God and women

What does the Bible say about women? Kirsten Birkett and Joanne Dowe briefly set out the biblical material on this contentious subject.

When we consider the Bible’s teaching on women, we have several problems.

Firstly, ‘women’ are on the agenda for the 20th-century—particularly western, educated women. Their status and function in society is hotly contested, and has changed remarkably. In commentaries of the last century on passages such as 1 Timothy 2:13, the commentators have no difficulties saying what they think it means and applying it. Modem commentators, however, disagree quite fundamentally with each other, and many use ingenious arguments to present their view. This is because our culture no longer agrees with the culture we find in the Bible with regard to women.

There are several features to this culture conflict:

  • There are several words used by the Bible (‘submission’, ‘headship’, ‘authority’) that have negative connotations for the 20th-century woman.
  • There have been many instances of insensitivity and ungodliness by men in enforcing (they think) their God-given authority over women.
  • Churches are often very slow to encourage women to participate in ministry, sometimes preventing them from doing anything but stereotyped jobs like providing food and drinks.
  • Churches are often also very willing to have women work in a volunteer capacity, even in jobs that their policy would limit to men.

There is another problem: the Bible’s agenda rarely overlaps with our 20th-century agenda. That is, the Bible is concerned with issues such as creation, sin, fall, redemption and recreation. The emphasis is on God’s kingdom and his purposes of salvation. The role of the church in this salvation is evangelism and holiness—something that affects both men and women.

Thus, the role and status of women can usually only be inferred from narrative passages (which may not be the norm or even desirable models), or from incidental comments (e.g. Rom 16).

The few passages where women are specifically addressed and given commands (e.g. 1 Cor 11, 14; 1 Tim 2; 1 Pet 3) often have exegetical difficulties. However, even when the meaning of the passage is clear, the application is often violently disputed. When is a command cultural (and therefore not binding), and at what point does it remain universal? If it is universal, how do we translate the application for one culture across to another? (For example, in 1 Corinthians 11, what is the 20th-century sign of authority for a woman?) All this leads to confusion and often a great deal of bitterness and division.

However, even though injustices and unbiblical decisions abound, that is no basis for rejecting God’s word. And we should expect that our culture will be out of step with God’s kingdom.

Genesis 1, 2 and 3

It is important to have a good understanding of Genesis 1-3 before approaching the question of women’s status and function in the Bible. This is because the creation account is used as the basis for many instructions in the New Testament on how men and women are to relate within the church (that is, the assembly of God’s people), and within marriage. And it forms the framework in which God’s people operate.

The content of the account is clear: Genesis 1:27 informs us that God created man (that is, male and female) in his image, and that both together are blessed and told to multiply and to rule the earth.

Genesis 2:18-25 describes in detail the creation of mankind. The woman’s creation is subsequent to the man’s and different. She is created because it is “not good” for the man to be alone, and she is taken from Adam’s body and welcomed as such by him.

Genesis 3 records their disobedience to God, and God’s judgement in the area of work for the man, and of childbearing and relationship with her husband for the woman. There are some parts of the text that are illuminated by knowledge of certain technical details.

  • The phrase “helper fit for him” is ezer kenegdo in Hebrew. Ezer is used elsewhere 15 times of God and three times of man’s (ineffectual) help. Therefore, ‘helper’ need not imply the woman’s inferiority.
  • The phrase “image of God” has been interpreted variously as man’s ruling capacity or moral/rational capacity. In the text, it is most closely linked to dominion.
  • The judgement on the woman includes ‘desire’ for her husband. This is a rare word. Since the same word is used in 4:7 of sin “desiring to have Cain” (but he must master it), it most likely means that the woman will desire to rule her husband, but will fail.

There have been many, often contradictory, applications/implications drawn from this account. What seems clear is that Genesis 1:26-28 shows humanity (male and female) in their relationship to God and to his creation. This passage underlines the essential unity and equality of the man and the woman, and their joint function of ruling God’s creation.

Genesis 2 implies that ‘man’ is incomplete without the woman. The mode of creation of the woman can be said to show her correspondence to the man (same substance), and her difference from him (a functional difference in that the purpose of her creation is to be a helper fit for him).

Genesis 3 shows that God holds both man and woman equally accountable for disobedience. The curse affects them in different areas, and if we accept the interpretation of ‘desire’ having the sense of ‘desire to possess’, we see that the fall/judgement involves the corruption of loving headship and willing submission.

(The above account of Genesis 1-3 is indebted to Susan T Foh, Women and The Word of God, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 1979. This book also gives an extensive analysis of the New Testament passages we consider in this article. See Briefing #54 for a review.)

The New Testament on women

There is not space here to give an exegesis of every passage in the New Testament that relates to women. A summary of conclusions is the best we can do. It is strongly recommended that readers do some personal research into the passages mentioned. This article does not claim to be comprehensive or exhaustive; the aim is to erect a framework of thinking.

There are five passages in particular which may be called the ‘problem passages’. These are the ones in which prohibitions are put on women, and they need to be dealt with if we are to come to grips with the issue of women in the Bible. These passages are:

  • 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 (“every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head”).
  • 1 Corinthians 14:33-55 (“women should remain silent in the churches”).
  • Ephesians 5:22-33 (“wives, submit to your husbands”).
  • 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (“l do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man”).
  • 1 Peter 3:1-7 (“Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands”).

(The quoted sections in brackets are not intended to be a summary of the passages; they are merely the phrases that stick in most people’s minds.)

These passages are difficult to exegete because they give prohibitions. This is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak, and we have to draw the hard line on what women are and are not allowed to do. It is over this line that we get the most wrangling.

The problem is, of course, that the line is not so very hard. There are so many things in these passages that we simply don’t know. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 11, it is unclear whether the word for ‘woman’ means ‘wife’ or ‘all women’. Nor do we know exactly what the ‘covering’ is that women are supposed to wear. Is it hair? What do the angels have to do with it? There is also the whole difficulty of knowing exactly what prophecy is. This carries over into 1 Corinthians 14: if women are to be silent, how is it that Corinthians 11 talks about them praying and prophesying? Exactly what kind of speaking is forbidden?

Again, in 1 Timothy 2, we aren’t sure of the significance of Eve being deceived before Adam, nor what it means that a woman will be “saved through childbearing”. Of course, with all these difficulties, we can take an educated guess as to what the meaning is, but in the end, there remains a degree of uncertainty.

So what can we know from these passages? We would like to stress that the amount of clear, direct, universal knowledge we can have from these passages is quite small. A theology based on these passages alone is likely to be shaky. On the other hand, they contain valuable information, and we shouldn’t dismiss them outright as some biblical feminists have done.

From 1 Corinthians 11:

  • Man is the head of woman. It is unclear whether this means every man is the head of every woman, or that every woman has some particular man as her head. It is more likely an abstract statement. It could also be merely saying that a husband is the head of his wife, which is clear from Ephesians 5. However, clearly the man has the headship, and this is a universal statement, as the reasons given are from the order of creation.
  • There is an appropriate way to pray that reflects this headship. The exact nature of this ‘appropriate way’ is unclear. The “sign of authority” could be a sign of the woman’s submission to her husband. Another reading is that it is her authority to pray, even though she is under a man’s headship.
  • Women and men are interdependent. The headship relationship is not one of inferiority/superiority.
  • The relationship of ‘person to God’ is more important than the relationship of ‘man to woman’.

From 1 Corinthians 14:

  • A certain type of conduct from women in church is forbidden. There is enough qualification from within and from other passages to suggest this is not a blanket .’no talking’. The emphasis, from the context, seems to be on women not being disorderly, questioning and disputing—that the proper thing to do is for a woman to ask her husband at home rather than dispute in church. We need to consider what the implication may be if the woman does not have a husband or father at home to ask.
  • Women should have a submissive attitude in church.

From Ephesians 5:

  • The husband is the head of the wife.
  • The command for a husband to love his wife, and wife to submit, is not conditional on the other partner’s behaviour.

From 1 Timothy 2:

  • Women are not to have a position of teaching and exercising authority in the church. There are good reasons to suggest that this means an appointed position of habitual public preaching/teaching and authority in a church. 2 Timothy is written about who should guard the gospel in a congregation where there is false teaching. Of course, the difficulty is deciding what is ‘teaching’ and what is not. What does a female leader of a teenage youth group do?

What comes out most strongly are directives to have a certain attitude. It is when we get down to the nuts and bolts of how to apply this that we have problems. Women are to be submissive and place themselves under men who have the position of headship in marriage and in the church. This is an attitude. What is not clear is how this attitude is best expressed in every situation.

We suggest that the attitude is the most important thing; a woman with an obedient heart and open mind, determined on submission, and a man with an obedient heart and open mind, determined on godly headship, are more than halfway there.

One last point needs to be made about women in the New Testament. This is that the ‘difficult’ passages we have mentioned are only few in number. Apart from these, there are many passages giving positive advice to women as teachers and gospel workers, giving examples of godly women in appreciated ministry, and stressing the equality of all humans in their sinfulness and their salvation. The difficult passages have been emphasized in this article only because they are the ones most argued over. However, if we mentioned only those, we would be severely distorting the New Testament’s attitude towards women. The difficult, ‘negative’ passages are far outnumbered by unproblematic, positive ones.


Whole books could be written (and have been) on this issue. There are many aspects to be explored that we have not even touched on in this article. For instance, we have made no effort to relate these ideas to how women are to respond in secular situations, or how they should react to the feminist movement.

We have tried to present (in brief) a summary of the Bible’s teaching on women—their worth and their roles. In this respect, we can bring together a few ideas in conclusion, seeing that the New Testament and Old Testament both present the same basic ideas. What does God say about women?

God does say that women and men are both created in his image; that they are equal in sinfulness and in salvation, and in the requirements placed on them to grow in godliness; that they are equal in their capacity to be given gifts and abilities; and that they are both called to respond to God in obedience. There is no idea in the Bible that women are less capable intellectually, morally or spiritually than men—or even that women are essentially different in these areas.

God does say that women are placed under the headship of their husbands in marriage, and that women are not to have certain positions of teaching/authority in the church. The reasons for this are not to do with women’s inherent inability or unsuitability for the task (obviously this will vary as much among individual women as it does among men), but are to do with the nature of woman’s creation and the historical place of the Fall. These are of universal significance, not relative to any culture, and so cannot be argued away without doing severe damage to the concept of the authority of Scripture.

God does not say that women are to be in the home, raising the children while the husband works away from the home earning money. Quite apart from the fact that both parents are given the responsibility for raising children, it is also quite clear that the Bible is not in the business of giving career stereotypes. The Bible does give us principles and attitudes. We must be willing to use our minds to work out how a godly principle may be followed in obedience in a particular situation.

There are many dangers for us as we think about the role of women, living as we are in a society that does not yet really understand how the sexes are to function together. One of the biggest dangers is following our society’s notion that authority means domination, supremacy, even tyranny. The Bible turns these ideas upside down. Our example is Christ who, though equal with God, emptied himself in service.

Even more dangerous—and far more insidious—is society’s overwhelming decree that a person’s worth is measured by their position—by what they do. This concept of worth often lies behind the assertion that the Bible ‘downgrades’ women.

Ultimately, we must be willing to obey God, even if it conflicts with our own desires and our own culture. Remember, truth comes from God, not society. If society disagrees with the Bible, then it is society that has it wrong. Most of all, we must remember that we are followers of one who never demanded his rights. Christians are not those who demand their rights—even their rights to exercise God-given gifts—even their right to serve.

The Bible is quite clear on two points: women and men are equal, and they do have different roles. The challenge for us is to apply this in our marriages and church relationships without falling into stereotypes, on the one hand, or ignoring the Bible, on the other.

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