Putting Women in their Place

At one of the universities where I taught, a professor in another department told me that when she was a young girl in the Roman Catholic church, she wanted to be a priest when she grew up. She had been brought up in an American culture where little girls were sometimes told they could aspire to any kind of career. So, it didn’t occur to her that in her church the priestly role was reserved for males.

It is not just the Roman Catholic church that excludes women from serving in some leadership positions. Many protestant churches do so as well. Typically, this stance is connected with a broader theology that says there are different God-ordained roles for men and women, and it would be a violation of the divinely established order for women to be in positions of authority over men. Whether in the church or the home or the larger society, the female role involves a submission to male authority.

People who hold a theology calling for the subordination of women to men base it on a few passages from a few New Testament epistles that might seem to support this view. There is a passage where women are told to keep silent in the church and ask their husbands at home about what they don’t understand. There is another that has been read as saying women should not have authority over men because of Eve being deceived. There are also passages where women are told to submit to their husbands. Some Christians see no alternative to following instructions they find in the Bible.

For many years I have been in churches that reject the idea of female subordination. In these churches there are two general approaches to dealing with biblical texts that might suggest otherwise. One is to argue that the hierarchical way of understanding things misconstrues what biblical authors were saying. Another is to claim that while biblical authors sometimes gave instructions that involved cultural assumptions about the place of women that reflected standard ways of thinking of the time, those assumptions should not be taken as divine requirements for us. Often these two approaches are combined. For people who can’t imagine alternatives to the hierarchical understanding, I list a few relevant considerations:

  1. The metaphor of “head” in Paul’s writings does not mean boss. Though the word has that association in English, the Greek term in context is used to talk about a relationship in terms of its origins. When Paul speaks of husbands as the head of wives, he is referencing the biblical story of a woman being created from a man. Women are closely connected with men because one is derived from the other. But this sort of derivation does not imply God-given superiority or authority. In the Genesis story male rulership seems to be represented as a consequence of fallen human nature, rather than creative intentions.
  2. Paul teaches that Jewish superiority to Gentiles should be rejected. Because of the Messiah, he says there is no longer Jew or Greek (Gal. 3:28). He says the same thing about males and females, as well as slaves and free. The Messiah has removed the cultural distinctions that make one class of people superior to another. 
  3. Paul deals with male-female roles in a subversive way. In the culture of the time husbands were thought of as having authority over their wives. While Paul states the responsibility of wives in terms of the traditional idea of submission, what he says the husband should do amounts to submission as well. The husband’s care for the wife is characterized using metaphors that describe what the culture thought of as female work. In other words, he describes the one with power laying down that power for the good of another. In Ephesians the whole discussion of husbands and wives is prefaced by the instruction that they should submit to each other.
  4. Instructions about wives submitting are placed in close proximity to instructions about slaves serving their masters. Modern Christians typically understand instructions to slaves as a kind of accommodation to cultural norms that we regard as defective, but this stance is in tension with taking instructions suggesting female subordination as universally binding.
  5. The passages that say women should keep silent are best understood as addressing particular issues rather than as general prescriptions for worship. The passage in I Corinthians 14 occurs in the context of instructions about disruptive behavior. The behavior in question is likely a product of differences in female education and socialization. Taking the text as a general basis for excluding women from speaking in worship is clearly wrong, since in the same book Paul endorses women speaking prophetic words for the group. A passage in I Timothy 2 has also been used to exclude women from public roles. The text that contains a term often translated as saying women should not have authority over men uses a word that is better rendered as not dominating or coercing men. This instruction is a response to false teaching coming from some elderly women who apparently used a version of the creation story to instruct others not to get married or have children. The remarks about Eve being deceived seem to be provided as a correction to the story these women were telling.

People in the church who interpret the New Testament to teach female subordination are often following a pastor who takes that view, rather than basing it on a study that takes biblical scholarship into account. For an introduction to New Testament scholarship on this issue, one place to start is Cynthia Long Westfall’s book Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ. She claims that puzzling passages should be read in the light of Paul’s clear affirmations of Jesus’s concern to remove differences of status in the Christian community. She also shows why texts that have been used to support a hierarchical understanding of male-female relations are better understood in other ways.