Women’s Roles in the Bible
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
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,
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!