My interest in the philosophical and theological development of women’s service in the church began at a very personal level. I often watched talented, Christian women faithfully serve God only to encounter enormous prejudice in dealing with the church’s unbiblical response to gender. Here are two examples:
- One of my friends works in Christian ministry at a large university. She is passionate about Christ, and a gifted and dedicated teacher, preacher, and apologist. One day she took me aside to say, “Mimi, do you realize that my church family spends thousands of dollars so I can share the gospel with college students—both men and women—but they will not permit me to preach from the pulpit because I am a woman? This is utterly inconsistent. What is worse, they are telling me there is something wrong with being female!” Her logic was compelling, and her words have haunted me for years!
- After one of my lectures, an attorney doing graduate work in law at an Ivy League school asked if we might have a private conversation. I agreed, and over dinner she told me that she had no interest in getting married. When I asked her why, she said: “If the Bible really teaches that women must be in submission to men, and that men must always be the final arbiters of women, then Scripture is teaching that women are inferior to men. While I am not yet ready to reject Christian faith, I cannot be party to such an unjust system that places a woman under the permanent jurisdiction of a man not because of his character, intellect, or walk with God, but purely because he is male. This is simply unjust and unreasonable.”
I can recall many more instances of Christians who have, in one way or another, asked similar questions. People want to know if women are inferior by God’s design. If so, then we should not be surprised if they conclude that Christian faith is unjust and therefore unappealing. Our conversation regarding gender and faith is not a useless piece of abstract theology! This issue has vital implications for Christian evangelism and apologetics as the world evaluates Christian faith and its treatment of women. The church’s engagement of gender and authority also impacts women’s view of self, marriage, their relationship to the church and, most importantly, women’s relationship with God.
It is my belief that the Bible is consistent in its teaching on gender and that God does not devalue women. Rather, it is the church’s teaching on gender that is illogical. Sadly, many Christians have been quick to adopt a cultural devaluation of women, rooted in Greek philosophy, which they assume is biblical. Because this is often unintentional, it is helpful to examine our philosophical roots to better assess whether we are conforming to culture rather than to Christ. For this reason, this article will first highlight the ancient Greeks’ view of gender, and then assess the teachings of the church as it embraced the Greeks’ devaluation of women. In light of the Greeks’ argument that women are less morally pure and rational than men, we will then examine early church examples of women’s moral, rational, and spiritual leadership, which challenge the church’s current teaching on gender.
Greek Philosophy and Culture
Greek philosophy laid the foundation for the church’s cultural devaluation of women and the subordination that followed in its wake. Plato (427–347 BC), for example, taught that women were less than human and incapable of attaining fullness of life: “It is only males who are created directly by the gods and are given souls…obviously it is only men who are complete human beings and can hope for ultimate fulfillment; the best a woman can hope for is to become a man” (Plato, Timaeus 90e). His student Aristotle (384–322 BC) asserted an innate ordering of the sexes: “It is the best for all tame animals to be ruled by human beings. For this is how they are kept alive. In the same way, the relationship between the male and the female is by nature such that the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the female is ruled” (Aristotle, Politica, ed. Loeb Classical Library, 1254 b 10–14).
Greek dualism, a concept that dates back to the 6th century BC, contrasted form—that which is ideal—to formlessness—that which is derivative or imperfect. Dualism is most commonly noted in the Pythagorean table, which established and compared “opposites.” The left column of the table contained that which was thought to be “superior” and should therefore dominate or control that which was “inferior,” listed in the right column. Notably, the Pythagorean table contrasted male and female. In placing women in the same category as “evil” and “darkness,” the Pythagorean table established men as the norm or standard, and classified women as “the other”—abnormal and unworthy.
These philosophical ideas about gender were prevalent in Greek culture. Men were the final arbiters of the home and in politics, and women’s primary function was bearing and raising children. Women were rarely included in men’s social gatherings—including meals—and were not expected to participate in intellectual discussions. And, girl babies were often exposed, representing the pre-eminence of males. Inequality between men and women was thus deeply embedded in Greek life.
Consider, however, how the teachings and actions of the New Testament church contrasted greatly with Greek social structures: women participated in the agape meals, served as apostles and house church leaders, and worked as missionaries and teachers, thereby engaging with men in the world of theological ideas.
Despite the teachings of Jesus and Paul, and also the examples of early church leaders such as Phoebe, Lydia, Priscilla, Junia and Chloe, a cultural devaluation of women, derived from Greek philosophy, persisted in the teachings of the early church fathers. Even while women continued to exercise leadership as martyrs, missionaries, Bible translators, evangelists, teachers, and theologians, church leaders throughout history interpreted Scripture through a Greek perspective on gender.
For example, John Chrysostom (c. 347–407) used Genesis as a justification for his patriarchal convictions, upholding the ideas that women are weak and easily deceived. Chrysostom said that the “woman taught once, and ruined all. On this account therefore he said, let her not teach ... It certainly concerns them; for the sex is weak and fickle...” (Chrysostom, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series I, Vol. XIII).
Note how John Calvin (1509–1564), in his commentary on 1 Timothy, upheld the belief that women are the “other” and incapable of leadership. According to Calvin, women are “…by nature (that is, by the ordinary law of God)…formed to obey; for…(the government of women) has always been regarded by all wise persons as a monstrous thing; and, therefore, so to speak, it will be a mingling of heaven and earth, if women usurp the right to teach….”
Finally, John Knox (1514–1572) exemplified how Greek dualism remained embedded in the philosophical framework of Christian teaching. “Since flesh is subordinate to spirit, a woman’s place is beneath man’s. ‘The order of God’s creation,’ and ‘the light of nature’ dictate against woman’s rule, for it subverts ‘good order.’ Women were given to ‘natural weakness’ and ‘inordinate appetites’” (First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women).
These examples illustrate how the church adopted the teachings of the Greeks in representing males as superior to women and holding women more responsible for sin.
What about the Church Today?
A Greek devaluation of women continues to influence the church today. While often more subtly expressed than in the writings of the church fathers, beliefs in the innate inferiority of women persist in powerful ways:
- “Femininity” is often used in a derogatory way, connoting traits that are undesirable. Consider the recent discussions of the “feminization” or “chick-a-fication” of the church, suggesting that a church which offers feminine characteristics is weak and/or unbiblical.
- Women are viewed as helpless and in need of the protection of men. Popular Christian books teach women that they need a man to rescue them. Doubt is often cast upon women’s abilities to act independently in taking risks, assuming leadership positions, and managing responsibilities within the church.
- Women’s access and worth before God is mediated through males. Pastors preach that men have spiritual authority over women and are responsible for the spiritual health of their wives and families. Some women believe they need the “spiritual covering” of their fathers until they obtain husbands to fulfill that role.
- Women and men are viewed as opposites. Women's and men’s desires, needs, development, and spiritual worth are viewed as fundamentally different. Such beliefs encourage Christians to see themselves first as male or female, rather than as Christ-followers—an idea that divides all of life into the categories of "male" or "female."
- Women are deemed ill-equipped to occupy leadership positions in the church because they are viewed as too emotional, not sufficiently powerful, too nurturing, and more easily deceived. Consider what one popular pastor in our day offered in reference to the apostle Paul’s teaching in the New Testament: “Paul is simply stating that when it comes to leading in the church, women are unfit because they are more gullible and easier to deceive than men. While many irate women have disagreed with his assessment throughout the years, it does appear from this that such women who fail to trust his instruction and follow his teaching are much like their mother Eve and are well-intended but ill-informed.”
- The gifts which women possess for work and ministry are devalued and ignored within the church. Some seminaries offer women degrees in homemaking, teaching them their greatest calling and worth are realized at home and by raising children.
In the examples above we observe a dualism between males and females similar to that developed by Greek philosophy, which remains a powerful foundation for the church’s devaluation of women today. The foundation of a truly Christian understanding of women and men, however, must originate from the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ—an idea we see embraced and modeled by the New Testament church.
A Model for Us: The New Testament Church
Through its life and teaching, the early church subverted the patriarchal Greek world around it. The New Testament describes women occupying roles of leadership, and teaches an ethic of mutual submission and love.
After his conversion, Paul became one of the greatest preachers and evangelists in the Bible. In his training and culture as a Pharisee, women were silenced and could not learn the Torah or occupy priestly roles. Paul’s faith in Jesus Christ, however, motivated him to embrace service within the church based upon the gifting of the Holy Spirit. In fact, women were building and leading house churches alongside Paul in cities like Ephesus and Philippi.
Acts 16:13–14, 40 describes the first church in Europe (located in Philippi) and Paul’s earliest encounter with Lydia, a wealthy merchant of purple cloth and a woman of faith. Lydia’s home became a house church, and the Scriptures suggest she was its leader. In Philippians, Paul mentions two women leaders— Euodia and Syntyche—women who “struggled beside” Paul in the work of the gospel (Phil. 4:3). Note that rather than silencing these women, Paul affirms them as co-laborers in building the church, a term Paul uses elsewhere to identify such leaders as Mark, Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Apollos, and Luke.
Priscilla and her husband Aquila are mentioned in Paul’s writing more often than anyone else except for Timothy. While in Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila gained prominence through the church they established in their home (1 Cor. 16:19). Luke recognizes Priscilla and Aquila as skilled teachers for instructing Apollos and providing him with theological insight. Far from condemning her for teaching men, both Luke and Paul extol Priscilla. Paul also calls her a “co-worker” (Rom. 16:3), highlighting her authority in the early church.
In Romans 16:1, Paul speaks of Phoebe, calling her a deacon (diakonos) in the church in Cenchrea. Interestingly, when used of men, diakonos is translated “minister,” but when used of Phoebe is often translated as “servant.” Paul also refers to Phoebe as prostates, meaning one who is in authority or one who presides.
In great contrast to ancient Greek culture and philosophy, the New Testament church recognized the leadership of women who served as evangelists, prophets, pastors, teachers, and apostles. Despite strong cultural messages about the inferiority and subordination of women, the early church affirmed and valued men and women alike, as made in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus. May the church today also embrace this radical, counter-cultural truth so that we may be a consistent witness of Christ to our world.