We live in a patriarchal society. It is one where the lives and contributions of men are valued over and above those of women. Unfortunately, this patriarchal view of society has infiltrated the church and even affects our interpretation of scripture. So what are we to do with the “problematic” passages of scripture that seem to have a negative view of women? Should women keep silent in the church? Can women be Pastors? Why does it seem like it’s the church vs. women?
God & Women
God’s Feminine Nature
In my article “Is God Really Male?”, I point towards the idea that God has no gender. In order to more effectively relate to patriarchal ancient Israel, God was revealed as Father. This was not to make God male, but to make God relatable. Scripture is full of imagery of God as female and mother as well.
In fact, God’s name in the Hebrew is YHWH, most times written as Yahweh. This is the combination of two words yah and weh. Here’s an interesting tidbit: yah is a feminine word while weh is masculine. Even God’s name is a masterful combination of female and male. More proof that God is as much female as male.
We did a lot of work on the relationship between God and God’s own femininity in “Is God Really Male?” so I urge you to check it out if you want some more insight. However, what we want to explore in this article is the relationship between Creator and created woman.
While there are some wonderful examples of women in leadership roles in the Old Testament, (women such as Hagar, Tamar, Miriam, Rahab, Deborah, Esther, and Yael/Jael, are among many female “saviors” of Israel) here I’ll focus in on the New Testament as we are exploring the relationship between women and “the church”.
So let’s see what Jesus’s relationship was with women.
Jesus & Women
Jesus’s Female Disciples
Even a cursory reading of scripture will reveal a simple, but profound truth: Jesus had female disciples. Let’s look at Luke 8:1-3
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for [Him] out of their resources.
These women not only followed Jesus, but they provided for Him out of their own money!. In other words, when Jesus needed something, the Lord put it on the hearts of women to supply it.
Kenneth E. Bailey writes about Christianity from a Middle Eastern cultural view. He finds evidence in several New Testament passages that Jesus had women disciples. He first cites the reported occasion when Jesus’ family appeared and asked to speak with him and Jesus replied in Matthew 12:46-50:
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand towards his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”
Bailey argues that according to Middle Eastern customs, Jesus could not properly have gestured to a crowd of men and said, “Here are my brother, sister, and mother.” He could only have said that to a crowd of both men and women. Therefore, the disciples standing before him were composed of men and women.
To The More Difficult Passages
If I’m being honest, starting with Jesus’s relationship with women is a bit of a cop-out. In her book “The Bible Status of Women”, Lee Anna Starr wrote this:
“…of all founders of religions and religious sects, Jesus stands alone as the one who did not discriminate in some way against women. By word or deed he never encouraged the disparagement of a woman.”
If we are to be disciples of Jesus, and it is true that Jesus never encouraged the disparagement of women, where do we get the church tradition of the subjugation of women? Where does church vs. women come from?
In a word: Paul. But was Paul really as anti-woman as we have been led to believe? Before we dig into some of the “problematic” passages that Paul wrote, let’s look at his relationship with women according to the scriptures.
Paul/The Church & Women
Paul’s Female Disciples
The early Christian movement did not start in church buildings like we’re accustomed to today. Instead, they started in house churches. Christians would literally get together in the homes of other believers to pray, preach, and partake in the Eucharist. Also, the culture norm of the 1st & 2nd Century Middle East was one that relegated women to the home.
So the public act of worship was taken into private homes where which was the domain, as it were, of the women. This uniquely positioned women to have integral positions in the early house churches. This is why in his letters, Paul would acknowledge a number of women.
Priscilla (and her husband Aquilla) is mentioned 6 times in the Bible. Four of those time, her name was listed first. They were also credited with explaining God more accurately to Apollos the first century evangelist (Acts 18:26).
Mary, the Bible says in Romans 16:6, worked hard for the members of the church.
Phoebe was a leader at a church near Corinth. Paul calls her a deacon and in the Greek there is no difference when the title of deacon is used for Phoebe and Timothy
There are several more examples of Paul acknowledging women for their work and devotion to the church of Jesus Christ. But there is one more that I’d like to bring light to.
A Female Apostle?
There is a difference between the apostles and disciples. This is an extreme over-simplification, but apostles were the leaders who were commissioned by Jesus to spread the Gospel. Disciples were followers who were charged with emulating their leader in word and deed. (Again, there is much more to this, but this explanation will suffice for now).
I’ve always been taught that while there were certainly female disciples, there were no female apostles. In fact, this along, with some other scriptures, have been used to justify the exclusion of women from positions of leadership in the church. However, scholarship has pointed to a “lost” female apostle that Paul acknowledges in Romans 16:7:
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
Paul does a few things in the verse. First, he acknowledges that Junia and her partner have been imprisoned with him. Second, he calls them outstanding among the apostles. Lastly, he acknowledges their seniority when it comes to the Christian faith.
Junia, it seems, is not only an apostle, but an exceptional one at that!
What Happened to Junia?
So if Paul acknowledges Junia as a female apostle, why did her name and story get swept away from church history and tradition?
In his book “Junia: The First Woman Apostle” (click here for the Kindle version) Eldon Jay Epp explores how purposefully incorrect 13th Century interpretation led to Junia’s name being translated as Junias (which is the masculine version). In fact, some translations of the English Bible still use this misinterpretation. Among them are the New American Standard Bible, the American Standard Version, and the English Revised Version.
Epp states that individuals charged with making hand-written copies of the Bible (remember, this was before the printing press was invented) came across this passage and because of their own beliefs that women could not be apostles changed her name from Junia to Junias.
Non-Contextual Interpretations of Scripture
According to Pew Research, women make up the majority of our church populations. They make up 55% of both Evangelical & Mainline Protestants. 69% of women affirm an absolutely certain belief in God compared to 57% of men. 59% of women say that religion is very important to them compared to 47% of men.
It is clear from the research that women play a vitally important role in church. I believe we would be hard pressed to find a person who disagrees with this. So if all of this is the case, why is church leadership such a boys club? 93% of Senior Pastors in the United States are males.
Well, I would argue that the answer to this question lies in non-contextual scriptural interpretation. I was having a discussion with a brother of mine about my article “Should Christians Tithe?” (click here to check it out). He was of the belief that tithing remains a requirement for Christians (a perfectly acceptable position that I happen to disagree with). He believed that my challenge with tithing was strictly in response to the abusive nature of the way it’s taught. I responded that my challenge is not simply with bad teaching, but with bad, non-contextual Biblical interpretation.
Women Keep Silent in Church
For example, there are denominations that forbid women from speaking in church based off of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
However, when considered within the context of 1 Corinthians 11:5, it becomes clear that there is more to the story:
But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…
If women were forbidden to speak in church, why would Paul lay out regulations for how women ought to pray and prophesy? (Note that the part about head covering is a cultural mandate and not a Kingdom one). Indeed, 1 Corinthians 14 is a part of a larger theme about being respectful and non-disruptive in church. In fact, between chapters 12 and 14 of 1 Corinthians, Paul commands people to be silent on three different occasions (and only one of those were explicitly directed toward women).
Suffer Not a Woman to Teach
We run into the same issue when we look at 1 Timothy 2:12
I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.
That settles it, right? Women cannot have authority over a man, and women serving as pastors or in various church leadership positions would give women authority over men so that’s it. Case closed!
When we examine the text in light of its historical, cultural, and sociological context, a different view emerges. Paul here, according to some scholars, was not presenting a hard-and-fast, once-and-for-all rule. Instead, he was speaking directly to a situation in the church at Ephesus.
In their book “I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence” (click here for the Kindle version), Richard and Catherine Kroeger argue that the problems that the church in Ephesus was facing was with pagan religions.
The Kroegers’ maintain that gnosticism was taking hold of the Christians at Ephesus, and the women, being given less-to-no education in those days, were more prone to be misled by gnostic beliefs. They present the case that those women with gnostic influence were trying to pass on those erroneous beliefs to others in the Church at Ephesus. Hence, their conclusion is that 1 Timothy 2:12 is a time-and-place refutation of false teaching, not a universal Christian principle for all time.
We Need Women in Leadership
The First Preachers of the Gospel
If we take the definition of the Gospel to be the good news of the resurrection of Jesus, then the first individuals to do this were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. This account was recorded in Mark 16:1-7, but we’ll look at verses 6-7
And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”
Notice that these women did not just decide to go and start spreading the gospel. They were on a direct assignment from God! If women were not viewed as worthy to preach and teach the Gospel, I wonder why Heaven would set this precedent?
No! We need women to preach and teach, to instruct and pastor, to pray and prophesy.
The church needs women to lead!