Wednesday, March 22, 2017


The rise of women to diverse positions of power in many world cultures marks a change in the historical record of male domination. Yet, in politics, religion, and family life, the predominant role for women is less than equal.

Pictures of Muslim women wearing the Burka, Niqab, or Hijab remind us of the powerful role of religious traditions in prescribing what women wear.

In preparing a presentation about biblical gender roles, I was reminded again of the consistent pattern of male leadership in the Bible­­—including those specific verses telling women to submit to their husbands.

In this post, I want to look at some ways women have emerged from the stifling grip of male-dominated Christian traditions. I will leave it to others to examine what is happening in other religious cultures.

Men Rule by God!

In the opening biblical stories, it is not long before Eve finds her place in a narrative that keeps women in submission for thousands of years. Paul, the traditional author of 1 Timothy 2, takes his readers back to the first few chapters of the Bible to explain the importance of “full submission” for women.

Of course, one text doesn’t make a doctrine. But the pattern of female submission, based on the order of creation, the teaching that the first woman led a man into sin, and the God ordained male leadership role (Genesis 3:16) remains the norm for male-female relationships in much of Christendom.

“Wives, submit yourselves…” (Ephesians 5:22 NIV). In this New Testament document, Paul explains the biblical hierarchy for family life as part of his teaching about the church. The message of wives submitting to men is repeated in Colossians 3 and 1 Timothy 2 as well as 1 Peter 3. The words are pretty similar so, it is easy to see why Christian women have lived in submission to men for thousands of years.

People used to joke about marriage being a “ball and chain” for men. In truth, women were the ones in bondage. Their only biblical methods for escape from a bad marriage were the death of a husband or divorce based on the husband’s adultery (e.g., Matthew 19; 1 Corinthians 7). In reality, men controlled political and religious power and thus determined who could divorce whom. And because women could not be in authority over men and were relegated to salvific childcare by God (1 Timothy 2:15), there was not much of a chance for women to live independently of a man.

Women as Helpful Property

We should not forget that women were created to be helpers for men (Genesis 2). In the “rapist rule,” women had no obvious control over their life. In Deuteronomy 22, a rapist must pay the girl’s father and marry his raped girl-victim for life. It’s common knowledge in Christian cultures that only men could have multiple wives and concubines. The biblical accounts make it clear that having a lot of beautiful women was evidence of God’s blessing.

Revising Men’s Bibles

So many things have happened in the past century in terms of male-female relationships that it is impossible to point to any one event as the primary reason for women approaching equality with men.

The links in the chain of submission include education, employment, and birth control. Ironically, two World Wars enhanced the role of women in those nations most involved in the wars. It’s only been about 100 years that women have gained the right to vote.

Following the revision of societal traditions of male dominance, women and men have begun to tackle the Christian submission narrative. Liberal divorce laws enabled women to separate from abusive men. In the last few decades, divorce among Christians has risen as it has in secular cultures. Divorced and remarried Christians are welcomed in most churches. The biblical text hasn’t changed but the narrative of condemnation has been silenced.

A number of churches hire women as clergy and support women in higher leadership positions. Religious people depend on text-linked arguments to justify changes. Women and men have promoted the few biblical examples of women in various leadership roles in ancient Israel (e.g., Miriam, Deborah) as well as during the early church (Mary, Tabitha). And they point to some examples of how Jesus interacted in kind and respectful ways toward women.

Revisionists highlight bits of text to show that there is no difference in God’s kingdom between men and women (Galatians 3:28). They remind congregants of mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21). And argue that many biblical teachings were specific to a godly life within an ancient culture or even a subculture.

A quick look at challenges to the restrictions in 1 Timothy 2 can be found at the Junia Project post by Gail Wallace. She makes five points worthy of consideration: 1. The translation of the word authority, 2. Failure to apply literal interpretations to other texts, 3. Ignoring the personal letter context, 4. Elevating these verses above other verses, 5. Logical problems in putting the text into practice.

Some like Karen King take an even stronger approach as she challenges men’s views of the Biblical texts. Not only does she point to leadership roles for women and challenge the negative narrative about Mary Magdalene, but she also refers to other texts (e.g., Gospel of Mary) left out of the Bible.

Will Christian Women Ever Attain Full Equality?

It is hard to imagine a world in which the Pope and Patriarchs of Christian Orthodox churches will be women. But it is not hard to see that women will continue to increase in shared decision-making power with men in many Christian groups, including the Catholic Church.

I suspect there will always be groups of Christians who will remain bound by traditional understandings of the biblical texts. Even in these conservative groups, the recent revisions in narratives have emphasized the importance of love and respect such that men are taught that leadership in homes requires them to love their wives as Christ loved the church.

Men have found crafty ways to maintain control or perhaps a semblance of biblical leadership. For example, women may be the pastors of churches or the CEOs of Christian organizations and Christian colleges but the denominational leader or head of the board is still a chairMAN.

When pressed about love, some men are  quick to point out that love is sometimes tough and that, as in medical care, sometimes pain is justified to save a life.


An interesting documentary, The Ascent of Woman, looked at the history of women and provided many examples of women left out of dominant narratives of history.

In A House Divided, I cover submission in the context of marriage in Chapter 8. In Chapter 10 I discuss biblical views of women and men.

A House Divided is available from the publisher, PICKWICK, and other booksellers, including AMAZON.

See the Gender Inequality Index for a general view of women and men in the world.

The conservative publication, Christianity Today, often includes stories of women in ministry.

After writing this post, I noticed that George Paul Wood posted a Podcast of an interview with Waldemar Kowalski questioning limitations to women's leadership in churches based on 1 Timothy 2:8-15.