A Case for Greater Gender Equality in Church

This post is part of my personal blog. It is not intended to be representative of any church or other organization I am associated with.

Throughout my years as a student in elementary school through college, I saw girls lead and succeed academically just as much as boys did, if not more. I reject the idea that gender plays a significant role in someone’s personal ability to flourish as a business leader when given the same opportunities, having worked alongside many women professionally. Sure, on bell curves, I acknowledge that men and women are broadly different in many ways, but those bell curves have substantial overlap. So far as leadership ability is concerned, gender is irrelevant. In saying this, I do not deny the realities of gender discrimination, which is still pervasive in the United States and around the world. But in my experience, it has been an observable fact that many women are particularly capable of becoming incredible leaders, and many men are genetically and environmentally predisposed to becoming terrible ones. Fundamentally, a woman is not less capable of leadership than a man, and we all deserve to be judged based on our individual merits, gender notwithstanding.

It has only been about a hundred years since women received constitutionally guaranteed voting rights in the United States, and many unacceptable discriminatory attitudes still persist. But on the whole, I am thankful for the environment my daughter is growing into. Women in this country still do experience unwarranted gender-related disadvantages, but I think we continue to trend away from these inequities.

In contrast, when it comes to the church and the Bible, I used to believe that God created men to purposefully lead, and women to help men. Capability wasn’t even the question, creation was. What was God’s intent when he created a man first, and then a woman? Why did he mainly use men throughout history as his chosen leaders, from Noah to Abraham to Moses to David to the twelve to Jesus himself? And what specific instructions did the New Testament writers give first century men and women concerning their roles relative to leadership?

Many believe scripture was always revolutionary in its day as far as its teaching about women is concerned. Perhaps. I have found the case made for this to be compelling. But in many churches, that spirit has long since been reversed. Gender-based attitudes and practices are shocking to outsiders no longer because of how revolutionary they are, but because of how outdated and discriminatory they seem in our present climate.

I still haven’t figured it all out. If the Bible is to be regarded as authoritative, what it says about gender and gender roles ought to be of utmost concern. We should acknowledge where it teaches that women and men are to be treated differently, but I will not be afraid to challenge my personal interpretation of any biblical text. And if I find that the text doesn’t actually say what I thought it said, or what I’ve been taught it said, or even what I’ve taught that it said, then I must be humble enough to admit it, and if necessary, repent.

For most of my life so far, I think I’ve been wrong about this one. And I’m sorry.

I don’t recall ever believing or being taught, by anyone I respected at least, that women are inferior to men. I have always believed men and women to be equals in God’s eyes. Equal, but not the same.

This was once my basic understanding of scripture:

In Genesis 2, Eve is said to have been created after, from, and for Adam as his “helpmeet”. She was also the first to sin in Genesis 3, and so was cursed with painful childbirth and subjected to being ruled by her husband. In 1 Timothy 2, Paul reasons that in the church, women should not teach or have authority over men because of what Genesis tells us about Adam and Eve. Having authority over men in the church could include things like preaching or leading a prayer or a hymn in pretty much any context, although making comments while seated in smaller church gatherings is allowed (for reasons I have never understood). The specific implementation of this principle varies from church to church. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul addresses this same topic again, adding that women should be silent during church, making no comments and asking no questions, because it is shameful for women to speak in church. That’s pretty clear, huh? Additionally, according to Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, Titus 2, and 1 Peter 3, husbands have authority over their wives, and wives should submit to their husbands in all things except that which would require them to go against God in some way, similar to the way children are expected to respect both parents’ authority, in the Lord. Wives should, ideally, obey their husbands regardless of whether or not they agree with them, and regardless of whether or not their husbands are even Christians. I realize that this might sound completely bonkers to many who are reading this. (Because it is, making many women acutely vulnerable to oppression.) But in the context of their authority, husbands are expected to always perfectly demonstrate the highest form of love toward their wives, prioritizing her wants and needs over his own. A husband should never abuse his God-given authority by seeking his own self-interest and should theoretically always operate selflessly in regard to his wife’s needs and desires. Husbands are also not permitted to themselves enforce God’s requirement of submission on his wife (although, regretfully, many try). Instead, a husband must continue to offer self-sacrificial love towards his wife no matter how she treats him. (A teaching which actually makes some men vulnerable to abuse as well.)

In the many congregations I have been part of personally, I have always known women individually to be highly honored and respected, even within the context of a religious framework like what I have just described. But I am not a woman, and I expect any woman who is willing could tell you about ways she has been mistreated as a woman in church. I have always believed and been taught that men and women are to mutually love, respect, and honor one another as equals, but that they are also still bound to strict, obtrusive gender roles. In conservative religious practice, this means there are many things women aren’t allowed to do in the church that only men are, especially in matters related to spiritual leadership. Look, if that’s what God wants, if that’s what the Bible really teaches, then so be it. (Yeah, I know. That’s easy for me to say. I’m a man.)

Years ago, my intense desire to know exactly what God wants on this subject led me to seriously question whether women should even be allowed to make comments in some smaller group discussions and Bible studies. Nearly every Church of Christ service I’ve ever attended has two parts to their assembly on Sunday mornings. During the main assembly, only men preach, only men read scripture, only men lead the congregation in singing together, only men lead prayer, only men pass around the Lord’s Supper, and only men do basically anything else that involves someone standing in front of the church and leading activities even loosely related to worship. Another part of a Church of Christ’s assembly usually consists of breakout sessions where the Bible is studied and discussed. Some smaller churches do not even separate for this part of their assembly, but remain together in an auditorium. During these Bible studies and classes, also led by only men unless no men are present, women are still not allowed to lead prayers or hymns. They are, however, permitted to read scripture aloud, ask questions, and even teach others by making insightful comments about whatever is being discussed, as long as they stay in their seats.

But what’s the difference? Did Paul specify a particular type of church assembly in which women aren’t permitted to speak? No. He even specifically told the Corinthian women to save all their questions until they got home, where they could ask their husbands! This apparent inconsistency between church teaching and practice was a major prompt for my consideration of this subject. When I finally set out to seriously study this topic, maybe a little more than a decade ago, I did so with the expectation that a deeper examination of scripture would reveal that it is just as inappropriate for women to speak in breakout Bible studies as it is during a church’s main assembly. In fact, even today, I believe those who hold to a traditional view of the scriptures I am about to discuss, at least within most Churches of Christ, are unable to sufficiently justify their inconsistency here, not ever really implementing what they say the Bible teaches, only selectively binding their own strict standards to only certain church assemblies of their choosing.

Cognitive Dissonance Model

Starting from an effort to reconcile doctrinal dissonance and preserve my integrity, my understanding of several Bible passages related to gender roles has gradually shifted in roughly the following order.

Major Shift #1 | “Wives”, Not “Women” in 1 Corinthians 14

Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35, NKJV

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is in the midst of a long discussion he started in chapter 12 about how God gives his people different abilities, but that we are all meant to work together in love, each using our individual gifts as equals to benefit the whole. Starting in verse 23, he applies this to three specific scenarios. To me, these read like they are addressing particular disruptions that were probably occurring in church assemblies at Corinth. See for yourself.

If anyone speaks in a tongue, it must be by two or at the most three, and each one in turn, and one is to interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he is to keep silent in church; and have him speak to himself and to God.
1 Corinthians 14:27-28, NASB 2020

Tongue speakers were using their gifts to speak in languages that those present did not understand, and there was no one there to interpret. He tells them to “keep silent in church”, presumably because incomprehensible tongue speaking would only be self-aggrandizing, not benefitting the church.

Have two or three prophets speak, and have the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, then the first one is to keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion, but of peace.
1 Corinthians 14:29-33a, NASB 2020

Prophets were interrupting and speaking over one another rather than taking turns, and it was confusing. Rather than vye against one another for recognition, Paul tells the prophets to “keep silent” when someone else receives a new prophecy, so that everyone can hear what they each have to say.

These two groups of people, tongue speakers and prophets, are told to “keep silent” using the same word found a third time in verse 34. In neither of these scenarios is either group expected to always be silent, but they are expected to be silent at times when their gifts cause confusion and competition rather than edification.

The above two circumstances would be oddly specific as hypotheticals or generalizations. Paul appears to know about some things happening in Corinthian assemblies, addressing specific circumstances. In that context, consider what Paul says of women.

the women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35, NASB 2020

There is a lot to unpack here. I think the biggest questions are these: What “women” is Paul writing about, and how broadly does he intend his instruction to be applied?

How these questions are answered can even be seen to affect how biblical translators punctuate this passage. You may have noticed that I left off the end of verse 33 in what I’ve quoted so far: “as [As] in all the churches of the saints”. There is not a scholarly consensus as to whether this phrase should be applied to the previous thought, that God is not the author of confusion, or the proceeding one, that women ought to keep silent. The original Greek text does not contain any punctuation at all, so the passage could technically be translated either way. When the New American Standard Bible was updated in 2020, they decided to punctuate this differently than their scholars had in 1995 and 1977, revealing their new belief that the phrase was meant to speak to the next verse about women’s silence rather than God’s desire for order.

for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. Let the women keep silent in the churches
1 Corinthians 14:33-34a, NASB 1977

for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. The women are to keep silent in the churches
1 Corinthians 14:33-34a, NASB 1995

for God is not a God of confusion, but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women are to keep silent in the churches
1 Corinthians 14:33-34a, NASB 2020

I expect this decision was interpretive rather than textually motivated, and perhaps even agenda driven. The change actually results in an awkward reiteration of the phrase “in the churches” in the same sentence. But what I think is awkward phraseology, others may interpret as repetition for emphasis. Either way, the association of this phrase isn’t clear. It cannot by itself imply a universal application of what is said about these particular “women”. Our interpretation of this phrase should be derived from an exegesis of the rest of the passage. I think the two former New American Standard translations probably had it right: “for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.” As with most textual disputes of this nature, God only knows for sure.

Similarly, if you compare the New King James Version and the New American Standard at the beginning of verse 34, you’ll find another significant translation difference: the inclusion of the word “your”. In this case, the difference is not interpretive; it’s the result of a textual variant. Some of the ancient manuscript copies of the Corinthian letter include the Greek word meaning “of you” after the word for women here, effectively, “your women”.

the women are to keep silent in the churches
1 Corinthians 14:34a, NASB 2020

Let your women keep silent in the churches
1 Corinthians 14:34a, NKJV

This may seem unimportant, but it isn’t. In biblical Greek, there is no word for “wife” or “husband”. The words “woman” and “man” are used instead, with context being the only way to distinguish whether or not marital status is implied. Often when there is a spousal implication, there is some sort of possessive grammatical form to go along with it. In writing “your women”, Paul may have meant for his readers to understand that he was referring to their wives. Alternatively, if this word meaning “of you” was added to future copies of the letter, perhaps it was meant to preserve the spousal implication for anyone who wasn’t aware of the specifics of the situation Paul was addressing. Maybe that clarification wouldn’t have been necessary for the original recipients of the letter who would have known the full situational context that Paul was speaking into, but it might help keep us from too broadly applying Paul’s admonition for silence here.

That these women are wives is actually already clearly indicated in the text, regardless of whether or not Paul’s original letter included the word “your”. The women he writes to are told to “ask your husbands [your men] at home” if they have any questions. This part of the passage does not apply universally to all women, because not all women have their own men, their own husbands, at home to ask.

Furthermore, the phrase, “[they] are to subject themselves, just as the law also says“, seems to me to point to the idea that wives are to submit to their husbands, not that all women are subject to all men. I do not think the Bible teaches anywhere else that women are to “subject themselves” to men in a general sense. Prove me wrong if it does! But what the Bible does teach in several places is that wives are to be subject to their husbands. Later, I’ll expound upon what I now believe that actually means as well, but for our present consideration, I think this further indicates that Paul is specifically addressing certain husbands and wives here.

There is another phrase that needs to be considered concerning Paul’s intended scope: “for it is improper [shameful] for a woman [women] to speak in church”. The bracketed words indicate more translation variability here. The first of these is an interpretive word choice between “shameful” (cf. NKJV and ESV) or “improper” (cf. NASB). The second is another textual variant, where the use of a singular or plural word for woman/women depends on the source manuscript copies used.

for it is shameful for women to speak in church.
1 Corinthians 14:35b, NKJV

For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
1 Corinthians 14:35b, ESV

for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.
1 Corinthians 14:35b, NASB 2020

I’m not sure if these differences have any real implication on Paul’s meaning here or not, but this phrase is so critical to the discussion that we need to know exactly what we are dealing with. Some believe this statement is intended as justification for these instructions to women in Corinth to be applied broadly to all women in their respective church assemblies – that there is something inherently shameful about women speaking or asking questions in church assemblies, or doing anything in church that involves her giving a public proclamation like a tongue speaker or prophet might.

That interpretation of the text is presumptive and fallacious. In fact, earlier in this very epistle, Paul gives instructions to women on how to appropriately pray and prophecy in church. But I didn’t personally tie in 1 Corinthians 11 to my understanding of this text until much more recently, so I’ll save it for later.

If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.
1 Corinthians 14:35, NASB 2020

The conjunction “for” connects both statements in verse 35. He is telling these women, these wives, to ask their husbands “at home” because whatever they were doing, speaking out in whatever way they were “in church”, was shameful. Exactly what they were doing and what made it improper, we don’t know. The statement is intended as a commentary on their inappropriate behavior, whatever that was, not as a general principle for all churches to apply broadly.

It isn’t always shameful for a woman to speak in church. I can’t think of anyone, at least in my faith tradition, who has actually consistently demonstrated such a degree of extreme application. As I noted earlier, women in most of my church experiences have been allowed to speak freely, ask questions, and even read scripture in smaller less formal worship assemblies and Bible study gatherings. Even in a church’s main assembly, I have only ever been part of churches where women are permitted to sing, “speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” Since everyone (everyone I know at least) pretty much agrees that this phrase is at least somewhat limited in scope, the question is then, how limited is it?

I believe the most likely scenario is that Paul was addressing a situation in Corinth that involved some married women who were speaking out or asking questions in a way that was improper and disorderly, maybe even in a way that brought shame upon their husbands as well as the church. We just don’t have the details. He told them to be silent, just like he had already told the prophets and tongue speakers that they should be silent when their words would cause disruption or confusion. “All things must be done properly and in an orderly way.”

What does not make sense is that Paul, in the middle of a discussion about tongues and prophecy, would interject a mostly unrelated general principle about women keeping silence. While Paul does often entertain tangents, there is usually a logical flow to his doing so. This insertion would be more jarring than is typically characteristic of Paul, as he immediately goes right back to addressing prophets in verse 36 and following.

Or was it from you that the word of God first went out? Or has it come to you only? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things must be done properly and in an orderly way.
1 Corinthians 14:36-40, NASB 2020

If he is addressing something specific in verses 34 and 35 that some of the prophets’ wives were doing disruptively, I think his words flow much more sensibly in context.

Consider how The Message paraphrases these verses:

When we worship the right way, God doesn’t stir us up into confusion; he brings us into harmony. This goes for all the churches—no exceptions. Wives must not disrupt worship, talking when they should be listening, asking questions that could more appropriately be asked of their husbands at home. God’s Book of the law guides our manners and customs here. Wives have no license to use the time of worship for unwarranted speaking.
1 Corinthians 14:33-35, The Message

Whatever your personal interpretation of this passage may be, Paul’s admonition for silence does not warrant a broad application. If you still think it does, but hold on to the idea that women should be generally prohibited from speaking in church except in certain contexts that you or your leaders deem appropriate, your inconsistency in this might betray your motive behind what liberties of others you choose to restrict. Is it for truth or tradition? Consistency or culture? Sola scriptura or status quo? If my words are too strong here, it is not because I intend to stand in judgment of anyone who may disagree. But although Paul is willing to give up his own liberties for the sake of the gospel, he also stands up in firm opposition when someone tries to take away another person’s freedoms in Christ (cf. uncircumcision, Galatians 5:1). In my own study and reflection, I could never honestly reconcile arbitrarily allowing women in church to do things in breakout sessions where both men and women were present that they, as women, were biblically restricted from doing in other church assemblies. Can you?

Major Shift #2 | “Wives”, Not “Women” in 1 Timothy 2

A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a wrongdoer. But women will be preserved through childbirth—if they continue in faith, love, and sanctity, with moderation.
1 Timothy 2:11-15, NASB 2020

As I said, these shifts in thinking mostly happened sequentially for me. Having concluded that Paul’s intention in 1 Corinthians 14 was not to enact a generalized rule for all women to be completely silent in every church, I still believed 1 Timothy 2 was generally restrictive to women leading men in worship assemblies. I believed that Paul was telling Timothy that women should never be in any position of authority over any man during a church assembly. Women commenting and reading scriptures in Bible class weren’t subverting the male authority in the room, I reasoned. But if they were instead the designated teacher, leading the class or discussion, they would be in violation of this principle. In the main assembly, I thought it might be appropriate to allow women to do more than just sit back as general participants, but the question I thought must be answered first was whether or not whatever they were doing somehow put them in an authoritative role. The more I cited this passage in support of that idea, the more I realized that some things weren’t adding up.

For starters, the context of 1 Timothy 2 is not church assemblies.

First of all, then, I urge that requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made in behalf of all people, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed as a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger and dispute. Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive apparel, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.
1 Timothy 2:1-10, NASB 2020

In this epistle, Paul jumps around a lot topically, giving instruction to Timothy about behavioral guidance he ought to be giving other Christians related to their gender. Having referenced his own calling, spreading the Gospel to non-Jews and political authorities, and asking for prayers to be offered on their behalf, he says he wants “men” to keep their anger in check, to avoid unnecessary conflict, and to pray “in every place”. In the context of praying for “kings”, perhaps these admonitions might refer to the tendency of some to be angry at the government, speaking against political authorities and viewing governing establishments as an enemy. Men are called to pray for the government, not against it. Paul then encourages “women” to focus on doing good works rather than on the vanity of how their appearance might affect others’ perception of them. These instructions are not about what to wear to church or how to lead prayers in a church assembly, they are about how to live daily in a way that acknowledges God’s sovereignty, transformed by love.

Paul’s instructions often deal in stereotypes like women worrying about what to wear, speaking to categorical generalizations that do not apply equally to everyone in the category. His instruction to women should also convict men who are overly concerned about their outward appearance. And the instruction he directs at men may be applicable to many women who in praying, ought to check their wrath toward the authorities for whom they pray. Throughout his writings, Paul often instructs specific groups of people to do things that really every Christian should be doing.

The words for “men” and “women” in 1 Timothy 2 are again the words that can be translated as “husbands” and “wives” depending on their context. I don’t think what Paul says in this chapter on the topics of prayer and adornment necessarily suggests he is already specifically addressing married men and women, but I do think it is possible that he already has married men and women more in mind. Elsewhere, Peter connects a wife’s submission with her attitude toward her apparel using language that is strikingly similar to what Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2.

likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.
1 Timothy 2:9-12, ESV

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands
1 Peter 3:1-5, ESV

Compare each underlined portion above to the corresponding underlined portion of the other passage. Assuming Paul would have shared Peter’s view that these topics are connected, it makes sense he would transition from what he says about women’s apparel to submission in marriage.

After admonishing women to adorn themselves with good works and godliness, Paul writes about what “a woman” should do, singular tense, in verses 11-15. I believe he is addressing wives here, not women generally (ie. “a wife”). Young’s Literal Translation from the late 1800s actually translates the word for “man” in verse 12 as “husband”, a decision that was maintained in its major 2020 revision, the Literal Standard Version.

and a woman I do not suffer to teach, nor to rule a husband
1 Timothy 2:12a, YLT

and I do not allow a woman to teach, nor to rule a husband
1 Timothy 2:12a, LSV

The Greek word for “to rule” or “to exercise authority” is not used anywhere else in the Bible. This makes its intended meaning harder to assess. A brief look into the way it is used in other literature suggests it is probably not intended in a neutral sense the way many translate it, to simply “have authority over”, but in a more negative sense, to exercise dominion over or to domineer. Although more modern translations have softened this word’s meaning, the American Standard Version translates this as “to have dominion over”. The King James Version uses “to usurp authority” here, a paraphrase which does well to preserve the word’s hostile nature, but also wrongly implies that Paul is telling women not to snatch something away from husbands that rightly belongs to them. While Paul is specifically addressing women in verse 12, husbands shouldn’t domineer their wives either.

Paul appeals to creation in explaining why a wife should not dominate a husband. He points out that Adam was created before Eve and that Eve was deceived into sinning, not Adam.

For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.
1 Timothy 2:13-14, ESV

Yes, both were guilty of sin in the garden. Paul even uses Adam, not Eve, as a representation of sin and death in other writings. Adam did sin, but here Paul points out that Adam was not the one deceived in the garden, which is consistent with what they each told God in Genesis 3.

The man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me some of the fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” And the woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
Genesis 3:12-13, NASB 2020

Some have suggested Paul is implying that women are not supposed to be teachers because they are more gullible than men. Not only is that really offensive, it’s absurd, and it goes way beyond what is actually written. Those who say this seem to have no problem with women teaching other women or teaching children. Stop and think for two seconds about that. If gullibility was actually Paul’s concern, how is allowing gullible women to only teach other gullible women and highly impressionable children a better alternative? Wouldn’t their gullibility be just as much of a danger, or more, in those contexts? Maybe men are actually more gullible than women, and so we need to protect men from the unduly persuasive power a woman has! We should abandon such ridiculous musings.

Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
1 Timothy 2:15, ESV

This is tricky. Some translations render this as “women” who are being saved through childbearing because the plural pronoun “they” is used in the conditional clause that follows. Most do correctly translate it as “she will be saved”. The Greek verb translated “will be saved” is likewise structured grammatically to predicate a singular tense subject. There is no textual variant in this case. Inserting the word “women” here is a grammaticaly incorrect mistranslation that presumes “she” is intended as a reference to women generally.

I have heard this passage used to suggest that childbearing is some sort of ultimate calling for women. That’s not at all what is being suggested here, and women that choose not to bear children or cannot for some reason are no less fulfilling their life’s purpose! In context, the phrase “she will be saved through childbearing” refers not to women, but specifically to Eve again. Paul is recalling what God says to the serpent and to Eve in Genesis 3 after she and Adam confessed their sin.

Then the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
Cursed are you more than all the livestock,
And more than any animal of the field;
On your belly you shall go,
And dust you shall eat
All the days of your life;
And I will make enemies
Of you and the woman,
And of your offspring and her Descendant;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise Him on the heel.”
To the woman He said,
“I will greatly multiply
Your pain in childbirth,
In pain you shall deliver children;
Yet your desire will be for your husband,
And he shall rule over you.”

Genesis 3:14-16, NASB 2020

Maybe Paul is saying in 1 Timothy 2 that because Adam was created first, and because of the circumstances of Eve’s sin and God’s particular response to it, wives are still supposed to be receptive to instruction from their husbands, even after they are liberated as Christians. In reinforcing this aspect of a marriage relationship, Paul wants us to remember that the means by which Satan would be defeated is through Eve’s eventual descendant, Jesus. Eve is saved through childbirth because Jesus is her progeny. In fact, all women are saved through childbirth, through this particular child’s birth, just as men are. (I admit, and will try to expound upon it later, that I am still unsure about the extent to which the Bible delineates a gender-based power imbalance in marriage.)

As a bit of a relevant aside and in light of Paul’s reference to Genesis 3, it is worth addressing that there is no consensus on what “your desire will be for your husband” means. The ESV interpretively renders this as her desire being “contrary to” her husband, as if wives are all going to want to oppose their husbands and resist them. The literal translation is “for”, not “contrary to”. This is an example of the ESV translators improperly inserting their interpretation of the text’s meaning into the passage rather than translating what is actually written and leaving it to the reader to determine what is meant by “for”. Every translation does this sometimes, usually to try to keep average readers from getting confused or misunderstanding something as they casually read through the text. I think the most natural explanation of “your desire will be for your husband” is that despite the fact that childbirth will be painful, women are still going to want to have husbands, and in marrying they are going to be subject to their husbands. And remember again, it is in this context of marriage and childbirth recurring generation after generation that God crushes the serpent, giving us the Messiah through Mary.

What I think Paul is doing in these five verses at the end of 1 Timothy 2 is telling wives to conduct themselves in a way that honors their husbands, not in a way that conveys dominion over them. Women and men are equal in Christ and will function as equals in the church, but in a Christian wife’s daily demeanor it should be apparent that she still properly respects her husband. The word “quiet” is used with reference to her demeanor.

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.
1 Timothy 2:11-12, ESV

This is a different word than the word for “silent” in 1 Corinthians 14, and it has a different meaning. It is used four total times in scripture: twice here, once of an angry Jewish crowd quieting down to hear Paul defend himself, and once by Paul in reference to living a peaceful self-sufficient lifestyle contrasted against a life spent meddling in other people’s affairs and refusing to work.

Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying: “Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.” And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet.
Acts 21:40b-22:2a, ESV

If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
2 Thessalonians 3:10b-12, ESV

Paul’s admonition for quietness is not intended to silence wives. It is an admonition for wives to maintain a spirit of tranquility and peace in their interactions with their husbands.

Regarding headship, I have heard it said that the Bible teaches a doctrine of “male headship”. I do not agree with this. Husband headship, whatever it is and however limited it may be, is clearly stated in places like Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 11, which I will discuss later. “Male headship” is a concept never expressed in such a generalized way, and is presumed inappropriately, being derived from selective circumstantial evidence. It’s one thing to acknowledge that males were much more frequently put in positions of authority and leadership than women throughout the Bible. But we go to far when we make up rules the Bible doesn’t as if we are called to carry forward a legacy of exalting men as leaders, pharisaically restricting women from serving in every way they may rightly be called upon by God to serve.

Paul’s intention in 2 Timothy 2 is not to restrict women from teaching men generally. In fact it cannot mean this, because in Acts 18 we have a clear example of a woman teaching a man, Priscilla teaching Apollos. And again, even those I have known who claim that Paul’s intent is to restrict women from teaching in the church assembly still selectively permit some teaching in certain church assemblies of their choosing, allowing women to share insight and ask pointed questions in church assemblies apart from a congregations main Sunday morning gathering. What gives you the right to either permit or restrict women in this way? Either the Bible forbids women from teaching men or it doesn’t. You have no authority to arbitrarily give or take away Christian liberty.

Even if Paul did intend to in some way restrict women from teaching men in his letter to Timothy, how can some claim on that basis that women should not serve in an assembly in other areas like song leading, or prayer, or serving communion. Do these activities make one an authority over others? Men who lead prayer do not exercise dominion over the other men present, or over the elders of a church when doing so do they? When my son or my daughter leads our family prayer at the dinner table, have they usurped our authority as their parents? Restricting women from leading in a church’s general assembly based on 1 Timothy 2 is completely non sequitur.

Major Shift #3 | “Praying” and “Prophesying” in 1 Corinthians 11

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.
1 Corinthians 11:3-16, ESV

At this point in my journey, my study of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 had convinced me that women are not as restricted from participation in leading worship as I had once believed. But I was not confident enough in my conclusions to begin sharing my newfound beliefs with anyone beyond a few private, quiet conversations with my close friends. Then a few years ago I was invited to attend a small event in which just over a hundred Christian men and women, including several highly respected church leaders from my faith tradition, gathered annually to support and encourage one another away from the critical traditionalism many of them ministered within the context of. It came across to me as a support group of sorts that had blossomed into deep friendships over decades. I did not know until I arrived that they would be focusing their discussion that year on their shifting views on gender roles in church assemblies. I was amazed how others had been reaching the same conclusions that I had, if at times through somewhat different Biblical means. At this event, I had the privilege of being led in prayer by some of the women who attended, maybe for my first time since I was a child, at least for the first time I was receptive to it. The thing that stuck with me the most was when a comment was made that went something like this: While there are many different interpretations of the passages we’ve discussed this week, perhaps the biggest thing that a traditional view of gender roles in worship struggles to explain away is the fact that women were praying and prophesying in Corinth.

Of course! Why did this not stand out to me more before? Maybe it’s because I previously had come to this passage ready to write it off due to reservations about the topic of head coverings. Maybe I thought I could assume this was an exception due to the mention of miraculous spiritual gifts (which to this day I believe were particular to their time). Maybe I thought this was about whether it was okay for men and women to wear hats while prayer was led aloud, or whether women should ever have short hair or men long hair. I don’t actually remember if I had ever even thoughtfully considered this before! Women were praying and prophesying aloud in Corinth, and rather than telling them to stop, Paul tells them how they ought to continue doing so.

Unlike 1 Timothy 2, which I believe in context provides general instructions for Christian life, not church assemblies, this teaching in 1 Corinthians 11 immediately precedes a discussion about how they ought to take the Lord’s supper when they “come together as a church”. Paul also then writes about how those sharing spiritual gifts in the church’s assemblies ought to think and act as discussed above. I recall hearing someone suggest that prophecy must have been something women only did in private settings, but that does not seem to be the case here. Though I’ve never heard it suggested that this discussion of head coverings is meant to instruct women regarding their private prayer and prophecy with only their husbands present or something, I guess someone could read this and conclude that. If so, I believe a necessary implication of that conclusion would be that married women ought to always cover their heads when praying privately, or at least never cut their hair short, and if they did then to wear a covering. What I think most people conclude regarding this passage is that head coverings were a cultural symbol used when a woman was in public. A public setting is the most sensible reading here.

There is a lot about this passage I still don’t understand, such as exactly how head coverings would have been perceived culturally or what Paul means by “because of the angels”, but I think it is difficult to try to explain away these women praying and prophesying as something other than an example of women being approved and encouraged to spiritually lead both women and men in Christian assemblies.

1 Corinthians 11 connects a woman’s clothing and appearance in public with her marriage relationship, similar to what we find elsewhere from both Paul and Peter in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Peter 3 as mentioned earlier. In all three places, wives are given instruction about what they wear alongside instruction about submission to their husbands. Perhaps in this case, Paul is teaching that a wife ought to publicly demonstrate respect for her husband by somehow openly acknowledging his headship when in a situation where an outside observer may have reason to doubt it.

The phrase “a symbol of authority” is actually a translation of a word meaning “power”, a common word for “authority” that is different than what is forbidden of wives in 1 Timothy 2. If this is about husbands and wives, and I believe that it is*, then it seems to me that Paul is trying to reinforce husband headship in the midst of greater gender equality in church. Maybe a head covering in Corinth would have been somehow understood as a wife’s acknowledgment of her husband as her head. Perhaps this was important for them because if married women were being seen sharing their gifts of prophecy and leading others in prayer with their husbands present, it might raise questions about the nature of her relationship with her husband outside of a church assembly. In order to make it clear that her being in this role in church is not an indication that she is challenging her husband’s role in their marriage, she ought to do something to acknowledge her husband’s position in their private relationship when she exercises her liberty to lead the assembly. I’m speculating about the details, but what I think we can confidently say is that women were sharing prophecy and leading public prayers in the early church, and that there is likely some connection between that activity and the perception of the nature of her relationship with her husband.

*[This passage has the potential of being used to justify the concept of “male headship” rather than just “husband headship”. Most translators actually translate a phrase found in verse 3 something like “the man is the head of a woman”, but there are also several old and new translations, including the ESV quoted above, that use the words “husband” and “wife” throughout this passage.]

Major Shift #4 | “Helper”, Not “Helpmeet” in Genesis 2

Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
Genesis 2:18-25, ESV

In studying this issue I have only recently begun exposing myself to the greater Christian dialogue regarding gender roles. I am obviously familiar with the doctrinal reasoning generally taught in my faith tradition concerning gender, but words like “complementarianism”, “egalitarianism”, and “patriarchy” are things I’ve just started having to look up. I’m not a scholar. I am just a regular person who cares a whole lot about truth and integrity, especially when the implications of these affect others, like my wife and my daughter and my female friends. Normally, when I have a question about something theological, I don’t go searching for what some preacher or scholar has said about it. I just study what the Bible says, looking up the meanings of words, comparing what is said here and there to what is said elsewhere in scripture, and then I weigh that against my current framework of understanding and make slight revisions until I have reconstructed an understanding that seems to take everything I’ve studied into account. I will sometimes reference commentaries or paraphrases of the text when I’m stuck to help me get going again, and may even pull up an internet search here and there for specific and nuanced questions I have along the way. I rarely start by considering a fully realized theological ideology presented in entirety that is different from my own, and I rarely read books. Reading books through is wearisome for me. I am averse to being associated with a particular system of thought on pretty much any issue, as I feel like I don’t usually align closely enough with a clearly defined position to feel comfortable being associated with it.

From what I’ve recently gathered, Christian egalitarianism is the idea that women are equals with men, are generally capable of doing everything men can, and are just as permitted to act on those capabilities as men are. Complementarianism is the idea that women and men are intended to fill different roles which complement the other gender, and is the justification for why women are restricted in certain ways that men are not in Christian practice despite their equal worth before God.

I think that most complementarians might pin me an egalitarian, and egalitarians may consider me still too complementarian. I believe that women should lead in the assembly just as men do. On the other hand, I am still uncertain about appointing women as deacons, and I think a woman may be biblically restricted from being appointed to the office of overseer or elder in her church based on Paul’s instruction that elders be the “husband of one wife” (cf. 1 Timothy 3:6 and Titus 1:2). I am still pondering the idea that the gender specific designation for elders should be considered interchangeable with “the wife of one husband”, that Paul’s intent was not to specify gender, but marriage status. The case for female deacons is even stronger, since Phoebe is actually called a deacon in Romans 16, though the word can also be translated as “servant” and understood in a more general sense. In giving instructions to deacons, it could be that Paul’s intent when addressing women in 1 Timothy 3:11 is to instruct female deacons rather than deacons’ wives. I’m still thinking on this personally. In these offices, perhaps God’s plan for women in the church is not exactly the same as his plan for men. I am open to change on any of this if I can be convinced that my understanding of the biblical text, particularly regarding elders, isn’t correct. I’m not motivated to maintain a foothold of male dominance in these areas, in fact I would prefer full gender equality in the church. But I am also trying to acknowledge what the text actually says rather than what I want it to say. Though I believe God intends for there to be far greater gender equality in the church than I once did, there still may be some gender exclusive roles in the church biblically.

Egalitarian theologies often extend beyond promoting unrestricted church roles on the basis of gender, applying the concept to all life, including marriage. Yet my current view of 1 Corinthians 14, 1 Timothy 2, and 1 Corinthians 11 as promoting greater liberty for women in church is built on my biblically-based understanding that a husband is the head of his wife, affecting actual and observable relational differences between husbands and wives, especially in public.

As I’ve begun opening my ears to some egalitarian voices, even when I don’t always think the Bible takes the idea as far as many are advocating, I’ve come across some amazing insights*, like what I’m about to share from Genesis 2 that for me is one of the more remarkable biblical epiphanies I’ve had in recent memory. This is very personal for me, because it affects how I see individual women, my friends, my sisters, my daughter, and my wife.

*[Specifically, it was Carolyn Custis James’ presentation of her view of ‛êzer on a podcast that left me astounded and led to my current understanding of it.]

In English, at least the way I’ve often heard it taught, Genesis 2 seems to indicate that the created purpose of a woman is to serve a man. It reads like she is created because Adam needed help; her purpose is to help him. Paul even seems to back up this idea in justifying why a wife ought to wear a head covering to symbolize the nature of her relationship with him.

For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.
1 Corinthians 11:7-9, ESV

I’ll get back to Paul, but first, consider what is said of both woman and man in Genesis 1.

So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
Genesis 1:27, NASB 2020

These three clauses teach that all humans are created in God’s image. The first uses the word “man” translated from the Hebrew word ‘âdâm, which refers to humankind. The next two clauses together indicate that this claim applies not only to the first human, but both to the male (zâkâr) and female (neqêbâh) versions of ‘âdâm. I’ve never heard an argument against this. I think the idea that both genders embody God’s image is what most Christians believe.

The word used in Genesis 2 to describe the first woman at her inception is “helper”, used twice, once by God in describing what role the woman would serve in relation to the man, and once in saying that nothing God had made up to that point could have fulfilled that purpose.

The Hebrew word for “helper” is ‛êzer, and it is freaking awesome. Apart from these two uses in Genesis, ‛êzer is used 19 other times in the Bible.

It is used of God, saving Moses from Pharoah’s attempt on his life before he fled Egypt;

The God of my father was my help, and saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.
Exodus 18:4, NASB 2020

of God, the source of power for the tribe of Judah to overcome their enemies;

And this he said of Judah: “Hear, O LORD, the voice of Judah, and bring him in to his people. With your hands contend for him, and be a help against his adversaries.”
Deuteronomy 33:7, ESV

of God, coming to the aid of his people;

There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens to your help, through the skies in his majesty.
Deuteronomy 33:26, ESV

of God, Israel’s shield;

Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD, the shield of your help, and the sword of your triumph! Your enemies shall come fawning to you, and you shall tread upon their backs.
Deuteronomy 33:29, ESV

of God’s answer to a cry for help, giving support and protection;

May the LORD answer you in the day of trouble! May the name of the God of Jacob protect you! May he send you help from the sanctuary and give you support from Zion!
Psalms 20:1-2, ESV

of God, looking out for his people and saving their lives;

Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine. Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and our shield. For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name.
Psalms 33:18-21, ESV

of God, accomplishing in his greatness what we are too weak to do ourselves;

May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you! May those who love your salvation say evermore, “God is great!” But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O LORD, do not delay!
Psalms 70:4-5, ESV

of God’s support, strengthening David to rise up and rule Israel;

Of old you spoke in a vision to your godly one, and said: “I have granted help to one who is mighty; I have exalted one chosen from the people. I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him, so that my hand shall be established with him; my arm also shall strengthen him.”
Psalms 89:19-21, ESV

of God, the shield of Israel, its priests, and all who fear him;

O Israel, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield. O house of Aaron, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield. You who fear the LORD, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield.
Psalms 115:9-11, ESV

of God’s unceasing resilience, keeping his people from harm;

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.
Psalms 121:1-8, ESV

of God the creator, rescuing his people;

Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as prey to their teeth! We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped! Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
Psalms 124:6-8, ESV

of the God of Jacob, overcoming oppression;

Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
Psalms 146:5-9, ESV

of the assistance Israel desperately needed that Egypt did not provide when they turned to Pharaoh instead of God;

“Ah, stubborn children,” declares the LORD, “who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation. For though his officials are at Zoan and his envoys reach Hanes, everyone comes to shame through a people that cannot profit them, that brings neither help nor profit, but shame and disgrace.”
Isaiah 30:1-5, ESV

of the armies defending Jerusalem, unable to defy God’s will that Babylon defeat them;

And I will spread my net over him, and he shall be taken in my snare. And I will bring him to Babylon, the land of the Chaldeans, yet he shall not see it, and he shall die there. And I will scatter toward every wind all who are around him, his helpers and all his troops, and I will unsheathe the sword after them.
Ezekiel 12:13-14, ESV

of something in a prophecy that I don’t fully understand, but that has to do with assisting those struggling in captivity;

And the wise among the people shall make many understand, though for some days they shall stumble by sword and flame, by captivity and plunder. When they stumble, they shall receive a little help. And many shall join themselves to them with flattery, and some of the wise shall stumble, so that they may be refined, purified, and made white, until the time of the end, for it still awaits the appointed time.
Daniel 11:33-35, ESV

and again of God, who deserves to be honored and credited for the help and salvation he brings.

But I am the LORD your God from the land of Egypt; you know no God but me, and besides me there is no savior. It was I who knew you in the wilderness, in the land of drought; but when they had grazed, they became full, they were filled, and their heart was lifted up; therefore they forgot me. So I am to them like a lion; like a leopard I will lurk beside the way. I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs; I will tear open their breast, and there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild beast would rip them open. He destroys you, O Israel, for you are against me, against your helper.
Hosea 13:4-9, ESV

That’s all of them, every other use of the word in the Bible. Does that sort of “helpmeet” sound like someone created for subservience to you? Is God being portrayed as subservient to his people as their “help”, or is he an essential partner, necessary for ensuring military victory, for defending against enemies, for success, for protection, for salvation, and for justice? A woman, as ‛êzer, bears the image of God as a “helper”.

It is from this understanding that we ought to frame what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:7-9.

For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.
1 Corinthians 11:7, ESV

Since we know that women are, like men, created in God’s image, we should assume that Paul isn’t claiming anything to the contrary in 1 Corinthians 11:7 when he says, “a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man”. Actually, Paul seems to be saying that man is not only the image of God, but also the glory of God, while a woman, who is just as much the image of God, is the glory of man.

For man was not made from woman, but woman from man.
1 Corinthians 11:8, ESV

As in 1 Timothy 2, Paul is appealing to the creation narrative to justify husband headship. In Genesis, God creates the first human from basically nothing, just dirt, but the first woman is created from the first man’s rib. In 1 Corinthians 11:8, this is the exact reference Paul makes, saying that woman originates “from” man. It is in that sense that she is the glory of man. As children are the glory of their parents, having been made from them, so is Eve the glory of Adam.

Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.
1 Corinthians 11:9, ESV

In 1 Corinthians 11:9, when Paul says that woman was created “for” man, he isn’t saying that a woman was created for the purpose of serving or benefitting man. “For” is translated from the word dia, which in the King James Version is usually translated “through” or “because of” or “therefore”. It is the same word translated “for this cause” at the beginning of the next verse. It is not good for man to be alone. In the Genesis creation narrative, the state of man alone is a primary motivating force that leads to the creation of of woman. What a male lacks necessitates the formation of a female counterpart to become whole. The outpouring of God’s image is not complete until he creates the ‛êzer. Eve is created after Adam, with reference to his insufficiency as a glorious complement to him.

In 1 Corinthians 11, like he does in 1 Timothy 2, Paul uses the order that God created man and woman to justify the need for Christian wives to publicly demonstrate respect for their husbands by symbolically acknowledging their headship. We don’t do this with head coverings today, but I believe there still may be relevant application for us, that as we embrace female leadership in public assemblies we ought to also consider whether we should somehow epitomize our biblical view of marriage roles. Then again, what exactly is a biblical view of gender roles in marriage?

Major Shift #5 | “Respect”, Not “Obey” in the Epistles

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. 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.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
Ephesians 5:22-33, ESV

For many years of my marriage, I thought the Bible said that wives ought to obey their husbands based on passages like Ephesians 5. It doesn’t. Wives are told to “submit”, but the words “submit” and “obey” are not the same. The word “submit” means to “put [yourself] under” (cf. Strong) or “yield” (cf. Thayer). The word “obey” is used in Ephesians 6:1 with reference to children and parents, not wives and husbands, and it means to “hear under […] by implication to heed or conform to a command or authority” (cf. Strong).

I usually hear this passage quoted beginning with verse 22. In doing so it can appear that wives are told to “submit” and husbands aren’t, but that is not the case. In verse 21, Paul instructs all Christians to submit to one another.

[…] submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Ephesians 5:21, ESV

Immediately following this admonition for general Christian submission, in verses 22-33 he writes to both wives and husbands regarding the manner in which they ought to submit to one another. A wife is told to submit to her husband as her head, respecting him. A husband is told to submit to his wife as his own body, giving of himself in love. In fact, the word “submit” is not even repeated in the instruction to wives in verse 22 in some manuscript copies of the original Greek. In these it is implied as a continuation of the teaching from the previous verse. It’s sort of like this: submit to one another, wives to your own husbands as the church respects Christ as its head, and husbands to your wives in Christ-like sacrificial love. The submission instruction itself is broadly inclusive, applied to both wives and husbands in specific ways.

There is one place that the Bible does use the Greek word for “obey” in the context of marriage. This is just after Peter instructs wives to try to win over their husbands to Christ by acting respectfully toward them, focusing on the condition of their spirits rather than their external adornment, quoted earlier.

For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
1 Peter 3:5-6, ESV

Sarah is upheld as an example of how a “gentle and quiet spirit” might be manifested in practice. She obeyed Abraham, and she called him “lord”. The implication is that this was characteristic of her in her marriage. I also think this may be intended as a reference to the only place in the Bible where we read about Sarah actually referring to Abraham as “lord”, and it occurs in the immediate context of her doing something specific he asked of her.

Now the LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day. When he raised his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed down to the ground, and said, ‘My Lord, if now I have found favor in Your sight, please do not pass Your servant by. Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and make yourselves comfortable under the tree; and I will bring a piece of bread, so that you may refresh yourselves; after that you may go on, since you have visited your servant.’ And they said, ‘So do as you have said.’ So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Quickly, prepare three measures of fine flour, knead it, and make bread cakes.’ Abraham also ran to the herd, and took a tender and choice calf and gave it to the servant, and he hurried to prepare it. He took curds and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he was standing by them under the tree as they ate. Then they said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ He said, ‘I will certainly return to you at this time next year; and behold, your wife Sarah will have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; Sarah was past childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have become old, am I to have pleasure, my lord being old also?’
Genesis 18:1-12, NASB 2020

Abraham asked his wife (or instructed her depending on how you read it) to perform a specific task to help him show hospitality to their visitors. Sarah’s response was to do what he asked, to conform to his request. She is being held up as an example of how she demonstrated respect and submission to Abraham in that she helped prepare food with him for their guests when he asked her to. And do note that she prepared food with him. While she prepared bread, he went out to the herd, picked out an animal, and arranged for its meat to be prepared as well. He then gathered milk and curds together with the meat, and he is the one who brought it and served it to their company. Sarah isn’t being treated like a servant here, but a partner. This is just one instance in their relationship, but Paul means it to be something wives take to heart in their marriages, encouraging them to submit to their husbands with a view toward Sarah’s respectful conduct and gentle spirit in this story.

What I do not believe anymore is that this example is meant to suggest that wives are expected to obey their husbands the way children are expected to obey their parents. Again, when children are told to “obey” their parents in both Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5, wives are instead told to “submit” to their husbands. This distinction is intentional, and there is a big difference. Obedience from children is one sided; parents are obviously not expected to obey their children. But submission in marriage is mutual.

I think a husband’s biblical role as the “head” ought to somehow inform the nature of our mutual submission. But honestly there’s a lot I still am uncertain about regarding husband headship in practice. I have heard it suggested that this idea implies a greater burden of spiritual leadership on the husband than the wife, but I don’t think that is a biblical idea. I believe husbands and wives are both called to spiritually lead their families, and one another, together. In fact, wives are very specifically called to spiritual leadership of their husbands in 1 Peter 3. Yes, that is also expected of husbands, but not more so than it is expected of wives.

I admit that right now I don’t have a clear understanding of what husband headship actually entails practically, but the concept is biblical. I no longer believe it means that there is a greater burden of submission on wives, or a higher standard of accountability for husbands. I remain reluctant toward and even suspicious of any advocation of a true gender-based power imbalance, despite the possible connotations of the word “head”. I like things to be definitive and clear, but maybe this isn’t even supposed to be. Maybe it’s something we are each meant to sort of feel out and discover together with our spouses as we strive for a marriage that honors God’s intention for us. We are to be as one, respecting each other as equals, seeking one another’s interests alongside our own in love, connected like a body and head are connected. Do you, as a wife, feel like you respect your husband as your head in the way you submit to him? Do I, as a husband, love my wife as my own body in the way I submit to her? Maybe I’m not even asking the right questions, but just because I don’t completely understand it, doesn’t mean I can’t try to let it change my attitude and behavior for the better.

As we seek to appropriately honor one another, we should also keep our common sense and self-respect in tact along the way. No wife or husband should ever tolerate any form of marital abuse, emotional, physical, or otherwise, on the basis of submission, headship, love, respect, or anything else.

And there you have it, for now.

While my views on gender roles have been in flux for quite some time, the birth of my daughter (which happened sometime between shift #3 and shift #4) has now amplified my passion about these things, to finally begin to get serious about what the Bible actually says and doesn’t. I worry about how the environment I raise her in will make her feel about herself. I wonder what it will be like to never see women at church lead publicly or have official roles of leadership the way men do. I know that my words and my example will affect her in her own marriage someday. I love that little girl more than life, and I won’t stand by in silence while tradition stifles truth if she’s the one who pays the price. And my son as well! In the image below, you can see him holding on to her newborn hand. Although these matters don’t all affect him as directly, I believe he also needs to grow up in a world that doesn’t allow tradition to unjustly suppress the women in his life. I don’t want him to feel more privileged than his sister or the girls he knows growing up because he is a male. I want him to see all others as the equals God created them to be. Whatever gender-based injustice my son and my daughter are confronted with in this world, and in the church, I intend for them to have an example of a father who opposes it.

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