This essay will discuss the role of women in Christianity by examining two aspects of this issue, namely the Biblical view of women in Christian marriages, and the role of women in church leadership.
There are currently two conflicting models for the role of women in Christian marriage and church leadership that go by the uncomfortably large and academic names of complementarianism and egalitarianism. These two views are currently hotly debated within many conservative church circles (and marriages) in the Western world. The first view claims that the husband is the divinely ordained head of the home. The woman’s role in the complementarian relationship is as second in charge of the family, and to accept limited leadership positions in churches. Women compliment the God-ordained male leadership structure of the church. The recent expulsion of the Saddleback mega-church form the Southern Baptist convention in the United States for ordaining female pastors has highlighted the significance of this issue in contemporary western evangelical circles.
The egalitarian model of marriage and church sees the husband’s role as imitating Christ’s servant heart and ministry through love and devotion to his wife and family, as much as Christ loved the church, if possible. It also sees women as equal to men in church leadership and the task of global evangelism.
Both these opposing positions have solid scriptural scaffolding to justify their view so it can be very confusing when reading scripture and seeing two different views side by side in the New Testament. Both views are currently causing some angst among Christian believers of varying stripes, particularly women.
So which model is correct?
2. UNDERSTANDING THE FIRST CENTURY CHURCH
Before we can get into answering that question, we must first understand what was happening in the 1st Century culture when the New Testament scriptures were first written. This will help explain why the scriptures were written and to whom they were written. These background factors are just as important as what the scriptures say.
First. Most of the books that make up the New Testament started life as just personal letters that went to either an individual or a local group of believers in a village or city. The cultural issues raised in those letters were very localized. Therefore the subject matter of these letters must always be read in their cultural, spiritual, and historical context. Today we glean much wisdom from these letters for living out our Christian lives. Importantly, these letters did not originally have chapter and verse divisions, which came into fashion in the 13th and 16th Centuries respectively. Chapters, verses, and subheadings have had a deep and often subconscious effect on the way we now read these documents. If Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and James knew that one day we would be plucking individual sentences from their texts and stringing them like pearls into doctrines, they would be horrified. First Century context is everything.
Second. In the 1st Century the word church had a very different definition to the one that comes to mind when we say the word church today. The word used in the New Testament 114 times that we translate as church today is the word ecclesia, which simply means called out ones. The word Church meant followers of Jesus. There were no sacred buildings, no Sunday services, no professional clergy, no sacred uniforms, rituals, or language, and no defined institutions. The church was simply people following Jesus, and most followers came from the margins of society.
A local church meeting was typically built around a full meal in a home (Romans 16:3-5, 1 Corinthians 11), which was a weekly replica of the last supper. After the meal there was instruction and individualised ministry. Everyone was free to contribute what they had been learning that week from the Holy Spirit and report in on how the gospel was advancing (John 14:26, 1 Corinthians 14:26). Inquisitive on-believers were usually in attendance, and their questions were addressed. Miracles and healings, as well as the gifts of the Holy Spirit were a normal part of these meetings. In such a fluid and flexible structure everyone was valuable and involved in the missional task of winning the lost to Christ.
This viral New Testament church structure was a fast-growing network of expanding small groups of believers in hundreds of villages and a few cities. Most of these groups were struggling with the need to disengage from their previous perverse cultural norms and so they needed a lot of help from the apostles in forging a new culture that honoured their saviour. This was why most of the books of the New Testament were written.
Third. Whatever doctrine or teaching we are promoting with a particular verse or passage should never be used in isolation from the majority and tone of the New Testament to contradict its overarching message of spiritual liberation through the arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth, as Jesus himself announced in Luke 4:18-20.
With these three points in mind we can now investigate the current dispute about the role of women in both the Western church and Christian marriage with a more mature respect for the scriptures from which the dispute arises. We begin, as we should, with the ministry of Jesus.
3. THE NEW TESTAMENT BATTLE BETWEEN TWO KINGDOMS
Jesus came to this world to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth (Matthew 6:10, Luke 17:20-21). This was a kingdom of divine love (John 15:12-17), reflecting the very nature of God (1 John 4:7-12). He came to serve, to heal, to nurture, to encourage, to help the downtrodden, the destitute, and the demon possessed (Luke 4:18-19). In addition to the Galilean and Judean Jews, Jesus ministered to foreigners (Luke 10:14), despised Samaritans (John 4), hated Roman oppressors (Matthew 8:5-9), outcaste prostitutes (Luke 7:36-50), and pesty children (Matthew 19:13-15) to name a few. He loved all humanity equally, and his supreme act of love was to lay down his life for us so that we could have an eternal relationship with him (John15:13). He came to usher in a new world order, hence his specific use of the term kingdom.
Opposing Jesus during his three year ministry were two religious and political kingdoms of power: The Jewish hierarchy, and the Roman occupiers. This opposition is recorded in the Gospels as an almost continuous confrontation with socially and politically powerful priests who steadfastly resisted Jesus’ message of love and spiritual liberation, leading up to his crucifixion by the all-powerful Romans. The Jewish religious leadership, whom Jesus called hypocrites and white-washed tombs, controlled a culture that socially and financially privileged themselves while exploiting the wider population (Matthew 23:1-39, Luke 19:45-48). From the start of his ministry to its completion, Jesus was hounded by insecure Galilean synagogue leaders, proud teachers of the religious law, atheistic Sadducees, all-powerful temple rulers from Jerusalem, and Rome’s Herodian vassal kings, who killed Jesus’ first cousin John precisely because he challenged their power (Matthew 14:1-12). These powerful men, though full of divergent motives, had one thing in common; they were all deeply threatened by Jesus speaking the truth and were desperate to maintain their iron grip on political, cultural, and religious power. At the end of three years of confrontation this was the stated reason why they killed Jesus (John 11:48-49). It all boiled down to power.
Satanic forces worked through these men, but satanic forces also opposed Jesus openly. First at his birth (Matthew 2:13), then by offering him access to unlimited power if he abandoned his mission to usher in the kingdom of love (Matthew 4:1-11), by opposing the men he was training to take the good news of the kingdom of love to the world after his time on earth was complete (Matthew 17:14-16), and finally by inspiring Judas to betray him (Luke 22:1-5). Satan’s original lust for power was actually the origin of humanity’s on-going lust for power (Genesis 3). The kingdom of power is entrenched deep within both the heart of humanity and the satanic realm, and it craves subservience from others, as witnessed by this quote from Matthew 4:8-10:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.
Jesus came to usher in a new world order, a new kingdom based on love, service, and humble connection to our loving creator rather than power and privilege. The attitude of these opposing kingdoms is perhaps best summarized when, at the last supper, his disciples were still arguing about privilege and position. The quote below from Luke 22:24-27 stands in stark contrast to the one above:
A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
It took until Acts chapter 10, where Peter was given his divine marching orders to take the Gospel to the Gentiles some ten years after Jesus rose from the dead, for this message of service and love for the world beyond the Jewish nation to finally get through to the apostles.
Jesus demonstrated his servant heart and that God’s love was more powerful than temporal power through his ministry to the thousands (Matthew 14:13-21), his training of hundreds (Luke 10:1), discipling of the 12, and by his resurrection. This battle between God’s love and human desire for power has been raging from the Garden of Eden down through history, manifesting itself in the pyramids of power so typical of the political, economic, military, religious, and social spheres. Absolute monarchs and dictators ruled with impunity through history, and still do. The wealthy have manipulated economies and societies to their own ends. Certain races and entrenched ethnic groups have historically denigrated and abused those that are darker skinned. Religions too have often created empires of privilege. Men have ruled over women in most cultures (Matthew 28:19). Relations between men and women, is just one aspect of the battle between these two kingdoms.
In opposition to this historical flow of power and privilege we also see that for the last 2,000 years countless individuals, families, ethnic groups, and nations have been grappling with what it means to follow Christ. Slowly and surely the God’s Kingdom of love has been gaining ground around the world to this day.
4. GENESIS THREE: THE ORIGINAL POWER GRAB
When and how did this very obvious New Testament battle between the kingdom of power and the kingdom of love originate? Look no further than the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve originally lived in a loving but subordinate relationship with their heavenly father in the garden. Then they were offered power to be like God through satanic deception (Genesis 3:5). They indulged their egos, and the rest is history. It wasn’t just the woman’s fault either. The Genesis narrative says that Adam was there during that pivotal discourse between the serpent and the woman and he said nothing (Genesis 3:6)!!!
Adam and Eve both wanted power more than love. As a result, they lost their loving relationship with God as well as power over creation. Adam lost power to the land, while Eve lost power to Adam. This was a curse on all creation that has reverberated down through history in all its social, political, agricultural, economic, military, physical, medical, and domestic ugliness. This was the very curse Jesus, the second Adam (Romans 5:18) came to reverse and bring us back into a spiritual Eden in a submitted relationship with God (Romans 8:21).
If male domination of women was part of the original curse, then it obviously was not a part of God’s original plan for Adam and Eve, or part of his plan of redemption for those who come back into relationship with him through Christ. The restoration of all humanity as equals under our heavenly father’s love, as recorded in Galatians 3:26-29 and quoted below, was a cherished but despised distinctive of early Christianity in the ancient world, and this distinctive included relationships between men and women:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Let’s now dig into some of the New Testament evidence as to how this New Covenant equality between the sexes emerged in both the ministry of Jesus and Paul. Then we will examine some of the controversial scriptures that are often used to justify male superiority in both the church and in marriage.
5. WOMEN IN THE GOSPELS
In ancient times Hebrew and Israelite women were very active in what was in essence an agrarian society, as evidenced by their diverse roles recorded in the Old Testament, and by its actual teachings on women. However, by the time of Jesus, the role and status of women in Jewish society had drastically deteriorated. In theory, women were still held in high regard by society, but in practice, this was not true. The popular 1st Century concept of tzenuah, or the private role of the woman, was based on Psalm 45:13: All glorious is the princess in her chamber. While a man’s primary responsibility was seen as a public one, a woman’s life was confined almost entirely within the private family sphere. Many Jewish men prayed each morning, God, I thank you that I am not a Gentile, slave, or a woman.
This social change was in no small part caused by the need to protect Jewish women from the desires of thousands of young, testosterone-fueled Roman soldiers. The Roman occupiers were not allowed to marry Jewish women or rape them, so prostitution flourished at a level never seen before in Israel. Unless a woman lived in a small village, they would barely be seen outside the home, nor could they engage in business as it just wasn’t safe. There was no local police force for protection as we take for granted today, so it was all up to the family to protect its womenfolk, and that meant male family members protecting their extended families and livestock behind high compound walls after dark (Luke 11:6-7). Life for a 1st Century Jewish woman was very similar to that of an Islamic woman in a conservative Islamic country today. This was the patriarchal Jewish world in which Jesus actively sought to raise the status of women.
In stark contrast to the prevailing situation, Jesus honoured women in a way that was culturally uncommon. Wealthy women travelled with his party of male disciples and even funded his ministry out of their savings (Luke 8:1-3). Jesus broke social taboos by talking with a publicly rejected and shamed woman from a hostile ethnic group in the middle of the day at a well in Samaria (John 4). He had compassion on an old widow whose only son had just died (Luke 7:11-17). The woman caught in adultery was forgiven instead of stoned (John 8:2-11). Jesus allowed a prostitute to wash his feet with expensive perfume (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus commended Lazarus’ sister Mary for being dedicated to learning at his feet instead of being distracted with the domestic duties expected of a female host (Luke 10:38-42). His teaching on divorce elevated women to equal status in marriage for the first time (Mark 10:1-12). Two women, Mary and Elizabeth were central to the narrative of his birth (Matthew 1:18-25). Four women were central to the narrative of the cross (John 19:25). At least three women were the first to know about his resurrection (Luke 24:1-12). The disciples were initially missing.
This was a radical shift from the prevailing Jewish norms and was clearly popular with the masses of Galilean men and women who came from far and wide to hear him preach (Luke 14:18-21). The impact of Jesus’ significant elevation of the status of women in his new kingdom community of love set the tone for the structure and inclusiveness of the early church, as we will now see.
6. PAUL’S VIEW OF WOMEN
In the wider Roman culture around the Mediterranean where Christianity first flourished, women were legally considered the property of their husbands. A free Roman man had the power of life and death over all who lived in his household. He was virtually a little Caesar. The Greeks had a similar view of male dominance and patriarchy. In fact, in all ancient cultures there was a wide disparity between the power of men and women in all social relationships. Demosthenes, the Athenian statesman and orator, once wrote about the Greek upper-class: We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure, we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation, and we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately and being faithful guardians for our household affairs (The Deipnosophists, Book Xlll, Chapter 31). None of this, by the way, was possible without the endemic use of slaves. Both male and female prostitution of slaves was rampant in the ancient world, as we will see when we start to examine the context of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. What we would today regard as basic human rights were virtually non-existent. Power was the foundation of ancient culture. Human rights are an offshoot of Christian Civilisation, another angle to the kingdom of love that Christ ushered in that needs its own essay.
The early church was radically different to the surrounding Mediterranean cultures in its treatment of everyone, especially slaves and women. They were both respected and treated as spiritual equals. Husbands were expected to be sexually chaste, and to love and cherish their wives as much as Christ loved the church. This was a tall order indeed compared to the prevailing cultural norms! Women were even recorded as being in church leadership positions, and at least one was an apostle.
Paul also played a large role in elevating the status of women. Why do I say this about Paul considering his often quoted by complementarians that often quote his patriarchal instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:34-35 and 14:34-35, Ephesians 5:21-24, Colossians 3:18, and 1 Timothy 2:11-15? It is because these scriptures are only instructions in favour of male patriarchy when quoted out of the context of the whole letter, out of their historical cultural setting, without any reference to the individual and unique problems that beset each of the churches Paul was writing to, and also out of kilter with the bigger picture of Paul’s and Christ’s actions and theology. It is only by fully examining Paul’s teachings, his theology, the imagery he uses in his letters, and the unique historical/religious/social context of each individual church that he was writing to that we can find out what he was trying to say. So, let’s dive right in.
7. THE WOMEN OF ROMAN SIXTEEN
From Roman’s chapter 16 we can clearly see that Paul actively encouraged women in their positions of leadership in the house churches he had birthed, and he is also on the record elsewhere as encouraging women to be active at gatherings (1 Corinthians 11:5). He saw women as highly valuable in the crucial mission of the early church, which Jesus himself inaugurated when he challenged his disciples to go out and make new disciples of all the nations and ethnic groups in the whole world (Matthew 28:18-20).
In Romans 16 Paul sends his greetings to 24 people by name, of which seven are women. Of those seven, Phoebe was a deacon in the church of Cenchreae and was a great benefit to many believers including Paul. The whole church in Rome was commanded to give Phoebe whatever assistance they could in her ministry. Priscilla and her husband ran a church that met at their home, were co-workers in Christ Jesus with Paul, and risked their lives for many believers. All the churches were grateful for their ministry. Mary worked hard for the Roman church. Tryphena and Tryphosa worked hard in the Lord. Persis was another woman who worked hard in the Lord. These were heavy-duty leaders.
Of particular interest is the mention of Andronicus and Junia in Romans 16:7 as outstanding among the apostles. Some modern conservative scholars say Junia was actually a man, and the word Junia was just a misspelling of the male name Junis. This is probably because in some modern Western church structures it’s hard to imagine that female apostles could have ever existed. However, every ancient scholar records Junia as a woman, probably the wife of Andronicus. Also, the name Junia was a common feminine name around Rome at the time.
Paul’s list suggests women were highly active in New Testament church leadership positions. And this makes sense as all the churches were just meeting in homes or any other place that was safe from danger. So we must also adopt that New Testament historical perspective when interpreting Paul’s use of the term’s apostle and deacon elsewhere as well. An apostle was simply a passionate evangelist, discipler of new believers that they won to Jesus, and a planter of multiple house churches that they nurtured to maturity. Rinse and Repeat. If a woman was as active as any man, all the better as the gospel grew faster. So they were honoured with the same titles. The harvest was huge, and all workers were appreciated (Luke 10:1-5).
Today in the fastest growing underground/house church system in the world which is in Iran, a huge percentage of house church leaders are women. By necessity the Iranian underground church has modelled its structure on the New Testament, not the Western church. Consequently the Iranian church is growing at around 20% year on year. We in the West could learn a lot from this amazing movement and its elevation of women to leadership within the context of a conservative Muslim culture.
Paul’s list of female leaders and workers in Romans 16 stands in stark contrast to the lack of female church leaders as we enter Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Reformation era, the era of global missions, and today’s Western church structures. It was only after the Christian faith institutionalized itself in the second and third centuries that it began to think of the apostolic gifting exclusively in terms of authority, office, power…and men. From this point on in its historical evolution Christianity was no longer strongly challenging multiple social, political, economic, and patriarchal power hierarchies, it was setting up its own power structures! That’s when women began to be excluded from spiritual leadership and apostolic ministry.
8. THE WOMEN OF 1 CORNINTHIANS 11 AND 14
I have been to the site of ancient Corinth. In Paul’s time it was a thriving city of around 90,000 people. It was also one of the most sexually corrupt cities in the ancient world. Men outnumbered women because an important function of the local workforce was physically hauling ships several kilometers overland between the Gulf of Corinth and the Megara Gulf, just a few kilometers to its east. Corinth was at that thin Isthmus that separates the northern and southern halves of Greece. The Greek historian Strabo once said there were a thousand female temple prostitutes working out of the local temple to the goddess Aphrodite, the patron god of prostitutes and the favourite local god. Paying for sex with a slave at Aphrodite’s temple was considered an act of worship by the local men. The common term for abject sexual depravity in the Greek world was korinthiazomai, to be corinthianised! In the midst of such depravity a Paul preached the truth, and a church was born.
At the time of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians the church was still very immature, not that wise, and drawn from the lower social classes (1:26-2, 3:1-4). There was much division and bickering, with lots of boasting over which faction was superior and who they should be following (1:10-17, 3:21). There was an attitude of arrogance in some members of the church (4:18-19), and the church was sinking back into the kingdom of power instead of the kingdom of love. Hence Paul specifically teaches on the topic of love in chapter 13:1-13. One church member, reflecting the lustful culture of the city, was sexually active with his own stepmother (5:1), while others were still visiting the prostitutes (6:15-7:5). There were even lawsuits between church members (6:7), while others were gluttonizing the food at the weekly church communal dinners (11:20-21). Some church members were even claiming there was no afterlife (15:12), and still others were eating food offered to the Greek gods. It was a cultural mess that Paul was desperately trying to sort out.
It is in this context that we now examine the controversial statements in 11:2-16 regarding the wearing of head coverings, and the command in 14:34-35 for women to stay silent in meetings. Today’s liberated Western woman sees compulsory religious veiling and head coverings of women as a form of religious subjugation. However in the ancient world veils signified social status and security for women. They also signified the status of marriage and widowhood. In contrast, slaves, freed slaves, and prostitutes were banned from wearing veils. Men were therefore free to perv and lust after them. Without a veil a woman was often seen as sexually vulnerable and open to abuse in the same way the wearing of skimpy clothes does today. For Paul to instruct the women of this church to wear veils was actually elevating them from the degrading status that many of them unfortunately had to endure in the wider Corinthian community through no fault of their own. Paul was elevating then to a higher status of respect and honour within the church family. Clothing, then and now, is all about cultural context.
The teaching that women should remain silent in chapter 14:34 initially seems to contradict Paul’s greetings to female church leaders in Romans sixteen. It also contradicts Paul’s teachings in chapter 11:5 of this same letter to the Corinthians that a woman could prophecy in church. Finally it seems to contradict a passage just a few verses earlier in 14:26 that both brothers and sisters can give a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Chapter 14:29-33 then clearly frames the situation leading to Paul’s instruction for women to stay silent in verse 34. There was noise, disorder and confusion in the small meetings, and people were talking over the top of each other, especially the women. This was why Paul asked them to be silent. This instruction to a dysfunctional group of new believers in the 1st Century was clearly not a universal decree to the global church as some people today assume. It was simply wisdom for establishing a godly culture in the midst of great evil.
9. THE WOMEN OF EPHESIANS FIVE
Ancient Mediterranean society, in the absence of mass media, had short written household codes of conduct that outlined the behaviour expected of men and women. These spelt out the established social hierarchical order. In a world of no media and few books these concise and often memorised codes were important for the dissemination of culturally important matters. The household codes were always directed to men, as they were in charge of each household. All other people in the household; children, wives, and slaves, were expected to follow and obey the man of the house, while the man followed the codes. To give you an idea as to how entrenched this system of male hierarchy was, no less than Aristotle himself justified this patriarchal system by claiming that the female, is as it were, is a deformed male…and that…because females are weaker and colder in their nature…we should look upon the female as a deformed male (Aristotle 737a)! The early church had to seriously re-engineer all aspects of the established household codes away from the kingdom of power and patriarchy toward Christs kingdom of love and the equality of all humanity (John 15:12). This task once again fell to Paul.
Paul’s first household code (Ephesians 5:21 to 6:9) was unique in that it began with a decree that all members of the household were to mutually submit to each other (5:21). That was a revolutionary statement for its time, and a direct challenge to prevailing patriarchal mores. Paul was saying that all believers were directly under the spiritual authority of Christ, and their mutual respect for each other was a unique act of worship, an act of love.
The code then addresses all members of the typical household equally and separately; women first (once again most unusual for the era), then men, children, and slaves. All were equal in Christ under the code but with very different social roles, strengths and weaknesses. Paul’s radical new code completely overturned the domineering role of men in ancient society, and it must have come as a bit of a shock to the Ephesians when they first read it. Christian men now had deep responsibilities to love their wives and children, and to treat their slaves and workers well. Instead of unquestioned male rights over all others, men had to treat all the others in the household with respect and they were specifically told to love their wives as much as Christ loved the church, and as much as they loved their own bodies (6:25 & 28). The compassion Christ had for the world had to be reflected in the Christian home or it was worth nothing. This passage contains the kernel of a number of human rights movements that would later be a feature of Christian civilisation as the centuries progressed.
Paul’s radical household code was a shared communion of respect built around a new command Jesus gave his followers in John 15:9-16 to love one another. Only through expressions of love would the world know the believers were Christ’s disciples (John 13:35). This code was also anathema to prideful Roman notions of manhood and patriarchy. The kingdom of love was forging a new culture of equality. Paul was speaking truth to power. It was cultural transformation and Roman men must have hated Christians because of it. It threatened the core of their domestic power.
10. WOMEN IN GALATIANS THREE
The letter to the Galatians was written because the believers in Galatia were drifting away from the true gospel (1:6-7). There was also a highly hypocritical religious hierarchy developing in which the Jewish believers were held in higher esteem than the non-Jewish believers. They were also beginning to revert back to Jewish legal practices (2:11-21). To counteract this reversion to the kingdom of privilege and power, Paul makes the monumental statement in Galatians 3:28 (and repeated in Colossians 3:11) that, for those who follow Christ There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
This single sentence summed up his whole letter, and it was once again a cultural revolution, one more step in ushering in the kingdom of love to Mediterranean cultures of the 1st Century. In the early house churches, all humanity was welcomed as equals into a home, to a meal, and to a community of faith: Jews and gentiles, rich and poor, slaves and free, men an women. Jews and Gentiles were now one in Christ, meaning there were no religious or cultural differences, just unity in Jesus. This was a huge mental leap for an average Jew (Acts 10). Likewise, slaves and free people met as equals around the communion meal, and this included masters and their own slaves. This sociological atomic bomb signified that there was to be no class, racial, or economic privilege in the early church. Last but not least, Paul announced there were no gender privileges, both men and women were equals both before God and in the church. There was no room for male patriarchy. Christianity was a true spiritual, cultural, economic, racial, and religious revolution. This is the nitty-gritty of what Jesus meant when he asked us to pray your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). WOW!
This distinctive of the Christian view of equality among all humanity was so unique it led to centuries of active Christian resistance to slavery in medieval Europe before anywhere else in the world.
11. WOMEN IN COLOSSIANS THREE
In Colossians 3:18-24, Paul once again reiterates the household code first found in Ephesians. The letter to the Colossians was addressed to a church that was striving to live righteously but had fallen back into the religious rules and regulations of their past (2:16-22). This time when the code is explained by Paul it once again deliberately addresses women first instead of men, and it is also prefaced with a clear instruction: Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of Jesus (3:17). Yes, wives were to submit to their husbands, but not because of male superiority or the demands of the fragile male ego, but out of love for Christ. Husbands were to reciprocate by loving their wives, being gentle with them, and not frustrating their children. Children were to obey their parents. Slaves were to obey their masters out of sincerity and as an act of worship to Christ (3.23). All members of the household had different responsibilities but were to honour each other’s special relationship with Christ.
A reading of the whole chapter sees Paul telling the Colossians how to live a life worthy of their new faith, in compassion, kindness, love, and respect. For example, just above the household code in 3:11 we see a repeat of Paul’s admonition from Galatians 3:28 that there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. The household code further down in the same chapter is simply an extension of the spirit of equality in which we are all called to live our lives as followers of Christ who came as an equal to us.
This new household code established the wife a spiritual equal to her husband, with both husband and wife equally submitted to Christ. She was under Christ’s authority, power, leadership, and hierarchy first, husband second. Jesus literally became the head of the home, which is a common concept in the modern church, but a radical concept to 1st Century culture.
12. WOMEN IN ONE TIMOTHY TWO
When writing to Timothy about the continuing struggles in the church in Ephesus, Paul gives the following teaching in 1 timothy 2:11-15: A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. Many narrow-minded conservative Christian men have used this passage as another universal proof-text for keeping women from senior ministry positions in modern churches, and for keeping them submitted in marriage. Once again, this position is ignoring the entire context of the letter, and the condition of the specific church Paul was writing to.
The opening few paragraphs of the letter shed much light on the problems of the believers at Ephesus. False doctrines, myths and endless genealogies, controversial speculations, meaningless talk, and old wives’ tales were rampant (1:3-7). Sounds like social media! There were also busybody widows who went from house to house spreading nonsense, and saying things they ought not to (5:13). So, it seems that some women in the church at Ephesus were the source of significant false teachings. In addition, it was clear from the letter that other female members of the church were wealthy (6:17-19), and that these women were flaunting their wealth in church meetings (2:9). All this confusion sprung up in a city that that prided itself on the worship of Dianna of the Ephesians, a powerful female cult goddess that gave local women considerable status and public confidence. This local cultural peculiarity seemed to have seeped into the fledgling church (Acts 19:1-41) in much the same way that many secular aspects of Western culture have seeped into the modern church.
Viewing Paul’s words as a temporary ban due to a specific problem in Ephesus makes better sense of this letter to Timothy than creating a universal doctrine. Paul believed certain local women needed to be remedied and that had to begin with their husbands correcting them at home about the false teachings being gossiped around the church. Literacy discrepancies between the average Ephesian man and woman could also have had something to do with the problem, but this is just speculation.
To extrapolate Paul’s instruction into a universal decree for all ages, all cultures, and all circumstances contradicts the overarching spirit of the New Testament and the heart of the kingdom of love. What Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, could not possibly have been silencing women for all time in all places. That idea simply does not fit with the rest of his teachings, the teachings and actions of Jesus, or the actions of New Testament women that Paul commended.
13. THE CHURCH BEGINS TO SUBORDINATE WOMEN
The natural human instinct for power that includes male patriarchy eventually penetrated the early church. The pull of multiple ancient pagan cultures and societal norms on the emerging early church was always going to be strong, just as it is today. Within a few decades we’ve already seen that in most of Paul’s letters he was constantly alarmed that his emerging congregations were falling back into the ways of the world and power. It took some time for the New Testament church to figure out how to throw off the old ways of surrounding traditions and live by the divine law of love, without having to follow strict Jewish laws (1 Corinthians 12:12 to 13:13). By the time the Book of Revelation was written, some churches had sadly succumbed to the kingdom of power (Revelation 2-3).
Fast forward a few centuries and Christian religious structures had, more or less, morphed back into reflections of the old cultures they originally set out to transform. Sacred buildings of worship were constructed which were modelled on rectangular Greek temples, while some existing pagan temples were cleaned out and converted to churches. The Greek tradition of oratory and rhetoric morphed into sermons in church buildings. These formalities replaced the intimacy of learning and doing life with a small group around a meal. Paid professional male-only clergy slowly emerged along with ritualistic codes of practice and dress. Worship became passive and ritualistic, locked into sacred times of the week and was ceremonial in nature. The word church was redefined as a building instead of a group of people growing in their faith (Romans 16: 3-5).
With this new and flawed definition of church, power flowed to the top instead of the bottom. The church in the Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Persian Empires, as well as the ancient Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa became a pyramid of power with women barely visible. Christianity settled down and became another historic religion, forever uneasy with its original mandate of equality among all believers (Galatians 3:28) and its mission to transform the entire world with the gospel of God’s love (Matthew 28:19).
Because of this terrible historic accommodation with existing power structures, Christianity today has a long history of exclusive male ecclesiastic leadership in churches and female submission in marriage. Almost all church structures down through the ages, have been dominated by men. Before the Protestant Reformation women were able to attain some limited leadership positions inside special Catholic monastic orders, but these are no longer a significant aspect of the Catholic Church today.
Protestant churches abolished all monastic orders and so the highest ministry for women became living as a godly wife and mother. This is still the case today in conservative Western evangelical circles, especially conservative American evangelical expressions of faith. Sadly, today’s norms are a radical departure from both the ministry of Jesus and the mission of the New Testament Church.
However, there is a glimmer of hope. With the current rapid surge in Christian growth in South Asia, China, the Middle East, and North Africa that now numbers in excess of 200 million people who are first generation believers from non-Western cultures, we are seeing, often out of necessity, a return to the New Testament home-based underground structure of church. With this change of structure we are also seeing a far greater involvement of women in leadership positions, and a concurrent shift from patriarchal marriage relationships to a more egalitarian format relative the prevailing culture. The tide is finally turning as the Western church fades and a new chapter begins in the ongoing never-ending growth of the kingdom of love.
Our creator made man and woman in his image, and they enjoyed a loving relationship with him in the garden. They rejected this in a power grab and lost both their power and their relationship. Part of this breakdown was a rupture in the marriage relationship. Jesus came to restore both individuals and human culture to its correct spiritual moorings. For a while things were looking up as the early church grew. However, the desire for power eventually drew the church back into the ways of the world. Since then we’ve cherry-picked Paul’s teachings to justify our own pagan beliefs that men are superior to women.
To continue to promote male superiority in Christian churches and marriages is literally perpetuating the Edenic curse, and contradicts the core nature of God as well as the teachings of the Kingdom of love that Christ inaugurated. Christian patriarchy simply mirrors the brokenness of the world. To say that a marriage is based on love, and then say men are in authority over women is self-contradictory. A loving patriarchy is an oxymoron. It is subordination by one biologically defined group of another biological group based on power. Racism is another form of the same problem. If you are opposed to racism, and not opposed to male patriarchy in Christian marriage or the church, you have a problem. Jesus saw all humanity as equals, and so should we.
Christian churches and Christian marriages should strive to reflect the character and ministry of our founder, Jesus. To see this in action at scale would be a most profound witness to a broken world. In direct contrast to this potential cultural witness, the task of raising children into spiritually mature believers becomes much harder inside a patriarchal church culture such as the Southern Baptist convention of the United States where half the offspring are being told they are inferior. That position just doesn’t cut it with todays youth.