I recently read an incredibly sad and provoking book entitled ‘Half the Sky’ by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It is a book all about women, documenting how women are the most oppressed people on the planet today. It shows oppression to be not only the horrors of human trafficking, but a wide range of experiences where women are told they are somehow less or smaller than the men around them. It’s a heart wrenching read, but also one of mobilising the reader to action. It’s the sort of book that makes you want to stand up and change the world because surely when God created woman, He did not intend for her to be oppressed and held down but rather to lead and shape the world around her. He did not make her small and insignificant, but placed her in a place of honour in creation – alongside man – to rule the world (Genesis 1:28).
About a decade ago if you had asked me what I believed God’s intention was for women I wouldn’t quite know how to answer you. As a child I grew up thinking that girls were equal to boys in every way. I believed that I could be or do anything. In my late teens I had a conversation at church that shook that belief in me. A conversation that left me questioning what God’s heart really was towards women. And that conversation – painful and confusing as it was at the time – was an incredibly helpful one in hindsight as it set me on a journey of study and encounter. I wanted to come to a place of peace in my heart – to understand what God’s intention is for me as a woman and to understand what scripture says about my role.
I’ve written the points below as a brief summary of some of what i’ve read and understood from scripture. I hope this post will be an encouragement to many – that the God of the Bible is FOR women and is not interested in holding them back. I hope also that this post may make some readers think again about some of the scriptures that may have been used to suggest that God has placed a lower ceiling on women than He has on men. In the end, I hope that whatever your view on the role of women, you will find me not to be offensive but rather passionate and ultimately full of love for both those who agree and disagree with me. I think that God is much more interested in us loving each other within our different opinions than proving our point to be correct but doing so in a way that lacks love for one another. I hope the former will be true of me.
Please bear in mind that i’m not trying to write this post as a conclusive thesis on the matter – i’m writing with my two children under two around me… makes for a somewhat chaotic writing process!
For the purposes of brevity, i’ve summarised my view on the role of women down to three main headings:
1. Equality from Eden to eternity
2. Jesus loved to liberate women
3. Paul loved strong women
Equality from Eden to Eternity –
In Eden we see that Adam and Eve both had a mandate together to rule over and subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28). Adam didn’t rule Eve to then rule the earth. They were equal co-rulers. Before the fall, men and women were created to rule alongside one another. There’s no hint of hierarchy. There’s no hint that Adam was the main ruler and Eve the subordinate.
Some have tried to use the word describing Eve – a helper (Genesis 2:18) – to insinuate that her role was somehow a deputy to Adam. But if we look into the word helper (in Hebrew: Ezer) we realise just how absurd that insinuation is. The word does not have the connotation of inferiority but rather of adding strength. In the Old Testament, the word Ezer is most consistently used of God – the point being that it is a word describing someone who is bringing much needed strength rather than someone who isn’t important enough to be the main leader.
Others have tried to use creation order as their basis to prove that Adam had more authority than Eve. There’s not much logic to this however. If anything, creation becomes more complex and authoritative the further on in order. The animals came before both Adam and Eve. That doesn’t give them greater authority, but rather the opposite! I certainly don’t claim this to prove that Eve had more authority than Adam, but neither do I find justification for claiming the opposite.
Jumping ahead from Eden, right through to eternity, we catch a glimpse in the New Testament again of God’s desire to see men and women standing alongside each other – together in equality to rule and reign. Men and women are co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17), seated in Him (Ephesians 2:6) and reigning with Him (Revelation 5:10), the focus no longer our gender but our one-ness in Christ (Galatians 3:28).
I wonder why, when God created men and women to rule together from Eden to eternity, we would think that His intention for our present age is any different? Why would we think that God would introduce hierarchy as His intention now when hierarchy is not His intention either in Eden or in the Kingdom fully come?
Jesus Loved to Liberate Women –
If Jesus is to show us the heart of the Father, then we see that Papa God loves to liberate women and see them flourish in roles that some would reserve only for men. Jesus let Mary sit at his feet (Luke 10) – the posture of a disciple – scandalising everyone around Him as He redefined what a woman could and couldn’t do. He catapulted the Samaritan woman into being the first evangelist (John 4) and used Mary as the first witness to His resurrection (John 20) – completely disinterested in the fact that this would make the testimony of His victory weaker to those who saw women as somehow less able than men.
Jesus’ encounters with women consistently lifted them up and honoured them. I wonder if this is true of us who represent Him? I’m not talking about patronising or flattering women. I’m talking about allowing women to walk in authority – as Jesus did – despite what the traditions around us may think. His example is both encouraging and provoking.
Paul Loved Strong Women –
I love reading through Romans 16. It’s a chapter where Paul honoured those who laboured with him in the gospel. The chapter is full of affection, admiration and respect. The remarkable thing about that chapter is that Paul names several women within it. He is not offended by their strength, not taken aback by their gifting, not scandalised by their positions of authority. He honours them: Phoebe, Priscilla (who interestingly is named before her husband Aquila in case you are still adamant that order connotes authority), Mary, Junia (who alongside her husband Andronicus is named as outstanding among the apostles), Tryphena and Tryphosa, Persis, Julia. Women who were deacons, apostles, co-labourers in Christ. No hint of hierarchy or male dominance in Romans 16.
It’s interesting to me that we largely ignore how Paul loved and affirmed strong women who had authority in Romans 16, ignore how he didn’t put any gender qualification on operating in gifts of the Spirit including teaching and leadership (Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12) or in holding offices of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, teacher (Ephesians 4) all in favour of a handful of verses he wrote to a church that was struggling with false teaching and so needed specific, corrective insight (1 Timothy 2).
I find this sad because 1 Timothy 2 is no more authoritative on the role of women than the other verses, it’s just that it gets much more airtime. It’s tragic that people defend holding women back by claiming that they are just following the ‘plain reading of scripture’ when what they mean is that they are following an inadequately shallow reading of 1 Timothy 2:11+12 whilst ignoring the ‘plain’ reading of Romans 16 and Galatians 3:28 and 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, let alone taking into account the broader brush strokes in scripture of the heart of God and Jesus’ example towards women.
This blog will become far too long if I go too in-depth on 1 Timothy 2 but let me just say a few things to whet the appetite –
- The word translated authority in 1 Timothy 2:12 (authentein) is an incredibly complex word. This is the only time it is used in the Bible. The normal word for authority (exousia) is used multiple times by Paul elsewhere but here he chooses the word authentein – we would be in error if we did not see this as a caution in how we are to translate the word. This has led many well respected academics and theologians to point to authentein not being a word meaning just authority but rather a word with the connotation of grabbing or usurping authority.
- The word translated as silent or quiet in 1 Timothy 2:11 by many is the greek word ‘hesychia’. Outside of Paul’s teaching on women, this word, or its Greek root ‘hesychios’ are found in four other places in the New Testament – 1 Timothy 2:2, 2 Thessalonians 3:12, Acts 22:2 and 1 Peter 3:4. In all these contexts, the word conveys a sense of being at peace/at rest/peaceable rather than having a low level of volume! It would seem that Paul’s instruction is that women learn in a way that is at rest rather than resisting or argumentative towards instruction (this fits well with the general tone of the surrounding passages about encouraging unity and peace rather than division).
- Even without the complications around translating ‘authentein’, 1 Timothy 2:15 should make us aware that this whole passage simply cannot be interpreted at a cursory glance. There is no way of getting away with a ‘plain reading’ of 1 Timothy 2. If you walk away at a shallow reading of the chapter, you will walk away in error. Many have done this with the teaching on women.
- The context of the book of 1 Timothy is I believe a great key in its interpretation. It was written by Paul primarily to correct the false teachings being propagated in Ephesus. It was not a letter laying out his core, timeless beliefs (which would be more true of the book of Romans for example), but rather a letter trying to correct specific errors in a specific community. If we mistake Paul’s applications to a specific community as his principles for all communities, we run the risk of falling into great error ourselves.
There is much more that I could say on these headings, let alone all the other headings i’ve left out! But, let me finish this post by saying this:
The more I read and study scripture, the more I realise that God loves women. God’s heart is to liberate women. He wants full expression of life in women as much as in men and has put His incredible authority on women as much as on men. He has called men and women together to manifest Kingdom life all over the earth. He is not the author of misogyny but rather is a proud Father cheering on His daughters (and sons!) to bring heaven to earth as heirs of His Kingdom. Isn’t it time we as the church joined the cheers of our Father for women to be powerful and beautiful and all they were created to be? Isn’t it time we honoured the Priscillas and Junias and all the rest among us? Romans 8 tells us that all creation is longing and waiting for the full revelation of the children of God. I think it’s time to set our women free.