“I give no permission for a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. A woman ought to be quiet, because Adam was formed first and Eve afterwards, and it was not Adam who was led astray but the woman who was led astray and fell into sin.” — 1 Timothy 2:12-14, NJB
Alright, so this is not really a post about female physicality, but I wanted to use the title to honor my sarcastic best friend’s suggestion for today’s topic. So there. Anyway, take a look at the quote above. Wow. Yes, that is in the Bible. It is one of the many Scriptures that place women in a place both spiritually and physically inferior to men.
Do I think this is true? No, I don’t. The Church as a whole, however, has done a great job of enforcing Scriptures like this throughout history, excluding women from leadership positions in local churches, blaming women for the majority of sin in the world, opposing independent or free-thinking women, and facilitating social standards that have kept women underpaid and underappreciated.
Similar to the issue of race, the Church has not often performed well when it comes to the respect and empowerment of women. There are, of course, exceptions. Many notable women have served as spiritual guides and authorities throughout the Church’s history, but on the whole, the Christian Church has been keen to, in one way or another, keep patriarchy alive and well.
Patriarchy is a familial and societal tendency toward male leadership and control. The world in which the texts of the Bible (like Paul’s letters to Timothy) was extremely patriarchal. Men are perceived to be the generic human being, God’s standard for humanity. They are the closest to the image of God, and this meant women were, at best, second class citizens.
Now, does patriarchy automatically mean misogyny (the hatred or mistrust of women)? No, not always. To our 21st Century American sensibilities, however, such familial and societal expectations are viewed to be backward and primitive, inherently hateful toward women. This is both fair and unfair. True, patriarchal societies would have a major problem with American culture nowadays. However, it is unfair to think that the biblical authors were intentionally being hateful or derogatory. They thought they were right, and in the world they lived in, no one contradicted them. As we all know, when any person feels they have come to understand the truth, they can be impossible to dissuade.
My point is, yes, we have a resentment toward this worldview that is understandable, but it is still important to be historically considerate. We waste time getting mad at dead people who had misconceptions about human nature, and it is exhausting. Now, we can definitely feel some productive anger toward institutions that still perpetuate those misconceptions, but again, it needs to be productive.
There has been a tendency to avoid or resent the Christian Scriptures and faith because of their patriarchal roots. I get that. It’s not easy to be a part of something that you feel hates you. Here is the thing: it’s not inherent to the faith that women be considered subordinate. Even in the Bible, there are different opinions and portrayals regarding female leadership and social status.
Remember, the Bible is a collection of (at least) 66 different texts written by different people. These texts are often geared toward specific audiences dealing with specific issues, especially the pastoral letters of Paul. So while there are definitely lots of Scriptures that don’t do women any favors, there is also a lot of room to re-understand ourselves and each other in a way that is mutually empowering and loving.
First off, let me say that I am a man. I have long enjoyed the privileges of being both white and male in my country, and I recognize that. I am not claiming to speak on behalf of women. I am simply providing Scriptural encouragement to any readers who struggle with the Church’s historic perception and treatment of women. I also hope that any women who read this post know that they are equally made in the image of God, and that while God is described often as male, God is first and foremost YHWH, the One who simply is. Therefore, God is beyond our petty categories, and as capable of/likely to be at work in and through women as through men. God’s salvation and promises are for all humanity. So let’s get started.
First, let’s start at the beginning. Genesis 1:26-27 says, “God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves… God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” Yes, the language is quite male-oriented (remember, patriarchy), but whether the translation reads “man” or “humankind” or “humanity,” look at what the text says. All of humanity, regardless of sex, are made in the image and likeness of God. Everybody. They are spoken of in a male collective, which is how Hebrew works, but EVERYONE is considered by the text to be made with God’s image, likeness, and capacity for stewarding creation.
“Okay, Jordan, but what about the second chapter? That’s the one Paul is quoting in Timothy! Seems pretty clear!”
You got me there. On second thought, no you didn’t. Let’s look! Genesis 2 does in fact have a male human created first, whilst the female human, later named “Eve,” is formed second. However, look at the word used by God to describe her in 2:18. See it? “Helper?” This word is actually used again later in the Psalms to describe God, not women. This word has often been interpreted as giving women an assistant role in relation to men, but this very word is used to describe God several times (see Psalm 54), and I doubt anyone would use an inherently subordinating word to describe that biblical character.
“Okay, well Eve definitely ate the fruit first, right? Her fault! And that is the same chapter where God says Adam will “dominate” Eve!”
You are so right, person-I-made-up-for-the-sake-of-argument. As we look at the text of Genesis 3, we see that the woman “took some of its fruit and ate it” (3:6). Keep reading. “She also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate it” (also 3:6, emphasis added). Yeah, Paul may be right that Adam wasn’t the first to eat the fruit, but the moron stood there and watched his partner get convinced to eat it, saying nothing. Also, check this out: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked” (3:7). Hmmm… so the effects of their disobedience did not take place until BOTH of them screwed up. It would seem all humans are responsible for their sin, which makes sense, right?
Oh, and regarding your point about God’s seeming prescription of patriarchy in verse 16: Yes, God does say that. However, it is said after the supposed “fall of humanity” from grace. Therefore, it could be said that God’s intent for humanity was never the power dynamic of patriarchy. In fact, it seems that such power dynamics are actually the result of sin! If we are living a new life in Christ, restored by the grace of God, why would we try to keep living according to patriarchal standards that arose as a result of sin? Hmmm…
It would appear that Paul’s interpretation in Timothy is just that: an interpretation, and an incomplete one at that. However, it is also important to remember that the letters Paul wrote were to particular churches or people for particular reasons. His recommendations are not always uniform.
Look at Galatians 3:28-29. Anything jump out at you? “There can be neither male nor female–for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Interesting, no? The whole passage is removing societal, economic, and racial distinctions from Christian believers, because all of them are now “the heirs named in the promise” of God (3:29). Think about that. All people in Christ (male, female, slave, free, whatever) are equally heirs of God’s blessing and salvation.
How about Romans 16:1-2? “Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchrae,” is commended by Paul as a church leader, whom the Romans are to “help…with whatever she needs.” There seems to be some expectation that Phoebe will have some authority over the Roman Christians, which undoubtedly included some fellas!
Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 7. Regarding marriage, Paul says, “The husband must give to his wife what she has a right to expect, and so too the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and in the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body, bu the wife does” (7:4). Oh my! I know, it still has the wife yielding her rights over to the husband, but the husband is expected to do the same! Even more, Paul addresses the husband as needing to yield first! This may seem small to us today, but in the First Century world, it is highly unusual.
My point here is to show you that there are ways to find and experience Scriptural empowerment as a woman without having to cite Deborah from Judges or Mary, Mother of Christ. Paul wrote different things for different situations, as any good pastor would do. He lived in a time of patriarchy, but his writings sometimes challenged that system because of his steadfast belief in the new life of ALL who are in Christ.
Ultimately, the Bible and the faith of the Church are subject to how people choose to wield them. Some people and denominations will always be trying to keep women in an inferior position, calling it “traditional” and “biblical.” In some ways, they are right. However, is also “traditional” and “biblical” to seek out the image of God in all others, regardless of gender, and to treat them with the love and respect that is called for.
It is my prayer (whether you are male, female, or otherwise) that you will go forward knowing that God has made you and that God loves you. No one has the right to challenge that. Just the same, God has made and loves everyone else, and neither you nor I have the right to challenge or dismiss that. If we can remember and honor that, if we can fight for that acknowledgment for ourselves and each other in this world, we can in some small way usher in the kingdom of God that restores us all equally to the blessed state of oneness with the One who loved us first.
Peace be with you!