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What Does the Bible Really Say About Women?

What Does the Bible Really Say About Women?
Posted by Andy Patton

In an age when the wrong tweet can end your career, the Bible stubbornly resists cancellation. 

It continues to hold out its wisdom to the modern world even when the modern world flatters itself that it has transcended the primitive, regressive ways of ancient Christianity. It continues to puzzle, delight, inspire, confound, and transform people in the twenty-first century as much as it did in the first century. 

God’s morals, God’s ideas, and God’s ways are unchanging, whereas human systems of thought and life blow with the shifting winds of time. As God says in the book of Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways… As the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.(Isaiah 55:8-9)

So the Bible never completely blends in with any culture that reads it. Different parts of Scripture always stand out starkly against the background of its surrounding culture—some parts strike people as praiseworthy, others as worthy of blame and derision. 

Ok. Fair enough. 

That still leaves us with the problem of what we are to do with those passages that stand out against the backdrop of our modern assumptions. What do we do with those bits that make us squirm, keep us up late tossing in our beds, and, sometimes, make us want to walk away from God altogether?

I’d like to suggest another way than pretending like those passages aren’t there or using them as justification to consign the Bible—along with bloodletting, witchcraft, and infant exposure—to the ash heap of history's misbegotten ideas. 

What if the best way to navigate those passages isn’t to steer around them but to dive deeper into them and really understand them for the first time? What if there are reasonable explanations for the Bible’s apparent contradictions? What if, when you go digging into the context of the problematic parts of the Bible, rather than rot, you find treasure with the power to heal the wounds, divisions, and alienations of even our modern world?

The Past Is a Foreign Land

The past is a foreign land, and writings from the past are messages from a world that is often very different from our own. Nobody wants to be the tourist who gets off the plane in Paris and complains about how few McDonalds there are in France. Yet, we do the same thing when we open up the Bible and level our easy judgments against it. 

Just like a foreign culture, the Bible is hard to understand. This is not to say that the message of Jesus is too sophisticated for a simple understanding of the gospel, nor is it to say that the Spirit can’t use simple words or a plain understanding of Scripture to grow his church. 

I’m only saying that it is not natural for everyone to assume the best of literature they do not immediately understand. It takes time to learn where our personal and cultural blind spots are when it comes to literature, especially ancient literature like the Bible. 

So when you come to a problematic passage in the Bible, do what good tourists do: slow down, remain humble, reserve judgment, and get to know the new land you’ve come to.

Paul’s View of Women

With few issues is the conflict between the Bible and the intuitions of the modern world more apparent than with the Bible’s view of women. A surface reading of Scripture can leave people feeling like the Bible’s morality is regressive, and its view of the sexes is oppressive. That’s the bad news. 

The good news is that the deeper you go into the Bible’s view of women, the more clear it becomes that, rather than being a tool of patriarchy, the Bible undermines the oppression of women at every turn. 

I’d like to demonstrate that fact by focusing on one controversial figure when it comes to the Bible’s view of women: the apostle Paul. 

Paul’s alleged hatred of women can be a stumbling block for people for whom the Bible’s view of women is a hot issue. So let’s tackle a few questions about controversial New Testament passages to see if criticisms leveled against Paul’s view of women stand up to reality.

A full discussion of these issues requires more space than this post offers, but there are plenty of good resources available if you want to go further down the rabbit hole. Here are a few:

What are the most problematic passages for modern people when it comes to Paul’s view of women?

Most of the debate about Paul’s so-called hatred of women centers around three New Testament passages:

  • 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 “...Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman…”, “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man...”
  • 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 “The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
  • Ephesians 5:21-33 “Wives submit to your own husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife…”

What can be said about these passages? A lot. But first, we need to go over a few fundamentals rules for reading Paul’s letters well.

Rule #1: The New Testament Letters Are Only One Side of A Conversation

All of the controversial passages in Paul’s letters appear in letters addressed to specific congregations with specific problems and issues. Scholar and staff member at L’Abri Fellowship, Mardi Keyes explains it this way:

“The letters are one side of the conversation. The context into which they were written forms the other side of the conversation. To reconcile the apparent contradictions in the Bible, the careful student of the Bible needs to roll up their sleeves and dig into the context of the New Testament passages.”

Sometimes when you find something contradictory or objectionable, the problem disappears when you get to know the other side of the conversation, the context into which the passage was written. This is especially true of the New Testament letters. They are high-context documents. Trying to understand the letters without studying the context is like trying to drive without opening your eyes. You shouldn’t be surprised if you drive into a ditch.

Rule #2: Translation Involves Culturally-Conditioned Decisions

I hope this is not a surprise, but the Bible wasn’t written in English. Paul wrote his letters in ancient Greek that were later translated into English. Translation involves decisions. Those decisions often reflect the culture and prerogatives of the translators. Professor and writer D. A. Carson said,  “No human being living in time and speaking in language can ever be entirely culture-free about anything.”

Many versions of the Bible in English have been produced over the past centuries. Some of them are smudged with the fingerprints of patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean the Bible endorses patriarchy. 

Take the example of the list of Paul’s co-workers in Romans 16. The list of his colleagues includes seven women who he recognizes for their ministry—he names more female ministers than males. Though one of them, Phoebe, is called a deacon, the Ryrie Study Bible reads the cultural preferences of the translators into the original text and renders the word deacon as “servant” without apparent warrant. In the same passage, Paul refers to Junia as “prominent among the apostles.” However, other translations of the Bible have changed her name to a male form, Junius, because the translators reasoned that if she was prominent among the apostles, then she couldn’t have been a woman.

But again, a careful reading of the original texts corrects these distortions of Paul’s writing.

Rule #3: Paul Often Quotes the Ideas He Is Addressing Before Refuting Them.

In The Making Of Biblical Womanhood, Beth Allison Barr writes:

“Paul was an educated Roman citizen. He would have been familiar with contemporary rhetorical practices that corrected the faulty understanding by quoting the faulty understanding and then refuting it. Paul does this in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7 with his quotations ‘all things are lawful for me,’ ‘food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,’ and ‘it is good for a man not to touch a woman.’... In such cases, Paul is quoting the faulty views of the Gentile world, such as ‘all things are lawful to me.’ Paul then ‘strongly modifies’ them.”

Just because Paul writes a sentence doesn’t mean he endorses it. The moments when Paul is quoting an idea before refuting it can be easy to miss at first because the ancient world didn’t have quotation marks as we do. However, a careful reading of many passages that would be otherwise confusing or misleading shows that Paul means the exact opposite of the ideas he quotes from the Gentile world.

With those three rules in mind, let’s go back to those three controversial passages and see if we can make sense of them. 

What Does It Mean That Man Is the Head of Women? (1 Corinthians 11:2-16)

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:3 that “the head (kefalē) of every man is Christ [and] the head (kefalē) of a wife is her husband, and the head (kefalē) of Christ is God.” 

What are we to make of that? Is it grounds for female subordination to men? Maybe not. 

The word translated as “head” here is the Greek word kefalē. It is used 76 times in the New Testament and can refer to the body part, but it can also mean the point of origin, the source, like the headwaters of a river. And that’s likely what Paul meant here. A few sentences later in verse 11, Paul goes on to say that neither sex is independent because though the first woman came from man, every man since then has come from a woman. And, Paul adds in verse 12, “All things have their source in God.” 

With that reading of kefalē in place, Paul’s words point less to the subordination of women to men and more to the mutual dependence of both sexes under God, which agrees with what he says elsewhere in the New Testament.

What Does It Mean That Women Should Be Silent in Church? (1 Corinthians 14:26-40) 

“The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

What is going on with Paul’s mention of “the law” that says that women should keep silent? When Paul talks about “the law,” he is usually talking about the Old Testament law, the Torah. However, there isn’t a law in the Torah that says women should keep silent and ask their husbands questions at home. But there were Roman laws that said that. Could Paul be talking about a contemporary law? 

Consider this speech by Cato the Elder in the wake of the “civil disobedience” of Roman women after of Battle of Cannae:

“At home our freedom is conquered by female fury… What kind of behavior is this? Running around in public, blocking streets, and speaking to other women’s husbands? Could you not have asked your own husbands the same thing at home?... Our ancestors did not want women to conduct any—not even private—business without a guardian; they wanted them to be under the authority of parents, brothers, or husbands…”

Some of those sentences sound pretty familiar from 1 Corinthians 14. Could this be another moment when Paul is quoting a contemporary source before refuting it? 

Again, the rest of the passage seems to support that reading. Paul’s next words (as translated in the RSV) are, “What! Did the word of God originate with you? Are you the only ones it has reached?” And Paul goes on to remind them of the proper practices for worship in the church, which aren’t supposed to mirror the relationships of the sexes in the broader culture, but subvert them.

This subversion becomes crystal clear when we come to another of the “problem passages,” Ephesians 5.

Why Are Women Told to Submit to Their Husbands? (Ephesians 5:21-33)

Ephesians 5 contains one of the New Testament’s “household codes,” passages that instruct believers in how to organize Christian households. Paul writes, “Wives submit to your own husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife…” 

Well, there it is in plain English. Wives owe their husbands the submission that the church owes Christ, right? Not so fast.

Did you know that the paragraph, chapter, and verse divisions weren’t there in the original text? They were added later and are another avenue that cultural presuppositions can sneak their way into the text. 

Many modern translations use a section break to separate verses 20 and 21 (which read, “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,”) from verse 22. The section heading usually introduces verse 22 with the words “Wives and Husbands,” excluding verse 21 from applying to marital submission. It gives the appearance that verse 21 has little to do with verse 22, but they are meant to be read together. 

In that reading, the submission of a wife to her husband only happens within the context of her husband’s mutual submission to her under Christ.

Read Correctly, the Household Codes Are Revolutionary

Ephesians 5 and the other household codes shouldn’t be read against the backdrop of 21st-century expectations and intuitions about gender roles but against the backdrop of the social arrangements of the cultural moment into which they were written. When we do that, we see how subversive they were to Roman patriarchy. 

In Roman society, husbands had complete authority over their wives, even the power of life and death. Women only had legal status through their husbands. Female submission was backed by the power of law. Men reigned supreme in their households as a king reigns in his country.

In that context, the sentence in Ephesians 5 about women submitting to their husbands would have been entirely expected by the culture of the day. The things that follow that sentence would have been revolutionary.

Paul goes on to tell Christian husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church. How did Christ love the church? He served her. He died for her. He submitted himself to death for her sake. Not only that, Paul went on to teach husbands that, rather than having the power of life and death over their wives, their very bodies belonged to their wives, and it was the responsibility of the husband to “nourish and cherish” the body of his wife in turn.

When read this way, the household codes become the organizing documents for a resistance movement against Roman patriarchy—each Christian home a subversive cell of another way of living, a lived allegiance to another king than Caesar.

There is much more to say about these passages and others like them, but one thing is clear: when we are ready to dismiss the Bible as outdated, backward, and irrelevant, we should learn to ask ourselves, “What if I am wrong?”

That question can lead you on a journey of discovery into this ancient text that will unearth its culture-altering wisdom and life-altering beauty.

Christianity Remains the Religion of the Oppressed

Here is one more quotation from a shining example of Roman patriarchy. In The True Word, Roman philosopher and opponent of Christianity, Celsus, wrote this: 

“In some private homes, we find people who work with rags… the least cultured and most ignorant kind of people… When the head of the household is around, they dare not utter a word, but as soon as they can take the children aside, they speak about wonders… If you really wish to know the truth, leave your teachers and fathers and go to the tannery or the women’s quarters and you will learn about the perfect life… It is thus that there Christians find those who will believe them.”

I can’t read those words without tearing up. Celsus meant to deride and ridicule Christianity, but I see in his words evidence of the beauty and power of Christianity—and an explanation of why it spread like wildfire through the Roman empire.

Why did the Christian message take root among “people who work with rags” and in “tanneries and women’s quarters”? Because it offered oppressed men and women hope, comfort, and the promise that it was God, not Roman patriarchy, that determined their worth as human beings. 

They flocked to Jesus because he set them free. The Roman underclass was being inducted into the upside-down Kingdom of Jesus, which has the power to overturn all the broken, backward systems that human empires have ever raised to hold down the weak and exploited.

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Posted by Andy Patton

Andy Patton is a former staff member at L'Abri Fellowship in England and holds an M. A. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Read more from Andy on The Darking Psalter (translations of the Psalms with new poetry), Three Things (a monthly digest of resources to help people connect with culture, neighbor, and God), and Still Point (reflections on deconstruction and why people leave Christianity).

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