Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist
The Role Of Women

In modern western society there has been a distinct move towards improving the status of women so they are seen as absolutely equal to man in all respects. Sometimes this is the law as well as a social attitude. In other places throughout the world women are still relegated to a subordinate role in society, under the control of their fathers or husbands and, even in the west, this subordinate role is often taught as a doctrine among many Christian religious groups. There are, of course, some Christian groups which agree with equality and some will ordain women as ministers, but there are many which refuse to do so and insist that some church functions may only be provided by men, and these churches generally refuse to ordain women.

On the other hand the Apostle Paul is recorded in the bible as saying in his letter to the Galations, chapter 3, verse 28:–

“For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

This statement makes it very clear that there are no distinctions to be made among Christians, including distinctions based on race, on social standing or on gender. Everyone is an equal. If any church today were to say that Jewish men who had converted to Christianity could not become ministers, there would be an outcry with accusations of anti-semetism. Any church refusing to ordain black men as ministers would be castigated as racist. So, since Paul said that gender differences are not to exist in the same way that he said racial differences are not to exist, why are women not allowed to be ordained in so many Christian churches?

Paul made a similar statement in his letter to the Colossians, in chapter 3 where he said, beginning at verse 9:–

“Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. ”

Here Paul pointedly refers to racial discrimination and discrimination based on social standing but omits gender based equality, including it by simply stating that, “Christ is all, and in all.” He continues by giving advice to those he has just identified as equals referring to “wives … husbands … children … servants.”. It must surely be clear that the Apostle Paul condemned discrimination within the early church.

What, then, did Paul mean in verse 18? This says:–

“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.”

The full quotation continues with:–

“Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them. Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord. Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged. Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God: And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men.”

Here, Paul is giving behavioural advice for Christians within marriage, family and employment. He is not making a general statement about the status of women in the congregation, merely advising Christians in differing circumstances how to behave within their marriages and employment and strongly recommending that everything they do should be with Christ in mind. It is general behavioural advice, not a precedence list.

Since Christianity is the dominant religion in the west, there is a tendency to presume that this advice refers to circumstances where both parties are Christian, but there is nothing inherent in what is said to indicate that. When the advice was initially given, in the first century, the wives and husbands, parents, children and servants he refers to could easily have been under the authority of non Christian husbands, wives, parents and employers, as they still could be today. Keep in mind that Christians were a small, insignificant minority when this advice was given and the advice should be understood within that context. It was quite common for one spouse in a marriage to become Christian and for the other to remain pagan, so the advice Paul gives would be applicable to them. It should not be used to justify assigning an inferior or subordinate status to female Christians within the congregation, especially since Paul had just said that everyone within the congregation had equal status. In fact, on another occasion Paul gave similar advice to Christians who were married to non-believers, suggesting that they should be model spouses in hope of convincing their partners to become Christian. In his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 7, Paul asked those married to unbelievers:–

“For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?”

Paul gives similar advice to the Ephesians in chapter 5 of his letter to them. In verses 22-25 he says:–

“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.”

Surely this makes it clear that women are subordinate to men, doesn’t it? The answer is, “No, not really.” These verses make no reference at all to the status of women within the congregation. It merely reiterates the social practice of the time in a society where women were responsible for the household and the man was required to provide the means for her to do that. Both had responsibilities. The wife cared for the family and the husband protected and provided for them. While many families today have similar arrangements, it is not the social standard by any means and women often work outside the home while men often share the household work. We can expect that this different social standard will bring about a different relationship. I do find it noteworthy that the first part of this passage is often stressed while the final part is all but ignored. In the latter, Paul said a husband must love his wife to the extent of being willing to give up his life for her, as Christ did for his followers. That lays a heavy responsibility on the husband and would certainly not justify a domineering and dictatorial attitude towards his wife.

If this is not a statement about a woman’s status within the congregation but merely a comment on spousal relationships in the first century, the question we should ask is, “Who would a woman be subject to if she were not married?” The answer implied by these verses is that she would not be subject to anyone and answerable only to herself. The answer implied by these verses is that she would be in exactly the same position in the congregation as an unmarried man would be, since gender was not to be an issue. In fact, Paul actually recommended the unmarried state for both men and women, saying that they should only get married if they had strong sexual desires that they found difficult to control. His preference was that Christians should remain unmarried so they could spend more time on religious duties. One would expect, in light of his statement that gender differences should not exist within the congregation, that these duties would be identical.

Paul made other comments about the relationship between men and women. One of these, in his first letter to Timothy, chapter 2, verses 11 on says:–

“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

This appears to clearly put women into a subordinate position. There is a possibility that when he said, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection” he could be referring to married women, but when he says, “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man” he is clearly referring to women in the congregation in general. This appears to be a direct contradiction by Paul himself of what he said about equality in the congregation. In one letter he says that men and women are equal with his statement that “there is neither male nor female” and in another he says that men may do things that women may not with the statement that “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” It is not possible to have your cake and eat it too, and I cannot see how to reconcile these two statements. To me they are plainly a contradiction. Even if he had been referring to married women it would still be a contradiction, since he did not forbid married men to speak nor to insist they learn in silence nor to be in subjection, even to unbelieving wives.

It has been suggested that the reason for requiring this restriction on women in the congregation was because of the prevalence of the worship of the fertility goddess, Artemis, who had women as priestesses. Any religious group who had women teaching others would be assumed to be worshipping her, so Christian women were required to not teach, be silent and in subjection to their husbands in order to avoid that assumption. This explanation is not valid and is an example of clutching at straws to reconcile two passages which otherwise cannot be reconciled. If the Artemis explanation were the reason, we would be justified in expecting men to remain silent instead of teaching when in an area where a pagan god had male priests, after all, there is no difference between male and female according to Paul. It is also surely self evident that within the Christian congregation itself nobody would presume a woman was a pagan priestess serving a goddess of fertility, since Christians were monotheists and rejected all pagan deities. Yet it is within the congregation that women are to learn in silence and be in subjection. It is surely clear that in the letter to Timothy, Paul assigned women a subordinate role in the early Christian community and in so doing contradicted comments he made in his letters to the Galatians and Colossians. Many Christian churches still follow that contradiction today.

There is a further difficulty when comparing these texts. The letters to the Galations and Colossians are generally accepted as being from the apostle Paul and written some time between about 50-60 AD. The first letter to Timothy is accepted by some scholars as having been written by Paul about 62-67 AD and by other scholars as having been written by someone else about 130-155 AD, who then ascribed it to Paul. In either case, Paul’s statement that men and women are equal in the congregation precedes the statement that women are subordinate to men, so presumably the later comments must be understood within the context of what he said about gender equality.

If the letter to Timothy were to have been written after 130 AD then it would not be a restriction that Paul imposed on women in the congregation but one imposed by someone else. In that case it should be ignored. Doing so, however, raises the question of the authenticity of the rest of the contents of the letters to Timothy and, perhaps, all the other writings assigned to Paul.

It seems that there are at least three words translated from Greek into English as “servant” in letters ascribed to Paul. These are:

Paul uses “diakonos” to refer to Phoebe in Romans chapter 16, verse 1, (ESV):–

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae”

So Phoebe would have been a deacon, a minister, a servant in that congregation. In the first letter to Timothy, chapter 3, verse 8, this same word, is used to refer to those appointed in the congregation as “deacons” to perform certain duties. It says, (ESV):–

“Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain.”

Some translations obscure this point by translating the Greek word diakonos as servant in Romans and deacon in 1st Timothy, and in so doing obscure the plain understanding of both. Translations involve deliberate choices and the use of “servant” instead of “deacon” is probably based on a preconceived view of the role of women in the congregation. However, since Phoebe was a deacon in the early church, it is clear that women should not be barred from being deacons in the modern church. It was the practice in the early church to appoint both women and men as deacons and that should, presumably, still be the case today.

Earlier in the same chapter of Timothy, Paul gives the traits desired in overseers, then says that deacons should likewise be the same. Since it is clear that deacons may be female, since Phoebe was female, it raises the important question of whether the position of overseer is also open to women. In verse 1 of chapter 3, Paul says, (ESV):–

“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.”

Note that he specifies “anyone”, not just “any man.”

For leadership positions in the congregation there are two other words used:

A comparison of the verses in 1st Timothy and Titus makes it clear that the terms presbuteros and episkope refer to the same position in the congregation. In fact, in verse 7 of his comments to Titus, Paul uses episkopos to refer to those he had referred to as presbyteros in verses 5, when he says, (ESV):–

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders (presbuteros) in every town as I directed you. … For an overseer (episkopos), as God's steward, must be above reproach.”

In the early church, a disagreement arose regarding treatment of widows. To resolve the issue, which was a social one rather than spiritual, a system using assistants was established by the twelve apostles. The procedure to be used is given in Acts, chapter 6. Verse 3 says, (ESV):–

“Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.”

These later came to be called deacons. It should be noted that, although the apostles said “men of good repute”, the early church also appointed women to this position, as was the case with Phoebe, and did so while the apostles were living. Notably, nowhere is it recorded that any of the apostles disputed the appropriateness of this, nor said that women could not be appointed. Paul even referred to one such appointment without comment but in a manner which showed respect and acceptance when he drew attention to Phoebe as being one of these assistants, these deacons.

This shows that although the apostles specified men they also appointed women. So, when Paul says in Timothy that men should be appointed as overseers in the congregation, the same practice that was established by the apostles and adhered to by Paul in Acts and Romans should apply. Clearly, the term “men” is not being used in its restrictive sexual sense as those with testicles and a penis, but in its metaphorical and inclusive sense of “adult members of the church”, much as we do today in English when we say “mankind has…” or “man has…”, meaning it to include men and women, that is, in a sexually all inclusive sense. In other words, women should also qualify as appointment as overseers.

A further approach to this issue is to look to how another contentious issue was resolved in the past. It is clear that some early Christians owned slaves, as did many in more modern times in the southern United States of America. Today, in those countries generally considered to be Christian countries, slavery is forbidden and looked on as a serious crime and the antithesis of Christianity. Yet Paul, in his letters to the Colossians in chapter 4, verse 1, (ESV) says:–

“Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”

Here, Paul uses the Greek word “doulos” and, by so doing, acknowledges that Christians not only could, but did, own slaves, although insisting that they must be treated fairly and justly. It is quite clear that Paul did not require Christian slave owners to free their slaves, since he makes no mention of doing that even though this would have been an ideal place to insist upon it. Although many translations use the English word “servant” here, the Greek word Paul used is different from the word for servant that he used in Romans chapter 14, verse 4 (oiketes) which referred to a domestic servant as we now use the term.

The Christian approach to slavery has changed over time. Neither voluntary nor involuntary slavery are acceptable, even though Paul indicated the acceptance of both in the early Christian church. If social change can alter the Christian view of one practice, such as slave ownership, then surely it can alter the Christian view of another practice, the role of women in the congregation. The rejection of slavery by just about all Christian churches shows quite clearly that Christian practices can change in response to social changes, and when this is coupled with examples of women being appointed to positions of authority in the early church, such as Phoebe was, it must surely be obvious that there is no reason to continue the restrictions placed on women in today’s church.


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