-Future Bible Study: Experience Scripture through Lectio Divina) by Stephen J. Binz, Junia is Not Alone by Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight, Women's Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules by Carolyn Custis James, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuteroca... Books, and the New Testament by Carol Meyers, Toni Craven and Ross Shepard Kraeme.) 

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