Women’s Roles in the Bible

wives_submitI have two rules which guide me in my study of scriptures:

1. If the bible is unchanging, then it can not have been intended to communicate one thing to the people to whom it was originally given and something entirely different today.  If our modern common sense reading of scripture is in conflict with how the ancients would have understood the same verses, then our modern understanding is wrong, no matter how obvious, universally held or apparent it is.

2. Where the bible appears to be in conflict with its self or with the real world around us, this should be seen as a red marker pointing to something which needs to be explored further.  Too often we try to explain away these contradictions or make the unacceptable seem more reasonable when what we really need to do is pray, study and dig deeper.  In my experience I have frequently found that these “red markers” point to areas where there is a problem with translation or our modern assumptions are interfering with our understanding and on occassion, I have even come to see that some aspect of our understanding about God or life is entirely off base and needs to be adjusted.

These two rules have served me well, although what I learn from applying them frequently leaves me well outside of mainstream Christian opinion on some issues.  I haven’t quite decided yet if that is a good thing or bad thing and what I’m supposed to do with all that, but time will tell.

At any rate, one of the most vexing problems of scriptures for us moderns is the bible and women.  My first revelation that there might be something wrong with our modern approach to what the bible says about women came years ago when my husband and I were newly married.  We were having a really hard time and I went into a Christian bookstore looking for some sort of answer which would rid us our misery.  While browsing through books, I came across one which claimed to explain the biblical injunction for wives to submit to their husbands in such a way that a woman could be at peace with her role.  The key, this author claimed, was that women had the easier part; while women were called to submit, men actually had to LOVE their wives.  You see, the oft quoted verses first tell women to submit to their husbands and for husbands to love their lives.  Since only husbands are instructed to love their wives, this author reasoned, women were free to despise, hate or just be indifferent to their husbands so long as they were submissive towards them.

Hopefully, right now you are objecting, as I did in reading this, that we are all called to love each other.  Love isn’t some special instruction given to husbands for their wives alone – it’s a call for all of us.  Paul apparently felt that it was important to remind husbands of the necessity of loving their wives, but the fact that this author had gotten her book published not withstanding, it is utterly insane to try and stretch that to mean that therefor only husbands had to love!

So what about submission?  Well, the answer is really the same.  There are many places where Christians are advised to submit to each other.  In fact, in the sentence just before the famous Ephesians 5:22 (Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.) we find this:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Ephesians 5:21

It’s a general call for Christians to submit to each other.  The fact that it comes immediately before the instructions to wives ought to make it blazingly clear that it is not the special province of women to be submissive to their husbands, it is an instruction for all Christians in their dealing with each other.  Apparently just as Paul felt the need to remind husbands that their Christian duty to love extended to their wives, he also needed to remind wives that this instruction to submit included their dealings with their husbands.

Now, I wasn’t around in ancient times, but the harpy shrewish wife and the boarish, thoughtless husband seem to have been stock characters since time immemorial.  I think it’s a safe bet that Paul’s comments can be attributed to the particular tendencies of men and women which would be recognizable of a large portion of humanity, regardless of when they lived.  (There are also contextual issues to be considered such as the rise of gnostic cults proclaiming spiritual androgeny and the influence which the practices surrounding the worship of Artemis may have had on converts to the church – Ephesus was the location of the temple of Artemis, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.  However, I just don’t have time to dig all that up today.)

At this point, some of you are thinking to yourselves, “well that’s all good and fine, but the very next verse tell is ‘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 obviously there’s more to it.”

So glad y’all brought that up.  Here’s a question for you: according to ancient Greek thought, what did the head do?  Or even more specifically, where was the seat of rational thought according to the ancient Greeks?  (Hint: it wasn’t the brain.)  We read this verse as modern people who know what the function of the brain is and having a common use understanding of the head as the ruler of the body.  However, at the time Paul wrote, the head and the brain were thought to perform 3 possible functions.  The first function was as the seat of the senses.  The head took in information and in particular light from the outside world.  It was also commonly thought that the brain served as a sort of radiator for the body – allowing blood to cool off to prevent overheating.  The last function of the brain in some circles was as the source of life.  I can’t find the reference now, but there were even some scientists who had worked out some scheme whereby sperm was made in the brain and traveled through the nervous system to the reproductive organs.  It wasn’t until the work of the Greco-Roman physician Galen who lived from 130-200 AD that the idea of the brain as being the seat of thought started to be widely accepted.  (See here for a brief discussion of ancient thought regarding the brain.)  Until that time the seat of thought was generally thought to be located somewhere in our midsection – probably the heart and lungs.

Obviously, our common sense notion of the head as being the source of rational thought which provides direction to the rest of the body would have be completely contrary to the thinking of the early Christians.   Going back to my first rule of scripture study we see that when our common sense modern understanding of scripture is in conflict with how the ancients to whom the words were originally given would have understood it, the ancient understanding is the correct one.  In this case, obviously, it is completely erroneous to use this “head” language as justification for a subordinate position for wives in a marriage.  When Paul spoke of man as the head of the woman and Christ as the head of the church, he most likely meant to highlight two issues: the unbreakable connection between man and woman and husband and church.  The second being the role of Christ as being a salvic role – Jesus is honored by the church because he gave up all his rights and became a humble servant in order to release the oppressed from oppression. And at the end he called us friends. Given women’s inferior role in ancient times, wouldn’t it make more sense to say that for a man to be head of his wife as Christ is head of the church means for him to help her out from her ignorance and oppression so she can stand as a friend and co-heir? IMO, it speaks to the evil on the hearts of humanity that we ready that a man is to be the head as Jesus was and think that has anything to do with who is in charge of whom!

BTW, speaking of oppressing women, you may also want to check out this post on the infamous Proverbs 31 woman!

19 thoughts on “Women’s Roles in the Bible

  1. why be so pig-headed

    it’s just another document

    the truth must be jusdged on it’s own merits, no matter what the source.

    even gods may tell lies at times

  2. 9th of April 2008

    Response to Rebecca: Women’s Roles in the Bible

    Hello Rebecca,

    I read you post and I had to reread it several times ensuring I digested it fully. While I read your words and found much thought behind them, I found the words lacking heart. I found much research and a lot of time, however, your heart was unmistakably absent from the post.

    It has me wondering just how much you believe what you wrote or if in your writings you were trying to convince yourself. How much of your words are for others. That really is none of my business and while I found your post very serious and intellectual, I will respond to you in kind. The only problem with the Bible and intellect is that spirituality is meant for the soul…not just the intellect.

    Have you ever opened your heart as you read the Bible? Really opened your heart and before you get defensive, think about what I’m asking. Read the Bible with an open heart to digest not only the words that are written, but the sentiments of the lives within its pages. Please ask yourself a question as you read about the life of Jesus Christ in the New Testament; did he ever denounce women? Did Jesus Christ every put down a woman that he encountered? Did he ever treat a woman as a subordinate or as an equal? If Jesus did not treat women with such reverence, why then do you believe his church was meant too?

    One of the most cherished things I’ve seen come out of modern day Christianity was the bracelet and saying “WWJD”. Most people misunderstood what the true meaning of that was, but some really did grasp its true meaning…if Jesus Christ were with you right now and today and was apart of your conversation, how do you believe he would respond? Do you think he would agree with your research and or congratulate you on being so intellectual about the love shard between two people?

    My own personal beliefs are that the love shared between two people should be something scared and not something that can be explained away. The explanations about love cannot be trivialized, but yet must be felt, lived and shared. Not to share such love is a travesty within itself. I feel the cornerstone of the church was about Love and when that is diminished we do a disservice to the history of it all.

    As for the role of women in history and in the church; I find the originators of Christianity purposely held women at bay keeping them from roles of authority and power. Now I know that statement got your attention and while you were merely placating my petty writing until now, I’ve just angered you. I hope you return to these words and give me a chance to explain another perspective.

    As you research the Bible, go back to about 325 AD to the formation of the first Council of Nicaea that was called to order by Emperor Constantine. I understand why he brought together more than 300 of the Religious Leaders and Politicians of the era, but the purpose was to stop the uncontrollable fighting between religious groups that had family member fighting family member. Rome was on the precipice of being torn apart by the citizens themselves caused by religious beliefs. Constantine was a life long Pagan, but saw that if he did not unite all people under one religion that everyone could agree with, then an all out war would rip apart society. So Christianity as you and I know it, including the Bible we read, were all decided upon by the Council and passed down as religious law or Canons.

    There were more than thirty different chapters submitted as Gospels, yet the council hand picked only those Bible chapters that showed the religion they wanted you and I to follow. They also reorganized and edited the chapters known to us as the Old Testament. There is a reason women were so denounced in the organization of Christianity. Paganism praised and believed women being the vessels of life, guided us to great spirituality and thereby closer to the Gods. Paganism was the largest and most organized threat to Christianity and to be assimilated into Christianity and then obliterated, so thereby caused the greatest fights in the Council. The role of women was sold for the acknowledgement of holidays and other beliefs to be incorporated into Christian beliefs.

    You have shown great capability for research and have either all ready studied the Council of Nicaea or will base on your desire to prove me wrong. Before you dive into the Internet and in history books, think about our almighty God. If there is one deity that knows all and sees all, why would he create a being as a woman; perfect in form, perfect in every way and in the image of God, only to tell her she is to be subservient to man. She is inferior to man and must serve his needs. Are we to believe that man is somehow closer to God? I have a hard time believing that men are more capable then women could ever imagine being. In my experience with women, if a man thought about it, a woman did long before, she just didn’t say anything. If you honestly think God created a being so perfect in women with the intellect only a woman could summon; but he prepared her only to be subordinate to men; you really are deluding yourself. God would never create any of us to be inferior to anyone else.

    I am sorry for my harsh words, but I don’t believe God would so cruel. I don’t believe an omnipotent entity would ever create perfection only to make it less than anything else that he created. Man made women’s inferior out of fear that women would and could leave man behind. God is not about limits and rules and judgments…not the God I know. He wants you and I to know about Love, Honor and Respect. You must have them for yourself before you can share them with anyone else openly.

    Please think about what I’ve said.

    Your humble servant – Todd M. Dobson

  3. Todd, I have two rules for posters on my blog. The first is that you do not call names. The second is that you actually read what I write and not respond to things you imagine me to be saying rather than what I have actually said. I have a bad tendency of getting a little nasty with people who break these two rules.
    You say that you have taken time in reading what I wrote, so I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that either you misread me or I miscommunicated. No where do I affirm a view of women as inferior. Far from it. I point out that the verses which are usually used to justify an inferior role for women are grossly misunderstood and mistaught. I apologize if I have not communicated this well enough – I’m afraid this post was written with several small children climbing all over me.
    As for my heart, with all due respect, your comments are presumptuous in the extreme and really out of line. Before you make such comments, you owe it to the recipient of such to dig a little deeper rather than working off of what may well be completely inaccurate first impressions. A quick spin around my blog would quickly show how off base your assumptions are regarding me. I do research because God has created me with a mind which desires knowledge and an ability to distill that information into explanations which others will hopefully be able to learn and grow from without having to delve into all the boring scholarly stuff themselves. A more cerebral approach may not appeal to you personally, but it is what God has given me and I try to use my brain, curiosity and communication skills serve Him and His purposes.
    Perhaps your real concern is that you have been holding an opinion on the basis of what your heart tells you which is in conflict with scriptures. The heart is a great thing, but it can also be deceitful, which I why I work to understand scriptures correctly. As David said, “your word have I hidden in my heart that I might not sin against you.” Our hearts need to be shaped by scriptures, not the other way around. If Jesus were sitting next to me (as opposed to residing in my heart anyways), I would proudly offer him my work and be crushed if he responded to me with words such as yours. Fortunately, over the years as I have sat with Him and meditated on just these sort of things which I wrote here, He has been far more approving and gracious than you, so I’m not too concerned that such a thing would happen.

  4. Let me just say that this is one of the best explanations I’ve read about the “wives be submissive to your husbands” thing. We often hear (more so in Protestant circles than Catholic; I’m Catholic) that only wives should be submissive. It never occurred to me that it would naturally follow that only husbands should love. I guess the books you found took this notion to it’s natural conclusion. Obviously, the idea that only husbands should love is as ridiculous as the idea that only wives should submit. I have been confused for awhile as to what the true Catholic understanding of this passage is, and your post really cleared a lot of things up for me. As a Catholic, I don’t believe that we can just figure out for ourselves what the Bible means. We need to read it in the context of history, tradition, the time in which is was written, etc.

  5. Hello Rebecca,

    I am sorry you took such great offense with my words; I had rather hoped by offering a more positive view that you may see how your talents are well spent, but yet another point of view may be worth your thoughts and study.

    I am not sorry for the subject that I’ve sent nor for this response, so if you were not pleased with my original retort; then you might want to close this email and remove it before reading. I never wish to purposely harm anyone else and always try to show that through the real tenants of Jesus and his church: Love, Honor and Respect; we can have a positive affect on the world around us.

    I will begin with the first two premises that guide you in your study of the Bible. The Bible is always changing. The interpretations of the words written inside the Bible used by religious organizations are changing constantly to meet their needs and causes. My point is that verses in the Bible have been used over the years to denounce the Black Civil Rights moment and the ability to own slaves. There are verses that you even indicate being used against the Separatist and the women’s movement keeping them beholden to men and husbands by not allowing them to be free from the shackles and chains that bind them like chattel or property and to be dispensed by man as he saw fit. Yes, the words in the Bible remain the same, but their use and the meaning that they’ve been given changes with the times and have been used for as much negative as ever positive.

    As for interpreting the meaning of the Bible today from its derived significance of yesterday would be a wonderful trick and a great undertaking. I know of several men who have studied the Bible and its true meaning for years. It is an undertaking because you must invest years to be able to truly interpret the Bible from the ancient text to its interpreted form and then from its interpreted form to what we know as the Bible today. Most of the ancient documents are scattered across the world being held by various governments, but the largest repository for the greatest documents has been collected and stored in the Vatican. You must have special dispensation by the Pope himself to garner access to some of these documents with reasonable explanation of their need and your desire with them to even get close enough; much less with the necessary team of people who are experts in many different fields from archeology, linguistics, ancient times and far more. You must have multiple interpreters and teams to track down every other word that was originally written long before they are or were interpreted.

    Much like today, each word has various meanings and some had similar meanings while others were vastly different. Choosing the wrong meaning for a single word would give the text one direction while choosing the other would send the Bible in complete opposite. There have been teams of people who have studied the Bible and its true meanings for years (10, 15 20 and 25 years) in the simple pursuits of deciphering the true meaning of the Bible and even within the teams they disagree. If a team chasing down every other word in the Bible with the every possible meaning and viewing that with all of the interpretations for the meaning of that one sentence and that sentence in conjunction with the sentences and phrases before and after this one sentence, how do you feel you or I with only reading the Bible are capable of deriving the intended meaning of the Bible?

    Because of these facts alone, the only things we can do is to read all subordinate texts that are published and to derive what we truly believe ourselves. Do the other texts support the focus of the Bible or do they support a believable alternate version that neither detracts from nor deters the Bible and its focus. The Gnostic Bibles, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the many other Chapters that were submitted for the New Testament only to be denied by the Council of Niciea. Many of the other chapters written for the New Testament were in use by many different religions until 325 BC when the Council of Niciea hand picked those that make up the Bible that all Christian based religions use today.

    This is where the heart really does come into the picture, because you must then read and digest what all of these text are telling you to truly interpret what you feel is the true meaning of the Bible and the church of Jesus Christ. Our intellect can only bring us so far, but then we must use our hearts to guide us the rest of the way. Yes, the heart can deceive us, but only when we allow our head to derive the meanings of the heart. When your heart and your soul beat as one, the honest, true meaning of anything can be ascertained…even if that is the true meaning of the time for you.

    As for my two friends that have been entrusted enough and allowed to work on different teams re-interpreting the Bible, they have given me little insight, but what I have learned from them is that there is so much that has been miss-interpreted in the word of God. One works for the Divinity School at Harvard University and use to be a Catholic Priest. His background is archeology and linguistics. The other has too many degrees to list, is a professor at a noted southern university and remains an active Priest even though he relinquished his duties years ago. Both men have discussed at length the varied interpretations of the Bible and what he Bible really says and means. Both have indicated that the meanings used by most Christian religions is not what was truly meant, but that interpretations have been screwed to mean what they want in order to supplement their cause.

    I have given you more than enough thought on your two rules and hopefully something to think about in how you conduct your investigations. As for the text of what you wrote, after re-reading several more times, I still derive the same meaning that I did the first time. You using text in the Bible to support the view that women are to be subordinate to men. Husbands and fathers need to be respected and honored, however not always to your own determent. You see I can’t see Jesus telling any person your role in this world is to submit to anyone else other than God. I can’t ever imagine hearing him say those words. So my first problem and call to fallacy with your text is that a woman must submit to her husband. Even if you can justify her role in doing so, you are merely justifying the first and greatest problem by allowing men, husbands and fathers the right to control women and submit to their demands (right or wrong). I don’t see a God, an omnipresent being creating something as perfect as a woman and telling that being it must be beholden to the man in her life. Justification aside, you are better than that and have such a wonderful mind to use for yourself. I challenge you to use that amazing tool you were given to show the fallacy of the text demanding that you not think any less of yourself then what you truly are…Great just as you were created.

    Oh and by the way! Those two friends who have worked for years interpreting the true meaning of the Bible have both indicated there was no text in the real Bible that tells how a woman must submit to her husband. Truly think about that the next time you read verses that we’ve been told for years are intended to keep women benevolent to anyone other than God.

    Your humble servant – Todd M. Dobson

  6. Interesting post Rebecca. I’m very glad I read it, I never looked at that passage with that point of view.
    Hope you have good week!

  7. Hi Rebecca,

    I am only an ordinary truth seeker. And, what you wrote makes good sense.

    On the woman’s role according to the Bible, I dont like writings swept by chauvinstic elements from either side.

    I love the words of God. I dont mind if truth comes out in my favour or not, or whether it disadvantages my subconscious chauvinistic cravings. I only love truth, God willing.

    Honestly, I appreciate very much your approach to understanding the Bible against its language and cultural context. I have a lot to learn from you. Thank you.

    Keep up the good work.
    God bless you

    Tommy Ning

  8. Hi Rebecca,
    I trust that this finds you well. I am currently doing a special project on the role of a woman and so in my research I was led to your article and was prompted to respond. I have read your article and I understand that when communication is done through such means instead of face to face misinterpretation can take place so I hope in my attempt I do not offend you.
    I know this may not be my place to ask but while reading I was very curious to know if you are a born again believer. What I mean by this is from the reference in Rom chap .10:10 (which states that with the heart man believes unto righteousness and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation). Have you declared Jesus as lord of your life?
    In addition to that I trust that we as born again believers will not take certain scriptures out but read the bible in its full context and refer to other scriptures for a full understanding of not only the times (meaning what was happening then) but also what we should be gaining from it.
    I have realized that we live in a world filled with feminism and so we have taken this notion of submission or even the role of a woman to a whole other level but as Christians we should transform our minds to what God desires to see in us.
    In the book of Gen chap 2 God created Adam and later found out that he needed a companion and so he formed Eve from Adam thus the name woman came about for Adam declared she was taken out of man. The scripture then went on to say that they are now one after they were married.
    Throughout the scriptures we are reminded that we as men and women are equal in the sight of God and different analogies are used especially the body (in reference to the hand not being able to say it does not need the foot or any other member of the body because they cannot function independently of each other).
    Let me slow down a bit here I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Before God formed Eve Adam’s wife he (God) gave Adam specific instructions that would guide families for ages to come and that says to me that the role of the man is to lead guide or oversee the family in the way of the Lord. However Adam could not do that alone he needed help and so Eve entered the picture and she was also told the requirements of God. They (the husband and the wife) were to teach these things to their children and the pattern was to carry on.
    The enemy who hates unity decided to bring about discord so he went to the woman why I have no clue and will not attempt to assume. She heeded the voice of the enemy and went to her husband and so sin entered the world.
    Now we see in the end of ch.3 that God came to let them know the consequences of their actions. And what I found interesting is this that God said that the desire of the woman will be to control her husband but he will rule over her (Gen3:16) 9this to me seem like God was prophesying about feminism) but the reality is there is an order. Now does this mean I think that men are put in the position of authority to demean woman no and neither did God but to let us know that there is an order.
    So then throughout the Old Testament we see men acting as the high priest of their families by constantly offering up sacrifices to God on their behalf. The women would help in ensuring that the families were taken care of and that most importantly the word of God was taught to their children.
    As time went by we see different instances where they trusted their husbands and worked along with them and even accept their Godly authority in calling their husbands lord.
    So then we get into the New Testament and a lot of issues arose where people in the church in general wanted to use their authority to demean others and so Paul decided to address these issues and constantly reminded his mentees to talk about these issues on different levels.
    So we get to Ephesians 5 (and you can cross reference between 1peter3, col3:18-25, titus2,) where instructions are not only given to the husband and the wives but to all members of the household including slaves. This is also to prove that God gives authority and roles but to be used in a humble manner not the way we are used to seeing it take place in the world. The word of God instructs us the husband to love his wife even as Christ loves the church and gives his life for the church. This is a special kind of love his duty as a husband is to love and protect his family. We ought to love our brothers and sisters in Christ but this love that the husband has should be the same as the one Christ shares for his church. This means that husbands must live sacrificially they being one with their spouse must do everything in their power to protect them. This is the idea of being one with your spouse as Christ is one with the church b/c that is what marriage represents.
    When the husband lives this way loving his wife sacrificially (this does not mean offering her a s a sacrifice) but protecting her at all times and loving her unconditionally. She will submit to her husband, now this is not what most people think being a puppet but it is talking about (honoring, respecting , reverencing your husband) treating him the way you expect to be treated so that the team can work effectively to carry out God’s plan. In the same manner the children will show you respect and honor when they see it displayed in the home and among their parents. So will slaves and their masters accordingly. This is all in line with what God say that we should do unto other as we would have them do unto you.

  9. Thanks so much for your thoughts on this scripture. I am disappointed at some of the comments above which arrogantly assume that you’ve only reached these views because you are not ‘born again’ or that you don’t really believe them yourself. They remind me of the atheists I’ve met who like to tell you that the only reason you’re not an atheist, too, is because you haven’t studied science. My point with that, and my point in general, is that it is seriously refreshing to see someone who treats ‘difficult’ or controversial scriptures not as things to be swept under the rug or to be edited to conform to our modern point of view, but as opportunities to seek God, and has actually arrived at their conclusions because of their study. I’m with 2nd Corinthians 4:6 when it calls God ‘the God who made light shine out of darkness.’ It is also a long and dearly held belief of mine that, although some passages of scripture are not immediately straightforward, God didn’t make them that way to confuse you, they are there because God wants to be sought and He wants you to know why you believe what you believe. As you mentioned to one of your commenters above, He made us with the reasoning ability and desire for knowledge necessary for this. Although I have not necessarily come around to your view in all the areas discussed above, I think you raised an excellent and often overlooked point with the observation that husbands are not the only Christians who are supposed to be loving, and wives are not the only ones who are supposed to be submissive. This seems to be to be a good example of interpreting the bible with the bible, and agrees with the rest of scripture. Anyways, thanks again for this – it takes courage to make a potentially controversial point of view public and integrity to be willing to examine such a view critically. This was a very helpful thing to find.

  10. Hi Rebecca, thanks for your article. I come from a single parent home and my mom has been the one who has looked after me. I’m at the end of my first degree and she saw me through it and God is leading her to do a lot of big things with her own life. I found your article really encouraging in terms of me viewing women as equal before God and powerful in their own right as I do hear a lot of male-centric preaching coming at me which has never sat well with me due to watching my mom over the years. I’m going to check out the rest of your blog later, keep it up!! 🙂


    1. Thank you, Josh! I’m glad you found this post helpful. Your mother must be quite a woman to have earned such strong respect from you!

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