the role of women within christianity
The issue of the role of women within the Christian community has been one of great debate from the earliest days of the church. It is one that has divided denominations and caused extraordinary controversy. This article will look at the place of women in the New Testament as well as our Presbyterian take on the issue.
The Gospels paint a rather countercultural view of how women should be treated and their place in the Kingdom of God. In First Century Judaism women were on the bottom rung of the social order. They were considered to be property that belonged first to fathers and then to husbands. Pharisees (a Jewish religious order) were taught to never look at or speak to women (except to their own wives) in order not to be corrupted. Jesus on the other hand treated women with great respect and as the equal of men. He allowed them to be his disciples, to learn from him (something a traditional rabbit would never do) and engaged in meaningful conversations with them. We see this in the stories of the woman who touched Jesus’ garment (Mark 5:25-34), the woman who was crippled (Luke 13:10-17), Jesus with Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42). These are but a few of the stories where Jesus treats women as being of equal worth with men.
This sense of equality is continued in the letters of Paul. Paul writes that all persons, including women, are given spiritual gifts by God (1 Corinthians 12:4-7), that all persons become new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), that in Jesus there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28), and that women can pray and prophesy in church (1 Corinthians 11:5). Most importantly in Paul’s letters he makes it clear that women have leadership roles in the church. He refers to Pricilla and Aquila who were husband and wife church leaders, sharing authority (1 Corinthians 16:3), Euodia and Syntyche as evangelists (Philippians 4:2), Apphia as a co-leader of a house church (Philemon 2) and most importantly Junia who is listed among the Apostles (Romans 16:7).
One of the most interesting things about the New Testament however is that its view of the role of women is not consistent. There are a number of places where the scriptures imply that women are secondary to men and ought not to have any leadership roles in the church. Here are some of those references. “Christ is the head of every man, and a husband the head of his wife.” (1 Corinthians 11:3) “For a man….is the image of God; but woman is the glory of man.” (1 Corinthians 11:7-9) “…women should remain silent in 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 church.” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35) “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:11-15) “Train the younger women….to be subject to their husbands.” (Titus 1:6)
The question for the church has always been which of these understandings of the role of women ought it to follow? Both our church and our denomination have chosen the way of equality/blessing. We have done so because it was the way of Jesus. Jesus not only treated women as equals, he taught that no person has the right to dominate (or subjugate) another person. We have done so because we believe that most of the “women as secondary” passages were included as ways the early church was accommodating the culture in which it lived (all of those passages are in line with the beliefs of Roman leadership and the philosophers who supported them). We have done so because we believe the original creation story makes clear that men and women were created equal in the eyes of God and therefore that equality is God’s intent for a redeemed creation. We have done so as well because we have witnessed the ways this choice has blessed marriages, families, the church and the world. While the scriptures seem to be of two minds, we at Everybody’s Church are not…we are all equal before God and in the life of the church.