“For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry” (1 Sam 15:23 NRSV).
Despite the clear instructions in scripture that God does not allow women to be leaders and/or teachers in the churches, there is a growing number of women entering the pastoral and teaching ministry. There is also a growing number of women elders and leaders in churches and congregations. What has happened to bring about such change?
Feminists’ Arguments are Smoke and Mirrors
Many of the arguments in favour of women in leadership and teaching roles in the church are from history and practice, but Scripture is the Christian’s authority, not the Church Fathers, not the Medieval Church, not the Reformation churches, nor the contemporary churches. Christian feminists bring in every woman from scripture they can to make their case seem convincing and overwhelming, but it is just smoke and mirrors. The issue is not whether some women, such as Ruth, “bucked the system” (Evans) by proposing marriage; or others such as Rizpah were able to pressure the king (2 Sam 21:10); the courage and faith of women is not in question to most Christians. The issue is women as leaders and teachers in the church. No matter how many women the feminists produce, all they’re doing is muddying the water because there is only a handful of women in the bible who were actually leaders and teachers, not a solid and steady stream of them as the feminists would have us believe. Yes, there were many women who were worthy of praise, and some of my favourite personalities and examples of faith in the OT are women. But faithfulness, godliness, courage, heroism, wisdom and suffering do not equate to leadership. The number of faithful women in the bible is irrelevant when we’re talking about leadership in Israel or the Church.
Rachel Held Evans
The late and lamented Rachel Held Evans, for example, in her blog, says that when it comes to women in ministry, many Christians read scripture through the lens of 1 Tim 2:11-15 where Paul forbids women from teaching and ruling in the church. She says that in view of the multitude of women in scripture who are honoured by God and praised by their community for teaching and exercising leadership, she sees 1 Tim 2:11-15 as an anomaly and that it’s hard for Paul’s statements to be applied.
So does that mean this passage is not scripture? Did Paul make a mistake which, having been foisted on the Church, is to be ignored because of the trauma it causes godly women? This is a view held and taught by Professor Bart Ehrman, but not originating with him; it originated in the Higher Critical halls and colleges of unbelieving theology which undermines trust in the inerrancy and authority of the Bible. It’s easy to disprove doctrine if you remove the passages which teach it!
But Rachel even appeals to the ridiculous in her attempts to deny the biblical commands. She writes: “Of particular concern to Paul was a group of young widows who had infiltrated the church and developed a reputation for dressing promiscuously, sleeping around, gossiping, spreading unorthodox ideas, interrupting church services with questions, mooching off the church’s widow fund, and generally making common floozies of themselves (1 Timothy 5). Many scholars believe these women were likely influenced by the popular Roman fertility cults of Artemis that encouraged women to flaunt their sexuality and freedom to a degree that scandalized even the Roman establishment, hardly known for its prudish morals. Worship involved deviant sex, shirking off marriage and childbearing, possible abortions and infanticide, and immodest dress that made adherents indistinguishable from prostitutes” (Rachel Held Evans blog article “For the sake of the gospel, let women speak”).
The claims that 1 Timothy (and 2 Timothy and Titus) was a “pious forgery” written in the 2nd century arose during the 19th century; I won’t deal with that here except to say that Clement of Rome (died 99 AD), Polycarp (69-155 AD), Irenaeus 130-200 AD), Tertullian (160-225 AD) and Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) accepted it as one of Paul’s letters; so it was known as a Pauline epistle from the beginning.
Rachel also points out that the Old Testament was written in a patriarchal society, therefore men are more often the protagonists in the stories than women, and held leadership more often than women. But surely the Old Testament was inspired by God, as it says in 2 Tim 3:16 and 2 Pet 1:19-20? It wasn’t men who designed Israelite culture and society, it was God. It wasn’t Moses who invented the Law and foisted it on the nation; and the law wasn’t developed from stories told around the camp fire and handed down to posterity; it was God who gave it as a blessing to his people; it was the revelation of God for his people. God gave the Law from Mt Sinai amidst flames, thunder and lightning, thick cloud and darkness, angels, trumpet blasts from heaven, and earthquake. And he prefaced the whole thing with the words “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:2). He meant it to be obeyed and imposed severe penalties on any infringements of his law (Heb 2:2). So to blame the lack of women leaders and teachers on a patriarchal society is astonishing, and ignorance at best; but I know Rachel isn’t ignorant because I’ve read some of her books.
Rachel is troubled because women in Israel were regarded as property (Exod 20:17; Deut 5:21; Judges 5:30); fathers were to be paid if their daughter was raped, and the victim had to marry her oppressor (Deut 22:28-29); and she enumerates a list of significant examples of inequitable treatment of women which men didn’t have to suffer. I agree with her that these examples are troubling to our modern minds. But I dare not challenge God about it, nor try to undermine the scriptures to soften the impact. God knew what he was doing and he did it the way he wanted it done. He did impose those conditions on the society and culture of Israel, whether we like it or not; indeed, whether they liked it or not. But scripture doesn’t record any women who thought they lived in an unjust society. And I’m very sure that if I had to go back in time to live as a woman in the ancient world, I would without hesitation choose to live in Israel rather than in any of the other nations!
Perhaps Rachel missed this passage when she was reading through her bible: Moses, when addressing the nation of Israel, said “See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” (Deut 4:5-8).
Rachel’s approach is around the wrong way. When Paul wrote his letters to Timothy, he based his statements about women on the Law, particularly Genesis chapters 2 and 3. His statement is not an anomaly but the application of the Law to NT church practice. And in the OT, it was the women leaders and teachers who were the anomalies. To build church practice on exceptions to the rule is wrong use of scripture. We can be thankful for the anomalies of women teachers and leaders but we cannot make it normal – scripture does not allow that. We can be thankful for the women of courage and faith in the bible but we shouldn’t therefore open the doors of the church to women to lead and to teach simply because God chose or allowed some to do so. God has stipulated what he wants, and he tells us: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (1 Tim 2:11-12). The source of these command is not misogyny or culture, it is God’s law. So the very next verse says “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim 2:13-14). To undermine such a clear statement in the bible is dangerous, not only because women are taking up leadership roles in increasing numbers, but it sets a precedent, and anything else in the bible that is unpopular can also be turned around. And it’s just plain disobedience. Either accept the bible as it is or reject it – but please, don’t change it to suit your ideals or wishes; if you do that you’re simply fashioning an idol in your own image.
Backdrop to the Old Testament
It was the law for the firstborn son to inherit the property rights but on occasion God made an exception to this rule and chose the second son e.g. Jacob over Esau, Judah the fourth son, Ephraim over Manasseh, David, the youngest of eight sons, etc. The rule of the firstborn inheriting the birthright never changed but God sometimes worked outside that rule for his own purposes, which he doesn’t always disclose. So to see women being used by God outside the norm doesn’t invalidate the norm.
The order of things as ordained by God was that men were the leaders of the family, of the tribe, of the nation, and of the sacrifices in the tabernacle, and later, temple worship (e.g. 2 Chron 20:13; Num 27:15-17). A female was under the authority of her father while she remained unmarried in his house; she wasn’t even allowed to make vows unless he validated them. When she married she then came under the authority of her husband and, again, could not even make a vow without his permission (Numbers chapter 30). If she did make a vow without first checking with her father or husband, they could invalidate it.
When a male child was born, the mother was unclean for seven days; on the eighth day the child was circumcised, and then the mother remained unclean for a further thirty-three days. However, if the child was a female, the mother remained unclean for fourteen days, and continued in her uncleanness after this for sixty-six days (Leviticus 12:1-8). So there is a difference here between male and female, and that difference was made by God. Sadly, men have used their position to demean and abuse women; but that was never God’s intention (1 Pet 3:7; Eph 5:23, 25).
The family tree was traced through the male. The genealogy in Luke’s gospel traces the line through the son, while Matthew’s gospel traces it through the father (obviously, this amounts to the same thing). However, Matt 1:5 mentions Rahab the harlot and Ruth as being in Jesus’ ancestry; they were not leaders but they do rate a mention in the genealogy; and Mary was also mentioned as the one through whom he was born. Nowhere in scripture is there even a hint of Rahab, Ruth or Mary being a leader or a teacher.
Sin, Judgment, and the Curse
In Genesis 2:18-25, during the process of creation on the sixth day, God made a woman out of Adam to be a helper and companion to him. The apostle Paul teaches that this means Eve was subordinate to Adam because she was created for him (1 Cor 11:9). Eve’s role and purpose in life was to be a help and companion to Adam; this was God’s intention for her. Then in Gen 3:16, after Adam and Eve had sinned by eating the forbidden fruit, God tells Eve “…your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you”.
Apart from the fact that the consequences of sin are judgment and punishment by God, the bible itself says that Adam and Eve, and the whole creation, were cursed. By God! For all time! Gen 3:14 tells us God cursed the serpent; in v.15 he pronounces enmity between Christ and Satan and their seed; in v.16 he says to Eve “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children; and your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you”; and in v.17 he cursed the ground and pronounced sorrow on Adam because of it. In Gen 5:29 and 8:21 the ground is described as cursed; and Rom 8:18-21 confirms this, showing that it is the whole of creation that is under the curse, that it was God who cursed it, and that it remains so to this day and will do until the end of the world.
In discussing Gen 3:16, the domination here is not a sinful domination but headship of the husband over the wife, and it was imposed by God. But before anyone gets upset and cries “Unfair! Sexism!” let’s just consider the situation. Adam and Eve rebelled against God! By their act of disobedience, they plunged the whole of creation under a curse for the rest of time; consequently all human beings are made guilty and are enemies of God from the moment of conception (Psalm 51:5). Every conceivable misery came into this world because of their one act of disobedience! The whole creation was wrenched away from God, as it were, and plunged into rebellion and death; and the only remedy for such a stupendously catastrophic sin was that God himself should become a part of this fallen creation and suffer death, the penalty for sin, in order to rescue those who had become his enemies!
So is it right to complain because God dares to exercise his just judgment, part of which was to subject wives to their husbands? Shouldn’t we rather be giving thanks to God that he didn’t destroy the world at that moment, or that he didn’t simply withdraw his hand and leave us to our wickedness? Shouldn’t we rather be thankful that he promised a Saviour instead (Gen 3:15)? So what if women have to submit to their husbands? So what if men have to work by the sweat of their brow? So what if we can only speak to God through a mediator now instead of face to face as Adam could – at least we can still speak to him. At least we are his children and will be with him in eternity. That’s when we will have our rest. Shame! Just do what God says, and be thankful!
Sadly, some Christians want to be the “boss”, to be in control, both male and female, but that is sin, and I’ve seen the evil consequences of how that works out as some schismatic makes a grab for power and control over the church – it’s very ugly and destructive. But to imply that any person who defends the biblical instruction that women should not teach or have authority over men is doing so because they want to be boss is offensive. Defending and practicing what scripture teaches is not siding with the devil, as some imply. I’m not opposed to women; but I am opposed to women and men who won’t submit to God’s law, and who try to draw others into their rebellion. However, the judgment was for man to rule, not to abuse. That rule included the responsibility to protect the woman, to provide for her and to love her (1 Pet 3:7).
But when this rule is contravened and the woman controls the husband, we see an emasculated pitiful man who does everything his wife tells him to and behaves like a little puppy when they’re together. It’s embarrassing and shameful to see such a man, especially a Christian man, who won’t stand up to his wife’s domineering and take back the headship that God entrusted to him. The wisest man in history wrote: “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife” (Prov 21:9; 25:24); or, as the KJV graphically puts it, “with a brawling and contentious woman”.
“(As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church….)” (1 Cor 14:34-37).
Kroeger, Richard, and Kroeger, Catherine, 2004, Internet article “Women Elders: Called by God?”; no longer on net
“The Scripture quotations contained herein are made from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition copyright 1993 and 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.” “Published by Catholic Bible Press, a division of Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee 37214.