The Position of Women in the Bible
Now, there are some who would say that it is impossible to be unbiased at all; everybody brings some kind of pre-judgment (pre-judice), pre-understanding to a text or event. What we already have believed in determines how we interpret anything else. Thus, women in some cultures would find biblical texts regarding head-covering as axiomatic, while women in other cultures might find them very oppressive. The very fact that there are a number of interpretations (some in defense of affirming that the rule is mandatory; others in defense affirming that the rule is mandatory only in few cultures; some others doubting that the commandment is prejudiced) tells us that pre-understanding has a great bearing upon one’s interpretation of a text. However, with regard to those who seriously take Scripture for what it is, the hermeneutical circle (the circle of interpretation) cannot be ignored: one’s prejudgment brought to the text can be radically altered through engagement with the text; in other words, a person’s biases can be severely challenged and changed as he continues to explore God’s word, giving rise to a new understanding that is once again brought into fresh engagement with the text once again.
Accusations about the Bible being prejudiced against women is often brought forth by some feminists who doubt that the Bible can be fair with women especially when its overarching culture is patriarchal (as they believe it to be). For such, anything patriarchal is prone to be biased against women. But, that is a prejudiced belief itself. Further, it can be unhealthy to label something (a generation, a culture) as patriarchal and use that caricature to condemn it. On the other hand, some might say “No, the Bible is not biased, but interpretations of it are.” This could be possible, where scripture twisting occurs to manipulate interpretation in order to use scriptural authority to validate a man-made rule. However, what the Bible says in this regard might be very different from what people usually think it says. Is the Bible biased against women? The question has many issues at bottom; however, in this article, we’ll examine only a few Biblical passages that have been more often challenged than others.
The Image of God in Woman
We start at the first record of woman in the Bible. In Genesis 1:27, she is not referred to as “woman” yet, but only as “female”. The passage says: “God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Gen 1:27) With regard to the image of God, neither the male nor the female are inferior or superior to each other. Note the singular and the plural in the passage: “in the image of God He created HIM; male and female He created THEM” (emphatics mine). Man, here in this passage, is not merely Adam; man here is humanity (both male and female).
Headship and Authority
In chapter 2 of Genesis, we find for the first time the expression “woman”; and, in a way it is “patriarchal” because it was not God who called the female as woman, it was the man who called her so (2:23). The expression “woman” in verse 22 is based on the name that the man gave her. But, what did God call her? We don’t find Him call her by any name except that He said that He wanted to make for the man “a helper comparable to him”. Adam’s naming the woman as Woman (as “one taken out of Man”) was only an act that acknowledged that God had given him a “helper comparable to him”, bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh. However, the Genesis narrative in chapter 2 is rudimentary, relating only to the first man and his wife. But, womanhood is not just about “wifehood”; a woman is also sister, a mother, a daughter – and those relationships are diametrically different from the one spoken of in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24). The passage has been talking about the man and his wife, predominantly. But, the basic premise is clear: humans have been created as male and female in the image and likeness of God.
“For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man.” (1Co 11:7-9)
This doesn’t mean that the woman is not created in the image of God; we have already looked at that earlier. Paul only wants to point out the order of succession here: the man was made first, then the woman for the man.
Prior to this, Paul had stated, “the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” (1Co 11:3)
Certainly, this doesn’t mean that every male on earth is the head of every female on earth nor that every female on earth has to submit to every male on earth. Very clearly, the head of a woman is only her husband. As a daughter, she submits to her father even as a son is commanded to obey his father and his mother; however, with regard to headship, the Bible states it clearly that the woman (i.e. the wife) was created for the man. But, in other relationships, the Genesis rule doesn’t apply. And so, Paul continues,
“Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.” (1Co 11:11-12)
Certainly, from passages where it says that the son should obey the voice of his mother, we don’t extrapolate that the Bible is matriarchal and oppressive against men. It is ridiculous to point out that in the order of authority the authority of a son is above his mother (or a female tutor at school) just because of his gender. The Bible makes it very clear that a son has to honor his mother and must not forsake her law (Prov.1:8). However, when the children are grown up, they are free from any tutorship that toddlers must have (Gal.4:1-2,5; 1Kgs.15:13). Mary could not have authority over her son after He was grown up (Matt.12:47-50). However, children are commanded to render to their parents what is due to them (1Tim.5:4,8).
The Biblical principle places the man as the caretaker and protector of his wife, as being the stronger one in relation to his wife who is “the weaker vessel” (1Peter 3:7). No husband ought to treat his wife dishonorably; if he does that it will invite wrath from God (1Peter 3:7). Also, the Bible makes it clear that God is against unethical divorces (Mal.2:16; Matt.19:3-9) and the Law of Moses made it sure that a woman was always treated with honor (Deut.21:10-17; 22:13-19) and that the man brought happiness to his wife (Deut.24:5). There were also laws for the protection of slaves, widows, and pregnant women.
Regarding Public Silence
In 1Corinthians 14:34-35, Paul instructs:
Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. (1Co 14:34-35)
By “church” here is meant a gathering of Christians at a place. One important rule of biblical interpretation is the consistency principle: we must assume that the author is being consistent throughout his writing unless the inconsistency is blatant. The purpose of this rule is to prevent skepticism from making premature surface interpretations without having looked deeply into the context of a text and the variable meanings of the terms used in it.
It is very clear from this very epistle that Paul doesn’t imply that women have to be absolutely silent in the churches. A woman could certainly pray and prophesy in the public (1Cor.11:5), which meant a lot; because prayer involved a priestly representative role and prophesying involved authoritative communication of divine oracles – “There is neither…male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28). Paul is certainly looking at order. He had been speaking of how prophets have to prophesy in an orderly manner, while the others judged. Obviously, then, Paul is not saying here that only men should prophesy and women must not prophesy but be silent. That being ruled out, the possibility remains that he is forbidding disorderly chattering in the church while a service is going on.
In 1Timothy 2:12, however, Paul instructs Timothy that a woman is not permitted to teach or to have authority over a man. The context here points to a family couple (“a woman” and “a man”) and the rationale is given from the Genesis story of the first Man and his Wife. In a husband-wife relationship, a woman is not permitted to have authority over or try to dominate her husband. Peter amplifies it further when he instructs: “Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, (1Pe 3:1). However, this doesn’t mean that a woman cannot teach at all. Writing to Timothy again, he reminds him of the faith of Timothy’s mother and his grandmother, and of how from his childhood he was instructed in the Scriptures – certainly, by his mother and grandmother because Timothy’s father was not a Jew (2Tim.1:5; 3:15; Acts 16:1).
This also implies that a woman can be a pastor in a church if her husband is a pastor. However, if her husband is not a pastor, then her appointment as a shepherd of the flock can assume her being in an authoritative position above her husband in the church, which would immediately convey role confusion with respect to the Genesis principle; therefore the injunction that a woman should not have authority over a man.
In cases that a couple stands as a model and example for other families (especially with regard to their public life), even secular authority recognizes the importance of the Genesis model (Esther 1:16-18). The Christian view of this model is given in Ephesians 5: 22-33. However, in cases that the authoritative position doesn’t have a family-extrapolation (e.g. modern business and politics – in which family life is individualist and private) a woman can be in authoritative position above men.