What the Bible Actually Says About Women

SELF | 15 mins

It’s 2019. And in many places, women still hold second-tier status.

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Unfortunately, that’s just as true in the church as it is in the corporate boardroom. I don’t know much about business, but I am invested in the church. It pains me to say that, for far too long, I was perfectly fine with the gender inequality I found under the steeple. In many ways, I even saw it as directly benefiting me, so why fight it?

I grew up in the conservative south. I’ve been a part of the church since I was a fetus. I came to age with an understanding that, while God loved all his children, the guys were extra special. They were given the leadership roles in the church. They were allowed to speak in public settings. They were the ones entrusted with making decisions. They were strong and rugged, and if you had two X chromosomes, your God-given role was to submit to them.

Then I had a daughter. More specifically, my wife gave birth to twins. One was a boy. The other, a girl. And while I’d already started questioning the gender inequality I’d experienced in the church, the birth of my children added new fuel to the fire. I held two tiny people in my arms. In the church, one would have an easier time of it than the other. And that, to say it politely, is some sh*t.

Here’s the thing. I didn’t actually think God loved men more than women. It seemed outside of his character. And when I opened the Bible, that’s not how I saw Jesus interacting with women. In fact, the Messiah elevated the status of women wherever he went. In a society where women were relegated to second-class status, Jesus healed them, defended them, depended upon their influence, and built genuine friendships with them. In first-century Israel, women were so undervalued, seen as so untrustworthy, that they weren’t even allowed to testify in court—and this is precisely who gets to spread the greatest news to ever go viral—Jesus, once dead, was now alive. Spoken by bold female lips to a group of cowering men.

The case for male privilege isn’t built on Jesus—so where does it come from? After my daughter was born, I set out to answer that question. I took a year. That’s right, 365 days, and I read the entire Bible, cover to cover.

Every time I came across a verse that mentioned females in any way, I highlighted it. Then I compiled all those verses and I dove into heavy research. I wanted to know, precisely, what the Bible said about females—from Eve to the dragon-riding-harlot of Revelation.

What I found would take much more than an article to unpack. But I did learn two important things:

  1. Most of the male privilege I’ve experienced in the church is built on the letters of Paul…and
  2. If that’s the conclusion you’ve come to, y’all been reading this thing wrong.

Short history lesson: Paul was an early leader of Christianity. His life was radically altered after an encounter with Jesus. After that, he spent decades traveling, planting churches, and telling others the news that changed his life. To be able to support these fledgling groups of believers after he left them on their own, Paul would write letters and send them via a trusted co-missionary. These letters would be read to the church, discussed, and oftentimes the letter-carrier would expound on them. We still have some of these letters—they appear at the back of your Bible. The story of Paul can be found in the book of Acts, and his letters span the next thirteen books, from Romans to Philemon.

Did Paul say some confusing stuff about women? Absolutely. One of his letters says women in church “should remain silent.” Another letter implores them to “submit to their husbands.” Another early church leader, Peter, said women were “weaker vessels” than men. Sounds cut and dry in favor of the guys, right?

Before we dive into the context of what is going on in these passages, there are a few things to point out.

Paul, like Jesus, depended upon women
Arguably Paul’s greatest letter, in which he expounds deep theological truth about the Messiah and his effect on our lives, is the letter of Romans. Know who Paul enlisted to be the letter carrier (and thus the scriptural expounder) of this letter? A woman. Named Phoebe. In the letter, he also refers to her as a “deaconess,” which we know is a leadership title. Before that, Paul had fallen into a friendship with a couple named Priscilla and Aquila. Everytime Paul writes about them, he mentions Priscilla first. Why? It was common to list the greatest person first in a list. We don’t know what made her great—perhaps she had business sense, or deep understanding of the scriptures, or was an unparalleled leader—either way, Paul doesn’t shy away from giving her value in his letters.

Paul’s value system was based on the Messiah, not gender
When Paul met Jesus, everything about him changed. He grew up in a religious system and culture that unquestionably elevated men above women. Jesus changed Paul’s value system. He shifted from a man who achieved salvation by his own piety, to someone dependent upon the Messiah. He moved from stacking up his personal acts of holiness to bragging about his weakness. And his entire field of vision was filled with Jesus. This allowed him to write, in his letter to the Galatians, of the equal value of all God’s people: “In Christ Jesus, you are all children of God through faith… there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

In a culture in which social standing was paramount, those words would have rung in the ears of the Galatians. Paul is insistent that the unity of those who believe is greater than anything that might separate or elevate one above another. It isn’t that our differences don’t matter, but that they no longer have the power to separate us.

Among the Orthodox Jews of Paul’s day, it was a common prayer for the religious to thank God for allowing them to be born Jewish, and not a Gentile, a slave or a woman. Paul repudiated this tradition in which he was raised, replacing that misguided prayer with a statement that boldly reinforced the unity of all of God’s people.

Don’t remove Paul from his context
To put it simply, we must remember when reading Paul’s letters that this primary aim was NOT to instruct a 21st century church in the United States on how to create their leadership structure. Paul had no idea human history would last this long. America wasn’t even a spark of an idea in his brain. He probably didn’t even realize that the letters he was writing would become sacred scripture. Are there universal truths in scripture that are the same today as they were two millennia ago? Absolutely. And, there is also space for some advice and wisdom to be intended just for the audience he was addressing.

Shewww…now that we got that behind us, let’s look at a few often misused passages from our favorite missionary.

Wives, Submit to Your Husbands — Ephesians 5:22-33
I have a distinct memory, as a child in late elementary school, of the larger organization my church belonged to adopting the “submission” language into their church bylaws for the way marriages should work… and the public furor it sparked. My childish brain remembered it as not very pretty. Mostly because it wasn’t very pretty.

Paul, do you have to use the S-word so many times? Something about “submit” brings with it a sense of humiliation, of degradation, of subservience that makes us all squeamish. I can’t say if that’s what Paul intended when he chose that word, but I do know that the non-Christian culture at that moment in history wouldn’t have had an issue with a husband and wife interaction based around submission. It was the norm, and even expected. What Paul shockingly does is address the husband with demands as well. Remember, women had little to no rights at this point in history. Paul’s guidelines to men would have been perceived as wildly countercultural. He follows his admonition for women to submit by teaching the men to die for their wives. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” So Paul’s advice for married couples, far from giving the husband carte blanche to run over his wife, is a call for each spouse to seek to out-love and out-serve the other. In a culture where a man could divorce his wife simply because he’d grown tired of her, Paul ups the ante on the men. Don’t just take care of your wife, he insists, but love her and be willing to die (literally and figuratively) for her. Interesting how men love to talk about the submission part, but conveniently forget about dying.

Women Should be at Home — Titus 2:3-5
In a letter to a church leader named Titus, Paul outlines some guidelines for young women that, at first glance, feel quite restrictive and rather gender stereotypical. He tells young women that they should “love their husbands and children… be working at home… and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.”

There’s that S-word again. But in Paul’s era, girls received little to no education, and had very little prospects for work outside the home. Again, the social structure was dominated by males. Jews and Greeks would not have questioned this inferior place given to women, but the people of Jesus believed that everyone was made in God’s image. They valued everyone that society ignored. As these revolutionary ideas spread, members of the old guard began to associate Christianity with “loose women,” women who were not following the rules of hearth and home. So Paul, here again, teaches women to be submissive to their husbands. Far from inferring that women should have no opinions, or never disagree with their spouses, Paul’s focus was on how the newfound freedom of Christians was making the faith appear to those not yet initiated. After giving his advice to young wives, Paul says as much, stating that the motivation for their submission is that “the word of God may not be reviled.” Paul will go on to talk about freedom, to both men and women, in similar language. For Paul, freedom wasn’t something to be rubbed in others noses, but rather something to give up if it became a wall keeping your friends and neighbors from coming to know Jesus. Paul would say this about the food we eat, the people we associate with, and the way we interact with authority figures (even the ones who hate us).

Women Should Be Silent — 1 Corinthians 14:26-40
In this passage, Paul says “women should be silent in the churches… they are not permitted to speak, but should be submissive. And if they want to learn something, they should ask their own husbands at home.”

Like hearing only one end of a phone conversation, the advice Paul gives to the church in Corinth is hard to completely understand because we don’t know what problems he was addressing. It is generally assumed from the context surrounding these verses that the church’s worship gatherings were quite chaotic. Far removed from our modern church services, which are meticulously planned and generally only allow one person to address the entire church at a time, these ancient gatherings may have been more of an open forum type meeting. Paul’s goal is for the gatherings to “help the church grow strong” and he reminds the believers that confusion is not from God.

Since Paul elsewhere values women and appoints them as leaders in the early churches (Phoebe is just one example of that—there’s also Chloe, Junia, and many more), it seems highly unlikely that he was meaning to bar every woman from ever speaking in a church assembly.

So what exactly did he mean? We do understand, from history, that women were not allowed to play a direct role in worship at the Jewish synagogue. So Christianity was breaking down the male-female barrier everywhere it went, including in worship, allowing women to not only participate but to even take leading roles. With a seismic shift of that magnitude, it’s easy to believe that some churches would need some guidance as they navigated the way forward.

At this point in history, the church was a flea, riding on the back of a dirty dog named Rome. Homes across the Empire were ruled by the pater familias—the oldest living male in the family. This man had absolute authority over everyone else in the home and family. There was no room for compromise; no room for questioning his decision making; no room for disagreement. And then the church comes along, saying that Caesar isn’t God, and instead worshipping a crucified rabbi named Jesus. Not only that, they believed everyone (even women, slaves and children) were created in God’s image. This group of people valued everyone. To the Romans, these ideas were revolutionary. And soon, Rome would begin to close it’s fists on these “atheists” who didn’t worship the Emperor or submit to the Roman way of life.

In the context of the Roman Empire, a gathering of Christians was already a dangerous affair. But a gathering of Christians in which outsiders perceived the women to be flouting the idea of the pater familias—making decisions, teaching others, even standing up to speak in public. It was unthinkable. And it would have been a siren calling for Rome to intervene. The Empire did nothing with subtlety. Roman intervention would have been violent and bloody—and when the persecutions began, a few years later, that’s precisely what they became.

And so, again, instead of suggesting women are less-than-capable as compared to their male counterparts, perhaps Paul is asking these early followers of Jesus, both male and female, to do exactly what their Messiah did—use their freedom for the benefit of others. Jesus himself prayed, ”Father… not my will, but yours be done.” Paul is pushing believers to live the same way.

Humans are complicated people. But it’s rather impossible to believe that Paul would elevate women to leadership positions in some churches and bar them from speaking. This hard advice to the church in Corinth, when viewed through our 2019 goggles, seems terribly misogynistic. But in the eyes of the original culture, the writings of Paul would have a very visible throughline of advancing the rights of women, not restricting them.

So What?
For Paul, the end goal was not power dynamics within marriage, or even between genders, but how the message of Christ was being perceived (and therefore received) by those who were still on the outside. Paul, like Jesus, taught that women were not less than men and saw them as equals in the work of spreading the Gospel. The fact that Paul even writes directly to women is astounding given his cultural context, and further supports the fact that he saw women as of unparalleled consequence to the future of Christianity.

When I started my long trek through the Bible, I thought I was doing it for my daughter. But I’ve since come to realize it was for all my children—the boys too—and just as much for me. If any organization on earth should lead the way in gender equality, it should be the church. But just like in ancient Rome, the church should be a reflection of the unity and equality that is occurring in our homes. There are no second-class children in my family. And God is a much better Father than I am, so I must assume the same is true for the rag-tag family God is creating.

Written by Caleb Mathis on Aug 15, 2019
Process, journal or discuss the themes of this article - here's a few questions to get the ball rolling...

Discussion Questions

  1. What strikes you most about Caleb’s article? How does it make you feel?

  2. Whether you knew these Bible verses already or are hearing them for the first time, how might this change the way you view God?

  3. How might it change the way you view yourself and your relationship with the opposite sex?

  4. Whatever jumped out to you most, take a minute to write it down. Choose a time this week to dig into it more. Share it with a friend. Talk to God about it. Or do your own research like Caleb did.

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