Breaking Glass Steeples: The Role of Women in Church & Society

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The amount of paper (or perhaps keystrokes) dedicated to the issue of the role of women in Church and society is incalculable. By now it seems like everything that can and should be said about the issue has been discussed, debated, and discussed some more. No doubt this begs the question, do we really need another article addressing this topic?

Yes.

Why?

Because Evangelical theology as it relates to women in the Church and society has fostered a milieu for abuse. Although there are various perspectives on the Evangelical view of women in the Church, all of them boil down to this: women must maintain a subordinate role under men, both in the Church, in the home, and society.

Certain perspectives on gender-based roles are based upon a few Bible verses that are oftentimes interpreted out of their primary and historical context. As you will see, the answer to whether the Bible promotes a gender role-based theology is quite simple, so it’s not clear why this issue has persisted as long as it has.

Important Note: Not all Evangelical churches hold views that restrict the rights of women, but many have believed this or continue to believe this today. If you want to check for yourself, most church denominations will state their views on women in ministry on their website under their “Beliefs” section.

The Problem

There has existed, and to a large extent, there still exists, an overall denial within Evangelicalism that there is a problem with sexual abuse within the Church. Recently it was revealed that approximately 300 Southern Baptist pastors have been abusing over 700 people for the past 20 years, most of whom were women and girls. Sadly, abuse doesn’t just affect the SBC, but many denominations all over the country. Unfortunately, the majority of sexual abuse cases go unreported which means statistics related to abuse are significantly underrepresented. We will truly never know just how many abuse victims are out there.

The Perfect Environment

Although it manifests itself in various ways, sexual abuse has been going on in the Church for a long time. The Church has created a breeding ground for abuse against women/girls to occur through their theological view of women in ministry.

A “breeding ground” is an environment which favors the development of something. With that said, just because there is a breeding ground does not entail that abuse will always occur. What it means is that it fosters conditions that increase the likelihood that abuse will occur. This environment is something that has been fostered over time. Much of which is the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) result of a type of language that has become part of the conservative Evangelical church culture. This culture has resulted in patriarchal authoritarianism at all levels of leadership – a boys club.

The perfect breeding ground for abuse occurs once the word “biblical” is attached to the belief. If the belief is “biblical”, then it is from God. Therefore, if someone disagrees with the belief, their disagreement is with God, not man. In other words biblical = justification.

An important qualification is in order here. We are not talking about ALL Evangelicals who hold to this conservative view of the role of women. There are many pastors and leaders who, despite this environment, would never participate in such abuse. In fact, in my experience, there are many who wish they had a good argument that didn’t force them to hold such a belief in the first place. However, with that said, those who do hold to this view contribute to the overall church culture that fosters abuse, by not changing their belief and/or speaking out.

This abuse is not limited to the extreme as was the case with the SBC. But there is also a persistent spiritual abuse when men in power are denying women the opportunity to fulfill their divine purpose. There is also the mental and emotional abuse that has persisted throughout the Evangelical West. For example, for years many pastors have counseled women to stay in abusive marriages because it was considered either unbiblical to get a divorce or unbiblical to not forgive the abuser. Girls have been shunned for getting pregnant outside of marriage. Instead, the Church should be coming alongside these women/girls to help them through their problems. The Church is supposed to be a safe haven!

One reason it can be so difficult for religious women to come forward about abuse is fear. Not necessarily fear of repercussions from their abuser (though that is certainly true in some cases), but fear of God because they’ve been taught to submit to male authority and anything outside of that is sin. This fear has been taught to them – especially in more conservative environments, by simply pointing to a few verses and putting the justification on God.

Why has the abuse of women persisted for so long?

In my opinion, this problem has persisted in the Church for the following reasons:

  1. Many denominations have maintained and/or continue to maintain unbiblical principles that relegate women to something other than equal to men.
  2. Pastors and other church leaders who are sexual predators have thrived like a disease by using their authoritarianism to create an environment of intimidation and abuse.
  3. In cases where abuse has occurred many church leaders including denominational leadership have cared more about their overall image than taking care of their sisters. Therefore, they fail to properly address the situation. There is also a culture of plausible deniability within some of these churches as well.

The underlying issue that is the cause of many of these problems is how women are viewed within the Church and the value that is given to them.

Clearing up the Theological Confusion

Before we can understand the Bible passages connected to the subordination of women within the Church we have to know some important historical context. Specifically, the role that women have historically played in society.

For most of human history, the role of women in society was largely based upon their role within the family. In fact, it wasn’t until the “Age of Reason” (16th century) that this began to change.

Early human cultures were agrarian. That is, in order for families to survive it was necessary that they farmed and/or hunted. Since, in general, men are bigger and physically stronger of the two sexes it made sense that they would be responsible for manual labor. And, since women were the only ones able to provide offspring, then it made sense that their primary responsibility was childbearing. This created a “natural” separation of roles between the sexes. These roles were generally necessary for the family unit to survive in this type of society.

The relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled.
~ Plato, Republic
Over time, this type of role-based society showed favoritism towards male heirs because they were considered more valuable. Their value was not only due to their ability to work the land in order to provide for their family, but also their ability to help protect the family and their homeland. Women found themselves under constant pressure to produce male offspring (like they had a choice) so that boys could contribute to the family by attending to the animals, fields, etc. As a result, girls (usually around age 12 or 13) were oftentimes sold off to older men to become wives (called a mahr or dowry, in Jewish tradition). This was not limited to the Jewish community but was the common practice in most societies during ancient times (and still is in some cultures today.)
The female is, as it were, a mutilated male…for there is only one thing they have not in them, the principle of soul.
~ Aristotle, The Generation Of Animals

This was still very much the view of women during the first century when Jesus walked among us. However, the way in which Jesus treated women was revolutionary for His time. Jesus can be seen throughout the Gospels treating women with respect and dignity at a time when they were often viewed as property.

There are several examples of Jesus interaction with women in the Bible (for example, John 4:1-27, 8:1-11, and Matthew 9:20-23.) It’s important to note when reading these passages that in that culture men did not speak to women in public. An even greater “no-no” was a woman speaking to a man that was not her husband. This is why Jesus’s treatment of women was so extraordinary for the time.

It’s no wonder then that when women began to start feeling worth, they felt freed from the chains of their societal bondage. They began to feel valued. You need not look any further than the start of the Church to see that women participated (at all levels) of ministry, with the same brave unashamed enthusiasm that men did.

After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the disciples were tasked with spreading the good news throughout the regions. As various small groups through the Ancient Near East began to grow, it became necessary for the disciples to begin organizing these large groups into what we now call churches. There also needed to be a single common story of the good news, which we now refer to as the Gospels. Finally, there needed to be governing structures and core beliefs formulated around the story of Jesus, which is what the rest of the New Testament writings consist of.

The biggest threat to these churches was Rome. During this time Rome had been suffering from harsh, and in some cases, insane rulers, many of whom detested the new “Christ followers” (Christians). At various times during the first century, Christianity was also illegal. This meant that many churches had to gather secretly in order to prevent getting caught by Roman officials. Getting caught meant death. It is within this context that several passages of Scripture pertaining to the roles of men and women are written.

The Bible Passages Causing Problems

Proponents of limiting the role of women in the Church use several passages of Scripture to justify their beliefs. Among the most popular is 1 Timothy 2:11-12. (Note: the application for this one is the same or similar to other passages that reference women in the Church.)

Women should learn quietly and submissively. I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly.1 Timothy 2:11-12 (NIV)

Since the emergence of “Systematic Theology” in the late 19th to early 20th century, many theologians have used a propositional-based method for organizing and systematizing theology. Simply put, systematic theology creates a categorical system (called loci). These categories all have fancy theological names but largely consist of: Revelation (how God is revealed), God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Church, and Humanity. Biblical passages are then organized propositionally and put into the aforementioned categories as “proof-texts” for more specific theological perspectives.

For example, the issue under discussion here would fall in the “Church” category. Someone who holds to the conservative Evangelical position of “male headship” would offer up (or proof-text) 1 Timothy 2:11-12 (and probably other passages as well) as a defense for their belief.

However, there is a problem with this method. Not only is this passage more than just two verses, but it cannot be understood apart from its historical/cultural context. In fact, right before this passage in verse 9, we read:

And I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing and not draw attention to themselves by the way they fix their hair or by wearing gold or pearls or expensive clothes.
1 Timothy 2:9 (NIV)

In verse 9 we see a little phrase that gives us a hint as to why the Apostle Paul might be making these statements. Why exactly is Paul concerned about women drawing attention to themselves?

Paul is writing 1 Timothy around 64AD, which is a time of heavy persecution for the Church by an infamous Roman emperor named Nero. Nero absolutely hated Christians and went out of his way to hunt them down just to kill them.

No doubt that women in the Church who are teaching, wearing opulent jewelry and expensive clothes would garner the attention of the Romans. It would literally mean a death sentence if they are caught.

A similar passage by the same author is 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

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 church.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (NIV)

1 Corinthians was written before 1 Timothy, but during the same time period. In fact, “Nero often visited Corinth to display his opulent works of art” (Eusebius Pamphilius – Church History)

Some have argued that Paul was just a misogynist, and that is a basis for rejecting his presumptuous statements. I would like to suggest that this is NOT the case and there is more to the story.

If we understand the whole story of Paul, we see that he was accepting of women in head leadership roles. In fact, he traveled with at least one female missionary named Priscilla. Paul entrusted his most important theological work (Romans) to a woman named Phoebe (also a deacon in the church) who was tasked with protecting the letter as she traveled to Rome to deliver it. In Romans 16 Paul mentions a long list of people important to him. One such person is that of a woman named Junia(s) who Paul refers to as an “Apostle”. In this chapter, Paul mentions 27 names of the most important people, ten of whom were women.

Finally, there is Lydia who apparently invited Paul and his missionary team (including Timothy) to stay with her. Why would Paul agree to this if it was unacceptable for him to do so?

It does not make sense that Paul would be accepting of women in head leadership positions throughout his life, while at the same time rejecting the practice when writing to his churches.

All of this to say that Paul did write these statements, and they, more or less, mean what they say. However, all of it is part of a larger cultural context that is non-existent today. And is that not the litmus test for judging when an axiom is universal and when it is cultural?

Just as we don’t suppress women from talking, wearing jewelry, or nice clothes, so too should we not suppress women from participating where ever they feel called.

Furthermore, our society no longer requires role-based family structures for survival (as they did in an agrarian society). We are an intellectual society where ideas and innovations are our capital. In an intellectual society, there is no need for differentiation between the sexes because they are both intellectual equals. In fact, this has always been the case. It could also be argued that in our industrial age, there was no need to create separation between sexes and that, in fact, society benefits from the inclusion of women in all aspects of society. An example of this – and a turning point for women – occurred during WW2 when women were given the opportunity to work in factories in order to help provide materials for the war and to keep our country’s economy moving forward.

A brief note regarding the Old Testament

Anytime I see the argument against “women in ministry” inevitably passages from the Old Testament (OT) are brought up. For whatever reason OT passages are brought up after the two main New Testament (NT) passages are discussed. This provides a great example of the problem with using OT passages in this discussion of women’s roles. All of the OT passages that are commonly cited are used anachronistically. This means that instead of letting the OT speak within its own context, the reader reads NT context into OT passages.

For example, if you believe that the NT makes the universal claim that women are never to hold a position over a man, then when you read the OT, you are reading that belief into passages that were otherwise meant to mean something different.

Although the Ancient Near East was patriarchal, the patriarchy was related to the aforementioned agrarian nature of societies at the time than it was a command from God. Think about the number of women in leadership roles in ancient Israel. If God had commanded that women were not to be in such positions, why would Scripture describe their leadership in positive terms?

A Prophetesses: is a Prophet who was the highest religious authority within Israel mentioned throughout the Old and New Testaments. Examples include Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah, Anna (Isaiah’s wife), and the four daughters of Philip.

Women granted momentary prophetic powers by God himself: Rachel, Hannah, Abigail, Elisabeth, and Mary.

In fact, the prophet Joel confirms the role of women within the prophetic office in Joel 2:28:

“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions”
Joel 2:28 (NIV)

This is reaffirmed in the NT in Acts: 2:17.

There are many more women in religious leadership roles throughout Scripture. Rachel Held Evans wrote a great article outlining many of them, their roles, and their lives

Concluding thoughts

As shown above, the Gospel frees and liberates, it does not suppress. Suppressing women from participating in the ministry of Christ for the last 2000 years has done nothing but hurt the Kingdom of God. Anything done apart from the glory of God is a sin, and the suppression of women has been an egregious one.

The inaccurate perspective we have had regarding women in ministry has fostered an abusive authoritarian milieu at all levels of the Church. The only way to get rid of this dangerous culture in the Church is to first get rid of the authoritarianism that exists in many churches and denominations across the country. Second, men need to come alongside their sisters and denounce archaic views of women and their role within the Church and society. Third, every denomination and church should have a no tolerance policy for sexual abuse. Finally, no individual should be employed by a church who has a history of sexual abuse.

This issue is not one between “liberals” or “conservatives”; “millennials” or “traditionalists”. This is an issue of what’s fair, right, just, and biblical. Ultimately, it’s an issue of the Will of God. As the Church, we have, for far too long, stifled the Will of God and prevented Kingdom growth by not letting women participate in their divine calling. This has been a sin we must repent from. Let us begin making this right with seminaries, pastors, and church leaders reevaluating their policies regarding the role of women in leadership.

If you are a survivor of abuse in the Church it’s important for you to know that God loves you and abuse is NOT a part of His plan.

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For help in your area call the 24-hour National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.HOPE (4673). All calls are confidential. You can also speak to a trained specialist on their website: https://www.rainn.org/.

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