For years, I’ve been confused about our church’s interpretation of the New Testament “women be silent” verses. Why do women preach and speak, if the Bible says not to? I asked a worker this years ago, when I was a teenager. The answer was: Paul was writing to a specific church at a specific point in history about a specific situation. The Bible also says “I will pour my spirit out on my servants and handmaidens.” Why, the first gospel message “He is risen” was delivered by a woman. Those verses weren’t supposed to prohibit women from spreading the gospel message.
At first, that answer sufficed for me. Until I thought about it more over the years. Well, perhaps women may receive the spirit, but still shouldn’t speak? Are we to only speak at home? Or in private? Can we sing? But not speak? Several other Christian denominations have certainly interpreted it that way. In fact, the Southern Baptist Church has gone back and forth on its stance on women, prompting a local Greenville Baptist church to blatantly state on its church sign: God calls female preachers too. Clearly, I am not the only Christian with questions on this matter.
In 2023, the fellowship became aware of numerous abuse scandals within our church, primarily impacting women and girls. As the news continued to pour in over months, with each day revealing something staggering … I couldn’t help but wonder, did the lack of female authority figures contribute to this? To whom were these women supposed to report their abuse, harassment, or fears? In some cases, the abuser was an overseer, a father, or a meeting elder, in short, a male authority figure. For myself, if I had been abused by a male authority figure, it would be profoundly difficult to trust another male authority figure, who looked, acted, functioned, and sounded so similar to my abuser, with such an intimate, traumatic emergency.
However, this very thing DID happen to me. Not within our fellowship but at college.
At nineteen years old, I was sexually harassed while employed as a student-worker at my university. The verbal harassment went on for months. Eventually, the older male coworker (in his thirties) started asking me to come sit in his office, with dim lighting and the door pushed to just a crack. My female coworkers – both old and young – noticed the treatment. Terrified that this was escalation and terrified to be left alone with him, I told my parents. They strongly urged me to go to the department head, a man the same age as the harassing coworker, with witnesses. I took four witnesses, all female. They corroborated every word of my story. This was the result of my report: I was demoted, removed from my position as head of the student workers, and placed in a dark windowless filing room. I went from doing complicated work, befitting my ability level as a summa cum laude student, to filing mindlessly for hours every day. Those four witnesses? Warned to not cause any trouble. Two didn’t speak to me again after that. The man? He denied my allegations, claimed I was “overreacting,” and remained in his position. As far as I know, my report went no further than that department head.
I was left with a horrible conundrum: do I insist upon justice, bringing scandal to the school? Or do I quietly ask for a transfer and get away from this creep forever? Nineteen year old me chose silence. The message had been clear: you are incorrect, young lady. You should be quiet. How dare you besmirch a good man’s reputation? Even with four witnesses, both student and employee, I was not deemed worthy of protection or even deemed credible. Better to stick me in a dark filing room than risk “ruining” a man’s reputation. “After all,” said the department head, “he wants you to know meant no harm. He can’t believe you took it all that way! You just misunderstood everything. You simply remind him of his wife.” The offending coworker never apologized.
For years after, I felt so much shame, as though I had done something wrong. I tried to forget about the experience. I had “embarrassed” that man. How could I have been so stupid? It took about ten years for me to realize nothing about that situation was correct or just. Today, I can’t help but wonder how the situation might have been different if the department head had been female.
In June 2023, one of my dearest friends in the fellowship wrote a letter to several overseers asking for clarification on the role of women in our meetings and ministry. One recipient responded. I do not want to divulge his name, but I will share verbatim his (in my opinion, terse) response below:
Touching one of your topics, women’s place in the church, I would like to say something about it. That one thing, the woman’s subjection to the man, relates to the system God has set in place before He created the world. It reveals, ultimately, His plan of our being in subjection to His Son, our heavenly bridegroom. The systems God ordained need not be changed, but appreciated.
I think it was LeRoy Lerwick that summarized something that has helped me with some of the issues of identification with Christ. He said, Christ suffered much for my unrighteousness, shouldn’t we be prepared to suffer a little bit for His righteousness?
I would like to stress that there isn’t a single individual in my family, immediate fellowship, or friendship circle who agrees with what is stated above. (Without sharing the writer’s name or position, I shared the words and asked “what do you think of this?”) My husband, a God-fearing, believing man, was shocked and appalled, particularly by the closing statement which seemed to position female suffering as necessary for her identification in Christ. He appears to state that women are uniquely burdened with the act of submitting, and their submission somehow teaches both sexes how to submit to Christ. In light of the manifold revelations of women in our fellowship literally suffering beneath the abusive behavior of men, this response can only be interpreted as tone-deaf. Sadly, I’m afraid that his words deeply offended my friend.
At first, I was angry. This response did not match my experience of a relationship with God. There hasn’t been a moment in my walk with God when God made me feel lesser or unworthy. In fact, he has bestowed upon me so many natural and spiritual blessings that I can’t even put it into words. Yet… apparently, according to a prominent member of my church, God has divinely ordered that I am less than all men? If I were to interpret the above response literally, I should be submitting to all men, not just my husband. Well, that would’ve created a real pickle for me if I had submitted to the harassing coworker.
This was the moment that I realized something was wrong with my understanding of women’s roles in the Bible, in fellowship, and in ministry. I was missing something. God is not illogical. God created perfect order, we see it all around us. The universe runs upon that beautiful order. God is not an author of confusion, nor is he cruel. God is not a respecter of persons. So why does he respect men so much more than women?
So I prayed about it. This was not an easy prayer. I wept beside my bed. My husband woke up to me crying at 1am, sat up in the dark, and held me while I cried. “I feel so worthless and stupid,” I said to him.
This was my prayer, in a nutshell: God, did you really create me to be less than all men? Am I literally worth less to you? Is my precious little daughter worth less in your eyes? Am I incapable of being a good vessel of your spirit, compared to men? Should we women NOT be speaking in meetings and in ministry? Am I unworthy to share your gospel or discuss your word? Really? Am I truly to submit to ALL men, ALL the time, whether or not they are godly men? I do not understand, please help me.
The answer came almost immediately: read my word and read my Son.
“Oh dear,” I thought half-amusedly, half-worriedly. “Now I have to read about every single woman in the Bible?” (Although, maybe there’s a good lesson in that too. Don’t rush to a conclusion, rather take your time and read deeply.)
In 1 Timothy 2:12 -13, Paul justifies female submission to men by pointing out that Eve was formed after Adam. Because God formed her second, she “ranks second.” Paul seems to state that being formed second also disqualifies women from holding authority. These verses appear to be what the unnamed overseer quoted in his email to my friend. He used them to justify the lack of female “head workers” and elders.
I decided to re-read Genesis 2, when God created the first man and the first woman. Several things stood out to me. As God created the universe, he called each creation “good.” However, in verse 18, he finally calls something “not good”: Adam being alone. To remedy this, God creates Eve from Adam’s rib. (I wonder if there isn’t a beautiful correspondence here between Adam’s rib and Christ being stabbed by the spear on the cross.)
The KJV Bible defines the term “help meet for him” (verse 20) as “helper comparable to him.” The Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) uses kat’auton which means “according to him” and translates most closely to “relating to the standard.” The Hebrew translation of the phrase help meet is “according to the opposite of him.” These varying translations seem to imply, if I’m understanding correctly, that Eve was created according to the same standard as Adam (in the image of God) and was designed to correspond to and complement him. Therefore, God created women to be beings equal to and opposite of men.
This interpretation seems to be reinforced in Genesis 1:27 which states that God created man “in his own image, in the image of God created he them, male and female created he them.” Often, I have heard that Adam was made in the image of God, while Eve was made in the image of Adam; however, God seems to unequivocally state that both men and women are made in his image. He further bestows dominion of the earth unto both of them: “And God blessed them and said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it and have dominion over … every living thing that moveth upon earth.” (emphasis added) Then, God approved the creation of humans and their dominion as “very good.”
Interestingly, the Genesis record does not state that God specifically ordered Adam to have dominion over his wife. Perhaps some dominion can be inferred in the fact that Adam calls this new female creation “woman”, just as he named the other creations of God. His dominion is not explicitly stated, however, as their mutual “dominion over the earth” is explicitly stated in verse 28. Why, then, do Christians place such emphasis on male dominion over women? Genesis 3 and the First Sin seem to provide the answer.
After Adam and Eve consume the forbidden fruit, the relationship between man and woman appears to change. Genesis 3:16 state “… thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” (emphasis added). These statements from God are the consequence of Eve’s sin. The fact that God explicitly states here that from henceforth men shall rule over women implies that, prior to the entrance of sin, man did not rule over woman. In fact, both men and women are cast into bondage after the first sin. Adam’s sin brings harsh consequences as well.
The unnamed overseer stated that “the woman’s subjection to the man, relates to the system God has set in place before He created the world.” With all due respect, I am not sure if that is a correct interpretation of male and female roles. Reading Genesis 1 through 3, a new thought struck me like a thunderbolt. Genesis 1 and 2 describe a paradise on earth, the ideal creation as God intended it. That first sin and its consequences upon men and women alike surely does not represent God’s ideal or the state within which he desired for humanity to exist. God doesn’t desire for humans to live in sin. Perhaps then the bondage state – women subject to man and man toiling by the sweat of his brow, both in debt which manifests different ways – is how the enemy wanted us to exist. He sneaked into the garden of Eden and attempted to pervert and undo God’s beautiful creation. Thankfully, God in his wisdom has had a plan to redeem us from our mutual bondage, since the beginning of the world. That plan, of course, being Christ.
Truly, the experience of women from the Fall to the advent of Christ was a rough one. The societies described in the Old Testament exemplified harsh conditions for women, just as God warned it would in Genesis 3. The Old Testament laws were particularly stringent for women, and stories like Tamar, Hagar, and the Judges 19 concubine are very difficult to read without wincing. Of course, other societies beyond Israel were also harsh on women. With perhaps very few exceptions, the prevailing trend in ancient and modern world history – across cultures – is the subjugation, objectification, debasement, and even enslavement of women.
Jesus interacted with numerous women during his life on earth. Often, his willingness to converse with women shocked his disciples. As a modern reader ignorant of ancient customs, we maybe fail to recognize how significant it was for Jesus to speak to some of the people he spoke to. Some notable examples include the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, and the woman with a bleeding disorder. All three of these women were deemed “unworthy” and “unclean” by society, sometimes to the point of death. The final of the three– the woman with the bleeding condition – really stood out to me. Somehow, her situation seems to embody Eve’s consequences in Genesis 3:16.
Her “issue of blood” referred to her menstrual cycle, echoing the consequence that “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception” (Genesis 3:16). For twelve years, this poor woman had an irregular cycle that rendered her “unclean” according to the old Hebraic Law (Leviticus 15:25-27). She was literally cast out and alone, unable to even touch her own family. (This is why she had to “sneak” up to Jesus.) Yet Jesus did not mind that she, an unclean person, touched him. He healed her and wished her peace. She departed his presence cleansed and whole. Just as he helped that individual woman, Jesus’s sacrifice rectifies everything that happened in Genesis 3, including the subjugated role of women, the consequence of Eve’s transgression.
Jesus loved and healed women just as he loved and healed men. He spoke to women, just as he spoke to men. He proselytized women just as he did men. While he did send out twelve male disciples to Israel, the first person to share the gospel message (“he is risen”) was a woman.
When questioned about marriage by his disciples, Jesus stated that “people will neither marry nor be given in marriage in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). Interestingly, his phrasing here seems to apply to men and women respectively. At the time, a man married and a woman was given in marriage to a man. However, Jesus stated that neither action will occur in heaven because instead “they will be like the angels.” Galatians 3:28 echoes this statement but places that state of equality in the present tense: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Salvation mitigates every barrier or bond humanity endures and restores that paradisal state that God designed. Perhaps the entire creation won’t be brought into order until Christ’s Return, but believers are given a “foretaste of heaven” through the Holy Spirit. And that Spirit impacts our behavior, especially among “the household of Christ.”
The Conundrum of Paul
Interestingly, Paul does not handle women in the same manner as Christ did. At least, he does not seem to. Many times, I’ve read verses in Paul and felt perplexed, even frustrated, wondering why his stance on women contradicted Jesus’ loving, enabling, healing ministry. Paul addresses women and their roles in two specific places: 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14.
One theme prevails: women seemingly possess no role in the Christian church. Women should be silent, learn from their husbands and fathers, never teach, and certainly never “usurp authority.” These verses form the bedrock for numerous Chrisitan denominations prohibiting female ministers, female participation in church services, and even female Sunday school teachers. Recently, in the email mentioned at the beginning of this essay, these verses were used to refute any female leadership roles in our own church, for a woman were to lead she would be “usurping authority” best reserved to a man. Men have been traditionally interpreted as the more capable sex, entrusted with authority.
The passage in 1 Corinthians 14 is particularly confusing because it seems to contradict 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul offers instruction for women as they prophesy and pray. Why would he guide women in prophesying, only to tell them, mere paragraphs later, to never speak in the church?
When studying literature and history in college, I studied numerous ancient writers such as Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. I was fascinated to discover that these ancient authors possessed quite similar views to these two oft-contested passages in the New Testament. Roman women were not permitted to vote or hold office. Their domain was the household; if they did venture into public, they were carried on liters to avoid being seen. While friendly in the marketplace, women were not expected to carry on conversations with men. In fact, in Roman medicine, women were literally considered “deformed men” (source). Tombstones for Roman women depict words such as pious, content to stay at home, dressed simply, good weavers, frugal, chaste, and humble (source). Interestingly, these are attributes that Paul also praises in Christian women. Moreover, Roman marriages were formed for convenience, with the primary objective being producing children. Loving one’s spouse was not encouraged or expected. While Paul’s description of the chaste, stilent homemaker certainly stands in opposition to modern society, it did not contradict its contemporary setting at all.
Instead, Paul seems to contradict himself. When he commands husbands to love their wives with the sacrificial love of Christ, he contradicts the contemporary Roman societal stance on marriage. Wives were subordinate to husbands and hardly worthy of love, much less the devoted, sacrificial love that Christ showed to us all when he laid himself on the altar. In another place, Paul insists “each one” have a part in fellowship (1 Corinthians 14:16). In 1 Corinthians 11, he details how a woman should pray and prophecy. (While praying may occur at home, why would prophesying occur in private? The word “prophecy” implies a recipient otherwise one would just be talking aloud to air.) Furthermore, historical record itself contradicts 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, with many ancient Romans viewing Christians as “deviant” because of their inclusion of women in fellowship, an act which ancient Romans would have found offensive. In the Roman Empire, the home was the woman’s domain, not a place for discussion, business, or worship.
Finally, the remainder of the New Testament itself contradicts Paul’s apparent assertion that women possess no role in church by listing numerous women who in fact did have a role in the church. These women include: Priscilla, Phebe, Junia, Lydia, Eunice, the nameless “Elect Lady,” and many more. Notably, when Priscilla is mentioned, her name is listed before her husband’s, a simple detail that holds no meaning to modern readers, but would have been significant to ancient people. Phebe is described as “a deacon of the church in Cenchreae” and Priscilla is described as a “co-worker in Christ Jesus.” Junia is described as “outstanding among the apostles.” Persis is described as “another woman who worked very hard in the Lord.” At least three of these women could be described as filling leadership roles: apostle, co-worker, and deacon. How would they have fulfilled these roles if they kept silent, stayed at home, and never spoke a word in church? Particularly Phebe, as a deacon?
Theologians, historians, and archaeologists have analyzed Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14, with various interpretations. According to historian Beth Allison Barr, some evidence exists that Paul may have been quoting contemporary Roman attitudes when he stated “women should keep silent.” (Modern writers would use quotation marks to indicate a quote, but ancient writers might not.) The possibility exists that he was encouraging the church to adhere to Roman law, since it prohibited women to debate or speak in public forums, as men did (as “prophesying” may be construed by non-believers). Another possibility exists: that Paul was practicing the common debate technique of stating a position and then refuting it. Barr supports this second hypothesis by pointing out 1 Corinthians 14:36, where Paul suddenly exclaims “What! Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?” This sudden exclamation, written right after the command for women to keep silent, sounds like a refutation or a refusal of the common practice of suppressing women. In addition to Barr, other scholars posit that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 may have been added by medieval translators and not by Paul himself, as evidenced in archaeological analysis of ancient manuscripts (source).
Whatever Paul’s intent or the verses’ provenance, the commands do seem to contradict Christ’s ministry and attitude toward women. In my re-read of the gospels, Christ does not order women to be silent and bow out of religious participation. Instead, he listened to and helped numerous women. He included women in his message and reinforced the equality of men and women before God. Significantly, he also permitted a woman to be the first individual to carry the gospel message, when Mary carried the news to the other disciples. If women hold no significance with God and are worthy only of a backseat, why would God’s Son go to such effort? (For that matter, why would Paul, seemingly opposed to women participating in church, praise so many women in Romans 16?) Moreover, if we interpret and enforce Paul completely literally, women would need to disregard numerous other pieces of Scripture. Psalms imploring us to “shout,” “praise,” “speak,” and “sing” must all be regarded as applying only to men. Acts 2:18 which states that “And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” … also must only apply to men. Of course, that would be considered by most to be an absurd, reductive interpretation of Scripture.
The women of the New Testament are not the only female leaders mentioned in the Bible. Even the Old Testament, written during a male-dominated era of history, names female leaders including Deborah and Huldah, a judge and a prophetess respectively. Other women such as Ruth, Rahab, Abigail, and the unnamed Virtuous Woman played significant roles in Old Testament stories. These women were praised as examples of godliness to be emulated by all believers and tremendously impacted the outcomes of God’s people. When taken into consideration with the women listed in Romans 16 and elsewhere in the New Testament, along with the women to whom Jesus himself ministered, the Bible’s stance on womanhood seems clear: women are significant to God and thus should be significant to his church. These roles underscore and reinforce God’s original mandate upon the creation of Woman, that she be a compliment and companion to men and that she too possess dominion over the earth. The word dominion is defined as “sovereignty or control,” and a synonym is “to rule,” therefore implying possession of authority. As befitting a Christ Like spirit, which is necessary in both sexes, a woman’s authority need not be in opposition to her fellow man, but rather in godly compliment to it, as a wife completes her husband and a mother compliments the father.
Considering these factors and most especially considering the ministry and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, I wonder if my leaning so heavily on Paul’s commandments to women, we have not only disregarded vital historical and Scriptural context but also have permitted “the tail to wag the dog.” In fact, even Peter said “His [Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3: 16). Should we not interpret Paul through the lens of Christ rather than the other way around? Should we not emulate Jesus’ impartial behavior in our relationships, which underscored our mutual humanity and did not discriminate across gender lines, rather than emulate the conditions which sin brought upon humanity? We are called to higher things, to good works, and not to act like the nations. If, as I suspect and Genesis appears to affirm, female subjugation is a consequence of Sin’s entrance into creation, perhaps that is why patriarchal domination is so prevalent throughout world cultures and so easily abused, even by well-intentioned believers. Certainly, we have all witnessed the fruit of abusive power in recent days.
As such, I pray that our fellowship will consider placing women in positions of authority, not only to emulate the First Century Church but also to mitigate any future abuse of power, silencing of injured sisters, and flagrant misidentification of suffering as some pious, gendered display of holiness.
By Abigail (Black) Hobbs
June 22, 2023