Does the Bible Disempower Women? (Part 2)


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In my previous post I addressed the concern that the presence of women in the Bible is underrepresented. My conclusion was that the Bible tells of God’s interaction in history, and that this history took place within a male-dominated culture. I also pointed to many passages in the Bible that elevate women, despite the male-dominated culture. I sincerely hope that my previous post helps us to realize that the Bible affirms the importance of females in society — and certainly in God’s plans.

In this post I want to address three scriptural references that appear to devalue women. As God made males and females in His image (Genesis 1:27), we must start with the assumption that both are sacred in His eyes. Both, then, have extraordinary dignity, value, and worth. So how are we to view passages which seem to run counter to this?



Understanding Scripture Clearly

Genesis 2:18

“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” (ESV)

Someone recently asked me what we were created for. The implied question was, “What is my purpose in life?” Creation implies purpose. In the creation story of females, it might appear to you that their purpose is to live as  less valued assistants for males.

But let’s not be hasty in draw definitive conclusions about the social status of women using this verse. To take a more academically robust approach, we should look up the original Hebrew word for “helper” to see how it is used in Scripture. In doing so, we can compare how the word functions with clearer examples of social status.

The word for “helper” in Genesis 2:18 is ezer. It is used positively (“giving” help or “being” help) 15 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. In 10 cases, it is God who provides the help. (Deuteronomy 33:7 and 29, Psalm 20:2, Psalm 70:5, Psalm 89:19, twice in Psalm 121:1-2, Psalm 124:8, Psalm 146:5, and Hosea 13:9.)

I would argue that “helper” in Genesis 2:18 is not a term meant to belittle or degrade the female role. God himself proudly bears that same title for His people. (See Hosea 13:9.)


Ephesians 5:22-24

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” (ESV)

Perhaps more than anywhere else, this passage is used to challenge the value of a women in a marriage relationship. There are even certain traditions where husbands will use this passage as leverage for power and to demand submission from their wives.

Evidently, these men missed the verses of this passage which come immediately after:

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that He might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of His body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'” (Ephesians 5:25-31 ESV).

Notice that the passage on husbands is longer (likely because it was a much more radical statement for that culture). But even more to the point, notice how this passage is an even greater calling to a self-sacrificial position for men! Husbands are to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.”

How did Christ give himself up for the church? He died! This powerful metaphor has strong implications. We could simply say this: “Wives: Submit. Husbands: Die.” As Paul makes clear, this model of marriage maps onto the beautiful dance between Jesus and His beloved church, the so-called “bride” of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2, Revelations 19:7).

Submission is an interesting word in our time. We struggle with it because we have seen how easily it becomes distorted into ugliness, with the lowered status of the one submitting. But Scripture presents submission in a different light. Christ Himself submits to the Father (Mark 14:36, Philippians 2:5-11) as part of His divine role in the in the life of the Trinity.

Notice that husbands also are to submit to their wives, though it is in a different kind of way. Paul instructs the husband to give himself to his wife in a self-sacrificial way of love. That could also be understood a type of submission!


1 Corinthians 14:34-35

“The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (ESV)

This is one of the most puzzling passages in Paul’s writings. A first-impression reading seems to imply that women were instructed to remain totally silent during the entire church service. However, most interpreters would argue that the restriction is limited to a contextual situation. Not because they are trying to force the meaning into becoming more comfortable. But because earlier in this same writing, Paul gives instruction concerning proper decorum for women when they prayed or prophesied in the church (1 Corinthians 11:5).

As Paul recognized the prayers and prophecies of women in church, how should we understand Paul’s command for women to remain silent?

  • One suggestion is that women and men sat in separate sections of the church, and there was an issue within the Corinthian church where the women kept asking questions to their husband across the room. It created a noisy and distracting environment, and Paul is telling these wives to hold their questions until a later time.
  • A second suggestion is that Paul gives a prohibition for a specific kind of question-asking that was employed as a method of teaching. In Bible times, the teacher would often teach by asking questions, and Paul is instructing women to avoid that teaching role.
  • Another suggestion is that this prohibition relates specifically to the preceding section of Scripture regarding the evaluation of prophecies. Perhaps Paul limited this role to men?
  • A final, more appealing suggestion is that Paul’s statement that “women should keep silent…” was actually a quotation of what the Corinthians were saying about women, and Paul brings it up in order to rebuke the statement in verse 36. Biblical Greek did not use quotation marks, so the translator of Paul’s writing used contextual clues to determine when something is quoted.

My point in sharing these suggestions is not to solve this perplexing issue, but to show that we must be careful when we read it at surface value. We should not be hasty to use this passage as a prooftext that the Bible has an anti-woman bias.

The same must be said for other difficult passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 and 1 Timothy 2:12. My suggestion is to invest in good commentaries, to help you clearly understand these passages.


Final Thought

There are essentially two competing views that theologians have when it comes to the roles of women. One view, complementarianism, believes that men and women have equal status as human beings, but different roles designed by God to compliment each other. The other view, egalitarianismbelieves that men and women have equal status as human beings and there is no differentiation between roles. Both of these views wholeheartedly affirm that men and women have equal status as human beings.

As males and females are made in the image of God, there is no difference in their right to receive the full benefit of the life offered in Christ (Galatians 3:25-28). If the value of women is denied, it is a grievous, heretical view that stands outside the boundaries of God’s global, ecumenical Church.


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

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