Ever since I have become a wife, the issue of the proper role of Christian women has been intruding upon my consciousness in a new way. For single women, there doesn’t seem to be much of an issue. Even if the idea of the submission of wives to husbands is still very much alive, the idea that fathers should have veto power over their adult daughters (Numbers 30: 3-5) seems to have died out.
The Bible actually has quite a bit to say about wives. Lots of Christian commentary on these passages makes the correct observation that our current “feminist” (I personally don’t believe that the current formulation of “feminism” actually is) culture rejects the concept of different gender roles, much more a gender hierarchy, which seems to be implied in the Bible. But I think it’s important to remember that previous eras had their own cultural assumptions that colored the way they interpreted these passages, and there’s no reason to think those cultural prejudices are any more correct than ours. Following are some of my musings about the relevant passages, in no way intended to be authoritative, and no doubt influenced by my own culture background and personal biases.

Genesis 1:26-28: Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, [1] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
There are two versions of the story of the creation of man and woman in Genesis. In this one, “man” is created, both male and female. Both are made in God’s image in one creative act, and here no differentiation seems to be made between them. The reason for creating male and female “men” seems to be explained by God’s first statement to His creation–a blessing at least as much as a command–to be fruitful and multiply. They are to rule jointly over the earth, no hierarchy or even differentiation of roles is given here.
Genesis 2:18-24 The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman, ‘
for she was taken out of man.”
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
In this account, the man was created first of dust, and placed in the garden of Eden, which he was commanded to cultivate and keep. But the man was alone, so God decided to make a “helper” for him. I was curious about this term “helper” so decided to check it out in Hebrew. This was about as helpful as it usually is–my lexicon informs me that the word is a noun meaning “help, succor.” No exotic subtexts there. It doesn’t seem to mean servant or anything of that nature, however. I haven’t looked up all the occurrences of the word, but it can refer to help from God, i.e. Psalm 121: 2, so it can’t be said to indicate subservience. However, man and woman do not stand on their own as independent entities, rather man was created first, but it was not good that he stand on his own, so woman was created as his help. Thus man and woman are interdependent: man needs the woman, and the woman was created out of his very flesh. Perhaps a hierarchy of sorts can be derived from this story, but not one involving domination and subservience.
This story of creation provides its own interpretation of this event, but but it has nothing to do with a gender hierarchy or either man or woman being dominant over the other. The interpretation is that because woman was taken out of man, when a man and woman marry they leave their families and become a new family, of the same flesh in a more profound way even than they are the flesh and blood of the people that bore them.
The first mention of a real gender hierarchy does not come from the creation story, but as part of God’s judgement on Adam and Eve for their sin:
Genesis 16: “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing;
with pain you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”
I haven’t done my Hebrew Bible homework on this judgement, but it seems that the interpretation of this verse is somewhat questionable. My Ryrie Study Bible says that the phrase “your desire” “may mean that the wife would have a deep attraction to her husband, perhaps to compensate for the sorrow of childbirth. Or this may mean that her desire would be to rule her husband.” The word “rule” is a pretty common one meaning, not surprisingly, “rule, have dominion, reign.”
It never occurred to me until recently that this talk of the man “ruling” over his wife occurs as part of a curse, not as part of the original creation. I am in no way qualified to comment on what this means, but this is my interpretation. The first creation account implies an equality between men and women, both were created as “mankind” in God’s image, both rulers over creation. The second account, however, indicates that men and women are different, they have different and complementary roles and need each other, but neither seems to be have an authoritarian role over the other. This makes me question the idea that it was God’s plan from the beginning that the man be the authority over the wife while the woman’s role was to serve him; although men and women are differentiated and the man has temporal precedence.
Regarding the account of Adam and Eve’s first sin, I believe that in the misogynistic Middle Ages this story allowed theologians to blame the fall of humankind on women. But a class I took on Genesis once at an Evangelical Free church offered a slightly different interpretation: while Eve was responsible for her actions, Adam is responsible for his inaction. The account doesn’t say that Adam was somewhere else during Eve’s conversation with the serpent, or that Eve called him over to the tree later. Rather, Adam may have been listening on the entire time and not intervening, and hence is responsible for his own disobedience and for not helping Eve out. Of course that’s just one interpretation.
Proverbs 31: 10-31
10 [3] A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.
13 She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships,
bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still dark;
she provides food for her family
and portions for her servant girls.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously;
her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable,
and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff
and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy.
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed;
she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate,
where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them,
and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
31 Give her the reward she has earned,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
This sounds like a description of a working wife and mother to me. True, it is her husband and not she herself who acts as an elder at the gate. The husband’s and wife’s roles aren’t identical, but the woman described here is intelligent, an entrepreneur, a skilled worker, in charge of a staff, provides for her family, she works hard, and is charitable. Oddly, though she has children (v. 28), she doesn’t seem to cut back on her other activities in order to spend all her time with them or “relax” until they get home, yet her work doesn’t take the place of raising her children, who “call her blessed.” Her husband has confidence in her, and due to her hard work for the family her husband is respected.
I think that the verses I’ve discussed so far make it clear that a husband and wife are not two independent entities, sharing a living space while pursuing their own careers without regard to how they impact each other or the family. However, I think that the wife’s role as a “helper” can mean different things. I like being the primary homemaker, because I like making the home comfortable for me and Andy, and I don’t believe homemaking is an unimportant and low-status job. I think feminists have done women a disservice by agreeing with the world that what has been traditionally “women’s work” is less valuable than “men’s work, ” when it seems clear to me that homemaking is the most important job anyone can have.
However, being a homemaker doesn’t preclude working outside the home. It is my pet theory that women probably won’t achieve what we think of as “equality” with men in the workplace, because so many women choose to slow down their careers in order to take care of children or the home. I really don’t see this as a bad thing, if it’s chosen by the woman herself. In the lives of individual women this might mean she won’t advance as far in her career as she would otherwise, or it might simply slow down her advancement or not affect it at all. But it appears to me from this passage that it is also allowable for women to pursue “careers,” to supplement the family income, and so forth.
Ephesians 5:22-33: Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church–for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery–but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Here is the infamous statement of Paul with all the talk about submitting and so forth. I don’t think that in the light of this passage, one can responsibly ignore the male-female hierarchy.
However, I’ve often thought that in one way this arrangement only makes sense when one considers biology. Women are the ones who bear children, and considering the hard work required to survive in most societies, pregnancy would severely hinder a woman’s ability to fend for herself. Biology also dictates that the mother be the primary caretake for the new baby, in a lot of socieites for a couple of years. Since, also in most societies, women spend a lot of their lives pregnant and taking care of small children, it seems like a pretty reasonable arrangement that the father take on the role of breadwinner. This would necessarily put him out in the super-domestic realm more than the woman. The Bible doesn’t entirely ban women from public roles–see Deborah, Esther, Lydia, Phoebe (a servant? a deaconess? the Greek is too much for me)–but these simple biological facts would necessarily limit womens’ public role; and to some extent still do.
Looking again at the verse above, wives are to submit themselves to their husbands as to the Lord, or as the church does to Christ. But how does the church submist itself to Christ? We submit ourselves absolutely and freely to the Lord’s will, but though we are the Lord’s servants, He doesn’t treat us as slaves–he treats us as brothers and sisters. His will for us is better than our own will for ourselves, because he knows us better than we know ourselves, his goal for us is that we become better than we become by ourselves. Hence, shouldn’t submission to husbands mean that our husbands encourage us to grow in God’s will, in whatever God has planned for us–whether that’s being a stay-at-home mom, or in a career, or whatever? That’s different from just saying okay to whatever we want to do, because it involves keeping us accountable to God’s will, making sure we don’t overdo things and get exhausted, and keeping the needs of the marriage and family in mind–but it also doesn’t require that wives be simply a household servant.
I believe that a good husband is liable to know his wife better than she knows herself. I know that though Andy and I have been married for less than a year, he already knows when I’m overworking or blowing something out of proportion, and I know he’s right even when I don’t want to admit it. Of course, husbands aren’t Christ, hence aren’t infallible, and I don’t think Paul meant this analogy to be taken completely literally. I said before I got married that what this verse meant for me is that in the event of a disagreement, I wanted to be able to trust my husband’s judgement and accept it over mine if need be; though I knew that Andy would always trust my judgement too and take my point of view into account–which plays into the “husband” side of this passage.
When I got married, I gave up some possibilities in my life in favor of others; just like when I became a Christian I gave up some possibilities for something far better. Because I married the person I believe God wanted me to marry, I believe that the possibilities I chose will be better than the ones I gave up. Yes, I gave up some autonomy (you don’t have to be a Christian to realize that getting married means turning over some of the power over your life to someone else), but I believe that what Andy and I come up with together will be better than what I could have achieved by myself.

3 Responses to “Women”

  1. Kim says:

    I think you’ve done a very thoughtful analysis here, Michele. I agree with a lot of your conclusions.
    One thing I remember hearing about several years ago regarding Paul’s passage in Ephesians is how different Bible translations combine or separate (via different paragraphs, even section headers) those verses from the previous verse: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). I think that the exhortation in verse 22 to wives takes on a somewhat different emphasis when read in the context of all Christians (presumably including husbands, too) submitting to one another, rather than when taken as a separate statement from the preceding command.
    Are you familiar with the organization Christians for Biblical Equality? If not, you may be interested in checking out their website, http://www.cbeinternational.org. They have a bunch of free articles on their website about the issues you bring up and other equality-related topics, all approached from with a biblical worldview – when I used to go there regularly a few years ago, I really enjoyed a lot of their perspectives.

  2. michele says:

    Kim, thanks for the website, I’ll check it out! I hesitated to include 5:21 in the discussion since, as you say, a lot of versions put it in the previous section. Due to my lack of Greek I can’t tell whether it was an end of the previous thought or directly “governs” the discussion of marriage. So I decided to leave it out though it is important contextually, and makes me wish I’d kept up with my Greek so I could resolve ambiguities like these to my satisfaction.

  3. Bill says:

    I thought you did a really good job of outlining roles of men and women. One of the points in your discussion that I found the most interesting was the question of whether there was a creation order for Adam and Eve before the Fall. One interesting piece of Scripture I’ve come across in relation to the roles of men and women before the Fall comes from a particularly controversial passage in I Timothy 2:8-15 (ESV):
    8I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 9likewise 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, 10but with what is proper for women who profess godliness–with good works. 11Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15Yet she will be saved through childbearing–if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
    I don’t want to hijack the post into a discussion of women’s roles in church. But I thought that this passage did speak to the issue of whether there are different male and female roles before the Fall or not. It seems that Paul does ascribe importance to Adam’s predomination in the created order. After giving a pre-Fall reason, Paul gives a post-Fall reason. Adam was not deceived but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Here again, some importance seems to be attached to Eve’s deception by the devil. While I totally agree that Adam was with her and certainly should have stepped into the dialogue between the serpent and Eve, it is interesting in Genesis 3 that Adam’s curse is pronounced upon him not because he listened to the serpent and ate as Eve did, but because he listened to Eve and ate.
    I think we can easily read too much into the Genesis curse. The responsibility of the Fall rests on Adam as the federal head of the covenant, not Eve. We receive our condemnation through Adam, not Eve. The state of affairs in Genesis as Paul clarifies in I Timothy seems to indicate that Adam should not have allowed his wife to be deceived and eat nor should he have received the fruit from her. But because of the passage in I Timothy, I think it would be fair to say that there was an order, beyond just a temporal order, even in the perfection of the Garden.
    I think we also stop too short if we don’t consider the end of the passage. Just as there is significant christological significance to Adam’s Fall and Christ’s perfect obedience as the second Adam, so we also see God’s grace in regards to the woman. Eve becomes the vehicle by which transgression entered the world and the means Satan used to cause the Fall of Adam. But in a redemptive sense, God saves the world through the seed of the woman, Jesus Christ. Just as Satan used her as a means of deceiving Adam, so God uses the woman as the means of bringing into the world the second Adam, Jesus Christ who will save us. It is the seed of the woman, not the seed of the man, who crushes the serpent’s head.
    Another (and probably more interesting) source for biblical discussions of men and women would be The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, at http://www.cbmw.com.
    But thanks for another thought-provoking post!

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