Two Biblical Approaches to the Position of Women

Aug 30, 2016 by Josh de Keijzer

This article is part of an explainer about feminism

The relation between feminism and Christianity is not an easy one. There are those who completely reject feminism as utterly ungodly and unbiblical while there are also Christians who believe feminism has an important contribution to make to Christian thought and who have fully embraced it.

Yet feminism has caused the Church to think hard about the role of women in the church and in the family. Two main positions have emerged. There are those who think that though men and women are equal before God, they still have different roles to play. The woman still stands under the authority of the man. These people are called complementarian because men and women complement each other in being the image of God on earth but in different roles.

Then there are those who state that if women and men are equal before God, this equality should be visible in life, in the church, in the family. Only then can we truly say that men and women are equal in God's eyes. These people are called egalitarians because of the equality they pursue.

Both groups use Scripture to make their case. Let's take a look at them.

1. Woman needs to Submit to Man
These are some of the arguments for the position that the female stands under male leadership.

1. Order of Creation
It is clear from Scripture, these people say, that even though male and female are together created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) they occupy different places in a hierarchical order. The female was created as a helpmate to the man (Genesis 2:20) and after the fall the man was to lord it over the woman.

2. The Bible Clearly Teaches that Women Are Subordinate to Men
In the Bible leadership is typically (i.e. almost always) in the hands of men. This is how the patriarchs lived. This is how the nation of Israel was organized. When Deborah took the lead to defeat the enemy of Israel, the text is clear enough in showing that was not a proper thing. It was an exception. Christ chose 12 male apostles for himself and indeed the church was led by men, not by women.

3. Female Leadership is forbidden by Paul
Even though Paul says that in Christ there is male nor female (Galatians 3:28) he is still very clear about the subordinate position of the woman. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul states that just as Christ is the head of the man so the man is the head of the woman (1Corinthians 11:3). According to Paul, women are not allowed to teach in church (1 Corinthians 14:34). For him man is the head of the woman (1 Corinthians 3). He also asserts that women will be saved through modesty and by producing offspring (1 Timothy 2:15).

4. Female Leadership Leads to Idolatry
That female leadership can lead to idolatry is clear from the story of Jezebel in the Old Testament. (1Kings 19) She ruled over her husband, Ahab, who was king of Israel, and caused Israel to stumble terribly. Her daughter became ruler of Judah and killed all the priests of the Lord. It is no wonder, then, that Jezebel is mentioned as an example in Revelation of one who leads believers away from the Lord into idolatry (Revelation 2:20).

5. Male leadership is Modeled After Christ and Should Not Lead to Abuse
Abuse of women is a recurring problem everywhere. This, however, is not the result of the submission of women to men. Rather, the Biblical idea of male leadership is modeled after Christ. This is especially clear in marriage. It is a relationship of love that lives out that Christ-like love through servant leadership. (Ephesians 5:25-33).

The egalitarians do not agree with this. They believe that the equality between male and female before God also extents to lived reality in God’s creation. Both created order before the fall and redeemed creation in Christ are presented in the Bible as egalitarian in nature. Since I have already given biblical arguments against feminism as complementarians use them, I will here present a few egalitarian arguments from the Bible.

2. Women and Men are Equal
1. The Bible was not written by perfect people
Egalitarians maintain that an egalitarian approach to male-female relationships is the proper way to interpret Scripture. They reason as follows. The Bible contains God’s revelation in such a way that this revelation is contained in human writings with their own human, cultural, and historical context. While the Spirit inspired these writers, they were nevertheless not free from their biases. Learning to hear God’s will is always a matter of learning to listing to the voice of the Spirit in and through human words.

One of these biases concerns the male-female relationship. The writers of the Bible were children of their times and this meant their outlook on how women and men are to relate to each other was patriarchal. They simply could not conceive of anything else. But their stance on the matter need not necessarily reflect the will of God. Whoever reads the Bible closely can sense an ambiguity on this point. There is, for instance a strong difference between the egalitarian nature of the creation story, and the stories after the fall. Egalitarianism is quickly ejected from the text the moment the fall into sin takes its toll.

The Bible writers were followed by centuries of interpreters who only enforced the patriarchal nature of the text with their own interpretation. It is very important to realize that in such a context egalitarianism hardly has a chance. And yet a different melody pops up in the text every now and then. A sign of the Spirit? It is also important to admit that both biblical writers and biblical interpreters aided the oppression of women. The Bible, as not only a divine but also a human book, reflects the human oppression of women by many of the writers. But the Bible is also a divine book and we can find clues as to what God’s intention for women is.

2. Nobody today applies the Biblical moral framework consistently and literally
Complementarians hold that the Bible clearly teaches the submission of women to men. For this they might refer to the Old Testament. But such a literalist application to today of an ancient moral societal framework runs into all sorts of troubles. The literalist approach ought to demand that it be applied across the board. If you believe that the cultural context of moral and ethical statements in Scripture cannot be relativized and it is normative today, you need to apply all of those statements within that paradigm.

But in that case men still need to get circumcised and whoever uses the name of God in vain ought to be stoned to death. The same punishment is reserved for adulterers. But those opposing equality by means of the Bible this way in fact don’t apply the Bible in all these areas. No, they curse occasionally, they are usually not circumcised, and many have remarried.

3. Morality is not relative but does change over time
Far from saying that morality is relative, we still need to admit that morality does change over time. What is even more telling, we actually find this transformation over time in the Bible itself. In the 10 commandments, for instance, the command not to commit adultery is based on the idea that a woman is the man’s property and you cannot violate someone else’s property. While Jesus refers to this command in Matthew 19, it is clear that he does not consider any woman simply property or that his opposition to divorce has to do with a violation of property rights. Jesus never tells the woman at the well to go back to her proper owner, but brings her salvation; he treats her as a human being with intrinsic values.

4. The creation story presents woman a co-equal with man
Genesis 1 and 2 present us with two different creation stories, two perspectives of how God created humanity. In Genesis 1:27 we read “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” According to this perspective God creates the female as co-equal with the male. In Genesis 2:18, however, we read: “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’”

Complementarians will read Genesis 1 within the context of Genesis 2 and say: “Sure male and female are equal, but this equality doesn’t preclude different roles or a hierarchy of authority, for God meant Eve as a ‘helpmate’ to Adam.”

Egalitarians are not very impressed with this interpretation. They read Genesis 2 with the framing of Genesis 1. After all the equality of Genesis 1 trumps whatever ‘helpmate’ might actually mean. Moreover, exegesis of Genesis 2:14 and a word study of ‘helpmate’ have shown that the emphasis in the passage is on Adam’s vulnerability rather than Eve’s servanthood.

5. Jesus’ attitude to women was very positive and completely counter-cultural
More important than anything is what we find in the New Testament. Jesus’ attitude toward women was counter-cultural and consistently positive. While on his way to attend to a very sick girl (the daughter of Jairus), Jesus was touched by a woman who had an unending blood flow. He called her out, not to shame her, but to heal and commend her. And to make clear that he thought nothing of the fact that he had been touched by a ceremonially unclean woman.

Jesus goes out of his way to encounter a Samaritan woman at a well. Doing the unspeakable, he restores her and brings salvation through her to her entire village. Jesus is not embarrassed to have his feet dried with the hair of a woman with a bad reputation. He saves and respectfully treats the woman who his exposed as an adulteress caught in the act by Jesus’ enemies. He had women in his close circle of disciples. On his way to Calvary carrying his cross he speaks prophetic words to women that mourn his fate. And as he hangs on the cross, he makes sure someone will take care of his mother. Lastly, women are the first to witness and testify about the empty grave and encounter the risen Lord. Women are the first apostles.

6. Paul’s in Christ there is neither male nor female in Christ
There are two strands of thought in Paul’s theology. One is to affirm the necessity of women to submit to the leadership of men (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11); the other has the opposite direction and asserts that women and men are co-equal. The latter strand of thought is famously exemplified by Paul’s almost poetic exclamation that in Christ there is slave nor free, barbarian nor Greek, male nor female (Galatians 3).

While complementarians try to subsume the equality strand into the submission theme, egalitarians simply say that the egalitarian Paul presents us the best of Paul. This is where he reaches the depths of God’s heart for humanity and climbs to the loftiest heights of theological insight. You could say that the complementarian Paul is still struggling with certain issues and tries to be practical in how women and men are to relate to each other in a patriarchal culture. The egalitarian Paul, however, declares God’s true intentions and really gets what transformation Christ brings for human community.

This debate is likely to go on for a long time. In the end, what Jesus demands is that we love one another the we He loved us by giving himself over to be crucified.

Read more
- Introduction: What Is Feminism?
- 6 Reasons Why Christians Should Reject Feminism.
- 6 Reasons Why Christians Should Embrace Feminism.
- Two Biblical Approaches To The Position Of Women

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