Henderson holds that the difference in views regarding the relationship of men to women comes in large part from whether one holds to a pre-Fall or post-Fall paradigm (p. 257). Part of the curse pronounced to Eve is “you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). To my understanding, this describes the breaking of the relationship between men and women, and suggests that things were not this way previously. Now, while in many cases women desire have men lead, they also often have in mind where they want to be led. In other words, they still want to be in control, and are tempted to manipulate in order to get people to behave the way they desire. On the other hand, men also want to be in control, however the temptation is more often expressed in a dominating way.
The question in part is if this account is prescriptive or descriptive. In other words, since we are living in a fallen world, is this the way relationships between men and women are supposed to be? Are they supposed to be a power struggle? Does this verse command men to lead and women to follow?
Along with this, many hold that Adam’s sin was as much or more being passive than it was eating of the forbidden fruit. People also suggest that this event demonstrates that women are more easily deceived, so that they cannot be trusted to make wise decisions. Looking at this passage, these above ideas could be true, but we must be careful to understand that it is reading into the story what is not explicitly there. Another way of looking at it is that passage doesn’t disprove these ideas, but they can’t honestly be proved through this account either. Really, it is taking our pre-existing ideas and reading them into the story.
Beyond this, people misunderstand what is meant by saying women were created to be a “helper” or “helpmate”, thinking this means that women are to serve men. Helping someone else doesn’t put one under that person. In fact, the best helpers are ones who come alongside as partners, not to mention that we’re instructed to “serve one another” (Galatians 5:13) and that “greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11).
There are, to the best of my understanding, just two passages which sound like they quite clearly limit women’s role in church:
“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)
“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” (1 Timothy 2:11-14)
I believe these passages are problematic in large part because they seem so clear-cut and definitive. It is easy to understand, for example, that when Paul asks for his cloak and scrolls (2 Timothy 4:13), he isn’t asking all of us for all time to bring them to him. From this example we see that some passages of scripture are clearly contextual. So are there other ways to understand these passages? A full examination of this topic is beyond the scope of this blog, but I will offer a few points.
First, the word translated as “silent” means “to hold one’s peace temporarily”1. The same word is used to instruct people to refrain from speaking in tongues without an interpreter and for one prophesying to stop if someone interrupts. In these latter cases, it Paul obviously does not mean that these people should never speak in church. In fact, in verse 26 (of 1 Corinthians 14) Paul says that everyone has something to share. (Note also that there isn’t a law in the old testament restricting women’s speech and requiring their submission.)
At that time women were very uneducated. While knowledgeable audience members could ask questions during a lecture, it was considered rude for uneducated people to do so2. In light of all this, these verses can be viewed as just another instruction for creating an orderly church meeting, which is the larger context of the whole passage. Therefore, this section may be better understood in the manner the Message has translated it: “Wives must not disrupt worship, talking when they should be listening, asking questions that could more appropriately be asked of their husbands at home… Wives have no license to use the time of worship for unwarranted speaking.”
There is a good possibility that the passage in 1 Timothy may be written to counter a situation where women were viewed as being above men3. For an egalitarian, this is just as incorrect as men being above women. By saying “I do not permit”, Paul leaves open the possibility that this isn’t an absolute rule for all times (see 1 Corinthians 7:25). Also, he doesn’t say that women must be under the authority of men, simply that they should not assume authority over men. To quote from the Message again, “I don’t let women take over and tell the men what to do. They should study to be quiet and obedient along with everyone else” (emphasis added). It is certainly worth noting that there are numerous examples of women leaders and prophets in the bible, and this is in spite of the heavily patriarchal culture.
Once again, if you find these arguments unconvincing, understand that they are just a brief overview of these passages. For further study on this topic, I highly recommend “Reimagining a Woman’s Role In the Church” by Frank Viola, and “What’s with Paul and Women” by Jon Zens.
I am participating in the Week of Mutuality synchroblog hosted by Rachel Held Evans.