A few years ago my family needed a new church. So we were looking a couple of non-denominational churches in our town. The problem was that I quickly learned that none of them allowed women in leadership positions. But, as my husband pointed out, it’s not like I was looking to be made pastor. And we aren’t going to agree on everything. So I figured we could give them a shot. The problem became that at each of them I had the same experience. As I was sitting in service, something in me kept saying, “get up. Leave. Walk out.” Finally, it was more like a scream and I couldn’t ignore it anymore. So I walked out and didn’t return to any of them.
When I did that, a wave of utter peace came over me. I realized that it had been the Spirit in me which was telling me to leave. And I knew that never again would I be able to look at the teaching of the unique submission* of women as something we can agree to disagree on. Like Jesus said, anyone who, having put their hand to the plow turns and looks back is not worthy of the Kingdom of God. God had already lead me out of humanity’s old ideas about women and trying to ignore that to sit under churches which were perpetuating what I had been lead out of was like looking back.
The reason the issue of women in leadership, the church and family is such a flash point is because it gets to the heart of the challenge of what it means for the Kingdom of God to be made manifest among us. It’s not just a matter of the interpretation of scripture or rules governing churches, but is a potent sign of how we understand God’s Kingdom ways. Are they improved versions of our ways? Or is God calling us to utterly abandon our ways in favor of an entirely new Kingdom’s set of rules? What we’re seeing here is actually a spiritual battle between the stronghold of of the enemy’s ways which have reigned for so long and the coming Kingdom of God. (Yes, I know it’s not nice or charitable to say that fellow Christians are actually fighting for Satan on this issue. But as you will see below, I do believe it’s well justified. And I don’t mean to say that they are evil. We’re all just learning to grow up, after all.)
I’ve been involved in a couple of online discussions lately on the matter of women and their proper place among Christians. And believe it or not, I’ve even managed to be reasonably decent in them. In these discussions, I’ve run into some common objections which I want to share my responses to here. This is by no means an exhaustive list or set of responses. Since this does continue to be an ongoing discussion in the church which I know many of my readers wrestle with as well, I figured I’d share. Please feel free to steal my ideas and use them yourself!
The unique submission of women may not make sense to us moderns, but it’s simply a matter of being faithful to scripture.
Like most people who reject the teaching of the unique submission of women, I’ve done a lot of study on the matter. I’ve looked at ALL of the verses involved. Learned about the history, looked into whether they’ve been misunderstood and what sort of context they were spoken into. Unlike some people who have studied the issue, I didn’t try to balance the problem verses against other verses and come down against the verses used to support the unique submission of women. I believe that all of scripture is God breathed and what is in there is in there for a reason. So I didn’t simply find reasons to discard the verses in question.
Instead, what I found was that in each and every instance, there was a readily available explanation for the verse which didn’t require the unique submission of women. One quick example would be the use of “head” to describe the relationship of a man to a woman. At the time these words were written, the seat of thought, emotion and will was thought to be the heart, not the head. The function of the brain wasn’t understood at the time. The first record we have of someone proposing that the brain was where thoughts and will were formed was was sometime in the late 2nd century after the bible verses which speak of men as the head were written. So the relationship between men and women could not have been meant to be one in which the head directed – was the seat of the will for – women. That’s just one example, but there are dozens of other ways in which we can see that the words of the scriptures regarding men and women would not have been interpreted by the people to whom they were given in the way they are today. (I’ve written about some of the specific verses involved in my other writing about women and Christianity. John Bristow’s book What Paul Really Said About Women is a good primer on the subject as well.)
So, at the end of all the study, I came to the conclusion that what scripture says doesn’t necessarily support the unique submission of women. Yes, it is possible to read the scripture as calling for the unique submission of women. But it is also completely possible to read it without coming to that conclusion at all. And in fact, the earliest Christians, reading the scripture in their own language, didn’t understand these verses the way that we do today. So it is false to say that calling for the unique submission of women is simply being faithful to scripture. It’s a chosen interpretation of scripture and nothing more.
The teaching of the unique submission of women shouldn’t be discredited if abuse occurs by those who practice it. It just shows that in order for us to live out God’s will, we need good, Godly men who will not use the teaching as an excuse to mistreat others.
This idea, probably more than any other, demonstrates exactly how we can know that the unique submission of women is not God’s way. God’s ways do not rely on the goodness of men (or women) to work. They have a power all their own. Thus, all through the Old Testament, we see God relying, not on good men, but on people who are prone to abuse, violence, weakness, arrogance and all manner of human sin to enact his plan. To put a finer point on it, any plan which relies on the goodness of humans to work, is self-evidently not from God.
To see the difference in action, consider the difference between the fruit from the teaching of the unique subordination of women vs full equality and mutual submission between men and women. Despite having been tried all over the world, the unique subordination of women has never produced a human society where peace, justice and freedom were widely enjoyed. (Anyone who says pre-1960s America gets slapped – slavery?) The explanation for this is always the same – it requires good, Godly men. This teaching is like communism, a great idea that’s just never been properly executed.
On the other hand, women in the early church served in all areas of the church. They enjoyed rights in their marriages and as daughters not allowed or expected in the prevailing culture. That all faded away after the first few hundred years, but the remnants of this teaching carried such power that the places in the world where women first gained (pretty much) full equality and are most free, most respected and most empowered are places where Christianity has deep roots. Once God’s ways are introduced into the system of humanity, they will face more and less opposition, but over the course of time, they will persist and bear good fruit.
Again, a system which relies on the goodness of men to bear good fruit is self-evidently not God’s way of doing things.
Isn’t rejecting the unique submission of women an attack on the core of Christianity? Isn’t the hierarchical relationship between men and women one of the foundational examples the sort of structures which God has given us to function and thrive under?
I said earlier that the issue of women goes to the heart of our understanding of God’s Kingdom. Are God’s ways improved versions of things human beings already do things? Or is God calling us to utterly abandon our ways in favor of an entirely new Kingdom’s set of rules?
There is nothing, nothing, nothing uniquely Christian about putting men over women. It’s a practice embraced by nearly all religions, nearly all societies over all of the planet for many thousands of years. The same thing goes for matters of hierarchy, power and control. But as Jesus said, “among you it will be different.” Christianity has been part of our social structure for so long that we have mostly lost sight of just how revolutionary it is. In the church, there isn’t even a position such as the old priesthood (Greek hierateuma) – the church itself is called a royal priesthood.
Power, control and hierarchies are the playthings of humanity. They are unfit for Christians. Instead, among us, the first shall be last, the last first, the least of these are as Christ, a slap on one cheek should be met with an offer of the other, the evil man should not be resisted, so on and so forth. The ways of God are radically different than the ways of men. What Christians get wrong tend to be the things that all people get wrong. What Christians get right, tend to be utterly unique. (Before you argue with me, consider that even the Golden Rule, which is widely shared among religions is different in Christianity. Other religions have various ways of saying it. Those which have a nearly identical teaching use the negative form: “don’t to do other’s what you would not want done to yourself.” Christianity is the only one which phrases it in the positive, “do unto others as you would have done on to you.”)
So, there is nothing particularly Christian about putting men over women. What is uniquely Christian is this: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28
Aren’t women who object to gender roles simply engaging in rebellion? Isn’t the real issue that they object to their place because they want to be in charge or because society views being under another person as inferior?
Over the years I have sometimes gotten messages from mostly young women asking about specific bible verses pertaining to women. Always, they explain how they are trying to follow and honor God and understand these verses as somehow demonstrating God’s love for them. But over and over, they keep coming back to a question they can’t shake: “why does God hate me?” Sometimes they specifically say, “I wish God hadn’t made me a woman” because trying to follow what they had been taught God requires of women is killing their spirit. It breaks my heart because I used to feel exactly the same way.
“My yoke is easy and my burden is light” was Jesus’s claim. Did he not know what he was talking about? Was he lying? Like everyone else, I have sometimes rebelled against God’s ways. But it was never because I found his ways to be a painful burden. Always it was because I had some other desire, thought the teaching didn’t make sense or had other priorities. But never was my rebellion the result of trying to escape what I was experiencing as a heavy burden being imposed on me. Women who love God rejecting their very gender and feeling hated by God is about as heavy a burden and as bad a fruit as there is.
On the other hand, as I found the courage to embrace other ways of understanding these verses, I was granted an enormous peace – the sort of peace that only God can bring to us. I started understanding that the enormous pain I and other women feel under the teaching of the unique subordination of women didn’t come from my rebellion. It is actually the rebellion of the Holy Spirit in me refusing to accept a teaching that I wasn’t made for. Along with peace came freedom. The freedom that Jesus came to give us. Freedom to be the person God purposed me to be rather than who other people said I should be.
My life didn’t change in any outer way when I rejected the common human notion of women as uniquely subordinate. It wasn’t a concern for or reaction to my personal circumstances which made me miserable. It was the idea that the God I love wasn’t on my side. That his desire for me was to be dependent on the goodness of men for my well being. That I should just go along with perpetuating human habits which have never, ever in all of human history created the sort of peace, righteousness and loving kindness which ought to be the hallmark of God’s Kingdom. Today when someone tries to explain to me how the old ideas about women’s position in Christianity are right and biblical, it sounds like someone trying to convince me to go back into a soul-killing, painful prison that God set me free from. But it’s all good. God’s set me free and isn’t going to let me go back. So, how about y’all?
*I prefer the term “unique submission of women” to other terms such as Complimentarian, Patriarchy and such. I think it gets to the core of the matter in that contra scripture which calls on us all to submit to one another, this teaching makes the claim that women are uniquely called to submit based on their gender.