In the early 1800s, Texas was frontier territory. As one historian noted, settlers believed “Indians were to be killed, African Americans were to be enslaved, and Hispanics were to be avoided.” In the 1830s these “Texicans” built a Baptist church at Independence that had two doors: one for white males and the other for “women and other creatures.”2
The status of “women and other creatures” has been a topic of constant debate ever since the woman ate the forbidden fruit and the man blamed her and God for the consequences (Gen 3:9-12).
The devaluation of females has been a recurring episode in every generation. In the nineteenth century, however, a reversal of the trend began. The American feminist movement, closely related to the abolitionist movement, was directed almost exclusively by women who were basically Christian in their religious outlook. The main opposition to the feminist movement also came from religious groups, primarily male clergy who used the Bible to support their disagreement.
In the twentieth century, equality for women has moved toward becoming a reality. The current debate among evangelical Christians concerning gender issues focuses on three major areas: the history of female roles, the interpretation of biblical passages, and the appropriate ministry for women in the church. Two distinct camps have emerged within the church—Christian feminism (“biblical egalitarians”) and traditionalism (“complementarians”).
The Debate About History
The approach of the church toward women’s roles has too often been to adopt the views of society as the “biblical” stance. One cultural viewpoint toward gender roles has been constant: the subordination of women to male authority.3
The debate about history has focused on the record of gender roles in the past. Traditionalists insist that from the beginning, God ordained separate functions for male and female. According to this paradigm, the husband works outside the home to provide financial support, while the wife attends to the household and the children. In the “traditional” family, the wife is dependent on her husband not only financially, but also for identity and social status. A career outside the home for a female is a threat to the well-being of society. Traditionalists believe this understanding of gender roles is corroborated by the Bible and church tradition, therefore all “feminist thought” is a direct reflection of modern culture.
Christian feminists challenge this argument. Biblical egalitarians contend that much of what is billed as “traditional” is not traditional at all, but was actually developed in middle-class Victorian society and revived in the suburban domesticity of the 1950s. Christian feminists argue that to cling to this model and claim it as the “traditional” biblical ideal is to misread history, misuse the Bible, and conform to culture, albeit a culture of the past.
Which group is correct about the history of gender roles? Let us attempt an answer by taking a brief look at social changes affecting gender roles during the last two centuries.
For hundreds of years before the Industrial Revolution, the home served as both economic producer and consumer. Of necessity, women and children labored alongside their husbands and fathers at home. Life was a struggle. Marriage was more an economic arrangement than a romantic relationship.
With industrialization the home was no longer essential to economic production and thus the woman’s role was redefined. The Freudian credo that women’s domains were “Kinder, Kuche, und Kirche” (children, cooking, and church) summed up the new nineteenth-century Victorian mentality.4 This Victorian middle-class family model remained dominant in American culture through the 1960s, even enjoying an upsurge of popularity in the 1950s.
However, the status of women also underwent several significant alterations during the twentieth century:
- Contraceptive technology led to fewer children, increased health, longer life, and more personal time.
- Growing economic prosperity allowed many women to rely entirely upon their husbands for financial needs.
- Sexuality became perceived as a woman’s true identity.5
Although early twentieth-century feminism encouraged women to embark upon vocations, by mid-century careers for married women were considered “unfeminine.” Following World War II, women were encouraged to drop out of the workforce because of returning male veterans who needed jobs. By the 1950s women had fled the professions to concentrate on motherhood, accepting the judgment of culture that their sole significance in life was to bear children. During the 1960s and 1970s when secular feminism was most militant, the Supreme Court legalized abortion in all states, sexual norms changed, divorces increased, and moral values deteriorated. To a large degree, the traditionalist movement has been motivated by the belief that feminism was a causal factor in this breakdown of society.6 Thus many evangelicals and social conservatives have called for a return to the “traditional” family
Few would deny that feminism has played a major role in bringing equality, including women’s suffrage, to twentieth-century women. However, a radical feminist ethic emerged which taught that the way to alleviate the plight of women was for women to achieve total autonomy—political, economic, sexual, and in the area of reproductive freedom.7
Many observers have noted a split in the Christian feminist movement, not unlike the way secular feminism has separated. The more radical “gender feminist” theologians emphasize the meaning of femaleness and the need to “re-imagine” traditional beliefs, while “equity feminism” (“biblical egalitarians”) affirms that our understanding of orthodox Christianity is essentially correct but needs structural reform to achieve biblical equality and basic rights, and to end discrimination.
The Debate About The Bible
This brings us to a second consideration—the debate over biblical teachings regarding gender.8 Among evangelicals, gender issues are storm centers in biblical studies.
A growing number of Christians are calling for a return to biblical equality, contending that false exegeses of Scripture have misled many conservatives to uphold gender roles derived from culture rather than biblical revelation. Biblical egalitarians are committed to the authority of the Bible, pointing to a wealth of solid exegesis in this century that questions many of the conclusions of Christian traditionalists and rejects the unbiblical approach of secular feminists.
In response, a number of “complementarians” contend that Christian feminists have succumbed to cultural pressures and the influence of secular feminism. Quoting various Bible passages which they believe support their position, these traditionalists view Christian feminism as simple conformity to “political correctness” and denial of biblical authority.
The creation story in the first two chapters of Genesis offers the first puzzle in male and female roles and illustrates the depth of the debate. The first creation narrative seems to present woman as equal with man (1:24-30); the second story seems to subordinate woman to man (2:7-25).
The first Genesis record stresses that both sexes were created in the image of God (1:26-27). Christian feminists consider this a key passage in support of equality. However, some complementarians argue that the woman with her husband is the image of God, but that she alone is not.9
In the second account of Creation (2:4-24), Godformed “man” [ha adam] from the dust of the ground, and man [ha adam] became a living being (2:7). Hebrew language scholars point out that the use of the definite article ha before adam usually indicates “humanity,” both male and female (Gen 1:27; 5:2).
However, traditionalists have contended that since the man (ha adam) was created before the woman, some sort of predominance is implied. The response of biblical egalitarians is twofold. The argument fails etymologically because the Hebrew word adam (adamah, “earth”) could more accurately be translated “earth creature,” a human being originally without gender.10 The argument also fails logically—just because the animals were created first does not mean animals are superior to humans.
In the third chapter of Genesis a new element appears— sin. Traditionalists often quote the statement found there, “Yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (3:16b), as a command or mandate from God. Biblical feminists counter that this statement, like the parallel imperatives about pain in childbearing (3:15a) and work as burdensome labor (3:17b-19a), is a description of sin’s effects, not a prescription from God.
Traditionalists often point to the male-dominated society of Israel as further proof of God’s intent. Christian feminists read this history in two ways. First, the Old Testament world was patriarchal and hostile toward female leadership, but the reason for this was human sin, not divine intent. A second observation points out that even in that male-dominated society, a number of women emerged as leaders: Miriam the prophet (Ex 15:20-21); Zipporah, who assumed the role of priest (Ex 4); Deborah the judge-general-prophet-poet of Israel (Jg 4-5); and Huldah the prophet, who triggered the great revival under King Josiah (2 Kgs 22-23).
The biblical debate over gender tends to focus on several New Testament passages. An important aspect of biblical interpretation is cultural setting. In both Jewish and Greco-Roman societies of the first century, cultural norms prescribed very definite roles and codes of conduct to women.
For example, Paul directs wives to be submissive to their husbands in the home (Eph 5:21-33), women not to teach or have authority over men (1 Tim 2:12), and men alone to serve as pastors or deacons (1 Tim 3:2, 12). Most traditionalists consider these to be permanent precepts.
Biblical egalitarians, however, believe these passages must be interpreted within their cultural contexts. A correct understanding of Greek domestic life and language,11 of the Gnostic threat in Ephesus,12 and of the cultural options open to the biblical writers13 is absolutely imperative. When these factors are excluded from biblical interpretation, we reproduce first-century culture as the divine norm.
Of primary importance to evangelical feminists is the example of Christ. In stark contrast to the universal denigration of females in the first century, Jesus’ attitude toward women was totally counter-cultural. Sweeping aside centuries of tradition and prejudice, Jesus’ treatment of females was revolutionary. Christ related to women in the same way he related to men, never regarding them as inferior in any way.
The Debate About Ministry
A final area of debate among Christians about gender roles is over ministry. Females today do occupy a variety of ministry positions—including pastors, chaplains (military, hospital, correctional), pastoral counselors, and associate ministers (children, youth, education, and music).
The most conservative Christians prohibit any type of ministerial service by females. Others allow women to serve as lay or associate ministers, as long as they are not ordained. Some groups make a sharp distinction between deacon service and pastoral ministry, believing the latter involves authority not intended for females. Although many evangelicals are taking a new look at this entire issue, the majority of conservative churches resist ordaining a woman or calling a female as senior pastor.
Many church leaders would argue that there is no scriptural basis for ordination at all—it is more a product of church tradition than biblical precedent. Nevertheless, traditionalists refuse to ordain women as ministers, mainly because they believe the Bible prohibits females from the office of pastor.
Christian feminists contend that Scriptures do not prohibit females from serving as deacons or pastors. The key passage quoted by traditionalists is that the pastor should be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim 3:2). However, this text, like commands to slaves, must be viewed in light of cultural options available to the biblical writers.
What does the future hold for the gender debate among evangelicals? Although the tide of culture is on the side of feminism, most evangelical Christians are social conservatives. Since both groups hold a high view of biblical authority, the gender debate will focus on biblical interpretation.
- Derived from chapter 8, “Human Equality—Gender and Race,” in the author’s text Walking in the Way: An Introduction to Christian Ethics (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Press, 1997).
- Baptist Standard, 16 June 1993, 3.
- Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War Between Traditionalism and Feminism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 1.
- Ibid., 5.
- Groothuis, 14. In 1963 Betty Friedan dubbed this trait the “feminine mystique.”
- Brigitte Berger and Peter L. Berger, The War Over the Family: Capturing the Middle Ground (Garden City NY: Doubleday 1983), 26, who note it is difficult to determine whether feminism caused or merely legitimized social changes already in motion.
- Margaret A. Farley “Feminist Ethics,” The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, eds. James Childress and John Macquarrie (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986), 229-231.
- Recent works include: Sheri Adams, What the Bible Really Says About Women (Macon, GA: Smith & Helwys, 1994); John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988); Stanley J. Grenz, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995); Alvera Mickelsen, ed., Women, Authority & the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986).
- Ruth A. Tucker, Women in the Maze (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 35-36.
- Morar M. Murray-Hayes, “Emancipation of Women.” Encyclopedia of Biblical and Christian Ethics, ed. R. K. Harrison (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1987), 129-131.
- Joe E. Trull, “Is the Head of the House at Home?” The Theological Educator, Fall 1996, 83-94.
- Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992).
- Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read The Bible For All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 68.