The woman is "in all things inferior to the man,"
said first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.1
Rabbi Judah, a contemporary of Josephus, said "a man must
pronounce three blessings each day: 'Blessed be the Lord who did
not make me a heathen...blessed be he who did not make me a
woman...blessed be he who did not make me an uneducated
Jewish Rabbis in the first century were encouraged not to teach
or even to speak with women. Jewish wisdom literature tells us
that "he that talks much with womankind brings evil upon
himself and neglects the study of the Law and at the last will
inherit Gehenna [hell]."3 One reason for the
avoidance of women was the belief that they could lead men astray:
"From garments cometh a moth and from a woman the iniquities
of a man" (Ecclus. 42:13). Indeed, men were often viewed as
intrinsically better than women, for "better is the iniquity
of a man than a woman doing a good turn" (Ecclus. 42:14).4
In view of this low status of women, it is not surprising that
they enjoyed few legal rights in Jewish society. Women were not
even allowed to give evidence in a court of law. Moreover,
according to the rabbinic school that followed Rabbi Hillel, a man
could legally divorce his wife if she burned his dinner.
It was in this oppressive context that Christianity was born.
Many people — both men and
women — have hailed Jesus as a
feminist because of His elevation of women in a male-chauvinist
society. Moreover, Paul's statement in Galatians 3:28 —
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor
female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (NIV) —
has been called "the Magna Carta of humanity."5
Because of the Christian's standing in Christ, it is argued, the
subordination of women that was (allegedly) caused by the Fall
(Gen. 3) has been replaced with total equality of the sexes in
Christ. Any apparent biblical teaching of the need for
female submission today is based on misinterpretations by male
Feminism. To some the word represents liberation and
long-awaited justice; to others, divisiveness. Emotions have run
feverishly high in the debate over women's rights, and the past
few decades have seen the debate move into the theological
mainstream. Today, women are increasingly being ordained as
ministers in many Christian denominations; Bibles are being
published using "inclusive language"; and those who
stand against either of these often find themselves branded as
Certainly no one can deny that women have suffered abuse at the
hands of males throughout history. This has caused theologian
Duane Litfin to ask some penetrating questions:
What follower of Jesus could ignore the fundamental injustice
of laws that work to the disadvantage of women as women? Who
could fail to be outraged at the prospect of a woman being paid
a fraction of what a man earns for doing the same work? What
fair-minded person is not dismayed when reminded that it has
only been within the life spans of many living Americans that
women have been thought worthy of the vote? And what believer
has not discovered blind spots within his own perspective that,
on closer inspection, caused embarrassment and repentance? Any
who are willing to see can find much in the feminist movement to
be praised and supported.6
I think Litfin is right. But alas, as Litfin also notes,
"the worthy goals of the movement do not stand alone."7
In this article, my focus will be limited to
examining how evangelical feminists are arguing their case
from the Bible. I will then show why traditionalists reject this
variety of liberation theology. First, however, it is necessary to
distinguish evangelical feminism from three other varieties of
VARIETIES OF FEMINISM
The different subgroups among feminists have been
categorized variously. For my purposes, I have chosen to classify
them as secular feminists, New Age feminists, liberal Christian
feminists, and evangelical feminists. These subgroups should
not be viewed as having clearly defined lines of demarcation;
rather, they are more like clusters along the
theological-philosophical continuum. Along this continuum, it is
possible that a feminist may fall between the clusters,
thereby sharing some of the characteristics of two different
Secular feminists are humanists who
disallow God, revelation, and religion in the discussion of
feminism. They view the Bible as a major source of chauvinist
ideas and a relic of antiquity that has no relevance to the
ongoing debate over the roles of men and women in modern society.
New Age feminists are pagans who are
typically involved in the worship of a feminine deity or goddess.
(The upcoming Fall issue of the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL will
feature an article by Norman L. Geisler on neopaganism and
Liberal Christian feminists operate within
a Christian framework but approach feminism (and theology in
general) from a very liberal perspective. They believe the Bible
writers were simply men of their times and were limited in their
perspectives. Liberal Christian feminists employ a
"hermeneutic of suspicion" —
that is, they "systematically assume that the Bible's male
authors and interpreters deliberately covered up the role of women
in early Christianity."9 Using such a hermeneutic,
it is easy to sift out from the Bible anything one finds offensive
to one's feminist tastes.
Evangelical feminists are those who
generally (not always) hold to conservative views on the Bible and
theology but who nevertheless embrace the feminist ideal of
abolishing gender-based roles in society, church, and home. They
believe the Bible is authoritative and, rightly understood,
supports their feminist views.
Historically, the first widely publicized book on
the role of women in the church that hinted at the formulation of
a specific feminist theology was published in 1968: The Church
and the Second Sex, by Mary Daly.10 Following the
publication of this book, the market was virtually flooded with
books and articles on feminist theology, all of which challenged
the idea that female subordination was ordained by God.
In 1975, a conference of evangelical feminists was
held in Washington, D.C., that attracted 360 participants from
across the United States. The conference formally endorsed the
Equal Rights Amendment and established the Evangelical Women's
Caucus (EWC), a grassroots "consciousness-raising"
organization with chapters in many major cities.11
Some traditionalists believe that the emergence of
evangelical feminism may be an example of the negative influence
of trends in the wider culture on contemporary Christianity.
However, Christian feminist Virginia Mollenkott rejects this
assessment: "We did not become feminists and then try to fit
our Christianity into feminist ideology....We heralded the
feminist movement because we were convinced that the church had
strayed from a correct understanding of God's will for
Has the church strayed from a correct
understanding of God's will for women? We shall now examine how
evangelical feminists argue their case from Scripture. To simplify
the task, I shall focus primary attention on the writings of only
a few of the major evangelical feminists. Moreover, because of
space limitations, I shall examine only the major arguments
and the major Scripture passages they cite in support of their
EVANGELICAL FEMINISM: AN OVERVIEW
We begin with the observation that evangelical
feminists react against the idea that the male of the human
species is most truly representative of God. E. Margaret Howe, one
of the more prominent feminist theologians today, notes that this
idea is largely based on Old Testament imagery that represents God
as "Father," and ignores the Scriptures which typify God
as "Mother." The Lord, for example, is portrayed as a
nursing mother (Isa. 49:15), midwife (Ps. 22:9-10), and a female
homemaker (Ps. 123:2).
In view of the tendency to view God as a male,
Howe says the sexuality of God has often been stressed rather than
His personhood. But "we are in the realm of mythology,"
she retorts, "when we conceptualize God as male, rather than
female, just as we would be if we considered him to be female
rather than male. The being of God transcends the limitations of
Jesus Was a Feminist. As noted
earlier, many people have hailed Jesus as being a feminist in a
first-century, male-chauvinist society. That Jesus considered
women on an equal plane with men is clear, we are told, from the
manner in which He taught women. Consider His visit to the home of
Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42):
Martha took the typical woman's role:
"Martha was distracted with much serving." Mary,
however, took the supposedly "male" role: she
"sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching."
Martha apparently thought Mary was out of place in choosing the
role of the "intellectual," for she complained to
Jesus. But Jesus' response was a refusal to force all women into
the stereotype: he treated Mary first of all as a person...who
was allowed to set her own priorities, and in this instance had
"chosen the better part." And Jesus applauded her:
"it is not to be taken from her."14
Feminist Gretchen Hull calls Luke 10:38-42
"the most significant encounter...because it taught that
women should prefer studying theology over a preoccupation with
Aida Spencer, another feminist writer, discounts
the fact that Jesus chose twelve men to be disciples. "If
Jesus' choice of twelve male [Jewish] disciples signifies that
females should not be leaders in the church, then, consistently,
his choice also signifies that Gentiles should not be leaders in
the church."16 But, Spencer argues, since Gentiles
are allowed to be leaders in the church, the same should be
true for women.
Feminists also cast Jesus in the role of a
feminist in His first resurrection appearance. Mollenkott notes
that "women were considered too frivolous and untrustworthy
to be witnesses in a court of law, or to teach children —
let alone men; yet Jesus commissioned women to be the first
witnesses of His resurrection and sent them to teach the male
disciples that He was risen."17
And because of what Jesus accomplished in His
death and resurrection, it is argued, women have been delivered
from the male domination that was caused by the Fall (Gen. 3).
Female Subordination: A Result of the Curse.
Evangelical feminists argue that male headship and female
subordination in the marital relationship is a part of the curse.
Indeed, in Genesis 3:16 God pronounced judgment against the woman:
"I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with
pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your
husband, and he will rule over you."
Mollenkott argues that "sin enters the human
condition in Genesis 3. Only after Adam and Eve have substituted
their will for God's will does the specter of male supremacy and
female subordination enter the picture."18
Feminist Gilbert Bilezikian thus argues that "it is proper to
regard both male dominance and death as being antithetical to
God's original intent in creation. Both are the result of sin,
itself instigated by Satan. Their origin is satanic."19
The good news, feminists say, is that in Christ
"the life-giving law of the Spirit has set you free from the
law of sin and death" (Rom. 8:2). "Theologically
speaking," Howe argues, "the death of Christ released
humanity from the curse brought about by sin. Woman is no longer
to be subjugated under male headship. The mutual and complementary
relationship that Adam and Eve enjoyed before the Fall may now be
Equal in Christ (Galatians 3:28).
One might say that the theme verse for evangelical feminism is
Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor
free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
Evangelical feminists argue that Paul is not speaking in
this verse about the equality of men and women in their spiritual
standing before God, but of the practical outworking of
that standing in society. Richard and Joyce Boldrey assert that
"Galatians 3:28 does not say 'God loves each of you, but stay
in your places'; it says that there are no longer places, no
longer categories, no longer differences in rights and privileges,
codes and values."21 Letha Scanzoni and Nancy
Hardesty suggest that in view of Galatians 3:28, "all social
distinctions between men and women should [be] erased in the
Mutual Submission. Ephesians 5:21-24
instructs men and women: "Submit to one another out of
reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the
Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the
head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as
the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their
husbands in everything."
How can this passage be interpreted to fit the
feminist ideal? Feminists generally make verse 21 —
which calls for husbands and wives to "submit to one
another" — the governing
verse of the entire passage. Because of what Christ accomplished
at the Cross, the male domination brought about by the Fall has
been done away with, and now there is to be mutual
submission between husbands and wives in Christ.
(Traditionalists, however, often argue that the
Greek pronoun allelous ["one another"] may
carry the meaning "some to others" [Rev. 6:4; Gal. 6:2].
Understood this way, Ephesians 5:21 —
as an introduction to verses 22-24 —
may be paraphrased: "Those who are under authority should be
subject to others among you who have authority over
Ephesians 5:22-24 —
which calls for wives to submit to their husbands —
is problematic for feminists. They explain these verses in any one
of several ways. Some argue that a hierarchical model of
male/female roles may have been appropriate for New Testament
times, but such a model is no longer binding on twentieth-century
Christians. Indeed, "an interpretation that 'absolutizes a
given historical social order' is unacceptable."24
Scanzoni and Hardesty suggest that "passages which are
theological and doctrinal in content [should be] used to interpret
those where the writer is dealing with practical local cultural
problems. Except Galatians 3:28 [which is theological in nature],
all of the references to women in the New Testament are contained
in passages dealing with practical concerns about personal
relationships or behavior in worship services."25
Thus, passages such as Ephesians 5:22-24 must give way to
Other feminists say that while Paul taught a
hierarchical model of male/female relations in Ephesians, this was
based on his rabbinic training and he was wrong. Mollenkott
is an example of this line of thought and says that passages that
teach a hierarchical model should be seen as "distorted by
the human instrument."26
Still other feminists deal with these verses by
appealing to another possible meaning of the word
"head." It is argued that Ephesians 5:23 —
"For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is
the head of the church" —
has nothing to do with the exercise of authority. Rather, the
Greek word for "head" in this verse must mean source,
a meaning supported by two pieces of ancient literature: Herodotus
4.91 and Orphic Fragments 21a.27
The meaning of source for "head"
is certainly compatible with the Genesis account, it is argued,
for indeed the woman does have her source in man.28
Hence, as Herbert and Fern Miles argue, "there is nothing in
the fifth chapter of Ephesians that would even remotely
indicate" that wives are responsible to submit to their
(However, New Testament scholar Wayne Grudem
researched 2,336 instances of the word "head" [Greek: kephale]
in all the major writings of the classical and Hellenistic Greek
periods, and found no clear instances of such a usage. He says the
two pieces of ancient literature cited by feminists —
which predate the New Testament by 400 years —
are not convincing. Moreover, "all the major lexicons that
specialize in the New Testament period give [the] meaning
['authority over'], whereas none give the meaning 'source.'"30)
Speaking in the Church. Evangelical
feminists eagerly point out that Paul allowed women to prophesy in
the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 11:2-16). However, the apostle Paul
added a qualification: "Every woman who prays or prophesies
with her head uncovered dishonors her head....the woman ought to
have a sign of authority on her head" (1 Cor. 11:5, 10). Howe
takes this to mean that Paul's only concern in 1 Corinthians 11
was that women maintain their sexual identity as women, and
that this should be reflected in their manner of dress. "A
woman appointed to a leadership position in the church is not
adopting a male role; nor, on the other hand, does she stand
before the congregation as a sex object....Her hair and shoulders
are to be covered because in the redemptive order she stands
before God as man's equal, not as the object of man's desire. Thus
the veil is a symbol of her 'authority,' authority invested in her
by God as a result of the redemptive work of Christ in whom 'there
is neither male nor female' (Gal. 3:28)."31
In light of these careful instructions, Howe
argues, "it would be presumptuous to argue that Paul's later
comments in this letter (14:34-35) preclude a woman from
ordination on the basis that she is not permitted to speak in the
Silence in the Church. In 1
Corinthians 14:34-35, the apostle Paul said that "women
should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to
speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to
inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at
home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the
Most Christian feminists say the word
"speak" in 1 Corinthians 14:34 refers only to general
talking or idle chatter and does not include formal lectures,
exhortation, or teaching. Hence, women were prohibited by Paul
from chattering or disturbing the meeting, but not from formal
public teaching or leading.
A more difficult passage for feminists is 1
Timothy 2:11-12, where the apostle Paul said: "A woman should
learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to
teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent."
One popular feminist theory for explaining this passage is that
Paul was prohibiting women from speaking or teaching because they
had not been properly educated.33 Hence, "because
twentieth-century women are better trained and qualified to teach,
Paul's directive doesn't apply. His prohibition was meant to
gradually fade away along with the disappearance of social
distinctions between men and women."34
Other feminists interpret Paul's prohibition as
pertaining to women who were teaching error or false doctrine in
the church. Seen in this light, the prohibition was not intended
to be universally applied. Paul was simply dealing with a specific
local problem in Corinth in which some misled women were leading
The Feminist Approach. From our
brief survey above, we may conclude that evangelical feminists
sometimes argue their case from the biblical text (e.g.,
Gen. 3:16; Gal. 3:28). Other biblical texts, they say, deal with
local cultural situations of the first century and thus must not
be seen as normative for modern society (e.g., Eph. 5:21-24; 1
Cor. 14:33b-36; 1 Tim. 2:11-15).
Evangelical feminists marshal many other arguments
besides those we have cited to support their case. But the above
is sufficient to illustrate their basic approach. We shall now
turn our attention to how traditionalists respond to this brand of
Feminist liberation theology has without doubt
made some important, positive contributions. I can only mention a
few of the more notable here. First, feminist theology has called
attention to the invaluable role women have played in the church
throughout Christian history. Second, feminist theology has
rightly pointed to the failure of many men in fulfilling their
God-appointed roles of loving their wives as Christ loved the
church. If Christian husbands through the centuries had been
consistently faithful in following this one injunction, the
controversy over gender-based roles in the church could have been
avoided (or at least substantially diminished). And third,
feminist theology serves as an indictment against the abuse and
oppression that women have all too often suffered at the hands of
chauvinist men. I consider these contributions important and
Despite these contributions, however, there are
some serious problems that must be addressed. Space limitations
regrettably do not allow for a response to each of the passages
cited above. I shall therefore limit my critique to a pivotal
premise of feminist theology — that
is, that female subordination is a result of the Fall, and that in
Christ all social hierarchy has been obliterated. If this premise
is shown to be in error, then the feminist position on many New
Testament passages — including 1
Corinthians 11:2-16 and 14:33b-36, Galatians 3:28, and 1 Timothy
2:11-15 — is in serious jeopardy.
Feminists appeal to God's judgment against the
woman in Genesis 3:16 — "[man]
will rule over you" — in their
attempt to prove that female subordination was caused by the Fall.
A more thorough look at the biblical evidence reveals, however,
that this is not the case. Male headship is clearly established in
the creation account in Genesis 2 — before
the Fall even took place. Man was created first. And
the woman was created from Adam's rib to be his helper (Gen.
2:18). Certainly, both male and female were created in God's image
and were accorded personal dignity, but God in the creation
narrative set them in a nonreversible relation to one another —
male in loving headship over the female.
Adam's headship is illustrated in many ways in the
creation account. For example, as soon as the woman was created,
Adam named the woman: "She shall be called 'woman,' for she
was taken out of man" (Gen. 2:23). This is significant,
because to name someone or something in ancient times implied
having authority over the one named (e.g., Gen. 17:5; 2 Kings
23:34; Dan. 1:7).
It is also highly revealing that when God gave
instructions about moral responsibility, He gave these
instructions to Adam (Gen. 2:16-17). And after the Fall, God first
summoned Adam, not Eve, even though she was the one who had
led him into sin. "Adam, where are you?" God said
immediately following the Fall (Gen. 3:9). In Romans 5:12, Adam
was held solely responsible for the Fall, even though Eve
played a significant role.
Certainly one of Adam's failures in the Fall was
his abdication of responsibility for leadership. Instead of
obeying God and leading his wife, he disobeyed God and followed
his wife's lead (by eating the fruit). For this reason, God
begins His sentence against Adam, "Because you have listened
to the voice of your wife" (Gen. 3:17). In the Fall,
therefore, God's intended order of authority was reversed. As
Gordon Wenham puts it, "Eve listened to the serpent instead
of Adam; Adam listened to Eve instead of God."35
In view of all this, God's judgment against the
woman in Genesis 3:16 cannot be viewed as the source of
hierarchical social order. Rather it points to the reality that
with the entrance of sin the hierarchical order remains (having
been established in Genesis 2), but sin's effect will now be
experienced within that order. Hence, God's statement in Genesis
3:16 was simply a divine description of what would occur
(male domination and oppression as opposed to loving headship),
not a mandate which obedient servants of God should attempt to
Equal in Christ (Gal. 3:28). When
Paul says "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free,
male nor female" in Christ (Gal. 3:28), he seems to be
alluding to the morning prayer of Jewish men in which they thanked
God that they were not born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.36
These three classes had severely limited privileges in society.
Contextually, the verses that precede Galatians
3:28 pertain to justification by faith and how a person comes to
be included in the blessings promised in the Abrahamic covenant
(vv. 15-25). Then, in verse 26, Paul says "you are all sons
of God through faith in Christ Jesus." For Paul, the term
son implies heir (cf. 4:7, 31). "In society these
three pairs — none of which were
ontologically unequal by creation [that is, they were not unequal
in their essence or being as created by God] —
are unequally privileged, but in Christ's offer of salvation, Paul
argued, there is no distinction. So then, in Galatians 3:26-28,
Paul was saying that no kind of person is excluded from the position
of being a child of Abraham who has faith in Jesus Christ."37
That Paul was referring solely to one's position in Christ
is evident in the words "sons of God," "Abraham's
seed," and "heirs according to the promise." It
takes a great leap in logic to say that positional equality
must necessitate functional equivalence.
Elimination of gender-based roles is therefore not
a legitimate inference from Galatians 3:28. Ontological equality
and social hierarchy are not mutually exclusive. The doctrine of
the Trinity illustrates this: Jesus is equal to the Father in
terms of His being, but He voluntarily submits to the Father's
leadership. There is no contradiction in affirming both an equality
of being and a functional subordination among the
persons in the Godhead. Likewise, there is no contradiction in
Paul saying that "there is neither male nor female in
Christ" and "wives, submit to your husbands."
The question we must now address (though very
briefly) is, How does the hierarchical order established at
creation relate to the "female subordination" passages:
1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 14:33b-36, and 1 Timothy 2:11-15?
Speaking in the Church. 1
Corinthians 4:8-10 tells us that the Corinthians had made much of
their newfound freedom in Christ. It is possible that the
Christian women in Corinth felt that their new position in Christ
was incompatible with wearing a "sign of authority" on
their heads in church services when praying or prophesying.
Paul emphasized in chapter 11, however, that the
woman's spiritual equality with the man does not in any way do
away with the male headship and female subordination established
at the Creation. In arguing his case, Paul stated that man
"is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of
man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither
was man created for woman, but woman for man" (1 Cor.
11:7-9). Paul based his argument for female subordination on the order
of creation and the purpose of the woman's creation —
not on God's declaration to Eve at the Fall. He indicated that the
woman brings honor to the man by fulfilling her role of functional
subordination, while man brings glory to God by fulfilling the
functional role of leader.
In view of this, Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians
11:2-11 may be summarized as follows: (1) Man is the head of the
woman, just as Christ is the head of the church, and as God is the
head of Christ. (2) Thus, every woman who prays or prophesies in
church must do so in a way that preserves the hierarchical social
order given by the Creator, and this is to be accomplished by
wearing a "sign of authority" on her head.
Silence in the Church (1 Cor. 14:33b-36).
How do we relate 1 Corinthians 11, in which Paul allows for women
praying and prophesying in the church, with chapter 14, in which
Paul commands women to be silent in church? We noted
earlier that many feminists say Paul in chapter 14 was merely
forbidding disorderly chatter. Seen in this light, Paul was not
prohibiting orderly preaching by women.
This interpretation, however, does not fit the
context. Paul instructed women to remain silent because they
were women, not because they were engaged in idle chatter or
were disorderly. In order to be subordinate, Paul said, women must
be silent — just as the law says.
Scholars differ as to what passage(s) Paul may have been referring
to with the word "law,"38 but that is beside
the point. The important factor is that Paul was clearly using
this word in reference to Scripture —
whether he was speaking of the Mosaic law (Rom. 7:22, 25; 1 Cor.
9:9) or to the Old Testament as a whole (Rom. 3:10-19; 1 Cor.
Paul's appeal to the law therefore shows that he
was not simply repeating something he had learned from rabbinic
literature, but was teaching something backed by God's Word.
That Paul cites the law shows that his argument for the silence of
women in church was theological and universal, not sociological
1 Timothy 2:11-14. Another passage
in which Paul calls for the silence of women in church is 1
Timothy 2:11-14: "A woman should learn in quietness and full
submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority
over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then
Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was
deceived and became a sinner."
Paul here builds his argument for female
subordination on the order of creation and the order of the Fall.
Paul's reasoning is something like this: "Adam was created
first as the head; Eve was created second and she fell first;
therefore, women are under some restriction." More is
involved here than mere chronological priority. Paul saw the
priority in time as indicative of the headship of the male, to
which the woman, the "helper suitable for him" (Gen.
2:18), should respond.
We gain insight about Paul's prohibition by noting
that teachers in New Testament times exercised substantial
authority over learners.39 Teaching doctrine in church
was therefore reserved for those men whom God placed in authority
to represent Him in spiritual matters. Women are not allowed to
teach a church congregation, Paul indicated, for this —
by the very nature of teaching — would
place them in spiritual authority over men.
How, then, does Paul's command to silence relate
to his allowance of women prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11? In 1
Corinthians 11 the women were speaking divine utterances,
whereas in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 they were not. Women
who spoke under divine control and who were appropriately attired
were not exercising their own authority over men and so
were not in violation of Paul's injunctions in 1 Corinthians 14
and 1 Timothy 2.
I recognize that the question of how to harmonize
1 Timothy 2:11-15, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and 1 Corinthians
14:33b-36 has been answered variously by scholars. In my
understanding of Paul's theology, it would seem that though women
are completely equal with men in their standing before God,
they are forbidden to be in a functional position of
ecclesiastical authority over men, teaching them in a
congregational setting. This implies neither the superiority of
the male nor the inferiority of the female. Paul's theology simply
reflects the creation order established by God in which man was
appointed to function as spiritual head.
Women are not prohibited, however, from
teaching men on an individual basis —
as apparently Priscilla, with her husband Aquila, taught Apollos
(Acts 18:26). (Priscilla was evidently teaching under the headship
of Aquila, to whom the authority belonged.) Nor are women
forbidden to prophesy in a respectful and submissive manner (1
Cor. 11:5-6). Nor are women forbidden to personally address fellow
believers, male and female, to their "edification,
exhortation, and comfort" (1 Cor. 14:3). Nor are women
forbidden to teach women (Titus 2:3-4) or children (2 Tim. 1:5;
3:14), or take part in other fruitful ministries (e.g., Rom. 16:3,
6, 12). In short, women are privileged to serve God in many
different ways within the authority structure He designed.
We gain perspective on this issue by recognizing
that the biblical world view is based on the assumption that a
personal God sovereignly designed an ordered universe to function
in a particular way. Crucial to this world view is the concept of
authority. Romans 13:1 tells us that God is the source not simply
of all authority but of the very concept of authority.
"That the universe should be ordered around a series of
over/under hierarchical relationships is His idea, a part of His
original design. He delegates His authority according to His own
pleasure to those whom He places in appropriate positions and it
is to Him that His creatures submit when they acknowledge that
Within that authority structure, both men and
women are given the privilege of serving Him —
but in different ways. Simply because Scripture says women can't
teach men in a position of authority does not mean that their
ministries are unimportant. To Paul, all ministries were
significant: "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need
you.' And the head cannot say to the feet, 'I don't need you.' On
the contrary, parts of the body that seem to be weaker are
indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we
treat with special honor" (1 Cor. 12:21-23a).
So, should women be involved in ministry in the
church? Absolutely! "That women are gifted for and called to
service in the church is plain," said J. I. Packer, "and
gifted persons are gifts that the churches must properly value and
fully use."41 However, as Packer also notes, this
call to service (according to Scripture) is not to involve
ecclesiastical authority over men.
BIBLICAL MANHOOD AND WOMANHOOD
It is deplorable that so many men throughout
history have misused and abused God's ordained authority structure
by oppressing and dominating women —
sometimes justifying their actions by misapplications of the
passages discussed in this article. Such misapplications must be
condemned as a gross (and sinful) distortion of God's original
design for man and woman.
In an enlightening essay, John Piper said that
manhood and womanhood are the beautiful handiwork of a good and
loving God. Indeed, God "designed our differences and they
are profound. They are not mere physiological prerequisites for
sexual union. They go to the root of our personhood."42
Addressing the need for a return to biblical
masculinity and femininity, Piper suggests that "at the heart
of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to
lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man's
different relationships...At the heart of mature femininity is a
freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and
leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman's
This call for a return to biblical masculinity and
femininity led Elisabeth Elliot to comment that "true
liberation...comes with humble submission to God's original
design."44 Indeed, the noblest achievement of any
human being — male or female —
is to discover God's design and fulfill it. Let this be our goal.
1 Flavius Josephus, Against Apion
(Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1974), 622.
2 H. L. Strack and P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum
Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (Munchen, 1893),
2:495; cited by Werner Neuer, Man and Woman in Christian
Perspective (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), 93.
3 M. Aboth 1.5; cited by Neuer, 93.
4 R. Nicole, "Women, Biblical Concept of," Evangelical
Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids:
Baker Book House, 1984), 1177.
5 Paul King Jewett, Man as Male and Female
(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), 142.
6 A. Duane Litfin, "Theological Issues in
Contemporary Feminism," in Walvoord: A Tribute, ed.
Donald K. Campbell (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982), 334.
8 I am indebted to Litfin for this observation: 349-50.
9 Kenneth L. Woodward, "Feminism and the
Churches," Newsweek, 13 Feb. 1989, 61.
10 Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex (New
York: Harper & Row, 1968).
11 Richard Quebedeaux, The Worldly Evangelicals
(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), 122.
12 Quoted in Phyllis E. Alsdurf, "Evangelical
Feminists: Ministry Is the Issue," Christianity Today,
21 July 1978, 47.
13 E. Margaret Howe, "The Positive Case for the
Ordination of Women," in Perspectives on Evangelical
Theology, eds. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Stanley N. Gundry (Grand
Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 268.
14 The Post American (1972); in Richard
Quebedeaux, The Young Evangelicals (San Francisco: Harper
& Row, 1974), 114.
15 Gretchen Hull, Equal to Serve: Women and Men in
the Church and Home (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1987),
16 Aida Besanion Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women
Called to Ministry (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers,
17 Virginia Mollenkott, "What is True Biblical
Feminism?" Christian Life, Sept. 1977, 73.
18 Ibid., 72.
19 Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles: A Guide for
the Study of Female Roles in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker
Book House, 1985), 56.
20 E. Margaret Howe, Women and Church Leadership
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 139.
21 Richard and Joyce Boldrey, Chauvinist or Feminist?
Paul's View of Women (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976),
22 Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty, All We're
Meant to Be (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1974), 72.
23 John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering
Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books,
24 Elizabeth Clark and Herbert Richardson, eds., Women
and Religion: A Feminist Source Book of Christian Thought (New
York: Harper & Row, 1977), 20.
25 Scanzoni and Hardesty, 18-19.
26 Virginia R. Mollenkott, Women, Men, and the Bible
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1977), 104.
27 Wayne Grudem, Appendix 1: "The Meaning of Kephale
('Head')," in Piper and Grudem, 425.
28 Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of Paul
(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 139.
29 Herbert and Fern Miles, Husband-Wife Equality
(Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1978), 31.
30 Grudem, 425-68.
31 Howe, "The Positive Case for the Ordination of
33 Scanzoni and Hardesty, 71.
34 Mary A. Kassian, Women, Creation, and the Fall (Westchester,
IL: Crossway Books, 1990), 116.
35 G. J. Wenham, "The Ordination of Women: Why Is
It So Divisive?" The Churchman 92 (1978), 316.
36 S. Lewis Johnson, "Role Distinctions in the
Church," in Piper and Grudem, 158.
37 H. Wayne House, "Neither...Male nor Female...in
Christ Jesus," Bibliotheca Sacra, January-March 1988,
38 See H. Wayne House, "The Speaking of
Women and the Prohibition of the Law," Bibliotheca Sacra,
July-September 1988, 301-318.
39 Ibid., 314.
40 A. Duane Litfin, "Evangelical Feminism: Why
Traditionalists Reject It," Bibliotheca Sacra,
July-September 1979, 267.
41 J. I. Packer, "Let's Stop Making Women
Presbyters," Christianity Today, 11 Feb. 1991, 21.
42 John Piper, What's the Difference (Wheaton,
IL: The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 1989), 8-9.
43 Ibid., 12.
44 Ibid., 3.