The amount of time dedicated to the issue of the roles of women in Church and society is incalculable. By now it seems like everything that can and should be said about the issue has been discussed, debated, and discussed some more. No doubt this begs the question, “Do we really need another article addressing this topic?”
Because many of our sisters are still disenfranchised in many churches around the world. Therefore, some things need to be said, perspectives need to change and I hope to offer some new insights that will ultimately strengthen an inclusive view of the role of women in the Church.
For the extent of Christian history, we have largely gone without the contribution of women to the faith either because they lacked opportunity or because they were silenced. This is neither the fault of women, nor the fault of God, but instead, the fault of a religious system that failed to appreciate the role that women played in the ministry of Jesus and the Early Church. Instead, the Church perpetuated an inequality that was common in society to maintain their power and control (primarily post-Nicene when the Church became officially organized. Before this period women were very much a part of the Church’s ministry focus – especially in the East.)
The Sociological Context of the Subordination of Women in Society
Before we can understand the overall argument as well as the biblical passages connected to the subordination of women within the Church, we have to know some important historical context. Specifically, the roles women have historically played in most societies.
For most of human history, the role of women in society was largely based upon their role within the family. In fact, it wasn’t until the “Age of Reason” (16th Century) that this began to change when the chief capital of society became more intellectually based.
Early human cultures were agrarian. That is, for families to survive they needed to farm and/or hunt. Since, in general, men are bigger and physically stronger between the two sexes it made sense that they would be responsible for manual labor. And, since women were the only ones able to provide offspring, then it made sense that their primary responsibility was childbearing and rearing. This created a “natural” separation of roles between the sexes in a time where it was necessary to survive.
It should be noted that not all societies operated this way. Some societies existed that were not role-based and women were free to pursue various roles in those societies. However, these societies were not the norm.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle provides us a glimpse into how women were viewed in ancient times in several of his writings. In his work “Politics” Aristotle says:
“The relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled.”
He speaks about this more in his work “History of Animals”:
“women are too often managed by their emotions, prone to depression, and fight too much among themselves…Unlike men who are eager to help those in need and are brave in the face of danger.”
Things did not get much better for women in Roman society as they were often viewed as property. (This relates primarily to the commoner, as there were high-ranking women who were of the upper class where this was not as applicable.) However, when the Church made its way onto the scene, things changed. Suddenly, men were charged with loving their wives, and women were seen as having value because they were worthy of that affection.
The roles of women in society are just as much about the fragile egos of men as it is anything else. What was once held as a societal norm could no longer be argued for when intellectual capital became the norm, so men resorted to insulting the intellectual integrity of women. From attributing witchcraft to women in early American history to selling elixirs that could help treat women for their “hysteria” during the Civil War, women have been relegated to some of the lowest intellectual classes within society. Although this relegation looked different throughout the 20th century, it nonetheless still existed. If it wasn’t for the feminists of the 1960s reminding the patriarchal power brokers that women have value for society, we might have never changed our perspective.
The Theological Context of the Subordination of Women in Church
Sociological and cultural context is important when evaluating Biblical passages that address the roles of women. There are two primary areas where complementarians argue for the role-based subordination of women. The first is the Genesis argument. The second is the apostolic argument. They are often argued together to prove continuity between the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament.
Complementarians often argue that Genesis demonstrates that men and women were created with specific purposes and roles. They will mention everything from the fact that woman was created second to their role in the Fall as proof that women were made to take a subordinate role in church and society.
Instead of arguing the details of each passage (which I think has merit in the right context), I have two simple arguments against this logic. First, those that make the Genesis argument are doing so under the assumption that this part of Genesis is prescriptive (giving a command); when in fact the entire book was meant to be read descriptively (describing historical events). In other words, the purpose of Genesis was to record the oral history of the Jews, not to give commands.
Secondly, and perhaps the most illogical, is why complementarians point to humanity “post-fall” as the example that God set forth for men and women? Doesn’t it make more sense to look at their “pre-fall” state to understand what God’s intention was for humanity?
If anything is clear it is that God created male and female in His image; there is no subordination, no inequality in God. Therefore, there is no subordination or inequality between men and women. (Note: the idea of Trinitarian subordination is an unbiblical speculative theory that was created to enhance the idea that Genesis teaches the subordination of women.)
So, what about those famous New Testament “wallop” passages that state a woman cannot have authority over a man (Example, 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:12)? These passages do seem “prescriptive”, so how can one justify an apparent contradictory interpretation? Simply put, we cannot. Believe it or not, I do believe that many of these passages say a woman cannot have authority over a man.
However, the passages are referring only to the immediate context and are not meant to be universal axioms. The reason why they are included in the New Testament is not entirely clear from the passages alone. However, we do know for a fact that these are NOT universal axioms and are instead a cultural construct.
There are several reasons we can know this. First, there is no clear reason why a woman could not be in authority over a man unless there is something deficient in her nature – which there is not – or if there is some law that would prevent them from holding certain leadership positions – which there were. It makes more sense to think that Paul is telling these specific churches this for a reason – perhaps to avoid raising suspicion of the Romans.
Second, Paul refers in many other epistles that “everyone” or “all” can teach/preach/instruct/lead worship, etc. (example: 1 Cor 14:31 – ironically, the same passage that also states that women are to remain silent, which is what indicates to me that he means something different when he addresses women specifically.)
Third, there are women leaders throughout the New Testament. What’s more, Paul, the same guy who wrote 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy clearly holds some of these women in high esteem as indicated in Romans 16.
Fourth, Jesus Himself had female apostles, which gave them enormous authority over non-apostles. ( Mariamne, Irene, Nino, and Thecla; and don’t forget: Phoebe, Prisca, and Junia (Romans 16)).
Therefore, unless Paul’s writings are contradictory to the rest of Scripture, then there is either important contextual information we are not given, or Paul means this as a universal axiom and in so doing is contradicting the examples set out by the rest of Scripture. It seems to me that there is more to the story that we might be unaware of.
Unless there is something within the nature of women that prevents them from preaching as effectively as men, then they should be permitted to teach. Only the misogynist would think otherwise. Nothing is more important than preaching the Kingdom of God; it doesn’t matter if it is a man, a woman, or the rocks.
The Church can neither understand the gospel, nor its implications for the world until we embrace the gifting of the other half of God’s kingdom. For most of Christian history, we were only running at half of our intellectual capacity. We need women’s voices not only to help us better understand the gospel but to help propel the ministry of the Church into the current cultural milieu we find ourselves in. Without women, we will never fulfill our potential as the Church. Without women, our preaching of the Gospel is in vain.
Only those who truly care about the ministry of the Gospel will embrace the work of women in the Church with open arms and open minds.