Equality & Praiseworthy Women
In Christian theology, there are two primary views on gender: complementarianism and egalitarianism. The first is most common among the more traditional, or conservative, churches. The second is typical for moderate and more progressive congregations. In the complementarian view, men and women complement each other with distinct yet equal roles and responsibilities—in theory. The egalitarian view presents the idea that men and women are equal (French: égalitaire) in all roles and responsibilities, including ministry and ordination. This article is about the scriptural case for the egalitarian view. To be fair, the New Testament splits the difference between whether men and women are equal or complementary. However, this may have to do more with cultural influences from the Roman household code and other forms of ancient patriarchy rather than God's intent for us.
Made in God's Image
Many readers believe the consequence God gave to Eve for her sin in the Garden of Eden suggests that he always intended for women to be submissive to men (Gen. 3:16b). However, God made it clear before Adam and Eve sinned that he "created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:27). In other words, the subjugation of women is a consequence of evil, not an intrinsic part of God's perfect will. When he removed one of Adam's ribs to form Eve, God chose a symbol of equality rather than one of oppression (e.g., feet). Even in Western culture, when we say, "I stand beside him/her," or, "Let us walk side by side," we refer to equality and acquaintanceship. If God wanted to use a symbol of lesser status for women, he would use something more like the feet. In ancient Near Eastern culture, the foot represented all things filthy and evil because they often wore open-toed sandals. In a time without cars or bicycles, everyone walked to their destinations and often encountered various kinds of waste and decay. Foot-washing, as we know from Jesus' last supper, was the duty of slaves (John 13:8). Even among modern Arabs, it is an insult to show the soles of one's foot to another person. Both Old and New Testaments speak of Jesus subjecting all things under his feet at the world's end (Ps. 110:1; Luke 20:43; 1 Cor. 15:25, 27; Eph. 1:22; Heb 1:13; 10:13). However, God never told Adam to conquer Eve, but to care for her. She was to be his helper, a woman who would be at his side (Gen. 2:18). In the same way that God ultimately wants the man to be at rest instead of work (Matt. 11:28-29; Heb. 4:9-10), he wants the woman to be equal without having to fight for power (Gen. 3:16-17; Luke 7:44, 50).
Women in the Old Testament
In the Hebrew Bible, women most often are traditional housewives, mothers, and helpers to the more prominent men. Sarah, the wife of Abraham, exemplified the role of women in a patriarchal society so well that Simon Peter wrote, "Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord. You have become her daughters as long as you do what is good and never let fears alarm you" (1 Pet. 3:6). In our modern culture, we have let fears alarm us to the extent of literal battles of the sexes. In response to women increasingly working outside of the home, homemakers find themselves having to defend their value and dignity. This, however, is not a new problem. In ancient Greece, philosophers such as Socrates (c. 470–399 BC) and Plato (428/27–348/47 BC) called for men and women to let the city-state raise their children while they pursued success and knowledge (Republic V). However, this was far from being a type of proto-feminism, as the women were obliged to be available to each of their male neighbors without the bounds of marriage. To Jewish ears, this was an extremely godless and pagan idea. That said, many of our beliefs about public education by the government come from Plato's Republic and not from the Bible. This, too, is where we receive our cultural view that homemakers are inferior to the more independent women who pursue careers outside the home. There is nothing wrong with a woman choosing to stay at home with her children any more than there is with a woman striving to be the CEO of a corporation. Unfortunately, too many social influencers judge the first while too many church leaders condemn the second.
The scriptures present both a "Sarah option" as well as a "Deborah option". Deborah was a judge of Israel, especially during a time of national emergency (Judg. 4-5). The role of a judge in antiquity was much like our concept of a president because its power was restricted by legal code. This means the Israelites trusted Deborah to make decisions while following the law. She did not come to power because she happened to be born in the right family, as with monarchs. Deborah enforced nothing else than the Law of Moses, the same code the Israelites cherished for millennia and Jews continue to do so today. This was the legal system God presented to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exod. 34:32). It also underlies the basis for the "Proverbs 31 woman" many complementarians emphasize in their call for the submission of women to men.
Proverbs 31 (specifically, vv. 10-31) offers a natural conclusion to this Old Testament section of the article. It begins with a description of a "capable wife" and how well she supports her husband. This ode to a faithful woman is a bookend of Proverbs which contrasts with the manipulative adulteress at the beginning (e.g., Prov. 2:16). Solomon, the traditional author of the text, did not want to leave his [presumably male] readers with a poor impression of women. This was a personal struggle for Solomon, who was at times both the faithful husband and the foolish adulterer. In verses 13-16, the woman is an excellent breadwinner; shrewd in both domestic and international business matters. She supervises the younger women who work for her on the estate. It is the "Proverbs 31 woman" who buys land in the text as opposed to her husband. She even exercises to stay fit, ready to do business and face whatever hardships come her way. This woman makes her husband look good, but not in a trophy-wife sort of way. It is her devotion as a godly wife and mother that inspires the leading men at the city gate to respect him. Yet, she is kind and readily gives to the poor all the while providing the best quality clothing to her family and her customers. The real "Proverbs 31 woman" in the text is the furthest thing from "barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen". Instead, we see a woman who is a family, socioeconomic, political, and—most importantly—spiritual force to reckon with (vv. 17-31). Frankly, those who walk away from Proverbs 31 thinking it describes a mousy, subservient housewife have not paid enough attention to its message.
Women in the New Testament
Too many complementarians see Paul of Tarsus' message in Eph. 5:21-33 as a proof-text for the submission of women to men. If verse 22 ("Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord") was the only one in the passage, such a reading would be understandable. However, the genuine reader knows to read a verse in context. Paul himself warned, "This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband" (vv. 32-33). Simply put, the letter-writer himself cautioned the reader not to view this lesson as one about subverting women, but an analogy about the hypostatic union God the Father shares with Jesus in tri-unity. In God's eyes, the people of Christ's church are first-class citizens of his kingdom. In the same way, a husband should consider his wife a first-class member of his household, not an indentured servant. Because Jesus cares for the church as his inheritance and gave up his life to save her, men are also supposed to be selfless, loving, and willing to die for the woman he married. I begin with this passage to set the tone for interpreting others that either has a more egalitarian thrust than often admitted, or simply focus on local issues of the time.
First up is 1 Cor. 14:33-36, in which Paul wrote,
As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?
The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) has these verses in parentheses with a footnote explaining, "Other ancient authorities put verses 34-35 after verse 40." In other words, the variance in manuscripts for this passage may indicate this to be a scribal edit added later. Even if it is authentic, Paul himself was friends with a woman named Priscilla of Rome who most certainly did not keep quiet in the churches. She was the wife of Aquila of Pontus and had fled Rome when the emperor Claudius banished the Jews from the capital (Acts 18:2). Priscilla was a teacher; a teacher of men at that. Luke of Antioch testified to this when he wrote, "[Apollos of Alexandria] began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately" (Acts 18:26). This seemingly contradicts what Paul wrote to Timothy, "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent" (1 Tim. 2:12). The only way to reconcile these verses is to realize that Paul was addressing a local issue with specific women and that Priscilla was exempt from this because she was a praiseworthy "Proverbs 31 woman". Paul made this exemption because Priscilla was Jewish and knew the Mosaic Law, whereas the women of Corinth were gentiles who did not. Conversely, they were recent converts to "the Way" and were still recovering from pagan fertility cults such as Artemis or Aphrodite.
The first-century church included many women in leadership. However, let us be clear on one point: there was no ordination in the first few decades of Christianity. The Greek verb diatassō (G1299), which means "to thoroughly command," and the only word to be translated as "to ordain," never appears in the Bible regarding the ordination of human beings much less church leaders. It primarily refers to God the Father and Jesus (e.g., Matt. 11:1, 1 Cor. 9:14). When Paul cautioned Timothy, "Do not ordain anyone hastily" (1 Tim. 5:22a), he used a different phrase that referred to the laying on of hands when appointing leaders (see here). We do not even see this until AD 64 when Paul wrote this letter. In the meantime, the local churches chose elders from within, but they held responsibility rather than an office. It is correct, therefore, to say that women were not "ordained" in the early years of Christianity, but neither were men. In addition to elders, there were deacons. In his letter to the Romans, Paul greeted a female deacon named Phoebe of Cenchreae (16:1). He called her diakonos (G1249, "server") because she served in her local church. (The early church later appointed women to the diaconate once they reached sixty years of age; cf. Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim. 3:11; 5:9. In 451, Canon 15 in the Council of Chalcedon lowered the minimum age to forty.) Various women such as Chloe of Corinth (1 Cor. 1:11), Lydia of Thyatira (Acts 16:11, 14, 40), Nympha of Laodicea (Col. 4:15), and Euodia and Syntyche of Philippi (Phil. 4:2) were the matrons of house churches with some degree of leadership. Jesus himself had several female benefactors who financed his ministry (Luke 8:1-3).
In our paradisal state in the Garden of Eden, men and women were equal in God's image. The gender roles that complementarians see in scripture are not what he intended from the beginning but only exist because of our fallen nature. Yes, these complementarians are right when they say the Bible demonstrates gender roles, but they do not correctly understand the reason. In a strictly literal reading which views nearly everything written in scripture as instructive or example-setting, they miss out on important metanarratives. For example, when Paul wrote, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28), this was a baptismal formula for the early Christians to know that God does not view us by our ethnoreligious, socioeconomic, or gender categories, but by our relationship with Jesus. Because of our baptism, the old boundaries of discrimination and culture are gone, to be replaced with God's grace. This was the reason Jesus told the thief on the cross, who despite his inability to receive baptism, said, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). Likewise, God designed the man, not for work, but to be in his sabbath rest.
The major doctrine which separates Christianity from rabbinical Judaism is Jesus' resurrection. We overlook that our witness to this historical event derives from that of a woman: Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-19). For this reason, the early church identified her as the "apostle to the apostles" because she first witnessed Jesus' resurrection and was commissioned to share the good news with the others. Junia was also "prominent among the apostles" (Rom. 16:7), as Paul wrote of the woman and her husband Andronicus. While this verse could also be read as Junia simply being respected by the apostles, church history reveals that this was not the way that most of the late-antiquity and medieval theologians understood it. The King James Version (KJV) features the masculine Junias because of the implication a female apostle would have on systematic theology. However, even the fourth-century Greek bishop John Chrysostom (AD 347–407) described Junia as a woman, saying, "Indeed, how great was the wisdom of this woman that she was thought worthy of being called an apostle!" (Rom. Hom. 31.2). What does this mean? This shows the lengths some interpreters of the Bible will go to preserve the complementarian view. In closing, the twenty-first-century church may teach gender equality alongside the scriptural idea of the praiseworthy woman; this was also the teaching of the first-century church.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, you made us in your image, and you have redeemed us through your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus the Messiah our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.
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