What the Bible Says about Women (and Men)

If you knew me as an 18-year-old, you could be forgiven for thinking I’m not the same person. While I still had the same skinny legs, was still prone to perfectionism and still tended my fingernails with more diligence than they were worth, inside, I was someone else… Someone who’s greatest aspiration was perfecting a triple-layer chocolate torte and learning crochet. Someone who had no plans for a career even though she had high enough marks to be a doctor. Someone who was waiting for a husband before she could fulfil her purpose.

Then I learned to recognise God’s voice. Then I heard his call to ministry.

Of course at the time I had no idea what he was talking about. I’d been raised to believe that God didn’t allow women to be in leadership. A woman’s destiny was to get married, keep house and support her husband’s vision. She certainly couldn’t teach, preach or lead. My beliefs and those of my church were based firmly on certain passages of Scripture and no matter how I read them, they seemed perfectly clear. So what was God thinking?

Your Theology Matters

After a long and often painful journey following God’s call on my life, I’m a different person to the one I used to be. Not just in the things I do, but in the person I am. But this only came about after delving deeply into the Bible and looking at what it says about who God was calling me to be.

This is what I’ve observed.

Our beliefs matter.

Our theology shapes what we do, the roles we play, and ultimately the people we become.

Even if we don’t think they do; even if we can’t be bothered working them out; they will surface at some point.

Like in our careers – when we’re overlooked for leadership because we are a woman – or on the other hand, when we are in leadership but we’re not accepted because we are a woman.

Or in our choices – whether to build our career – or whether to stay at home.

Or in our families – when we decide what to do when the kids leave the nest – or what we do when there are no kids in the nest.

Or in our relationships – when we negotiate who does the dishes and who mows the lawn – and who makes the final call when we disagree.

At the heart of these scenarios lies important understandings about God’s plan for us as women. It is worth taking the time to work out what they are – not just so we know what to do, but so we know who we are.

A Ladder Vs a Triangle

So what does the Bible say about 21st C women? While it doesn’t actually say anything specific about women today since it was written in ancient times, it does talk about God’s vision for men and women in any age. The problem of course is that there are different ideas on what God’s original plan was. Let me outline the two different theological positions people hold. One was held by my younger self; the other is the understanding my older self has come to.

Let’s start with the one which women over 40 will probably be most familiar with. The hierarchical, or now known more recently as the complementarian view.

In this model, relationships are pictured as a ladder of authority:


In this schema God has appointed men to lead and women to follow. Under God’s direction, man has authority over the woman. He has the vision, anointing and call before God to lead. Put simply, God put men in charge.

And here are the three basic Scriptural arguments used to back it up in delightful shorthand (there are plenty of more thorough works out there which I encourage you to explore).

The first is the created order. The Genesis account of creation shows that the woman was formed second after man, and is therefore appointed ‘helper’ to him (Genesis 2:18). The man is called to exercise leadership and the woman is called to assist him. The subsequent events of the Fall further demonstrate this when the woman sinned by usurping her husband’s authority (Genesis 3:2) and is forever plagued by this ongoing sinful desire to disrupt the ordained hierarchy (Genesis 3:16). This thinking is borne out by Paul in his instructions to Timothy when he says not to allow a woman to teach a man because she was formed second and is evidently more easily deceived (1 Timothy 2:12-14).

The second line of thinking given for this position is the roles in the Trinity. The relational nature of humanity is a reflection of the relational nature of the triune godhead. So in the same way that Jesus the Son submitted himself to the will of the father, calling the Father ‘greater’ (John 14:28) and ‘pleasing the one who sent him’ (John 5:30), so the woman should submit themselves to the will of the man since ‘the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.’ (1 Corinthians 11:3)

Closely connected to this, is the third line of reasoning – the concept of headship. Think: Wives submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do 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 (Ephesians 5:23). So man is designated the head of the woman in the same way as Christ is head of the church. ‘Headship’ is defined singularly to mean authority.

All these three arguments come together to form this popular, longstanding, traditional position, that everyone from Augustine to Luther to Aquinas to Billy Graham has held.

It’s also important to note that there are some quite recent modifications to this model. Up until the around the 1960s, people understood that if the woman was subordinate to the man in position, she was actually subordinate in value too. Not only weaker, but actually inferior. Thankfully the church has since realised they were wrong. So even if this position holds that women should always be subordinated, now she is held to be equally valuable.

The Egalitarian Position

Contrast the complementation view with the egalitarian position – best pictured like this:

Man    Woman

In this model, women form an equal partnership with men, and together they are submitted to God’s authority. Men and women are equal in both value and position. Leadership and position arises from giftedness and anointing, not from gender. So anyone can be ‘in charge’ depending on their calling.

And here are the Scriptural arguments used to support this position:

The first one, as before, is the created order. The Genesis account of creation paints a picture of the man and woman who are both made in the image of God and who are assigned to work together to look after the earth. Eve’s role as helper is understood to be better translated as ‘partner’ as it is elsewhere used to describe God’s role in helping us. The conflict between Adam and Eve over who’s the boss is seen as a product of the curse that is reversed at the cross. So in Christ, the barriers have been broken down and there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male and female (Galatians 3:28).

The second line of thinking is the relationships in the Trinity. Yes our relational nature reflects the triune image of God, but this position holds that the three members of the Trinity are equal in value and position and that Jesus was only temporarily subordinated to the Father. After his sacrifice on earth, he was exalted back to his rightful place equal to the father in heaven (Philippians 2:8-9). This idea of Jesus being permanently under the Father was actually condemned as heresy in the fourth century.

And finally the third argument, the concept of headship. In Greek as in English, the word ‘head’ has two different meanings. So, you can have the head of an organisation or you can have the head of the river. One version means ‘authority’, the other means ‘source’. In first century usage, there is significant evidence that head was more commonly used to mean the latter. So when the early church read that a man was the head of a woman, they learned that men should bring life to women in the same way that Christ brings life to his church.

Thus admonitions by the Apostle Paul to keep women silent in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34) and not permit them to usurp teaching-authority over men (1 Timothy 2:11,12) are deemed to be culturally specific. They were given in Corinth probably because women were calling out and disrupting the public assembly and in Ephesus, where worshippers of the popular goddess Diana were probably teaching that women were born first and were therefore superior to man. This conclusion makes sense given that elsewhere Paul honours female leaders like Priscilla, Phoebe and Junia (Romans 16) and exhorts women to speak as long as they were dressed appropriately (1 Corinthians 11:5). Egalitarians believe that women are free to minister in any position according to the gifts and callings they have been given by the Spirit.

So that wraps up the two positions in a nutshell.

It could be said there is also a third view. This is a mixture of the above two and it is operates differently depending on the sphere of life in question – whether it be the community, church or home. Sometimes an egalitarian model is used for the community and the church, but not in the home. Other times a hierarchical model is used in the church and the home, but not in the community.

Or another way of saying is; women can lead men in the workplace, but, not in the church or the home, or on the other hand, women can lead men in the workplace and the church, but not in the home.

In His Image

As you can see, there are layers of complexity to this question! Perhaps you’ve already encountered some of them and perhaps you’re still working them out. Whatever position we hold, one thing is clear. Each one of us is made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27-28). Each one is fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139). God has called us for great purpose and gifted us for the plans that he has planned for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). Let’s journey together as will discover what it means for each one of us to be 21stC Christian woman!

Your Thoughts

What understandings do you have about God’s call to you as a woman? We’d love to hear from you here.

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