Does the Bible Disempower Women? (Part 1)

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Some Ask, “Does the Bible disempower women?”

This question deserves a lot of care. For the typical 21st century reader, there is a striking amount of testosterone in the Bible. Men undoubtedly played a large role in God’s story of redemption. The patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) were all male. The monarchs (David, Solomon, etc.) were all male. The twelve disciples were all male. Noah, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Daniel, Jonah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Paul, Peter… all male. Every identifiable author of Scripture is male. God self-identifies in the Bible with masculine terms.

The apparent “masculinity” in Scripture is a valid concern. But is there evidence that the Bible also speaks highly of women who played important roles in God’s grand story of redemption? Absolutely.

Did Males Matter More?

To answer this question, we must put ourselves into the mindset of Biblical times.

Back then, females were typically treated as the property of their fathers or husbands. Females generally lacked leadership roles. They were mostly confined to their homes for household chores. Their testimony was generally distrusted, and certainly carried no legal weight.1 We learn these things by reading ancient law and other ancient writings by those who commented on cultural practice. Bible background dictionaries and commentaries are helpful in locating these sources. Clearly, females did not hold equal societal status with males.

Yet it might surprise you to see how often a positive, empowering view of females appears in the Bible’s narrative. Women prophesied the words of God. Women played important roles in preserving God’s people. Women served alongside prominent male leaders like Jesus and Paul. Women held positions of leadership within the Church.

Specific examples:

  • Deborah was a female prophet and judge of Israel. In Judges 4 we learn that she successfully encouraged Barak to fight against Sisera for Israel’s freedom. Sisera fled Barak on foot and was killed by Jael, also a woman. Deborah had prophesied that the glory of the battle would not fall to Barak, because the God would give Sisera into the hand of a woman.
  • Other prophetesses in Scripture include Isaiah’s wife (Isaiah 8:3), Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14), and Anna (Luke 2:36-38).
  • God used a woman to punish Abimelech for his evil (Judges 9:53, 56).
  • Proverbs speaks highly of a mother’s teaching (Prov. 1:8, 6:20, 31:26).
  • The book of Ruth commends her exemplary faithfulness and trust in God. Ruth’s story is further honored by connecting her as a key player in the lineage of King David (Ruth 4:13-17).
  • The book of Esther focuses on God’s faithfulness at using a courageous woman to save His people.
  • A number of women traveled with Jesus alongside the disciples, and financially supported Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:1-3).
  • Acts 17:4 tells us that many “leading women” were persuaded by the preaching of Paul and Silas.
  • Priscilla (also known as Prisca) and her husband Aquila became important companions of Paul in the formation of the early church. Interestingly, Priscilla is often mentioned first among the two, suggesting that she had a prominent role as a missionary.2 See the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary entry for Prisca. Interestingly, Adolf von Harnack went even further and argued that Priscilla was the author of Hebrews. A few other scholars have followed. There is some circumstantial evidence for this, but not enough to draw any confident conclusion.
  • In Romans 16:1-2, Paul commends Pheobe to the Roman church, instructing them to welcome her as a saint, and to help her with her requests.
  • In Romans 16:7, Paul compliments Junia as a woman “well known to the apostles.”
  • In Philippians 4:2, Paul asks for Euodia and Syntyche to agree in the Lord. The fact that Paul called these women out by name indicates that they had a prominent position within the Church.
  • In 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul gives instruction for women who were praying or prophesying in the Church.
  • And let’s remember that it was a woman who was the first witnesses of the resurrected Christ!

These biblical examples clearly show that females held critical positions of leadership and heroism, which God used to further His plans. Still, we can’t ignore that some passages of Scripture seem to suggest that women held a lower value than men. In part 2 of this post, we will continue our study by addressing some of those key passages.

Matthew Tingblad is a communicator at Josh McDowell Ministry with a seminary education from Talbot School of Theology.

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