Posted on / by Ben Jones

Part 5: Women and the Bible

A Series of Responses to Jon Steingard’s Declaration of Disbelief in God

Our next Steingard issue to tackle is the assertion that the Bible seems oppressive of women. He indicates that women are treated more like property than equals. He also questions whether the instructions given to women apply today or if they were only applicable in the culture of the day. Since this is one of the reasons that Jon gives for his disbelief in God, or at least the Christian God, then his greatest concern must be how God perceives women. His understanding of this perception is based on God’s laws and rules regarding women. There are some important distinctions to be made here. First, we must differentiate between the way society treated and viewed women in the ancient Near East, and the way God views women. Second, we must recognize that some of the instructions and limitations placed on women were (1) cultural, and (2) pertaining to the biblical roles in the marriage relationship.

It is made explicitly clear from the creation account that God created men and women as having equal value, both being made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Though normally translated as ‘helper’ in Gen. 2:18, the more accurate translation would be “a strength corresponding to him.” She is an equal partner in worth and value, a companion in exercising dominion over the earth. There is no indication of women being subordinate to men, or for one to be superior over the other. Even within marriage, they are ‘united’ and ‘one flesh,’ made of the same substance (since woman was created from man’s rib). Yes, in the family structure, God created a husband to be the ‘head’ of the family and to lead spiritually, but this in no way diminishes the value of the wife. God lays out the ideal view of women in Genesis 1-2. In the rest of the Old Testament, we must be careful to recognize that a description of how women were viewed and treated in the ancient Near East does not reflect an endorsement of the same. Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society, and this often distorted the many strong biblical affirmations of female equality and dignity. As author Paul Copan states:

“…laws regarding women in Israel take a realistic approach to fallen human structures in the ancient Near East. In Israel’s legislation, God does two things: (1) he works within a patriarchal society to point Israel to a better path; and (2) he provides many protections and controls against abuses directed at females in admittedly substandard conditions…  Yes patriarchal structures strongly influenced the mind-set of Israelite society. Yet we see undeniable affirmations of equality in the Old Testament from theological, historical, and legal perspectives.1

The rest of the Old Testament promotes gender equality throughout, such as equal punishment for moral crimes and God’s blessing on many women in leadership roles. In fact, the only lead role they don’t play is that of priestess, which is primarily because of the association of priestesses in some heathen cults with prostitutes or cultic sexual rites, which Deuteronomy prohibits. God forbade people from giving the appearance of following the immoral practices of surrounding nations (and this also heavily influences the instructions to women in the New Testament, as we will soon see).

The New Testament only continues to affirm gender equality. Jesus’ words and deeds defied most of the customs of His day by indicating that women should be treated equally to men. He respected their intelligence and spiritual capacity in teaching them and encouraging them to be disciples as well. He taught them great truths (i.e. the Samaritan woman) with the expectation that they would help spread the Gospel. Paul continues this trend by praising many women in ministry positions. In 1 Cor. 11:11 and Gal. 3:28, Paul explicitly states that there is no distinction between men and women in the Lord, and that they are ‘one.’ There are numerous exemplary verses which both implicitly and explicitly affirm the equality of men and women in God’s eyes. Any degradation or oppression of women in the Old or New Testament certainly has no foundation in God’s perception of women.

Now we must turn to gaining a better understanding of the limitations and rules placed on women (especially wives) of the day. These may be what Jon indicates seem “oppressive” and as if women are being treated as property. However, if they don’t indicate inherent inequality, then how do we understand them? The gender roles described in Scripture can be somewhat controversial. Many of these passages seem to use particularly strong language, so it’s very important to navigate those waters carefully in the 21st century. But there’s also danger in not addressing them at all. A misunderstanding of these passages can be detrimental to both sexes. Upon a misinterpretation, men can develop an overly dominant spirit, or worse, use them to take advantage of women. Likewise, the 21st century woman could inappropriately choose to disregard these Scriptural passages entirely due to their nature.

The first thing I want to make abundantly clear is that properly understood, the relational gender roles in the Bible are referring primarily to a husband and wife. Not men and women in general. Not a boyfriend and girlfriend. Not fiances. Women have no obligation to someone to which they are not married. We must recognize the roles laid out for a husband and wife and not thrust those roles onto men and women in general. The role of a husband and wife exemplifies the relationship between Christ and His Church. A proper understanding absolutely revolves around that parallel, and the direct correlation is made obvious in Ephesians 5:22-33:

22Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. 25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, 26so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. 28So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; 29for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, 30because we are members of His body. 31FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND SHALL BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH. 32This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 33Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.

The instructions to the wife cannot be ignored, but the second a husband starts to claim that his wife is not submitting to him or respecting him, a husband must look at the far greater responsibility he has in nourishing and cherishing his wife, loving her as he loves himself. In this passage, there’s more instruction to the husband than the wife. Yes, the church is subject to Christ, but Christ gave His life for the church, and there is no greater love. You will also see a recurring theme of husbands loving their wives and wives respecting their husbands. I always find it amazing how Scripture speaks to the heart of the needs and desires of men and women today. Any professional therapist or psychologist will tell you that generally women look for ‘love and security’ and men look for ‘respect and approval’ in a relationship.

Moving to our next controversial passage, 1 Cor. 11:3-16: 3But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. 4Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. 5But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. 6For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. 7For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; 9for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. 10Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. 13Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, 15but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.

First and foremost, it’s important to note that 1 Cor. 11:3 does not mean “women,” but “a woman” which should be translated as “a wife.” The Greek word is gune, and when it stands alongside the word Andros (meaning “husband”), it must be translated as such. In other words, the more accurate translation is that a “husband is the head of his wife.” This was written to the Corinthian Christians living in Greece. The Greek tradition here was for men to have heads uncovered and for women to cover theirs. This was against Jewish custom (and still is today, exemplified at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem). Paul’s advice was to examine the symbolism of the custom, and if it was not contrary to God’s word, accept it (v. 16). He goes on to show that the custom also demonstrates God’s “order of creation.” Why oppose something that demonstrates this? Still, Paul left it up to the believers; verse 13 literally means “decide in regard to it your own selves.” Another reason for women to cover their heads was to differentiate them from the priestesses, who were prostitutes, at the nearby Temple of Aphrodite in Acrocorinth. These women never covered their heads and had short hair. Due to the culture, Paul wanted to be sure Christian women did nothing that resembled those of low moral character, even if the custom in and of itself was not a sin. Verses 14 and 15 reemphasize the necessity of men and women to be distinguished from one another and not attempt to look like the opposite sex.

Continuing in 1 Cor. 14:33-35: 33for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 34The 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. 35If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. This does not mean a woman should always be silent in all churches. 1 Cor. 11:5 makes reference to women praying and prophesying in church. We must understand this passages in context, 1 Cor. 14:27- 30: 27If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret;28but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God.29Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.30But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent.

In these verses, anyone speaking in a tongue was commanded to keep silent in the church if there was no interpreter or if another person was prophesying. This was to prevent confusion within the church, as v. 33 states. Immediately afterward is the command for women to be silent in the church, and this was given for the same reason. Notice that this was not a rule given in any other church. This was because of the cultural context: Across the bay from Corinth was Delphi, Greece’s most famous center of oracles and commerce. What happened in Delphi directly influenced Corinth. One of the primary practices in Delphi was consulting the Delphic priestesses. The practice was that a person who had questions would wait their turn in the inner shrine and hand over their questions written on tablets. The priestess would sit on a tripod over a great chasm and become intoxicated. She would then utter incoherent sounds which were interpreted by waiting poets. The interpretation was usually obscure and only served to confuse the inquirer. Just as the widespread practice of sacrificing to idols probably caused Paul to focus on that sin in 1 Cor. 8, the predominant participation of women in this Delphic practice may very well have influenced these verses. Paul would have addressed a practice, such as speaking in tongues, that seemed closely related to such paganism, just as the practices of the Aphrodite priestesses influenced proper customs (head coverings, etc). The key verse is v. 33. It is a shame for a woman to bring confusion into the church, just as it is for any man to do so. It is not an issue of men vs. women, but of confusion vs. order. Again, “women” in v. 34 is the word gunaikes, which should be translated as “wives.” Just as with the submissiveness of a wife to her husband (not a woman to a man), a husband also has the responsibility to guide and teach his own wife so she does not cause confusion or disturbance in the church. Paul expects the same of himself; he says he would rather speak five understandable words than 10,000 which were not understood, not only for the sake of fellow believers, but for the sake of strangers who may see him and believe that he and others are mad or maniacs (1 Cor 14:19).

Another aspect is the usage of two separate words. In this discussion, when Paul says the word “speak,” he uses the word lalein, the infinitive of laleo, instead of lego. Laleo is exclusively used because it refers to the mere utterance of sounds without the speaker necessarily knowing what he is saying or others understanding. Lego refers to saying something that is a product of one’s thought. Lalein is the word used for “speak” in v. 34. Basically there are three circumstances in which a person should be quiet in the church given here; the first two deal with men and the third with women: 1) If a man speaks in an unknown language without interpreter, 2) A man speaks and someone else gets up to speak, and 3) A woman begins to act like a Delphic priestess speaking in an unknown tongue.

Our next controversial passage is the one to which Jon specifically refers, 1 Tim. 2:9-15: 9Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, 10but rather by means of good works, as befits women making a claim to godliness. 11Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. 12But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. 13For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. 14And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. 15But women shall be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint. Women are active members of the church as is stated in numerous locations in the Bible; no differentiation was made in the importance of a man and woman in Kingdom work (i.e. Priscilla and Aquila). The key to the beginning of this passage is a necessity to uphold any customs that show distinction between men and women. Instruction due to this is based on specific customs of the day that did just that. As seen in 1 Cor. 11, having short hair or a shaved head is not the sin; the sin is having a characteristic of ones who are known to be immoral. Also, again 1 Tim 2:11 does not mean “women,” but “a woman” which should be translated as “a wife.” A key to understanding v. 11 is what is translated as “discreetly” in v. 9. It is the word sophrosune, which basically signifies a voluntary limitation of one’s freedom of thought and behavior. Since women were equal to men in Christ, the danger was that this newfound freedom would be misused and taken beyond the limitations that God had placed in appointing man as head over woman in the marital relationship. Paul is simply warning women not to try to look or act like men and usurp their position so as to maintain the parallel of the Church as the bride of Christ. This does not imply male superiority; it simply means that to function properly, every unit needs a ‘head,’ including a family. This is exemplified in the Trinity. John 10:30 says “I am the Father are one,” but 1 Cor. 11:3 says “God is the head of Christ.” In verse 11, the word translated as “quietly” is the word hesuchia which means “peaceable” or “tranquil, not disturbed.” The word “submissiveness” is hupotage, a combination of the preposition hupo (“under”) and the verb tasso (“to place in proper order”). The real translation of 1 Tim. 2:11 should be “Let the wife learn in tranquility in her positioning under.” At this time, only men had the privilege of education, so how could a wife learn (which was encouraged by Paul) if she did not receive it from her husband? Similarly, if a wife was allowed to teach men in this society, it would undermine her husband’s position as head of the household. A wife should place limits on her liberty in Christ in both dress and speech. The second part of verse 12, “exercise authority over” is the word authentia which means “absolute sway or authority.” In other classical Greek, this is the most extreme form of authority. Obviously this type of authority would usurp the role of the husband. Verse 13 is again just stated so as to exemplify the order of things as God created it, not that one is more intelligent or more worthy. “Self-restraint” in v. 15 is again the word sophrosune (limitation of one’s personal freedom).

Our last passage is 1 Peter 3:1-7: 1In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, 2as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. 3Your adornment must not be merely external– braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; 4but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. 5For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; 6just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear. 7You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.

This verse seems to indicate that a level of submission still applies even if the husband is disobedient to the word; however, again, this does not and cannot apply to unreasonable or blatantly immoral acts and demands. The key for the husband is always servant leadership as the spiritual head, allowing God, Scripture, and his wife to help him make the best decisions possible for his family. The word in verse 4 translated as “quiet spirit” is the same word used in 1 Tim. 2:12 as “quiet.” Peter certainly did not mean by a “quiet spirit” that a woman must be silent; he simply meant a tranquil, gentle spirit. Finally, notice that if a husband doesn’t treat his wife correctly, his prayers will be hindered.

After establishing God’s recognition of gender equality, it is very important to differentiate between God’s intended role for all men and women for all time, those that apply to only husbands and wives, and the gender roles due to the culture and time period. Hopefully I’ve given some insight into some of these verses.


1Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? 2011

2Sections of this article borrow heavily from the commentary included in the Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, New American Standard Bible, AMG International, Inc. 1984 and 1990.