A Challenge for Proponents of Female Submission to Prove Their Case from the Bible

by Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian, Professor Emeritus, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL

“Open my eyes that I may see
Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me.
Place in my hands the wonderful Key
That shall unclasp and set me free”
Clara H. Scott
Hymn

The purpose of this challenge is to prompt Christians to grapple with biblical facts rather than to accept traditional assumptions about female roles. What is at stake is not the role of women as much as the definition of the church as authentic biblical community. Is it possible for a local church to aspire to define itself as biblical community when more than half its constituency is excluded from participating in the most significant aspects of its life?

In the course of history, the church has often lost its way. For instance, during a thousand years, the church forgot something as crucial as the way of salvation and replaced it with methods of salvation by works that never worked. The biblical teaching was finally recovered by the Reformers just a few centuries ago.

Likewise, many present-day Christians believe that, along the way, the church has lost its own definition as community and replaced it with false definitions that reduce it to the status of institution, establishment, hierarchy, corporation and programs. This challenge provides an incentive to help Christians rediscover for themselves the biblical definition of the church as God’s community of oneness.

To anyone who might be tempted to think that this challenge is a feminist plot to subvert the traditional church, it should be pointed out that feminism is a quest for equal rights and equal power. A basic premise of this presentation is the exact opposite, the belief that the Bible requires all Christians to pursue relationships of mutual submission and of reciprocal servanthood.

An effective approach to tackle this challenge would be to go through this document one page at a time, to check the references with an open Bible at hand, and to search the Scriptures in order to supply the requested references.

Responses will be evaluated by a panel of three Professors Emeriti of the Department of Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton College who, between them, represent more than a century of cumulative university-level Bible teaching.

Responses may be sent to the address below.

For a fuller treatment of the themes presented in this document consult the vast resources referenced in the catalog of CBE, online, or contact CBE where copies of this document may be ordered:

Christians for Biblical Equality
122 West Franklin Avenue, Suite 218
Minneapolis, MN 55404-2451
(612) 872-6898

1. The Challenge

Cite a text from the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 that enjoins or entitles men to exercise authority or leadership over women, or that designates men as “head” or “spiritual head” over women.

The Facts

There is not a hint, not even a whisper about anything like a hierarchical order existing between man and woman in the creation account of Genesis, chapters 1 and 2. In fact, the exact opposite is clearly taught in these two chapters. Both man and woman were made in God’s image (1:26-27) and they both participated in God-assigned ministries without any role distinctions (1:28).

The creation order established oneness, not hierarchy (2:24). The first indication of a hierarchical order between man and woman resulted from the entrance of sin into the world (3:16). The subordination of women to men was not part of God’s original design. It resulted from the violation of God’s creation order.

The use of the word “helper” for the woman reinforces the relation of non-hierarchical complementarity that existed between the man and the woman prior to the fall (2:18). In the language of the Old Testament, a “helper” is one who rescues others in situations of need. This designation is often attributed to God as our rescuer. The word denotes not domesticity or subordination but competency and superior strength (Ex. 18:4; Deut. 33:26, 29; Psalm 33:20, 70:5, etc.).

According to the text, the woman was instrumental in rescuing the man from being alone and, therefore, from not being yet the community of oneness that God had intended to create with both of them (Gen. 1:27). As “helper,” she pointedly enabled him to become with her the community that God had intended to establish through their union.

The word “helper” is used specifically in this context of God’s deliberation to create community (2:18). The biblical text becomes violated when the word “helper” is wrenched away and lifted out of this specific context to be given other meanings that demean women by reducing them to the level of “complements” or docile conveniences created to improve the quality of male life.

In the account of the created order within which every relation of authority is carefully spelled out (1:26, 28; 2:17), there is not the slightest suggestion of a structure of authority existing between the man and the woman. Instead, the explicit evidence provided in those texts describes both as participating cooperatively in reflecting the image, and both fulfilling jointly the tasks of rulership and dominion without the necessity of a structure of hierarchy between them.

2. The Challenge

Cite a text from the Bible that assigns women subordinate status in relation to men because Adam was created before Eve.

The Facts

In the first chapter of Genesis, the sequence of creation moves, in increasing levels of sophistication, from material things to plants, to animals and, finally, to humans. According to chapter two, the process culminates with the creation of the woman. Obviously, chronological primacy was not intended to denote superior rank. No such lesson is drawn within those two chapters from the fact that the man was created before the woman.

In 1 Corinthians, chapter 11, an argument is presented for women to wear a head covering during worship. It is based on the differences in status between men and women that derive from the fact that man was created first (v. 7-10).

But, according to the same text, all those considerations have been decisively swept aside “in the Lord,” that is, in the Christian community (v. 11). In the new covenant, both men and women are in a relation of originative interdependence since men must recognize that they owe their existence to women just as the woman was made from man. Only the primacy of God as creator of all has significance since all things come from him, including both men and women (v. 11-12). As a result of this leveling of the ground “in the Lord”, a covering is not even required of women since their hair is their covering (v. 15).

The ministry restrictions exceptionally placed on women in 1Timothy, chapter 2 are not based on the creation order. They are drawn from the temptation account. No conclusion is made in the text from the fact that Adam was formed first except for the one lesson that Adam was not deceived but Eve was and she became the first transgressor (v. 13-14).

Adam had been instructed about the prohibition relative to the tree directly from God while Eve was not yet in existence. For this reason, of the two, she was the one less prepared to face the tempter. He was present during the temptation episode but he remained silent (Gen. 3:6). Despite this disadvantage, she boldly engaged the tempter and she became deceived. This illustration from the Genesis temptation story has nothing to do with assigning all women of all times a subordinate status in church life. It was cited in this epistle to make the point that untaught and unqualified individuals should not aspire to teaching functions or to positions of leadership. They should first become quiet learners (1 Tim. 2: 11-12).

3. The Challenge

Cite a text from the Bible that defines the headship of Christ to the church as a relation of authority or of leadership.

The Facts

The New Testament defines the headship ministry of Christ to the church as a servant relation designed to provide the church with life and growth. This headship is never presented as an authority or lordship position.

Eph. 1:22-23. Christ is supremely and universally sovereign, but as head for the church, it is not said that he rules over it. Instead, he provides his body with the fullness of him who fills all in all. He causes the church to grow and flourish.

Eph. 4:15-16. Christ as head provides the body with oneness, cohesion and growth. This is a servant-provider role, not one of rulership.

Eph. 5:23. Christ is head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. His headship to the church is defined as saviorhood which is biblically defined as a servant, self-sacrificing function, not a lordship role.

Col. 1:18. Christ is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead. As its head, Christ is the source of the church’s life.

Col. 2:19. Christ is the head from whom the whole body grows because it is nourished by him. He is servant-provider of life and growth to the church.

Obviously, Christ is Lord of all and therefore Lord of the church. But never does the New Testament define Christ’s relation to the church as its head in terms of lordship, authority or rulership. As head to the church, Christ is always the servant who gives the church all she needs to become his radiant Bride. So is the husband to his wife (Eph. 5:25-30), within a relationship of mutual submission (v. 21).

The word “head” used figuratively in the English language refers to boss, person in authority, leader. It never has that meaning in New Testament Greek. There are hundreds of references in the New Testament to religious, governmental, civic, familial and military authority figures. Not one of them is ever designated as “head.”

Even Christ, as “head” of all rule and authority, remains their original giver of life and fullness (Col. 2:10; 1:16). Similarly, Christ was never called “head” of the church until after his crucifixion, the supreme expression of his servant ministry as the giver of new life.

Whenever Christ is described as “head” to the church, his ministry is that of servant-provider. Similarly, as head to his wife, a husband is a servant-provider of life, of fullness and growth, not one who exercises authority over her.

4. The Challenge

Cite a text from the Bible that makes men head over women, or a husband head over his wife.

The Facts

There is no such statement in the Bible. The text in 1 Corinthians 11:3 is often cited as establishing a top-down hierarchy:

God over Christ--- Christ over man--- man over woman.

However, this biblical text must be radically dismembered and its components reshuffled in order to produce such results. The untouched biblical sequence is totally different and it does not present a hierarchical structure:

Christ, head of man--- man, head of woman--- God, head of Christ.

The teaching in this text concerns the concept of “head” as giver of life. In creation, Christ (as the Word, John 1:3) gave life to man; man to woman (as she was taken from him, Gen. 2:21-23); and in the incarnation, God gave life to Christ (Luke 1:35). This understanding of “head” as “provider of life” is consistent with the immediate context which deals with the significance of origination (1 Cor. 11:7-12).

The meaning of “head” as servant-provider of life in this text is also consistent with the headship passage in Ephesians 5:21-33. There, the church is described as being subject to Christ in the reciprocity of servanthood because Christ as head is also servant to the church as its Savior and as the source of its welfare. Saviorhood in the New Testament is not a lordship role but one of self-sacrifice in radical servanthood.

Likewise, the wife is servant to her husband as she submits to him because the husband is servant to her in radical headship as he gives himself up for her as Christ did for the church (v. 25-30).

Both the general concept of headship in the New Testament and this passage of Scripture are infused with the notions of mutual submission (v. 21) and, therefore, of reciprocal servanthood. Such biblical teachings reduce the imposition of hierarchical relations between husbands and wives to irrelevance, if not to abuse in their relationship.

5. The Challenge

Cite a New Testament text according to which men are given unilateral authority over women or are permitted to act as their leaders.

The Facts

Once the fall shattered the God-given oneness between man and woman, they both faced a dysfunctional relationship. The woman was warned that, because of the disruption of the fall, the husband would rule over her (Gen. 3:16). Oneness would turn into abuse. But no mandate was ever given to the man to claim this rulership over the woman.

There is no allowance made in the New Testament or license given for any one believer to wield authority over another adult believer. The pledge exacted from brides in an older wedding ceremony, “Wilt thou obey him…?” had no biblical warrant.

There is no text in Scripture that enjoins wives to obey their husbands. The call is for mutual subjection (Eph. 5:21). Both wives and husbands must relate to each other “in the same way” as slaves submit to their masters (1 Peter 2:18; 3:1, 7 NIV) in order to follow in the steps of Christ, their supreme example (2:21).

The New Testament singularly cites the case of Sarah who obeyed her husband Abraham (1 Peter 3:6). Sarah’s case was cited in full knowledge of the fact that Abraham pointedly obeyed his wife just as often as she obeyed him, once even under God’s specific command (Gen. 16:2, 6; 21:11-12).

Christians are solemnly forbidden by their Lord to establish among themselves structures of authority similar to the hierarchical systems that prevail in secular society. Those who aspire to attain such positions of leadership must, instead, become servants and slaves of those over whom they wish to wield authority (Matt. 20:25-28).

Leadership is always defined in the New Testament as shared leadership. In church life, leadership is a team function entrusted to a plurality of persons such as elders. These act as servants who have recourse to the exercise of authority only exceptionally when required to do so because of disciplinary or crisis situations and then, only corporately.

In marriage, husbands and wives are bonded in a relationship of non-hierarchical complementarity within which each partner brings to the union his or her leadership gifts in a structure of shared leadership. (For resolving biblically situations of decisional impasses, see Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles, pp. 212-214).

6. The Challenge

Cite a New Testament text that exempts husbands from being mutually submitted to their wives.

The Facts

Male rulership has prevailed since the time of the fall. For Christians, the new covenant in Christ should reverse this situation to the original goodness of the created order, from rulership back to the reciprocity of oneness (Matt. 19:4-5).

Submission to Christ requires of believers that they submit to one another (Eph. 5:21). According to this text, where there is no mutual submission, reverence for Christ is wanting. Because the newness of the Gospel calls for new relationships, a paradigm shift has occurred that requires of Christians, including husbands and wives, to be in mutual subjection.

Since the practical expression of subjection is servanthood, this means that both husbands and wives are servants to each other. But perhaps in order to overcome the ruler legacy that men have inherited from the fall, it is additionally specified that Christian men must also love their wives to the point of Christ-like self-sacrifice for their sakes (v. 25-30).

For this precise reason, in the only New Testament text where the word “authority” is used (in verb form) to describe husband and wife relations, husbands are not exempt from coming under the authority of their wives. A Christian wife has exactly the same authority rights over her husband as a husband has over his wife (1 Cor. 7:4).

In this text, the Scriptures teach specifically that a husband has no authority over his own body but that his wife does. (Interestingly, the NIV has considerably softened its translation of this challenging statement). In fact, decisions that affect their marital relationship may not be made unilaterally by either husband or wife (v. 5). They require the agreement of both parties. They both have equal say in the matter since either of the two may veto the proposed course of action.

Thus the New Testament requires that, beginning with the most personal expression of conjugal life, the one that emblemizes par excellence the union of man and woman, relationships be controlled jointly and that decisions be made by consensus with the involvement of both partners on a basis of equality. This call to mutual subjection and to joint participation in the exercise of authority strikes at the very foundation of any authority claim of husbands over wives.

7. The Challenge

Cite a biblical text according to which men are favored over women in the distribution of spiritual gifts, including those that qualify believers for ministries of leadership.

The Facts

In the garden, Adam and Eve were jointly entrusted with the dual responsibility of populating the earth and managing the environment (Gen. 1:28). The two mandates were committed to both of them without any role differentiations on the basis of gender. In order to fulfill this command, the man and the woman must have brought their best abilities to the accomplishment of both tasks in a relationship of equal partnership, best defined as non-hierarchical complementarity.

On the day of Pentecost, Peter gave the inaugural speech that marked the beginning of the life of the church universal. The very first statement he made concerned the consequences of the new availability of the Holy Spirit to all believers. The outpouring of the Spirit promoted both men and women without differentiation to the ministry of prophecy (Acts 2:16-18), a function that was regarded as one of the highest ministries in the life of the church (1 Cor. 12:28).

Consistently, the New Testament declares that all the members of local churches are endowed with spiritual gifts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:7-12) without any mention of women being excluded from such ministry roles. Furthermore, the text teaches that no individual has the right to excuse oneself (v. 14-16) and that no one has the right to exclude someone else from doing ministry (v. 20-22).

On such premises, all may prophesy (14:31), and both men and women may lead in worship through prayer and the spoken word (11:4-5) such as the four women who prophesied in the church of Caesarea (Acts 21:9).

In this light, it is evident that the statement in 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 forbidding women to speak in church has nothing to do with women exercising their spiritual gifts. In this passage, the Apostle was dealing with a different issue that did not concern the exercise of spiritual gifts. He was actually opposing, by quoting their words derisively, abusive church leaders who were intent on excluding women from active participation in the life of the church. (For a commentary on this passage, see Bilezikian, Community 101, pp. 86-89.)

8. The Challenge

Cite a biblical text that exclusively disqualifies women from exercising church leadership ministries.

The Facts

The one passage that is ultimately adduced to claim that the New Testament prohibits women to teach or to have authority over men is found in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. However, the same section of Scriptures imposes similarly restrictive leadership and ministry prohibitions on men. According to it, a man’s family status provides the indispensable credential for his ability to lead the church (3:4-5, 12). The only men who may aspire to positions of church leadership, which include the ministries of teaching and managing the affairs of the church, must be married (“husbands of one wife”), and have children who are submissive and respectful, and who are believers (Titus 1:6). According to this text, ability to manage family provides indispensable proof of ability to manage the local church.

Such requirements disqualify from service not only women, but also all men who are single; all men married but childless; all men married but who have only one child; all men married but who have children too young to profess faith; all men married but who have one unbelieving child or children; all men married and whose children are believers but not submissive; all men married and whose children are believers and submissive but not respectful.

These exceptionally harsh and restrictive requirements are all the more amazing since the New Testament favors singleness for both men and women as preferred status to do ministry (Matt. 19:11-12, 1 Cor. 7:25-35), and since the New Testament emphatically requires the total utilization of all available spiritual gifts in the ministries of the church, regardless of marital status or gender.

Of course, the Scriptures provide an explanation for those apparent contradictions. The singularly restrictive structure of ministry prescribed in 1 Timothy and Titus was established as a remedial measure for churches that had fallen into a state of terminal crisis. Its underlying principle of restricting ministry in sick or immature churches to few leaders of proven managerial competency is relevant today to churches that find themselves in similarly extreme situations. However, the prevailing New Testament model of full participation of the total constituency in the ministries of the local church applies to healthy churches (See Bilezikian, Community 101, pp. 82-128).

It should be sternly noted that, for the sake of biblical consistency and integrity of practice, churches that insist on keeping women out of ministries of leadership on the basis of the prohibitions of 1 Timothy 2, thereby make themselves accountable to keep also men out of the very same positions on the basis of the similarly restrictive provisions stipulated in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, and listed above.

9. The Challenge

Cite a biblical text that prohibits the ordination of women to church ministry positions.

The Facts

The evidence indicates that women were entrusted with the ministry of the Word in New Testament churches. There were female prophets (Acts 2:17-19; 21:9), female teachers (Acts 18:26; Titus 2:3), female church leaders (Rom. 16:1, 3-5; Phil. 4:3; Col. 4:15), and even a female apostle by the name of Junia (Rom. 16:7).

There is no text in the Bible forbidding women to be ordained because, according to the New Testament, all believers without exception are ordained by God to do ministry on the basis of their spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:7, 11; 14:31; Col. 3:16; 1 Thess. 5:11, 1 Peter 4:10-11). In fact, those very ministries that are traditionally viewed as requiring “ordination” carry only a supportive role according to the New Testament (Eph. 4:11) while the executive part of the ministry, the works of service that build up the body of Christ, belongs to the “non-ordained” people of the congregation (v. 12).

The practice of ordaining select people to hold positions of authority in churches should be viewed as an ecclesiastical tradition rather than as a biblical prescription. Thus, Paul and Barnabas were already among the recognized prophets and teachers of the church in Antioch when they received the laying on of hands, not to make them prophets or teachers but to commission them for a short-term sub-ministry (Acts 13: 1-3). It was their recognized spiritual gifts as prophet/teacher that had validated their ministry, not the subsequent laying on of hands.

This New Testament practice of the laying on of hands can hardly be associated with the current practice of ordination since Timothy received it twice, one at the hand of elders (1 Tim. 4:14), then from Paul himself (2 Tim. 1:6). In both cases, the purpose was the impartation of a spiritual gift, not the recognition of the ministry deriving from it as is the case with ordination as currently practiced (see Bilezikian, Community 101, pp. 155-161).

Since the institution of ordination is traditional rather than biblically prescribed, there can be no valid objection raised on scriptural grounds to women being ordained. According to the New Testament, all believers, without exception, are ordained by God to do ministry on the basis of their spiritual gifts.

10. The Challenge

Cite a biblical text according to which the differences between manhood and womanhood warrant hierarchical relations between Christian men and women.

The Facts

The organization of the Christian community is never described as a gender-based hierarchy in the Scriptures. To the contrary, it is the doctrine of the community of oneness that sets the norm (Matt. 19:4-6; John 17:11, 20-23; Acts 4:32; Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-14; Eph. 4:4-6; etc.).

The practical implementation of this oneness is summarized in Galatians 3:28: racial distinctions (Jew/Greek), class distinctions (slave/free), and the gender distinction (male/female) are declared to have become irrelevant to the functioning of Christian communities. The compelling mandate for this radical restructuring of community is given as: “for you are all one in Christ.”

Proponents of female subordination often insist that this oneness, which transcends race, class and gender differences, is limited to the inclusion of new believers in the community through justification and baptism (Gal. 3:24-27, 28; 1 Cor. 12:13). However, Scripture prohibits limiting the principle of non-discrimination taught throughout the New Testament merely to entrance of converts into the community.

The New Testament emphatically declares that the same oneness, which transcends differences of race, class and gender as a condition for entering the church, is also the driving force that energizes the constituency of the local church into the performance of its ministries. This oneness pertains to the functional life of the body (Rom. 12:4-5). The same oneness sustains the corporate use of all the spiritual gifts invested in it by the Spirit for the performance of the ministries of the local body (1 Cor. 12:11-12; Eph. 4:4-8, 11).

Oneness is always defined in the New Testament as the basis for participation of all in the ministries of the local church. Oneness and ministry are inseparably linked in the biblical text. Therefore, the declaration according to which there is no male or female because we are all one in Christ is a ringing mandate for all to participate in church ministry functions without raising the gender difference as grounds for discrimination.

The Scripture absolutely forbids racial, class and gender discrimination by reason of the oneness of the church as a body. This oneness is consistently defined in the New Testament as full participation of the total constituency in the ministries of the church. This and other teachings of Scripture rule out gender-based hierarchy as a structure for biblical oneness.