The Talmud — a vast collection of ancient Jewish laws and traditions — said it’s better to “burn the Torah [the first five books of the Bible] than it was to teach it to a woman.”
Saint Clement, considered to be the first Apostolic father of the Church, said, “Every woman ought to be overcome with shame at the thought that she is a woman.”
Tertullian, the 2nd-century theologian who developed the doctrine of the Trinity, said of women: “You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God…Woman, you are the gate of hell.”
Saint Augustine, the 4th-century theologian who formulated the doctrine of original sin, said, “Woman was merely man’s helpmate, a function which pertains to her alone. She is not the image of God.”
And Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, wrote, “The word and works of God are quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes.”
We shouldn’t dismiss the theological contributions of the early Church fathers, and while it’s (apparently) easy to wave off their misogynistic views as a “product of their environments,” that becomes more difficult the more we dial forward the clock.
In 2006, a former high-profile megachurch pastor said that women “who let themselves go” are partially at fault for their husband’s infidelity and “Jesus Christ commands” wives to service their husbands with oral sex.
A few months ago, John Piper, a well-respected theologian and pastor, said that he believed male seminary students studying to be pastors shouldn’t have women professors.
Paige Patterson, the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently drew the ire of the evangelical community when it was revealed he encouraged a woman to remain in a physically abusive marriage for the sake of her husband’s salvation.
And the Southern Baptist Convention — an interconnected network of Baptist churches that represents the largest Protestant denomination in the United States — passed a resolution in the 1980s that states: “The Sciptures teach that women are not in public worship to assume a role of authority over men lest confusion reign in the local church.” The resolution stands today.
And so you crack open the Bible, looking for a reprieve from this insanity, and you find yourself rifling through Paul’s letters that make up a bulk of the New Testament.
In a letter to Timothy, Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” because “it was the woman [Eve] who was deceived and became a sinner.”
In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes “like in all the churches of God’s people, women should keep silent” because it’s “shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
Cue the awkward silence.
What are we suppose to do with all of that?
Well, first of all, we can look at Jesus.
Jesus, Lover of Women
Whenever Jesus encounters a woman in the Gospels, he always elevates her above her station.
In a world in which women were either invisible or treated like second-class citizens, Jesus shared meals with women, answered their questions, challenged them, rebuked them, healed them, protected them and called them beloved.
In fact, one of the most radical aspects of Jesus’s life is how he didn’t treat women differently than men. It cannot be overstated how recklessly subversive this was.
In a hyper-patriarchal culture, gender equality is always revolutionary and dangerous.
It is Jesus, the God-man with no earthly father, who is nursed at the breast of a teenage girl in a world that didn’t take too kindly to single mothers.
It was women like Joanna, the wife of Chuza, who funded Jesus’s travels and ministry.
Not only does Jesus have his longest recorded conversation with a woman at a well (an interaction that shocks his disciples), she also becomes the first evangelist.
In the home of Martha, he allows Mary to sit at his feet while he taught, a place solely reserved for male disciples in accordance with Jewish tradition (and he rebukes Martha for stressing over cultural expectations).
He heals a woman on the Sabbath and calls her “a Daughter of Abraham” — a phrase never before mentioned in Scripture.
On his way to Jarius’s house, he touches and heals a “ritually impure” woman who had been menstruating for years — a clear violation of Levitical Law.
According to tradition, He prevents the execution of a woman caught in the act of adultery — even though the Torah required punishment.
And while we like to picture Jesus traversing the Galilean countryside with twelve men, we’re told in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus’s entourage also included several women (with three being specifically named — Mary Magdalene, Susanna, and Joanna).
In a time when women were not deemed credible witnesses in court, the Bible presents two women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb and resurrection.
Reverend Daniel Brererton says,
It was Mary, the first to hold Christ in her hands, who could’ve truly spoken the words: “This is my body. This is my blood.” It was another Mary who proclaimed the Easter Gospel: “The Lord is Risen.” Unlike many churches, God has never underestimated the ministry of women.”
But what happens when the women bring the news of Jesus’s resurrection to the disciples?
According to the Gospel of Luke,
They did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”
Women of Valor
In spite of all the devotionals, Bible studies, and conferences built around the stereotype, you’re not going to find a one-size-fits-all formula for what constitutes “Biblical womanhood” within the pages of the Bible.
You’re not going to find any woman that resembles a docile 1950s housewife. And neither are you going to find any damsels in distress.
In A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans writes,
Among the women praised in Scriptures are warriors, widows, slaves, sister wives, apostles, teachers, concubines, queens, foreigners, prostitutes, prophets, mothers, and martyrs. What makes these women’s stories leap from the page is not the fact that they all conform to some kind of universal ideal, but that, regardless of the culture or context in which they found themselves, they lived their lives with valor.”
You’ll find Hagar, the surrogate mother banished from Abraham’s household who meets God in the desert and is the only person in Scripture to ascribe a name to the Divine.
And the five daughters of Zelophad, who boldly petitioned Moses to receive their father’s birthright and land.
And Jael, the desert nomad who hammered a tent-peg through the skull of an enemy general while he was sleeping.
And Tamar, who tricked and seduced her father-in-law to guarantee herself an heir (and earned herself a spot on the genealogy of Jesus).
And Rahab, the prostitute who hid enemy spies in her brothel and helped orchestrate the downfall of Jericho.
These are the stories you rarely hear in church.
In the second century, the pagan historian Celsus dismissed Christianity as “a pathetic religion of slaves, women, and children.”
But slaves and women weren’t drawn to the early church because it was more oppressive and restrictive — they were enthusiastic participants because this “pathetic religion” offered agency, respect, and mission.
During the first Pentecost, Peter (quoting from the book of Joel) preached that God would pour out his spirit on all people so that “your sons and daughters” and “both men and women” will prophesy.
In the early church, you’ll find Phoebe, a single woman (or widow) who is referred to as “a deacon of the church in Cenchrae” who is entrusted by Paul to carry and deliver the letter of Romans and is called a “benefactor of many people.”
And Junia, the woman apostle imprisoned in Rome whom Paul considers “outstanding among the apostles.”
And Euodia and Syntyche, leaders in the church in Phillipi, who “contended” at Paul’s side for the “cause of the Gospel.”
And the four unmarried daughters of Philip, who we are told “prophesied.”
And Priscilla, who — along with her husband, Aquila — are considered “co-workers in Christ” and helped correct theology of the scholar Apollos. (Also of note: Anytime Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned in Paul’s letters, Priscilla is always listed first — a sign of great respect in a patriarchal culture).
These are the stories you rarely hear in church.
We are all to blame for this “conspiracy of silence” for these are the stories of women we should be sharing with our sons and daughters — not just the virtues of patience and submission.
When I hear a theologian talk about how “God gave Christianity a masculine feel,” I would shake my head and laugh if the implications weren’t so damn depressing.
The Biblical ideal has never been to create more “Stepford housewives.”
It’s to create more women of valor.
And maybe the Church would be plagued with fewer sex abuse scandals, dangerous marriage advice, and subtextual chauvinism if there were more “woman of valor” permitted into leadership.
Run the Church (Girls)
In my faith tradition, most churches don’t allow women to serve as elders, deacons, or pastors. Depending on the denomination, some don’t even allow female worship leaders.
And in some cases, the highest station a woman can aspire to — no matter her level of education or qualification — is a grade-school Sunday School teacher (or something in Children’s Ministry).
One of the largest seminaries in the U.S. doesn’t ordain women but offers a graduate-level “homemaking concentration” in their Woman’s Department.
Cultural progression is always going to disrupt traditional patterns of thought, belief, and action. Unfortunately, the Church has often been at the tail end of social and cultural progress, holding fast to tradition in the guise of orthodoxy.
It’s interesting how quick we are to point toward cultural context when Paul discusses “slaves obeying their masters,” while simultaneously demanding a straight reading when he says women should “stay busy at home” a few verses beforehand.
Unless you were a priestess in a fertility cult or a prostitute, there weren’t many economic opportunities for women in Greco-Roman culture. They weren’t allowed to own a business, obtain a higher education, or have a voice in the public square.
A woman was considered the property of her husband or father.
(And for all his browbeating, Paul’s advocation for mutual submission between married couples was a revolutionary ideal within his cultural context).
But we’re not a first-century Greco-Roman society anymore.
Our women are educated,
they’re not considered property,
and they’re permitted positions of authority in the public sphere.
And we’re not the first-century Church.
And that’s okay.
God doesn’t call us to be a first-century Church.
He calls us to be the best possible version of the Church in whatever culture, era, and place we find ourselves.
In the first century, the Church didn’t have paid senior pastors, seminaries, children’s ministries, worship leaders, daycare services, youth groups, conventions or Vacation Bible Schools.
But those stations developed as the needs of the church evolved.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes that when “brothers and sisters” come together they should exercise their spiritual gifts “so that the church may be built up.”
In today’s culture, does limiting or restricting the roles of women in church leadership negatively or positively affect the spread of the Gospel? Or, in the words of Biblical scholar Scot McKnight, “Do you think Paul would have put women ‘behind the pulpit’ if it would have been advantageous ‘for the sake of the Gospel‘?”
(For the record, it’s estimated between 80–85% of single missionaries on the field today are women).
Do you accuse divorced women of adultery for remarrying? Does your church enforce a strict “No Speaking” policy for all women during worship gatherings? Does it require head coverings for women and forbid jewelry?
Of course not. Even though these instructions are “very clear” in the New Testament, we also acknowledge there are certain passages and attitudes bound by cultural constraints that no longer exist.
Call me a heretic, but I don’t think “God’s design for men and women” includes recreating the hyper-patriarchal attitudes and worldviews of first-century Roman citizens.
In Jesus Feminist, Sarah Bessey writes,
Patriarchy is not God’s dream for humanity. Instead, in Christ, and because of Christ, we are invited to participate in the Kingdom of God through redemptive movement — for both man and women — toward equality and freedom. We can choose to move with God, further into justice and wholeness, or we can choose to prop up the world’s dead systems, baptizing injustice and power in sacred language.”
In his letter to the Galatian church, Paul makes what is perhaps one of the most culturally incendiary statements of his ministry when he writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
We can argue about Biblical hermeneutics and Scriptural exegesis all we want, but the truth of the matter is that there are already hundreds of thousands of women pastors, priests, missionaries, humanitarians, social workers, professors, authors, songwriters, bloggers, and artists teaching, shepherding, creating, and proclaiming the Gospel throughout every corner of the world and within every facet of life.
And they’re doing just fine.
Addendum I: The Lost
But our Bible stories about women aren’t all happy and empowering.
The Bible was written by real people in real places in history. In some ways, it’s a product of its environment. And that environment wasn’t always friendly toward women.
For every Ruth,
there’s a concubine gang-raped and chopped into twelve pieces to rally the tribes of Israel.
For every Naomi,
there’s the daughter of Jephthah, sacrificed by her father as a burnt offering to God.
For every Miriam,
there’s a Tamar, the princess raped by her own brother in her father’s palace.
For every Mary Magdalene,
there’s a woman exiled from her community for an untreatable menstrual condition.
For every Martha,
there’s a teenage girl told her body is a “stumbling block” to the purity of the boys in youth group.
For every Sarah,
there’s a college student informed that while she can preach the Gospel to an unreached people group (read: not white), she can never aspire to preach from the pulpit of a North American church (read: white).
For every Deborah,
there’s a woman instructed not to leave her abusive husband because “God calls her to submission in all things.”
These are the stories you rarely hear in church.
Truth be told, the Bible is more honest about being a woman in the real world than many of us care to admit.
But the point is not to offer another defense of the text,
or an excuse,
or an explanation,
or a historical analysis of how it’s not as bad as you think it is.
Because, frankly, women already hear enough of that bullshit in their day-to-day lives from people who think they know best.
And what they definitely don’t need is for us to sanitize the Bible down into an advice column meant solely for expectant brides, submissive wives, and overwhelmed moms.
Anytime the Bible is used to reinforce or justify long-lasting, pre-existing power structures, we need to take notice and start asking questions. And those questions are more pressing than ever in the era of #MeToo and #ChurchToo.
What is needed is an acknowledgment and admission — that misogyny, chauvinism, and oppression dressed up with Bible verses was (and is still) misogyny, chauvinism, and oppression.
The past wasn’t kind, but the future (and present) can be different.
Addendum II: Supplies and Caveats
- If you have not read Beth Moore’s A Letter to My Brothers and Thabiti Anyabwile’s response, stop what you’re doing and read them now.
- Here are 12 current women preachers you should know about.
- I’m indebted to The IVP Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Counterpoints: Two Views on Women in Ministry, Michael Bird’s Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts, Rachel Held Evan’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Sarah Bessy’s Jesus Feminist, Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People, and Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet and Junia Is Not Alone.
- If you want a deeper dive into this topic, check out any of the books I mentioned above or visit the Center for Biblical Equality.